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The Party of the Third Part

by Geron Kees

© 2019 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

"Let me get this right," Jerry Masters said, smiling at Amanda Burke. "You want to hire me to be your boyfriend?"

Amanda was new in school, having just moved with her family a week or so ago from West Prior. She was an attractive, dark-haired senior, not unlike Jerry himself.

She nodded. "All you have to do is go with me, and just act like a boyfriend. Hold my hand some, give me a kiss on the cheek when people are looking - that kind of stuff. Nothing too involved."

"And you'll pay me fifty bucks for this?"

"Yes. That's not bad for two hours in the evening, is it? And you'll really be helping me out."

"Uh huh." He leaned closer. "You know I'm gay, right?"

Amanda frowned. "Yes, I do. So what? My brother's gay. I'm not concerned about gay. The people over in West Prior don't know you at all, anyway." The frown turned to a smile. "You're good looking and smart. That's all that matters to me."

Jerry smiled. "And why do you need me to do this, again?"

The girl sighed, and gave a casual look-around to make sure they were not being overheard. They were standing near one of the staircases to the second floor of the school, and students were streaming by them on all sides. But no one was paying attention to them, and no one was really standing around close enough to hear them.

"I belong to the Friday Afternoon Fine Arts League. They're having a music appreciation day this Friday, and the theme is romance, and all the girls are supposed to bring their boyfriends. I don't have one. So I need you."

Jerry took a step backwards. "The Friday afternoon what?"

Amanda sighed again. "Fine Arts League. Look, my mom got me into it, back when we were in West Prior. All her friends at that snooty Mah Jong Club have their daughters in the League, so of course mom had to get me involved. I didn't want to do it, but you don't know my mom. So I'm in. And now I need a boyfriend to go with me to the show on Friday."

Jerry smiled inquisitively. "Um...I don't mean to be nosy - but why don't you have a boyfriend? I mean, I know you just moved here, but didn't you have a guy in your old school? You're definitely too pretty to be available, and I've seen some of the guys here chasing you around already. I'm sure you could get just about anyone to go to this art thing with you."

Amanda looked surprised, and then smiled. "It's a music appreciation. And I thought you were gay?"

"I am. But I'm not blind." Jerry laughed. "What about it?"

Amanda looked around, and then offered him a cute grin. "Well...I haven't been here very long. You know that. There are a few guys after me, yes. I can't ask any of them, though, or they'll think I'm interested. And I haven't made up my mind yet who I like best, so I don't want to appear interested in any of them."

"What about your old school?"

Amanda wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Oh. Once that jerk Nicholas Hartman found out I was moving, he dumped me for Hannah Winslow. He said he couldn't have a girl that lived way over here in Crownville." She made an angry noise. "He said it was too inconvenient."

Jerry emitted a low whistle. "Sounds to me like you're better off without the guy."

"I think so, too. But I haven't clicked with anyone here yet, and I need someone to help me with this that won't just assume that I'm trying to get in his pants."

A light went on in Jerry's mind. "Oh...I get it. I'm safe, right?"

"Exactly. I can go with you and you won't be trying anything funny, or taking it for anything more than a job. Simple, see?"

Jerry frowned at that. "There have to be girls in this club that don't have boyfriends, or who can't get them to go. Can't you just say yours is working, or something?"

"No." A look of desperation came into the girl's eyes. "Look, I got so tired of those smug rich girls talking about their boyfriends, it made me mad. After Nicholas left I told everyone at the League that I broke up with him, because I had met a nice guy here in Crownville. I told them he was rich, and that he treated me special." She looked exasperated. "These people don't work, anyway. Their families don't make them do anything. All I know is that the other girls are bringing their boys, and now...I can't just say mine can't come."

The whole thing sounded pretty shallow to Jerry, but he didn't want to say that out loud. He prided himself on his empathy, and he'd already come to understand that being a teen girl was even harder at times than being a teen boy. What he had seen of Amanda in her week at the school had not been bad at all. She came across as pleasant, didn't talk about people, and was generally very likable. Half the unattached senior guys were eyeballing her already. He tended to notice stuff like that.

So there had to be something going on here with more depth than this whole thing seemed to sound like right now.

"Please," she whispered, leaning closer. "It's just for one evening."

Jerry watched her a moment, and could see she really felt like she was in a bind. He smiled. "I get to be a rich guy, huh? Does that mean I have to dress up?"

A hopeful look appeared in Amanda's eyes. "It's informal, so no suit or anything like that. Just wear something nice. Good quality, I mean." She shook her head. "We're meeting in a wing of the old Lutheran Church on Broadmoor Street in West Prior until the art center is done with its makeover, and it's not air-conditioned. They just have some ceiling fans. So everyone has just been dressing down to be comfortable."

Jerry scratched his chin, reviewing his wardrobe in his mind. It had been unusually warm for so early in the spring. He'd need something respectable looking, but that wouldn't make him sweat like a pig. "Um...I think I have something decent enough."

Amanda looked delighted. "So you'll do it?"

"I guess." Jerry sighed. "I could use the money, after all."

"Great!" Amanda checked her purse, and pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen, and began to quickly jot something down. "Here's my address. Can you come by today after school?"

Jerry reached for the paper, and then stopped. "Today? I thought you said it was on Friday?"

"It is. But you need to know how to act, and what to say if any of the girls talk to you." She gave him a pointed look. "There will be family there, too, and I want to make a good impression for my mom, or I'll never hear the end of it So we have to rehearse things a little, okay?"

"Aww...okay." Jerry took the scrap of paper and pushed it down into the front pocket of his jeans, without looking at it. "How about three-thirty? I usually have to walk the dog first, before I go out."

Amanda looked happy with that. "That's fine." She reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "Thanks. You're saving my life."

Jerry just nodded, and then they parted as the warning bell for fourth period rang.

Gym was the last period of the day. Jerry was shooting baskets with Lance Petrov and Doley Conniff, because there were too many students in the class for team play, and some always wound up sitting out. Coach Blackmer tended to let his three gay students sit out more often than was fair, though he never once said anything to that effect, and none of the three boys really minded, because that allowed them to hang out together and talk. Jerry liked to shoot baskets in his own driveway, and was perfectly content doing the same thing at school, at least while basketball season was in.

So the three of them just moved over to the second court in the gym, and hit the baskets there while the rest of the class played teams. They always had a good time talking, and they got the same grade either way, and it seemed to make the coach happy, so what the hell. One of the occasional prices of being gay, is how Jerry thought of it, and really a small price here, at that. Some of the guys in the class were pure jerks, and it just didn't pay to set them off.

Lance was pretty good on the court, but Doley was lightning on two feet, and only the fact that his gym shorts were pink with a red stripe kept him from being one of the coach's star players. Jerry considered this omission kind of like shooting the school basketball team in the foot, and it irked him that it was only happening because Doley was gay. But the basketball team was not clamoring for Doley's presence, even though he had had some support from a few of the guys originally. The majority of the school team seemed not to want Doley with them, and Jerry had learned long ago that some jocks had a particular distaste for having gay guys be better at something physical than they were.

Doley had killed the whole thing by being uncooperative, anyway. His absolute refusal to wear a team uniform, and his insistence on wearing his own clothing, soon ended the argument altogether. Doley couldn't have cared less about it. He played on a neighborhood league team at home, and that kept him happy.

They still talked about it now and then, though Doley was clearly tired of revisiting the subject.

"I'm sorry," Jerry said again that afternoon, when they paused between sets to catch their breaths. The subject had come up again, despite Doley's attempts to avoid it. "It's just wrong. You're better than any of them. You should sue this damn school system, is what you should do."

Doley just sighed. "Lemme tell you something, Jerry. I already know I could have a hell of a case against this school, if I wanted it."

Jerry just stared at the boy. "Then why don't you? It's discrimination, plain and simple."

Doley just shrugged. "I don't care, that's why. I like going to this school. It's close to home, my friends are here, and I'm comfortable walking in every day. I already know that if I take my ass into court and go after these people, they'd never let me keep going to this school while I was suing them. It would mean a bus ride to Fitzsimmons every day instead, and you know what it's like down in the valley. That school is full of gangbangers and every other kind of idiot." Doley rolled his eyes at that. "Not this boy. I like my peace, you know?"

"Yeah, I do know," Jerry had his own peace in place at this school, and it was important. He nodded, willing to let the matter drop. "Okay. I guess I get it. I don't care about any of this crap, either. I just want my exercise, and I get that. Playing with the class isn't a requirement."

Lance leaned into the conversation then, smiling. "Although rubbing up against Chuck Henry a little wouldn't bother me at all."

Jerry and Doley both laughed at that, but Doley reached out and squeezed Lance's forearm. "You're dumb, boy," he said. "I'm telling you, Chuck plays. You need to try him, before you say no it ain't gonna happen."

"He goes with Emma Larsen," Lance complained, shaking his head. "He's straight."

"You mean Emma Larsen is trying to get him," Doley corrected. "Yeah, they've been out together a few times, but it hasn't stuck, and that's what's important." Doley favored Lance with an impatient look. "Boy, you wanna be alone all senior year?"

" But Chuck Henry? There's not a gay bone in his body, I'm telling you."

Doley shook his head emphatically. "No, no, no. I'm tellin' you, that boy plays. And if you like him, then you are missing out here by standing around with your thumb up your ass and not doing something about it."

Lance looked unwilling to be convinced, and Doley gave out a frustrated grunt and leaned closer. "Chuck was one of the guys pushing the coach to let me on the team, even in my pinks. I know what I'm talkin' about."

The other boy opened his mouth to argue further, and Doley poked him in the chest. "Have I ever been wrong about a dude? Ever?"

Lance looked at Jerry for help, and Jerry just laughed. "He's never been wrong that I know about."

Lance turned, biting his lip, and watched as Chuck raced down the other court with half the defense in pursuit. "You sure, Doley? I mean, my gaydar never goes off around Chuck, and I've tried it, so I know."

Doley laughed, and rolled his eyes. "Man! That's because that isn't gaydar you got there. Nodar is more like it. It didn't even tell you about Jerry, here. I had to tell you, remember?"

Lance's eyes widened, and then he nodded. "Oh, yeah, you're right." He grinned at Jerry, and then looked over at Chuck again. "Man, I wouldn't even know how to start talking to a guy like that."

Doley sighed, and shook his head. "Come here a minute, Lance. Come on, I want to explain a few things to you." He grinned at Jerry. "Take a rest, man. We'll be right back."

Jerry laughed, and circled underneath the net, dribbling the ball. This should be interesting. Lance was a sweet guy, nice looking in his own way, very pleasant to be around, and he had a fun personality. He'd make a wonderful boyfriend. Jerry had even considered making a play for him, shortly after they'd met; but they had somehow instantly become friends, instead, and romance didn't seem to be anywhere in the mix.

There was a loud bang, and the far double doors into the gym from the outside fields opened, and one of the junior gym classes started crowding inside. Jerry paused to watch them, wondering if it was Mr. Horseman's class, and if the cute new boy would be there. His eyes passed over each face as it entered, and then paused as the one he was looking for arrived through the doors.

Jerry sighed, and tried not to obviously stare. The guy was dark haired and slender, and just wore cute like it was a magnificent suit of clothing. And speaking of clothing, he was especially endearing in his gym shorts and tee, and Jerry felt his heart skip a beat or two as he watched the guy walk across the gym floor.

The other boy's eyes were moving around as he walked, and suddenly touched upon Jerry's. A brief smile tugged at the boy's lips, and he raised a hand to waist level and gave a quick, low-key wave. Jerry sucked in a breath, and raised a hand in front of his chest and waved back. They maintained eye contact for a moment, until the junior class reached the doors to the locker room and went inside. The far boy tossed one last smile Jerry's way, and then was gone.

Doley and Lance came back then, to find him standing with the ball in his hands, staring off at the doors, and grinning like a fool. Doley immediately twisted around, and spied the last of the junior class entering the locker room.

"Was it him?" Doley grinned. "Yeah, it was him. You don't look stupid like that for just anybody."

Lance prodded him lightly with his elbow. "Did he wave?"

Jerry nodded, still remembering the feeling of eye contact with the new guy. "Yeah."

He must've said it really dreamily, because both of the others started laughing. "Man!" Doley placed a supportive hand on his shoulder. "You got it bad for this dude, don't you?"

Jerry remembered back to the first time he'd seen the new boy, just the previous week. He'd been standing within feet of where he was standing right now, and Mr. Horseman's seventh period junior gym class had come through, just like now. Jerry always watched such things, usually with just partial interest, because he already felt like he knew most of the possible candidates for boyfriend in the school. But this time had been unusual, because there had been a new face in Mr. Horseman's class that day.

Jerry had spied the new guy, and his heart had just stopped. Stopped dead. It was one of those first moments you hear about, or read about, but never experience yourself. Only, this time it was real, and it was happening to Jerry!

He didn't really believe in gaydar. He called it flamedar, because the one he had only ever seemed to reveal those guys with obviously gay qualities. That there was just a horde of nice, available gay guys out there that simply didn't appear gay at all was obvious to him by now, and the kind of guy that really interested him was more subtle than someone he would normally be able to discern.

But this new guy virtually leaped out at him, even though nothing about him said gay. His walk was smooth and graceful - competent was the word - and he had an air of confidence about him that was instantly appealing. But at the same time there was a kind of...sweetness about him, and a sense of humor, that showed in his alert, brightly animated expression, and the easy way he walked through the world. That he would be fun to know was immediately apparent to Jerry. And what was more, his eyes had felt Jerry's stare, somehow, and had bounced up to meet his gaze in nothing short of record time.

And then the guy had smiled. It was a beautiful thing, and Jerry had simply beamed back at him. The other had quickly lifted a hand, and given a little wave, a very subtle thing; and Jerry had brought his own up and waved back, equally low-key. And then that had been it. The other class passed through the doors and was gone.

And each school day since, Jerry had watched the returning classes, hoping to see that face, and each time he did, they had smiled at each other, and exchanged a quick, unobtrusive wave of hands. It was exhilarating in a way Jerry had never felt before, and he was dying to make more of a contact with the guy.

He had asked around on the down-low, trying to find out who the new guy was. He was not inclined to be bold about it, because he didn't want to put the other boy out there - and Jerry was somehow certain that the new boy was gay, too. But there were 1600 kids in the school, and he had been unable to find anyone within his small circle of 'sympathetic' sources that knew who he was talking about.

