This is so cool!

Lyn Taylor is the cover artist for my next White Tigers release, Men of Tokyo: Sudden Surrender. She did such a fabulous job on the cover and I marvelled at how she achieved the realistic effect of full body tatoos on a man who doesn’t have any tatoos. Well, a fellow author, Anika Hamilton (I’ll tell you more about her on a later post) read on Lyn Taylor’s blog the whole process of how she made my book cover. It’s really fascinating and almost did her in. lol. I’m glad she stuck with it because the effect is fabulous. I glommed her post about it so you could read the amazing process by which she made this cover.

This is the first cover I have done of this series and damn if it wasn’t a tricky one LOL! I honestly thought that body tattoo was going to be the end of me as a cover artist. Seriously!

Anyway, because I’m pretty chuffed with how it turned out, I thought I’d share with you how I managed to pull it together.

First things first. I needed to find the characters. In all honesty there’s not a lot of Asian/Oriental guys available out there. Well. I don’t think chubby business man is quite in the ‘Erotic Cover’ league, but someone might yet surprise me.

Anyway, so I managed to find some nice bods. The guy on the left worked perfectly for the Character he was to portray. The Guy in the middle though, looked like he’d sucked on a lemon so I decided to lop off his head and give him a new one. Oh, if only it were so easy in real life, eh?

The original head I chose was a bit too ‘cranky’ so we went for the guy on the right. Sweet!
Okay, so now with lots of cutting and pasting of heads we have our two characters ready to go. Now for the hard bit.

The character over on the right called for a full body Yakuza tattoo – white tigers and cherry blossoms. O.M.G.!

Now I’m pretty adept these days at adding a tattoo here and there and getting them to look relatively natural. BUT a whole body tattoo??So the search began. Firstly I trawled through the stock sites. There were a few things I could have thrown together but in all honesty the amount of stock required would have killed me. However, in my searches I managed to stumble across this image on the right.

It had the tiger AND the blossoms. Bingo!

Unfortunately the tiger was yellow, but thanks to the desaturate tool I was able to leach out the colour and produce a white tiger. Next, it was obvious that this image was not going to fit on the big guy’s body without looking a bit odd. Plus the larger I stretched the image, the poorer the quality became. So I was going to have to keep my images small.What I ended up doing was creating a new document and copying and pasting parts of the image around the tiger, gradually expanding outwards. I’d blend the edges of the image so there was no obvious seam by erasing with a large, soft brush.

This gave me a broader canvas to work with. Also ensuring that I would not notice the edges of the cut & pastes in amongst all that busy background.

So back to the big guy. Using the expanded tattoo design, I enlarged it enough to cover his chest. I had to dabble with the perspective so that the angles were correct. Then using a displacement map of his torso, I was able to distort the tattoo so it fit to his chest. I worked like this in sections all over his torso, upper & lower arms and shoulders. Cutting and pasting, blending and merging sections of the basic design until I was happy that his body was covered.As you can imagine there were quite a few layers. At least 20 just to cover his torso, arms and shoulders. Once I had him covered I copied those layers and then merged them into one. I changed the layer to Multiply and fiddled with the opacity until it looked more natural. Phew!

My next challenge, but obviously not so difficult was to try to find an image of the Kanji for Suzuki. I did manage to find one but it was of poor quality. So I had to recreate it in a new document. I hope to god it is correct LOL! This was just a ‘normal’ tattoo that needed to go on the background guy.

The hard bit out of the way all I needed to do now was bring the design over from the previous ones of the series. Pop the the guy’s together, blend them in, fiddle with contrasts, shadows, highlights, etc and then go and find myself a nice quite corner to huddle in. LOL!

Of course there was a lot more fiddling involved, but I don’t want to bore you all with the details. This is just to give people the gist of what goes on behind the scenes.

It was a tough job, lol…

…but I managed to slog through dozens and dozens of photographs of adorable buff guys to find my White Tigers. This is because a new website for the White Tigers series is being created. Yay! I’m really excited about that. Coming in summer 2008 all the delicious guys of the White Tiger will be there, including more information on the White Tiger path and other fun things, as well as the books, of course.
So far, I have Yuzo and Kiku (Men of Tokyo: Sudden Surrender, but I’ve also found the others and they will be available for a sneak peek in the near future. They’re perfectly gorgeous, each and everyone. I will let you know when the site is ready!

