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Chapter One

Epilogue, for MIT Challenge


DADDY LONGLEGS
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven

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Monday Night Quarterback
New Man in Town
With Charity for None
Masque and Mirrors
The Bachelor Auction
Giving Thanks

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Duplicity

 

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WARNING: NC-17 Slash Fiction
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Author's Note: Please bear in mind that this is an Alternate Universe based (loosely) on Season One of Smallville. In our world, Lionel is still alive and will hopefully live a long and eventful life.

Saturday, October 14
Lion's Gate Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana

Whitney Marie Bower was a beautiful baby. Even an unsentimental eye like Lionel's had to acknowledge that the infant was a stunner. Perfectly proportioned features, alarmingly blue eyes framed by impossibly long eyelashes, and a silky halo of curls the color of wheat. Jacob Manning had succeeded in obtaining copies of some digital photos Cheryl Bower had dropped off for processing at her pharmacy; hence, one of the encrypted files Lionel had just downloaded from his Message Center contained the complete chronicle of little Whitney Marie's first three weeks of life.

Nowhere among the images of Whitney Marie in the arms of her exhausted mother, proud grandparents, and an assortment of friends was there a single image of Michael Wexler, the father of record on the baby's birth certificate. In fact, there was no evidence that the former boyfriend, who had been living and working in Topeka at the approximate time of the baby's conception, was even aware of the child's existence.

Lionel glanced from the image on his laptop across the hotel room to Whitney. Bare-chested and commando in a pair of sweatpants that left little to Lionel's imagination, Whit was absorbed in his umpteenth viewing of a scouting video, winding and re-winding through every defensive maneuver the New Orleans Saints had made in this century. In the last two weeks, Lionel's quarterback-slash-lover had put together stellar wins against Miami and Tampa Bay, but this week injuries on top of a drug suspension were going to put Lionel's team -- and his gladiator -- to the test.

Whitney was handling the stress admirably, which only increased Lionel's appreciation of his young lover, but he refused to give in to the hunger that had been teasing his cock all evening. Whitney needed to focus -- for the time being, at any rate -- and there was always an array of projects and problems that needed Lionel's attention. Coming to New Orleans for the entire weekend was time he could ill-afford, but for reasons he refused to examine too closely, he felt compelled to be here, registered twice -- as Lionel Luthor in the Ambassador's suite on the top floor, and as Edgar Tremayne on the fourth floor in this undistinguished suite whose only virtue was that it shared a discreet connecting door with Whitney Fordman's.

With difficulty Lionel dragged his gaze away from the compelling sight of Whitney's perfect torso, and continued perusing the latest information Jacob had collected on the problem that was Whitney Marie Bower. Lionel hadn't told Whitney about the child, of course; as Manning continued investigating, trying to ascertain the baby's paternity, Lionel continued weighing the pros and cons of making Whitney aware of the birth. He hated the thought of seeing Whitney burdened with fatherhood at this point in his life. If the child was, indeed, his, Whitney would want to be an active participant in the girl's upbringing. That would consume a valuable portion of Whitney's time, to say nothing of the expense of supporting a gold-digging single mother.

On the other side of the coin, a public paternity suit would be enormous insurance against the inevitable whispers of homosexuality that were going to crop up if Whitney failed to get married and populate the world with little Fordmans in the next few years. A baby was a complication, yes, but it was a better beard than a pretend girlfriend like Lois Lane could ever be. Perception was everything and having a well-publicized heterosexual relationship in his past would serve Whitney very well in the future.

Obviously, then, there were advantages to making Whitney aware of the situation, but for some unfathomable reason, Cheryl Bower wasn't coming forward publically or privately to sue Whitney for child support. As a sperm donor, Whitney Fordman was veritable goldmine -- incredible genes and deep pockets. If the baby wasn't Whitney's, why give the child Whitney's name? If it was Whitney's why wasn't she collecting her jackpot?

There was nothing Lionel hated more than a conundrum, but that's exactly what he had on his hands because he couldn't tell Whitney the truth -- not without betraying his own involvement in discovering the birth of the child after having promised not to investigate Cheryl Bower.

What to do...what to do...

"That fucking asshole..." Whitney muttered to no one in particular as he reset the DVR. Lionel knew exactly who he was cursing. He put his laptop into sleep mode and engaged the security protocol as Whitney asked, "Why, Lionel? Why did you have to order that fucking drug test? Couldn't you have waited until after we played New Orleans?"

"You'd rather Mr. Crukshank be absent when we play Denver in three weeks?"

"I'd rather Steve Crukshank not be absent at all."

"Then he should stop shooting up designer steroids," Lionel commented mildly as he rose and moved across the room to the bar Mioshi had set up earlier on the table behind the sofa. "If it's any consolation, I did postpone his suspension until after the game against Tampa last week."

"While you were at it, why didn't you postponed Seth Williams' bacterial infection and Mack Chenner's cracked ribs?" Whitney pressed the play button again to restart the digital recording.

Lionel poured two fingers of Macallan single malt. "Your faith in the extent of my power is gratifying." He moved around the table and sat against the back of the sofa behind Whitney. "Do you really believe watching that video a 10th time will make the Saints easier to beat tomorrow?"

"Are you criticizing your quarterback's dedication and preparation?"

"I am commenting, not criticizing."

"Well, come back and comment when it's your ass about to be pummelled into the astroturf."

Lionel leaned down and whispered in Whit's ear, "I actually had a different sort of pummeling planned for your ass tonight."

Whitney grinned. "Hot damn!" He turned off the tv, tossed away the remote control and turned to his lover. Coming to his knees, putting Lionel's mouth in reasonable reach, he stretched up for a kiss. "Let the pummeling begin."

Lionel chuckled. "You can be incredibly predictable."

Whitney ran a hand up Lionel's thigh. "You'd rather I played hard to get?"

"Hard will be sufficient," he said as his mouth closed over Whitney's. Their tongues mated and a lazy lover's kiss gradually developed heat. Lionel shifted, sliding his legs over the back of the sofa and Whitney obligingly nestled between his thighs without breaking the kiss. His nimble fingers found the closure of Lionel's trousers, and a soft growl of pleasure rumbled in Lionel's throat as Whit's strong, calloused hand freed his cock, stroking it with assurance and authority, as if it was a treasured possession, something he cherished as his and his alone...which it was, though Whit was sure Lionel would have died before admitting it.

Fondling gave way to a more intimate application of mouth to cock, clothes were hastily shed, and Lionel finally broke free, standing, commanding, "Come."

"Your bed or mine?" Whitney asked hoarsely.

Lionel didn't answer, but instead of moving toward either bed, he went to the bureau and took a bottle of lube from the top drawer. Whitney grinned in anticipation as his lover slicked his hands, and when Lionel quirked an expectant eyebrow at him, Whitney joined him at the bureau, where he quickly found himself facing the long mirror, Lionel nuzzling the back of his neck as the long fingers of one of his beautiful pianist's hands slid across Whit's abdomen and then lower into the blond curls that framed his cock.

Whit sucked in a deep, hissing breath when Lionel slid a lubed finger into him and stroked his prostate. Whitney closed his eyes and moaned, but Lionel adminished. "Look. Watch," he commanded as a second finger entered and crooked the hotspot. Whitney's cock jerked, hardened, and rose. Lionel pierced him with a third finger and massaged his prostate until Whitney's cock was at full staff; thick, hard, beautiful.

Lionel took hold of it, one hand loosening his ass, the other teasing his cock. "I know I have been quite liberal in my praise of your perfect body," he said, his voice huskey as he ran his hand lightly up and down the shaft. "But have I ever really done justice to your cock? So beautiful... Length and breadth so generously formed, so magnificently proportioned to your body. And these jewels..."
His hand cupped Whit's sac and gently rolled his balls until he whimpered "Oh, jesus, Lionel, fuck me." He bent, bracing his hands on the bureau and watching in the mirror, aching and nearly breathless as Lionel sheathed and lathered his cock, then brought it to his ass. Whitney winced as the thick cock head pierced him.

"Hard." It was a plea, not an observation.

But Lionel had other ideas. He slid his cock in slowly, a fraction of an inch at a time, exercising incredible restraint. "Not tonight my beautiful warrior. While I normally take great pleasure in knowing you can feel my cock long after I have withdrawn, I want nothing distracting you tomorrow except, perhaps, the knowledge that I will eagerly welcome you off the field with whatever level of penetration your heart -- and your perfect ass -- desires."

His cock was buried to the hilt and he slowly withdrew it, nearly to the rim, then eased in again, making Whitney moan as he brushed his hot spot. Setting a painstakingly, maddeningly slow rhythm, he found Whit's cock again and slicked his hand with the precome that dripped from the head.

Whitney looked at Lionel's reflection in the mirror and lost himself in the look of pleasure on his lover's face as the pace quickened, building to a fevered pitch that left them both gasping for breath and sanity.

Sunday, October 15
New Orleans

CBS PRE-GAME SHOW

“Welcome ladies and gentlemen to today’s featured match-up between the AFC West leading Metropolis Sharks and the NFC South leading New Orleans Saints. I’m Greg Gumbel along with my partner Phil Simms. Phil, this looked like a good match-up a week ago, but the Sharks are coming in with some issues.”

“Greg, how right you are. The Sharks have an amazing rookie Quarterback in Whitney Fordman. His touchdown to interception ratio is better than 3-to-1, which is excellent. He has jump-started an offense and catapulted them into first place, but part of that success was predicated on a solid offensive line which right now the word ‘Shambles’ would not over-reaching to describe them. For more on that we go down to our sideline reporter, Armen Keteyian.”

“Greg, Phil, right now the Sharks' offensive line is in disarray. The Sharks’ owner Lionel Luthor has always demanded a clean team, so it was no big surprise when left offensive tackle Steve Crukshank received a hefty three game suspension after a Luthor-ordered in-house drug test came back positive for a new synthetic steroid. To make matters worse, Mack Chenner is rumored to be playing with an injury that makes him questionable for the game, and right guard Seth Williams is out with a bacterial infection. He has been hospitalized and needless to say, won’t be playing. That leaves an offensive line packed with young players whose combined years of NFL experience barely breaks into double digits. Back to you, Greg.”

“Thank you, Armen. So the Sharks’ offensive line, which was one of the most experienced will have two first time starters and a Rookie QB today.”

“Greg, Whitney Fordman’s best friend today will be an effective running game, but the Saints are the best in the business at stopping the Run.”

“Right you are, Phil. We will be back to the Super Dome right after these messages.”


SHARKS 0 SAINTS 0
1ST QTR 15:00

As was his custom on road games, Lionel staked his claim on a swath of the sidelines at the kickoff and began pacing. For home games, he usually entertained in the Owner's Box, combining business with the pleasure he took from watching his team. On the road, though, he was free to be closer to the action. He never cursed, rarely spoke, and commentators had been known remark on his predatory prowling. The GM would join him at times and occasionally he would watch from the Sharks' booth with the aerial-view coaches. He was a part of the landscape on the road, and today he was thankful that everyone was accustomed to his pacing. This game was a test for Whitney on several levels and the deck was stacked against him. The Offensive line was depleted; they were on the road, playing in a Dome, and Lionel was free to "stalk" the sidelines with no one being the wiser that for the first time all season he was worried about his young general.

SHARKS 0 SAINTS 0
1ST QTR 13:10

Whitney dropped back to throw. It was third down and a long seven to go. So far the running game had lost more yardage than had been gained and his arm was all that had allowed the Sharks to advance the ball. He released the ball just before being flattened. Two minutes into the game and so far he’d been hit on every passing play.

He picked himself off the ground and watched helplessly as his pass was tipped, intercepted, and returned for a touchdown. The first offensive series had not gone well. He’d have to adjust.

“Fuck!”

SHARKS 0 SAINTS 7
1ST QTR 11:37

Lionel schooled his features, willing himself not to wince as Whitney got crunched -- again -- between two Saints players. The offensive line was doing a piss poor job of protecting his investment-slash-bed partner. Another play was mounted. His young Adonis rolled away from the pressure and took another hit an instant after the pass left his fingertips. By the time he was on his feet again, the pass had been tipped -- again -- and intercepted.

Whitney's stats were taking as merciless a beating as his body. By the end of the first quarter, the loss Lionel had dreaded was clearly visible on the horizon.

SHARKS 10 - SAINTS 23
2ND QTR 4:15

From the sidelines, Whitney looked up at the scoreboard and sighed as the extra point rolled the Saints' score from 23 to 24. New Orleans definitely had home field luck on their side. The Sharks trailed by fourteen, and it was only that close because the Sharks' Defense had blocked a punt, giving the Sharks the best field position of the day and returned an Aaron Brooks interception for a touchdown. Whitney and the offense, by contrast, stunk worse than three day old socks.

Whitney needed to generate momentum for the offense, but it was hard when he was spending most of his time picking himself up off the turf. That was not how he liked to play the game or how he preferred time spent on his back. He already ached from being sacked five times and hit an additional six times. He considered it a miracle that he hadn't broken anything. Yet.

He ran onto the field and into the huddle. “We're changing the tempo, no huddle from here out. R Slant fifty, then double post deep. If we get deep, we will huddle. If not, then we go with Pull R screen. Silent snaps 5, 3, then 4. Break!”

He walked up behind his Center, Lloyd Tanner, and went with the silent count. The ball came into his hands and the pressure came at him from the left side as it had the entire game. The Maginot Line had held longer than his left flank, but he hit his slant receiver an instant before he was nailed.

He pulled himself up and ran up to the line. ‘Four minutes left in the half.’ They had picked up a first down and the Defense looked confused. Good. He took the snap, rolled to his right to avoid the inevitable pressure, and threw the perfect pass to Thad Mosley for a huge gain.

“Go! Let's go!” Whitney yelled at his team, prodding them to line up quickly so they could hit the Defense before they were set.

The Saints called a timeout to regroup.

“Fuck!”

Whitney ran to the sidelines.

The Sharks’ Offensive Coordinator Chuck Franklin met him. “Whitney, play cool. We need a score and not another turnover.”

Whitney’s chest tightened. The turnovers were bad luck more than bad plays, but they were ultimately Whitney's responsibility. “We’ll score and come back on them.”

SHARKS 10 - SAINTS 24
2ND QTR 2:49

“Welcome back to the Super Dome as the Sharks mount their first real offensive drive of the day. First and Ten from the Saints eighteen yard line as the teams retake the field. Fordman takes the snap; the defense is coming with a safety blitz from the left side. Fordman rolls to his right, looks to throw. No! He tucks the ball and takes off! Ten, five, Touchdown Sharks! You know, Phil, Fordman's arm is so amazing that it's easy to forget just how fast he is.”

“How true, Greg. You know, Fordman is awfully slow getting up out there. He got hammered as he made that dive for the End Zone.”

“Fordman is limping as he heads towards the bench. That is the longest run of the day for the Sharks and triples the running yardage the Offense has amassed thus far. Going to be a high price if it puts the rookie on the bench, though.”

SHARKS 17 - SAINTS 24
2ND QTR 2:15

“Son of a bitch!” Whitney yelled as he dropped onto the bench. His ankle was throbbing. He’d had sprains before -- he knew this wasn't a break -- but he wanted off of it. Trainers swarmed him as he sat down. “24 - 17, we are back in the game!”

“FORDMAN!" Harry Lessening charged up like a bull in a china shop. "I have enough injuries without you making mad dashes for the End Zone.” He turned to the trainer. “How's the ankle?”

“Looks like a sprain. I’ll wrap it and he can play. I’m more worried about his head. He’s been hit a lot, and after that decision to dive for the Touchdown…”

Whitney winced as his ankle was wrapped. “I’m sitting right here! There is nothing wrong with my head or my hearing!”

“We’ll get a CT Scan when we get home," the trainer said, totally ignoring the interruption. "I know he’s as hard-headed as they come, but you can’t be too careful.”

Whit threw his hands in the air.

"Get Shan out here to look at him," Lessening ordered, then charged off to yell at the Defense that was getting marched on.

When his ankle was taped, Whitney walked around a bit, testing it, but keeping his attention on the game as the half drew to a close. The Saints last-second Field Goal pushed their lead back out to ten points.

“27-17 and we get the ball first. Okay, Boys, we are still in this! The Second Half is ours!”

SHARKS 17 - SAINTS 27
3RD QTR 9:20

Whitney grimaced as the trainers wrapped his left ankle. Again. The game was only in the third quarter but it felt like it had been three days already.

“Fuck!” Whitney watched as the Saints put another three points on the scoreboard.

“Looks like you have your work cut out for you, Whitney,” the trainer commented.

"Do they give you lessons in Understatement, or is that just a natural talent?" Whitney said, trying for a good-natured grin but it turned into a wince when his shoe went back on his foot. He stood slowly, testing the ankle as the Saints kicked off to the Sharks. He wanted it tighter and it finally felt like he could put pressure on it. The three-and-out the Offense had after Halftime was embarrassing. He’d been hammered on all three plays. The sack total for the day stood at seven already and he could feel every one of those hits. The field position was poor again, thanks to another holding call. Whitney spotted Drew Benedict and grabbed his arm. “Listen, you have to fucking block out there! I’m getting pummeled!”

Drew pushed Whitney’s hand off of him. “Who the fuck made you king, faggot? Not like you haven’t thrown two interceptions, Mr. Calvin Klein Superstar. Why don’t you get your head out of your ass?”

Whitney scowled and got in Drew’s face. “Fuck you, asshole. They are blitzing every play now because they know your ass couldn’t stop my grandma in a wheelchair. You're supposed to protect my blind side, but I'm getting killed.”

Whitney turned and headed onto the field. He pulled the huddle together. “Listen, we have to move the ball and that means the line has to hold longer than the fucking snap! Now, screen right side!”

Whitney broke the huddle and walked up behind his center. The ball was snapped and Whitney moved back to pass and was hit from his left again. Slowly he sat up and took the hand of his running back, Rance Oliver. “Remind me to beat the shit out of Steve Crukshank when his suspension is over.”

Oliver walked back to the huddle with Whitney. “Dude, Crukshank’s been shooting up juice, you think you could take him?”

“Probably not, but his replacement is joke.” Whitney motioned to Drew, then moved into the huddle. “Okay, I can say that sucked. Benedict, if you don't block Whitehead on this play, I'm going to personally drop kick your ass out of the fucking plane over Arkansas on the way home.”
"Yeah, you and what army?" Benedict retorted.

Dan Gossett, a 6'6", 332 lb. human trainwreck thumped Benedicts' shoulder pad and smiled broadly, displaying brilliant white teeth in a dark chocolate face. Words were unnecessary. The message was received loud and clear. Drew muttered an unhappy "Fuck you," but there was no force behind it.

Whitney made a mental note to send Gossett a thank you stripper next week.
He called another play and went to the line. The ball was snapped and he rolled to his right to avoid the pressure from the left where Drew Benedict again was overmatched. Whitney threw the ball to his tight end but got crunched between two Saints linemen just as he released the ball.

It took him a moment to get up off the turf. “I am going to feel that one for a few weeks.” He walked slowly to the huddle. His limp was noticeable. “We take this one first down at a time.” The Sharks lined up again. The ball was snapped and the pocket collapsed on Whitney in no time.

"I hope that fucking asshole can fly."

SHARKS 17 - SAINTS 30
3RD QTR 7:00

Seething, Lionel made his way through the warren of corridors downstairs and back to the field. After the half, he'd joined the Aerial coaches so he could get a bird's eye view of the disaster that was his offensive line. Second-string left tackle, Drew Benedict, had been a big question mark coming into this game. What Lionel had seen aloft had turned the question mark to a bullseye. Benedict was caving so fast on every play that he might as well have been giving the Saints an engraved invitation to pancake the quarterback into the astroturf.

When he returned to the sidelines, Lionel discovered that nothing had changed. Whitney was moving slowly and limping noticeably, but he had too much heart to give up. He'd keep pushing, even if it meant getting seriously injured, and all because that prick Benedict couldn't hold the line. He watched two more agonizing plays, but the cost of the yardage gained was just too high. Lionel pulled out his phone and called the Sharks control booth. “Patch me through to Lessening.” The coach was only a few yards away on the other side of the bench, but Lionel made it a point to avoid the appearance of dictating instructions. It took a moment before he was able to talk to the head coach without appearing to do so. “Harry, pull him before he gets seriously injured.”

Lionel kept his face neutral as Whitney went down for the tenth sack of the day. Lessening called a time out and pulled the trainers over to Fordman’s side. Whitney wasn't going to like being yanked from the game, but the outcome of this game wouldn't damage the Sharks' AFC West standing and Lionel wasn't about to gamble his young QB's career on a meaningless match up. Whitney was resiliant, but he’d been hit well over a dozen times and had his ankle taped three times. Next week was a bye; better to pull him now, let him heal and go back onto the field healthy against Denver in two weeks.