The fact that the new guy was a junior made it harder, as the natural separation between classes worked against Jerry easily learning who the boy was. Seniors and juniors mixed in very few classes during the school day. There was a lot more of that at gatherings outside of school, like parties and sports events. But in the five days since Jerry had first laid eyes on the new guy, there just hadn't really been time for outside events to bring them together, and Jerry still didn't even have a name.

He'd considered being bold about it, and trying to talk to the guy when he came in at the end of gym class. All he needed to do was to be standing over by the locker room doors when the junior classes came in, as the class endings were slightly staggered in times so that they would not all end at once and fill the locker room to capacity. Then he could just step forward at the right moment, and say hello.

But...he had no real business hanging out clear across the gym. Mr. Blackmer would ignore them while they goofed off over on this court; but if Jerry decided to go hang out by the doors, the man would be right on him, wanting to know what he was 'up to'. And Jerry didn't want that kind of attention. There was also the fact that he could be putting the other guy out there by trying to meet him so openly, because there were gay guys all over who were still undercover. He just didn't know enough about the other boy to feel safe in chasing him in public.

He'd taken a philosophical attitude about it, knowing he'd eventually learn who the new boy was, and that at some point they'd get a chance to talk. That the other boy seemed at least interested in Jerry seemed plain. Jerry was a little amazed at that, as he didn't normally set off anyone's radar of any kind. But the instantaneous recognition they'd shared had been truly astounding, and could not be ignored.

"You need to find out who he is, and right now," Doley prodded. "Don't fart around on this, Jerry." He rolled his eyes. "Don't be a Lance!"

Lance looked exasperated. "I said I'd try!"

Doley grinned at him. "I'm holdin' you to that."

Jerry looked at him. "What do you suggest? I just run over and hug him the next time he comes through?"

The other boy laughed. "I would, if that's all I had. You don't want no trouble with Mr. Blackmer. There has to be another way to meet this boy." He sighed, shaking his head at Jerry. "I can find out who he is today, if you want. I know who to ask."

Doley had made the offer once before, and Jerry had refused. Doley was not the subtle type, and neither were the friends he hung out with. And while the people he knew would probably be able to get them the name of the new boy, the interest would certainly focus attention in the wrong places. Jerry didn't want someone telling the new guy that the gay contingent was asking all over the school who he was. It seemed the wrong way to make an introduction, definitely. Jerry had hopes for something much less public to occur, something much more...romantic? It was a foolish notion, probably, but what could he do? It was the way he felt about it, and that was all there was to say.

" That's okay, Doley." Jerry smiled. "I'm sure I'll find out who he is soon."

The other boy looked exasperated. "I swear, man. You and Lance will be the death of me yet." He sighed again. "Are you at least trying?"

Jerry nodded. "I've looked for him in the A lunch. He must be in B lunch. I asked a few people in my art class and my drama class, as they're they only two classes I share with juniors. No one there knows him. I look everywhere I go, but he has to be in the B wing, I'm sure, because I never see him in the halls. I've looked for him out at the buses after school, but he must walk home, like I do. The only time I see the guy is for a few seconds when his gym class comes in."

Doley shook his head. "It's that damn staggered end they got for the gym periods. It's only five minutes, but he must just get away before we even get into the locker room."

Lance thrust out his bottom lip, and prodded Jerry. "If he wanted to meet you, wouldn't he just hang around after class and wait?"

Doley grunted. "You tryin' to mess up this romance before it gets off the ground? What's the matter with you?"

Lance suddenly looked guilty. "Well, it's an honest question, isn't it?"

Jerry had considered that himself. But most people skipped the showers at the end of this period, because they were heading home, anyway, and the pressure to be done and gone was significant due to overcrowding in the classes. Mr. Horseman was the bossy type who walked around the locker room, actively trying to shoo the guys out, and he wasn't hearing any excuses about 'waiting for a friend'. That the school was over capacity was a fact that the administration was trying to deal with as best they could. There was a second gym in the new wing under construction at the other end of the building, and once it was complete, the crowding would relax considerably. But for now, what they had was what they had.

Jerry shrugged. "I'm sure he just gets run out, like everybody else. I figure I'll eventually fall over him in the hall or something. That's usually the way stuff like this works."

Lance gently elbowed him, trying to make up for his earlier doubt. "You must've made some impression on the guy. How else would he have known he could wave at you? You don't come across as gay, Jerry."

Doley smiled. "No one's perfect."

Jerry had initially wondered about that himself, but the answer had come pretty quickly. "Gee, what do you think?" he asked, pointing at Doley's pink gym shorts with the red stripes down the sides. The other boy was also wearing a matching pink top that said, in huge yellow letters, 'Yes, I am! You got a problem with that?'. Not even to mention the matching pink basketball shoes, and the pink headband keeping his carefully plaited hair out of his face while he danced around the basketball court.

Jerry had seen guys in the other classes coming in from outside occasionally pointing their way, and smiling and smirking, just a little. It was common knowledge that the three of them were gay, and Doley, for one, was so obvious that there could be no doubt in the new guy's mind about what he was seeing. He had spotted them, had noticed Jerry's attention, and had responded positively to Jerry's gaze.

Doley's eyes widened, and he laughed. "I know you're saying it was my natural charm and magnetism that first drew his attention? I hope that's what you're saying, and not making a snide remark about my outfit. " He patted his shorts affectionately. "This gay boy is making a statement, and nobody better mess with it."

Jerry grinned. "Oh, I'm not messing with you, Doley. But you have to admit your gym gear is like having a big, um, pink sign out front, stating your business."

"Uh huh. Just 'cause you don't dare, doesn't mean I can't." Doley looked pleased with himself. "I got me a boyfriend, just remember."

Jerry did remember. Calvin Johnson, the big right guard on the school football team. He was another guy you'd never guess was gay just by looking at him. Calvin looked like he broke things for a living - two-by-fours, big trees, probably every doorknob in his mother's house; and certainly anybody that got up in his face on the wrong business. No one messed with him because he was just huge, and because he flew under the radar in dress and mannerisms, and so was not an 'embarrassment' to the team. Calvin was normally grim-looking, even scary. Not someone you messed with casually. Only when he smiled could you see the gold inside, and Doley had a way of making his boyfriend shine like no other.

Jerry often sighed when he saw them together, because it was just so obvious that they were happy. Lance could see it, too, and while the boy was nothing but happy for Doley and Calvin, he had come to the conclusion that there was some sort of defect in himself that kept him from having the same thing. Jerry had tried to help iron out that glitch in Lance's thinking, and there had been some progress. But that Lance was even lonelier than Jerry seemed plain.

It wasn't that there was anything wrong with either of them that kept them from finding the right guy. It was that the right guy had simply not come along yet, for either of them. Lance had come to understand that it might take time for him to find happiness, and Jerry had struggled to take his own advice and be patient with time and its fickle whims. Someday, it would happen.

That the new junior attracted him, Jerry had known right away. But a smile and a wave could be anything, even as simple as one gay guy acknowledging another. It didn't mean the other guy was available, or looking, or even interested; and certainly not that he would just fall into Jerry's arms the first time they got to talk. He had to smile at the pleasant feeling that notion gave him - of the cute guy swooning into his arms; but that it was just a notion was something he understood well. Real life never was as good as a dream, which was why dreams came at such a substantial premium.

Jerry turned and looked again at the doors to the locker room, now closed. "It'll happen. Eventually, I'll find out who he is, and even get to talk to him."

Doley sighed, and patted him gently on the shoulder. "I hope so, Jer. Because I've seen the way that guy smiles at you. He ain't just being polite."

Jerry sighed, himself. Yeah. If that were only true.

When he got home, he had to wrestle briefly with Nick, their big German Shepard, who pounced on him the moment he came through the door. That the dog was anxious for his walk was plain, even though he asked for it with a great deal of affection. Jerry laughed as they went together into the kitchen to get Nick's harness and lead, and stopped by the refrigerator to read any notes his parents had left him. His folks both worked, and the dry erase board on the front of the fridge was one of their chief modes of contact.

There was a note from his dad, a hasty scrawl that said, 'Mow the lawn!' It had just been put up that morning, so Jerry felt confident in ignoring it for at least a day. The one below was in his mom's neat printing, and said, 'Spaghetti and meatballs tonight. Be home by 7:00, please!'. Jerry smiled at that one. No way was he missing his mom's spaghetti and meatballs. They were the only two messages, and Jerry grabbed up the dry erase pen hanging by its cord, and wrote, 'Too hot today!' under his dad's message, and 'I'll be here!', under his mom's. He followed that up with, 'Nicky's been out,' and then let the pen drop back to the length of the cord.

"Come on, Nicky," Jerry said, grabbing the dog's harness and lead from the hook by the back door. "I'll run you down the park bike path. How about that? Does woogy-woogy wanna walkie-walk?"

The dog leaped and yipped, but quickly settled down so that Nick could put the harness on him. They went outside into the warm spring air and cut across the property line between Nick's house and the Dietermeyer's in back. That let them out on Ashland Terrace, directly across from the park. The bike path began there, and Nick trotted the dog across the road and into the shade of the trees.

Jerry patted the dog's head, and they set off down the path together. "I just wish you would attract a hunky dog-lover looking for romance," he confided to Nick, as they stopped at the first tree so that the dog could smell. "Then I wouldn't have to be renting my ass out as a boyfriend to some girl, just to have some fun."

Nick looked at him a moment and wagged his tail; but his attention span seldom lasted longer than the length of a pee, and they quickly moved on. It was a pretty afternoon, if a little too warm, and the park was full of people. Jerry smiled at the ones he passed on the path, about equally split between cyclists and joggers, and politely eyeballed a few of the ones off to the sides, on the lawns and sports fields nearby. There were always good-looking guys playing tennis or softball here, and in this kind of weather the shirts came off, and the eye-candy came out.

Jerry didn't like to stare, but he admired a nice body as much as the next guy, and didn't at all mind taking a purely appreciative peek or two as he and Nick walked along. Just for the sake of his artistic sense, mind you. Mother Nature was a heck of an artist, and some of the things she had drawn upon the face of this earth were simply too stunning not to gawk at, just a little.

It was a beautiful afternoon. Nicky was delighted to be out, and pranced ahead and pulled gently at his lead to keep Jerry moving. Jerry smiled, happy to let the dog roam a little. That was the purpose of the long lead, to allow Nicky to explore a little, without Jerry having to wander all over the place in pursuit. Nicky was very good about not going beyond his reach, and Jerry was able to pretty much stay on the path as they moved along.

He heard laughter ahead, and soon came upon a park bench at an intersection in paths, upon which two teen boys sat. They were younger than Jerry, maybe fifteen, and had their heads leaned together, whispering and smiling, and laughing as their eyes darted around the busy park. Jerry tried not to grin himself, instantly noting the shared, conspiratorial element of their body language, the almost too familiar way their shoulders rubbed together as they watched the other guys around them. Their hands touched often, as one would get the other's attention to point out someone new, and the entire atmosphere was one of a couple, not just two friends wiling away a warm spring afternoon. That the two were boy-watching was plain, and that they were enjoying themselves, scarcely the secret they apparently thought it was.

Jerry was approaching them at an angle from the rear, and it wasn't until he and Nick circled around to one side, and Nick made a few querying whuffs in the boy's general direction, that they noticed him. The nearest, a blond boy with cheerful blue eyes, looked over then, and noted the big German shepherd first, and then the boy walking him next. His eyes widened, and he reached back and slapped at the arm of the other boy, who leaned his head forward to stare past his friend. The second boy had dark, curly hair, and equally cheerful, if darker eyes, and the two of them spent a long moment just examining Jerry before they both realized at the same time that he was staring right back at them.

They looked away quickly then, and tilted their heads back and started laughing, seemingly embarrassed at being caught dead to rights. Yet they also clearly thought that what they were doing was undercover somehow, and Jerry marveled at their seeming innocence. Could they really not know what they looked like?

Nick let out a more direct bark then; but the boy's laughter was a cheerful sound he knew, and the dog tilted his head back and looked up at Jerry, as if to say, "I'll let you handle this one, okay?"

Jerry drew abreast of the two boys, and pulled Nicky to a halt. '"Hey, fellas. Pretty day, isn't it?"

They both nodded, and Jerry tried not to smile too obviously at the rosy shine that had appeared in the boy's cheeks. They knew he had seen them watching, and they were embarrassed over it, too. But they also had no idea that he knew why they were watching.

"Yeah, it's great out here," one said, smiling up at him. The other nodded, unconsciously squeezing his friend's forearm, just a little nervously.

Inside, Jerry sighed. In a year or two these guys would both be beautiful. Not that they weren't now; but they weren't quite to where Jerry could consider them equals. There was still too much boy in them, and not enough man. They were getting there, though, and that they were getting there together was what really mattered.

Jerry nodded, looking around the park then, himself. "Some pretty sights out here today, huh?" He tilted his head at the tennis court, where a couple of shirtless guys were trading the ball back and forth with speed and grace.

The blond boy looked surprised, and turned to his friend, whose eyes had also grown large.

"It's not hard to see what you're doing," Jerry said, more quietly. "If you're not out, and don't want to be, you should be a little more careful."

They stared at him a moment, their good humor now vanished. The blond boy bit at his lip then. "You mean you can tell? Just from seeing us sitting here?"

Jerry smiled. "You're enjoying it too much for me not to see." He shrugged. "I don't know if everyone would notice, but someone just like you probably would." He smiled at them again. "Been together long?"

For a moment the two boys seemed frozen as they looked up at him; and then the darker haired one suddenly blinked, and leaned against the blond boy's shoulder. "Aw, man!"

The blond boy narrowed his eyes a moment, and then nodded up at Jerry. "Yeah. A year. We've been together a year."

The dark haired boy looked startled at the admission, but then slowly nodded. "A year."

"That's great," Jerry said, giving a little sigh. "You guys are lucky."

The blond boy's eyes were full of comprehension now as they gazed up at him. "You're --?"

"Uh huh. Takes one to know one, right?"

Both boys laughed at that, the tension within them evaporating.

"I wouldn't have known," blondie said then. "No way."

"Uh uh," dark-haired agreed. "You look like a football jock."

Jerry laughed at that, and Nicky gave a little, pleased sound of agreement. If his person was happy, he was happy. "There's no jock in this boy, believe me," Jerry said.