Very flattered!

On her blog, Elisa Rolle, has a poll of what she and other readers consider the top 50 M/M erotic romances. Now, Elisa has over 1100 m/m books alone listed on her Library Thing! So it’s quite and honor for me that His Beautiful Samurai is on that list! Thank you, Elisa and to the others who helped put my book on the list.

Did I tell you…

I finally solved my dilemma over Kizuna: Bonds of Love, my absolute favorite yaoi manga in the world. (It’s one of the only ones I’ve read yet I love Kazuma Kodaka’s style so much and the storyline is just so engaging.)

Well, I reached volume 6 and couldn’t get a copy without selling my first-born because of all the copyright problems between the Japanese and English publishers. Although many people are gracious enough to scan in pages of the manga as well as tranlsating them (such kind people, bless them!), I really need time away from the computer when I read because I spend so much time writing at the computer. So, I finally found volume 6, 9 and 10 at a manga shop in France! Good thing I majored in French in college and actually have a partial Masters in French. So, I purchased the copies and had them sent to my critique partner who lives in Amsterdam. However, she also has a home in Maine down the road from me and we’re getting together this summer so she’s going to bring me the French copies. I am so excited and it only took me 7 month to figure out how to get them. lol

Hot new cover!!!

I am soooo excited about this cover for the next White Tigers book! Lyn Taylor designed it after the fabulous model of Anne Cain in the previous covers. She did an incredible job! To me, it really evokes the feel of both heroes perfectly. I hope you like it too.

Sneak Peek at Men of Tokyo: Sudden Heat

Hope you enjoy the excerpt from this work-in-progress. Here’s a blurb first:

Since an injury cut short his career as a champion martial artist, Hiru has lived a quiet dutiful life consumed mostly by his job and his ever-unsuccessful attempts to meet a woman. When his best friend and co-worker, Koji, finds love and happiness…with a man…and leaves the firm to pursue a new life, Hiru misses Koji so much he begins to suspect his difficulty with women is something other than he thought. Maybe…just maybe…he wants men too? Well, there’s only one way to find out – stay at the White Tiger, Tokyo’s most luxurious love-hotel for gay men and be massaged, caressed and…more by Quan Chan, one of Koji’s incredibly handsome fellow White Tigers.

Quan Chan is still nursing a broken heart when he’s asked to attend to Koji’s friend Hiru. A deeply sensitive man as well as a master White Tiger, Quan Chan senses Hiru’s sexual confusion as well as his unspoken hesitance to have intimate contact with a Chinese. However, Hiru’s boyish good looks, honourable nature and big muscular physique win him over and the initial attraction between them flares into genuine heat, just enough to distract Quan Chan from his own troubles…for a while. That is, until circumstances force him back to Shanghai without the promise of return. No big deal for either of them, they believe. After all, neither man is looking for anything beyond some pleasurable exploration, right?

Wrong. For Hiru, Quan Chan’s absence feels like a loss far worse than that of his judo career. Had he actually found the best thing he’s ever had without realizing it? All he can do is search inside himself for the answer and hope it’s not too late…

Excerpt is unedited and will differ slightly from final version.

