“Do we have to go to the stupid party? I want to stay home and talk to Namtarn on FaceTime instead.”
“Yes, Arthit. We have to go to the party. It’s important for your father’s business that we are all there so he can show us off. You know the drill, you’ve been to enough of these events.” His mother reaches out to smooth down a strand of his hair and Arthit grimaces at her.
“Exactly, mother. I’ve been to so many of the damn things that everyone already knows who I am! Please, excuse me from this one just this once?” He gives her a hopeful look, even though he already knows the answer that is coming.
An hour later, he’s in his suit and tie, seated in his father’s favourite limousine. He shuffles along the bench seat to be nearer to his mother, who is fiddling with a bag in her hands while his father talks loudly on his mobile.
“Are you sure I can’t just show my face then get Barley to take me back home? Nam would understand if I was a little late, but if I miss the call altogether, she’s going to be pissed!”
“Don’t swear in front of me, Arthit!” His mother raises her voice and his father shoots them an angry look. So he’s shoved back along the bench, his mother gracefully sliding along with him. “I wish you would think of this family for once instead of thinking about fucking that hideous girl. I’ve already told you that your father and I won’t support a relationship with her!”
“Mother! I don’t think of Nam that way!” Arthit has to admit that her passionate dislike of Namtarn had always shocked him, but he is so angry at her right now that he ignores it and plows right on, “She’s the girl I want to marry!”
“Over my dead body!” His mother proclaims and then reaches over to adjust his tie, smoothing out an invisible crease. “Now,” Her voice turns saccharine and he knows what is coming, “Your father has arranged for you to meet the Sutthiluck’s eldest tonight. I know we’ve been rivals for a while, but at last they are starting to see that a Rojnapat-Sutthiluk merger will be to everyone’s benefit. Gift is a sweet girl and I think you’ll find her pleasing to the eye..as well as to the one eyed beast in your trousers!”
“Mother! Don’t say such things! And I can’t go out with practically a stranger!”
She ignores him, reaching into the bag at her feet to produce an elegant black mask with curls of gold at the edges. “This one is yours, Arthit. It is to be worn at all times. The Sutthiluk’s are hosting a grand masked ball. At the opportune time, I will introduce you to your fiancée.”
“My what?” Arthit screeches, earning another angry look from his father’s end of the car. “You can’t go auctioning me like a prized cow!”
“I’m afraid,” His mother grits her teeth, an edge of desperation in her tone as her husband continues his rather loud and anxious call at one end of the car, while her son shoots her a murderous glare at the other, “That we have no choice. I wasn’t going to tell you,” her voice quietens, “But the business is in a precarious position, and it is in our best interests to listen to your father and to follow his business models to the T, Arthit. Otherwise, everything you know and love might be lost. And then, no matter what, your precious Namtarn won’t want you anyway. She would never date a pauper!”
For the rest of the car ride, his mother refuses to say another word, and Arthit sits with a thousand questions and a stone low in his stomach. It is agonising, made worse by the fifty or so texts from Namtarn lighting up his screen, all of which go unread in his distress.
The sick feeling does not abate by the time they reach the Sutthiluk home, where Arthit is soon to be engaged to an almost complete stranger. He manages to give his father a few of his best death glares, matured by years of practise. But he is oblivious, staying on the phone, yelling mostly, right up to the second that they all affix their masks and exit the car.
The house is enormous, even larger and more impressive than their own, and Arthit has to admit that marrying into this family was clearly seen as a reward. But for him, it would be the opposite - the worst kind of punishment, the loss of his free choice and his chance to free himself from the family business that he has no interest in whatsoever.
It is bad enough that his father has chosen all of his schooling so far, and that in a few weeks time, he is embarking on a university degree that he has zero interest in. Now, his father has taken it upon himself to saddle him with a fiancée of his choice, who is probably stuck-up and just after a good match, or, possibly, in the exact same boat as Arthit - unhappy and unwilling.
