The Square Peg #1
Benedict, a successful accountant, who's just been dumped for being boring, is surprised and pleased to learn that he's inherited half ownership in a gay bar from his estranged father, seeing it as a chance to get out of his rut. That's until he meets his new partner, a mouthy, disturbingly hot Brit called Shane, and discovers that the bar's in the red and Shane's not interested in renovations that could drive away their regulars.
When a late-night confrontation turns into the hottest sex either of them has experienced, they realize there's one way to fit a square peg into a round hole, but are they solving problems or papering over the cracks? As they explore the new dynamic between them, pushing their limits until Ben's shocked at where his desire to dominate Shane takes him, the renovations to the bar begin. They're building something new, something good -- but fear and an unexpected act of violence may tear down what they've created.
***Note:This book contains explicit sexual situations, graphic language, and material that some readers may find objectionable: BDSM elements (includes caning/spanking), D/s, male/male sexual practices.***
The Broken Triangle #2
Vin's a hot Goth, tattooed and pierced and the most popular bartender at the Square Peg. Want to date him or buy him a drink? Sorry. Vin's body is a temple and he's barely been kissed. His heart belongs to Riley, the guy he crushed on in high school and can't forget.
How about Vin's BFF Patrick? He'd let you buy him a drink and have your wicked way with him in the men's room (shh, don't tell Shane or Ben, the bar owners!) Okay, maybe Vin needs to loosen up and Patrick needs to calm down, but they're set in their ways.
Enter Riley, looking for Vin, and suddenly everything changes. Vin's handed a happy ending on a plate and Patrick's free and easy lifestyle loses its glitter as he sees what Vin has.
But does Vin really have his dream guy or does he just have Riley? Maybe they're not the same thing, after all.
As reality ruins fantasies and divided loyalties make life complicated, choices need to be made by Vin and Patrick, but timing's everything. Speak too soon or wait too long…either can leave a true happy ending out of reach.
***Author note: not a threesome romance or menage.***
The Empty Box #3
Dave’s taking life day by day after leaving Travis, his emotionally abusive partner of fifteen years. Working as the cook at the Square Peg is all the social life he has and he’s content with that.
When a swerving car leaves him sprawled on the snowy sidewalk with a broken ankle, being rescued by his new neighbor, young, sinfully pretty Jeremy, seems like the start of something good, even if twenty years separate the two men. But Travis isn’t content to let Dave slip away and Dave’s his own worst enemy, holding Jeremy at arms’ length when Jeremy wants to get as close as possible.
With decisions about his future complicated by his tangled past, can Dave accept the second chance Jeremy offers or will his heart stay empty of love?
The Square Peg looked dingy and rundown from the outside, but Ben told himself that on a gloomy February day, with the sun hidden behind clouds and a brisk wind flinging trash along the sidewalks, most places wouldn’t look their best.
Not that he could blame the weather for the tattered poster in the filthy front window, advertising a Pride parade that had taken place two years earlier, or the way the bar’s main door had a loose handle and a series of dents that looked as if they’d been made by a fist.
Fair-sized parking lot behind it, though, and a cab company on the corner, close enough for even the drunkest customer to stagger to safely.
Potential, he told himself as he finally got the handle to work and opened the door. It’s got potential.
Which was more than he could say for his love life or his job, but he wasn’t going to think about either of those. Jenson had finally collected the last of his belongings two days ago. They’d been stacked neatly in a box by Ben, who’d methodically searched their apartment for any item to which Jenson could legitimately lay claim. He had enough reminders of their five years together in his head without needing to wince at the sight of a memento from a vacation or a forgotten T-shirt.
Work, well, his job was the same as it’d ever been. Which was, according to Jenson, the problem.
“You add up numbers all day, and you’re starting to look like one. A big fat zero. Zero personality, zero fun, zero— Oh, what’s the use? It’s over. Find yourself an accountant like you to fuck, and get each other off quoting statistics. And when you forget his birthday, apologize by telling him the percentage of men who do that, and I’m sure he’ll forgive you.”
“Jesus, my father had just died, and you hate celebrating your birthday.”
“It doesn’t mean you’re allowed to forget it!”
Not the first argument they’d had, but it’d ended up being their last.