I can’t believe I’m doing this. Hiru stared at the glass doors of the ryokan where his best friend Koji now lived. The two leaping tigers etched into each door reminded Hiru of the activities that went on inside. Men on men—and all the images such a phrase brought to mind.
A light shiver travelled over the tops of his thighs to concentrate, of all places, in his—what was Koji’s delicate word for that part of him?—oh, yes, his dragon.
Hiru sighed and tightened his hold on the handles of his overnight bag. Apart from the kinky glass doors, The White Tiger, in the middle of Ni Chome, a busy, swanky area of gay bars and clubs, looked like the typical nondescript inn.
Except that The White Tiger was anything but typical.
On the cab ride over from work, he’d told himself a million times that this was just a weekend break to visit his old friend Koji. After all, for years he used to see Koji every day at work and they often went out for beers afterward. Yeah, he’d seen Koji a bunch of times since Koji had come here and fallen in love with Naoto, the long-haired muscle man of his dreams, but it wasn’t the same. Toshio Systems was an even more boring, tortuous place to be without his friend there. Life itself was more boring and tortuous without Koji around.
And Koji seemed so…happy.
But Hiru knew he was here for more than a friendly visit. He needed to…see…if his complete ineptitude with women was, well, the kind of problem he thought it was. He’d often wondered at how easily he’d accepted Koji’s confession about being gay. And then, he’d often wondered why he always preferred to hang out with Koji more than anyone else. Why he’d missed his friend so much it depressed him.
Not that he was going to do anything with Koji. Koji was practically married to Naoto. But, there were other guys there whose job it was to…um…help him.
Before he could take another step, the left glass door opened. In the next second, Koji emerged, a wide grin on his face. “Hey, Hiru-chan!” Koji was wearing that uniform the guys here wore—white vest with nothing underneath and small white shorts, his feet covered in tabi socks and zori sandals. In the warmer weather, he went barefoot. Koji had told him all about his life here. “Welcome.” Koji’s smile deepened as he gestured Hiru to the door.
There was no backing out now. Nor did he want to. Koji’s presence drew him to the door like a magnet to clasp his friend’s hand and shake it even as they bowed to each other. The change in his friend since coming here and meeting Naoto was nothing short of miraculous. The dark circles Koji had had under his eyes since Hiru knew him were gone. Koji’s skin and hair glowed with health, and his eyes, previously sad and haunted all the time, had light in them.
Hiru found himself smiling in spite of the way his heart beat faster and his stomach flipped over. “Hey to you, too.”
Before he knew it, Koji had slipped his bag from his hand and was ushering him inside. “I’m so glad you’re here,” Koji said as the door floated shut behind them. He gestured to the shoe rack and put down a pair of slippers with the White Tiger’s emblem on them so that Hiru could push his feet into them after slipping off his shoes.
“Thanks, Koji-chan. Same with you.” He was barely halfway down to pick up his shoes when Koji snatched them up and slipped them into one of the cubby holes.
When Hiru straightened, he noticed a second man standing behind Koji. When had he come in? It wasn’t Naoto, he knew, from having met Koji’s lover. Naoto was broad and beefy with long hair and a rugged face. This man, though tall, was smooth-looking, his hair merely a dark shadow over his scalp, shaved almost as closely as a Zen monk’s hair.
Hiru bowed to him while a strange feeling curled suddenly in his gut.
When Koji lifted to his feet, he saw their gazes meeting. “Hiru-chan, I’d like you to meet Quan Chan.” The way he said the man’s name made it sound like Chwan Chan.
Quan Chan. Koji had mentioned him in past weeks the way he spoke of all his new friends and didn’t seem to think anything of the fact that the man was Chinese. Hiru had never known any Chinese personally, but his grandfather had fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War and had been captured and tortured. Don’t trust the Chinese his father said so often while Hiru was growing up. They’ll take advantage of you every way they can. Hungry dogs is what they are.
Hiru caught himself staring at the other man, his father’s words spiralling in his mind and making him hesitate. He’d grown up watching his grandfather limp from the tortures he’d suffered, and yet, here, in the face of Koji’s warmth and enthusiasm, he felt suddenly like a backward racist. Koji wasn’t the kind of person who’d use history to keep up walls to anyone. Koji gave everyone a chance. And Koji was the happy one now of the two of them. Maybe Koji was also the smarter one.