Brookline went into the game and Lionel knew speculation would begin immediately that Fordman was being benched. He paced again and saw Whitney being carted off to the locker room. One the coaches walked up to him.

“Sir, they are taking him to get X-rays on his ankle. Dr. Shan has already said he wants Fordman on crutches for three days. They don’t think it's anything more than a sprain, but we can’t be sure yet.”

Lionel nodded. “Thank you.” Lionel waited for the coach to walk away. The roaring of the crowd pulled his attention to the field. Brookline had just thrown an interception that the Saints had run back for a touchdown. Lionel pulled his phone out again. “Bring the car around. I’m leaving.”

Lionel dialed the booth one more time. “Mancini.” He waited for the General Manger to grab the line. “You know what to do.”

SHARKS 17 - SAINTS 37
4th QTR 15:00

Whitney insisted on coming back to the sideline to cheer for the team even though it was clear that a loss was pending. He was on crutches and his ankle was iced down, but it didn’t hurt too much as long as he kept pressure off of it. His pride hurt more than anything. The Sharks were being humiliated on the road and on CBS’ featured game of the week. ‘Wonder how good my Q rating will be after this disaster? I can hear the critics now, Fordman stumbles. Shark stink up Super Dome. One Hit Whitney?’ He looked around but couldn’t see Lionel anywhere. “Guess I can look forward to a cold reception tonight. Might as well get ready to deal with more fallout,” Whitney muttered to no one.

"It's a sign of insanity to talk to one’s self,” Bran commented as he walked up. “Though from the punishment you took today, I don’t doubt that you could be hearing voices.”

“You're a regular comedian, Bran. Don’t quit you day job.”

Bran chuckled and moved closer to Whitney. “Seriously, are you okay? I saw quite a few Whitney Sandwiches today and none of them looked pleasant.”

Whitney hobbled to the bench and sat down as he’d been instructed by the doctor. He waited for Bran to join him. “Ask me tomorrow how I feel. Right now I'm crippled by the ass-kicking we're getting over to the wrong side of the scoreboard.”

“Hey, Whitney, this team is yours. Don't let one ass-kicking tell you otherwise. You keep the faith and we will too," Bran said, then moved on.

Whitney really appreciated the encouragement. Somehow he doubted that Lionel would be quite so forgiving.

The ragged, disheartened offensive line was coming off the field and Whitney hailed one of the players. "Hey, Noon!"

John Noonan, the rookie guard who'd gone in for the hospitalized Seth Williams, stopped and looked at him. "Yeah?"

"Don't let the score fool you," Whitney advised him. "You did good out there. Thanks."

"You're welcome," the first-time starter said with a big grin. "Take care of that ankle. I like being on the winning side."

Whitney nodded. "Yeah, me too."

***

"Final score was 47-17, Mr. Luthor."

Lionel glared in the general direction of cockpit of his Embraer ERJ 145. He tapped the intercom. "Thank you, Connor. I could have done nicely without that information."

"Sorry, sir," the Captain replied unapologetically. "We'll be at cruising altitude in about 5 minutes. ETA Metropolis is 4:50. Sandofer has arranged for the limo to be waiting."

Lionel checked his watch. "Noted," he replied, then sat back to nurse a very disappointing Royal Lochnagar Scotch. He normally preferred Speyside single malts, but this had been a gift from a colleague who hadn't taken the time to learn a Highland from a Speyside from a Islay or a Lowland. Twelve years in the cask hadn't been nearly enough for the Lochnagar he'd just opened. His stock of vintage single malts was running low; it was fortunate that Christie's autumn auction in Glasgow was only a month away. He would have to remember tomorrow to ask Grace if the catalog had arrived so that he could plan his bidding strategy.

Setting aside the Scotch that was much too smoky for his palate, Lionel moved to the desk in the luxuriously appointed sitting room that, if necessary, could be opened into a full-scale boardroom. He fired up his laptop and logged into his Message Center. Most of the mail would wait until tomorrow -- he'd let Grace prioritize it for him -- but there were several Eyes Only messages that demanded his personal attention. One was a packet of encrypted files from Jacob Manning. Lionel downloaded them, then disengaged from the network before decrypting them.

He knew what they were even before he unscrambled them. One set of folders contained photos from the surveillance net that had been set up around Whitney in the hope of spotting his stalker. The other would be another report on the problem that was four-week old Whitney Marie Bower.

He opened the Bower folder first and found a report and surveillance photos of Cheryl. She had started work this week and Jacob had captured images of her on playground duty, entering a supermarket, removing the baby from a car seat... Normal activities from a routine week for a working mother. Nothing new or interesting.

He opened the second decrypted folder and, much to his dismay, discovered a copy of a new email from Whitney's mysterious stalker "K" -- they were averaging one a week now. This one contained more insane ravings about the purity of the love Whitney supposedly shared with this anonymous lunatic. Jacob had included an assessment that concerned Lionel and he made a note to discuss the implications with Manning before his security chief shared the contents of the folder with Whitney tomorrow.

Lionel opened a folder of photos that had been culled from the various security sources that were now focused on Whitney. He scanned the images, but quickly lost patience with the sea of faces. They had a forensic analyst and a sophisticated computer face-recognition program comparing the sets of images, looking for repeated faces, and Whitney received the folders once a week so that he could look for familiar faces. Unfortunately, the only face Lionel could be sure they wouldn't find in the surveillance was Cheryl Bower, whose hospital stay had eliminated her as the potential stalker.

It was a shame, Lionel reflected. Spotting Cheryl in one of the surveillance photos would force Whitney to allow Manning to investigate the girl, and the investigation would naturally uncover the birth of a child whose conception coincided with a period of time that Whitney had been dating the girl. What a pity that--

Lionel smiled. He loved it when ideas collided and plots coalesced. Mousing quickly to the Surveillance files, he found the folder labeled "Lancer Building" and scrolled through the images until he found the one he wanted -- a street scene from the corner opposite the entrance of Whitney's apartment building. In the picture, a half-dozen pedestrians were loosely clustered at a stop light. He pulled that image into a new folder, then navigated back to the set of images of Cheryl Bower standing on the playground of McKinnon Elementary school. He pulled the picture into the previous folder and reached for his cell phone.

Jacob Manning's voice mail answered the ring. "Jacob. My flight arrives in Metropolis at 4:50. Please meet me in the limo. I believe I have come up with the contingency plan we've been looking for."

***

Last on, first off. Just one of the perks of being injured in the line of duty, Whitney discovered. The front cabin of the team jet was reserved for the walking wounded, so today Whitney had a whole luxury-class row to himself. With a pillow at his back, he was propped against the window, left leg elevated, a hardback thriller open on his lap, unread, as he mentally searched his body for any spot that didn't hurt.

He was grateful for the distraction when Bran suddenly slid onto the armrest at his feet and grinned down at him. "Are you medicated?"

Whitney closed the book, using the overleaf of the dust jacket as a bookmark. "Does a near-lethal dose of Ibuprophen count?"

"Nope. I think Tug's hoarding a six-pack of Bud on ice. I'll tackle him for it, if you want."

Whitney shook his head. "I'll live. I won't enjoy it, but I'll live. Did you come up here just to apply for a position as my pusher?"

"No, I dropped by to tell you to stop it."

"Stop what?"

"Beating yourself up."

Whitney shifted and felt it in every muscle. "Don't worry. I don't think the Saints left anything to beat."

Bran leaned closer to avoid being overheard. "Thanks to that asshole, Benedict," he hissed. "Once the Saints got his number it was all over but the whistle."

Whit lowered his voice, too. "I don't want to be paranoid, Bran, but was this a message from the line? Are the guys pissed about the Klein endorsement? Do they think I'm hitting too big too fast?"

"Hell, no. Benedict's a first class wuss. Everybody knows it, but this is the first time he's been put to the test. He's been dragging his ass on second squad, collecting a paycheck and praying nothing happens to Cruk. Today he got a good look at Willie Whitehead's nosehair and it scared the shit out of him." Bran patted Whit's uninjured right leg. "Trust me. Has nothing to do with you -- although you are generally hated for being prettier than the average Miss America."

Whitney laughed and winced. "Fuck you. Envy I can handle. It's the sticks, stones, and Willie Whitehead that'll be the death of me." He shook his head. "One more game of this till Crukshank comes back. I don't know if I'll survive."

Bran shook his head. "Don't worry. You won't have to. The Boss isn't the forgiving sort."

"You really think Lionel will bench me?" Whitney said, frowning as a sick, nauseous feeling slammed into his gut.

"Not you! Benedict. I've never seen Luthor leave anyone on the line who played like Benedict. They'll bounce him back to being a practice dummy for a few weeks and see if that stiffens his spine."

"Great," Whitney muttered with little enthusiasm. He could just hear the locker room grumbling already, "Fucking QB can't take a beating so Benedict gets sent down."

Bran seemed to read his mind. "Stop worrying, Whit-man. The guys respect you on the field, and the Boss will have a solid line for you by the time we get to Denver so that you can go back to working your magic. You'll find that the locker room is very forgiving when we're winning."

***

Bran, the offensive coach, two trainers, his body man, and a front office media guy that Whitney didn't even know all offered to drive him home, but he politely declined them all. His right leg, though bruised at the thigh, was perfectly capable of managing the accelerator and brake. He just wanted to get home with as little fanfare as possible and die.

But first he had to deal with Lionel. Hoping for voice mail, he hit Lionel's private number on speed dial and got lucky. Now, what to say? He'd rehearsed it all the way from New Orleans, but it still got stuck in his throat. "Hey, Boss. It's Gimpy here. I'm heading home for an ice pack, a boloney sandwich, and a noose to hang myself with -- oops, sorry, -- with which to hang myself. I'll talk to you tomorrow when I'm human again." He paused, then, added softly, "I'm sorry I let you down. I love you."

He hung up and wondered if Lionel would let that be that. At best he was only postponing the inevitable. He'd known this day was coming -- it wasn't possible for a team to win every game -- but Whitney dreaded seeing the disappointment in his lover's eyes. Lionel valued winning; he brooked no excuses for failure. Maybe tomorrow, when the sting of defeat had worn off some, it would be easier to face whatever punishment Lionel would mete out. Or maybe not.

With days getting shorter, it was flirting with dusk by the time Whitney pulled into the Lancer Building parking. Leaving his acursed crutches laying in the passenger side, he limped his way upstairs and unlocked the door.

It hit him at once that his apartment should be dark, but it wasn't. It should have been silent, too, but there was Bach coming from his sound system. And if sight and sound weren't sufficient sensory clues that he had a visitor, there was a tantalizing odor of something mouthwateringly Italian emanating from the kitchen.

Joy and dread hit him in equal parts. Whitney shut the door and locked it behind him.

"You realize, Mr. Fordman, that I could have you fined for disobeying doctor's orders. Where are your crutches?"

Ready with an apology, Whitney turned toward the stern voice and totally cracked up. Lionel was on the kitchen dias, wooden spoon in hand, shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows. Tied neatly at his neck and waist was a black linen chef's apron that read "Chairman of the Bordeaux." Joy overwhelmed the dread. Lionel couldn't be too angry if he was cooking supper and wearing clothing with gag slogans. Cackling with glee, he limped toward the kitchen. "Man, if I wasn't already in love with you, this would definitely put me over the edge."

"Hmmm... Apparently my threats don't carry the gravity they once did," Lionel grumbled.

"It's the apron," Whitney told him. "Or maybe just the incongruity of seeing Lionel Luthor in the kitchen."

Lionel came down one step, keeping the height advantage as he took Whitney into a very light embrace and kissed him. Whitney would have melted if the resulting puddle wouldn't have caused him great pain. "Did you really cook?" he asked when the kiss ended.

"Olympia's provided the veal marsalla and Chef Vernier's home-pressed fettucini. I am providing the boiling water. The pasta should be al dente by the time you get out of those clothes and into something comfortable that includes an ice pack. I'm fining you a thousand dollars for every minute that ankle isn't elevated. Where are your crutches?"

"Downstairs in the Lexus," Whitney tossed over his shoulder as he limped for the bedroom.

"I'll call Jacob and have someone from security bring them--"

"No, don't!" Whitney countered. "I've got a pair in the guest room closet. I'll get them. This isn't the first time I've been pummeled."

"It's the first time on my watch," Lionel said. Something in his tone made Whitney stop and turn. Lionel's face was grave as he told Whit, "I should have protected you better. Lessening expressed doubts about Benedict last year, but Franklin thought he could be salvaged. Obviously he was wrong. Benedict has already been sent down to the practice team. He'll be released or put on waiver next year, but he won't play for the Sharks again. His performance today was disgraceful."

Whitney's sense of decency and fair play wanted to suggest that Benedict be given a second chance, but his swollen ankle and the gigantic bruise that was his body told him to keep his mouth shut. With some quality game time, it was possible that Benedict would toughen up, but Whitney didn't want to suffer through the trial-and-error period, and it was damn sure Lionel didn't want to suffer the inevitable losses associated with nursing one piss-poor offensive lineman.

"On behalf of everyone on the team who enjoys winning, I thank you," he said.

Lionel used the spoon to point to the bedroom. "Clothes! Ice pack! Elevated! Fine! Do these words mean nothing to you?"

"Going, going!" Whitney hobbled off. He flipped on the lightswitch and was half-way out of his suit before he realized that Lionel had just apologized to him.

It was an event so enormous he had to sit down to digest it.

***

"How can you possibly defend him? You of all people!" Whitney was aghast. Still seated at the table on the dias at the living room window, he and Lionel were enjoying after-dinner conversation and a bottle of merlot that Lionel had deemed "excellent." Whit's ankle was iced and elevated; dinner was a memory sitting pleasantly on his palate and in his belly. What wasn't sitting well was Lionel's defense of Steve Crukshank. "I know how you feel about drug use, Lionel. You're a purist who thinks steroids are an abomination. You suspended Steve for three games. Not the League. You. Lionel Luthor."

"I'm aware of my name, Whitney."

"Are you sure? If you can sit there and defend Steve Crukshank for taking steriods, I have to wonder if I really know you."

"You don't. Not really, but that's hardly the point," Lionel said pleasantly, between sips of wine. "Saying that I understand why Mr. Crukshank took the drugs is not the same thing as defending him."

"No?"

"No. Steve Crukshank is well into the last half of his career. Younger, faster, possibly stronger athletes are nipping at his heels, reminding him of his career mortality and his own fading physical gifts. You're too young to understand the kind of fear that can be bred by knowing you may soon be too old to hold on to the things that define your very existence."

Was Lionel making a confession? Whitney couldn't tell. "I can't imagine you being afraid of anything, no matter what your age."

Lionel smiled. "I don't have to share a fear to understand it's source. Shall we?" He gestured toward the sofa below them in the sunken living room.

"Sure."

Lionel stood and handed Whitney his crutches, then shared the last of the merlot between their two glasses.

"What about the dishes?" Whitney asked as he hobbled down the two steps and across to the sofa.

"I instructed Mioshi to be here at nine to handle the clean up. There is only so far I'm willing to go to coddle my wounded warrior."

"This is plenty far," Whitney replied, grinning. He stopped in front of the couch. "Come sit."

Lionel put their glasses on the coffee table and sat. Whitney lowered himself gingerly onto the sofa next to him, leaning into the circle of Lionel's arms and angling his body along the sofa so that his left leg was elevated.

"Are you sure you're comfortable?" Lionel asked.

"Yeah. I'm good for a while. Until I stiffen up."

Lionel chuckled darkly and Whitney cursed his tongue. Sex was the last thing on his mind, and as much as he loved Lionel for being here and taking care of him, he was also dreading the very real possibility that his lover expected this evening to end in sex. If that's what Lionel wanted, Whitney would do his best to comply, but his ankle was screaming, he had more bruises than he could count, and there wasn't a joint in his body that hadn't been abused today. At this stage, it would take a forklift and a bottle of viagra to stiffen his cock.

"Lionel, I'm not sure--"

"Don't be silly, Whitney," Lionel said, brushing a hand through Whit's short, fair hair. "Once you are fully recovered, I shall take your gorgeous ass out for a spin, but I am not heartless."

Whitney managed to turn toward Lionel and cup him intimately. "If you want, I could--"

Lionel silenced him with a kiss. "Generous, but unnecessary. I prefer pleasures shared." He covered Whitney's hand, holding it against his cock for a long moment, then carefully lifted their hands away. "Although we'd be wise not to test my resolve too far."

"Actually, I rather enjoy testing your resolve... But not tonight." Whitney leaned in for another kiss, then shifted and got as comfortable as the day's trouncing would allow.

Lionel handed him his wine, and with Rachmaninov playing softly in the background, it would have been a perfect moment if Lionel hadn't spoiled it. "Before you get too comfortable..."

"Oh, shit," Whitney muttered. Why did everything perfect always come with a price tag? Just once, couldn't he smell the roses without getting bitten by thorns? "What?" he asked, dreading the answer.

"On the way back from New Orleans I got a preview of the security files Jacob will be bringing you tomorrow."

Whitney groaned, but the topic seemed legitimate, not one of Lionel's patented reality checks. "Oh, God, more faces to sort through? It took me hours last week. And I didn't even go anywhere! One trip to the market, practice every day, and back home. How many fuzzy pictures am I going to have to wade through this week?"

"Quite a few, I expect. I gave the folders only a cursory glance. However --" He paused a moment. " -- there's another letter."

"Shit," Whitney muttered under his breath. "What does she say this time?"

"To me, it seemed like more of the same, but Jacob is concerned. I spoke to him at length after I got back into town and he feels certain that your stalker is building up to making some sort of symbolic physical contact."

"What the fuck does that mean?"

"She may make contact with someone you know."

"Why? Why not me directly?"

"Because confronting you face-to-face risks challenging the validity of her delusion."

Whitney twisted to look at him. "You mean she doesn't want to hear me yell 'Get the fuck away from me you crazy bitch?'"

Lionel chuckled. "Yes, that would tend to punch a hole in her belief that you are madly in love with her."

"I'd like to punch a hole in her face."

"Violent fantasies aside, Jacob thinks -- and I agree -- that you should warn the friends who would be her most likely point of contact."

Whitney sat up, barely noticing the pain as he dropped his legs off the couch and turned to Lionel. "Jacob thinks she's going to attack one of my friends?"

Lionel shook his head vigorously. "No, not an attack. Contact. A phone call, possibly. Or a letter. Or a 'chance' meeting in a public place. Jacob says that she's getting desperate for a validation of your relationship. Some part of her rational self knows that coming to you risks rejection, but there is less risk in insinuating herself into the life of someone you know."

Whitney thought it over. "You mean, like, running into someone at the grocery store and saying, 'Oh, aren't you so-and-so? Whitney has told me all about you."

"Exactly. Self-aggrandizing behavior supports her delusion that she actually has a relationship with you. And whoever she contacts might think nothing about the incident."

It made a wacked sort of sense. Which was appropriate considering who he was dealing with. "Who should I tell?"

"Friends and associates that she would have learned about through the media would be the most likely targets."

"Shit, Lionel, that could mean the whole damn football team!"

"Possibly, but I don't think we should go that far. Making an annoucement to the team would be tantamount to calling a press conference. No, this should stay a little closer to home for the time being. Your mother should be told, of course."

Whitney groaned. His mother had recovered from her stroke and was back to a normal life, but he still viewed her health as very fragile. "Oh, God... This is going to freak her out."

"Downplay the danger," Lionel advised. "In fact, don't mention the stalker at all. Blame it on your new found press attention."

He nodded. "I could tell her to be wary of anyone pretending to know me because it might be a reporter trying to pump her for information."

"Excellent! I think your friend Lois should be told, too. She will be identified by the press after she appears with you at the ball next week. You've mentioned her in the abstract in several interviews, so your stalker might target her. And Carla Cathcart should be told. Your association with her is well publicized, and since her agency has an office here in Metropolis, she would be much easier to reach out to than Miss Lane."

"Yeah. Carla probably ought to know anyway, in case the media gets wind of it. She'll eat me alive if she's the last to know."

"True. But you must make it clear to her that she is not to exploit this situation for publicity under any circumstance. Carla loves playing the press. In fact, she's been known to defy her clients wishes if the benefit is sufficient," Lionel warned him.

"I'll tell her," Whitney said with a nod. They discussed other options, but there weren't many. Off the field and out of the bedroom, Whitney's life was fairly narrow. Friends from college had scattered to the four winds, and he hadn't really had a chance to make friends in Metropolis outside of the team. He decided to tell Clark on the off chance that his stalker had been following him and seen them together. Bran Sutton already knew. Lionel wanted his coaches briefed, but not the players. That was about it.

"Gee... I don't know whether to be relieved that only a small group needs to be told, or be depressed because I have so few friends," Whitney groused as he limped his way into the kitchen.

"I believe the answer to that lies in the question: Is there anything missing from your life?"