It is a lottery as to which is better in Arthit’s opinion. At least if she feels the same, there might be some discussion around them choosing their own paths through the marriage. Perhaps, he thinks, Namtarn wouldn’t mind being a mistress? If there were enough diamonds and gold involved..
Just as Arthit is musing on his future wife (because there was absolutely no way he could refuse his father), they reach the Greek style pillars that frame the house and the door swings open.
They are invited to hand over their invitation and then a private butler brings them into the main room and right into the hands of Kerkkrai Sutthiluk.
Arthit has met him once before, at an enormous party to celebrate some kind of achievement of his father’s company. He really hadn’t cared at the time, more interested in messaging Nam and his friends than in learning about the family business.
But Kerkkrai had stood out to him, mostly because of the circle of space that seemed to exist everywhere he went. No matter how many people he was conversing with at once, there was always a gap between him and the nearest person, like an invisible force field, that everyone respected. Arthit could remember being impressed at the time. But now, as he and his family stand beyond that gap, he just feels irritated.
He doesn’t want to be here, and he guesses it shows, since Kerkkrai addresses the issue almost immediately after greeting his father.
“Arthit?” Kerkkrai’s voice is calm yet demanding, “I would like you to go and meet Gift now.”
Arthit finds himself nodding, unwilling to argue with this powerful man in his own home until he’s scoped out the situation. Luckily, his mother sees it as compliance and rewards him with a squeeze to his elbow as a different servant leads him away to a more secluded part of the room.
“I will bring Miss Gift, Mr Rojnapat.” The man says and then bows slightly at the waist and dashes away.
“For fuck’s sake!” Arthit groans lowly, banging his fist repeatedly against yet another stupid white column, in frustration.
“You’ll bruise your hand if you keep that up,” a melodious voice interrupts.
Arthit whirls around and finds himself face to face with a young man, wearing a slim fit suit and tie. It’s moulded to his shoulders and clearly tailored. The tie is a deep burgundy and matches his pocket square, which makes Arthit scoff.
“Do I care?” Arthit asks sullenly. And beneath a matching burgundy mask, the man’s lips quirk into a genuine smile.
For some reason, Arthit feels comfortable, talking with this stranger while he waits for the moment of his doom to arrive.
“Not really.” He admits, “Maybe if I break it I’ll have a chance to leave this infernal party.”
“Hellish? An interesting description. Anything in particular that’s causing you to compare it to the underworld? The blazing open fires perhaps? Or the devil greeting people at the door?” The man gives a small laugh as he speaks and Arthit suddenly feels at ease. Not that he trusts this stranger with his whole life, but that he feels like they have something in common.
“More, that I’m here to be sold like an animal for the slaughter.” Arthit replies, turning in towards the other man a little to better block out the rest of the room and make the conversation more intimate.
“Ah.. one of those kinds of hell, I’ve been there myself, the kind that’s slow burning yet sudden and unexpected...” The man nods, head bobbing up and down, a finger resting under his chin. And although Arthit can’t see his full expression, with the mask in place, he feels like it’s not entirely sarcastic.. more like the other guy sympathises and sort of understands.
As they stand in a mostly comfortable silence, the masked man staring at Arthit, Arthit held in place by his intense gaze, there’s a moment where Arthit feels something akin to curiosity pumping through his veins.
This guy is.. interesting to say the least. For instance, why is he hiding in the shadows at the edge of the party and what exactly has he experienced that could compare to what Arthit is going through?
So when he catches sight of the servant returning, a dark haired beauty in a flowing blood red gown at his heels, Arthit makes a strangled noise and his eyes dart around as though an exit might magically appear right in front of him.
Of course, there isn’t one, but his momentary panic does have a positive effect. The masked man in front of him reaches out and hooks his elbow with strong fingers, “Want to escape?”
Turns out, one of the dark velvet curtains nearby, hides a secret exit that leads to a servants corridor and a set of uneven stairs to the second floor.
