Excerpt: Sinders and Ash by Tara Lain; MM Contemporary Fantasy
Coming April 1 to Amber Allure
Work hard, stay anonymous and don’t expect much. That’s resort housekeeper Mark Sintorella’s philosophy of life. After being kicked out of his family home at sixteen for being gay, Mark knows what it takes to survive. But how is he going to stay anonymous when he wants to be recognized as a great fashion designer? And how can he control his expectations when he’s desperately attracted to Ashton Armitage, the son of the fifth richest man in America? If Ash doesn’t find a woman to marry he’s going to lose his inheritance, but he can’t seem to resist the beautiful kid who cleans fireplaces while hiding behind a black cap and heavy glasses. And then this crazy elf of a man, Carstairs Pennymaker, has Mark running around looking like a fashion model wearing gorgeous women’s clothes. The clock strikes twelve and the wedding follows the ball. Two beautiful princesses line up for attention. But one isn’t interested and one isn’t a woman. Who will be the bride? Will the shoe fit? Only his fairy godmother knows for sure.
Mark held onto the edge of the counter for a second. Breathe, you idiot. What about seeing Aston Armitage had he thought was going to be a good thing? This was torture. Those women were pretty. Which one was he going to marry? The blonde who came to talk to Armitage seemed to work for him, not like a new girlfriend. It must be Bitsy. He sighed. At least she was nice, the lucky duck. And Mrs. Fanderel would be ecstatic. Why in hell did the idea make him nauseous?
Okay, salads. Get this dinner served and get the fuck out of here. He arranged hearts of palm and avocado on Bibb lettuce and sprinkled on some pine nuts, then added a few dried cranberries for color and a drizzle of vinaigrette. He pulled the forks he’d set to chill from the refrigerator, placed it all on a tray and pushed through the swinging door with his shoulder. Heart pause. Bitsy and Armitage were already at the table.
Mark took a deep breath and plastered on a pleasant expression. “Your salads.” He placed Bitsy’s salad plate onto her serving charger he had set earlier. He was careful to serve from her left side and positioned the fork above her plate.
Okay, Armitage next.
Mark crossed around the table. Oh God, the man smelled so good. Focus, Mark. He put the salad plate into position with only the slightest clank. He hoped Armitage didn’t see his hands shaking. “Enjoy.”
The damned rich kid smiled at him, all flashing white teeth and dimples so huge you could sharpen a pencil in them. “These look delicious.”
Mark ducked his head a little and escaped through the swinging door. He knew delicious when he saw it and it had nothing to do with salad.
From inside the kitchen, he heard Armitage’s melodious voice say softly, “Ronnie must’ve been right about his being new. He seems nervous. Did a good job so far, though.”
Mark’s heart beat too fast. Thank God. If he could just survive the rest of the courses.
Bitsy’s soprano added, “Bless his heart, he works really hard in housekeeping.. He cleans the fireplaces a lot, so everyone calls him Sinders, which is kind of mean. Sadly, I don’t actually know his real name.”
Quiet. Must be chewing.
Bitsy piped up. “Don’t you think he’s a pretty boy, though?”
Oh crap. He held his breath. What answer did he want? He should want Armitage to say no he hadn’t noticed such a thing, but…
“Yeah, I was thinking that earlier. He’s as pretty as a girl under those glasses.”
Shit, shit, shit. He didn’t want Armitage to notice him, did he? Oh God, he just wanted to be anonymous and get the job done and make his money and… Oh Jesus, his cock was a steel rod. Just the thought that the damned billionaire’s son thought he was pretty did it for him to the max.
Bitsy wouldn’t leave it alone. “He’s prettier than most girls.” Quiet. “My mother hates it when I say that.”
Mark couldn’t believe they were still talking about him.
“Because he’s a little strange with that cap and all, and he’s gay and Mother doesn’t like to think there’s anything good about a person like that.”
That got rid of his hard-on.
More quiet. “Uh, your mother doesn’t like gay men?”
“Are you kidding? I think she would’ve joined the Tea Party if it wasn’t so damned blue collar and trailer park.” Pause. “Of course, there’s a trailer or two in some recent generations of my family.” She laughed, and Armitage joined in.
“I gather you don’t agree with her?”
“That and being gay, uh, and such.”
She laughed again. “My mother and I can barely agree on whether the sun is shining.” Pause. “And I have nothing against being gay. Nothing at all.”
Maybe they were done with their salads and he could get them to change this fucking conversation. He ladled some tomato bisque into two porcelain bowls, put them on the tray and added the spoons and condiments and set the whole thing on the counter.
Why did that soup make him think of licking it out of Ash’s belly button? God, he had to get a grip. He bumped the door with his hip to give some warning. “Are you ready for your soup, sir?”
“Uh, yes, thank you. The salad was great.” Mark could tell from the cautious look in the man’s eyes that he was considering whether Mark had heard what they said. It was easy to forget servants behind closed doors.