Whitney took a Corona from the door of the fridge and paused to think it over. "Anything missing... Hmmm... I'm getting paid millions of dollars to do something I'd do for free, I've got a small but loyal handful of friends, my Mom's still kicking, I've got a great apartment and a great car. Oh, and I've got this brilliant, sexy, occasionally infuriating lover who is so good in bed he makes me scream when I come. I don't know what could be missing."

"How about $5,000," Lionel said, coming to he feet. "That sum seems to have deserted you and found its way into the Sharks' coffers."

Whitney frowned. "Huh?"

Lionel picked up Whitney's crutches. "Your fine for not having that ankle propped up for the last five minutes. I'll expect your check first thing in the morning."

"Oh yeah?" Whitney challenged with a devilish grin. "And just how will you explain how the owner knew that his star Qb needed to be fined?"


Monday, October 16
The Daily Planet online at www.thedailyplanet.com
Sports Section

Buyer’s Remorse
by John Vincent

The big sigh you all heard on Sunday was the sudden loss of the irrational Super Bowl expectations Metropolis developed out of nowhere. The shiny new car that was Whitney Fordman was exposed for all of its flaws as the Sharks were humiliated by the New Orleans Saints. Two interceptions and a touchdown run showed just how much this rookie has to learn about football. One of Fordman’s wheels was injured on that play and it cost them in the second half.

The great rookie hype that swept the city after an amazing debut on Monday Night Football has fallen back to reality thanks to the mugging in the Big Easy. The Sharks were turned into a new kind of gumbo and the Saints feasted mightily. The offensive showing on Sunday was nothing short of pathetic. Fordman could not find an open receiver all day because he was not looking. That modeling contract has already gone to his head. That's the problem with rewarding young players after a single stellar game; they suddenly think they are what people tell them they are. Perhaps Fordman would be better served just being a fashion model instead of a Prima Donna quarterback wannabe.

Lionel Luthor will never admit he made a mistake by drafting this near-hometown washout so high. Most NFL teams had Fordman rated as a low first rounder to third round pick. Look at all the terrific running backs around the league that could be rushing this team towards the Promised Land. Instead the Sharks are stuck with an overpaid rookie with an oversized ego. Where was the running game that could have saved some face on Sunday? Since being transformed into ‘Whitney’s World,’ the Sharks have become a pass first-and-often team. The Sharks threw four interceptions and no Defense, no matter how good, can overcome that kind of deficit.

As has been the model in the past, it was the Defense that shined in this terror of a game. If not for some early plays that kept the game close, this could have been one of the most lopsided scores in NFL history. It is not the Defense’s fault that the Saints scored often. Fordman was too busy trying to make his stats look good to try to actually find a way to win. Both of his interceptions were thrown into double coverage. His injury forced a rusty Brookline to play and the result was another disaster. If Fordman had played smart and run the ball out of bounds at the five, then shared the glory with one of his running backs, he wouldn't have been carted off the field in the second half from a sprained ankle and a bruised ego. Mustn’t look bad for the next photo shoot and disappoint Madison Avenue.

The coaching staff anointed Fordman as the Savior of the offense, but Sunday should have opened their eyes to the fact that the shiny car they thought they had is nothing but a lemon. However, Fordman can take pleasure in the fact that he can sell underwear and jeans for a living without getting dirty.


Whitney hadn't even seen the article when Carla called to discuss it on Monday morning. The ringing phone dragged him out of bed bleary-eyed, and his agent seemed to take a perverse delight in reading the diatribe to Whitney while he limped around the kitchen with the phone at one ear and clumsily concocted his morning protein shake with his free hand. He was wide awake and swearing voluably by the time she finished reading.

At that point, Carla dutifully slipped into the role of consoler, trying to calm Whitney's ire and convince him that going down to the Planet and using Vincent as a tackle dummy was not a wise career move. She also wisely reminded him that in the grand scheme of things (ie., his career), Vincent's opinion was only relevant if he was right, which he wasn't, so no harm done.

Whitney pretended to be soothed by her wisdom and changed the subject, warning her about 'K'. As Lionel had predicted, Carla immediately began trying to think of ways they could turn his plight into publicity, but Whitney shut her down hard and fast. He reminded her that there was a small but real potential for danger, and turning the situation into a media circus could seriously ratchet up the danger. She agreed to keep the problem in her strictest confidence, but he regretted having told her before he even got off the phone.

As long as he was in the groove, he decided to get the phone call to his mother over with. She, too, had seen the Vincent article and was even madder than he was. Whitney regurgitated some of Carla's calming wisdom, and used the article to illustrate the media attention that was going to start picking up. He warned his Mom to be careful of strangers who might approach her claiming to know her son. He made her promise to tell him if anyone made contact with her.

Lois was next. Her first class on Monday wasn't until eleven, so he was able to catch her in plenty of time for a nice chat. With Lois, he was completely candid -- he even read her one of 'K's' letters. Typically, she joked her way through the discussion, and then they went on to more important matters. Like Lois's newly-existent love life.

"He's Stud-on-a-Stick. Totally. Six foot three, black hair, brown eyes, shoulders that won't quit, and I swear as God is my witness, he's got brains above and below the waistline. We've been on three dates and not once have I had to cut up his food for him."

"He sounds devine," Whitney complimented, chuckling. "Are you sure he's straight?"

"Honey, nobody's that good an actor in bed."

"Ah, so Lois is finally getting some!"

"And how! I'm sick of living like a nun."

"Hey, nobody said that celebacy was a requirement of Grad school."

"I know, I know. But I have to make this count if I want my pick of newspapers when I finish and it's been a long time since I met someone who was worth the distraction."

Whitney smiled into the phone. "That's great, Lois. I'm glad you've found someone. Does Stud-on-a-Stick have a name?"

"Zack Urich. He's in my Ethics study group, headed for a career in Entertainment Law," she told him. "So what about you? How's life at the top treating you?"

Whitney's laugh was short and humorless. "I wouldn't know. I took a dramatic tumble on national television yesterday. New Orleans figured out how to exploit a weakness in our offensive line, and the local press is crucifying me for not being able to score while lying flat on my back."

"Really? I thought that was one of your better talents," Lois joked, but Whitney just couldn't find the humor.

"Ha, ha," he said darkly.

"Sorry. Guess that wasn't funny."

"No, it was a fine effort, I just haven't figured out how to take this kind of media punishment in stride yet." He gave her a short but graphic description of the game and the brutal pounding he took not only from the Saints, but from the Daily Planet, too. "If you get a minute this week, hop online and look at John Vincent's column. He calls me a Prima Donna quarterback wannabe who should stick to selling underwear for a living. And that's the complimentary part."

"Ouch. I'll bet your loss is going over well with Big Daddy Moneybuckets."

Whitney sighed. "You're never going to cut Lionel any slack are you?"

"Not likely. You deserve so much better."

"I've got what I want, Lois. He's wonderful. You should have seen him last night. He actually had dinner waiting for me here at the condo when I got home."

"Oh, cripes! What a sleeze!" Lois exclaimed. "You've got a sprained ankle and god only knows how many contusions, and he expects you to service him like a--"

"He didn't expect anything, Lois!" Whitney said sternly. "We had dinner and talked. We drank some wine and laughed, and we were just...together. He gave me exactly what I needed last night, and sex didn't play any part of it."

Whitney could feel Lois's disapproval from half way across the continent even before she said, "Boy-oh-boy, does he have you snowed."

"You're half right, Lois. He does have me. And I've got him," he said firmly, then added, "Well, I think I've got him. I'm pretty sure, anyway."

Lois sighed heavily. "You're pathetic. But if you're happy..."

"I am. Until yesterday's game, things were pretty close to perfect. In every way. You'll see next weekend. You'll meet Lionel at the Ball, of course, but he's invited you to have brunch with us on Sunday, too."

"Really?"

She sounded as though he'd told her she was scheduled for root canal. "Yes, really. He knows you're an important part of my life and he wants to get acquainted with you."

"Joy, joy."

"Lois, please..." he pleaded. "Give him a chance."

"Oh, all right," she relented. "But I gotta say I'm disappointed. Are you and I going to have any that's just the two of us?"

"Well, if you could come on Friday instead..."

"Sorry, sweetie, no can do. This Ethics in Journalism class is killing me. I don't dare miss the Saturday morning Study Group. I can't fly in until Saturday afternoon."

"Then we'll have to catch up at the Ball between Fox Trots."

Lois laughed. "Since when do you Fox Trot?"

"Sweetheart, I'm just full of surprises, and this weekend, most of them are aimed at you. Expect the royal treatment."

"My darling, Whitney, I never expect anything less!"


Tuesday, October 17
The Daily Planet online at www.thedailyplanet.com
Sports Section

The Blame Game
by John Vincent

The finger pointing from the Sharks’ Front Office following Sunday’s debacle has begun and none of it has fallen of the Shark’s anointed franchise player, Whitney Fordman. General Manager Mike Mancini made a point of demoting Offensive Lineman Drew Benedict for a poor performance replacing Steve Crukshank. “Giving up twelve sacks in a game is simply unacceptable. Mr. Benedict was at the heart of that mess.” Public lynching anyone? Mr. Mancini also noted that Seth Williams will return to action after the Bye week. But Mancini did not comment on Fordman’s abysmal showing.

Lionel Luthor however did come to the defense of his ‘star’ quarterback. “Whitney Fordman has won four games in a row and played nearly perfect so far. It is almost impossible to win a game when a majority of the time is spent being pummeled by the defensive line.” I think you protest too much, Mr. Luthor. He took great pains to point out the flaws in the rest of the team to hide his error in judgment.

It is well known that Lionel Luthor orchestrated Whitney Fordman’s drafting for a few years. He has high expectations for the underwear model. Maybe it's time to let Mr. Fordman pursue his new found pastime. Winning is a great way to hide flaws in a team, but the loss in New Orleans showed all kinds of weaknesses for the Sharks. And not a single word of negative criticism has come from the Sharks about the conductor of that train wreck.

Not surprisingly, Whitney Fordman refused to comment on the assassination of his fellow player, but the Sharks Front Office has the important stuff covered. They were able to inform us that Mr. Fordman will be wearing a tuxedo designed for him by Mr. Calvin Klein himself to the Annual Sharks' Charity Ball Saturday night. And not only will that, Mr. Fordman’s much-touted girlfriend, Cal Berkley grad student Lois Lane, will be wearing a gown by Donna Karan accented by a $125,000 diamond and ruby necklace on loan from Cartier-Metropolis.

It's always good to know that a player has his priorities straight, don't you think?

***

Whitney wanted to punch something. Preferably John Vincent's fucking face. Yesterday's article had been bad enough, but this latest... It was pure, unadulterated bullshit!

With his ankle, he couldn't go running. He was forbidden to work out until tomorrow. Hell, he couldn't even pace properly! All he could do was battle the urge to break every fucking piece of furniture in his apartment, then storm the Daily Planet and start on John Vincent's office.

And why the fuck didn't Lionel call him back? He'd already left three messages. How long could a goddam board meeting take, anyway? How many messages did he have to leave before--

The phone rang and Whitney pounced.

"Are you seething?"

Relief and release boiled into his rage at the sound of Lionel's voice. "That fucking bastard! That cocksucking, motherfucker. I am going to--"

"You are going to have a very long and illustrious career," Lionel said calmly, overriding his rant. "Occasionally in that long career you will be the hero, and at other times you will be the goat. If you let the media get that goat, you automatically lose. Listen to me very carefully, Whitney. You Don't. Get. Mad."

"You get even?" Whitney asked, half hope, half sarcasm.

"You get better," Lionel countered.

Total bullshit. "Yeah, but what do I do about Vincent?"

Whitney could hear his lover sigh. "As pleasing as it would be for you to smash Mr. Vincent's teeth down his throat, you will, instead, make him eat every word he has printed in the last two days. The fact that he insinuates you are a flash-in-the-pan does not make it so. You will play the Broncos on the 29th, and you will be brilliant. The best revenge is to make him look like a fool."

He knew Lionel was right. He'd known the answer himself with every word he'd read and every curse he'd uttered. Having Lionel say it, though, made it easier to accept. The worst thing he could do was let Vincent know he'd drawn blood. The best thing he could do was develop a thicker skin that didn't actually bleed.

"Say it again," Whitney pleaded.

Lionel chuckled. "You will be brilliant."

"You really think so?"

"Yes. And so do you."

"Damn straight." Whitney felt better. Lionel believed in him. He believed in himself. Facing the team would be a bitch tomorrow, but he'd get through it. And in two weeks, he'd make John Vincent eat crow. In the meantime... "Have Rudolph do something for lunch. I'm coming over so we can work off some of this excess adrenalin. I'm thinking 20 minutes in the pool ending in a hard fuck in the shallow end."

"Whitney--"

"All right. The deep end, but if I skin my knees--"

Lionel chuckled. "Sorry, Whitney. Tempting, but not feasible. I have a working lunch with Dominic to hammer out the final details of the Breverton merger."

Whitney groaned and sat on the arm of the sofa. Lionel was leaving tonight for the West Coast and wouldn't be back until the weekend. "Cancel it."

"The lunch?"

"The trip. Otherwise it's going to be Saturday night before I see you, and we both know what a disaster that could be. Lionel Luthor in a tuxedo is not something I'm going to be able to resist, and I don't think you want me jumping your bones in front of the team and 200 rich party-goers."

"I suspect you will manage to contain yourself," Lionel said dryly. "I must go. I have people waiting."

Shit. "Okay. Love you."

"I'll see you Saturday at the Ball."

The line went dead and Whitney slid onto the sofa. He propped his leg up and shifted to accommodate the uncomfortable bulge in his jeans. How the hell he was going to make it to the weekend?


Wednesday, October 18
Berkeley, California

With a test and two papers due that week, Lois didn't have time to hop online and check out the article John Vincent had written about Whitney on Monday. If she had, she would certainly have seen the follow-up article on Tuesday that informed anyone with computer access that Lois Lane was Whitney Fordman's girlfriend. Armed with that information, she might have had a fighting chance of connecting the dots between Vincent's column, the Daily Planet Online, the Internet, Berkeley School of Journalism, and Tony Solomon, Zack Urich's fraternity brother who had taken a chance and drafted rookie Whitney Fordman onto his Fantasy Football team.

She might have remembered that Tony was a football fanatic who took his FF team very seriously. She might have deduced the possiblity that Tony watched for local and regional news for tidbits about his widely-scattered players.

If she'd connected those dots, she might have been prepared for what was coming.

But she didn't read the Planet.

And she didn't have a clue until it was too late.

***

Wednesday, October 18
Metropolis

Drenched in dread, Whitney hobbled toward the Sharks auditorium for the first team meeting since Sunday's fiasco. Being humiliated on the field had been bad enough. Vincent's public flogging had only added insult to injury. Now, he had to face the coach who was going to tear him a new one in front of the team Vincent had accused him of having failed so spectacularly.

Wishing he had the balls to shed his crutches so that he could at least give the appearance of being smooth and unruffled, he pulled open one of the double doors and gimped his way awkwardly through. He was grateful for the smile and assistance when Tug Zuchash trotted up and held the door open. "Thanks, Tug."

"Not a problem."

Whitney moved on into the auditorium with a little more grace and saw the team; 60-plus players and coaches scattered throughout an auditorium built for 150.

Dead silent and every eye on him.

Shit. What the fuck do I do? Smile? Wave? Apologize? Whistle Dixie? Trip over my crutches and fall on my ass?

Bran Sutton took the decision out of his hands when he stood up and started clapping. In groups of twos-and-threes, then fives-and-sixes, the rest of the team joined in until damn-near everyone was on his feet. Applause. Cat-calls. A couple of Whoops! All for him.

Whitney could feel his face flaming with embarrassment and wanted to run away, change his name, and hide out in Accapulco for the rest of the season. Mostly, though, he wanted to kiss Bran Sutton.

In a purely platonic, "Thanks, Pal" fashion, of course.

Ducking his head in embarrassment, Whitney tried to move to a seat, but Tug herded him to the front as Bran swept down the opposite aisle to the podium at the front of the auditorium. "Gentlemen, I give you the newest member of the Vincent Victims Squad -- Whitney Fordman!” The applause rose briefly, then fell as the guys took their seats. Bran continued, "As you all know, you're not really a Shark until you've had your fins fricassied and your chestnuts roasted by everybody's favorite playground bully, John Vincent."

Under the cover of whoops and laughter, Whitney whispered to Tug, "I gotta sit down.”

“Nope,” Tug responded. “You're being inducted. You have to accept the honor.”

“I see Coach tapping his watch back there, so I’ll be brief," Bran continued. "Whitney, you have been singled out this year as the designated Vincent whipping boy. As a rookie that is a double honor. A show of hands, please, for our young quarterback. Everyone the astute Mr. Vincent decreed to be A Washout, A Loser, A Has Been, or just plain The Suck during their rookie season, raise your hand."

To Whitney’s amazement, over a dozen hands went into the air. “Wow.”

"Vincent did a hatchet job on all of us," receiver Thad Mosley shouted out.

"Yeah! Makes him feel like a big man," Lloyd Tanner added.

"You gotta just laugh it off," Dale Brookline contributed, astonishing Whitney. Everybody knew that Brookline hated the young rookie who'd knocked him off the starting lineup. It was classy of him to be so supportive. Whitney made it a point to file the example away for future reference.

Bran smiled. “All in favor of inducting Whitney into the United Brotherhood of Scapegoats-R-Us, signify by saying 'Fuck you, Vincent!"

A chorus of applause, foot-stomping and a thunderous ovation of "Fuck yous" rained down. “The 'Fuck Yous' have it!" Bran exclaimed. "Whitney, you are hereby named Scapegoat of the Week. Next round is on you."

Another roar of cheers went up and Whitney grinned ruefully at Bran. "Gee, thanks," he said sarcastically, but he hoped his eyes conveyed the gratitude he felt.

"Speech! Speech!" Someone shouted, and there was an instantaneous answering roar from the back of the auditorium, "I'll give you a goddam speech!"

"Oh, shit," Bran muttered as Harry Lessening came charging down the aisle with the rest of the coaching staff trailing him like Mary's Little Lambs on steroids. Bran dove for the nearest chair. Whitney and Tug did likewise.

“Feeling better, are we?" Harry Lessening said sarcastically as he strutted to the podium. "All just one big, cozy family now? Well, before you start saying 'goodnight, JohnBoy,' it’s time for a royal ass chewing! What the fuck were you people doing out there Sunday?”

Whitney leaned back in his chair and did his best not to anger Lessening any further by grinning like an idiot.


Saturday, October 21
Somewhere over the Metropolis International Airport

Lois Lane was well-known for being able to hold her liquor. Like Marion What's-Her-Name in the Indiana Jones movie, she could drink frat boys twice her size under the table and still navigate a straight line with only an attractive wiggle in her walk. Under normal circumstances, it would have been no problem that a massive thunderstorm turned her two-and-a-half hour flight into four hours in First Class where the booze was free and plentiful.

However, for someone who'd just been called a Two-Timing Ho by her boyfriend and unanimously shunned by the five other members of her Ethics Study Group, the First Class open bar was a disaster in the making. By the time her flight stopped making loopy circles over Western Kansas, she had a collection of six cute little bourbon bottles and a truly sexy wiggle in her walk.

Drunk was definitely preferable to crying, though. Lois didn't cry, and this was nothing to cry about, really. Stud-on-a-Stick was a nice guy, sure. The relationship had showed promise, yes. But it wasn't true love. And it wasn't even close to the kind of bone-deep friendship she had with Whitney.

Still, there was nothing fun about being regarded as the Whore of Babylon. It was a sure bet that word of Lois's relationship with rising football star Whitney Fordman was spreading across the Berkeley campus like wildfire this weekend, along with the gossip that she was a two-timing Jezabel who was dating the famous quarterback and stringing along a lowly Berkeley TA on the side. By the time she got back to school Sunday night, her name would be mud.

Lois wasn't entirely sure when or how she'd become Whitney Fordman's "girlfriend." When they'd first met and started hanging out together in the spring semester of his junior year, it had been natural to let everyone think they were a couple even though Lois had figured out early that Whitney was catcing for the other team. The long-distance relationship fiction hadn't started until nearly a year later. Lois was six months into the graduate program at Berkeley when some silly ditz at K State had tried to kill herself for the unrequited love of Whitney Fordman. Whit had been beside himself, guilty as all get-out, swearing he'd come out of the closet before ever using another girl again. Sometime during one of their long, drunken, late-night IM chats, Lois had offered herself up as his beard. Even sober, she hadn't been able to find a downside. She was in California. He was in Kansas. She had her love life, dismal though it was; he had an occasional closeted fuck. Who the hell was going to know it was a fairy tale?

Neither of them had forseen his overnight stardom. Truth be told, they'd never even discussed it. It was a convenience for Whitney that hadn't cost Lois a damn thing.

Until now.

Today had cost her. Big time.

In front of the entire study group, Zach Urich had tossed a printout of John Vincent's online column at her and asked when she was planning telling him that she was practically engaged to Whitney Fordman. Stunned, Lois had scanned the article and her first instinct was to laugh at the absurdity.