The carpeted area just inside the door was an indeterminate color, and it was sticky, forcing Ben to work to peel his shoes off it. The scuffed wooden floor beyond it wasn’t much better. Didn’t anyone ever mop up the spilled drinks?
It was dim enough that Ben wanted to walk around flicking on every light switch he came to. Ambiance was one thing, but customers needed to see what they were drinking. A half-empty glass on a table caught his eye. There seemed to be something floating in it. He peered at it as he walked past. A lemon slice, limp and raggedly cut, paper-thin at one end, thick at the other. Which meant the slice next to it had been ruined too.
Lemons were about fifty cents each. Assume the bar used ten a day… Ben shook his head. No, somewhere like this wouldn’t get through that many. Even so, not paying attention to the details was what sent many a business under. A wasted lemon slice didn’t sound like much, but Ben could spot a red flag even in this poorly lit a room.
Sitting on a stool behind the long, laminate-topped bar—where the lighting was decent, at least, but it would have to be, or the bartender wouldn’t be able to see what he was doing—was a young man so pale he probably needed vitamin D supplements. He was leafing through a thin local newspaper, a bored look on his face. At the end of the bar, two men and a woman were talking quietly, and in the corner underneath a dart board that had seen better days, four men sat at a round table having what sounded like a good-natured argument.
The place wasn’t empty, but no one could call it busy either.
Ben approached the bar, and the young bartender looked up from his paper, showing some faint signs of animation as he was faced with a customer. “Hi. What can I get you?”
“Actually, I’m looking for the manager,” Ben told him. “Shane Brant? Is he here?”
The bartender nodded, and a lock of his straight blacker-than-black hair fell in front of his eyes. “In the office,” he said, gesturing at a door in the wall behind the bar. “Go around to the side, and I’ll let you in.”
Ben smiled his thanks as a section of the bar was raised to allow him to walk through. Still, he was surprised at how easily he’d been allowed to walk into the private section of the bar. Maybe he looked so safe and respectable he didn’t qualify as a security threat—and wasn’t that a depressing thought?
There was another young man behind the bar, crouched, counting bottles and making notes on a piece of paper. He was blond, pure twink, with eyes green enough that he had to be wearing tinted contacts. He gave Ben a flirtatious wink that didn’t seem sincere and a curious once-over that did.
“Hi there. I’m Patrick.”
“He’s not interested,” the bartender said, rolling his eyes and saving Ben from coming up with a response. “Get back to the inventory.”
Patrick pouted but did as he was told. Ben cleared his throat and walked through the door to find himself in a corridor with an open door to his right that was clearly an office.
Inside the room was a massive desk that had to weigh five hundred pounds. A man sat with his back to the doorway, studying a clipboard in his hands. As Ben watched, he made a notation, then turned. “Vincent, do you think—” He stopped when he saw Ben wasn’t Vincent. “Can I help you with something, mate?”
“That depends,” Ben told him. From indifference to wary suspicion in the space of a minute. Neither attitude was what he’d expected. “Are you Shane Brant?”
The man was mid-thirties, his hair cropped so close to his head it was difficult to see its true color. Light brown, maybe. Pale gray eyes and a calmly competent expression were both off-putting and reassuring. The man exuded intimidation without trying, but there was no anger or dislike in his appraising stare. A good man to have at your back and a bad enemy, Ben decided. He felt better once he’d slotted Shane into a category.
“Benedict Lozier. You’ve probably been wondering when I’d show up.”
Shane scratched his nose. “Haven’t been able to sleep worrying about it. Thank God you’re here now.” He had an English accent, not strong enough for Ben, whose secret vice was British TV shows, to be able to narrow it down to a region. But it was unmistakable.
He was being sarcastic, Ben thought. Once he’d thought it, his brain took hold and circled it around for much longer than it should have, leaving him standing there staring. “Uh, right. So. You knew my dad.”
“That I did. Better than you, or at least that’s the impression I got.” Shane set his clipboard on the desk. “Correct me if I’m wrong.”
“No. Not wrong.” Ben sighed and looked around the room. It contained a haphazard collection of horizontal surfaces on which other things were stacked, often precariously. This wasn’t going the way he’d imagined.
