A Rose by Any Other Name Excerpt
Manhattan, New York, 1927
The Pantheon Cabaret at Club Parisian
“THERE’S SOMETHING wild about you, child, that’s so contagious. Let’s be outrageous. Let’s misbehave.”
Julius Knight was quite certain when Mr. Cole Porter came up with that wonderful little ditty he hadn’t expected everyone to take it so to heart. Yet here they all were.
The world had become one of scandalous debauchery and moral depravity, wrapped in the illusion of decadence and served on a silver platter with a glass of bootlegged liquor. As Mr. Porter so lyrically put it, they would all meet their fate, but until the time came, Julius was going to take each and every one of those saps for all they were worth.
“My darling, you look scrumptious!” Aphrodite boisterously swept into Julius’s dressing room with arms wide open. The sequins and beads of her red gown caught the many bright lights and assaulted his vision. With every sweep of her arm, wisps of her long red feather boa and red-dyed ostrich-feather fan made a break for it. Her black-haired bob was impeccable, her cupid-bow lips scarlet, and, secured between two fingers, her favorite gold cigarette holder gleamed while smoke danced seductively from its end.
Aphrodite was grand and outrageous. A mother figure and warden rolled into one. With a fluttering of exceedingly long—and false—eyelashes, she sashayed to Julius and cupped his face. Her near-black eyes shone bright with excitement.
“He has an audience with you tomorrow night, my angel.”
There was no need for Julius to wonder which “he” she was referring to. There was only one “he” who mattered to Aphrodite.
It had been Aphrodite who had bestowed the name upon Julius’s most exclusive patron, because in their world, this man believed himself to be a deity in human form, and he was no less violent in war than the Greek god himself. Only this war was not fought with swords and warriors over matters of importance such as freedom and love. It was fought with submachine guns and hoodlums over illegal liquor and money. There was no racket Ares was not a part of.
Aphrodite tilted her head, and her expression darkened for no more than a slip of a moment before it returned to its previous splendor. It had been brief, but Julius had seen it as clear as day. His heart pounded in his chest, but his lips curled into a smile as he coyly shifted his gaze to hers—an act he’d perfected over the years and on more than one occasion had defused potentially explosive situations.
“I’ll make certain he’s well looked after,” he promised. She patted his cheek firmer than necessary, but his smile never wavered.
“That’s my lovely boy. I’m so proud of you. Look at you.” She took a step back, her eyes raking over him with approval. “You’ve come so far in these two short years, my god of love. Remember the state you were in when I found you?”
The familiar crushing sensation Julius felt every time she reminded him of that night spread through his body, bringing with it a constricted feeling to his chest and an ache to his heart. Why wouldn’t she allow him to forget?
He swallowed hard and nodded. “Yes. I remember.”
“Poor thing,” she tsked, her hand stroking his cheek. “But life is much better for you now, isn’t it? You have a family who takes care of you and everything you could possibly wish for, right here.”
She motioned around his all-white dressing room decorated in the neoclassical style, filled with nothing but the most beautiful and expensive items. Objects made of silver and ivory, along with more cologne and perfume than he could ever hope to wear in one lifetime, all in bottles made of dazzling crystal, littered the surface of his white dressing table. Inside his white wardrobe were suits tailor-made with only the finest of fabrics. His shirts, ties, and handkerchiefs were all made of silk, his shoes leather.
A white velvety-soft carpet covered the floor, while sheer white drapes hung from the ceiling against every wall, giving the illusion one was indeed inside a Greek temple, one befitting the Greek god Eros, whom Julius portrayed.
On one side of the room sat an extraordinary white hand-carved chaise lounge for two, littered with an abundance of matching silk pillows. Even the swanky new Radiola beside it had been painted white. On the other side of the room, concealed behind veils of white, sat his large white four-poster bed with matching silk bedding. Greek vases filled with fresh roses on column poseur tables, all in white, were scattered everywhere. It was the most exquisite farce Julius had ever seen. A temple created to peddle an innocence he’d never had, mixed with a passion he couldn’t feel beyond the fantasies his mind conjured up to pull off such a ruse.
“You’re happy here, aren’t you?”
Aphrodite’s voice interrupted his thoughts, and again Julius nodded, unable to find the words to accompany the gesture. After all, it wasn’t as though he wasn’t grateful for what he had. Only a fool would take such luxury for granted. His friends entered the room, their smiles bringing warmth to his bones. He used the opportunity to turn away from Aphrodite’s penetrating stare.
“Ready?” Terry asked, his boyish grin reaching his kind gray eyes.