"You got a guy?" blondie asked, looking nervously about to make sure no one was close enough to hear.

Jerry shook his head. "Not yet. That's why I said you two were lucky. For some of us, it takes longer."

Dark-haired looked saddened by that. "Man, that sucks. Any maybes?"

Jerry thought of the new guy in Mr. Horseman's gym class then, and smiled. "Yeah. I hope so."

Blondie nodded. "We hope so, too." He turned to his friend, reached down between them, and gently squeezed the other boy's hand. "Don't we?"

Dark-haired looked up at Jerry, and nodded. "Good luck."

Nick gave a gentle tug at his lead, and looked back at Jerry. This is supposed to be a walk where we actually walk, right?

Jerry smiled at the dog, and then turned it upon the two boys. "Thanks. Well, Nick here wants to get going. See you around, okay?" He looked at them a little more pointedly. "Remember what I said."

The blond boy raised a hand in small wave, and both boys nodded. Jerry started forward, and Nick bounded ahead to the end of his lead, smelling each new tree as he passed.

Jerry was aware of the eyes of the two boys on the bench following him as he moved off, and it wasn't until he and Nick had passed the hedge at the end of the tennis courts and turned into a new path that he once again felt alone.

Truly, alone.

21 Parrish Street was a large old four-square, with a nice, wide porch on the front that looked like it was used often. A comfortable looking set of wrought iron patio furniture adorned the gray-painted floorboards: a three-seater couch, several chairs, and a rocker, all covered with cushions bearing a flowered pattern that was easy on the eyes. A glass-topped coffee table sat before the couch, and a wide vase with a half-dozen red roses occupied one corner. The multi-paned windows behind the couch were large and filled with lacy white curtains, and the white paint on the clapboard siding was fresh and clean. It looked to be a space someone enjoyed, and cared for, and Jerry could imagine the family sitting out here on warm spring evenings, watching the neighborhood go by, and waving. This was an older part of town, sedate and comfortable, a far cry from the townhouses and cluttered, close neighborhoods that had sprung up on the old farmlands to the west.

It was like Jerry's own street, pretty much, and he was surprised at how much at home he felt here as he stood before the front door. Birds sang in the tall old trees that dominated the street; he could hear the voices of kids playing somewhere nearby; and, faintly, music of some sort arrived with the breeze from a neighboring window. The houses were not right on top of each other, the lots having been divided in a day when the world was still very large, with plenty of room to spare. There was a sense of space here, and time. Time enough for life. Time enough for love.

There was a doorbell to the right of the door, but even as he was reaching for it, the front door opened. Amanda stood there, behind the screen, smiling at him. "Were you going to knock, or just stand there all day?"

Jerry laughed. "I was just enjoying the feel of the place. You have a great house. I like it a lot."

Amanda opened the screen door and stepped out, and looked about the porch as if seeing it for the first time. "Oh...I guess it is kind of nice. My mother likes to sit out here in the evenings. My dad, too."

"Not you?"

The girl smiled. "Sometimes."

Jerry sighed, and gently clapped his hands together. "So...I'm ready. Teach me, and I will obey."

Amanda gave a little laugh, and her eyes twinkled at him. "You would have to be...unavailable. You'll make someone a great boyfriend."

"That's the plan. Now, I just need someone else to cooperate. Preferably a guy that's bright, has a good sense of humor, and is not hard to look at."

Amanda smiled. "That sounds pretty much like my own standards, actually."

Jerry sighed. "I think it will be easier for you, though."

The girl watched him a moment, and Jerry thought he saw a trace of pity there. He didn't want pity. He smiled. "I'll find Mr. Right. Don't you worry."

"I think you will," she agreed, smiling again. "You're one of those people that keeps trying until you succeed. I can see that." She nodded. "Since you like it out here, why don't we sit on the couch and talk? It will do just as well as the living room."

Jerry stepped to one side and bowed, and swept a hand at the couch. "After you, m'lady."

Amanda rolled her eyes, but grinned at him. "Charming, if a little corny."

"I try." Jerry followed her to the couch, and they both sat down.

Amanda suddenly looked flustered. "Oh! I'm sorry. You want something to drink or eat? There's ice tea in the fridge. I think I saw a bag of chips on the counter."

"Nah. I'm good. Let's get down to business, okay? I want to make sure I get home in time for dinner. My mom's making spaghetti and meatballs."

The girl looked interested at that. "Your mom cooks?"

"Sure. Yours doesn't?"

"Well...she doesn't like to." She lowered her voice. "Not since she joined that stupid Mah Jong Club. She thinks we should have a maid - one that cooks."

"You have a maid?" Jerry was amazed. He didn't know anyone that had a maid.

Amanda smiled. "No, we don't have a maid. I said my mom wants one. My dad doesn't, and he's the one that would have to pay for it. My mom doesn't work since my dad got his promotion. She just hangs around with those snoots from West Prior."

She looked at the window behind them a moment, and then leaned closer. "My dad bought this house because it was bigger and nicer than the one we had back home. My mom loved the idea, because she wants a mansion. But I really think my dad wanted to move to be away from my mom's friends." She sighed. "We just didn't move far enough."

Jerry nodded. "They don't sound like they're a good influence on her."

Amanda looked briefly unhappy. "My mom grew up poor. She always wanted nice things. I guess she thinks she's rich now, like the ladies at the club. She's not - not like that. My dad does okay, but we're not wealthy." She sighed. "Not like some of the ladies at the club. Some of them have millions. My mom just can't see the difference between wealth and success. So...she wants a maid."

That seemed a fairly astute appraisal to Jerry. Definitely, there was more depth to Amanda then the scheme she had roped him into implied.

He leaned closer, and also lowered his voice. "Then why do you feed into this? If your mom wants to be a snoot, so be it. But you could have said no when she tried to stick you in this club. If no one in your family went along, wouldn't she just stop?"

"I wish it was that simple. love your mom?"

Jerry was surprised by the question, but immediately nodded vigorously. "Yes."

"Well, then." Amanda let the answer hang in the air, until Jerry winced.

"So all of you just go along?"

"Yes. For now, anyway. My dad thinks she'll eventually work it out of her system."

Jerry could see all sorts of pitfalls along that road. But it wasn't his family, and so not something he really wanted to comment upon.

He sighed. "So I have to act snooty for this thing?"

Amanda laughed. "I wish you wouldn't. Just dress nicely, act nice,and be pleasant and polite to people. Can you do witty and intelligent?"

"I saw Matt Bomer in White Collar. Does that count?"

Amanda sighed, and pretended to be taking notes on an invisible pad of paper. "Cannot do witty."

Jerry laughed, and Amanda smiled at him. "Will you be serious now?"

"I can do witty," Jerry returned. "Or, at least, I'll try."

"I guess that will have to do." She watched him a moment, and then nodded. "This will work. Now, I'll introduce you to some of the other girls. I guarantee Michelle or Jackie will pounce on us the minute we come in. I told them you did something with money. You know, stocks and stuff?"

Jerry looked askance at her. "At seventeen? Kind of young for the stock market, isn't it?"

"I told them your dad was a banker, and that he was teaching you things about finances. That you were trying things on your own, and had made some money."

Jerry laughed. "Boy, when you lie, you go all out, don't you?"

Amanda looked hurt. "It's not lying, it''s..." She trailed off, and looked surprised. "I guess it is lying." She wrinkled her nose, and glared at him. "Well, it's too late to take it back, so we'll go with it. You're dad is a banker, and you're dabbling in the stock market and have had some success."

Jerry nodded. "Okay. What bank?"

"You mean, what bank does your dad own?"

"Um...banks are not usually owned by one guy. I mean, it's not like you've ever heard of Joe's Bank, have you? Banks have boards, with presidents, and officers, and that sort of stuff."

"I didn't know that." Amanda frowned. "Okay, we'll make your dad the president of the bank. Okay?"

"Right. What bank?"

"Does it matter?" The girl looked frustrated. "I never mentioned the name of the bank to anyone. You're making this complicated."

"I can't help it. You may not have mentioned it, but since it's my father running the place, someone is more likely to ask me the name, don't you think?"

Amanda pouted at him. "If we name the bank, someone might know it, and know the name of the president. So we would have to look it up online first, and have that be your last name. But I already told everyone your name was Tom Hardy."

Jerry's jaw dropped. "Tom Hardy? Like in Mad Max? You couldn't have been a little more original?"

"It's the first thing that came to mind. I didn't remember it was an actor's name." She smiled. "I thought he was a rock star."

Jerry threw up his hands. "This is nuts! This is what happens when you start lying to people! It gets out of hand!"

Amanda made shushing noises, and grabbed his wrist. "Be quiet, will you? My mom's on the patio out back, entertaining Mrs. Shoemann. She wasn't supposed to be home this afternoon, or I would have asked you to meet me somewhere else. I don't want her to hear us and come to see what's going on." She leaned forward intently. "I don't want to have to explain who you are if I don't have to do it."

Jerry grinned wickedly, but he did lower his voice. "Just tell her I'm your boyfriend, Tom Hardy." A thought occurred to him then. "Is your mom going to be at this thing?"

Amanda shook her head. "Fortunately, no. Family is invited, but she has a meeting at the Mah Jong Club that day, and can't make it. If she was coming, I'd really be in deep...trouble. But I still need to look good, because some of her friends might be there, and they'll take note of who comes with me."

"Her friends won't also be at the meeting?"

Amanda looked exasperated. "No. They have groups there at the club for that silly game, and this is some sort of group meeting. Ladies in the other groups will not be there."

"Oh. But there will be mothers at this art thing that know your mom?"

"Didn't I just say that?"

Jerry crossed his arms. "And what will you do when they talk to your mom later, and say how much they liked her daughter's sweet and charming boyfriend, Tom Hardy?"

Amanda smiled. "I'll just tell her you're one of the nice guys I met at school, but that I'm not certain yet I want to go with you. She'll get that, because we've only been here a week, and she'll think it's way too early for me to have settled on a boyfriend." She shrugged. "Besides, I already told her I'd just invite someone from school to come with me."

Jerry blew out an amazed breath of air. "Do you operate like this all the time?"

"No." Amanda offered him another pout. It was cute, but that was beside the point. "I'm just trying to get along with my mom, her snooty friends, and the awful bunch of girls that are their daughters." She shook her head. "You think I like all this? It gives me a headache trying to remember it all."

Jerry nodded, rubbing his temples. "I'm getting there myself." He took a deep breath, let it sigh out. " that what you told people, that my dad was a banker?"

The girl squinted a moment, thinking, and then frowned. "I think what I said was that your dad had something to do with banks."

Jerry nodded. "Well, then, I won't say he's the president of a bank. If someone asks, I'll say that he' freelance financial adviser, that works with banks and other institutions to maximize their investment profits. That way we won't have to name any one place."

Amanda blinked at that, and then grinned. "'re good at this."

Despite the nuttiness of the situation, Jerry grinned. "Okay, tell me everything you told these girls about me or my family, and I'll try to make up something that will be safe, but still sound good."

Amanda started talking, and Jerry listened, forming a picture in his mind of who Tom Hardy was supposed to be. It quickly became apparent that Amanda had stuck to basics while describing her 'boyfriend' to the other girls at the Friday Afternoon Fine arts League, which left him plenty of space to work with that would hopefully keep them both out of trouble. When he got home, he'd go online and look at a few stocks that had done well in the last six months, so that he could name a few if anyone asked how he had made his 'money'. Other than that, it looked pretty much like he could decide for himself on just what kind of guy Tom Hardy would be.

After about a half an hour, Amanda sat back, smiling. "That's about it. I sure picked the right guy for this job."

Jerry gave a little shrug. "When you have to blend in, you get used to a little bit of acting."

Amanda raised an eyebrow at that, but just nodded.

"So, what time do I have to be here on Friday?" Jerry asked. "And, for that matter, how are we getting to this meeting, anyway?"

"Get here about four-thirty. We're driving. I don't suppose you have a cool little sports car of some kind?"

"I wish. I walk everywhere, pretty much. My parents each have a car, and I can drive either when they aren't using them. But neither of them will be home by four-thirty."

"Then we'll go with the plan I have in place. We'll borrow my cousin Ronnie's car. I've already got it set up."

Jerry nodded. "Okay. You'll have the car here?"

Amanda smiled. "No. We'll have to go and get it. It's only about three blocks, though. We can walk that far, right?"

"Sure. It's farther than that from my house to yours."

The girl sighed, and patted his hand. "Thanks for doing this. It means a lot to me."

Jerry nodded. "I don't think thanks are needed. After all, you're paying me, right?"

"Yes. Do you want that now?"

Jerry thought about it, and shook his head. "Nah. Let's see how we do, first. I prefer to be paid after I do a job, not before."

The screen door opened then, and someone came out, hurrying.

"I'm going, Mandy. Tell mom I'll be back for dinner, okay?"

Jerry's eyes pulled up as the figure hastened past them...and then the whole world came to a stop.

The person - it was a guy, Jerry could see now - apparently only then realized that someone was sitting beside his sister. He stopped with a jerk, turned, and Jerry's eyes went to the face...and then the eyes.

His heart stopped...for the second time. It was the cute guy from Mr. Horseman's seventh period gym class.

He and Jerry stared at each other for what seemed like forever, and then, suddenly, the other boy smiled. "Hi. It's you."

Jerry realized he had his mouth open, and closed it with a snap. But then it came right open again, and spoke on its own. "It's you!"

Amanda looked from one boy to the other, and then laughed. "It's both of you!" She shook her head. "What on earth is going on?"

The new boy pointed at Jerry. "This is the guy I told you about, that waved to me in gym class."

Amanda's eyes jerked back to Jerry. "It is?" her mouth dropped open then, and she squeezed her eyes shut and clapped a hand over them. "I never even thought of Jerry!"

The other boy smiled. "That's your name? Jerry?"

Jerry nodded, still trying to process the incredible odds that this meeting could be happening.

The boy stepped forward and offered a hand. "I'm Jack, Mandy's brother."

Jerry came to his feet automatically, and thrust out his own hand. "I've been dying to meet you." He realized what he'd said then, and felt his face immediately flash into heat. "I's really nice to meet you."

The other boy smiled, and grasped Jerry's hand even more firmly. "I've been dying to meet you, too."