The guy leads him up and away from the chatter of the main floor, until they are striding down another long corridor and out onto a beautiful balcony, framed in blooming flowers.
There’s an iron railing made of twists of metal, against which his rescuer leans as Arthit bends slightly at the waist to catch his breath.
“Not very fit are you?” It’s a bit like the mocking he receives in his phys ed classes and Arthit is definitely not in the mood, straightening up and striding to the balcony to protest.
“Just because I’m a little out of breath, doesn’t mean I’m not fit! You set a ridiculous pace because you clearly know this house well.. wait.. who are you?”
The man takes a step backwards, then raises his hands, palms out, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I wasn’t intending to.. I mean I…” Then he reaches out a hand and mimes zipping his lips, “Apologies, I won’t mention it again. I do sort of know this house, that’s true.. But, maybe, let’s stick to less personal talk?”
Arthit finds himself nodding, even though he has a hundred questions to ask.
Turns out, they end up getting along well. They discuss music and literature and find that they have a number of favourites in common. Their sporting interests lie in different directions, but they both agree that golf is a total waste of time and vow never to join a club even when they are old and rich and retired.
“You plan to be rich?” Arthit asks and he sees the way the other man freezes. “Too personal?”
“No.. well, I guess.” The man replies and then drops down to sit with his back to the railing. “I don’t plan to be poor. That’s probably a better way to say it.”
“Fair enough. I would rather not be poor either, although, the way my life is currently going, that’s what's going to happen.”
The man perks up, looks up, and gives him, what Arthit assumes, is a questioning glance.
Following his lead, Arthit slides down the railings and rests his ass against the concrete. “It’s a sob story and very personal.. kind of goes against what you wanted.. sure you want to hear it?”
There’s a beat before the man nods swiftly (‘Just don’t name names?’) and Arthit begins to talk. Without revealing too much, he outlines his issues.
“.. And I was this close to Namtarn being my first kiss, but she said if I missed tonight, she was going to take off with this other guy Jay, so I’m fucking pissed, you know? And then my mother springs this arranged marriage on me and I’m just like.. when the hell will I finally win at life? Everything is fucked up and I’m only 18.. I feel like you need to be at least 30 for things to be so insane and irritating.”
Arthit knows that he’s rambled on and that despite the other man agreeing to listen, he’s probably getting annoyed. He hasn’t mentioned who he’s supposed to marry, which is a good idea since this guy has intimate knowledge of the house and is therefore probably linked to the family in some way. If he had mentioned Gift’s name (despite what the man had said about keeping things anonymous) maybe there wouldn’t be any kind of support at all.
But when he finally looks at him properly, he sees sympathy behind the masked face. His mouth is lacking it’s curl of a smirk.
“So basically, your father has screwed you over?” The man asks him and Arthit nods sadly. “And you’d rather do anything than have to marry a stranger?”
“Pretty much.” Arthit agrees. “Well, not this stranger..”
“Well, have you thought about.. maybe, getting caught out by this girl you’re supposed to marry?”
There’s a twinkle in the man’s eye now and the curve of his smile has returned and it’s having a surprising effect on Arthit.
He kind of.. wants to do whatever this man suggests because he’s clearly a bit of a trouble maker and also, because he’s fun and seems interested in Arthit’s plight.
“How am I supposed to do that? I already told you that Namtarn won’t give me any attention now I’ve stood her up. She’ll be off with Jay by now.. and I don’t know who anyone else is at this damn masked ball.” Arthit’s frustration has him standing and starting to pace the length of the balcony.
From below, the masked man calls out, “You know me.. think of the scandal if you were caught with another man?”
That thought has Arthit freezing mid-stride.
Then the man is on his feet and leaning into his space. “I know the house, I know the best place to be caught unawares.. we could stage something impressive for this lady?”
Arthit wavers.. in a way this is perfect. A chance to say fuck you to his parents for trying to arrange his marriage as well as the rest of his life. And a chance to get out of a loveless match that could be terrible in so many ways.