Hiru pulled himself forcibly out of his state. “Hello,” he said to Quan Chan. “Nice to meet you.” He gave another quick bow while he felt his cheeks tingle. Briefly he saw Quan Chan return the gesture. When the man straightened, he was wearing a small, kind of shy smile that Hiru found very similar to Koji’s smile. Quan Chan certainly didn’t look like a hungry dog who’d ever, under any circumstances, torture a man. He also hadn’t seemed to pick up on Hiru’s little mental foray into prejudice.
“Quan Chan will be looking after you while you’re here,” Koji went on. He still wore a smile but Hiru noticed a slight blush of red in his friend’s cheeks.
Hiru nodded, though his stomach did a flip. He bowed, partly in an attempt to dispel the feeling. “Ah, thank you.” His heart thudded much harder now. Did “looking after” him mean having sex the way the website explained the White Tiger Path? All that oral stuff. Now Hiru was wishing he hadn’t been so reluctant all this time to ask Koji more about the specifics of what he might experience while staying there. Moments like this, being painfully shy about sex had its sharp drawbacks.
“Now,” Koji went on, “I’ll show you to your room and Quan Chan will bring up some saké. How’s that?”
Hmm, saké. Probably would be good to calm his nerves a bit. He nodded. “Perfect.”
“Great.” Koji clapped his shoulder in a friendly way and slid back a soji screen which obviously led to the inn’s interior. “This way.”
Hiru bowed quickly to Quan Chan and followed Koji, not even knowing whether the other man had returned the gesture. His breathing grew quicker as he followed Koji down a hall of highly polished dark wood, the walkway surrounding a centre garden of raked rock and small fountain. The décor was that of a traditional Japanese home, simple, clean lines, peaceful. “This place is beautiful,” he murmured.
Koji nodded. “Yes, it is. That was the first thing I noticed about it when I came here.” He hesitated. “Well, the second.”
Hiru managed a smile through his nervousness. Koji had told him about his first encounter with Naoto, and how immediately enchanted he’d been with him. Yet, Koji had been such a nervous wreck, he’d drunk too much saké and managed to put his foot in his mouth a bunch of times within the first ten minutes. Hiru made a mental note not to have more than one cup. All he needed was to get drunk and let something slip about the terrible things his father used to say about Chinese.
Koji led him into an elevator and then down the hallway where he stopped and slid back the soji screen to a room. “I hope you’ll like it here.” He gestured to the room’s interior.
“I’m sure I will.” Hiru stepped into the room. It felt strange to have Koji hosting him this way, considering their friendship had always been that of two office guys, co-workers who went for beers and watched sumo wrestling matches on TV together.
Behind him, he heard Koji slide the screen closed and then saw him cross over to the closet where he set the bag down on a rack. “Make yourself comfortable, Hiru-chan,” he said.
Obediently, Hiru wandered over to the seating area where a low table had room for four to sit, two on each side. On the other side of the room, a black-covered futon rested on a frame with pillows arranged luxuriously at the head. A potted plant and some…Hiru cleared his throat and wiped his palms on his pants…erotic drawings of naked men entwined in various poses finished the décor. Hiru turned quickly away from the largest drawing which hung on the wall above the bed.
Koji came over, lowered himself into a chair across from Hiru and smiled at him again, vividly aware of Koji’s bare chest. Koji had put on a few pounds recently and his physique was like that of a toned swimmer. Suddenly Hiru was aware of all the times in the past they’d gone on weekends to a nearby onsen with co-workers and Hiru had caught himself staring at Koji while they soaked in the baths or washed in the shower. Koji had been thinner then and Hiru had told himself he’d been concerned about his friend’s health. But there had been more to it, he saw now. Much more.
Hiru felt the awkward moment pass between them. This setting was a far cry from the couch in front of Koji’s TV and coffee table covered with beer bottles and seaweed chips.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Koji said softly. “I’m glad.”
“Me too.” Hiru clasped his hands together. His large body felt suddenly way too damn big for this elegant chair and his hands, resting on his lap, appeared to him as a pair of giant meat hooks. On the judo mat, his size and broadness were an advantage, but here, he simply felt like an oaf. Actually, in front of Koji, he felt that way. Which had been the main clue as to why he needed to…explore.
Koji’s brow furrowed. “I’m sorry I haven’t seen you as often since I moved in here. I feel as if I’ve abandoned you somehow.”