They stood there, hands gripped, for another long period. Jerry was immersed in the other boy's eyes, which were deep and full of pleasant things, and which did not at all seem inclined to break contact.

Amanda stood then. "Guys? Take a breath, will you? You'll pass out if you don't!"

Jerry laughed then, and so did Jack, and they released each other's hands and stepped back.

"I can't believe this," Jerry said. "This is your brother? The one that's gay?" He just blurted it right out, without thinking.

Jack blinked, and looked at his sister. "You told him I was gay?"

"You are gay!" she reminded.

"But you don't need to tell everyone! Let me do that!"

Jerry waved a hand. "Sorry. She told me just offhandedly, without mentioning your name or anything. It''s a long story."

Jack frowned at his sister. "I have time."

"I thought you were in a hurry to go someplace?" Amanda returned, putting her hands on her hips. "Don't let us stop you!"

Jack also placed his hand on his hips, and glared at his sister. "I'm not the one that's talking about you behind your back!"

Jerry felt a sudden panic. What had he done?

He stepped between the two siblings, waving his hands. "Wait a second, will ya!"

The two Burkes glared at each other, but then turned to look at Jerry.

"It doesn't matter," he told Jack. "She didn't mean anything by it. She asked me to do something for her, and I reminded her that I was gay, and she said she had no problem with that, her brother was gay, too. It was simply a way she had of telling me she was comfortable with gay. Okay?"

Jack frowned, and looked at his sister. "Is that right?"


The boy sighed then. "Well, that's not so bad." He brightened then, and smiled at Jerry. "What is it you're doing for her?"

Jerry briefly closed his eyes, feeling the entire world spinning out of control. This was what happened when you stepped off the wide, brightly-lit roadway that held the truth, and started wandering through the weeds of fiction that grew by the wayside.

He opened his eyes and looked at Amanda. "You want to answer that question?"

The girl had a sense of humor, anyway. She smiled. "Hell, no."

Jack looked from one face to another, and then scratched his head. "Is it a secret, or something?" He laughed then, and nodded at Amanda. "There's a surprise."

The girl looked back at the screen door then, and Jerry could almost see the wheels turning inside. "Is mom still out back?"

"Yes. I could hear them talking and laughing from my bedroom window. Sounds like they'll be at it for a while yet."

Amanda suddenly leaned forward, and narrowed her eyes at Jack. "You promise me you'll keep your mouth shut?"

Jack sighed. "Have I ever given you away on anything really important?"

Amanda considered that, and then shook her head. "No. Okay, come over here and sit down. You, too, Jerry."

The three of them sat. "Now what's this about?" Jack repeated.

Jerry smiled then. "Your sister has hired me to be her boyfriend."

Jack stared a moment, and then laughed. "You're not serious?"

They launched into the story then, Amanda and Jerry taking turns telling it, while Jack's eyes bounced back and forth between them, his expression becoming more incredulous with each passing moment. Finally, they reached the end, and Jerry sat back, trying to gauge Jack's response. The other boy looked amazed, but at the same time, there was a broad swath of humor showing beneath it all.

Jack sighed, and looked at his sister. "You never stop amazing me, Mandy. I told you you should have just told mom you didn't want to be in that stupid Art League, right from the get-go."

"It would have hurt her feelings, and you know it." Amanda shook her head. "I couldn't do that."

Jack frowned, and then nodded. "Yeah. I know. You're not the only one being patient with her."

The girl nodded. "Well? What do you think? Can we pull it off?"

"Beats me." Jack suddenly smiled. "I think I'll tag along, just in case I can help."

Amanda looked liked she didn't like that idea very much. "I thought you were busy Friday and couldn't go?"

"Well, I've changed my mind." Jack's eyes moved to Jerry. "I think I'd like to go now."

Jerry grinned at that, and turned to Amanda. "He might be able to help. Three heads are better than two."

"Yeah, right. Three's a crowd where I come from." Amanda took a finger and poked Jerry's hand. "Just remember who's boyfriend you're supposed to be, okay?" She turned back to Jack. "And stop looking at him like that. You'll give the whole thing away."

Jack laughed, his eyes going back to Jerry. "Can't help the way I feel."

Jerry leaned forward then, smiling. "I couldn't be sure. I thought you might wait in the locker room so we could talk, but you never did."

Jack scowled. "That's because that old prune, Mr. Horseman, would walk up and down the aisles between lockers, pointing at guys and saying, "You showering? No? Then get the hell out!"

"The school is way overcrowded since they opened all that new housing on the other side of town."

"I know. But the guy doesn't have to be such an asshole about it."

"So you wanted to meet me?" Jerry asked. "Really?"

Jack smiled. "Oh, yeah. Ever since the first moment I looked up that day and saw you watching me. I knew who you guys were. The Odd Squad, some of the bozos in my class call you." He leaned forward. "I knew you guys were family."

Jerry closed his eyes a moment, and worked at slowing his heart rate. This was almost too good to be true.

He opened his eyes, and had to smile at the way that Jack was watching him. "How about tomorrow? When you leave, wait for me by the bell out front, okay? In that little stone kiosk?"

Jack nodded. "Okay. What is that, anyway?"

Jerry laughed. "A long time ago, there was a one-room schoolhouse standing there. That's the bell they rang to call the kids to school. Or, so local history says, anyway."

"Really? I like history stuff like that. Cool." Jack's eyes twinkled at Jerry as he smiled. "I'll be there."

Amanda simply shook her head. "Oh, I know this is a mistake."

"It's too late to turn back now," Jerry said, smiling at Jack

"Definitely," Jack agreed.

Amanda looked back and forth at them, obviously the only one who was not totally and pleasantly pleased.

"No shit?" Lance said, as they pushed the ball around the court the next day at gym. "You finally met the guy?"

Doley clapped Jerry on the shoulder. "I knew it would happen! I could feel it!" He gave Jerry's shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "I knew there was a guy out there for you, Jer. I just knew it."

Lance looked slightly sour. "Now we just need one for me."

Doley passed the ball to him, and then stopped, his hands on his hips. "You already know where to look. You're pissin' me off, boy!"

Lance stopped, the ball held tightly to his chest. "I'm scared," he admitted. "What if he laughs at me, or something?"

"Then you'll know," Doley said, quietly. "And then you look someplace else. Ain't nothin' free in this world, Lance. You want it, you got to go and get it."

Lance turned and looked over at the class, and emitted a deep, deciding sigh. "Okay. I'll talk to Chuck."

Doley nodded at him. "Pick your time, boy. Don't ask him nothin' while any of those fools are standing around where they can hear. Give Chuck a chance to be honest with you, okay?"

"Okay. I'll try to catch him after school."

The class seemed interminable that day, but finally did end. Normally, Jerry would skip the shower and head straight home, take Nicky for a walk, and then shower afterwards. But today - he wanted to be presentable. So he pretty much ran through the showers, rubbing himself down with a bar of soap along the way, rinsed off under a swirling head, and then hustled back to his locker with a towel around himself, to dry off before getting dressed. A couple of the guys whistled good-naturedly, and grinned at him as he went by, but Jerry just grinned right back and then ignored them. He'd earned his spot in this school by now, and no one was serious about giving him a hard time.

He dried himself, dressed in a hurry, and headed out to the front of the school.

Jack was waiting at the bell, just as he'd promised. Another boy was talking to him, but spied Jerry coming over, and patted Jack on the arm and left.

"Hope I didn't interrupt anything," Jerry said, arriving next to the other boy.

"Nope. That was Keith Brady. He's in the closet, and thinks I can't see it." He frowned then. "Or, maybe he does know I know." He shrugged. "He just wants someone to talk to, and he knows about me."

"Yeah? You've been up front with people since you got here?"

Jack smiled. "I had to be. My first day, three girls hit on me. I don't believe in giving anyone hope when there's no chance we'll get together."

Jerry had to grin at that. "So there's hope for me?"

"Uh huh." Jack gave a little sigh. "There is."

They watched each other a moment, and again Jerry was aware that his heart was beating faster than normal. Jack just fascinated him. Now that he knew the relationship, he could see that Jack's face incorporated all the nice features that made his sister so attractive. Again, Jerry was struck by the aura of sweetness about the other boy, the sense that here was a heart that could offer just as much in the way of affection as it received. It seemed an incredible notion, really, because he just didn't know Jack at all. But as an impression, it seemed to run deep and true, and he just could not bring himself to ignore what he was feeling.

That he was smitten with Jack, he knew. The idea of love at first sight had always seemed a little ridiculous to him...but now, he could not argue that there was such a thing as an instant attraction to someone new. He smiled, and Jack smiled in return.

And then the other boy swallowed hard, and nodded his head towards the road. "Ready to start? We can talk along the way."

They took to the wide, paved path that ran from the school towards their neighborhood, just walking quietly together for the first few minutes. Jerry still could not believe he was walking along with the boy he had only seen from afar, across the width of the gym, until yesterday. It seemed less than real, somehow.

"Pretty day," Jack said, obviously made nervous by the silence between them.

Jerry laughed. "Sorry. I'm just still so amazed that I'm with you now. Up until yesterday, you were just a dream I hoped to meet."

Jack looked over at him, smiling. "Really? I know the feeling. That first day I looked up and saw you watching me, I thought I was gonna die. I probably looked like a dumbass, grinning all over the place like I did." He laughed. "And waving! I was so embarrassed later. I didn't believe I just did that."

"I did the same thing," Jerry protested. "Nothing to be embarrassed about."

Jack shook his head. "I'm usually more careful. I've never done that before, not with anybody."

Jerry felt a comfortable glow at that. And he understood what Jack meant, too, because he had never simply grinned like an idiot and waved at a perfect stranger before, either.

"It was a strange moment," he admitted. "But I'm so glad it happened."

Jack smiled at him, and looked pleased. "I've been thinking about you ever since. I asked a few people if they knew the three gay guys in the seventh period gym, but all I heard was that you were seniors."

Jerry stopped, and reached out a hand and stopped the other boy. "You knew right away that we were gay? Just by looking?"

Jack laughed. "Well, that black guy in pink is just screaming it out loud." His eyes touched upon Jerry's and the humor they held was plain. "You and the other guy were just guilty by association."

Jerry also laughed. "That's Doley in the pink. Dolan Conniff. The other guy is Lance Petrov.. You were right, about all three of us." He shook his head in wonder then. "And I was right about you, too. Somehow I knew, right away, that you were like me. You sure don't look it. I just don't know how I knew."

Jack bumped his shoulder against Jerry's and started walking again. Jerry immediately followed, and stepped up beside the other boy. "There's a couple of things I'd like to ask you. You don't have to answer, if you don't want to."

Jack laughed. "What are they?"

"Um..." All of a sudden, Jerry felt like he was prying. "Well, your sister said she had a boyfriend back in your other town...West Prior...but that they split up when she moved."

"Yeah. Nick Hartman. What an asshole. All he wanted was a pretty face to take around and show off. He was just using Mandy, and I told her that from day one." Jack sighed. "But Mandy liked him. It hurt her a lot when he dumped her. I would have liked to have knocked the guy's teeth out, let me tell you."

Jerry couldn't help laughing. "Ooh. You have a violent streak, huh?"

Jack tossed his head back and hooted. "Not hardly. I have trouble kicking moths out of my bedroom at night. Oh, I would have liked to knock some of Nick's teeth out, but only if it wouldn't have hurt him."

"Be hard to do," Jerry admitted.

"And so I didn't," Jack said, plainly. "There's more than enough pain out there without me adding to it." He looked over at Jerry. "You said there were two things you wanted to ask me."

"Uh...well..." Jerry licked his lips. "Did you...have a boyfriend back in West Prior?"

Jack smiled at him, and shook his head. "No. You'll be my first."

Jerry simply stared, and then had to laugh. "Are you announcing your intentions here?"

"Yes. Is that okay?"

Jerry closed his eyes, and nodded. "Yes. It makes me happy to hear."

Jack stopped again, and took Jerry gently by the wrist. "I've never felt this way about anyone before. Like I knew you, the moment I saw you. Like I knew that you would be good to me, and good for me. Don't ask me how I knew that, because I sure don't have the answer. But I did know. And I need to go with what I feel, until you tell me I was wrong."

Jerry turned to face the other boy. There were others walking along the path, in front of them, and behind them. But they didn't matter just then. "I don't think you were wrong."

They looked at each other in silence, until a group of kids caught up with them from behind. One was Josh Beery, a guy that Jerry knew from English class.

"Get a room, guys," Josh said quietly, as he passed.

There was nothing mean about the statement at all. Josh and Jerry were on good terms - friendly, even. That Josh was just reminding them that they were in a public place seemed plain.

Jerry smiled then, at the sudden look of worry that passed across Jack's face. "It's okay. I know him. He's just saying that the hills have eyes, so to speak."

Jack smiled then. "It's not like I was going to kiss you, or anything."

"You weren't?" Jerry felt a genuine regret at that, even though he certainly hadn't been expecting it.

Jack's smile went deeper into his eyes. "Not here, anyway. You wanna come by my place for a while?"

Jerry slowly shook his head. "No. We'll go by my house. No one will be home until six."

"Okay. I think I like that better."

Jack reached out, and took Jerry by the hand, and pulled him onward.

They walked home together on Wednesday, and Thursday as well, stopping each day at Jerry's house. They took Nick out for a walk, and Jerry could not believe how much more enjoyable the path through the park had become with Jack at his side. Nick seemed to understand that something good was happening here, and pranced about and barked at them, his eyes showing only approval at this change in Jerry. And after the walk was over, Nick was happy to lay down on his pad in the kitchen, before the door from the garage, there to announce with crystal clarity the fact that someone else was home, long before Jerry was aware of the fact himself.

Jerry enjoyed the walk. He had hoped to run across the two teens he'd met on the walk on Monday, sitting on the park bench and boy-watching. But they were not to be found, and when he told Jack about the encounter, the other boy laughed. "I'm sure they have better things to do together, than just watch others."

Jerry had to agree with that. He had had that first kiss from Jack, and many more since then. It was already as if they had been together for a very long time, that intimacy came so easily to them. After the walks with Nick they would go to Jerry's room and close the door, and put on some quiet music, and lay together in Jerry's bed and talk. Oh, and some other things, too. After the first kiss, others came easily, and after that came some physical exploration, until there seemed no secrets left between them. Both boys seemed delighted with what they found in the other, and were happy to feel so free to explore all their options.

