Excerpt: Mr. March Names the Stars

“Mr. March? Are you Mr. March?”

Wes forced his mouth into a smile that felt sharp and plastic before turning toward the voice that had called to him.

“Oh my goodness, you are!”

Wes wasn’t sure who he’d expected the voice to belong to, but a sixty-something grandmother type with light brown skin and big brown eyes wearing an enormous pair of diaphanous blue wings and nothing else wasn’t it. He looked around to see if other people were witnessing his embarrassment—in particular, if Ivy was witnessing it—but this early on the festival’s first day, the grounds were sparsely populated, and his sibling was nowhere in sight. In fact, the only other person Wes spotted was a wiry African-American guy in his early thirties, leaning against a fencepost and seeming perfectly at home despite how out of place his tight navy polo shirt and pressed khaki slacks looked among the festival-goers in faerie wings, cut-off jeans, and tulle.

“Hello, ma’am,” Wes said politely, holding tight to his smile.

The woman smiled brightly at him. “You can call me Bluebell, dear,” she said, and Wes managed not to roll his eyes. Of course I can, he thought.

Wes’ Paganism ran toward the “fifty-mile hikes and three-day wilderness retreats” end of the spectrum. He felt itchy and out of place among Other Realms Pagan Meet’s “otherworldly beings from ethereal realms” set. He and Ivy were each allowed one festival veto per season, and for the past three seasons, this had been his. They had only come this year because, at an hour outside Minneapolis, it was the closest the Pagan festival circuit would bring them to Silver Grove Publishing’s headquarters. His presence spoke volumes about how desperate the situation had become.

Other Realms was a small enough festival to fit into a YMCA campground in a third-ring suburb. There were parked cars and camp buildings everywhere, a sort of sawdusty scent, a near-constant whoosh of traffic from the nearby freeway, and too few trees. Sure, the northeast corner held the requisite lake (human-made), and the saplings that the camp management planted when they inherited the land twenty-five years ago were starting to look like real trees. But it wasn’t like the later, larger gatherings Wes preferred, held in nature preserves and undeveloped private land where wildness was the order of the day.

Bluebell searched through a small backpack tucked under her wings and turned back with a pen in one hand and Silver Grove’s Festival Faces calendar in the other. That damned calendar. Wes opened it to the correct page. There he was, his chest displayed in its pasty-white, freckled, tattooed glory, dark blond hair peeking out from under a battered straw hat. He was seated on a bale of hay, cuddling a lamb barely a month old against his chest, his junk obscured by a strategically placed yellow blanket. Wes signed the page “Mr. March” with an exaggerated flourish in sparkly blue ink.

“Thank you, my dear,” Bluebell said. She tucked the pen behind her ear and looked at the picture. “You look happy.”

He had been. He remembered the way the sun had beaten down on him the day of the shoot, a welcome warmth after the seemingly endless winter they had passed, at Ivy’s insistence, in a remote Alaskan village. It had been a good day, even if the hay bale had been prickly against his ass, and what looked like a genuine laugh in the picture had actually been a nervous gasp as the lamb’s kicking hoof strayed dangerously close to Wes’ dick.

Bluebell tapped the mini-bio in the lower corner of the calendar page, and Wes hid a groan. Here it comes. “Is this part true? You’re single?”

He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

She made a tsk-tsk sound and looked him over with a frank appraisal that made him regret the short cut-off jeans and tight black tank top that were his standard festival uniform. “My goodness, dear, why? A handsome young man like you shouldn’t be alone.”

Wes gritted his teeth and said, “Haven’t found the right guy yet, I guess.”

Bluebell sucked in a sharp breath and looked at him through narrowed eyes. “It says in your bio—”

“And it’s a real shame,” Wes interrupted before she could accuse him of intentionally misleading anyone, “that the publisher didn’t let us write our own bios so we could’ve avoided the confusion. But I’m definitely gay.”

“Are you sure?” she demanded, and Wes gave her points for audacity. “Have you ever had sex with a woman?”

“No,” he shot back, “have you?” He judiciously left off saying he’d never had sex with anyone.

Bluebell bristled, and Wes braced himself—for either a firm talking-to or a hard shove, the usual responses to that comeback. But after a second, Bluebell laughed. “Point taken, young man,” she said. “My daughter will be disappointed.”

Wes nodded. He’d been wondering when the daughter/granddaughter/niece/second cousin twice removed would come into the conversation. It seemed like any woman who didn’t want to date him herself (he’d figured Bluebell didn’t, based on the number of times she’d called him “dear”) had a single female friend or relative he’d be perfect for. If he were straight or bi, he’d be one of the luckiest men in North America.

“I wish her the best,” Wes said sincerely. “I’m sure there’s a great guy out there for her.”

“Just not you.”

He nodded again. “Just not me,” he confirmed.

Bluebell returned the calendar to her backpack and wandered off, nodding to the man at the fence as she passed. The man nodded back and then picked up a briefcase from the ground (who brought a briefcase to a Pagan festival?) and approached Wes, who watched with interest.

Up close, the guy pinged all of Wes’ aesthetic appreciation buttons. Like Wes, he was on the short side and leanly muscled. The dark umber of his skin glowed in the early morning sun, and his dark brown eyes sparkled with intelligence and curiosity. Every festival should have a welcoming committee like this.

“Mr. March?” the man said, but not with the prurient lust that most people put into it. This was professional fact-checking with a Dr.-Livingstone-I-presume briskness. His voice was a little higher and softer than Wes had expected.

Wes sighed. “It’ll do,” he said. He made a gimme motion with one hand. “I hope you brought a pen, because I don’t have one on me.”

The guy looked at him blankly. “Excuse me?”

“To sign your calendar.” He gestured to his cut-offs. “Not a lot of pocket room in here for pens.”

The guy looked from Wes’ face to his hand and back and then said, “I think you’ve misunderstood me, Mr. March. My name is Nash Larsen. I’m an attorney in Silver Grove Publishing’s legal department.”

Wes’ plummeting spirits soared. “You came! I was going to come to you guys. Oh, man, this is great!” He grabbed Larsen’s hand in both of his, giving it an exuberant shake. “Thank you.”

“You expressed uncertainty about the status of your transportation,” Larsen said, and Wes dropped his gaze, embarrassed. “My assistant thought it prudent that I come to you.”

“I appreciate it,” Wes said sincerely. He scratched his head as he looked around. “Do you want to come to my tent?” When Larsen looked faintly appalled, he added, “That’s not a come-on, I swear. It seems like a better place to do business.”

Larsen hesitated, no doubt pre-grieving his expensive-looking black loafers (had he ever been to a festival?), but then looked around as if taking in the exposed nature of their surroundings for the first time. “Yes, all right,” he said.

“You could take them off,” Wes said as he led the way to the tent. “Your shoes and socks. If you’re worried about mud or dirt.”

The appalled look came back in force. “That would be highly unprofessional.”

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