Hiru sighed and felt his shoulders sag a bit, as if Koji’s voicing what he’d been feeling and couldn’t say had released some kind of tension. “Don’t worry, Ko-chan. You did no such thing.” He gestured to the room, meaning to encompass the entire place. “This is so much better for you. You weren’t well. I’d rather you were happy.” The sadness in Koji’s eyes made him distinctly uncomfortable and he hated feeling as if he had caused it. “Hey,” he said, changing the subject, “How’s Naoto?”
Koji’s face immediately brightened and a dreamy look slipped into his eyes. “Very well. He’s working right now but you’ll see him later. I was hoping you’d join us all for supper. We always have a great time together and Basho and Yuzo are the best chefs in Tokyo.”
Hiru smiled even though his stomach did another flip. He wasn’t very good at meeting people, but didn’t want to disappoint Koji. “I’d love to. Thanks.”
Another friendly moment of quiet passed between them before Koji spoke again. “I hope you’ll like Quan Chan,” he said. “We call him Chan Chan. He’s a wonderful person, considerate, gentle and very sweet.” Koji’s cheeks coloured a bit and he leaned forward as if someone might be eavesdropping. “And he’s a master White Tiger.” The pointed tone in Koji’s voice conveyed his meaning. “That’s why he has the tiger tattoo on his front. It denotes a very high level of practice. To get the tattoo, a person must be able to meditate himself into ecstasy.” A mischievous look came into Koji’s eyes, a side of his friend Hiru had never seen. Koji put his hand to the side of his mouth, the way one does when telling a secret in someone’s ear. “That means without using his hand.” Koji winked.
Hiru felt his cheeks burn and stared at the other man. This place had brought out a more different Koji than he’d even imagined. He and Koji had seen each other naked in the baths a million times over the years, but never, not once, had they discussed sex, beyond the occasional brief conversation about dating women. Ironic. Clearing his throat, Hiru pulled a bit at the knot of his tie, loosening it to let some air cool the sudden heat around his collar. “He seems to be all you’ve said he is.”
Koji smiled at him and the corners of his eyes crinkled. Hiru caught himself staring again, this time realizing how much he’d always liked Koji’s smile, much less rare now that it had always been. Koji had rarely smiled over the years. “Kiku-sensei has tried to make this a place where men can come from everywhere and be together, regardless of their race or nationality,” Koji went on, as if he’d intuitively understood some of his friend’s thoughts. He looked at Hiru. “You don’t mind, right? I mean, you’re an accepting person but I know about your grandfather. It’s hard not to have certain feelings and we’ve never discussed it. I apologize for not asking you before you got here.” Koji frowned.
Hiru stared at his friend. Koji was sensitive like that, often when you least expected it. One of the qualities that had always struck him was how perceptive Koji was even when he appeared completely distracted or upset. Bowing his head, Hiru sighed. “I have felt prejudice in the past, but it’s the wrong way to live,” he said softly. “I’m nervous enough. I don’t want to have such feelings guide me.” A gentle hand on his arm made him look up.
Koji’s eyes radiated compassion and he smiled.
A strange jolt of energy went through Hiru at the look, followed by that sense of regret he’d been plagued with since Koji had left Toshio Systems as a full time employee. Why had it taken so damn long to realize the truth? Why couldn’t he have discovered it before it was too late and Koji was completely in love with someone else?
“It’s all right, Hiru-chan.”
There wasn’t time to say more. Just then a knock sounded on the soji screen and slid open at Koji’s call.
Hiru’s stomach tightened. It was Quan Chan, bearing a tray with a saké decanter and three cups. Hiru watched him kneel and set the tray down, then turn and slide the screen closed before rising again bringing the tray over to them. Quan Chan’s gaze met briefly with Hiru’s and he smiled.
Hiru felt his cheeks burn. He returned the smile but then Quan Chan proceeded to set the cups on the low table and then pour the saké, relieved that Quan Chan would have a cup too.
Koji lifted his cup and Hiru followed his friend’s lead. Having Koji here helped soothe his nerves a bit, but what about when Koji left him alone with Quan Chan? Best not to think about that.
“Kampai,” Koji toasted and sipped from his cup. Again, Hiru followed, glancing at Quan Chan as if to make sure the other man would also drink. He did and Hiru couldn’t help glancing at Quan Chan’s throat as he swallowed. The man’s Adam’s apple slid up and down and other tiny muscles in his neck worked. That led Hiru to notice Quan Chan’s skin, a tan golden colour and flawlessly smooth, like Koji’s skin. Hiru had spent much time surreptitiously studying Koji’s skin in the past and so made the comparison immediately.