"We won't have time for this tomorrow," Jack said, as they lay together, catching their breaths. This round of lovemaking had been particularly energetic, and both boys were feeling the high that came after such intimacy. "We have to go to that stupid meeting with my sister," he finished.

Jerry smiled at that, and kissed Jack firmly. "The theme is romance, isn't it? I think we'll both be up for that!"

Jack gave a little sigh, and gently nuzzled Jerry with his nose. "It's too early to say I love you."

It was a simple statement, but it took Jerry's breath away. He floundered for a moment, mentally, not sure what to say or do; and then he just knew what the answer had to be. He gave Jack a small kiss in return. "Maybe. And too early to say I love you back, too."

Jack sighed, and smiled at him. "Now that we got that out of the way, I won't worry about saying it when the time does come."

"No. Me, either."

They held each other quietly for a few minutes, just listening to the music, just enjoying the warmth and the life that each was offering the other. Jerry had fantasized about what it would be like to hold someone against him - someone as naked as he was in his dreams, with only the warmth and softness of their skins separating their beating hearts. The reality was so much better than anything he had ever imagined. The way their skins clung together, separating with little sounds of delight as they moved, was like nothing he could have dreamed. The feel of Jack under his hands as Jerry moved them slowly about was not something that had a word to go with it.

"I'm happy," Jerry breathed then, giving Jack a gentle squeeze. "You've made me so happy."

Jack lifted his head and smiled at him. "I know what you're feeling, believe me." He laid his head back against Jerry's shoulder, and kissed the side of his neck. "I could lay here forever, I think."

Jerry looked over at the clock on his nightstand, and sighed. "I wish. There's just time for me to walk you home and get back here in time for dinner."

Jack raised his head again and looked over at the clock. "Wow. That time sure went fast." He sighed. "I can see how this is gonna be now. Little bits of sunshine, with lots of clouds in between."

Jerry laughed. "It's not so bad as that. We can have time together every day. You'd get tired of me if we spent every minute together."

Jack made a soft sound of disagreement. "That's not gonna happen."

Jerry knew the truth of it, himself. They were not going to get tired of each other anytime soon.

He sighed, looking to change the subject. "Um...Amanda said she was borrowing a cousin's car tomorrow - someone named Ronnie?"

Jack sat up suddenly. "She said that?" He hooted. "I'll bet Ronnie doesn't know about it."

Jerry sat up, too. "Why do you say that?"

Jack grinned at him. "Because Ronnie's in South America somewhere, working on a dig. He's an archaeology major, and he and some others are off with their professor, looking at old bones."

"Oh. I'm sure she said 'cousin Ronnie', though."

"No doubt. Aunt Rita is a little ditzy. If Mandy asked to borrow Ronnie's car, Aunt Rita wouldn't see anything wrong with that. She'd just say yes." Jack shook his head. "Ronnie would go ballistic if he knew, though. No one is supposed to drive that car but Aunt Rita. And she won't do it, because it scares her."

"Scares her?" Jerry grinned at that. "What is it, haunted?"

"No, it's German." Jack laughed. "It's a BMW M6. It's actually an older car, like a 2006 model. And Ronnie only paid fourteen thousand for it, I think. But it's quick, and it will hit over a hundred and fifty in no time."

Jerry's jaw dropped at that. "Why on earth would Amanda want us to take that car, then?"

"Because it's impressive. A car like that never looks old. It will turn heads, and that's what she wants at this Arts League thing." He shook his head. "I wish she'd never let herself get talked into joining. It's made her as nutty as mom is getting."

Jerry was surprised at that. "You think your mom is a little nutty?"

"Since she joined that stupid Mah Jong Club, yes. She let that hoity-toity Mrs. Andrews talk her into that. Mom was reasonably well-grounded before she got the idea in her head that she was rich."

"And what about your sister?"

"All she wants to do is make mom happy. She's caught up in the same stupid things about making a good impression on these rich girls."

"That is a little weird," Jerry admitted. "You can't go through life always trying to meet the expectations of others. It's hard enough to please your own."

Jack smiled, and kissed him. "I knew I found me a smart guy."

"Well --" Jerry smiled. "Oh, shut up."

"Your face is red," Jack said, laughing. "That is so cute!"

Jerry smiled, and stuck out his tongue. "You said you were going to the meeting. I take that to mean you're riding over with us?"

"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss visiting this zoo for the world!"

Jerry knew that his boyfriend - and he knew now that Jack was indeed his boyfriend - was having some fun with the situation; but the whole thing was getting a feeling of speed about it that made Jerry nervous, like it was about to take off, and escape their grasp. If that happened, there'd be no telling where they all would land. Jerry didn't feel like anything serious could happen to him, because he was an outsider. He would just be able to walk away at the end of it.

But Amanda could be impacted, and Jerry had to admit that he liked Jack's sister, as determined to be odd as she seemed to have become. He had not met their mother yet, but she, too could be caught in the blast if this thing suddenly blew up.

What worried him most was Jack. Collateral damage was often just as harmful as that caused by the main event. And Jerry was not about to stand by and let Jack be hurt, not if it was in his power to stop it.

For now, all he could do was play things by ear, and hope that it would all work out.

For all of them.

"Here's the keys," Amanda said, placing a ring with several of them into Jerry's hand. "Just be careful getting it out of the garage. If you scratch it, I'll have to leave the country."

Jerry stared at the key ring. "You want me to drive? You never said anything about that!"

The girl just sighed. "You have to drive. When we show up at the church, people have to think that's your car."

Jerry looked at Jack for help, but the other boy just opened one of the side doors and pushed the seat forward. "I'm riding in back."

Jerry stared at the car. It was flame red-orange, with just enough metallic in the paint to made it look a foot deep. The car was almost fanatically clean, and it smelled strongly of polish of some kind. What he could see of it looked plush, and luxurious - and expensive.

He closed his eyes, trying to remember if the insurance he was on with his parents covered him when driving someone else's car. He was pretty sure his dad had said that insurance covered the driver, not the car. But he wasn't positive, and that made him doubly nervous. He could see himself forking over every penny he made between now and his twenty-first birthday to pay for some scratch to this incredible car. And this wasn't even the new model!

"Come on," Amanda said, circling around to the passenger side. "Get in, and let's go."

Jerry swallowed hard, and opened the driver's door. "I hope your Cousin Ronnie is the forgiving type."

Amanda got in her side and closed the door. "Why? You can drive, can't you?"

"Yes." Jerry got into the driver's seat and shut his own door. "A car. But this is an airplane, isn't it?"

Jack leaned forward in the back seat, reached over, and gently massaged Jerry's shoulders. "Relax. You can do this."

Jerry grimaced. "Whose side are you on?"

Jack laughed. "The side of reason. There doesn't seem to be much of that here, so I'm making do."

Amanda turned and stuck her tongue out at him. "You're the one that insisted on coming along."

"To protect my investment, Mandy. And to make sure you don't drive him nuts before I get to marry him."

Jerry laughed, and grinned at Jack in the rear view mirror. "Just what I need - yet another distraction!"

"I'm doing the best I can, love." But Jack looked pleased at Jerry's reaction to his joke. If it was a joke.

Jerry moved his foot around under the dash, and didn't find an extra pedal down low "Good. At least it's not a clutch." He looked over at Amanda. "You're damn lucky, because I've only driven a stick once, and we'd be in trouble right now if this thing had one."

The girl looked upset by that. "You can drive it, can't you? I didn't expect it to be different from my mom's car."

He sighed. "Just a little. But I can at least make it go, I think."

Amanda grimaced. "Then do that!"

Jerry sighed, inserted the key into the ignition switch and turned it. The car started right away, and he could tell by the sound of the engine that this thing was a pure hot dog. It made his mother's car sound like a cheap electric can opener. Jerry closed his eyes, placed his hands on the wheel, and nodded to himself.

"If you're done praying, please go," Amanda said, smiling tensely at him. "We don't want to be late."

"Haha. You're not far off." Jerry pulled the shifter into drive, took his right foot off the brake, and eased it onto the gas. The car moved forward sedately - hardly what he had expected. They cleared the garage, and he stopped in the driveway. "Well. That wasn't so hard."

Amanda rolled her eyes at him. "If this was as far as we were going, I'd say great."

Jerry nodded. "I know, I know." He let the car creep to the end of the driveway, looked carefully both ways, and then pulled out and turned right. The car was well-behaved, just like his Mom's little Honda. Not at all what he had expected. The engine seemed less than irritable, the transmission smooth and quiet. "I thought this thing was some kind of race car," he said then.

"Only if you drive it like one," Jack said calmly. "Just relax, Jerry. You're doing fine."

The confidence Jack felt in Jerry was there in his voice, and Jerry tried to relax. He followed Amanda's directions, got them over to the main road, and turned right towards West Prior. After ten minutes of travel he was genuinely relaxed, realizing by then that the car was not going to run away with them, leap tall buildings in a single bound, or otherwise get them into trouble at the drop of a hat.

Amanda gave a little sigh, and relaxed in her seat. "Start thinking of yourself as Tom Hardy, okay?" She turned her head slightly. "Jack, don't screw up and call him Jerry."

"Hell of a choice. Tom and Jerry!"

Jerry grinned at him in the mirror. "Don't play cat and mouse with me, boy!"

Amanda groaned. "Oh, man. I feel like I'm in fifth grade again!"

Jerry laughed. "You're just mad you didn't think of it first."

Amanda looked at him. "Please do this right."

Jerry could see how worried she was that things might no go well, and nodded. "I'll do my best. I promise."

Jack sighed, and patted Jerry's shoulders again, before sitting back in the back seat. The trip went on more quietly after that, with all of them just sort of enjoying the scenery, and not saying a whole lot. This part of the state was beautiful, and it was a perfect spring day. After about thirty minutes they neared West Prior, and the countryside began to give way to quiet residential neighborhoods with large houses on large wooded lots.

They slowed at a yellow light ahead, and stopped as it turned red. A car came up next to them then, and also stopped at the light. The driver gave his horn a brief toot-toot, and Jerry looked over. The driver was a guy, and he was leaned forward past a pretty blonde girl, who was frowning and trying to push him back into his seat. The driver pointed ahead, and grinned at him.

The car was black, and looked sleek and a little deadly.

"Woo woo," Jack said, leaning forward. "That's a Mercedes SLS AMG. I think he wants to race you."

"Don't you dare!" Amanda said, leaning forward to look at the other car then. She gasped, and sat back quickly. "That's Michelle Evanston in the passenger seat! She's going to the same place we are!"

The other driver looked up at the light, and then back at Jerry. He pointed ahead of them again, and grinned a predatory grin. Jerry simply shook his head. The other driver looked annoyed, curled his lip at him, and then sat back in his seat. Nevertheless, when the light changed, the other car surged ahead with a sharp squeal from its tires, and quickly disappeared up the road. Jerry drove off like a little old lady, and was happy for the fact. This was not his car, and he was not going to act like it was.

"Good move," Jack said, smiling at him in the mirror. "He had about a hundred horsepower on you, and would have won."

Jerry gaped at him. "I thought you said this was a race car!"

"It is. Ronnie said it has a V-10 making over 500 horsepower. But that AMG had six-hundred."

"How do you know?"

"I like cool Euro cars. That AMG cost about a quarter-million dollars new."

Jerry just shook his head, and then went back to watching the road ahead. "I think I'm out of my league here. What kind of nut needs six hundred horsepower just to drive to work? And a quarter-million dollars will buy a house in most parts of the state!"

"It's a different world for these people," Jack said, quietly. "You'll see."

Jerry turned to Amanda. "And you want me to try to impress people like this?"

She nodded. "You can do it. Just be yourself. You come across as impressive just being you."

Jerry laughed in disbelief, and shook his head. "If you say so. Don't get mad at me if I mess it up, though."

They continued onward. They were now driving through a section of West Prior that was home to large houses set well back from the road, and circled by tall fences of wrought iron or steel. Jerry examined the houses as they passed them, not a one of which was less than four times the size of his dad's house. It was almost too much, like they were driving through some kind of movie set, instead of a real neighborhood.

They found Broadmoor Street, and turned into it. The houses here were smaller, much closer together, and much more like what Jerry was used to. He relaxed, took a deep breath, and decided he could do this, after all. Just a matter of maintaining his perspective, right?

The church, when they finally reached it, proved to be a stately old building in the Spanish Mission style, very comfortable-looking, with plenty of green lawns about it, and a cluster of tall old trees to the rear. The parking lot, when they entered it, looked like the lot at a pricey car dealer, however, and suddenly Jerry was happy to be driving the BMW. His mom's Honda would have looked like an old mule stood next to thoroughbreds, and it made him cringe a little just to consider what the contents of the lot alone might be worth.

Jerry had never worried about money. He was happy with his life, felt very comfortable in his parent's house, and had never really paid attention to how some people lived. It was eye-opening to consider that here was a whole different world than the one he was familiar with, one with different rules, no doubt, and different standards for interpreting them.

They saw the Mercedes that had wanted to race them, and the blonde girl and the boy driver were standing near it, talking to another couple. Jerry found an open slot, pulled the BMW into it, and turned off the engine.

"Well, we're here."

"You're Tom Hardy, remember," Amanda said again.

Jerry nodded, and the three of them got out. The key fob locked the doors, and some sort of light winked inside on the dash, a security system of some sort.

Jerry sighed, and waited for Amanda to come around to his side of the car. He smiled, offered her his arm, and they turned towards the church.

They had to go past the four young people standing by the Mercedes, and as they got near, the blonde girl smiled when she saw Amanda. "Oh, Mandy, dear! It was you I saw back there on the road!"

The blonde's boyfriend was dressed casually, dark haired, and might have been cute if his disposition seemed better. But he looked like he'd obviously rather be anywhere else but where he was, and that he was just one more disappointment away from a temper tantrum of some sort.

Michelle, the blonde, clutched at his arm, and pulled him towards Amanda. "This is my beau, Eric Thornton. Eric, this is Amanda Burke, and --" She raised her eyebrows at Amanda, who smiled in return.

She clutched Jerry's arm just a little bit more tightly. "This is my boyfriend, Tom Hardy. And this other fellow is my brother, Jack."

Michelle bobbed her head politely. "So nice to meet you both."