"You think it's funny?" Zach had demanded, red-faced with rage. "I'm sure Fordman would find it hysterical that he too is fucking a Two-Timing Ho!"

The clumsy alliteration had struck her even funnier, but she'd brought her laughter under control and opened her mouth to say -- What? What could she say? It's a sham. Whitney Fordman is gay and I've just been pretending to be his girlfriend.

She'd closed her mouth, her mirth dying a violent death. The only way to talk herself out of this one was to tell six journalism grad students -- most of whom had work-study jobs in local or regional media outlets -- that the Sharks' hot new Quarterback was queer.

Save yourself. Betray Whitney.

Rock, meet Hard Place. Hard Place, Rock.

Tough choice, but Whitney eventually won.

It was a short term victory only, though, because sometime this weekend she was going to have to tell him that their mad, passionless affair was over. It wouldn't be easy, but she had to do it. And then she could could hie herself back to Berkeley and repair the damage to her reputation by tracking down her pissed-off boyfriend and announcing that she'd broken off her relationship with Whitney Fordman because it was Zach she wanted. She'd throw herself on his mercy and word would get around that she had "done the right thing."

And if Zach didn't forgive her, well, she might get a little sympathy out of it, and at the very least, it would get rid of the "taken" sign around her neck that would keep decent guys a mile away.

But that was all for tomorrow, because her flight was late and even with the limo Whitney said he'd have waiting for her, she was barely going to make it to the Adam's Mark in time to get ready. They'd go to the Sharks' Charity Ball tonight. She'd have a couple more bourbon-and-sevens, dance, flirt, play her part to the hilt and tell him tomorrow before brunch that he was going to have to find himself a new beard.

It was a plan. After six little bottles of bourbon, it seemed like a perfectly acceptable one, and she deplaned at Metropolis International with an adorable wiggle in her walk, humming, "Breaking Up is Hard to Do."

***

The storm-tossed flight from California only a harrowing memory, Lionel scowled his way through the letter Jacob Manning had handed him as soon as he settled into the limo. Whitney's stalker had read John Vincent's Tuesday column that identified Lois Lane as the love of Whitney's life. Needless to say, she had not taken the information well. Her latest letter demanded that Whitney set Vincent straight and promised dire consequences if she saw Lois Lane's name again.

"Damnation. This is going to make Whitney insane." Lionel handed Manning the letter. "How credible is the threat to Miss Lane?" he asked.

Jacob tucked the plastic-sheathed letter back into his briefcase. "I think the threats have to be taken seriously -- I've always believed this stalker was on a path toward violence. If Miss Lane lived in Metropolis, I'd say the danger was immediate. Living in California makes an attack more difficult, but not out of the question. She should definitely be warned and instructed in the art of self-protection."

The limo merged onto the freeway and picked up speed. Lionel barely noticed as he weighed their options. The letter made it clear that up until now, Whitney's stalker had believed she was the un-named girlfriend Whitney had mentioned in numerous interviews. Vincent's identification of Lois Lane as the love of Whitney's life had unleashed a maelstrom of threats against Lois, against Whitney, and even against John Vincent.

The only one on the list Lionel didn't feel even remotely inclined to protect was Vincent.

"Miss Lane is joining us at the Penthouse for brunch at 10. You be there, too, and we'll tell them then. I see no reason to spoil their evening with something they can do nothing about."

"Yes, sir. About the Cheryl Bower problem..." Manning took a manila envelope from his briefcase, extracted an 8-by-10 photo and handed it to Lionel. "The composite you asked for."

Under normal circumstances, Lionel would have been pleased by Manning's quick action, but this new wrinkle in the stalker case was far more serious than the question of Whitney's fatherhood. Still, he studied the picture for flaws and found none. An image of Cheryl Bower had been lifted from a windy grade school playground and seamlessly integrated into a photo of the street across from Whitney's condo. The image was realistically blurred, but not so much that it made Bower hard to recognize.

"Excellent work, Jacob," Lionel complimented, handing the photo back. "Let's hold onto that for a while, shall we? This latest stalker threat needs to take priority. Have you increased security on Whitney?"

"Yes, sir."

"And Miss Lane is being covered?"

Jacob nodded. "The limo driver who picked her up at the airport is one of my best men, and she'll be shadowed by a team everywhere she goes as long as she's in Metropolis. We enlisted the assistance of Hotel security and got the room across from hers."

Lionel stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Hmmm... With such good coverage, perhaps we should be hoping that Whitney's stalker tries to make good on her threats this weekend."

"That had crossed my mind, too," Jacob noted. "My people will be ready if it happens."

"What else?"

Manning referred to another folder and the security briefing continued. Lionel listened with only half an ear. He had been looking forward to tonight's reunion with his lover and he wasn't about to let the night be spoiled by a crazy little twit who signed herself "K".

***

Hip cocked, arm raised, Lois opened her hotel room door in a classic sexpot pose that showed off her bare shoulders and ample cleavage in the spaghetti-strap Vera Wang gown. The deep burgundy fabric was dramatic against her fair skin and the sable colored hair that brushed her shoulders. "Hey, Handsome."

Whitney gave a low wolf whistle. "Wow! If anything could turn me into a switch hitter, that dress would be it."

She stepped back to let him enter. "Notice, ladies and gentlemen, that he attributed this near-seismic shift in sexuality to the dress not the woman in it. Should we see if they have it in your size?"

There was a way to deliver that line that was purely comedic, but Whitney heard a bite of sarcasm that wasn't entirely good-natured. He chuckled anyway as he pulled her close for a hug. "You know what I mean. You're a total knock out. It's good to see you, Gorgeous."

"You, too, Sexy." She clung to the hug for a long moment, and when she gave him a quick kiss with her lips slightly parted, Whitney tasted alcohol and something else.

"Jack Daniels with Scope shooters? Just..ewwww, Lois."

"Hey, don't criticize until you've walked a mile in my Prada Pumps. You haven't had the day from hell."

Whitney had spent the day with his trainer and the therapist who was working on his mostly-healed sprained ankle, but he'd kept the radio tuned to the airport weather channel. She'd called him from the limo after she landed, and he knew from their brief, terse conversation that she'd had a really bumpy ride. "I'm sorry you had such a crappy flight. I have something that might cheer you up, though."

He pulled a sleek black velvet jeweler's box out of his pocket. "I'm sorry it's only a loaner. Hotel security will be expecting you to put it into their vault after the ball and the jeweler will pick it up in the morning. For tonight it's yours, though. And not nearly as much as you deserve." He flipped the lid open and held it out to her. The diamond necklace accented with dark red rubies and three dangling ruby-and-diamond festoons sparkled up at her. Whitney watched her face, waiting for it to light up with delight, but pleasure didn't make an appearance. "Lois?"

She looked up at him blankly, as though pulling herself out of a trance. "Sorry. Just having a Julia Roberts moment -- except without the sweet hotel manager and the Laura SanGiacomo sidekick. So this is what 125K will buy at Cartier-Metropolis."

Whitney swallowed hard. He'd known this would have to be dealt with eventually. "You got online and read Vincent's article."

"Not exactly, but I got the gist of it."

Whitney frowned. "What do you mean?"

Lois unclipped the necklace from its velvet case. "Nothing. We don't have time to get into it if we're supposed to be at the Civic Center by 7. We have to have a long talk tomorrow, though, Whitney. A very long talk."

Whitney was suddenly beset by the sickening feeling a guy always associated with the knowledge that he was about to be dumped. Only Lois wasn't his girlfrend. They'd only told people she was. His teammates, mostly. And his mom. And a few other people in his circle of clueless straight friends. And ESPN. And the franchise front office, who'd told reporter John Vincent, who'd told Metropolis in The Daily Planet and the Planetonline.com, who'd told anyone in the known galaxy who surfed the Internet for information about the Metropolis Sharks' football team.

The world was getting too small. That article on the Internet was proof. Lois had obviously realized it sooner than Whitney. His sick feeling deepened. "Lois--"

"Tomorrow, Whitney," she said firmly, handing him the necklace and letting her hand linger on his for a long moment before she turned her back. He slipped the necklace around the base of her throat and fixed the clasp. She turned and they shared a long quiet look. Among other things, it told Whitney he was about to lose the protection of a fictitious girlfriend. That was going to complicate his life terribly, but it was better than complicating Lois's.

"You are really something else," he murmured softly, wishing -- not for the first time -- that nature hadn't flipped the switch on his sexuality. Despite the hardships, he liked that part of who he was, but if circumstances had been different, he'd have married Lois Lane in a heartbeat and known he was lucky to have her.

"Thank you. And you are stunning," she said lightly, breaking the little web of emotion that had encased them. She reached out to adjust his jacket and discovered that his snow white shirt was more than half-way untucked. "I swear! It really is a myth that gay guys instinctively know how to dress themselves! Did you just throw this tux on?"

Whitney let the moment slip away, chuckling as he unbuttoned his slacks. The zipper rasped and he heard a slight hitch in Lois' breathing.

"Nice jock there, Stud."

Whitney blushed; he was wearing a black designer jock -- something he was looking forward to tormenting Lionel with later. "Thanks."

"Let me guess..." Lois's voice was liquid sarcasm. "You're hoping for a quickie with old Moneybuckets in the bathroom. He gets off and you stay frustrated? Like always."

The warm feelings slipped away. "Don't. Please. Not tonight," he pleaded as he carefully tucked and smoothed his shirt. "Lionel is not what you think."

"Whitney, he's twice your age... He's only using you," Lois said as she moved across the suite to the chair where she'd tossed the cape that matched her dress. "He broke your heart once already and it's going to happen again! I don't understand. You could have anyone you want."

"I have the one I want. And contrary to what you think, he has been nothing but good to me since San Francisco." He zipped up his pants and adjusted his coat. "I don’t want to argue. Can't we just go to the party and have fun?"

"Whit, I worry about you." She returned and handed him the cloak, but instead of turning her back so that he could slip it around her shoulders, she reached for his crotch. "That is a very nice jock by the way, fills out nicely." She ran a hand along the smooth pouch. "Still the same big set. Too bad you don't use them."

Whitney groaned and removed her hand. "Thank you, Lois. Now, can we go? Lionel was scheduled to arrive five minutes ago. I haven't seen him all week."

Lois groaned. "God, you're pathetic!"

***

The Hancock Civic Center was a sprawling four-story complex of theatres, conference facilities, a concert hall, and a Grand Ballroom, all less than 20 years old, but fashioned to replicate turn-of-the-century Victorian luxury. Within five minutes of their arrival, Lois knew she'd made a mistake; several, actually, beginning with agreeing to be Whitney's beard in the first place, and ending with attending this party.

The torment started when they stepped from their limo and a photographer who identified himself as working for Calvin Klein stepped forward and began snapping pictures. Candids, he said. PR for the New Man in Town campaign. He followed them inside, where a Society photographer from the Planet was snapping pictures in the elegant rotunda as guests made their leisurely way toward the Grand Ballroom. Lois felt sick to her stomach envisioning images of herself and Whitney splashed everywhere from People magazine to Ted Casablanca's E!Online column. What good would it do to "break up" with Whitney tomorrow when all next week the tabloid press would be spreading the news that Lois Lane and Whitney Fordman were the couple of the week?

With every camera flash, Lois saw her plan for reclaiming her reputation swirling down the porcelain drain.

Still, she had agreed to be his date for the evening, and she would honor that obligation because that's what friends did. Determined to support Whitney, she played her part as he introduced her to players, coaches, and wives of players and coaches. There was no denying, though, that her smile became harder to maintain with every off-color joke about their relationship and every query about when they were going to set a date for the wedding!

Whitney had done a brilliant job of convincing everyone he was a man on the road to matrimony. Lois couldn't have been more miserable. Cameras flashing, orchestra playing sedately in the background, they made a dramatic entrance down the sweeping, red-carpeted staircase into the palatial Grand Ballroom and Lois snagged a glass of champagne from the first waiter that happened by. She knocked it back in two generous "sips" and began surruptitiously looking for the bar. Those six bourbons on the plane and the two from the wetbar in her hotel room had mostly worn off. She was going to need more fortification if she was to have any chance of making it through the evening without blowing a gasket.

***

There was a knack to working a room and Celeste Willingham had it. Whether it was a God-given talent, something she'd been taught, or simply a trait she'd absorbed she couldn't have said, but she was grateful for it. Lionel understood the process, too. It was one of the things that made them such a fabulous couple, but Celeste could tell from the moment he'd picked her up tonight that his timing was off. He was distracted. It was even more obvious when they'd made their ceremonial entrance down the staircase into the Grand Ballroom. He wasn't concentrating on the charity's benefactors he needed to pump up, nor was he particularly interested in making certain his team members did their charitable civic schmoozing. His smile was easy and his manner elegant, as always, but his gaze was constantly shifting. He was like a ship without a rudder, not knowing which way to steer.

It was so uncharacteristic that Celeste found it unsettling, as though she'd awakened to discover that scientists had been wrong all these years about that gravity thing and objects had started falling up.

She sensed it the moment gravity took hold of Lionel. They were schmoozing a small cluster of Sharks supporters and wives when Lionel's restlessness vanished and his focus became intense. She glanced toward the staircase and was not at all surprised to see the astonishingly handsome Whitney Fordman descending the stairs with a raven-haired beauty on his arm. As dark as he was fair, the girl radiated a sensuality that reminded Celeste of herself at that age. An irrational moment of jealousy washed over her, and she wondered if Lionel was feeling the same. There were as many pitfalls as pleasures in having a younger lover. Youth was invigorating, but the mirror it held up could be unforgiving.

Was Lionel threatened by the girl's youth and perfection? Celeste wondered. She slipped her hand in the crook of Lionel's arm. "Oh, look, darling, your star and his dazzling girlfriend have arrived!" She leaned into his shoulder. "Breathtaking, aren't they?"

Lionel dragged his gaze to her and the heat of it made Celeste catch her breath. Fortunately, she was the only one in the circle who realized that the heat wasn't for her. Lionel brushed a kiss against her cheek and rasped just loud enough for all to hear, "No lovelier than you, my dear."

Celeste felt another stab of jealously, but this time it was for the young man who brought out such passion in the guarded and remote Lionel Luthor.

***

Bran Sutton threw his left arm around Whitney's shoulder and patted it vigorously. “My, my! Who knew a Kansas farm boy could clean up so well? You're positively presentable, Fordman.”

"Gee, thanks, Bran," Whitney said, giving him the first genuine smile he'd mustered since getting out of the limo. The good-natured ribbing about his relationship with Lois was wearing thin already, and the photographers were driving him crazy. "You're more or less respectable, yourself. I want to introduce you to Lois Lane--"

"Your gorgeous significant other from Cal-Berkeley," Bran finished for him, proffering his free hand. "I’m Bran Sutton, Whitney’s chess tormentor and all-around better.”

Lois took his hand, smiling. “Very nice to meet you, Bran. Whit talks trash about you all the time," she joked, elbowing Whitney good-naturedly.

"Yes, the Whit-man is good when it comes to trash-talking. Fortunately, he can actually back up some of it on the field. In the looks department, he takes a backseat to me, though.”

Lois laughed. “Oh my God! I didn't think it was possible. Someone with a bigger ego than Whitney Fordman!”

Whitney whispered loudly in Lois’ ear, “He went to Stanford. Ego Inflation comes standard with every one of their degrees.”

Bran raised his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, two on one is never good odds. I'll go find my date and sit down. It was a pleasure, Lois. I reserve the right to one dance. I want to know what lies this doof is spreading on the West Coast.”

"My pleasure."

Bran ambled off and Lois whistled low. "Hot damn, what a hunk. If you want to get your weedwhacker waxed, why aren't polishing him instead of Old Moneybuckets?"

Whitney glanced around anxiously to make sure no one was in earshot. "He's a friend, Lois. And he's straight."

Lois tugged on the satin lapel of his tuxedo and pulled him down until she could whisper in his ear. "I swear, you have the worst gaydar of any queer I've ever met. That honey is so hot for you it's all he can do to keep it in his pants."

Whitney straightened and frowned at her. He'd known that. Sutton was subtle, but on some level that he didn't want to acknowledge, Whitney had known for a while now that Bran was attracted to him. Why the fuck did Lois have to bring it to the surface, where it was sure to become an impossible-to-ignore purple elephant? "Gee, thanks, Lois."

She smiled without a hint of remorse. "You're welcome. Always glad to do my part to remind you that the world is full of options."

"You're a pal," he said sourly, but she didn't take the hint.

"Just think of the locker room hijinks," she whispered, her eyes sparkling with mischief that Whit suddenly began to fear was being fueled by alcohol. "Swirling steam, his tight ass. You brick-hard, the threat of discov--"

"Enough, Lois," Whit hissed in her ear. He was having a hard enough time controlling his cock in this designer jock, what with the smooth fabric of his pants teasing his ass and turning his throughts toward sex. A jock could hide an erection -- a blessing he'd discovered back in high school -- but he didn't need to be dealing with that heightened sense of awareness or Lois's tantalizing images tonight.

"What's the matter? Hitting too close to your fantasies?"

"Too close to my nightmares," he countered crossly. "I'd rather not be outed by my best friend at the biggest social event of the Sharks' season, thank you very much." He straightened. "Let's just find our table, okay?"

"You mean find Moneybuckets, don't you?"

Whitney glared at her. What the fuck was wrong with her tonight? Just how much had she had to drink before he'd picked her up? Was she drunk? Was she pissed about something?

A waiter arrived with the Stoli Sour and Bourbon-7 they’d ordered when they'd reached the Ballroom, and as much as Whit would have liked to send Lois's drink back to the bar, he couldn't. His Center, Lloyd Tanner came over to greet Lois and joke that she was too good for a mutt like Whitney. Lois offered to save him a dance, but he cited his two left feet and instead suggested they take advantage of the unseasonably balmy October evening with a stroll on the veranda. Lois batted her eyelashes at him and retorted that while the night might be balmy, she wasn't. One of the photographers snapped a picture of the three of them and they went their separate ways for more mixing-and-mingling.

Whitney spotted Lionel, finally, and his breath hitched in his throat. Instead of the traditional tux and bow tie, Lionel's black tux hung to mid-thigh and his black windsor disappeared into a silver satin vest accented with buttons of diamond and onyx. Despite the long hair that curled almost to his shoulders, he was all male, dynamic, elegant, and so damned sexy that Whitney thanked the saints he'd worn that jock.

"Down, boy," Lois purred, dragging a little on his elbow to slow their progress toward the conversational circle where Lionel was holding court.

"I want you to meet him," he countered, trying hard to control his smile when Lionel's gaze met his.

"You mean you want to drag him into the men's room, drop your--"

Whit stopped dead in his tracks, pulling Lois to him so he could hiss in her ear, "That's enough, Lois. I don't know what your problem is, but lose the attitude, okay?" He glanced up to find that Lionel had turned his back and had a possessive arm around Celeste's curvaceous waist. "Shit."

"My problem is--"

"Trouble in paradise?"

Oh, fuck! Whitney moaned inwardly. What the hell was John Vincent doing here? This was a society shindig, not a sporting event. Since when did the Planet put out $250 a plate for sports reporters to cover parties? He tried hard to collect himself so he could face his worst critic without smashing him in the face.

Whitney turned. "John! Hi! Great party, isn't it?" he said enthusiastically. He'd be damned before he showned him the respect of calling him Mr. Vincent.

"Didn't look like you thought so a minute ago."

"Appearances can be deceiving," Whitney replied with a big grin. "You should know that. I hear it's possible to watch an entire four quarters of a football game and not have a fucking clue what's actually happening on the field. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Uh, oh," Lois said, drawing Vincent's smirking grin to her. "You must be John Vincent, Daily Planet."

"And you must be the much-adored Lois Lane, source of thousands of broken hearts across Metropolis and the nation," he replied, shaking the hand she held out to him. He kept it for a second longer than was polite as his smarmy smile turned to a thoughtful frown. "Pardon the line, Miss Lane, but you look familiar."

"I've done two Internships at the Planet," she replied. "Honing my skills writing obits and covering PTA meetings."

"A-ha! A fellow member of the Third Estate."

She canted her head in assent and sipped her drink. "Working on it."

"So what do you think of your boyfriend's meteoric rise to prominence?"

"Justly deserved." She leaned conspiratorially toward the reporter. "Don't tell him I said this, but you'll be covering his induction into the Hall of Fame someday."

Vincent smiled noncomittally. "So, what were you two fighting about when I walked up?"

Whitney opened his mouth to deny that there was any disagreement, but Lois beat him to the punch. "You."

That clearly caught him off guard. "Me?"

"Yes. I heard you were here and I was insisting on finding you so that I could excise your testicles for trashing Whitney." She smiled sweetly. "But he was trying to discourage me."

Whitney would have given the world to be able to wipe the smirk off Vincent's face when he asked, "Oh really?"

