Hugh had practiced the speech aloud at home until he knew “the script,” as Andrews called it, by heart. But this was the first time Andrews had asked him to deliver the address.
“Stand before me as you will when facing your audience,” he said when Hugh tried to get away with speaking from behind his desk. “In the center of the room. Back and shoulders straight. Mind clear of anything outside of your message. Deep breaths before you speak. You know what you need to do.”
Of course he did. Hugh had once been to a specialist who’d taught him techniques similar to the things Andrews suggested. So why did he instantly turn into a cringing, self-doubting child when called upon to speak before an audience—even an audience of one? He could almost feel his throat closing up, his mind going blank, his tongue preparing to stumble over the words as he faced his secretary. Will’s hazel eyes staring so directly at him made his heart stutter.
Hugh inhaled and began. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen.” He paused before going on. “The Society of Legal Counsel for the Needy deeply appreciates your p-presence at our dinner tonight. We hope you enjoy the meal and the…entertainment provided.”
He hurried into the explanation of the firm’s good works. By the time he described a sample case to illustrate those good works, he was stammering over letters and pausing at inappropriate spots.
Andrews patted his palms against the air, gesturing for him to slow the rush of words. Hugh took a breath, but his mouth was a runaway horse over which his brain couldn’t resume control. He could scarcely breathe. He thought he might pass out. And the more he worried he might, the shorter his breath became. The words he struggled to recall had lost all meaning to him.
He was hardly aware when Andrews rose from the chair he’d placed in front of Hugh and approached him. Between one heartbeat and the next, he was suddenly just there, right beside Hugh. He put a hand on his back as he murmured, “Steady on. Stop speaking.” Then placed the other on Hugh’s waistcoat. “Inhale deeply, filling your diaphragm. Picture a point of light in the center of your forehead. Exhale and continue to focus on that point. Shut out every other thought. Don’t see the room around you, only the light.”
His calm voice and warm hand on Hugh’s abdomen and back were anchors. And the point of light he envisioned was a beacon, a lighthouse bringing him out of turbulence. The panic receded. Hugh could breathe again.
After Hugh had got himself under control, Andrews continued. “Now you can focus on the speech again. Don’t look at the eyes of the audience if they distract you. Look above their heads. Picture that single point of light and speak directly to it. Recall the reason you speak, on behalf of men like Keller the tailor or Mrs. O’Gill and her brood evicted from their flat. This is not about you.”
The pressure of one palm left Hugh’s stomach, and a warm print was left behind between his shoulder blades. But the other man didn’t step away. He placed his palm on Hugh’s throat above his shirt collar. “These muscles need to relax. Loosen your throat and stop trying to squeeze the words through a tiny tube. Let them roll out of you, nice and easy.”
Nice and easy? How could he relax when Andrews’s hand was lightly massaging his neck? Hugh stood frozen by the unexpected touch. He’d never in his life felt anything as intimate as that caressing hand. He wanted William—how could he think of him as Andrews now?—to touch him everywhere. That was all he could think about.
But apparently his brain still remembered the speech he’d repeated over and over to himself in the privacy of his bedchamber, for it began to flow out of him—smooth and easy, just as William had said.
His voice didn’t falter or shake or sound pinched and tight. Hugh turned his head slightly to look into the other man’s face as he finished, “And so, honored guests, I welcome you tonight and pray you will give generously to support our worthy cause. Allow me to introduce our master of ceremonies, who will now…tell you…more of our hopes for the future.”
He stopped speaking but continued to stare into bright hazel eyes. His entire body was warm and relaxed and yet not relaxed, for he felt like a violin tuned too tight. William’s slow, beautiful smile was a bow sliding against his strings.
“Well done, sir. How did it feel?”
“It felt…” Hugh hesitated, but not in a stammer. He simply couldn’t find words to encompass the feelings roiling through him, the strong yearning to lean just a little closer to Will, who stood so nearby, and let his lips touch someone’s for the first time in his life. “It felt…very good.”
His voice grew so rough, it sounded as if a different man had spoken.
William’s eyes widened, the pupils dilated so those hazel irises nearly disappeared as he held on to Hugh’s gaze. The hand still resting on Hugh’s neck moved in a long slow caress all the way from jaw to starched shirt collar.
Hugh inhaled a trembling breath. William swallowed hard. Something enormous shifted and stirred and filled the space between and around them. William leaned closer.
“William,” he murmured.
“I’m Will,” his assistant whispered. Neither of them moved. It was going to happen. Hugh’s eyelids closed and his lips parted.
Something warm and soft brushed his mouth. He opened his eyes and stared into William’s face. He should have said something or moved, but he could no more move than speak.
William blinked and pulled away enough that Hugh could see his cheeks reddening. Will’s hand abruptly dropped, and he stepped back. He cleared his throat. “Well, sir, if you don’t mind. I’ll leave now. I’ve more details of menu and décor to attend to. I must check with a florist and…” He didn’t bother finishing the thought before fleeing from the office.
After the door closed behind him, Hugh groaned. Embarrassment, disappointment, humiliation, aching loss, and desire stormed through him. He’d never been so close to…to something, to whatever might have happened next, to the possibility of touching another human being, to the delight of having Will Andrews in his embrace. He felt as if a door had slammed shut and he’d been standing close enough that it smashed him in the face.