Eric laughed. "Tom Hardy, huh? You don't drive like Tom Hardy."

Jerry got the Mad Max analogy immediately. He cocked his head to one side, and smiled at the 'joke'. "Amanda doesn't like to street race. I am always respectful of that when she's in the car."

Michelle looked briefly annoyed, and dug her fingernails into Eric's forearm - enough to make him flinch. "Oh, Eric is respectful of my wishes, too. I don't mind going a little fast, now and then, though." But it seemed clear from her tone of voice that she did not like the way her boyfriend drove, not at all.

It was all Jerry could do not to laugh. He turned and looked at the Mercedes, and shook his head. "I couldn't have taken you, anyway. You have an easy hundred horses over my Bimmer."

Eric glowed at that. "Yeah. Your M6 is nice - for an old car."

"It's a classic," Jerry said, calmly. "I like it."

The girl member of the second couple cleared her throat then, and Michelle turned with a start to look at her. "Oh, I'm so sorry. This is my cousin, Angela Mycroft, and her boyfriend, Luke McCain. They're here for the appreciation."

Angela smiled a more genuine smile, and nodded at them. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."

Luke also seemed to have manners. "Same here. We drove down from Tibbetsburg for this."

"We're from the Crownville area," Amanda returned, smiling. "Beautiful day for the drive up here."

Michelle turned and frowned at the church. "A bit warm, though. I'll be so glad when the Art Center is completed. This is a quaint little church, but its lack of air conditioning is telling." Her eyes briefly examined the clothing that Amanda and the boys wore, and she nodded. "It's shameful to have to wear these old clothes just to be comfortable, isn't it?"

Amanda nodded smoothly. "Oh, yes."

Jerry simply nodded. He was wearing his best white short-sleeved shirt, and his best pair of slacks. They weren't exactly cheap, but they apparently didn't pass muster with these people.

"I'm so glad you reminded me to dress down," he told Amanda.

His eyes flicked to Jack, who was smiling, but at what, it was hard to tell.

Eric looked at his watch, something that probably cost more than Jerry could imagine. "We should get inside so we have time to socialize a little. The appreciation starts at six."

Jerry was relieved to get a move on, and Amanda hung on his arm as they followed the other two couples to the doors. There were two white trucks parked near them, each with the words, 'Armand's Catering Service' printed on the large rear boxes. Jerry came close to blurting out his amazement that such an affair as this might be catered, but as the two couples ahead passed the trucks without comment, he clenched his jaw, and sighed.

Inside, they met more young couples, some older people that were obviously parents, and a variety of elderly people and kids that were just parts of families. Michelle and Eric dragged them around, meeting people, and Jerry was amazed at how easily he seemed able to separate those he was introduced to into wolves and sheep. Some of the people simply smiled, and seemed polite, and exuded a faint sense that they'd rather be at home in front of the television; while others seemed in their element, ready to take on the world. There didn't seem to be much middle ground, and Jerry thought it was really eerie to find so many people in one room that seemed on the surface to be polar opposites in personality.

Jerry was beginning to see the problem that Amanda faced with some of the girls in the Art League. Many of them openly appraised him on introduction, and Jerry was surprised at how easy it was to read what was going on in some of their minds. He knew he was nice looking, but certainly not anything amazing. Perhaps it was simply that there was no menace in his eyes, as he saw with some of the guys here, and that he kept his arm around Amanda almost protectively; but he saw in some of these girl's eyes a kind of resentment directed at Amanda, as if they had not expected her boyfriend to anywhere as nice as she had told them he'd be.

This was kind of funny, as Jerry and Jack kept meeting each other's gaze and trading mental hugs and kisses the whole time, right under the eyes of the Art League, who only saw Jerry's arm around Amanda, and not his eyes on her brother. That there was a world of difference between appearances and reality, he was now coming to understand quite well. This was definitely a night he would not forget quickly.

The building was crowded, and there was much more going on than Jerry had expected. There was a group of musicians setting up at the head of the wing, and Jerry let his eyes rove among them as they busied themselves getting ready for the performance. It occurred to him at that point that he had not even asked Amanda what sort of music was going to be played here tonight, and that all he knew was that the theme was supposed to be romance.

Several more girls materialized to greet the newcomers, and Amanda pulled one closer and planted her in front of Jerry. "Jackie, this is my boyfriend, Tom Hardy. Tom, this is Jackie." There was a humorous light in Amanda's eyes. "Jackie seemed to think you didn't exist."

Jerry smiled at the new girl, who was pretty, in a cold and distant sort of way. "Hi, Jackie. I assure you, I am real."

The girl narrowed her eyes at him, and gave a grudging nod of her head. "You look real enough." She turned back to Amanda and forced a smile. "Okay, I'm sorry. I'll let you get on with what you were doing." She patted Amanda's arm, and moved off.

"What was that about?" Jerry asked, after the girl had vanished into the crowd.

"Oh, she didn't believe any of my stories about you. She said you sounded too good to be true."

"I'll say," Jack said, smiling. Jerry grinned at him, but Amanda gave him a quick and precise glare. "Knock it off."

Jack held up a defensive hand, but turned his eyes elsewhere.

"He means well," Jerry said, putting his arm around Amanda's shoulders again and giving her a squeeze.

She smiled at that, and nodded. "You play your part well, at least," she whispered.

"Who's playing?" Jerry whispered back. "You may be my sister-in-law someday. I'd better treat you right!"

Jack briefly covered his mouth with his hand, and pretended to look off at the musicians.

"That reminds me," Jerry said, following his boyfriend's gaze. He looked back at Amanda. "You never said what kind of music they were playing tonight."

"I said it was romantic, didn't I?"

"That covers a lot of territory. I mean, is it rock, or country, or pop, or what?"

Amanda shrugged. "It's supposed to be a mix of everything that has a romantic theme."

Jerry had noticed that some of the musicians setting up were using instruments he would not expect to see in a standard rock or country band. In addition to the guitars, bass, keyboard, and the drums he considered basic, there were two violinists, a sax, a clarinet, two trumpets, a baby grand piano, a larger horn of some type, and a couple of woodwinds that he couldn't readily identify. And was that a harp over there? He counted sixteen members of the orchestra, far too many for just average rock or country music.

He smiled. "This might be interesting."

Amanda gave him a duh expression. "These people don't do anything cheap," she whispered. "Whatever show they put on, it will be good."

Another girl appeared by their sides as if by magic, with an older woman in tow who was carrying a martini. And delicately, too.

"Amanda! I want you to meet my mother."

"Jane!" Amanda was all smiles. Her eyes moved immediately to the older woman, and she nodded. "I've heard so much about you, Mrs. Porter. It's very nice to finally meet you."

The older woman gave an exaggerated nod of her head, and immediately let her eyes wander to Jerry and Jack. She took a sip of her drink, and smiled. "So pleased to meet you, Amanda. And who do we have here?"

Amanda stepped back against Jerry, and he immediately circled his arm around her shoulders again. "This is my boyfriend, Tom Hardy. And that one with the big smile is my brother, Jack."

A trace of disappointment marched through Mrs. Porter's eyes as she appraised Jerry, and he was startled to feel like she was checking him out, but marking him 'taken'. Her eyes moved to Jack, and her smile deepened. "I can see the family resemblance. You're a cute one, Jack."

Jane looked embarrassed then, and her eyes jumped off into the crowd. "Oh, there's Lisa Paulin and her father. Let's go and meet them, mother! See you soon, Mandy!"

The pull that Jane gave to her mother's arm nearly spilled the martini; but Mrs. Porter was evidently an old hand at this sort of balance, and recovered without losing a drop. The two moved off, Lisa intent on the next couple, and her mother tossing a bit of a leer back over her shoulder at Jack.

"God," Amanda said softly. "It's true."

"She was eyeballing my junk," Jack said, a trace of wonder in his smile.

Amanda nodded. "I heard she's a cougar. Her husband is never home, and she chases around after the guys that Jane knows." She sighed. "Jane looked halfway frantic about it. Poor thing. That must really suck."

"I'll say," Jerry said, suddenly realizing how normal and safe his own parents really were. "That could really cause some problems."

Jack wrinkled his nose. "She's not ugly or anything, but she's too old. I would always know I was boning somebody's mom."

Jerry struggled not to laugh at the look of horror that appeared on Amanda's face. "Will you shut up! Someone might hear you!"

Jack rolled his eyes. "If they can hear me whispering with all this noise going on, they deserve to get an earful."

Jerry stuck an arm between them. "Do I have to put you two into separate corners?"

Jack just smiled, but Amanda squeezed her eyes shut. "I can't wait for this night to be over."

They circulated around some more, meeting people, and Jerry began to tire of meeting the girls of the Friday Afternoon Fine Arts League. There were a few that seemed very pleasant, even cordial; but more of them had a sort of vulturish presence about them that was calculating in the extreme. They watched everything and everyone, taking mental notes, and, Jerry was certain, weighing everything on a scale of some kind.

He'd always thought it was a stereotype that the wealthy were jaded and insincere...and it probably was. He supposed that this sort of behavior could strike anyone; but an awful lot of these girls - and their boyfriends - seemed to have agendas that were not of the type that kids at his own high school seemed to have. Or...could it just be a matter of scale?

Everyone had some ego, some desire to excel and stand a bit above the norm. For most people it was good-natured, a sort of laughing insistence on making their way in the world as best they could, apologizing when they stepped on a foot, and sharing the wealth when good fortune happened. But maybe there was a tip-over point, where the simple elation at success turned into an expectation, even a need. Could someone reaching that point start to weigh the world around them in a more selfish manner, looking for every loophole with which to raise their own standard, while at the same time examining the armor of friends and neighbors alike, looking for chinks with which to downgrade theirs?

That was scary. But the priorities of these girls was plainly different, as well as were their means. Having a ton of money must greatly change the way you saw the world, he supposed, not to mention greatly increasing the situations you were exposed to daily. A lifestyle like this could be fact, it must be, because Amanda's mother had been infected, and he didn't even need to mention the low-grade fever that Amanda herself had been displaying.

In the end, he decided that this was not the life he would like to live. Some of these people might be wonderful human beings; but the way they all seemed constantly to be jockeying for position was tiring. One-upmanship was going on everywhere, and Jerry was starting to feel less guilty about lying to these snobs than he had been feeling earlier.

At one point, they were sucked into a small group of kids talking about money, led by none other than Mr. Mercedes himself, Eric Thornton.

"Tom Hardy!" he exclaimed, as they were walking by. "Just the man I need to see!" He waved a bottle of something called TutanKhamun Ale, and grinned. "Have one with us, while I pick your brain?"

Jerry tried not to cringe at that, and fastened a smile on his face. "Hi, Eric. Uh...sorry. I don't drink when I drive."

The other boy let out a laugh that was as much disbelief as anything. "Really? Uh..okay. Can I still pick your brain?"

"What there is of it. What can I do for you?"

The other boy smiled, a little wickedly, Jerry thought. "Michelle says you're a banker." His eyes plainly said he thought the idea ridiculous.

"No." Jerry shook his head. "My dad is a financial adviser to the banking system, but I'm just his son."

Eric swung around and pinned his gaze on Michelle. "That's what you said, wasn't it? He was a banker?"

Michelle tossed her blonde head. "I said his father was a banker. I just said Tom had made some money following his advice."

"Ah." Eric returned the wicked smile to Jerry. "Sorry. But you've made your mark, have you?"

Back in the real world, Jerry might have simply laughed and walked away. Eric's entire focus seemed to be to pin Jerry in some sort of lie, and embarrass him. Not that that would be that hard, because everything about Jerry's presence here was a lie. But he had made up his mind to have a little fun with this, and he had done some research into being a rich guy...and he didn't like Eric. The boy reminded him of some of the jocks at school, who said with their eyes what they were not saying with their mouths. But the message was just as clear.

He let this gaze briefly wander to touch Amanda's; she was focused on him, waiting to see what he would say.

Jerry smiled and nodded at Eric. "I've done okay. I just dabble in stocks a little, following some advice my dad offered."

Eric nodded. "So you could recommend something good for me to put my money in, right?"

Jerry considered that, and shook his head. "Not right at this instant."

Eric looked satisfied with that answer, and turned his smile back towards Michelle, as if to say, see!

"Too bad you didn't ask me last year," Jerry went on. "I could have put you onto something good."

Eric swung back, his eyes widening just a little. "Really? And what was that?"

Jerry smiled. "Pricetime dot com. Late last year their stock was going for about eleven dollars a share. I bought a thousand shares based on an analysis of their performance to that date."

The other boy looked interested now. "I don't believe I know them."

Jerry nodded. "American company. They provide online services that assist travelers in finding the best deals on airline tickets and accommodations, world-wide. Quite an up and coming industry, it seems."

Eric's lip turned up at one corner. "We don't travel in economy class."

"Oh, neither do we. But the company is doing extremely well, despite neither of us using their services. The stock hit twelve dollars a share last December, and split. I wound up with two thousand shares, going for a revised price of six dollars per share."

Eric shrugged. "That's not much profit."

"No," Jerry agreed. "The profit has come in the months after. The stock became a pet of the travel brokers, and the price rose dramatically." Jerry smiled. "I sold my two thousand shares the other day at the going rate, which had climbed all the way up to eleven-hundred and thirty-seven dollars per share."

For a moment no one said anything.

Michelle gave a little gasp then, and stared at Eric. "That's over two million dollars!"

"I can count," Eric said, patting his pockets. He pulled out his cell phone and began prodding the screen with a fingertip. In a few moments, his eyes widened, and then came back to settle on Jerry. "Not bad. I just looked at the trading history of that stock, and it was six dollars and a few pennies back in December. Right now it's going for eleven-hundred and forty-one dollars per share."

Jerry nodded. "I could have held on a little longer and made a little more profit, but I wanted to invest in something else I discovered, and needed the capital."

Eric leaned forward, his expression now hungry. "And what is that?"

Jerry gave a little sigh, reached out and pulled Amanda closer, and put an arm around her. "Unfortunately, it's my policy never to recommend something until I see for myself that a stock is performing as I expected it to. Just common sense, you understand. I certainly don't want to be responsible for any friend of Mandy's losing a single dime."

Eric's face briefly scrunched up into a disappointed frown; but then he was smiling again. "Very decent of you, Tom. But if this stock of yours looks like it will perform, I'd appreciate a nod my way, if you'd be so kind."