“Is there something in particular I can do for you, Benedict?” Shane tilted his head and studied Ben with the same thoughtful gaze he probably wore when deciding which shirt to wear.
“I thought we should talk,” Ben said.
“And so we are.” Shane blinked patiently.
“About the business.”
“The bar,” Shane corrected him. “The bar I’ve managed for six years, working my backside off to keep it open and out of the red. The bar you’ve inherited as a reward for—what was it again? Oh yeah. Being the son of the owner. Would you even have recognized your dad if you’d passed him in the street?”
No. Probably not. Ben had been a toddler when Jenna, his mother, had given Craig—Ben couldn’t think of him as Dad—an ultimatum: stop using or get out. Craig Lozier had always taken the easiest choice, innate laziness guiding him instead of any sense of responsibility toward his wife and young son.
Or at least that was the impression Ben had gotten from the little his mother had told him over the years.
“I inherited half,” he said, the need for accuracy prompting the correction. That was another habit of his that had irritated Jenson. And he tried to restrain himself when it really was a trivial matter, but this didn’t qualify. “You got the other half. That was very generous of Craig, in my opinion.”
“Not sure you’re entitled to an opinion on this matter.” Shane shook his head and stood. “I built this place, okay? It was Craig’s money, but the hours and sleepless nights and advertising decisions were mine. I appreciate Craig made me a partner in his will, but I also know I deserved it. And that you’ve got a lot to learn.”
“You’re right about that.” Ben wasn’t sure if admitting it would get Shane on his side, but it was the right thing to do either way. “I intend to learn it. I sort of get the impression Craig was happy being a silent partner, but we were different in about a thousand ways.”
Shane snorted. “Yeah, you don’t strike me as the silent type.”
“I don’t usually have arguments with people I’ve just met, though.” He meant it as an apology.
That got him a raised eyebrow with some skepticism showing. “I’ll take your word for it. Start over, shall we? Nice to meet you, Benedict. Sorry about your dad. I’m sure you’re gutted. Now piss off so I can get back to sorting out the payroll, yeah?”
The hostility Shane was showing left Ben off balance and lost for words. It was so unfair and unwarranted that he had no defense.
“I’m not gutted, as you put it, because I haven’t seen Craig since I was a kid. He wasn’t there. He left. He did. Not us. Not that it’s any of your business.” He tried one more time to be conciliatory. “I’m not much of a drinker. I’m not sure what goes in a gin and tonic, to be honest.” That didn’t get a smile. Well, it wasn’t very funny. “But I can help you with the accounts and the payroll if you point me at your computer.”
Shane’s pale eyes narrowed. “No need. Like I said, you can piss off now we’ve done the introductions and all that. I’ll send you a check every month with your cut, just like I did with your dad. Someone like you doesn’t want to hang around a gay bar on the dodgy side of town. Not exactly your cup of tea, is it?” Shane moved closer. He was shorter than Ben by an inch or two, but that didn’t stop Ben from taking an involuntary step back. Shane was wearing black jeans and a denim shirt over a gray T-shirt, with battered leather lace-up boots. He looked tough without trying, and his exposed forearms were muscular in a wiry way, a faded tattoo decorating his right arm, some kind of bird that had been brightly colored once. “Or don’t you trust me? Is that why you want to breathe down my neck? You think I’d skim off the top and do you out of your share?”
“Whoa, what?” Ben held up both hands in surrender. “What happened to starting over? First off, I don’t know you, but that doesn’t mean I’m assuming you’re dishonest. Second, you don’t know me either, so you have no idea what my cup of tea might or might not be. And for the record, I’m gay, and I’m not interested in a monthly check. I want this.” He waved at the space around them, then his eyes focused on the piles of paperwork and boxes of liquor bottles stacked halfway to the ceiling. “Okay, maybe not this specifically.”
“I know you’re gay. Your dad told me. Doesn’t mean you’re going to fit in here.” Shane’s gaze traveled over Ben, appraising enough that he had to fight the urge to pull back his shoulders and suck in his stomach. “You’re wearing a suit, for God’s sake.”