He walked in and took away the salad plates. “I’m glad you liked it.” How invisible could he seem? Trying not to show how badly he wanted out of there, he put the plates in the kitchen and served the soup, then barricaded himself behind the door, breathing hard. Talk about hard. Thank God for his room service jacket. It hid the boner he got just hearing that guy’s voice. This too would pass. Breathe and don’t listen.
The soup wouldn’t last long. He pulled the plates from the warmer and began to lay out garnish. Parsley. Didn’t he remember a legend that said parsley grew for the wicked, but not for the just? Then, man, it should grow for him right now because his thoughts were not available on network TV. Maybe he’d chew a little parsley to disguise the smell of Ash’s cum on his breath. God, that stopped him dead. What a thought. Get to work.
Leaning toward the door, he heard soupspoons lightly scraping the bottoms of bowls. He plated the prime rib and new potatoes, took a deep breath so he wouldn’t smell Ash’s aftershave, and went into the dining room and removed the soup bowls. Back in the kitchen, he added the Brussels sprouts and spooned au jus over the meat. Rich aromas filled the room. Made his mouth water. He hadn’t had more than ten minutes for dinner. Quietly, he slipped into the dining room and served the main course.
Armitage smiled. Oh, God save him. “This looks delicious.”
Bitsy leaned back and looked up at him. “Hey, Sinders, you’re really good at this. They should let you be a waiter full time and get you out of those damned fireplaces.”
He wished. “Thank you, Miss Fanderel, but I think they usually have enough waiters.”
“You’re better than most of the waiters I’ve seen.”
“I don’t mind the fireplaces, miss. It’s job security. Nobody else wants to do it.” He grinned, and she laughed. “Enjoy your meal.”
Back in the kitchen, he sighed. That was nice of her. Now, if he could just…
The voice penetrated beyond the door. “So I hear you’re thinking of getting married.”
Mark’s spine turned to ice. He should leave. Go out in the hall. But his feet crept closer to the door all by themselves.
Ash’s melodious voice. “Uh, yes. Yes, I am.”
“People usually decide to get married after meeting someone they love. Your process seems backward.”
God, he wished he could be that direct.
“I like you.”
Mark’s breath caught at Armitage’s comment. Was he going to propose?
“That’s nice, but what does it have to do with your decision to get married?”
“I’m not sure, but I really like no-bullshit people. You saw that with Ronnie.”
“Yes, I saw it with Ronnie, but with you? Not so much. You seem to be mired in bullshit.”
Wow. The woman knew no fear.
“Nietzsche said, ‘He who cannot lie doesn’t know the meaning of truth,’ or something like that.” He laughed.
“You’re quoting Nietzsche to me? Really?” She laughed. “But, seriously, why on earth would you come to a place like this to find a woman you don’t know to marry? In all your—what?—twenty-four, twenty-five years, you haven’t found a single likely candidate and suddenly you have to find someone to marry today? That is the biggest bullshit I’ve ever heard.”
Mark agreed, but nobody had asked him. He pressed his ear closer.
Bitsy laughed. “No shit?”
“Let me say that the woman I marry stands to gain significantly from the arrangement.”
“In money, I assume. Not from the pleasure of your company.”
He laughed again. “I really do like you. Yes, in money. But the person will be stuck with me for an extended period of time. The provisions of the will say I can’t divorce for ten years. At that point, the woman can leave with a substantial settlement.”
Mark felt his hands shaking.
Her voice. “I guess it’s no worse than marriage transactions through the centuries.”
“But don’t you have a girlfriend, someone close, who can slip into this arrangement?”
“I want it to be impersonal. I have no real desire to marry, so I want the woman I choose to be entering a business arrangement and nothing more.” There was a pause. Was Bitsy thinking it over? Armitage’s voice. “Of course, it’d be nice if I liked the woman.”
Big pause. Mark held his breath.
Bitsy sounded thoughtful. “Ash, I like you, too, despite your bullshit, but I don’t want to get married.”
“Well, that sounds perfect then.”
“No. As much as I’d love to have the money to do anything I want, the problem is there are too many strings on that money. It would give you and others a say in how I live my life, and I don’t want that. I don’t want that more than I want the money.”
“See even that is attractive. Won’t you think about it?”
She laughed. “It’s complicated.”
Well, shit, for all intents and purposes, Armitage had proposed to Bitsy. Why the hell was Mark’s stomach in knots? What did he expect or hope for? Why was he obsessed with this man? He was sick. He didn’t believe in hoping for breakfast in the morning, much less to have a man like Ashton Armitage.
He sighed. He had to make his hands quit shaking. Had to stop thinking about those two in the dining room.
Oh shit, he couldn’t. Ash had asked her to marry him. At least she’d turned the billionaire down. But for how long? Could her sterling character really stand up to all that money?
He managed to get through dessert, cleared the table and left with Armitage and Bitsy sitting on the couch together. He wanted to cry, even though he had a huge tip in his pocket. It made him understand Bitsy. He might trade the money for never having been there at all.