Ten years ago, a double tragedy forced college sweethearts Bobby and Paul to break up. Guilt and recriminations have kept them apart, but for professional magician Paul, there's not a day that goes by when he doesn't think of Bobby with regret. When Bobby shows up at the bar where he's working it's a shock to say the least. Paul is the magician, but is Bobby an illusion?
Find out what happens when old lovers come face to face in "Your Latest Trick”
Rated - R - (adult themes and language)
Genre - M/M romance / Contemporary
Heat Level - Sweet
Your Latest Trick
by Z.A. Maxfield
“Trust me Kevin, forget about the hotel rooms upstairs, right here is where the magic happens.” Paul’s introductory bit of sleight of hand was planned as a brief introduction for the happy couple’s party video, so he let himself relax and shoot the camera a winning smile. “I’m going to put one of these foam balls right here in my pocket like this, and then I want you to take these two and hold them in your hand just like that. Clench them tight okay? Don’t let go.”
Kevin giggled and glanced over at Steve, his partner-to-be. “I feel so stupid doing this.”
“Nah Kev.” Paul lifted his arms to show that there was nothing up his sleeve. “You look great holding my balls in your hand.”
As predicted, the laughter was deafening. Someone shouted out, “Already?” and someone else coughed out the word slut. A wave of new jokes followed as the revelers, half of whom were firefighters and comfortable with each other as only people who live and work together can be, and all of whom were gay men, heckled their friends.
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Paul teased, expecting a fresh wave of insults. “Give Kevin a break, this is hard.”
One of the guys yelled out, “So am I but you don’t see him holding my balls.”
“How many balls do you have, Kevin,” Paul asked.
“Two?” Kevin looked to the audience where Steve sat, and giggled again. Jeez, he was young. Did people really get married this young? He didn’t look more than about 23.
“In your hand, Kevin honey. Pay attention,” Paul deadpanned. “How many balls do you have in your hand?”
“I don’t know! They’re your balls.” Kevin put his free hand over his red face. Steve mimicked the gesture from where he sat in the audience.
“And your commitment ceremony is when again?”
“Tomorrow morning. If he’ll still have me after you get through with me.” Kevin squeezed his eyes shut.
Paul had to laugh at that. The kid was cute. “Everyone sees I’m not touching him, right? For the last time… How many balls do you have in your hand, Kevin?”
“Two. I have two balls in my hand.”
Paul said, “I’m going to give your thumb a tap here, but I’m warning you, this could make those balls disappear or it might get you pregnant. Things don’t always go as planned. Here comes the touch… One, two, three! Open your hand.”
And pop, all ten of the little green foam balls exploded from Kevin's hand. He looked suitably dumfounded.
“Okay, Kevin, you’ve been a great sport. Thanks for playing.” Paul turned to the camera and said solemnly, “From now on, the only balls Kevin will be playing with, Steve, are yours.”
Applause and hearty laughter followed, and as expected, the wait staff came in carrying the salad course.
While dinner was under way, Paul would have time to set up his thirty-minute stage act. The plan was for the group to eat, then take in the rest of his show. Coffee and dessert would follow after which he’d heard there would be another act of some kind. Probably music and dancing, either a crooner or some live DJ. Paul didn’t know and he didn’t care. By the time the dancing started he’d be home feeding his dog, Nudge, and that’s just how he liked it. You had to love dinner theater as a steady gig.
He gave himself a minute to stop by the bar for a drink and a visit with Kim, his favorite bartender. At five-eleven, she matched his height, and they were often mistaken for brother and sister.
As soon as she saw him, she lobbed a beer bottle at him, counting on him to catch it while she began some pretty fancy juggling. Three more bottles followed and he caught them and tossed them back while she rolled them over her shoulders and down her arms. She even popped one of them off the toe of her shoe at one point. The crowd around the bar began clapping in time to the throws. They’d practiced this enough times to make it look spontaneous -- even a little dangerous, but each of them knew exactly what was coming next and their timing was perfect.
Between them they juggled eight longnecks. She grinned at him. People certainly loved this shit; that’s why they came to the place. That and the fact that the bartenders and the wait staff would also break into song every now and again, and sometimes the boys and girls danced dirty up on the bar itself.
Besides his comedy magic act, Paul’s claim to fame was that he could identify each of the bars’ thirty or so whiskeys by taste alone, and he was Kim’s favorite partner for juggling. The other bartenders didn’t have his timing, so Kim cleaned up in tips whenever Paul was around, plus she comped him drinks.
He was counting down now, the routine about to come to its end, when he happened to glance up toward the end of the bar.