On the other hand, his mother was pretty adamant that their business will fail if he doesn’t marry into the Sutthiluk family. Can he really see his family left destitute just because he wants to make a point?
It seems like the other man is aware of his dilemma, because he stands and comes to rest against the balcony beside him. “I’m kind of wealthy.” He says, “If you need some ready cash, I’ve been saving my allowance since I was four.. it’s an incredibly healthy sum that I don’t have a need for.. you could borrow it as an.. investment.. and then pay me back when you can?”
Arthit is astounded. His jaw drops and he feels his eyes widen in the crevices of the mask. He itches to take the damn thing off and remove the other guy’s too, if only to see the face of the person who is offering to save him even though he has no clue who he is. It’s the most perfect offer he’s ever heard.. but there must be a catch..
“What do you gain in return?”
“Oh.. I was hoping you wouldn’t ask..”
Arthit feels his astonishment and gratitude turn to suspicion and distrust. “I don’t know you. You don’t know me. No-one offers a perfect solution to a stranger’s problem unless they are going to gain from it.”
“I am aware..” the man says, voice darker than before, “See, my parents are here too. So I gain.. the chance to show them the real me. Make them see I’m not interested in the grand plans they have for my future.. I’m not betrothed like you are, but it won’t be long and I would rather they didn’t get the chance to set me up..”
He nods and Arthit’s brain kicks into gear again. Can he kiss an acknowledged gay man? It will be his first kiss.. and, as far as he knows he’s only ever fancied girls. Could he do it to escape an arranged marriage he truly doesn’t want?
“I understand if you don’t want to. I understand if you want to find another way..”
“Who would need to see us?”
“Oh.. Well, my parents and your fiancée to be.. I guess.. as long as you think she’ll expose you to your parents too.. or if not, then your parents need to be there..”
“How can we arrange that? I’d rather not have my first kiss in front of a room of complete and utter strangers.”
The man turns to Arthit, face animated in his eagerness, “There’s a hidden passage behind the ball room,” at Arthit’s look he continues, “A different one to the one we used before.. I know.. I know.. this house is insane, but it’s there.. and there’s a panel you can press and it swings open. And.. there are peepholes! All we need to do is wait for the right people to be in front of the panel, then we push it open, get caught kissing and swing it closed before they can yell. The yelling can come later..”
Arthit thinks it sounds far too easy and far too complicated all at once. Also, that he’s going to have to kiss this guy multiple times.. in front of people..
“I.. don’t know.. it seems complicated.”
“No, no,” the guy takes a step towards him, “It’ll be so easy.. we’ll just kiss quickly and the damage will be done!”
It takes him a while to come around to it, but eventually, Arthit nods. He might as well try it..
They’ve been crammed into the tiny space behind the panel for about ten minutes, pressed close in the gloom, when Arthit spots a blood red gown.
“I think that’s her..” he says.
“You don’t know for sure?” The other man asks from where he’s blind behind him.
“No, yes, it is her.. remember everyone’s in a mask!”
“Sorry, yes.. I forgot.. Actually, we’ll need to take off our masks to kiss really, otherwise she might not know it’s you.. and my mother might not recognise me..”
Arthit nods, forgetting that the other guy can’t really see him.
“Is that okay?” There’s another whisper in the darkness.
“Yes, yes.. sorry.”
“Ready? Just turn to face me, drop your mask and I’ll kiss you. Okay?”
Arthit’s heart thumps in his chest. Getting caught by Gift is important, but the act of actually having his first kiss is scary.. and exhilarating.. even if it is another guy.. lips are lips right?
He turns and lowers his mask, in front of him, he can make out the chiselled jaw of the guy. He can’t see much else, but then soft fingers are cupping his chin and a strong chest nudges against his own. The fingers tilt his head slightly and then there’s a whisper.
“Press the panel when you’re ready okay?”
Warm breath ghosts his face and a shiver of anticipation travels his spine.