She nodded with wide-eyed innocence. "He said they'd be too hard to find."

Vincent laughed. "Ooh, she's lethal, Fordman!"

"Now, Lois, be nice," Whitney chided, following her lead. "I'd much rather make John eat his words than a side order of rooster fries."

"Ouch. You two are quite a tag-team," Vincent said with wince.

"Rooster fries? Finally, an interesting conversation! Can anyone join?"

Okay. It's official. I've died and gone to hell. Lex Luthor and John Vincent were a combination Whitney did not need. He took a sip of his Stoli before replying, "Of course, Lex. It's a free country."

"Well, not really," Lex corrected him amiably. "It's $250 a plate, but we won't quibble." He looked at the reporter who was watching them avidly. "Speaking of toasted cojones, that was quite an analysis of the team you did this week, Mr. Vincent. I'm not sure who took a worse beating -- Whitney or my father."

"It was the team that took a beating at the hands of the Saints," Vincent replied. "I just conducted the post mortem."

Lois elbowed Whit. "Aren't you going to introduce us?" she asked, then extended her hand to Lex. "Forgive his manners. If it's not in the playbook, he's oblivious. I'm Lois Lane."

"Lex Luthor." He took her hand, and Lois held onto it as she crossed in front of Whitney to get closer to the billionaire's son.

"Yes, I know. Alexander Joseph Luthor. Twenty-six years old. Number one on the list of Rising Heirs Apparent, in the top ten percentile of the richest men under 30, and the only man ever to refuse the cover of Forbes twice."

Lex nodded appreciatively. "You've done your homework, Ms. Lane. But you're mistaken about Forbes. I only refused once."

"Why?" she asked brazenly.

Lex grinned. "I didn't like the reporter they insisted on assigning."

"I'm a reporter," she told him with an unquestionably flirtateous smile. "And I'm told I'm very likeable."

Lex responded with a devilish grin. "Ms. Lane, are you attempting to take advantage of a social situation?"

"Of course. I take every advantage I can get."

"Then we should get along famously." He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. "Allow me to escort you to your table. I happen to know right where it's located."

"I'd be honored."

An astonished, dismayed Whitney watched as they strolled off, and nearly jumped out of his skin when John Vincent suddenly clapped him hard on the shoulder. "Looks like Miss Wonderful has found greener pastures and deeper pockets," he said with a smirk, then moved on.

***

As Whitney's luck would have it, Lex was seated at their table. Lois was thrilled. Whitney? Not so much. Lex delivered the news cheerfully as Whitney trailed his nemesis and his date to a table at the apogee of a huge elipse that framed the parquet dance floor. Draped in white and trimmed with the Sharks' hues of blue and silver, the tables were set for groups of ten, but Lex had already directed that the chair beside his be removed. The waiter was just finishing adjusting the place settings when the threesome arrived at an otherwise deserted table for nine.

"No, no, no. Unthinkable," Lex muttered as he surveyed the placecards. "Dad's been playing one of his little jokes again. He's seated me next to Verna Stripling. Have you met the mayor's wife?" he asked Lois, totally ignoring Whitney.

"I haven't had the pleasure," Lois replied.

"Obviously, or you wouldn't call it a pleasure. Six feet tall, weighs 75 pounds and she looks -- and acts -- like she just ate a lemon. This just will not do."

Before Whitney could figure out a way to protest without sounding like an anal retentive cruise director, Lex had switched the Stripling's placecards with Lois and Whit's, placing the mayor's wife next to Lionel and Lois next to Lex. It also had the equally undesirable effect of placing Whitney beside Celeste instead of someone named Regan March.

Whitney didn't like the way this was shaping up. Lex was flirting with Lois and Lois was flirting back! Not even a pointedly delivered, "Hey, Lex, how's Clark?" dimmed the smarm that was oozing from the billionaire's son.

"What are you doing?" he demanded to know when Lex gallantly loped off to get Lois another drink.

"Trying to get an interview," she snapped. "Do you know what a having a published article about that man could do for my resume?"

"Yeah? Which illustrious Berkeley professor taught you that flashing your cleavage was a valid interview technique?" Whit leaned close to her ear and hissed, "You're wasting sultry on him, Lois! What's happened to your infallable gaydar?"

She shrugged. "This could be a case of like-father-like-son. Lionel is bi."

An image of Lionel with his arm around Celeste flashed into his head. "Don't remind me. Just stop flirting with Lex!"

"I'll flirt with whomever I damn well please!"

"Good evening, Whitney!"

The timing was atrocious, but Lionel's voice had the same warming effect on Whit as a shot of Stoli. Heat coursed through him as he turned to greet his lover. "Hello, Lionel." And his lover's date. "Celeste."

"Whitney, it's lovely to see you again." The beautiful socialite embraced Whitney lightly, as though they were old friends, and offered him her cheek, which he dutifully kissed. "Now introduce me to your stunning companion."

"Of course." Whitney stepped back and did the honors. "Lionel, Celeste, this is Lois Lane. Lois...Celeste Willingham and Lionel Luthor."

Whitney held his breath, waiting to see what Lois was going to do. In her current mood, there was just no telling. Fortunately, she only murmured a polite how-do-you-do to Celeste and extended her hand to Lionel. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Mr. Luthor," she said demurely.

"And you, Ms. Lane. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get to know you better"

Whitney could see Lois struggling to smother a laugh; she was probably thinking of the placecards Lex had switched and what a shock Lionel was going to have when he found himself seated next to sourpuss Verna Stripling instead of Lois. "And I you," she managed to say with a reasonably straight face.

"Wow!" Lex exclaimed as he returned with two drinks. His gaze swept the foursome. "I haven't seen this much camouflage since the last Ducks Unlimited convention."

Lois's whoop of laughter turned heads in their direction, but she was the only amused one in their little circle.

"Lex..." Lionel managed to drag the warning into six syllables.

"Sorry, Dad," he said unremorsefully, handing Lois her drink. "But you have to admit this is pretty funny."

"I have to admit you're being an ass and the evening has only just begun," Lionel countered. "Why are you here alone?"

He grinned. "Well, I could feed you some bullshit about my beard-du-jour cancelling at the last minute, but truthfully, I figured I could enjoy the hypocrisy more if I wasn't being a hypocrite myself. Oh! Speaking of which, here comes Regan with Coucilman Lowenstein. That is just more fun than I can bear. Come on, Lois," he said, taking her free hand and sliding it into the crook of his arm. "The owner of the Daily Planet just arrived. I'll introduce you."

Lois's jaw dropped and she stammered a thank you as Lex led her away.

Aghast, Whitney looked to Lionel for moral support and found him whispering something in Celeste's ear. Celeste was absently caressing Lionel's lapel. Whitney fought the urge to claim his territory and knocked back the remainder of his Stoli. "I need another drink," he muttered to apparently no one who was interested and stalked off to the bar.

***
Lois did her best to shake off the effects of too many bourbon-and-sevens so she could make a good impression on Daniel England, CEO of the Mirran Corporation, which owned the Daily Planet and a half dozen other newspaper giants around the country. But before Lex could make the introduction he stopped abruptly at the edge of the crowd and looked around, frowning. "Hmmm... I seem to have lost him. Perhaps from up there..."

Before Lois could fully grasp his intention, Lex was leading her up the Grand Staircase. "If he just came in, why are we exiting?"

"You'll see."

Passivity wasn't Lois's strong suit, but she humored the billionaire's son. They went up the stairs, and moved into the Grand Gallery, a balcony that completely encircled the ballroom. Lex led them to the railing and studied the crowd below. It was a stunning display of wealth and elegance, but the height and the occasional strobe flash of a camera made Lois dizzy. She angled her body toward Lex and avoided looking down. "Well?"

Lex was shaking his head. "That's funny. I could have sworn I saw England come in. How odd."

Lois was dizzy and about half-drunk, but it hadn't affected her sense of smell. There was a distinct odor of rat in the air. Mirran Corporation was headquartered in New York and if she recalled correctly, Daniel England was renowned for his dislike of football, among other things. "Doesn't Daniel England think your father is next-of-kin to the Devil Incarnate?"

Lex looked at her, his lips pursed thoughtfully. "You know, now that you mention it, they're not bosom buddies. You think that would keep him from coming?"

"That, and the fact that he lives on Long Island."

"Hmmm... Well... Have you seen the stained glass frescoes up here?" he asked brightly.

Lois gave him a weary shake of her head. "You are quite the manipulator, Mr. Luthor."

"So I've been told."

"Why did you drag me up here, really?"

He turned toward her and leaned his hip against the rail. "So I could ask you a blunt question without the risk of anyone overhearing."

Lois tried to raise her guard, but the alcohol in her system made it harder than it would normally have been. "What question?"

"Why is a sensual beauty like you fronting for Whitney Fordman and Lionel Luthor?"

Though he obviously knew the truth, Lois felt obliged to protest, "I don't know what you mean."

"Can the pretense, Miss Lane. I learned about Whitney and my father the hard way -- by walking in on them extravagantly naked in the middle of an argument. I can't begin to tell you how severely it's warped my young psyche."

Lois laughed and nodded. "All right. No pretense. For either of us. Why do you care?"

"It's a detestable waste of a beautiful woman."

Lois wasn't buying it. "Whitney tells me you don't much approve of his relationship with Big Daddy Moneybuckets. You wouldn't be trying to tweak Whitney and get your father's goat at the same time, would you?"

Lex laughed. "I don't think you'd better count on an interview with me, Miss Lane. You're much too astute."

She shook her head. "I don't care what your agenda is, Lex, but I'm not about to do anything tonight to hurt my best friend, no matter how much I've had to drink or how much I might agree with you about his relationship choices."

The humor disappeared from Lex's piercing blue eyes. "Then just tell me why," he said again. "It's obvious what Whitney gets out of your arrangement, but what do you get? Is Dad paying you--"

"No!" Lois protested loudly, then lowered her voice. "No! It's insulting that you would even think that. Whitney is my friend."

"I have friends, Ms. Lane. Good friends, but so far none of them have been willing to sacrifice their own love lives so I can enjoy my particular pleasures out of the public eye."

Lois suddenly felt as though she'd fallen into the deep end of a pool of quicksand. "We should go back downstairs. They'll probably start serving soon."

He edged to one side to cut off her escape route. "Not until you tell me why you're so accommodating."

"Lex, please--"

He didn't let her pass. "Why--"

"Until last week there was nothing to accommodate!" she exclaimed in frustration. "We weren't even in the same time zone. Nobody in my life knew anything about Whitney."

Lex nodded thoughtfully. "But Vincent's article changed that."

"Aren't you perceptive," she snapped. She turned her back on the ballroom and sat against the railing.

"Does your boyfriend know you're bearding for the Quarterback?"

Lois slanted a side-wise frown at him. "Have you been having me followed, or are you just fishing?"

"Educated guess. You're too beautiful not to have at least one man panting at your feet," he replied.

"He didn't know. Until someone showed him the article this morning," she confessed, fearing it was a mistake but unable to stop herself.

"Ouch."

"Yes."

"Did you tell him the truth about Whitney?"

"Of course not!"

Lex frowned. "So you're just going to... What? Let Whitney and my father strap you into a chastity belt while they enjoy their anonymity at your expense?"

"No. Of course not."

"Then what?"

"I'm--" Lois stopped. She was being played. She was too good at leading sources down the garden path not to know when she was being led herself. It was time to step out of the confessional. "I'm thinking this really isn't any of your business, Lex."

"You're right. It's not," he admitted. "But I was here when you and the Quarterback came in tonight. I saw the photographers' feeding frenzy. You may not realize it, but this party is a wet dream come true for the Calvin Klein people. They're going to be churning out pictures of you and Fordman right up until the big release of the New Man media campaign, and then things will really get hot! You are about to become the sacrificial lamb on the altar of Whitney Fordman's rise to stardom."

"Stop it," she commanded as she turned and started for the stairs. "I need to think. I have to talk to Whitney."

"And tell him what?" Lex asked, staying close to her side.

An excellent question. She had screwed everything up royally by coming here tonight, but she didn't have a clue what to do about it. A wave of dizziness hit her as she reached the head of the stairs and she grabbed Lex's arm. He put a steadying arm around her and she leaned on him until the vertigo passed.

"Easy, there," Lex crooned solicitiously.

"I'm okay." Feeling anything but steady, she made no effort to shrug off his hand as they descended to the ballroom floor.

At the foot of the staircase two photographers snapped their pictures. Lois didn't notice them or Lex's smug smile.

***
Moments before that, drink in hand, Whitney had been doing the schmoozing routine between the table and the bar and back to the table again, smiling at contributors who didn't seem to want to talk about anything but his loss to the Saints or John Vincent's article about his spectacular failure. There were pats on the back that congratulated him on his overall record so far, but the praise was overshadowed by jokes about "Whitney's World." One "supporter" asked what he wanted to be when he grew up -- a model or a quarterback? Another one gave him an encouraging smile as he pumped his hand and advised him to get the dollar signs out of his eyes so he could keep his eye on the ball.

Whitney could feel his smile getting thinner by the moment, and he was only half-way back to the table when he realized his glass was already empty. He returned to the bar where the bartender was just handing Bran a fuzzy pink concoction with an umbrella sticking out of it.

"Don't say a word," Bran warned him. "My date's ambition in life is to be a diabetic alcoholic before she's thirty. So how's it going so far?"

Whitney groaned and waggled his empty glass at the bartender. "Don't ask."

"You taking hits about New Orleans?"

"Nothing I can't handle. But these people who paid $500 a couple don't seem to understand the concept of charity. They also want a pound of my flesh. I don't know how I could have been so naive, but I really didn't expect this level of, um..."

He paused looking for the right word and Bran supplied, "Assholery?"

Whitney chuckled. "I was looking for 'candor,' but I like yours better. I hate to think what abuse I'm going to have to suffer from whoever wins the bid on my Jersey."

"Hey, at least you rate an auction item! An autographed Whitney Fordman jersey, right up there with a HumVee, a Sharks Cartier watch, and Bench seats for the Jets game in New York. Pretty heady stuff for a rookie."

"Hey, Fordman!" Drew Benedict slapped him on the shoulder, a thoroughly malicious smirk curling his lips back over his teeth. "Aren't you shocked that your girlfriend is playing Juliet to Lex Luthor's Romeo on the balcony?"

He jerked his head and Whitney turned, looked up, and found Lois and Lex standing near the railing, half-hidden by shadows, deep in animated conversation. Whitney gritted his teeth and clamped down on his anger. "I'm shocked you know that Romeo and Juliet were ever on a balcony, Drew," he quipped sarcastically as Lois turned away from Lex and started toward the stairs. "Lois is a reporter. She's trying to get a story."

Lois and Lex reached the head of the stairs and Benedict gave a short bark of laughter when Lex's arm suddenly went around Whitney's girlfriend. "Yeah, that's what it looks like to me, too."

"Fuck off," Whitney said, starting toward the staircase. Lois looked none-too-steady as she and Lex slowly descended, and by the time they reached the last few steps, Whitney was waiting for her, hand extended.

Lois took his hand and let Whitney steady her the last few steps as Lex explained, "She got a little dizzy."

Whitney shot him a death glare. "And you're just a prince of a good samaratin. Whose idea was it to take the floor show up to the balcony?"

"You jealous, Quarterback?"

"Oh, stop it, the both of you," Lois snapped. "This would be flattering if it had anything to do with me, but let's not pretend that it does, okay? I need something to eat."

The glitterati were drifting toward their assigned seats as waiters began making the rounds with the salad course. Whitney kept one hand at Lois's waist while he escorted her to their table. Lex disappeared, taking an alternate route, and Whit noticed that Lionel and Celeste were on an intercept course. There was no avoiding them.

"Are you all right, my dear?" Celeste asked solicitiously, taking Lois's hand and leaving Whitney no choice but to relinquish her to the socialite.

"I'm fine," Lois insisted. "I got a little dizzy, that's all. A steady diet of nothing but airline pretzels and Jack Daniels will do that to you."

Lionel arched one dark eyebrow in Whitney's direction. "She's drunk."

Lois nearly came unglued. "She's standing right here, you jackass!"

"Lois!" Whitney said through gritted teeth.

"You're going to take his side?" she asked incredulously, snatching her arm out of Celeste's supporting grasp. "He called me drunk!"

"My apologies, Miss Lane," Lionel said with more condescension than remorse.

Whitney didn't know what to say without drawing attention to them. "Let's just have a seat, okay?"

Apparently, it wasn't stirring defense she was looking for. "Fuck you," she snapped and marched on to the table.

Whitney frowned at Lionel. "Gee, thanks," he muttered.

"Merely stating the obvious."

"She had a bad flight this afternoon. The storm..."

"I had a bad flight through the same storm," Lionel countered. "I'm not drunk and flirting with total strangers."

Whitney glared at him. "Don't get me started on what you're flirting with," he growled.

"Stop it, both of you," Celeste said with a dismissive laugh that was meant for the people who'd started to notice their little contretemps.

Whitney realized he should apologize to her, but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

Lionel forced a smile at Celeste. "Get her under control or send her home. Now," he commanded without looking at Whitney, then he took Celeste's arm and moved on before Whitney could tell him where to shove his dictatorial attitude.

He followed Lionel to the table and took a seat next to Lois, who was once again smiling flirtatiously at a solicitious Lex Luthor.

The evening did not improve.

***
In the last month, Whitney had managed to forget what a painfully perfect couple Lionel and Celeste were. The right age, same social strata, appropriate gender combination...They complimented each other brilliantly. While Whitney watched, tormented, they held court at the table, entertaining the mayor, the councilman, and gadflies who dropped by the table between courses to pay tribute to the couple who were unquestionably regarded as the King and Queen of Metropolis. And to make matters even worse, there were no secret looks from Lionel during the first four courses; no quick, heated glances that said "It's you I want, not her." Lionel regarded Whitney with the gracious indifference a Monarch might bestow on one of his lesser Knights.

Lois, of course, was oblivious to Whit's agony. Lex had agreed to grant Lois an interview and through most of dinner they had their heads together. Lois called it "laying the groundwork." Whitney called it flirting. To compensate, Whitney drank a lot and ate very little. By the time dessert was served -- a smooth-as-silk cheesecake decorated with silver marzipan shark fins and drizzled with a glaze made of blue curacao -- Whit wasn't sure how much more he could take.. Lex laughed at something Lois said and Whit excused himself and headed for the men's room.

He was splashing water on his face when Lionel walked in a few minutes behind him. The bathroom appeared to be empty, but Lionel walked briskly down the short row of stall doors, making certain.

"They're empty," Whitney told him shortly. "We're all alone. Wanna fuck?"

"That offer is not nearly as tempting as it should be," Lionel snapped, his voice echoing harshly in the empty room. "I want you to slow your drinking. Stoli on the rocks, splash of sour... Four since you’ve arrived! You are well on your way to being as drunk as your so-called friend."

"Call off your ass of a son and maybe I'll slow down. And it might help my consumption if you'd quit pawing Celeste while you're at it!"

Lionel's frown deepened to a scowl. "Whitney, your jealousy of Celeste is growing tiresome. I fail to understand--"

"Don't you? Look at this night from my side, will you? She has everything I want! How could I not be jealous?"

"Indeed? You want me to send you home alone at the end of the evening? You would enjoy knowing that my shows of affection are only pretense? It would make you happy to know that touching you leaves me as cold as a winter sunrise? Is that really want you want, Whitney, because that's all that Celeste has."

The steam rushed out of Whitney's anger, but not the anguish. "I want you," he said softly, fighting the urge to move closer that was wise. "You ... touching me casually, intimately. Me whispering in your ear, not caring who sees us or what they think unless it's, 'My, what a beautiful couple,' and 'Isn't it wonderful how much they're in love?'"

Lionel sighed heavily. Whitney saw what might have been a flash of regret, but it vanished. "I want you to slow your drinking and find a way to get control of Miss Lane." The command was soft but firmly spoken.

Whitney backed off, hurt. "Like I said, you control Lex and I'll switch to coffee. I'd better go," he said, brushing past Lionel. "We can't both be in here for very long or people might get the wrong idea."

Lionel watched as the ticking timebomb disappeared into the vestabule. There were so many ways that the evening could end disasterously for his handsome lover. Trying to shrug off the feeling that he was walking a highwire without a net, he made use of the facilities and then went back to the dinner.

***

When Whitney returned to the ballroom the dessert plates had been cleared and coffee was being served. People were beginning to stir again and he was stopped several times. He put on his game face and thanked the contributors for their generosity to the Lillian Luthor Foundation and also for their frank and honest assessment of his failings as a quarterback. By the time he made it back to the table, the orchestra was playing a waltz and Lionel was leading Celeste onto the dance floor.

The sight of them stabbed at Whitney's heart, but he knew Lionel was right. He had to learn to live with this; their relationship wasn't going to survive if he didn't. Lionel wasn't going to put up with the jealousy, and Whitney couldn't bear feeling like this when he saw them together.