Only thousands of hours of practice made it possible for him to keep the bottles in play. His first thought when he saw the dark haired figure sitting by himself at the end of the bar, was…no. Just no.
It couldn’t be. Not here. There was no way. Of all the places for a guy as talented as Bobby O’Malley to have landed he’d never, ever be at this particular dinner theater bar in hotel-fucking-nowhere Nevada.
All the same, Paul’s heart raced and stuttered like it hit a massive speed bump and he’d turned back to Kim barely in time to capture those last flying bottles, fortunately, in the nick of time. That beat having to pay for them, which would have been a first for him, and he’d never have lived it down. Without even looking at her he handed his bottles back, numbly aware that his mouth had gone dry. Instead of waiting for the drink she would pour him, he moved on. His feet seemed to have taken over, taking him past the rest of the bar sitters, until he stood close enough to see the man whose profile had stunned him.
There it was -- that tiny mark, that unique heart-shaped imperfection Paul had kissed a thousand times, right under an ear that no longer sported piercings. Right under hair so neatly trimmed that if it hadn’t been for that familiar little dash of color, Paul might have assumed he’d got it all wrong and kept walking.
He hadn’t believed, because -- for the first few years at least -- he’d seen Bobby everywhere he went. He’d gone on an emotional rollercoaster ride every time a slim, good looking dark-haired boy with Bobby's kind of coloring or anyone with Bobby’s sharp, straight nose and high cheekbones came into view.
Paul tried to get a grip on his emotions because it couldn’t be.
But it was.
“Bobby? God, it is you! What are you doing here?” Paul nudged into the barstool next to him. Bobby’s beer stopped halfway to his mouth as he turned in surprise.
All Paul saw after that was the miracle of the Bobby’s smile. Brown eyes lit up with recognition, and if there were creases around the edges or deeper grooves around his mouth, Paul didn’t notice. That same careless sweep of coal black hair fell softly over a regal forehead; it begged to be brushed back, but would fall right down over one eye seconds later like it was staging a coup. Lips that curved up in what seemed to be unabashed delight were still as full and looked as velvety as ever.
Paul’s gaze traveled lower and came to a screeching stop just below Bobby’s Adam’s apple where it landed on a Roman collar. At first Paul’s brain couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing, but it was beginning to become clear.
A priest? Bobby?
Paul’s jaw dropped, and then because that seemed so rude, he clenched it shut on whatever expression of shock he was about to utter. He realized that Bobby was indeed wearing a Roman collar and a crucifix. No rings. No piercings. Short hair. Black trousers and lace up oxfords.
Bobby allowed Paul his reaction, saying nothing. Waiting.
Paul finally shook his head. “You’re a priest.”
“It would appear so,” Bobby replied.
Like always, the close proximity of priestly authority brought every curse word to the tip of Paul’s tongue. He closed his mouth on a torrent of questions that all had the word fuck in them. What the, why the, how the…fuck had this happened?
“But I thought… You didn’t get your degree in theater after all? You’re not… I thought you’d be in New York, trying to get famous. I've been waiting for you to show up on America's Got Talent.”
“In a way, everything is theater.” Bobby shrugged off Paul’s question as if that was old news. “I see you’re still working your magic.”
Stupidly, Paul looked behind him, as if he could see himself there doing his act or juggling with Kim. “Yeah. I’ve um…got a good little business. I do gigs at colleges and people hire me. I put a highlight tape on YouTube and it gets me noticed.”
“That’s good to hear. I guess you ended up okay then.”
"Yeah." Could regret kill a man? If so, Paul hoped his death would be quick. He’d regretted leaving Bobby for ten long years. Bobby hadn’t understood then, and there was no way Paul was going to be able to explain it now. It didn’t even make sense to him anymore.
“You never wrote or called to let me know what happened.” Bobby seemed interested in catching up, not revenge, but his curiosity opened old wounds.
“When Dad died, I guess I went a little crazy.”
“I got that part. Your father’s death broke a lot of people’s hearts. He was so young… and to die in the line like that. He was a good cop. But I never understood why you left school.”
“My mom had to bury my dad and I knew she couldn’t keep paying my tuition. I know there were options, but I thought… It doesn’t make sense anymore but at the time--”
“We could have found tuition money. You might have had to take on loans but together we could have made it work. You shut me out.”
“I was grieving. And I don’t know if we could have found help. I wasn’t a great student. I didn’t have stellar grades like you did. Mom was barely getting by. And Amy and Meg were still at home and their shot at decent schools would've been over. Then came 9/11 and I thought that’s what I’ll do. I’ll serve my country and after, I’ll get my education paid for. Before Dad died, things were strained between us." Paul's throat burned. "Joining up would have made him proud.”