Hiru tipped his head back and gulped the saké. As large as he was, the tiny cup was a mere couple of sips. The clear liquid burned pleasantly in his throat and he immediately felt the relaxing tingle it brought to his limbs and brain. Carefully he set the cup down, politely refusing the offer of a refill.
Koji too, set his cup down and smiled at Hiru. “I must go for now, Hiru-chan,” he said. “I’ll see you a little later, okay?”
Tension clenched Hiru’s back and shoulders and his heart immediately pounded. Not wanting to be impolite, he nodded, standing up to offer a handshake to Koji.
Koji took his hand warmly but then used it to pull him into an embrace. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said again.
“Me too.” Hiru hugged him as closely as he dared, unable to ignore the warm press of Koji’s bare chest against his front. Koji smelled really good too. Hiru hadn’t ever really gotten quite this close to him before and hadn’t known his friend smelled like clean laundry hanging to dry in fresh air. He was both relieved and disappointed when Koji pulled gently away. “See you at supper, I guess.”
Koji nodded. “Definitely.” He waved to Quan Chan and then slipped out of the room.
Hiru cleared his throat. Heat flared again around his neck, wherever his collar touched his skin and more made his armpits feel like small infernos. He looked at Quan Chan who had also stood when Koji was leaving. As he’d noticed before, Quan Chan had a very attractive face, finely arched brows, high cheekbones and beautifully-shaped eyes, like very large almonds with long lashes. His lips too, were really nice, full and soft-looking. Hiru caught himself starting to look lower but then stopped, remembering suddenly what Koji had said about the tiger tattoo. He cleared his throat again and found his hand once more on the knot of his tie.
“Here, allow me.” Before he realized what was happening, Quan Chan had stepped up to him. A gentle hand landed on his.
Hiru froze. Quan Chan was touching him! Suddenly, Quan Chan’s nationality wasn’t even remotely an issue. Quan Chan was a man and was about to help him…undress. Among other things. For one brief moment, Hiru almost backed away, claiming he’d made a mistake. But then what would he do? Leave and go home to his lonely apartment? Spend another night in front of the television set with a beer in his hand, missing Koji?
No. As frightened as he was, the alternative was nightmarish. He’d lived so long in fearful seclusion. It had already cost him an opportunity with someone he felt he could love. At thirty-three, he wasn’t getting any younger. Simply getting older wasn’t going to make his life better. “Yes,” he said, nearly in a whisper, “Thank you.” He allowed Quan Chan to draw his hand back down to his side and then began working the knot open with both hands. The gentle tugging on his neck as the tie loosened turned out to be quite pleasant, as was the brush of the other man’s fingertips against his chest, even through the material of his shirt.
“I’ll do everything I can to make your stay pleasant for you, Hiru-san,” Quan Chan said, his expression sincere as he slid the tie out from under Hiru’s collar and hung it over his own shoulder before reaching out again, his fingertips landing on the top button of Hiru’s shirt.
Like his face and mannerisms, Quan Chan’s voice was also agreeable, a smooth tenor that was as refined as his appearance.
The other man bowed politely to him and gestured to the bed. “Please make yourself comfortable,” he said kindly. “I need a moment to prepare the room for your relaxation.”
Hiru obeyed, going to the edge of the bed and sitting down. He watched Quan Chan drape the tie over the back of a chair, light a stick of incense which he set delicately on the bedside table and then turn a knob in the wall. The gentle sound of traditional bamboo flute and shamisen music floated into the air. The elegant room, already inviting and warm in its traditional Japanese simplicity, became even more peaceful and soothing.
Which was good, because Hiru felt a trembling inside him, a tremor that emanated from his bones, made him feel shaken deep down in a place he was usually unaware of. His awareness now was sharp, as sharp as when he was on the judo mat, facing an opponent. He heard every footfall of Quan Chan as the man approached the bed and knelt down before him. “Are you all right, Hiru-san?” he asked. “May I call you that?”