He shook his head at the waiter with the carafe of coffee and instead knocked back the rest of the the Stoli that was still on the table. "Lois..." He put his hand on her shoulder, drawing her out of what appeared to be an intense conversation with Lex.

"What?" She turned her face up to him with a plastered on smile.

"We need to talk."

"Oh, no talk," she moaned and turned expectantly to Lex. "I'd rather dance, wouldn't you?"

Lex stood up. "By all means. Let's show Dad and Celeste how it's done."

Lois took the hand he held out to her and they were gone before Whitney could protest.

"Fuck," he muttered, wishing he could ignore his obligations and get the hell out of there. Instead, he wandered off in search of another drink.

**

For the first several minutes on the dance floor, Lionel and Celeste had the spotlight all to themselves. Eventually, though, other couples joined in and Celeste felt confident enough that they were no longer under scrutiny to say, "Calm down, Lionel. It will all work out in the end."

"I am calm."

"No, you're not. You're seething, and I don't blame you. Lex is being incorrigible, Ms. Lane is behaving outrageously, and Whitney is slowly and quietly killing you."

Lionel frowned at her. "Killing me? What an odd choice of words. He's drinking too much, yes, but--"

"That's not what I meant. It's killing you not to be able to claim him."

"Don't be ridiculous, Celeste. I'm not that..." He paused, searching for the right word. " -- moved by the boy, and if I were, I wouldn't be nearly so transparent."

"On the contrary. You are utterly transparent," she said on an airy laugh. She subtly encouraged Lionel to hold her closer so that her lips were near his ear when she told him, "Lionel Luthor lives to possess...places, things, people. It's how you measure your power, and this young conquest may be your greatest Prize ever. He's intelligent, virile, handsome, athletically gifted...he could have the world at his feet, and yet he sits adoringly at yours, worshiping you, and it's killing you that you can't let anyone know it. I'll wager there is very little you wouldn't give to be able to touch him in front of all these people. Put your hand possessively at his waist, caress his face, whisper in his ear and let your lips brush across his cheek... make sure that everyone knows he's yours."

Lionel quirked an eyebrow at her. "Are the two of you conspiring against me?"

"No," she said on a soft laugh. "But that might not be a bad idea -- coaxing Whitney over to my side. Something must be done to assuage his jealousy of us or he is going to destroy himself."

Celeste fully expected him to tell her to mind her own business. She was surprised -- and a little jealous -- when he replied thoughtfully, "You have an idea how to effect this miracle?"

She mulled it over for a moment. Her vanity loved the fact that Whitney Fordman was even more jealous of her than she of him. It would take very little to manipulate him into making a complete fool of himself, but doing so would be incredibly short-sighted, not to mention socially lethal. Possibly even fatal. She wasn't nearly foolish enough to betray Lionel Luthor just to stroke her vanity. "I think I can bring him around with a minimum of coaxing. With your permission, of course."

"Whatever it takes."

She nodded. "Don't be surprised if you hear that he and I have had a quiet lunch sometime soon."

The music stopped and Lionel bowed to her. "I would be in your debt, Celeste."

Astonishing. Lionel Luthor accepting someone's help. He was obviously even more desperately in love than Celeste had thought. "There is no debt among friends, Lionel," she said sweetly. "And we all benefit. Especially Whitney, though he can't see that now."

Lionel nodded and offered Celeste his arm. "Am I really so transparent?" he asked after a long moment.

"Only to me."

"And what gives you such insight?"

She looked at him, deliberately letting a touch of sadness show through. "Brief though it was, I know what it feels like to have been your Prize."


**

Bran Sutton didn't know what to make of Whitney's "girlfriend." She was either the worst beard he'd ever encountered, or Whitney's relationship was seriously on the rocks. Some of the Sharks players were taking odds on when Whitney would snap and punch Lex Luthor's lights out; others, like that vindictive asshole Drew Benedict, were chuckling that Fordman must not be much in the sack if he could lose his girl to a slick pansy-ass like Lex Luthor.

Bran was torn between wanting to help his new friend and distancing himself from the whole issue. He finally came down on the side of trying to figure out what the hell was going on. At the very least, he could run a little interference. Lois and Luthor were on the dance floor as the orchestra started something slow and smooth. With his own date chatting up the creative director of a local advertising agency, Bran slipped into the flow of dancers and tapped Luthor on the shoulder.

"May I cut in?" He smiled broadly at Lois. "I believe the lady owes me a dance."

Lois responded with a beaming smile. "Why, so I do."

Lex didn't appear happy about it, but he stepped back. "Watch your toes, Lois," he advised, then moved off.

Bran took her lightly into his arms and Lois placed a hand on his shoulder. They settled into the easy rhythm that only required a little swaying and shuffling. "Whitney thinks you're pretty wonderful," Bran told her.

"I think he's pretty wonderful, too."

"But not as wonderful as Lex Luthor?" he asked boldly.

She had the good grace to look a little guilty before she mustered a dollop of indignation. "I'm trying to get an interview."

"You're embarrassing your boyfriend," he countered bluntly when he finally realized that she was doing a great job of covering the fact that she was more than a little drunk.

Lois frowned at him and came to a standstill. "Did you cut in so we could dance, or so you could bust my chops?"

Bran's hand at her waist got her moving again. "I'm just trying to figure out why you're putting Whitney in the most god-awful bind any guy can be in. In front of the entire midwest press corp, you're flirting your pantyhose off with one of the owners of the corporation that owns his contract! Most of the guys think Luthor is a little light in the loafers, if you get my drift, so it doesn't look real good for Whitney to be forced to stand impotently by while one of his owners makes a play for you."

"Guys are talking--?"

"Yes, Miss Lane. Guys do that. Respect is a tenuous commodity, and Whitney hasn't been on the team long enough to have earned a lot of loyalty. He's the Golden Boy that everybody wishes they were, and that puts a great big target on his back. You're giving them a helluva lot of ammunition tonight."

Her frown softened into something Bran read as sorrow or regret, and he realized that something had this very beautiful young woman tied in knots. All of his pity went to Whitney, though, because it was Whit who'd be paying the price for whatever game Lois Lane was playing.

"I don't want to hurt Whitney. I love him very much," she said with a sincerity that Bran didn't doubt.

"Then act like it," he suggested.

"You don't understand--"

"I understand the gossip columns are going to roast him tomorrow, and next week in the locker room Whitney is going to have to endure an endless string of innuendo questioning his manhood and probably even his sexuality."

Her eyes widened in a touch of panic and Bran knew he'd struck paydirt. Whitney Fordman was gay and Lois Lane was a friend who'd gotten caught up in pretending to be his girlfriend. "That's ridiculous," she protested.

"That's the locker room, Ms. Lane," he retorted. "Whitney's got enemies already. One in particular is working the room tonight, trashing Whitney like you wouldn't believe."

"Oh, God..."

"Look, I don't know what the problem is between you and Whitney, but if you care about him as much as you claim, solve it tomorrow, not in public."

"I--" Her eyes went wide and the soft, concerned expression on her pretty face hardened in the same instant that Bran felt a tap on his shoulder. A second later he heard Lionel Luthor's silky, commanding voice.

"Excuse me, Mr. Sutton. I believe Ms. Lane's dance card has my name on it."

Bran saw a flash in Lois's eyes that might have been a plea for help, but he wasn't about to challenge Lionel Luthor. "Of course, sir," he said with a grin. "How silly of me not to have noticed."

"Forgiven, Mr. Sutton," Lionel said as he took control of Lois, and Bran slipped away.

Lois did her best to slough off the emotional distress her conversation with Bran Sutton had left her with. She would need all her wits about her if she was going to spar with Lionel Luthor. Unfortunately most of her wits seemed to have drown in the small lake of bourbon she'd consumed today.

"I don't remember consenting to a dance, Mr. Luthor," she tossed out, taking the offensive because she knew this was going to be anything but friendly. In her heels she was only an inch or two shorter than Luthor.

"I don't remember offering you a choice," he replied smoothly. "My son was on his way to reclaim you from Mr. Sutton, and I decided to intevene, hoping to avoid a continuation of the Lois and Lex Tour de Farce."

He had a beautiful voice, like whiskey spreading out over silk, and the smile he directed at her seemed charming. If it hadn't been for the hard glint in his eyes and the edge to his words, she'd have sworn he was being complimentary instead of insulting.

"Then you won't mind if we cut this short. I need to speak to Whitney." She made a move to withdraw, but Luthor had a grip of iron. He seemed every bit as strong and in control of his dance partner as Bran Sutton had been.

"Oh, but I do mind. Let's finish this dance." It was a command, not a suggestion. "I want you to explain to me why you're trying to humiliate Whitney in front of his peers and the press."

Lois looked at the ceiling. "Didn't I just have this conversation?" she asked whatever deity was on duty.

"I beg your pardon?"

Lois rallied her senses and looked at Luthor. "You're five minutes too late. I just had the riot act read to me by your competition."

Luthor was suddenly scowling and trying not to. Lois found it incredibly amusing. "Competition?"

"Bran Sutton," she supplied, happily seizing the upper hand. She eased a little closer to her dance partner and whispered, "You do know that he's hot for your lover, right? He's also younger than you are, better looking, and probably better hung. I'm sure he doesn't have your bank roll, but I don't imagine he's hurting in the pocketbook. All in all, I think you-know-who would be a whole lot better off in his bed than yours."

The look of fury in Luthor's pale blue eyes was enough to make even an anesthetized Lois Lane grateful she didn't have to walk through any dark alleys on her way home. "Then I'm fortunate that your opinion is of little consequence to our mutual friend."

"True," Lois agreed. "But contrary to popular belief, it takes more than an eight inch cock to make him happy."

"Who said he was unhappy?" Lionel challenged lightly, regaining the small measure of composure he'd momentarily lost. They might have been discussing the opera instead of the his sex life.

"I was with him in San Francisco. I saw what a mess you made of him."

"Ancient history," he said dismissively. "Your double standard intrigues me, though. You think this little display tonight with my son is not hurting him?"

"No, it's not. Not in the emotional sense. I don't have that power because he's not in love with me."

"I am not the reason he is drunk, Miss Lane," Lionel countered softly.

"You think not? What about Ms. High Society 1959?"

Lionel shook his head. "Celeste is no threat to him."

"Convince Whitney of that."

"Celeste's only purpose in my life is to protect Whitney and his dream."

"Bullshit," Lois said, making sure to keep her voice low. "You're protecting your 36 million dollar investment and enjoying a prime piece of ass in the bargain. You've turned my best friend into a very expensive whore."

He canted his head at her. "I'm sorry you have such a low opinion of your best friend."

Lois leveled a laser-like glare at him. "Your aim is a little off on the focus of my low opinion."

Lionel shook his head dismissively. "Whitney is a remarkable young man who has everything he has ever wanted."

"Except someone who really loves him," she retorted.

Lionel sighed heavily. "The young and the foolish. You think the moon is hung by the thread of a few meaningless words. Disney has warped your minds."

"And you've perverted the love and devotion of someone who deserves more than you can ever give him."

"Don't underestimate what I can give our friend," Lionel said softly, dangerously. "And don't underestimate me, Miss Lane."

The implied threat sent a chill down Lois's spine.

***
Whitney glanced nervously over his shoulder at the dance floor. Lionel and Lois were dancing, and Whitney's gut was tied in an even bigger knot than before. Lionel looked at ease and unruffled -- his usual charming self. Lois looked like the cat that swallowed the canary. God only knew what they were really saying. Given Lois's opinion of Lionel, it would be a miracle if they made it off the dance floor without bloodshed.

"Whitney, I haven't congratulated you on your Calvin Klein contract. They couldn't have chosen a more perfect spokesman," Celeste cooed at him, drawing his attention away from the dance floor. He was back at the table, wishing they'd do the damned auction so he could grab Lois and get out. Instead, he had to be nice to two of his worst enemies. Celeste on his left and Lex, who was seated on his right with Lois's empty chair between them.

"Thank you, Celeste," he replied.

From across the table, Regan March, who had turned out to be Celeste's neice, asked, "Is it true that they're doing a billboard of your ad near the Downtown Mall? Four stories tall is the rumor."

Whitney shook his head and tried to smile. "I hadn't heard that. Sounds like an urban legend to me. Next thing you know there'll be rumors of me leaping tall buildings in a single bound."

"Not if John Vincent has anything to say about it," Lex sneered.

"Thank you for that reminder, Lex. I'd almost managed to forget about Vincent."

"Your, uh, Calvin Klein ads... Have they started appearing yet?" Todd Lowenstein asked. He was either oblivious to the tension between the two men or very good at pretending to be oblivious. "I don't recall having seen anything."

"No," Whitney told him. "Sometime in early November. They're tying it to their Christmas promotions, I think."

"What will the ad be like? What kind of pictures did they shoot?" Regan asked.

"Oh! The best kind," Lex replied. "Whit half-naked being chased off the football field by six horny linebackers in full pads and helmets. Gay men across the country will be creaming their boxer-briefs by Thanksgiving. That should broaden your horizons, Whitney."

It was one insult --- and insinuation -- too many. "You motherfucking--" Whitney came out of his chair, lunging for Lex. He got a handful of slick tuxedo lapel and managed to yank Lex to his feet, but the chair between them slowed Whitney down, and then, suddenly, Lois was there them, separating them. "Whitney, back off!"

Lionel was there, too, commanding, "Stop it, both of you!"

Lex stepped back, straightening his jacket. "Really, Dad. Can't you control your pet neanderthals any better than--"

"You--" Whitney lunged again, but Bran had shown up, blocking his attack and generally saving Whitney from himself.

"Front page, Whit-man. Law suits, fines...," Bran hissed at him. "The bastard's not worth it. Back off. Calm down."

"Whitney, please," Lois pleaded. "Let's get out of here. We have to talk."

He frowned down at her and shook off Bran's restraining hand as Lionel pronounced, "That's enough from both of you. Lex, I think you should leave."

To his credit, Lex didn't look particularly scared by the exchange. "Awe, gee, Dad," he cooed sarcastically. "And we were just getting to the fun part."

"Whitney, please," Lois pleaded. "We have to talk. This is my fault. Please." She tugged on his arm.

Lex tried to disagree, saying, "Lois, you don't owe him--" but Lionel shut him up with a low but commanding, "Lex, enough!"

Whitney grabbed Lois's arm. "Come on." She breathed a sigh of relief as he led her to a door that opened onto one of the Center's three formal gardens.

***
"Did you get it?" John Vincent all-but pounced on the Planet's photographer who had at least four DataCards filled with digital images of the party goers. "Tell me you got good stock of Fordman threatening to clock Lex Luthor."

"I don't think I got much," Francis Sax told him without looking up from the LCD of her digital camera. "Too far away, and too many people milling about. I may be able to do something with this in Photoshop, but it's not going to be anything more than Fordman towering over Lex Luthor."

Vincent shifted to look over her shoulder as she cycled through the images again. He was disappointed. Not a usable frame in the bunch. "Damn it."

The photographer frowned at him. "When did The Great John Vincent jump on the Sleeze Wagon? Didn't you used to preach that the field was the only place a player's behavior counted?"

"Oh, shut up," Vincent snapped.

***
"Whitney--"

"Hush!" he snapped, marching with grim determination through the Japanese garden until he found a spot that offered them a little privacy from the strollers and smokers and lovers taking advantage of the unseasonably balmy night. Somehow Lois managed to keep up despite her spiked heels. "Okay, out with it. What the fuck are you trying to do to me?" he demanded when he was sure they wouldn't be overheard. "And don't feed me any bullshit about trying to get a story on Lex Luthor."

"I'm not trying to get a story. I'm trying to keep from being one!"

"What the fuck does that mean?"

"Stop cursing at me," she snapped. Lois was sorry for the shit Whitney had apparently taken tonight, but she wasn't in the habit of letting anyone steamroll her. "This is as much your fault as mine, so jump off your high horse and talk to me without yelling."

"My fault? You've done everything you could to humiliate me but suck Lex Luthor's cock in the middle of the dance floor, and it's my fault?"

Alcohol and anger put Lois an instant away from slapping his face, but she managed to control herself. "You bet, Buster. I didn't ask you to tell ESPN, John Vincent, and the entire Sharks first string that we're practically engaged, and I sure as hell didn't agree to be part of this glorified Calvin Klein photo shoot!"

"What photo shoot?" Whitney snapped back. "I haven't seen anything but your back all night. The photographer couldn't have gotten a shot of us together if his life depended on it."

"Good! Then it's working!"

Whitney took a step back, aghast. "That's what you're doing? Trying to keep from having your picture made with me?" he asked incredulously. "Why?"

"Because I'm not your girlfriend, Whitney, and I don't want pictures of us as a couple splashed all over the media. Things are bad enough as it is."

"Bad--?"

"My boyfriend at Berkley saw Vincent's article in the Planet this morning and called me on it in front of our entire study group! He let everyone know that he wasn't thrilled to be fucking your leftovers. Needless to say, I no longer have a boyfriend in Berkeley. Nor do I have a reputation unless you count the one that's spreading about me being a two-timing 'ho!"

"Shit."

"Yeah. I was going to tell you tomorrow, but when we got here and the photographers started snapping pictures of us, a quiet, private break-up tomorrow didn't seem like it was going to be a whole lot of help."

"So you decided to humiliate me?"

"I didn't decide anything, Whitney. I started talking to Lex and then you and Lionel pissed me off... It didn't occur to me that your team mates would give you a hard time."

"Well, they have!"

They were squared off like combatants, alcohol fueling their anger. Whitney had never seen Lois cry, but all of a sudden there were tears coursing down her cheeks and he felt like ten kinds of a heel for coming down so hard on her. "Lois..."

"I love you, Whitney. You're my best friend and I'd do anything in the world for you, but this -- this is too much. I want to be famous as Lois Lane, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, not Jock Quarterback Whitney Fordman's main squeeze. I'm a journalist -- a serious journalist -- but this is going to turn me into a joke. If we were really a couple it might be worth it, but I'm not going to destroy my life and my credibility so that you can get your ass reamed by some rich jerk who's only using you!" She swiped at the tears on her cheeks. "Fuck! Look what you've done to me. Lois Lane doesn't cry!"

Despite her tears, Whitney's feeling of being a heel went away. Lois's condemation of his relationship with Lionel shoved his emotions back toward anger. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his blade-thin cellphone.

"What are you doing?" she sniffed.

"Calling the chauffeur to bring the car around." He dialed and gave the order, then replaced the phone. "Go."

"Whitney--"

"Just go, Lois. Okay? Get out. I'm sorry you've been hurt. I'm sorry you felt like the best way to handle the problem was to humiliate me in front of my teammates and 150 of the most influential people in Kansas!"

"I'm sorry," she told him. "That's not what I meant to happen."

"Well, it did. Go back to the hotel."

"You're not coming?"

"What? And give the photographers another photo op? I don't think so." He couldn't control the bitterness or the sarcasm.

"Whitney--"

"Go, Lois! Just get out. I have to stay here and do damage control."

"How?"

"How the fuck should I know?"

"Will I see you tomorrow?"

"I don't know that either," he replied, fighting back the sick feeling of betrayal that was washing through him.

She stood there, looking for all the world as though she wasn't going to leave until she figured out how to extracate them both from the mess she'd made. Whitney's glare must have changed her mind. "I'm sorry," she murmured, then turned and fled.

"Yeah, me, too," Whitney whispered to the heavy autumn air.

***
Lex was delighted when Lois slipped back into the ballroom alone and barely composed. Whitney and his beard couldn't have played into his hands any better tonight if Lex had written a script for them to follow. Lois appeared to be making a beeline for the exit, so all that was left to really seal Fordman's coffin was for Lex to leave as well -- with Lois on his arm.

He set off on an intercept path, but only got a dozen steps toward the exit. "Don't even think about it, Lex." Lionel stepped into his path, smiling jovially. The hand that went to Lex's shoulder looked casual, but the grip was so much like iron that Lex winced.

"You suggested I leave," he reminded his father, managing to wrench away without making a scene. "And your slightest wish..."

"Your acquiescence is welcome," Lionel countered with a smile. "But your timing makes your motive suspect. Let's you and I stand here and have a nice, civil chat until Ms. Lane is safely out of camera range, shall we?"

Lex resigned himself to nailing down Whitney Fordman's coffin some other time. "All right. What shall we chat about?"

"Thin ice, and the fact that you're not nearly the skater you think you are." Lionel's genial smile disappeared as he captured and held Lex's sardonic gaze. "Whitney is off limits. I thought you understood that."

Lex chuckled. "Manipulating my boyfriend into doing your dirtywork was a good move, Dad, but I don't need to lift a finger to bring down Whitney Fordman. He's going to self-destruct all by himself. Tonight ought to be proof of that. Your golden boy just lost his camouflage."

"Thanks to you."