Mindful of his black-feathered wings, Terry headed toward him wearing an ensemble not at all dissimilar to Julius’s, except the vibrant ruby cloth wrapped around Terry’s hips was somewhat more modest than his own. It was also nearly as bright as Terry’s fiery red hair. The black straps of his sandals crisscrossed to above his ankles, and his rouged lips drew attention to his charming freckles.
“Of course. I need help with my wings,” Julius replied cheerfully. He refused to dwell on feelings brought about by old memories that no longer warranted his attention. Despair would do nothing for his complexion but bring about early wrinkles, and who would want him then? He was hardly naïve enough to believe these dizzy times would endure, and if they did, his beauty and youth would not. For now, he would make the most of the attention and adulation he received from his audience, an audience that came from all over to bow down before him and shower him with gifts.
His eyes met Lawry’s, and Julius found himself looking away. Although his friend’s dark eyes were as penetrating as Aphrodite’s, they expressed much gentleness and concern. Lawry had always taken such good care of him, and it made Julius feel terribly guilty when he tried to hide from him. Lawry was the tallest of their trio, his body tan, muscular, yet lean. He was handsome, confident, and possessed an elegance that demanded attention. Julius had always admired him for his boldness.
Lawry’s red-feathered wings ruffled softly as he made his way across the room. The black cloth around his hips matched his sleek black hair, as did the sandals on his feet. Lawry stopped before Julius, addressing Aphrodite, who watched them like a hawk.
“We’ll finish helping Eros,” Lawry said, his tone matter-of-fact, his manner one Aphrodite respected, as long as it didn’t contradict her.
“You look divine, darlings. See you on stage.” With that, she left, closing the door behind her.
Terry darted to the door to make certain she was gone before returning. He nodded to Lawry, who placed his fingers under Julius’s chin.
“Julius, what is it?”
“Nothing.” Julius gave him a bright smile and moved his face away to motion toward the large white-feathered wings sitting on the white silk bust. “We should shake a leg.”
Lawry sighed and put his hand on Julius’s shoulder. “She brought it up again, didn’t she?”
Julius fought to maintain his smile, though he doubted he could stop the sorrow from reflecting in his eyes. Luckily no one knew him well enough to know the difference, aside from his dear friends, of course. “When doesn’t she? I’m fine. Truly.”
Before Lawry could object, a familiar knock brought the hairs on the back of Julius’s neck to stand on end.
“Are you decent?” a husky male voice asked, followed by a throaty chuckle. “So to speak.”
Julius closed his eyes and pursed his lips. His hand itched to form a fist and plant one right across the smug bastard’s jaw. Instead, he donned his most seductive smile.
“Ares, what a pleasant surprise.” He planted both hands on his dressing table at his sides, and leaned back seductively, his eyes raking over the larger man in the brown pinstriped three-piece suit with a red carnation in his lapel. “Looking dapper, as always.”
Ares ran a hand through his dark slicked-back hair—the side without the streak of silver—and nodded a greeting to Lawry and Terry as he prowled toward Julius. Ares loomed over him, his wide stance meant to remind Julius how much taller, wider, and more masculine he was. He rubbed his scarred jaw as his unsettling dark eyes ogled Julius.
“And you look fuckable, as always.”
How charming. Julius tilted his head, looking up at Ares from under his lashes, his foot running up the inside of Ares’s leg. “You certainly know how to get a fella all hot under the collar, don’t you?” Ares moved in to kiss Julius, who held a hand up to stop him, his smile playful. “Careful, handsome. I’m covered in fairy dust.”
Ares let out a bark of laughter and grabbed Julius’s chin, giving it a not so gentle squeeze. “You are something else, baby. I got you something.” He reached inside his jacket pocket and drew out a long red-velvet box. Holding it out in front of Julius, he opened it.
“Oh my God.” Julius’s fingers tentatively reached out to touch the stunning gold arrow lying snugly in its bed of thick scarlet velvet. It was roughly a foot long from the tip of the golden arrowhead to the end of its glittering gold feathers. He didn’t know how to describe it, but despite its beauty it gave Julius an unpleasant twist in his stomach. “It’s….”
“Pure gold, dollface. Nothing but the best for my baby.”
Julius swallowed hard as Ares closed the box and put it in Julius’s hand before leaning in to give his neck a kiss. “I see I’ve left you speechless. You can thank me tomorrow night.” He brushed his fingers down Julius’s torso and around to his backside before giving it a fierce squeeze. “I’ll make sure Aphrodite gives you the next day off. You’ll need it to recover.”
With a chuckle, he turned and walked out, closing the door behind him, the finality causing Julius to flinch. He didn’t know how much time he had spent standing there, staring at the closed door, when Terry caught his attention.