Hiru nodded without hesitation. He didn’t think he could bear having Quan Chan address him by his last name, especially if they were going to be doing…well, the things they were probably about to do. He cleared his throat. “Of course, that’s perfect,” he answered. “But how should I call you? I could say Quan-san or Quan Chan-san.” The words started to tumble from him, unleashed by his nervousness. “Or I could call you Chan-san. There are so many possibilities. Your friends probably call you Chan-chan or Quan Chan-chan. Koji has referred to you as Chan Chan in the past. So that would be Chan Chan-chan. If I called you Chan Chan, then I guess I would say Chan Chan-san because I just met you. Whatever you prefer. I wouldn’t want to—“ He clamped his mouth shut.
Quan Chan was staring at him, his already large eyes open wide, as if he were watching Hiru’s skin turn bright green or something equally as bizarre.
Hiru stared back, every inch of his skin tingling with his mounting horror. Where had all that babbling come from? He never babbled like this, even when he was nervous. Usually he clamped up completely, even in front of Koji. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying,” he said, his cheeks prickling now with intense heat, a hot flush that spread down his neck and arms, all the way to his fingertips. No doubt his face was bright red. Kuso! Without thinking, he bowed deeply, finding etiquette his only relief.
When he straightened up and dared to look at the other man, he saw the corners of Quan Chan’s soft lips turned up, a sudden warm smile filling his expression, all the way into his eyes. Tiny lines crinkled in his cheeks, almost like dimples but not quite. In any case, they gave his face a kind of…wise and sweet look, all at once.
Suddenly, Quan Chan’s hand came out and covered his. The man’s touch was warm, soft the way it rested on the top of his hand. Unexpectedly, Hiru experienced a new tingling, this one soothing in the way it cascaded up his arm, into his chest. He exhaled as tension ran from his limbs and he let his shoulders slump a bit.
Quan Chan laughed softly. “Don’t be embarrassed, Hiru-san. You have nice humour, I can tell. Koji speaks very highly of you.” He curled his fingers lightly around Hiru’s hand, turned it over, palm facing up, and brushed his fingertips across Hiru’s skin. The motion sent another gentle cascade of tingles through Hiru and he felt more tension drain from his body, just as Quan Chan’s words helped drain his embarrassment.
“This is your time to relax, Hiru-san. Don’t worry about anything.” As Quan Chan spoke, he pressed his fingertips into the soft part of Hiru’s hand, moving in slow, even circles, a massage that deepened the relaxed feeling in Hiru’s body. Even the tightness in his gut began to dispel. He hadn’t meant his bumbling statements to be humorous, but if Quan Chan thought they were, all the better. Better to appear funny than to be thought of as a complete geek.
“That is nice,” Hiru said. He’d had plenty of massages back in his judo days. A massage before competition, and then another one after. Well, that is, until the accident.
Quan Chan smiled some more and Hiru felt his insides warm again. Even in their brief contact, Quan Chan looked like a completely different man when he was smiling than in the moments he wasn’t. Your smile is nice too, Hiru almost said, then stopped before embarrassing the crap out of himself again.
Quan Chan’s thumbs continued their easy yet firm circles over his palm for several minutes before smoothing up each finger, squeezing each joint in a way that released pressure Hiru hadn’t even known was in there. “We must try to cover all the pressure points,” Quan Chan said, his voice as soothing as his touch. “There are so many in the hands and fingertips that this massage should help relax your whole body.”
“It’s working,” Hiru said. His nervousness seemed to have faded a bit into the background now, more of a shadow in his consciousness rather than the force driving him to quake and babble.
Quan Chan paused at Hiru’s wrist and unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt, which he rolled carefully back, just enough to continue his massage partially up Hiru’s forearm while the music piped into the background and the incense released a mild cloud of sandalwood scent into the air.
After several more minutes, he lowered Hiru’s hand so it rested on his own thigh and picked up his other hand, repeating the massage. He took another deep breath and continued to watch Quan Chan’s hands. His fingers were wide and strong looking, his nails neatly trimmed, like Koji’s. Hiru had spent much time looking at Koji’s hands, and saw a similar elegance in them as he saw in Quan Chan’s. Unbidden, Hiru’s gaze flickered up to Quan Chan’s forearms, smooth with the lightest down of hair on them. Just as elegant as his hands, lean muscles flexed in them with his movements.