"Sure." Jerry looked at Amanda, who was doing her best to smile and not look amazed at the conversation. "Do remind me, sweetheart, if it looks like another moneymaker."

"Um...I will." She smiled at Michelle. "You remind me, and I'll remind Tom."

Eric closed one eye and put on a grim smile. "They must have killed you on capital gains."

Jerry smiled. "Stock splits are not subject to taxation. The split halves the value of your original investment, actually creating a loss on that lot per share. I did pay on the overall gains, but it was a manageable amount. The net profit was still a fair sum."

Eric looked annoyed. "I can imagine."

Jerry was aware then of Jack, standing on the other side of Amanda. He had clamped his face into as neutral an expression as he could manage, but his eyes simply glowed with humor, and as their gazes touched, Jerry picked up their message, loud and clear: you devil!

Jerry felt no guilt about what he was doing. Eric had clearly been out to belittle him in some way, just as he had tried to belittle their borrowed BMW by saying it was old. Eric didn't know Jerry at all. What was with people that pounced on newcomers, looking for ways to ensure that they remained at a lower station in life than themselves?

Behind them, the musicians began to make noises, testing the sounds of their instruments, and people that had been standing around began moving towards the seating.

"We'll see you later," Eric said, hastily. He grabbed Michelle's hand and pulled her into an aisle, and then forward towards the front row. Apparently, Eric didn't sit in the back, either. The others in the group nodded and smiled, and started off to find their own seats, leaving Jerry and Amanda and Jack by themselves.

"You...are...nuts," Amanda whispered, pulling Jerry closer.

Jerry laughed. "This is your big lie, girl. I'm just trying to make it look good for you."

Jack put a hand on Jerry's shoulder and squeezed it affectionately. "Man, did you ever put Rockefeller there in his place."

Amanda laughed then, and rolled her eyes. "Yes, you sure did." She turned and looked after Eric and Michelle, spotting them now, front row center. "Poor Michelle. I'll bet her arm is two inches longer at the end of the day, from that guy yanking her around like he does."

Jerry smiled at her. "Am I doing okay?"

She sighed. "Yes. You're just crazy enough to be good at this. But be careful, will you? Not all of these people are nasty. Some are actually pretty nice."

"Really? Point them out, will you?"

Amanda swatted his arm, and pointed towards the rows of seats. "I do not mind sitting in the back row. It will be cooler there, I'm sure."

They made their way to the seats, and easily found three in a back row, where the air from an overhead fan made things more bearable. A pleasant-looking young man came by then with a tray holding tall, frosted glasses, and they claimed three ice teas from him. Amanda took a place in the middle of the two guys, and gave a soft sigh. "Well, we've made it this far. The music will take up most of the rest of the evening. We can think of an excuse not to hang around afterwards, and then get out of here."

Jerry smiled at her. "That doesn't sound like the Amanda I've come to know and love."

For a moment their gazes simply remained fixed; and then Amanda blinked and looked away.

"I'm sorry," Jerry said immediately, feeling like he had somehow offended her.

She looked at him again, and smiled. "No. Don't be. I was just're a really sweet guy."

"I think so," Jack whispered.

Amanda laughed, and rolled her eyes. "I never thought I'd envy my little brother."

Jerry was surprised at that, and Jack also appeared startled. He put a hand on his sister's arm and squeezed it. "You'll find a good one, just like I did."

"I hope so."

Jerry cleared his throat, and leaned closer to the girl. "'s not my business, but may I point out that you are not likely to find the right guy here?"

Amanda looked around, and slowly nodded. "There are probably some very nice guys here. But sorting them out from the terrors wouldn't be easy."

Jerry also looked around. "Oh, I don't know. There did seem to be a few less, um, aggressive types here."

"They're spoken for, or too old, or too young." She grunted. "This crowd doesn't attract the kind of guy I'm looking for."

"Then why are you here?"

The girl looked at him, her eyes searching his. The moment stretched out, and then she shrugged. "I'm beginning to wonder, myself."

Jack leaned closer to her. "This is not you, Mand. This won't make you happy. You know it, right?"

Amanda sighed. "Mom expects it of me. I told you that."

Jack shook his head. "No. She tried to get me to do that riding club thing with the rich boys, remember? I went once, and came home and told her no."

"She was upset, too," Amanda reminded.

"But she got over it. She'll get over you, too, if you dump this stuff." Jack shook his head. "Tell her it makes you unhappy, Mand. Tell her you don't want to do it anymore. She's mom. She'll wake up and see what's right for you. Listen to me." He sighed. "You aren't helping her by doing this. You're empowering her to keep doing it herself."

Amanda looked like she considered that, and nodded. "I have to think about it some more, okay?"

Jack seemed pleased by that answer. He nodded, and sat back in his seat. Jerry leaned forward and smiled at him, and was happy at the smile he received in turn.

An older woman got up in front of the seated crowd, introduced herself as Natalie Morton-Stern, and launched into an introduction of the musicians. Jerry relaxed and listened, sipping at his tea, and was amazed to find that the little orchestra before them had toured some of the largest cities in the world, and that they were famous. He had never heard of them, so their fame must have been confined to certain circles. But it did hold some promise that the coming show might actually be something worth the time they'd spent here thus far.

The first piece had no vocals, and was a serene and peaceful piece that definitely evoked romantic feelings. It turned out to be from an old movie called Dr. Zhivago, which Jerry had never heard of any more than the people that played it. But it was good, and Amanda leaned up against him and sighed.

Next came a vocal piece. One of the violinists set her instrument down and picked up a microphone, and Jerry was surprised to find he recognized the song when the group started playing. It was Rihanna's We Found Love, also an older piece, but at least one that had been around in his lifetime. The violinist was also a good singer, and the song turned out very well.

"This isn't bad," Jack whispered, across his sister. "Who knew?"

Amanda shook her head at him, but just smiled. "I told you it wouldn't be some second-rate act."

The 'appreciation' progressed, a mix of instrumental and vocal tunes, all of which had the desired effect. One of the male guitarists also had a pretty decent voice, and he took the vocals that seemed more suited to a male voice. Jerry let his eyes look about at the seated listeners, and saw most of the couples at least with their arms around each other, but some with their faces together, smiling, even kissing. He put his arm around Amanda and pulled her closer, and she smiled and laid her head on his shoulder. Jerry gave a little sigh, wishing it could be Jack he was holding now, but not terribly unhappy that it was not. He had come to like Amanda, and while he felt nothing romantic towards her at all, he did feel slightly protective, especially seeing what sort of mess she had gotten herself into with some of these people.

There was nobody behind them, so Jerry was surprised when he felt a touch on his arm. He looked over, saw Jack smiling at him, and knew what it was. He let his hand slip off Amanda's shoulder, and another hand gripped his and squeezed it affectionately. Jerry sighed, smiling. This was more like it!

They managed to hold onto each other for a few minutes before Amanda turned her head and looked up at him, her eyes looking a little sleepy, but her expression cheerful. "You better not be doing what I think you're doing, behind my back. Someone might see, and I'd have to let you explain why you're holding my brother's hand."

Jerry laughed, and leaned forward to look past her at Jack. "We're caught!" he whispered.

Jack gave a dramatic sigh, his fingers let loose of Jerry's, patted them once more, and then were gone.

"Sorry," Jerry said, returning his gaze to Amanda. "It is romantic here, you know."

"Yeah, I know." She smiled at him. "You make a good boyfriend, even if just rented for the night."

"Ooh. That sounds a little, um, nasty."

"You know what I mean."

He nodded, and they went back to listening to the music. Jerry didn't know any of the instrumentals, but enjoyed them all. He did recognize a lot of the songs, many of which seemed to be from the last ten years. Some were older, and he smiled when he realized a few of them were songs his parents played now and then. All were enjoyable.

He felt the brush of Jack's hand more than once, and they kept trading smiles across Amanda, who simply sighed and put up with it. It was a wonderful hour, really, and Jerry knew he would remember it for a long time to come. It would have been nice to have been holding Jack as the music played, but somehow they managed to share the romance, anyway.

About fifteen minutes after seven, the last song ended, and Natalie Morton-Stern rose again and thanked the musicians. The audience clapped enthusiastically, and at that moment everyone just seemed happy and relaxed. It was pointed out that snacks were available at the caterer's tables, and people got up and started moving that way, laughing and talking and looking quite cheerful.

"Amazing, the effect music has on people," Amanda noted, watching those around them. "I don't think I've seen this many of these people smile at one time, ever."

"Soothes the savage beast," Jack said, playfully. "And even makes snobs seem like people."

Amanda gently slapped his hand. "Shh! The snobs will hear you!"

They laughed at that. Amanda smiled at Jerry, and put her arm up around his shoulder. "Thanks. I'll remember this night forever."

"That's my line," Jack whispered.

Most of the people in front of them had moved to the side room where the caterers had set up, and so when Jerry felt Jack touch his arm again, he spread his fingers and allowed his boyfriend to interlace their fingers again. He smiled, and Amanda sighed. "You're doing it again, aren't you?"

"Yes, we are." Jerry smiled at her. "It's the romance in the air!"

She took her hand and gently smacked the back of his head, and then turned to look around them, just to make certain they were unobserved. "You like to live dangerously, don't you?"

Jerry laughed at that. "Like I said before, this is all your big lie. I'm just a character in the play."

Amanda pouted a moment, but then nodded. "Somehow, all of this doesn't seem as important anymore. I went to great lengths to show these girls that I was just as good as they are, and scarcely anyone has noticed at all."

Jack patted her other hand. "That's because they really don't care as much as you thought, Mand. They're too focused on what they're doing to worry about us."

"And you are just as good as they are," Jerry said, quietly. "You don't need to do all this...this acting." He shook his head. "You'll never impress these people. Why try?"

"Yeah." The girl looked around the room again, and nodded. "I need to think about all this."

"Well, can you think about it while we're eating something?" Jack asked, pointing to the side room, where people were walking around with plates full of food. "We should get in there, before it's all gone."

"You guys drop hands, and we can stand up," his sister replied.

Jerry squeezed Jack's hand a final time, and let it go. "There's always tomorrow."

Jack laughed. "I've heard that line, somewhere."

They stood, stretched briefly, and made their way to the other room. There were lines of chairs along all the walls, and most people had claimed a plate and were now sitting. They found plenty of food still available, and they each fixed a plate and then found three unoccupied chairs to sit in.

"Food's good," Jack said, around a forkful. "I love shrimp."

Jerry smiled, filing away another tidbit about Jack. He'd never been big on seafood, but he had a feeling he would learn to love it.

They talked to more people, some of whom seemed very relaxed, smiled, and seemed not out to judge them. It began to seem that there was just a small core of girls in the League, that ran most things, that were the ones to watch out for. Others were like Amanda, just trying to make do with what they had.

"I knew everyone here couldn't be a bitch," Jack said a little later, in a moment when the three of them were alone. "Some of these people are nice."

"That's everywhere," Jerry agreed. "Most people are nice, if you let them be." He laughed. "I guess we don't seem threatening, and they let their guards down a little."

"I'm sure not threatening," Amanda kidded. "Not when I'm in a good mood, anyway."

Jerry smiled at her, and gave a little sigh. "You're going to make some very lucky guy happy, you know."

Amanda looked astonished, and Jack shook his head. "Uh oh. I read a story once where a gay guy fell in love with his boyfriend's sister. It didn't end well."

Jerry laughed, and rolled his eyes. "You two are something."

Amanda and Jack grinned at each other, and Amanda gave a big sigh and patted Jerry's hand. "You did really well here tonight."

"I'm glad you think so. I always like to do well by my side of any contract."


Jerry smiled at her. "Our agreement. You're the party of the first part, who stated what the conditions of the agreement would be. I'm the party of the second part, who agreed to honor and perform to those conditions for a specified remuneration. We made a deal, right?"

Amanda laughed. "You really did read a lot of junk online about business, didn't you?"

Jack leaned forward and smiled at Jerry. "Where do I fit into this business arrangement?"

Jerry sighed. "You're the party of the third part. The beneficiary."

Jack's jaw dropped, and he laughed. "Ooh. That sounds fun. What am I getting?"

Jerry lowered his voice. "What do you want?"

They smiled at each other for a long moment, before Amanda leaned forward between them. "Stop that!" she whispered. "You're making me horny just watching you!"

The boys laughed, and sat back in their chairs. Amanda smiled, and shook her head, and looked around to make sure no one was watching them.

They finished their plates and noticed then that some people were definitely going outside.

"I think people are leaving," Amanda said. "I think we can get away now."

"Are you sure?" Jerry asked. "We haven't impressed everyone yet."

She smacked his arm, but her eyes twinkled at him. "Shut up, and let's go."

They headed for the door. Outside, people were still standing about near the cars, talking; but it was clear that people were heading out. They had to pass by Eric Thornton's Mercedes again to get to the BMW, and there was a small crowd there, all talking at once.

"Mandy!" Michelle reached out and grabbed Amanda's arm as they went by, and all three of them stopped.

Michelle smiled. "We were thinking we'd all go by that little club downtown, El Paraíso. You're coming along, right?"

Amanda couldn't help it: she gaped at the other girl. "We're not old enough to get into a club."

Eric heard that, and laughed. "It just takes the right key, Mandy." He patted the pocket holding his wallet. "We've been there before."

Amanda turned to Jerry, and he smiled at her. "What do you think?"

She looked at Michelle, and Eric, and some of the others, and slowly shook her head. "I don't think so, Michelle. We enjoyed the appreciation, but now we have to be getting back home."

The other girl looked surprised. "Oh, come on.You can't possibly want to go home this early!"

Jerry looked around at the other couples. Angela and Luke, who they had met earlier, were whispering together, and Angela suddenly cleared her throat. "You know, Michelle, Luke and I think we'll head on home, too. We're tired, and we have plans for tomorrow."

Luke nodded. "That's right. We have to be up early. So we'll take a rain check on the club."

They smiled around at people, and then turned and headed for their car.

"I guess we'll get going," Jerry said then. "A pleasure to meet all of you." He put his arm around Amanda again and pulled her away, and the three of them headed across the lot to the car. Jerry was aware of the others staring after them for a moment after they left, but just ignored them as he unlocked the BMW and let them inside.

Jerry started the car, and headed it back to the street. Only when they had left the church behind did he grin. "I would have thought you would have liked going to a fancy club with these people."