Lex shook his head, grinning. "Oh, come on. I can be a real charmer, but I'm not that good. Ms. Lane arrived tonight with an enormous problem. Her honest-to-goodness boyfriend at Berkeley was less than thrilled to learn that she was the love of a football hero's life. Fordman was doomed to be a bachelor before the weekend was out," he informed his father. "I just facilitated the breakup."

"And made it the subject of tomorrow's gossip columns."

Lex grinned. "Hey, I'm not the one who's been working overtime to turn him into a media whore." He leaned forward and whispered. "You want your fucks to be rich and famous, you gotta take the good with the bad."

"You'll regret this, Lex," Lionel whispered back.

Lex straightened. "I doubt that, Dad."

Lionel captured his gaze with a look that sent an involuntary chill down Lex's spine. "Then you don't know me as well as you think you do, son." He nodded toward the exit. "You may go now."

If the threat (or the dismissal) fazed Lex, it didn't show. Lionel gave him credit for that. But Lex was the least of his worries at the moment. This Lois Lane situation was a disaster that required immediate damage control. As Lex departed, Lionel reached for his cell phone. Scanning the perimeter of the ballroom, he dialed a two digit code.

"Manning."

"Where are you?"

"The balcony. Is there a problem?"

"Regrettably. But we may be able to turn it to our advantage." Lionel looked up and saw his security chief moving efficiently toward the staircase. "Don't come down," Lionel instructed and Manning stopped. "I've changed my mind about the picture. Insert it into this weeks' set of surveillance photos and give it to Whitney in the morning when we brief him about the new stalker letter. Exert whatever pressure is necessary to convince him to look through the pictures while you are there."

"Will Miss Lane also be present?" Manning asked.

"Not if I can prevent it," Lionel snapped. "I'll talk to you first thing in the morning."

"Yes, sir."

Lionel hung up and pocketed the phone. He was going to kill two birds with one stone by supplanting a damaging scandal with a useful one. A very useful one.

***
By the time Whitney made it back to the ballroom, Lois was gone and Lex Luthor was just disappearing up the Grand Staircase. Lionel and Celeste were doing their Lord and Lady of the Manor routine, and the bar seemed like the only friend Whitney had left in the world.

Bran caught up with him at the bar. "Did somebody get dumped tonight?"

"Yep," Whitney replied.

"Who dumped who?"

"Does it matter?"

"Only to the gossip mongers."

"She dumped me," Whitney replied, hoping it was the right answer.

Bran nodded as though he understood everything. "Couldn't handle the sudden fame, or the relationship finally succumbed to the problems endemic to all long distance relationships?"

"Endemic?" Whitney snorted. "You really did graduate from a snooty school."

"Focus, Whit-man. You need some spin control," Bran retorted, refusing to be diverted. "The love of your life just dumped you, and we need a better reason than interference from Lex Luthor. What's the official word?"

"The official word is that there is no fucking official word. It's over. That's all anyone needs to know. Jesus, I need a drink."

"Not a good idea, Whit."

"Fuck you."

Bran stopped pressing him, and somewhere in the rational center of Whitney's brain that wasn't numbed by alcohol, he quickly realized what a good friend he had in Bran Sutton. Comments from teammates that were supposed to be funny fell short of the mark, and the malicious ones that were meant to bite did exactly what they were supposed to. Bran, bless his heart, ran interference and at least kept Whitney from doing any more damage than had already been done.

Knowing he was being scrutinized made it hard for Whitney to keep an eye on Lionel, and seeing him so outwardly adoring of Celeste made it even harder. It was some comfort, though, when a waiter brought him a small, sealed envelope that contained a note that read, "I would like very much to salvage this evening. The limo will be waiting for you in the parking garage after the auction. I will join you as soon as I can get away."

The auction passed in a haze. Somehow Whitney managed to autograph the jersey that brought $2500 into the coffers of the Lillian Luthor Foundation. When that duty was done, he was free to get the hell out of there.

Half an hour later, he watched from the back seat of the limo as couples began descending the red-carpeted stairs in front of the civic center. Eventually, Lionel and Celeste appeared. They moved toward the front of the line of limos and disappeared. A few minutes later, the back door opened and Whitney felt his pulse begin to race as Lionel slid onto the seat beside him.

"Hi, Boss."

Lionel gave him a thorough once-over. “I am pleased to see you conscious. The amount of alcohol you consumed could well have put you in danger of being poisoned.”

"Not poisoned, just pickled." Whitney drained the last quarter-inch of the glass of Scotch he'd pilfered from Lionel's stock. He reached for the bottle, but Lionel lifted the glass from his fingers. "Hey!"

"You've had enough."

"Isn't that my decision?"

"That depends on whether you want to spend the night alone or in my bed."

Whitney slouched back into the corner. "I was dumped tonight, Lionel. Publically humiliated. Castrated by my best friend and that manipool-- manulip-- that asshole you call a son while you pawed her ladyship. If anyone deserves to get drunk, it's moi. Would you really abandon me in my hour of misery?"

Lionel looked decidedly unsympathetic. "If you continue to imbibe, yes."

Whitney shifted closer and slid his hand down to Lionel's crotch. "Ummmm, nice... If you dump me, who's going to take care of that for you? Your Royal Bitch? Do her duties include polishing the family jewels when I'm not available?"

Lionel sighed heavily. "I believe I addressed that issue earlier. You already know the answer."

"Do I?" Whitney asked. He sounded petulant and needy, but he was too drunk to care. He needed more from Lionel than his lover was normally willing to give. Lois's betrayal of their friendship was suddenly making him question everything he thought he knew, including Lionel. He nuzzled his lover's throat as he asked hoarsely,"How do I know, Lionel? Do you ever tell me? Have you ever said, 'Whitney, I want you to be my partner'? Have you ever told anyone you couldn't live without me?"

"No. To all of the above," Lionel replied. His head fell to one side, giving Whitney the freedom to explore the pulsepoints that throbbed beneath his lips as he conceded, "But if it is any consolation, I have never spoken those words to or about anyone."

"Not even--"

"Don't go there, Whitney," Lionel commanded softly. "Not tonight. Lillian is dead and buried. Celeste was never more than a diverting companion. It is you who are in my limo tonight. You who share my bed."

Whitney pulled back a few inches. "And your heart?"

"Cold and lifeless, if you believe the rumors," Lionel replied. "Hardly a trophy to aspire to hold."

"I aspire," Whitney whispered.

"Foolish boy." The words were a rebuke, but the kiss that accompanied them was anything but. It was warm and gentle and it went on a long, long time. Whitney threaded a hand through Lionel's long thick hair and groaned around the tongue that was doing a soft, fluid dance with his own. The warmth and passion ignited a fire in his groin and burned away some of his fears and doubts. The kiss lasted forever and was still too short.

"Please..."

"Please what?" Lionel asked.

Whitney kissed him very gently. "This has been a really rotten night. Make it better."

"Gladly." Lionel pulled him close and kissed him deeply.

Whitney moaned into the kiss and felt constrained in the jock he was wearing. It had managed to hide his arousal earlier, now it was bending his cock in half. He moved a hand down to adjust it, but had it slapped away.

“All in good time, my warrior.” Lionel returned to the kiss and tasted the whiskey, sampled it, sucked it off of Whitney's tongue as he removed Whitney's disheveled tie and unbuttoned his shirt. He slid lower, running his hand over Whitney's chest, lower, unbuckled his belt… unzipped him…

"Lionel?" Whitney whispered as Lionel caressed his jock-encased cock.

"Yes."

"Do you love me?" He needed to know, wanted to hear the words. Pleasure was one thing, but the pain of the night was an agony in his heart. He needed to know that all the sacrifices he was making were worth the price he was paying. Love would be worth it; it was all he really wanted.

"I'm here with you, Whitney."

The hand in his trousers continued its tender caress. Lionel’s response was not what he wanted to hear and he knew better than to expect it. He moaned as a finger ran along the ridge of his flared cock head. "Please?"

"Please what?"

Whitney moaned again. "Continue..."

"With this?" He stroked Whitney intimately.

"Just once...I'd like to hear it," Whitney murmured.

"I want you,” Lionel said as he pushed Whitney’s trousers down and ran his hand along the budging black jock. “You are so beautiful and masculine at the same time. How could anyone fail to want you?”

"I'm yours," Whitney moaned as he arched into the hand.

Lionel slid the pouch off of Whitney’s cock, freeing it and earning a moan from Whitney in the process.

"Yes,” Whitney moaned again as Lionel’s hand began to run along the length of his cock. He reached over and kissed him again. Lionel’s other hand pressed him down onto the seat. Whitney bucked up and dug his hands into Lionel's hair. "I love you."

"I know."

"Need you." Whitney all but screamed as Lionel finger ran along his cock slit.

Lionel shifted and ran his hands down Whitney's torso, then lower as his mouth sought and found Whitney's cock. He licked the head for a moment and then slid his tongue along the underside vein.

"Yesssssssssss!" Whitney hissed, thankful for the partition even though he knew Sandofer could hear him.

Lionel continued to tease Whitney. He ran a finger along the sensitive spot behind Whitney’s heavy ball sack. His tongue flickered over the gaping slit, tasting the semi-sweet pre-come. Finally he encased the cock in his mouth and began to suck the full length up and down.

"LIONEL!"

Lionel pulled off and resumed the torture from earlier, building the pleasure and then varying the pace. He moved a finger to tease Whitney’s ass as his tongue massaged the heavy purple glans. Lionel again placed Whitney’s cock in his mouth and began to suck in earnest until there was nothing Whitney could do to prolong the tide of pleasure that was sweeping him away.

"FUCK!"

Lionel swallowed as jet after jet of come pulsed from Whitney’s beautiful cock. He drank it, savoring his young Adonis’ ambrosia.

"Are we home yet?" Whitney asked breathlessly.

Lionel crawled back up Whitney's torso and kissed him fiercely, possessively. "Where do you think I've been?"

Whitney smiled and ran his hand down Lionel's body to cup him intimately. "I just want you to have fun too."

Lionel continued his kiss as he fondled Whitney’s still-hard cock. "I did. But there's always room for more."

It was a struggle, but Whitney managed to remove the jock completely and then put his trousers back on. "My ass needs attention."

Lionel helped Whitney zip up; he didn’t want his stud’s cock injured in a freak zipper accident. "Upstairs."

Whitney snuggled against him. "I need you in me. In bed so I can sprawl out while you burn tonight away with your cock."

"With pleasure."

Whitney lost himself in a long, languid kiss. He was vaguely aware that the limo had stopped moving. "Now?" Whitney said with a wicked grin and squeezed Lionel's cock.

Lionel groaned. "Not yet. There are still thirty stories between us and the bed and we won't get there if you keep that up." He carefully removed Whitney's hand and arranged his clothes to be presentable for no one in particular.

"Spoilsport," Whitney muttered as he groped for the shoes he'd toed off when he climbed into the limo. "Your willpower is disgusting to those of us who have none."

Lionel chuckled. "And you're beautiful when you pout. Of course, you're also beautiful when you don't pout."

The back door opened and Whitney climbed out of the limo, pausing to shake his ass right in Lionel's face. Lionel slapped his ass and pushed him on out. Whitney staggered and Sandofer put out a hand, but it was Lionel who caught and steadied his lover.

"Thank you, Sandofer. I can manage from here," Lionel told the chauffeur.

"Yes, sir. Good night."

Whitney pulled Lionel into a hug as they walked to the private elevator lobby. "See something you like?

"Like a kid in a candy store." Lionel extricated himself from Whitney's embrace and retrieved his security card from the breast pocket. Remaining unaffected by his lover's mischevious, alcohol-fueled smile was completely beyond him, but he made an effort to at least appear in control, even when Whitney reached down and tugged on Lionel’s erect cock. "For me?"

Lionel inserted the card. "Your very own candy cane."

"I love Christmas." Whitney swayed closer, pressing his own erection into Lionel's thigh.

"Come along, Santa... Into the elevator," Lionel murmured, guiding him into the private car. Even before he depressed the Penthouse button, he punched in the code to disengage the security cameras. In his current state, Whitney was unlikely to maintain any level of decorum, and Lionel didn't want a visual record of the young man's amorous antics. However, the doors had barely closed when Lionel found himself pressed against the wall with Whitney ravaging his mouth. He gave as good as he got, but he was completely unprepared when Whitney reached for the control panel and stopped the elevator, then dropped to his knees. He outlined the contours of Lionel's cock with a hand. Lionel moaned. Whitney stared to rub it with a firmer grip.

Lionel ran his fingers through Whitney’s thick blond mane. He tried to control his shudders as a finger encircled his cock head. He looked down as Whitney pulled his shirt out of his trousers and began to kiss his stomach, but when Whitney started licking his cock through his trousers, Lionel closed his eyes tightly and fought for control. The wet clothing was clinging to him and tormenting him.

Lionel groaned and sagged against the wall of the elevator. "Take it."

The sound of the zipper descending sent sparks along his cock. Another shudder passed through his body. "Please." Lionel was now begging his lover to touch him directly. Whitney was mouthing him through his silk boxers and Lionel locked his knees to keep from sinking to the floor. "Whitney..."

Whitney continued to kiss Lionel, but moved back to the trail along the flat stomach. His hand cupped Lionel’s sack and teased the tender spot right behind them. Slowly he used his teeth to pull Lionel’s boxers down and to free his engorged cock. He kept one hand on Lionel’s balls as he let his tongue slowly treat Lionel’s head like a lollypop. He took the top few inches into his mouth and began to suck in a slow rhythm. He stopped every few seconds before starting the slow movement again.

'"Whitney.…Oh, god. Please..." Lionel begged.

Smiling as best he could, Whitney resumed his oral caress of Lionel’s heavy cock. He increased the speed and concentrated on the flared ridge. The moans and shudders fueled his desire to taste Lionel, to get his lover off. He brought a finger into his mouth and got it wet. He moved it back to tease Lionel. Slowly he sank it into the tight heat as his mouth moved ever faster along the long thickness of Lionel. The hand around the base of Lionel’s cock was the first signal that Lionel was about to come. He increased the tempo of his suction and his finger found Lionel’s hot spot.

“Fuck!”

Whitney was rewarded with a flood of Lionel’s come and he swallowed as fast as he could. He slowly pulled off the still hard cock and sat back. He smiled up at Lionel. “Will you live?”

“I must. I still have a date with your perfect ass.” Lionel reassembled his boxers and trousers as Whitney pulled himself off his knees and restarted the elevator.

Whit was so hard he thought he could see a wet spot on the black fabric of his trousers. “I think I should have kept the jock on.”

Lionel pulled him into a kiss. “The less clothing in the way the better,” he said as the elevator opened. Without ceremony and with very little grace, he hungrily guided Whitney to the bedroom with frantic kisses and caresses, leaving articles of clothing strewn in their wake. Lit candles and warm lube awaited them, and as they tumbled onto the bed, Lionel sensed an increasing desperation in Whitney and understood its source. The dampening effect of alcohol was warring with the euphoria of sex. They were cancelling each other out and widening the cracks that would allow the devastation of the evening to flood into Whitney's consciusness.

Desperate to keep the demons at bay, Whitney begged Lionel to fuck him. He spread his legs and moaned as a finger teased him with warm lube. The finger slipped in and Whitney bit his lip trying to keep from crying out.

“Don't hold back. Let it all out,” Lionel commanded, his voice soft and husky.

Whitney did cry out as a second finger entered him and began to slowly fuck him. It was a beautiful pain, full of promise that it would fade into amazing pleasure. A third finger was added and Whitney stared thrashing his head side to side. “Lionel, please!”

Lionel handed him a condom. “Put this on me.”

Whitney rolled the condom down Lionel’s cock and shifted to accommodate Lionel’s weight. He locked eyes with his lover and he moaned as the heavy cock he so desired entered him. The first few thrusts were slow, smooth, and deep, but the rhythm soon increased. Whitney gripped the sheets and arched into the long, piercing strokes.

“You are so beautiful, my love.” Lionel said as he continued to move at a steady pace. He kissed his lover and wiped at the sweat on his brow. He drank the small tears that pooled at the corner's of Whitney's. “You are mine, I'm here for you.”

Whitney shuddered under the weight of the words and the heat surging through his body. They were not the words he so desperately needed to hear, but they were close, so close that it almost didn't matter. He cried out as his prostate was massaged time and again by Lionel’s cock.” I love you, Lionel. Only you.”

Lionel reached between their sweaty bodies and fondled Whitney’s half erect member. It came to full mast with only a few touches and he began to jack in time to his thrusts. The open-mouth moans spurred Lionel on even though he wanted this feeling to last. It had been too long since he’d been able to touch and taste his young god.

Whitney moaned again and fought the urge to come so soon. The fire was torture and he would have to yield soon. “Lionel…so close.”

Lionel kissed Whitney gently, nipping on his lips. “Then let it come and enjoy.” He increased the friction on the cock in his hand and Whitney cried out, sure that all of Metropolis could hear his scream of pleasure as he came all over his stomach and Lionel’s hand. The pleasure was still sizzling through him when he felt Lionel's thrusts quicken, heard his lover's breath come in hard gasps and moans and suddenly Lionel was shuddering as he spilled into the condom. He gave one last, deep thrust and time seemed to stand still.

Whitney looked up at Lionel's face. Soft candle light danced across it, illuminating strands of dark hair that had been taken captive by the sweat on his brow. The eyes that met his swirled with emotions that Whit couldn't begin to sort and classify, but he knew that if Lionel ever allowed himself to express that look in words, Whitney would hear everything he'd ever longed to hear.

The fact that Lionel refused to say the words made Whitney's ache to hear them even worse.


Lois didn't see any reason to stay in Metropolis. Whitney wasn't going to want to see her today, and she sure as hell didn't want to suffer through Brunch with Moneybuckets. Despite her alcohol consumption she'd been unable to sleep after she returned to the hotel, so after several hours of tossing, turning, and sobering up, she called the airline and exchanged her first class afternoon return flight ticket for a morning coach flight.

After she packed, she called the front desk to verify that the necklace she'd placed in the vault last night had been picked up by Cartier, and once she was assured she wouldn't have Grand Theft Rubies chasing her back to California she informed the front desk that she would be checking out early. The front desk informed her that her bill had been settled yesterday by Mr. Fordman and she was free to leave at any time.

Given the level of luxury and planning that Whitney had put into this trip, Lois felt incredibly guilty but not at all surprised to discover a limo waiting to take her to the airport an hour later. "I can take a cab," she said uselessly to the handsome, dark-haired chauffeur who opened the door for her as the bellman deposited her luggage in the trunk.

There was no point in arguing. She slid onto the back seat and found herself facing Lionel Luthor.

"Oh, shit."

"Gracious to the very end," Lionel said lightly.

Lois clamped hard on the "Fuck you," that was trying to hammer its way out of her mouth. "Sorry. You startled me. I wasn't expecting a going away party. How did you know I was leaving?"

"My security chief made inquiries about your plans and the hotel was gracious enough to tell him you were checking out."

As the limo started moving, Lois resigned herself to the fact that she was being taken for a ride, literally and figuratively, most likely. "Where's Whitney?

"Still in bed when I left him, more passed out than sleeping. He had a difficult night."

"You couldn't kiss it and make it better?" she sniped.

"Miss Lane, the damage you inflicted last night goes beyond such simple remedies." Lionel plucked several sections of folded newspapers off the seat beside him and tossed them onto her lap.

Lois frowned as she scanned the sections. The Daily Planet's Style section had an unflattering picture of Lois on the stairs at the ball looking like a wishbone being pulled apart by Whitney and Lex. Lois glanced at the accompanying article written by society/style editor (read: gossip columnist) Helena Paul.

...charity raised over a quarter of a million dollars, but the big story of the night was the apparent disintegration of Whitney Fordman's much touted relationship with California co-ed Lois Lane. Lane was wined, dined, and woo'd by playboy Lex Luthor, leaving her date to comfort himself with liquid libation. Spectators close to the trio say that the two men might have come to blows had not Sharks Free Safety Bran Sutton intervened.

It's too early to say for certain, of course, but it seems quite likely that Mr. Fordman will be playing the field in more ways than one this fall.

Great. She could go back to Berkeley a publicly free woman. Of course, she'd be forever branded as a social climbing Jezabel, but hey. A girl couldn't have everything.

The second paper was less flattering than the first and the third was out-and-out trash. Lois felt sick at her stomach, but she'd be damned if she'd let Lionel Luthor see how badly she regretted what she'd done last night. She tossed the papers back at Lionel with a flick of her wrist. "So? What do you want from me?"

"That should be obvious to an intelligent young woman like you. You hold Whitney's future in your hands--a state of affairs that worries me deeply."

"It shouldn't. I haven't kept his secret all these years just to destroy him now."

Luthor looked at her like she was a recalcitrant child. "Miss Lane, keeping a secret that no one cares about is easy, but things have changed. As Whitney's fame grows, so will the temptation to leverage your knowledge into something more useful than a battered friendship that may not survive the blow you've dealt to it."