“Julius, can you hear me?”
Snapping out of it, Julius faced his friends, doing what he’d taught himself to do from the first day Ares had taken him to bed. He held his head high and shielded his heart. “Yes. I’m fine. Surprised, is all.”
“That’s the fifth time this month. His visits are becoming far more frequent.”
Julius frowned at his friend. “Thank you, Terry. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t noticed.” He opened the box in his hand and stared at the gleaming arrow. “How much do you think I can get for it?”
“If you trade it in, he’ll notice. It’s not like the cigarette cases or the lighters. He’s given you so many of those he probably can’t tell one from the other, but that….” Terry walked up to him and leaned in to have a look, giving a low whistle. “He’ll definitely notice if it’s missing.”
Julius snapped the box shut and placed it on his dressing table. “I’m hardly about to trade it in today.” He nodded toward the bust. “Are you going to help me with these? I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”
With a grumble, Terry took one side of the golden harness, while Lawry lifted the other. They helped Julius into the straps, the weight of the wings something he’d long ago become accustomed to. Like so many other things.
“Well, if it ain’t the belle of the ball.”
They turned toward the familiar voice, and Julius stifled a groan. Applesauce. Because a visit from Ares wasn’t quite complete without Anteros showing up. The scheming little stool pigeon.
“Anteros,” Julius greeted, doing his best to maintain a somewhat pleasant smile. “Having a good evening?”
Anteros pushed away from the doorframe he was leaning against and entered the room, stopping when Lawry and Terry blocked his path. To this day, Julius found it unnerving being around Anteros. It was like looking into a warped mirror, one where the man reflected back at him had no morals, heart, or soul. Anteros’s animosity toward him shone in his icy blue eyes.
“Such loyal guard dogs you have, Eros.”
“Better a guard dog than a lapdog,” Terry replied through his teeth. “Say, what happened to your guard dogs? Oh, that’s right. You don’t have any, because men are no longer lining up to see you, are they? Enjoying our castoffs?”
“You little bitch!” Anteros launched himself at Terry only to have Lawry step between them and push them apart.
“Enough,” Lawry demanded, and Anteros stepped back, pinning Julius with a glare. His lips curled up into a sneer.
“Have fun with Ares tomorrow night. Who knows, maybe this time he won’t leave any bruises.”
With his departure, Anteros left a heavy silence behind.
Lawry turned to Terry with a sigh. “Must you antagonize him so?”
“He started it. I’m so sick of him always sniffing around Julius, looking for ways to take a poke at him.” Terry stepped up to Julius, his expression softening. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Julius hugged Terry close, knowing his friend only had the best of intentions, even if at times he did speak without thinking. “Please be careful. I’d hate for him to get you into trouble.”
Terry returned his embrace. “I’ll try harder.”
“Good.” Julius smiled and pulled away to turn back to his mirror. There was no point in dwelling on tonight’s unpleasant visits. It wouldn’t change a thing. “Besides, you’d be upset too if one day Aphrodite walked in with some young new strumpet who resembled you and declared him your replacement. Imagine how Anteros felt.”
Terry shook his head. “You really must stop making excuses for him, Julius. It was Aphrodite’s decision, not yours. Anteros has no right to take out his frustrations on you. This is show business. Nothing is definite. Anteros is an attractive fellow, and although he might be too old to be the lead act, he’s hardly old. If he weren’t so bitter, he’d be far better off than he is now.”
Julius nodded and closed his eyes. He needed to clear his mind. In the distance, he could hear the brass and woodwind instruments of the jazz band playing a fast and loose tune, which meant the chorus boys were out on the floor in their skimpy cupid costumes getting the audience worked up while they waited for the erotes to descend from the heavens.
Once outside Julius’s dressing room, Lawry and Terry walked side by side ahead of him as they always did. Crew members, performers, waiters, cigarette boys, and musicians alike cleared the way for them. Without Julius, the Pantheon wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it was, and no one knew that better than Aphrodite, who stood backstage waiting for them. Julius stopped before her as he always did, and she gently placed a kiss on his cheek.
“Time to steal their hearts, my angel.”
He gave her a nod, though stealing would hardly be necessary. By the time Julius was done with them, they would be begging him to take everything they offered. He climbed the steps to the stage after his friends with his head held high and his shoulders squared. Those men out there were waiting to shower him with adoration and, more importantly, lots of dough. A fantasy is what they came for; a fantasy is what he would offer. No matter who he faced in the club, he always had the upper hand. He was Eros, and they would all bow before him.
Poor mere mortals.