Amanda turned to look at him, and smiled. "Oh, yes. But then I remembered I had to wash my pajamas before bed tonight, and, well, it was a matter of priorities."

The three of them laughed.

They went out of town past the huge houses again, but this time they seemed less imposing. This time Jerry noticed the lawn furniture, the bicycles and the toys, and all the other accessories of living in a home with a family. The houses were bigger, yes, but what they were being used for was the same as houses were used for everywhere: life.

They stopped at a light, and the road was clear in both directions. They were getting out into the country between towns again, but even so it seemed that traffic was light for a Friday evening. Amanda looked around, and then leaned closer to Jerry.

"Be kind of a shame to drive this great car, and never once go a little fast in it."

Jerry looked at her, surprised. "Are you kidding? Anything could happen. I can't afford to buy this thing, let me tell you."

She nodded. "You've never gone a little fast in your mom's car? Never been a little daring?"

She had him there. "Well...once or twice."

Amanda grinned, and just pointed at the road ahead.

Jerry looked that way, and had to laugh. "You are nuts, girl."

Nevertheless, when the light turned green, Jerry stepped down harder on the accelerator than he meant to, and the tires chirped against the pavement and the car leaped ahead. They were quickly doing eighty miles per hour, and at that point sanity came back, and Jerry eased off the pedal and let the car fall back to the posted limit of fifty-five.

"Shee-it.. I couldn't drive something like this every day. I'd kill myself."

In the back seat, Jack laughed. "Has a real sense of power, doesn't it? Now I can see why a guy like Eric Thornton wants a fast car."

Jerry grinned. "I hope you're not going to make a penis analogy here."

"I wasn't. But I can, if you want."

"Let's not, and say we did." Amanda sighed. "You guys obviously need some time alone. Let's just get home, okay?"

The boys laughed, and Jerry smiled at Jack in the rear view mirror. "Once again, the girl is right on the mark."

The rest of the trip home was sedate and pleasurable, with the three of them just talking and laughing about what they had done that evening. Jerry was glad the whole thing was over, and couldn't wait to get the BMW back into its spot inside Aunt Rita's garage. It had been a fun night, all things considered, but now he wanted to be done with it.

The sun had dropped into the trees and the sky was beginning to darken by the time that Jerry gently backed the M6 carefully into its garage, with Amanda on one side to guide him, and Jack on the other, just to make sure there were no last minute accidents. But everything went off fine, and Jerry breathed a huge sigh of relief as he locked the car and handed the keys to Amanda.

She ran them in to Aunt Rita, thanked her, and then the three of them started back to the Burke house.

It was pleasant out, the unusual warmth of the spring day dissipating rapidly as the sun fell. The houses along the road were lit up, some with outdoor lights out back sending a glow over the roof and around the sides, while the voices and laughter of adults and kids drifted over with the coming night. It was pleasant out now, the sky still lit with a hint of rose and gold where the sun had disappeared, and the stars overhead coming out in full force. This was what really mattered, Jerry decided. He imagined Eric and Michelle and that small crowd of doers down at some club now, probably drinking and carrying on and having themselves a good time.

He envied none of it. He already had what he wanted.

Jerry took a deep breath of the cooler air, and reached out a hand and found Jack's. "Do you mind?"

"No. I'm not shy." Jack came closer, and Jerry released the other boy's hand, put his arm inside Jack's, and laced their fingers together again. "That's more like it."

Jack sighed, and their shoulders bumped together lightly as they walked along.

They turned a corner and started down the next block. Lance Petrov lived on this street, and as they neared his house they could see a couple of guys in the lit up driveway, playing basketball one-on-one. Jerry slowed as they came near, staring. One of the guys was obviously Lance. And the other looked like...Chuck Henry! They were playing vigorously, calling insults at each other and laughing, and in the dusk didn't notice the three strollers across the street, beyond the circle of light.

"What's the matter?" Jack asked, wondering at Jerry's sudden pause.

Jerry smiled. "Nothing. Nothing at all."

They resumed walking, and Jerry felt a sense of satisfaction come over him. Lance would have some stories of his own to tell, perhaps, come gym class on Monday. They reached the next corner and turned, and Jerry cast one more look back at the distant circle of light, hoping things were finally coming together for his friend.

Finally, they reached the Burke house. It looked cheerful there, among the trees. The porch light was on, and Jerry again noted that there was a comfortable familiarity about the house that reminded him of his own.

The three of them ascended the front steps, and stopped before the door.

Amanda turned to Jerry then, and smiled. "I had a good time."

"So did I. Much better than I thought I would."

"Maybe it was the company," Jack said, smiling sweetly. "You, and both of us?"

"Maybe it was," Jerry agreed. He laughed. "It was...different."

"Well...I guess I should go and get your money," Amanda said. "It was certainly worth the price." She reached for the handle on the screen door.

Jerry reached out and stopped her. "I've been thinking about that. I don't think...I don't want to be paid for this."

The girl looked surprised. "We made a deal." She smiled then. "You know...that contract you mentioned? What about that?"

Jerry shrugged, smiling at Jack. "That was when there was just the two of us. Before there was a party of the third part."

Amanda smiled at her brother. "That changes things?"

"Oh, yeah." Jerry nodded. "It does." He smiled at Amanda. "I had too much fun tonight to take money from you for it. It just wouldn't be right. You know?" He leaned forward then, and kissed the girl on the cheek. "It would ruin the memory. And,'re my boyfriend's sister now. That's like family."

Amanda raised a hand to her cheek, and smiled at him. "You're a sweetie, Jerry." She nodded. "Thanks."

He returned the nod. "Think maybe you can get this society girl junk out of your system now?"

"Maybe. I said I'd think about it." She smiled. "But tonight was fun. In the moments I wasn't wanting to scream, anyway."

Jack leaned up against Jerry, and sighed. "Night, sis."

The girl laughed, and nodded. "I can take a hint. Night, guys." She pulled the screen open, and went inside.

Jack reached inside and turned off the porch light, and they went to sit on the couch together.

"That was nice, Jerry. What you did for my sister."

Jerry shrugged. "I like her. I don't want to charge her just to help her out."

"I hope she'll see now that she's wasting her time hanging out with that crowd. Some of them are okay, but it's all spoiled by that little circle that runs everything." Jack closed his eyes and leaned his head on Jerry's shoulder. "Life is complicated enough without all that competition to be top dog."

They sat together in the dark, at first just holding onto each other, and then exchanging kisses and touches. Jerry knew where that would lead, and that Jack's front porch was no place to be making out.

"I'd better go," he said, at last. "Before we get ourselves into trouble."

Jack sighed. "I'd take you up to my room, but my mom would have a fit if she knew."

"So let's not. What are you doing tomorrow?"

Jack laughed. "Spending it with you, I hope."

Jerry kissed him. "I had a wonderful time with you tonight."

"Me, too. Let's do it again?"

"Well..." Jerry smiled. "Maybe not exactly the same thing?"

"No. We'll think of something. There's plenty of time."


They stood, and Jack walked with Jerry to the steps. "Call me when you get home?"

"As soon as I get to my room."

They exchanged one more kiss, and then Jerry stood and watched Jack go inside. Some of the feel of comfort left the porch then, but Jerry knew it was not gone for good.

He walked home in a little bit of a daze, going over in his mind the events of the evening. It had been great fun, despite all the bullshit of acting a part and putting up with the in-your-face personalities of some of the Friday Afternoon Fine Arts League. And it had solidified his feelings about Jack, even though he had been certain beforehand that he was falling in love with him. He remembered back to the day he had first seen the other boy, coming in with Mr. Horseman's seventh period gym class, and they had looked at each other and smiled.

I knew it then, he realized.

And how about Lance? That he had managed to get his courage up and go and talk to Chuck Henry was obvious. And it seemed to have worked. Even if they did nothing but play basketball together, it would do much to stave off the loneliness that Lance was feeling. But...Jerry had a feeling there would eventually be more than just a game between them.

And, finally, Amanda. Jerry felt good that she had had her eyes opened to the futility of trying to be something she wasn't. Maybe she'd be a lot happier now, too. She had said she would think about telling her mom how she really felt about things, and Jerry thought now that all of that nuttiness would work out. He liked Amanda, and only wished the best for her.

He reached his house, and smiled at it. It was a cheerful place, too. And the front light was on, waiting for him, certainly his mother's touch.

He went inside, found his mom and dad watching TV in the living room, seated on the sofa together.

His dad looked up as he came in, and smiled. "Hey, Jer. You're home early. How was the concert?"

He'd simply told his parents he was going to a concert with a couple of friends.

"It was cool, dad. I had a good time." He plopped down in a chair, and squinted at the TV. "What're you watching?"

"Jason Bourne. I don't remember which one." His dad liked that spy stuff. "Why don't you sit with us a little, Jerry? Visit some?"

His mom smiled patiently, a mystery novel of some kind closed on her finger. That was often how they watched TV - dad intently and wholeheartedly, mom with a book closed on her finger, willing to watch the good parts, but not liking the violent ones. Jerry had been seeing it for years.

"We don't see much of you, honey," his mom added. "You could sit a little bit."

He'd seen all the Bourne movies, and wasn't up for another one just then. Besides, he had much more important things to do.

"Aw, I'm tired, guys. Maybe another time?" He propelled himself up out of the chair again, and stepped quickly past the TV. He sat next to his mom and gave her a quick kiss, and reached across her to pat his dad's shoulder. "Night."

His mom smiled, and kissed him back, and patted the knee of his trousers. "That's your good outfit, honey. Don't forget to hang it up."

Jerry smiled. "What? These old things?"

His mom laughed, and her eyes watched his as only a mom's can do. "You had a good evening, I can tell."

Jerry shrugged. "Typical Friday night." But he couldn't help smiling, and he could see that his mom picked up on it pretty quickly.

"Uh huh. You can tell us about it at breakfast."

"Deal." He kissed her again, and got up, and headed upstairs to his room.

He had his phone out, and had pushed speed dial for Jack's number, even as he closed the bedroom door.

"Hi, Jer." Jack sounded happy, and quite comfortable himself. "You got home fast."

"I had a good reason to," Jerry said, kicking off his shoes and laying out on the bed. He grabbed a pillow and propped his arms on it, and sighed. "Now, about tomorrow..."


Jerry smiled, detecting a trace of humor in his boyfriend's voice, and wondering what he was thinking. He grinned. "I have an idea, if you want to hear it."

Jack's sigh sounded pleased. "Of course, I want to hear it."

"Do you like to go swimming?"

"I love it!"

Jerry smiled, and gave a soft sigh.

"What was that for?" Jack asked.

"Oh...just imagining you in a bathing suit."

Laughter crossed the mile or so between their houses. "You've seen me without even that much on."

"Oh, I know, But sometimes it's just fun to imagine."

It was Jack's turn to sigh. "I'm so glad my sister decided to hire you."

"Yeah. I think we'd have eventually met, anyway. She just made it faster, and easier."

"And more fun."

"It was that, too," Jerry decided. "I had a ball tonight, when I wasn't worried about someone asking something I couldn't answer."

"You came across well as a rich guy." Jack laughed. "Of the sweet and fun to be with kind."

"Hah! Is there such a thing? That Eric Thornton had me wondering."

"Yes. There is such a thing," Jack returned, quietly. "I love being with you."

Jerry closed his eyes, thinking about the past week, still unable to really believe he had been so lucky. "It's been an amazing five days, Jack. Some of the best I've ever had."

"There's more to come. We're just starting, right?"

"Right." Jerry smiled. "Now, about tomorrow--"

"Swimming, you said? Where?"

"Here. At my house. We have a pool in back."

Jack gave out a surprised laugh. "A pool? Really?"

"Absolutely. Got a diving board and everything."

"Oh, you rich people," Jack kidded. "Always showing off your nice cars and swimming pools!"

Jerry laughed at that. "Yeah, right. It took my dad five years to pay that thing off. It's a nice pool, actually. It's would look nicer with you around it."

"I'll be there. What time?"

"Well, there's some nice shade until afternoon. That means it will be cooler in the morning. If you come over about ten, then we can swim a while and save and the afternoon for something else."



"I'm so happy you found me."

"Me, too, Jack. I knew the first time I saw you that I wanted to be with you."

They were quiet a moment; and then Jerry heard conversation on the other end of the line. "What's that?"

Jack laughed. "Mandy. She stuck her head in the door to tell me she canceled on Michelle for some kind of get-together they had going on tomorrow. Said she had something else to do."

"Does she?"

"No. She just said that. I think she's coming around, Jer."

"Well, good for her." Jerry smiled. "I can see that brains run in your family."

"That's not all that runs in our family."

"Yeah?" Jerry grinned. "I'm intrigued."

"Are you? I'll tell you more about it tomorrow. And...maybe show you, too?"

Jerry gave out a little sigh. "Great. Now I'm expected to sleep tonight?"

"Yes. Sleep well. You'll need your energy for tomorrow."

Jerry smiled. "You know, I did learn something from all of this craziness?"

"I did, too."

"Yeah? You go first."

Jack paused, and then laughed. "Well...I found out that it's not what you have, it's who you are. You know?"

"Yes. That's what I learned, more or less. Although I think I worded it a little differently."

"Tell me."

Jerry shrugged. "I learned that wealth is only what you think it is."


Jerry closed his eyes. "Remember what we were saying earlier? About, is it too early to tell each other we were in love?"


"It's not too early."

There was a pause, and then: "I know. Me, too."

Jerry smiled."That guy Eric had a lot more money and stuff then I'll ever have. But I have you, and my folks, and my dog, Nick...and, I'm happy. That makes me richer, to my way of thinking."

"I like the way you think, Jerry. It's one of the the things I love about you."

Jerry sighed. "Yeah. See you tomorrow?"

"Uh huh. I'll call when I'm ready to head over."

"I can't wait to see you again. Night, sweetheart."

"Night, love."

Jerry turned off the phone and put it on his nightstand. For a moment, the world was quiet, except for the distant drone of the TV. Jason Bourne, shooting things up, and his parents along for the ride.

He smiled, picturing them sitting there, and got to his feet.

Maybe he wasn't too tired for a movie, after all.


This story is part of the 2019 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: The First Cuckold of Summer?". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 8 March to 29 March 2019 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2019 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - The First Cuckold of Summer?

The Party of the Third Part

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