Lois refused to believe that was true, but she wasn't about to argue the subject with this man. "Believe what you want, Mr. Luthor, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't judge me by the low standards of loyalty you set for yourself." The insult set his lips twitching into a parody of a smile, but Lois didn't care if he was laughing at her or not. She affected a weary sigh. "Where is this going? Are you here to threaten me? Buy me off? Because if you are--"

"I wouldn't insult Whitney by doing either," Lionel assured her smoothly.

"Does he know you have me under surveillance?"

He didn't bother to deny the obvious. "Not yet, but he will shortly. And he will approve. Despite the devastation you heaped upon him last night, I have no doubt that Whit's chivalrous nature will override the pain of your betrayal. When he learns what my security chief was planning to tell both of you at brunch this morning, he will insist that you be warned. Once you and I are finished here, I can assure him that he has no cause for concern."

Lois frowned. "Warned about what?"

"Has Whitney told you about 'K'?"

"The fruitcake who's sending him creepy love letters?"

Lionel nodded. "Which have now escallated into threats of violence against Whitney. And you. This arrived shortly after you were named in John Vincent's newspaper article last week." He handed her plain piece of paper with several blocks of text. "Prior to that, K had clearly believed that she was woman to whom Whitney had made vague references in the media."

Lois scanned the letter, which clearly wasn't the original, or even a copy of the original, she suspected. The letter was a bizarre diatribe -- a song of betrayal worthy of a country music lyric. All it needed was a melody line. Whitney had mentioned that he was getting letters that might be from a woman in his past, but he'd made light of the whole thing. This was no laughing matter, though. Lois felt a new pang of guilt for the complication she had added to his already complicated life.

"How long has she been threatening violence like this?" she asked.

"This is the first overt threat. My security expert doesn't believe you are in any danger; this woman is local and isn't likely to travel to California, especially now that you have humiliated Whitney with such a public breakup."

Lois agreed. The threats didn't worry her. Much. "If Miss K is as delusional as she sounds, she'll believe Whitney engineered the breakup so he would be free to be with her."

Luthor looked mildly impressed. "My expert concurs, which negates the possiblity that she might want to punish you for the pain you have caused Whitney. Acknowledging that pain would be a challenge to the 'reality' of her relationship with Whitney. You have nothing to fear from this woman, but Whitney would be remiss in not at least apprising you of the possiblity."

"So you're taking care of that for him. How sweet. What do your experts say about the danger to Whitney?"

"I'm happy to say that's none of your affair, Miss Lane. I will do whatever is necessary to keep Whitney safe."

She called up a zinger about the importance of protecting his investment, but swallowed it. It didn't matter why Luthor protected Whitney as long as he kept him safe.

Lois registered the fact that the limo had come to a stop in front of One Luthor Plaza, but her focus was still on the letter and the implications of the fact that Lionel was trusting her with it. "How do you know I won't go to the media with this?"

Lionel pointed at the document. "That is an altered version of the original. It contains several deviations. If this story becomes tabloid fodder, the deviations will identify the source of the leak and Whitney will know exactly who betrayed him."

"Clever."

"A precaution that I hope is unnecessary. I suspect you are insightful enough to realize that having 'K' made public would magnify the danger to Whitney."

"I won't tell anyone, Mr. Luthor. I have nothing to gain from betraying Whitney."

"And so much to lose."

The look Luthor gave her sent shivers down Lois's spine. "That was a threat."

"Yes. It was." He rapped his knuckles on the window and the door opened. Luthor slid out and Lois heard him command, "Get her to the airport and then return to the Plaza."

"Yes, sir."

***
The dull ache in the back of his head was an improvement over the loud roar it had been when he'd first woke up that morning. Consciousness brought the humiliation of the Ball back to Whitney in full force, so he kept collapsing back into bed between bouts of nausea, dozing fitfully. Lionel was gone -- Whit was too miserable to care where -- but the drapes had been thoughtfully closed for his benefit. He had no sense of time and he had lost count of how often he'd barely made it to the bathroom. It seemed almost sacrilegious to be heaving his guts out in Lionel's decadent bathroom, but Lionel had been surprisingly supportive in the night. He hadn't exactly played nursemaid, but he hadn't ignored his ailing lover, either. It wasn't what Whit would have expected.
Sleep finally became impossible as visions from the night before crowded in on him. The taunts of his teammates were particularly hard to handle. Snippets of conversations came back to him in flashes. Lloyd Tanner's “Guess you must not be too hot in the sack is she prefers a runt like Luthor.” Yeah. Exactly. "Not man enough to hold onto your woman," would be murmured for weeks.

And on top of that, the memory of Lois's behavior was devastating. There weren't many people in his life that Whit had allowed himself to trust without reservation. Lois was one of the special few. No matter what the motivation, her public betrayal cut straight into his heart.

Whitney sat up on the side of the bed slowly, fighting to keep the world from spinning and his temper from flaring out of hand. Gradually, he forced himself to stumble into the bathroom; he needed a shower to scrub off his humiliation and failure before he had to face Lionel.

He made the water as hot as he could bear it, trying to scald away the memories. He had flashes of amazing sex with Lionel, but it was just sex, not love. Not on Lionel's part. And a couple of scorching orgasms weren't enough to sweep away the knowledge that Lex Luthor had played him for a fool in front of everyone who mattered.

He stopped his train of thought and tried to find some emotional balance. None was to be found, and every ache and pain from the Saints game was back with a vengeance. He finally dragged himself out of the shower, slipped into a downy white bathrobe, and padded back to the bedroom, where he was surprised to find Lionel putting a small tray with a glass of juice and a bottle of aspirin on the nightstand.

His lover gave Whit a dispassionate once over. "You've looked better."

"No kidding. A three-day-old unembalmed corpse would look better than I do," Whitney managed to retort. He was trying for wry humor but it sounded surly even to his own ears.

Lionel opened the aspirin bottle and poured four into his own palm. "What are your chances of keeping these down?"

"Slim to none, but I'll try." Whitney took the pills and tossed them onto the back of his throat. He washed them down with a small sip of juice. "Thanks."

"How much of last night do you remember?"

"Every painful moment of the ball, and a few afterward that weren't painful at all. Thank you for taking care of me -- in more ways than one."

Lionel acknowledged the compliment with an odd nod of his head. "One day soon, when you are feeling better, we will discuss how strongly I feel about the need to break your pattern of retreating into excessive alcohol consumption in times of emotional stress."

Oh, fuck. Whitney frowned. "I'll be getting my wrist slapped?"

"I will be expressing my concern about how your youthful tendency to drown your sorrows in alcohol could lead to alcoholism. Not to mention the early demise of this relationship."

The implications of the threat barely dented the dense wall of Whitney's misery. Or maybe it was the tenderness and calm concern beneath the threat that took the terror out of it. "Are you going to give me an ultimatum?" he asked.

"I am going to express a lover's concern for your well-being."

"Which we can table till another time?"

Lionel nodded. "Yes. This day is going to be difficult enough for you without adding concerns about our already-complicated relationship."

Whitney thought he knew what Lionel was referring to. Suffused with dread, he closed his eyes and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. "What are they saying?"

"They?"

"The Planet, the Kansan. Their society columns, Vincent, whoever..."

"About what you would expect. Your alcohol consumption was noted, along with speculation on the demise of your relationship with Lois Lane."

"Was Lex mentioned?"

"Yes. His ownership in the team is less than two percent -- an unappreciated gift I gave him shortly after I acquired the Sharks -- but two percent is more than enough to allow the press to make a drama out of conflicts between the Sharks' rising star and the team's 'owner.' The conflict was hinted at in the society column, but we should expect more of the same to begin appearing in the sports rags. I would buy back Lex's shares, but he wouldn't sell."

Whitney resisted the urge to crawl back under the covers. "He's determined to destroy me, isn't he?"

"It appears that way."

"How do I fight him?"

"You don't. You leave him to me."

Whitney wanted to craft a retort about how impotent inaction made him feel, but he was too hung over for rhetoric. "Fine. Whatever." He'd figure out what to do about Lex later.

Lionel activated the quiet motor that controlled the drapes and Whitney groaned in pain as the sun pierced his retinas with ice picks. "Ow! Fuck!" He exclaimed, and on the heels of that came the realization that the sun was a lot higher than he'd expected it to be. "Shit. What time is it?"

"Nearly ten."

"Oh, fuck." He managed to get to his feet and made his way into the dressing room, shedding his robe as he said, "I was supposed to pick up Lois at 9:30. Brunch is out--no fucking way I can deal with you two in the same room today--but I should see her. I guess. Talk to her..."

"An unnecessary gesture."

Whitney pulled a pair of perfectly folded jeans off of one of his shelves and stepped to the door to tell Lionel, "She's my friend, Lionel. She was a bitch last night and I don't know how long it's going to take me to forgive her, but that friendship means something."

"More so to you than to her, apparently," Lionel said sardonically. "Miss Lane is gone, Whitney. She switched flights and checked out of her hotel early this morning."

Whitney hadn't thought it was possible to feel more betrayed, but he was wrong. Lois was gone. Without talking to him. Without even saying good-bye. He truly had lost his best friend. "Shit." He slid back into the dressing room to escape the piercing, I-told-you-so scrutiny of Lionel's pale gaze.

He slipped into black boxer briefs and yanked on his jeans, concentrating on the stabbing pains of his headache to block out the renewed sense of betrayal that was churning in his stomach.

Lionel appeared at the door. "Whitney--"

"Don't say anything, Lionel, okay? I don't wanna hear how I never should have trusted her in the first place and all human beings are basically unreliable scum and only a fool believes in love or friendship. Beat me over the head with your cynicism some other day, okay?"

There was a long, empty pause during which Whitney studiously avoided looking at his lover. As he slipped a light blue sweater over his head Lionel's cold voice finally commanded, "When you're dressed, join me in the Solarium. Jacob is waiting with a security briefing. There's been another letter from your stalker that has to be dealt with."

"Shit," Whitney muttered, and turned with an apology on his lips; but his lover was already gone.

Just as well. He wasn't sure he owed Lionel an apology. Lois's betrayal wasn't Lionel's fault, but the memory of his lover fawning over Celeste was every bit as keen as the memory of Lois flirting with Lex.

My life would be a helluva a lot simpler with a lover like Bran Sutton, he thought bitterly as he searched for a pair of loafers. We could go anywhere together--just two buddies hanging out. No one would question us. Hell, we could double date--take a couple of girls out on the town, drop them off at the end of the evening, go home, and fuck each other senseless.

Whoa.

How long had he been repressing that little romantic fantasy?

If he was going to be honest with himself, he'd have to admit it had been there long before Bran appeared as a blip on Lois's gaydar screen. Bran Sutton was hot and Whitney wasn't immune. There was only one problem with his little scenario....

Whether it was convenient or not, he was crazy in love with the ruthless, complicated Lionel Luthor.

He slipped into his shoes and joined Lionel in the solarium.

***
As he watched Whitney read "K's" latest burst of insanity, Lionel was astonished at the amount of guilt he felt about what he and Manning were about to do. Granted, it was all for Whitney's benefit, and the long term advantages far outweighed the short term distress it would cause. That certainty should have assuaged Lionel's guilt, but somehow it didn't. The emotional impact of last night's debacle with Lois would pale compared to the emotional trauma Lionel was about to inflict on Whitney this morning.

Lionel steeled himself against the unaccustomed sensations of guilt, resisting the irrational urge to call the whole scheme off.

"When did this arrive?" Whitney asked, scowling as he continued reading.

"Friday," Manning replied.

"Why am I just now seeing it?" he demanded to know.

"That was my decision," Lionel replied. "I saw no reason to spoil your reunion with Miss Lane. We stepped up security for both of you and made plans for Jacob to brief the two of you at brunch today."

Whitney accepted the answer, but his frown didn't ease. "Is there any point in asking why my email comes to you before it gets to me?"

"Since the franchise is assuming responsibility for your safety--"

"Never mind. It doesn't matter," Whitney said dispiritedly. He returned his attention to the email. "How real are these threats? Is Lois in danger?"

"The threats are quite real," Manning assured him, "but given the public change in your relationship that is being written about today, I believe the danger to Miss Lane is virtually nonexistent."

"She has to be warned."

"That detail has already been taken care of," Jacob replied.

Clearly surprised, Whitney pinned Manning with another frown. "By you?"

"No," Lionel answered, wondering how much heat he was going to take for this. "When the security detail protecting Miss Lane learned that she had changed her travel plans this morning, I decided to escort her to the airport personally so I could impress upon her the damage she could do to you."

"You threatened her?"

"No," Lionel denied, then allowed, "However, she might have a different perception. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine why you would care after what she did to you last night."

Whit leaned forward, planting his elbows on his knees, and let his head drop into his hands. "You're right. I'm too numb to care about anything at the moment. You could have saved yourself the trouble, though. Lois doesn't take kindly to being intimidated, but it's unlikely she'll run to the nearest tabloid, even to spite you."

"How reassuring," Lionel said dryly, irritated that despite last night's debacle, Whitney's faith rested with Lois Lane and not with him. That made it easier to reply with a subtle nod when Jacob looked at Lionel and quirked one eyebrow, asking for final confirmation.

Manning read the signal and removed a folder from his briefcase. "I'm sorry to do this to you, Mr. Fordman, but..."

Whit looked up and recognized the folder immediately. "Oh, no. Absolutely not," he protested with a groan.

Manning began laying stacks of photos on the coffee table. "I'm afraid this is necessary. Escallating threats this week make it highly probably that your stalker has positioned herself close to you. We need you to study the surveillance pictures."

"Not today. I'll do it tomorrow."

"There will be more tomorrow," Manning said, shaking his head. "This has to become a daily ritual until we catch this lunatic. The good news is that increasing the frequency of viewing will reduce the number of pictures and the time it takes you to review them."

"I can't--"

"Whit, please," Lionel interjected, trying with a fair amount of success to make it a lover's plea. "This is important. K is making threats -- I have to know if she's getting close enough to you to carry them out."

Whit's gaze locked with his, and Lionel waited. Whit was maleable but he had a backbone that had to be respected. His weakness was his willingness to compromise to please his lover. Lionel's weakess at this particular moment was the guilt he felt for exploiting Whitney's love for him.

"All right." Whit fell back onto the sofa. Manning laid the pictures out in three stacks.

"These are from the red carpet last night." He indicated the stacks from left to right."These are from the surveillance around your condo, and this one is general proximity shots from your trips to the market, shopping, practices and the like."

Whitney picked up the first stack and began flipping through.

To keep from being conspicuous, Lionel forced himself to at least appear to be going about his business. He went to his office and plowed through a report on The Janus Corporation, a bio-engineering company Lex had been quietly researching behind Lionel's back -- or so Lex thought, anyway.

The words ran together, and Lionel finally tossed the report aside, unable to see any reason for Lex's interest in the company and not really caring. He picked up another report but barely had the cover open when he heard Manning in the next room, ask, "You recognize someone?"

Lionel hurried to join them. Whitney was frowning at a picture, shaking his head.

"I don't know. It's blurred, out of focus... It could be her."

"Her, who?" Lionel couldn't see the picture, and for an instant he wondered if there was a chance Whitney had come across a photo of someone who could have been his real stalker, but Whit's hesitation made it clear he was looking at the planted photo. Clearly, he didn't want to believe what he was seeing and couldn't bear to say it out loud. Whitney felt so much guilt over having driven this young woman to attempt suicide, the very thought of accusing her of being a deranged stalker was killing him. Lionel could see that -- and more -- on his lover's face.

"Whitney...?" Lionel prompted gently. "Who...?"

"Cheryl Bower."

Lionel had to play his part. He frowned. "The young woman who--"

"Yes!" Whitney snapped. "And if you say I told you so, you can go straight to hell!" He tossed the picture onto the table. "I'm not sure that's her, and even if it is, she could have been on that street by coincidence. She could have been shopping, or headed for one of the office buildings. She--"

"She could have been doing any number of things," Lionel conceded gently, ignoring the guilt congealing in his veins. "Including stalking you."

Whitney opened his mouth to deny it, then clamped it shut again.

"We have to find out," Lionel stated the obvious.

"Not we," Whitney said, coming to his feet. "Me. She should be easy to find--she was a townie. Her mom taught at the K-State and her dad did research at one of the pharmaceutical labs in Hastings."

Manning nodded. "I'm sure the quickest way to find her will be through the Placement Office. I can tap into University records and have an address on her in a matter of minutes. But you have to let me handle this, Mr. Fordman."

Whitney glowered at him. "I don't have to let you do a fucking thing, Mr. Manning."

"What are you going to do, Whitney?" Lionel said mildly. "Knock on her door and ask if she's stalking you? If she's guilty, she'll hardly admit it, and if she's innocent..." He let the notion hanging there for a moment, long enough for Whitney to walk through the scenario mentally. When it was clear he was more confused than ever, Lionel continued, "Give Jacob a few days to investigate her covertly. If he can find proof that she isn't your stalker, she need never know she was under suspicion. And if she is 'K'..."

"Give me a week," Manning suggested. "There's no doubt that your stalker will make contact in response to what has appeared in the papers today. I'll put Cheryl Bower under surveillance. I'll make some discreet inquiries. Let me get at the truth, and then you can decide what to do."

Whitney came to his feet and moved to the window overlooking the city skyline to escape the two men who were towering over him like vultures. He didn't want to leave this to Manning, but when he thought about confronting Cheryl he couldn't envision any polite way of saying, "Hey, Cheryl, long time no see. Are you by any chance stalking me?"

"All right," he said finally, turning to Manning. "You have one week, but she's not to know you're investigating her, and you don't do anything -- anything -- without talking to me."

"Agreed," Manning said with a nod.

Whit glared at Lionel. "That goes for you, too."

"Your faith in me is truly heartwarming," Lionel snapped.

"Fuck you," Whit snapped back. "I gotta get out of here." Skirting both men, he moved to the elevator, but guilt overwhelmed him before he could push the call button. None of this was Lionel's fault. His lover was trying to help him, to make the best of a bad situation... Lionel didn't have to be involved in this mess at all -- he could have just as easily cut Whitney loose and let him deal with the problem on his own.

He stopped, but didn't turn. "Lionel... I'm..."

"It's all right, Whitney. Go home and get some rest."

Lionel's voice was gentle, forgiving. In Whitney's current frame of mind, being forgiven pissed him off almost as much as it reassured him. He figured he'd better leave before he said or did something stupid. He punched for the elevator and was gone a moment later.

"Now what?" Manning asked Lionel as soon as the elevator doors had closed.

"How long did it take you to discover that Cheryl Bower was in the hospital giving birth on the night we know for a fact that K was in the stadium?"

"Almost immediately --- the birth turned up in one of our first public records searches."

Lionel moved to spot at the window Whitney had occupied a few moments ago and looked down on Metropolis. "On Tuesday, I'll tell him that Cheryl can't possibly be his stalker. And then break the news that she has a baby named Whitney Marie."

"What will he do?"

"After he does the math back to the last night they spent together? He'll confront her -- but not before I've stressed the importance of a demanding a paternity test." He turned to Manning. "Your job right now is figuring out a way to leak it to the press in a manner that can't possibly be traced back to me."

Manning nodded. "You should encourage him to get his agent involved on the pretext of alerting her there might be a scandal. Carla has a long history of using the tabloid press to generate buzz about her clients."

"A good idea. With any luck, she'll leak the information on her own."

The security chief gathered up photographs from the table. Lionel frowned thoughtfully. "I don't know how many of those pictures Whitney looked at before he found the plant of Bower, but make sure he sees the rest next time. We must never lose sight of the fact that the real stalker is out there."


My beloved.

I knew she meant nothing to you! Last week when I read what that horrible newspaper man wrote about you and Lois Lane, I knew he had to be lying. You couldn't possibly be in love with her, and last night only proves it.

Let Lex Luthor have the hussy! She is not worthy of you. No one who loves you as I do could treat you so cruelly. We shall be together soon, my love.

My love forever and always,
K

Hussy? Hmmm... Too much? Well, yes. All the letters from "K" were ridiculously over the top, but calling Lois a hussy was probably pushing it.

With a faint smile ghosting around his lips, Lex fixed the sentence then leaned back in his chair and considered the letter displayed on the screen of his laptop.

Not bad. Not bad at all. Certainly good enough to keep Fordman squirming, and more importantly, good enough to keep Lionel so focused on his boytoy that he didn't have a clue Lex was starting his own company and planned on taking one or two of Luthor Corp's highly desirable assets with him. His demands for a seat on the board of his mother's foundation, his threats to Out Whitney, letters and emails from a stalker... All were designed to turn Lionel's obsession with Whitney to Lex's advantage.

And so far it was working like a charm.


Chapter Posted 04/20/08
The Usual Disclaimers Apply

Coming Eventually
The Ring: Chapter 5
"Masque and Mirrors"

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