“The way I remember it, we both protested getting involved in that war.”
“I know you never understood. It’s all muddled in my head now, but at the time it seemed like the perfect answer.”
“I thought we were on the same page and then you left and never looked back.”
Paul’s exhaled a painful breath. UC Santa Cruz. The first year of the new millennium. They’d burnt up the sheets in their dorm room, as desperately in love as any two people had ever been. Even now, just looking at Bobby -- even though he was a priest – Paul couldn’t stop himself from remembering how warm Bobby’s skin felt beneath his fingertips, the sound of Bobby’s voice crying out his name, the scent of Bobby’s hair when they woke up together after making love all night. Paul had never forgotten a minute of it.
“It’s not important now, anyway.”
“Meg told me about your dishonorable discharge.”
“Yeah.” Paul glanced at his hands. “I experienced a moment of ill-conceived honesty with someone because I knew she liked me and I didn’t want to lead her on. She reported me.”
Bobby’s eyes narrowed. “That’s…”
“Their loss.” The army was clearly still a touchy subject for both of them. Father Bobby. Jeez what the hell should he call Bobby now? “I figured let them get somebody else, right?”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Paul shrugged. “I doubt that was the Lord, but you’re the priest. You should know.”
“I prayed for you an awful lot, Paul. I prayed for your safety and for you to change your mind. I prayed you’d come back to me.”
“That’s my loss too. God’s a tough rival, huh? But a much better guy.”
Bobby rubbed his face with both hands. “You’re still an idiot.”
“Look.” Paul licked his lips. They said confession was good for the soul. Maybe guys didn’t usually confess to Bobby over a sticky bar and a draft beer, but Paul knew he’d hurt the man and he didn’t want to live with it anymore. “I guess it’s pretty safe to say this now since I’ve got nothing to lose. I was an idiot. You’re the only man I've ever loved and instead of letting you in on it when I had a problem, I ran away. I’ve paid for that for a long time.”
“Ten years,” Bobby whispered.
“So far yeah. Ten years. But I’ll be paying for it for the rest of my life, I guess.”
“I know you found what you’re looking for, and I’m happy for you, but there’s not a day goes by when I don’t think of you. I’m fine, but I’m not whole. I gave you a part of myself in college and I’ll never take that back.”
“Don’t say that. The human heart is an amazingly resilient--”
“Don’t.” Paul held up his hand. “I don’t need you -- of all people -- to console me. I’m fine, really. I guess I just wanted you to know. I never stopped loving you. Not ever.”
Bobby swallowed hard. Paul saw his Adam’s apple dip, and when Paul looked back up into those fathomless brown eyes they shimmered with unshed tears.
Paul held his hand out offering to shake. “It was great to see you again, Bobby. I’m glad you found what you need. I’m glad we’re both okay.”
“Me too.” Bobby took Paul’s hand between both of his. His smile was enigmatic. “You’ll never know how glad.”
Paul glanced down at his watch, “I have to go set up. If you want, you can stop by and watch the show for old time’s sake. It hasn’t changed much, though.”
“I’d like that.”
“Okay…” Paul stood and glanced around. “Ask any of the staff and they’ll sneak you into the back.”
“All right,” Bobby nodded. “Thank you.”
Paul checked his equipment for the last time, and gave the sound guys a heads up. When he started his act, it took every ounce of concentration to keep his attention on his audience and not on the audience. Who knew if Bobby would bother to watch; he’d seen the act enough times to do it himself.
Paul called for volunteers from the audience and performed a rope trick -- a rather pedestrian illusion -- where he cut a rope and appeared to tie it back together, moving the knot along it’s length and showing it to be both cut and repaired several more times in several different places.
His mind was miles away trying to decide if he was glad he’d seen Bobby, or not.
In the midnight of his soul he’d always thought -- had always really believed -- they'd find their way back to each other. He’d harbored the secret hope that someday when he was finished punishing himself for leaving, or when Bobby got tired of looking for fame, or when they both figured out that what they’d had with each other was better than anything they’d ever find anywhere else, they’d be reunited. That someday he'd get to go home.
He had known that it was only wishful thinking, but even that was better than knowing there was no chance at all. His usual cheery dialogue with the audience died off toward the end of the show because his throat clogged and his eyes stung. He'd kept it together through sheer power of will as the illusions got harder and harder. None of these people was likely to realize they were missing out on the best of his jokes.
But Bobby would know.
When they finally brought up the houselights, he caught sight of Bobby standing by the door. It was an unguarded moment, and his face seemed thoughtful. Even sad. Damn Bobby. The last thing Paul wanted from him was pity.