Hiru’s stomach made a small flip. In his younger years, he’d developed the habit of observing another man to size him as an opponent on the judo mat. Build, stature, eye contact. Even the way a man walked and the size of his hands told Hiru how balanced an opponent would be and what possible strategies he’d employ to take Hiru down. His close attention to detail had always served him well and Hiru had been on his way to becoming the top judoku in Japan until…
He pulled his mind away from that painful course and back to his furtive examination of Quan Chan, observing the man kneeling before him in the way he had taken to looking at Koji this past year and a half. Instead of observing what kind of opponent he’d be, Hiru’s gaze slid up Quan Chan’s arms, watching the way his biceps and triceps flexed. Every muscle was perfectly proportioned under his smooth burnt-gold skin. Somewhere between Koji and Naoto in height, Quan Chan’s body was perfectly proportioned, with leanly rounded muscles. Hiru’s constant comparison of Quan Chan to Koji made him uncomfortable, yet he couldn’t stop thinking of how close they were in build but also how Quan Chan’s muscles were slightly larger and his coin-sized nipples darker than Koji’s, more the shade of bittersweet chocolate.
Truly, Quan Chan was unbelievably handsome, as good-looking as any man on a magazine cover or on television.
Quan Chan gently released Hiru’s hand and sat back on his heels. The man’s vest gapped open, giving Hiru a complete view of his chest and abdominals, the very image of a physique chart he used to see in his physical therapist’s office when he’d gone for treatments after the accident. Well except for the powerfully leaping body of a white tiger inked in astonishing detail across Quan Chan’s front. The body on the chart hadn’t had one of those. The tiger’s front paws stretched over the left side of Quan Chan’s ribcage while the rear portion of the beast disappeared around the side of his waist. Hiru cleared his throat, his insides tickling with his sudden overwhelming desire to see where the tiger’s tail went.
“Would you like your shoulders and back done, Hiru-san?” Quan Chan’s smooth soft voice pulled Hiru’s attention back to the other man’s face. Quan Chan wore that wonderful smile he had and his eyes radiated kindness, although, looking closer, Hiru could have sworn that Quan Chan looked a bit…sad. Yes, sad and troubled. He hoped it wasn’t because of him. He would never want to make Quan Chan feel troubled.
“Whatever you’d like is my pleasure.” Quan Chan bowed his head slightly. “I understand this is your first time here.”
Only then did Quan Chan’s words soak into his consciousness. Quan Chan’s polite way of telling him he understood why Hiru was nervous. Hiru looked at him as Quan Chan’s first words came to mind. Massage. Back and shoulders. He stiffened slightly. It would mean taking his shirt off. Some nervousness trickled back in. Quan Chan was a gracious host, making him feel at ease and giving him the lead of their interaction. Now, to decide what he wanted.
The ghost of Quan Chan’s massage remained in his hands and forearms, reminding him of the man’s skilled, gentle caress. Hiru definitely wanted more of that and obviously, if he became uncomfortable, he could stop at any time and never have to feel awkward about it. He nodded. “Yes, I’d like that, thank you.”
The other man’s smile widened. “Very good.” He bowed, rose up on his knees again and reached forward. “Here, I’ll help you with your shirt.” He unrolled Hiru’s sleeves and then moved in closer.
Hiru’s breath caught softly as Quan Chan’s fingers landed on the second button of his dress shirt. He watched Quan Chan’s face, his expression even and focused, as if unbuttoning Hiru’s shirt were as delicate an operation as surgery. Button by button, Hiru felt his bare chest exposed to the air and to Quan Chan’s vision. That strange flutter moved again in his gut. How wild that in his life he’d gone naked in baths with other guys for years, millions of times and had really not given it much thought. When had it all changed? He didn’t even know. He just knew that sometime in the last year and a half, he’d begun noticing Koji in a different way, the way he’d notice a woman.
Quan Chan undid the last button and reached up to push the shirt back off Hiru’s shoulders. Hiru helped him, half-twisting to slide his arms out of the sleeves, then letting Quan Chan pull it away. He turned back around and froze.
Quan Chan’s eyes were wide again. This time, though, the look in them was…different. He wasn’t staring at Hiru as if he’d sprouted a second head.
Hiru’s heart started to pound. “Is something wrong, Quan-san?” There, he’d found the name he’d use to address him.
Quan Chan shook his head. He lifted his gaze to Hiru’s and Hiru saw a sudden, distinct flush in the other man’s finely planed cheeks. “Nothing’s wrong,” he said, his voice low, nearly a whisper. “I just…it’s just…” He fell silent and bowed. When he rose up again, that look was still in his eyes. “It’s just, your physique. I didn’t expect. It’s…incredible.”