“I spent the day at work and came straight here.” Okay, that’d sounded perilously close to an excuse, and there was nothing to apologize for in wearing a perfectly ordinary suit. It wasn’t a three-thousand-dollar bespoke one, just an off-the-rack suit marked down in the January sales. “I’m an accountant. This is practically a uniform. Sorry if I don’t meet the dress code. Next time I’ll be sure to wear my leather pants.”
Shane’s eyebrows quirked. You’d still look like an accountant.”
“And what does an accountant look like?” Ben demanded, giving way to his rising temper. He was standing in a bar he half owned, and he was damned if he was going to be marginalized by some mouthy thug with an attitude problem.
Shane grabbed him by the shoulders, surprising a yelp out of him, and spun him around so he was facing a small mirror on the wall, spotted with age and with a chipped corner. “Take a look.”
Ben swallowed, seeing not himself, but Shane’s hands, curled over his shoulders, gripping him tightly. Large hands, the fingernails short and ragged as if they’d been bitten. He was acutely conscious that Shane was standing close enough that their bodies touched, his elbow nudging Shane’s ribs when he brought his hands up, forming them into fists.
“Pretty little boy,” Shane said into his ear, all easy scorn. “You don’t belong here. It’s not one of the clubs you’re used to, all clean and expensive and safe. This is a bar, mate. There’s a fight once or twice a week, the cops keep coming in to check the nasty queers for drugs, looking for an excuse to shut us down—or a blowjob to look the other way, depending on who’s on duty—and the punters would take one look at you and piss themselves laughing.”
Under other circumstances, Ben would have found Shane’s phrasing charming, if incomprehensible. Instead, he was wondering how much it would cost to buy out Shane’s share of the business so he wouldn’t have to deal with him. “You don’t know where I belong,” he said stubbornly, looking at Shane’s reflection instead of his own. “Do you get off on this?”
“On telling you what you need to hear? I’m trying to do you a favor.”
“You’re full of shit if you think this is a favor. Do you have a problem with me specifically, or is it that you never learned to share?”
Abruptly he was left standing alone, his shoulders still feeling the weight of Shane’s hands. Shane had retreated—no, not that—Shane had moved to lean against his desk. There wasn’t space for two desks in the cluttered room, but somehow Ben couldn’t see Shane being amenable to rearranging the space regardless.
Well, if this turned out to be the only suitable office space, maybe Shane wouldn’t have a choice.
“Call it what you like. This is my place. It’s not much, maybe, but it’s somewhere people can come and have a drink without being worried they’ll get stared at for who they’re with or what they look like. It’s a safe place, and there’s not many of them around. I can already tell you’re gonna want to change things. Improve us. Bet you’ve got a nice long list already, just from five minutes in the place.”
“Yes, and a regular cleaner and a few more light bulbs are at the top of it,” Ben said, opting for a pleasant smile he knew would be infuriating. “Why don’t you give me the guided tour first? Then we can discuss what else is going on the list. I’ll make sure I include therapy sessions for you or a personality transplant. You pick.”
“Asshole,” Shane muttered.
“Hey, good for you. You’ve learned to speak American.”
“Been here long enough.” Shane hitched himself up to sit on the desk, knocking a flutter of papers off onto the floor. He wasn’t glaring, not quite, but it was a close thing.
“Too long, maybe.” Ben never thought of how something was going to sound before he said it, so wincing was a familiar action. “I just mean, it might be good, having someone new come in. You know, fresh air, shake things up?”
“Not all that big a fan of change,” Shane told him. “Place is fine as it is. People like it.”
“I saw the financial statements, okay? I know things could be a lot better. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t like it if the business was a huge success with huge profits.”
“Yeah, I can’t wait to buy a Rolls-Royce and a place in the country.” Shane gave him an exasperated look. “Listen, suit, there’s only so much money the people around here have, and some of them spend too damn much here as it is. Not that I’m complaining, but I remember when my dad used to drink up his wage packet on a Friday, and we’d go short the rest of the week.”
“That’s very…” Ben faltered. Telling Shane he had a social conscience would probably sound condescending. He hurried on. “So we make the bar popular outside this area, bring in a new clientele, turn the place into something more attractive—”
Shane straightened, his frown on the menacing side. “Kick out all the faggots and tart it up for a bunch of losers who’d come here for shit and giggles, then wander off to the next hot place to be, leaving us with no one, you mean? Yeah, you’ve got a real head for business.”