The sound technician helped Paul get his gear off the stage and together they hustled it to the storage room. In the confusion he must have missed saying goodbye to Bobby. Since Paul didn’t really want to see him again -- since he’d said everything he had to say -- he didn’t mind that so much. At least he swallowed down his disappointment and told himself it was better that way.
In fact, the first faint stirring of something like closure pushed its way into Paul’s heart, and he let out a breath to give it a little space to grow.
He’d done his job. The audience had seemed happy. He made his way to the closet they laughingly referred to as a dressing room, and toweled off the sweat he’d accumulated during his act.
For the first time in a long time he wanted stay late and let Kim set him up with a drink or ten, but there was Nudge to consider -- the dog always waited so patiently for him that he generally just hurried home. She was always happy to see him. That made things better, even when -- like now -- it didn't seem they could get worse.
It was while he was taking one last look at the crowd -- hoping against hope that Bobby had simply gone to the men’s room and they’d still have a chance to say goodbye -- that he heard the musical theme from the film, The Exorcist.
Tubular Bells? He elbowed his way into the dark banquet hall and glanced up at the stage. Thick clouds of fog rolled and billowed out from both sides of the stage. The only illumination was a ball of light that glowed faintly against the black background but gradually grew in intensity.
Eventually it was light enough to see it came from the top of a lamppost. Next to that, a figure appeared, one who wore a hat and an overcoat…a priest.
Paul slumped back against the wall, thoroughly confused until Bobby started to dance. His first thought -- that for a priest Bobby still had some pretty fine fucking moves -- gave way to an explosion of outrage as the truth hit his brain and flooded through his bloodstream like pure alcohol.
That bastard. That lying, conniving, beautiful little motherfucker wasn’t a priest at all, he was…
What the hell was he?
Trick pants hit the floor and the question became rhetorical. Asked and answered. His man Bobby was a stripper, and he was grinding his goodies against the lamppost for all he was worth. Paul couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing with his own eyes. Bobby shook his still-pert thirty-year-old ass and… damn.
What we’ve got here is a room full of firemen who are going to have to put themselves out.
Tubular Bells gave way to some dance music featuring a sexy beat and Latin chanting, during which a now nearly naked Bobby showed off a six pack and a pretty badass tattoo.
Paul laughed so hard he got a dirty look or two, but Bobby was so gloriously hot. He was the very definition of a "bad thought". The kind the priests used to make then all do penance for.
It turned Paul on so much that if he didn’t leave right then, before the houselights came up, he’d get busted for standing there with enough wood to build another hotel. He waited inside the dressing room, tapping his foot nervously on the floor and – for the first time in years, he chewed his thumbnail to a nub.
The door burst open and Bobby came through, all of him, flushed and sweaty, still wearing little more than a thong but carrying his priest get-up crushed into a ball between his hands.
Paul stood so fast his chair fell over behind him. “Father, I must say you’re giving a whole new meaning to the term defrocked.”
“I can explain.” Bobby picked up a terry cloth robe and covered himself, but it was close enough in the tight space that Paul could detect the enticing scent of his skin. The air fairly crackled between them. Bobby was looking at his lips in a way that weakened Paul’s resolve to call it an early night.
He groaned. “I have to get home to my dog.”
“My dog.” Paul moved forward, hardly noticing that he was in motion at all. “She’s a Lab.”
“Do you have someone to go home to?” Paul asked. That was something he really, really wanted to know. Was Bobby off limits even if he wasn’t a priest?
“No.” Bobby swallowed. “There’s never been anyone since you.”
“I never thought I’d ever see you again. How could you be right here, juggling your damned bottles in this dive bar? I’ve been in town for six months and now I bump into you because of this silly priest gig. You… you told me you still love me. Is that true?”
Paul spoke thickly, “Yes. Always.”
“I’ve never forgotten. I love you too. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth, but suddenly you were there and telling me everything I’ve waited to hear for so long. Fuck. Kiss me.”
Paul forgot restraint. He forgot decorum and composure and the fact that at any moment his employers might walk through the dressing room door. He opened his arms and Bobby came crashing into them, tilting his head back for a passionate kiss. Their lips met and meshed. Bobby yielded to gentle pressure and Paul’s tongue slipped inside to explore the moist heat of Bobby’s mouth. He still tasted faintly of cinnamon.
Paul pulled back. “Am I dreaming?”
“I hope not.” Bobby cupped his face like he was precious or something.
“If I am, I don’t want to ever wake up.”
My latest novella, All Stirred Up is available at MLR Press!
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