And Arthit doesn’t want his first kiss to be in front of a strange girl who he’s trying to put off, or in front of a stranger’s parents who he’s trying to come out to.. he wants it in private.. he wants it to be secret.. he wants it..
He loses his train of thought as his instincts kick in and he leans into the man’s space, angling his head until he finally feels the skin of the other man beneath his lips.
Once he makes contact, he presses gently and then pulls away.
“Umm.. did you just make out with my chin?”
Arthit knows he’s blushing and tries to pull away as embarrassment floods his senses. But the other man stops him, circling an arm around his waist and reeling him in.
“You don’t want your first kiss in front of an audience?”
“Then let me..”
The first thought is clouds, pillowy lips that feel like he thinks clouds would feel if he could ever touch one.
His thoughts are all over the place as the unnamed man presses harder against his mouth. Then slides a tongue along the seam of his lips and parts them gently.
They tangle their tongues briefly, hot breaths mingling, Arthit’s body shaking slightly at the enormity of what’s happening.
Then they pull away and both sigh..
“I’m impressed.. for your first time, that was pretty good.”
“Pretty good?” Arthit can’t see the other man properly, but he feels like he’s being insulted. “Only pretty good?”
“Well, it was your first- OOf..”
Arthit ends up crashing against him, mouth seeking his lips, jaws automatically parting to accommodate one of the other man’s lips between his own, sucking lightly.
Arthit uses every trick he’s ever seen on every teen show he’s ever watched, even going so far as to hold the back of the other man’s head firmly with one hand while sliding his free hand along his jaw.
When it becomes more than a tangle of tongues, hot panting breaths, almost a fight for dominance, he suddenly realises what he’s doing and immediately begins to panic, hands dropping to his chest, stepping back even as a warm mouth chases him.
He’s almost hyperventilating as he bends at the waist to try and even out his breathing. There’s the warmth of a solid hand pressed between his shoulder blades and a quiet voice counting to ten. And eventually, he can breathe again.
“Thank you.” He whispers.
“What was that?” An astonished voice replies.
“Umm.. a kiss?”
“That was.. not like any kiss I’ve ever had..”
“Was it bad?” Arthit is standing upright again, and he can feel the man close by in the darkness.
“No. Definitely not bad.”
“That’s good then?”
“Best kiss of my life!” The man still sounds shocked and Arthit can’t help teasing him.
“But it was my first.. I suppose I must be a natural?!”
“Yeah, naturally something..”
They bicker gently for a few minutes before Arthit’s remembers why they’re here and why he's just experienced a heavenly first kiss. “Shit! I think we’ve missed her!”
He aligns his eyes with the holes and spots Gift in her blood red gown, standing with her parents.
Perfect! While he would rather it was just Gift, having her parents see it too would be even better, then they’re bound to refuse the match.
“It’s time!” Arthit says, half-excited to get out of his marriage, half at the chance to enjoy another kiss.
“Let me see if my parents are anywhere near..”
They swap places and soon the man confirms that it’s the best time for him too..
They count to three.. then pulls down their masks in the dark and drop them to the floor.
Mouths attached, they kiss frantically as Arthit pulls a lever and the panel in front of them slides away.
It takes a second for their presence to register and then four voices speak as one..
Hearing that they’re caught, the two young men draw back and turn to face their audience.
“Oh my!” Gift shouts as Arthit locks eyes on her. She pulls down her mask and stalks towards them. But it’s not Arthit she’s headed for, it’s his partner.
“Kongpob? How could you do this to me? You knew I was supposed to get engaged to Arthit and then you go and snag him for yourself? What kind of brother does that?”
“Brother?” Arthit repeats as he spins to face the man he had been kissing only seconds before.
“You’re supposed to marry my sister?” Kongpob yells.
“I didn’t know who you were!” Arthit yells back.
They quickly get into a heated argument which is only broken up when two sets of confused and unhappy parents reach them.
“What is going on?”
“You’re kissing the Sutthiluk boy?”
“Since when do you like boys?”
“Great! You can just marry the son instead of the daughter..”
It goes on for a while, Kongpob and Arthit standing and staring as their parents almost circle them like sharks scenting blood. They choose to ignore it, instead turning towards each other and starting their own conversation about their predicament.
But eventually the parent’s wind down.
“So, we’re all in agreement?” Kongpob’s father asks and the three other parents nod firmly.
“Wait, what agreement?” Kongpob yells at the parents retreating back, “What have you decided?”
“Come on?” Arthit yells too, “At least tell us what’s going on before you walk away!”
“Ooo, you guys are in so much trouble!” Gift taunts them, skipping after the adults.
“What did we miss?” Arthit moans.
As Kongpob is reassuring him that he also has no idea, there’s a sudden tinkling noise and Kongpob’s father ascends the platform at the far end of the room.
“This can’t be good..” Kongpob whispers, hand scooping up Arthit’s and slotting their fingers together.
Arthit breathes deeply at the feeling of his fingers cradled in Kongpob’s. Strangely, it doesn’t feel strange. So he decides to just go with the flow.
“I would like to welcome you all here today. As most of you know, I have been speaking with many different companies about merging for better supply and demand.. to this end, I would like to announce that as of today, Sutthiluk Enterprises will be working with Rojnapat Haulage and to seal the deal there is to be a marriage..”
Arthit gasps. “Damn, it didn’t work.”
Beside him, Kongpob turns them so their eyes meet. “I’m so sorry.. you went through all that and you still have to marry my bratty sister.. I took your first kiss.. I.. I can’t begin to apologise for that.”
“It’s okay.. honest.. I mean, I won’t be marrying her.. you do realise you still have to give me all that pocket money you saved? And now I know who you are, I expect it to be an awful lot?” He gives Kongpob a cheeky smile, “And as for my first kiss?” He leans in and whispers in his ear, smiling, “That was absolutely perfect!”
Before he turns away, he sees Kongpob’s pleased smile and feels him squeeze his hand and hears him whisper, “Perfect. For me too..”
“I would like to announce,” Kongpob’s father continues, “The engagement of Mr Arthit Rojnapat, heir to Rojnapat haulage, to the heir to Sutthiluk Enterprises, Mr Kongpob Sutthiluk!”
Gasps of surprise fill the room, along with some light applause. Beside him, Kongpob stiffens and Arthit feels his fingers loosen on his hand.
“Did he just..?”
“He did,” Arthit confirms, dropping Kongpob’s hand. “Does that mean I can’t have your pocket money anymore? Will you need it to run away instead?”
Kongpob grabs his elbow and pulls Arthit back to the secret passage, shoving him roughly into it and then closing the door behind him. Once they are back in the darkness, he drops Arthit’s arm and takes a shaky breath.
“Well.. I..” he starts.
“You don’t have to marry me.” Arthit interrupts, “I know how it feels to be told something with no warning. Don’t worry, we can fight against it together.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“You dropped my hand, so I assumed…”
“I was surprised!”
“But, you still let go so..”
“I thought you didn’t want to get married?”
“I thought you wanted your own.. oof!”
Kongpob’s mouth descends on Arthit’s without warning.
It’s not long before Arthit’s third kiss becomes his favourite kiss. It’s intense and sexy and involves way more tongue than kisses one and two.. and a bit of light groping.
It’s fucking hot and it lasts for ages until they’re both panting messes.
“Do you think we’ll be conditioned so that we can only kiss in dark places?” Kongpob pants.
“I suppose we could have all the windows painted black in our marital home?”
“What about the kiss at the altar when we get married?”
“So, are we doing this?”
“I guess we’re doing this?”
“If you’re sure?” Arthit asks, “I don’t want to force you into something..”
“We both like The White Stripes and T. S. Elliott, and we both think golf sucks.. I’m not sure it’s going to get better than that..” Kongpob laughs.
“Plus, there’s the incredible kissing?” Arthit replies.
“If you think the kissing’s good.. imagine the sex!”