“I’m an accountant. Business is my business.”
“Another thing you didn’t get from your dad,” Shane said. “He was a good bloke, but there was a reason he let me run things. Kind of thought you might be willing to leave things as they were.”
“I should have called first or something,” Ben conceded. He was willing to concede a lot if it meant they could have a civil conversation. “Rather than springing this on you.” He wished it had occurred to him Shane might not want things to change or might not welcome a motivated partner with open arms.
“I could have called you when he died.” Shane sighed. “I was scared shitless you wouldn’t have heard, and I didn’t want to be the one to tell you.”
“Were you friends?”
Shane shook his head. “Don’t think I’d put it like that, no. But we were friendly.”
“Friendly enough he told you I was gay.” Ben frowned. “Though how he knew that, I don’t know. I wasn’t exactly warbling Judy Garland songs when he left. Hell, I was only coming to grips with ‘the cow says moo.’”
“He left, sure. Doesn’t mean he didn’t keep tabs on you and your mum. His sister’s the gossipy sort. Kate, is it? Your auntie?”
“Aunt Kate. Yes.” Ben saw her a few times a year, dutifully driving over to her suffocatingly warm, cluttered house and pretending to be interested in her three yappy dogs. “I didn’t know she’d kept in touch with Craig.”
Or that she was reporting back to him.
“He was sad when your mum passed. Not gutted; I won’t lie. He hadn’t seen her for over twenty years, and what they had, well, it’d faded, I guess. But it upset him. Came in here and got hammered a few times, told me a few stories about her. His way of dealing.”
“Don’t.” Ben knew he’d stiffened, the memory of his loss rolling over him, a gray wave of desolation. His mom had been taken from him slowly, by degrees, the cancer playing cat and mouse, but when the end had come, the shock had been as sharp and cutting as if she’d been killed in a car crash out of the blue. “He wasn’t there for her. Ever. He didn’t have the right to be sad, to be anything.”
Ben would never admit there’d been part of him who’d felt a savage pleasure when he’d heard cancer was what had taken Craig too. That was something he’d keep locked carefully inside. He suspected its existence meant he might be a horrible person, so he tried his best not to think about it.
Shane was studying him, and when their gazes met, he nodded. “Right. Well, anyway. Sorry. Tricky subject, I suppose.”
“You could say that.” Ben’s shoulders and upper back were tense.
“Shall I show you around, then?” Shane offered, and Ben felt the tension ease. He was beginning to suspect that underneath the bristly exterior, Shane might actually be a pretty nice guy, and that possibility combined with the fact that he wasn’t hard on the eyes made the whole thing just a little easier to take.
“Sure. I’d like that.”
“It’s bigger than it looks,” Shane said. “Craig and me, we talked about expanding the bar, maybe putting in a snug.”
“I don’t know what you call them over here. Kind of a smaller room, quieter, with its own bar. In my local, it was where all the old men went, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe we could do snacks in there. Don’t do that now. Another bar would take some of the pressure off when things get busy.”
Ben blinked as Shane rattled off his ideas in clipped tones, his accent stronger. “That’s certainly something we could look at,” he said cautiously, unwilling to commit fully to what would be an expensive renovation, but glad Shane wasn’t completely against change. Even if it was only a change he’d suggested. Somehow he thought Shane wouldn’t be as keen to adopt any of his ideas.
“Yeah,” Shane said flatly, his brief burst of enthusiasm fading. “Whatever. Okay, so through here’s the storeroom, with a door to the yard in the back.” He weaved his way through cases of drinks and unlocked the exterior door. Like every other painted surface in the place, it needed attention. A cool breeze swept in, making Ben shiver. “I put a ramp in. Makes it easier when we have deliveries, see? They can wheel them in.”
“Great idea!” Ben said, realizing he’d gone too heavy on the approval. Oh, what a wonderful picture of the doggie! Let’s hang it on the fridge for Daddy to see…
Shane slammed the door, the bang underscoring his feelings nicely. He stalked out of the storeroom with Ben on his heels and went down a short corridor with two doors opening off it. “Loo for the staff through there, not filthy, but don’t get any ideas about eating dinner off the floor, because you’d be lucky to survive the first bite. There’s a room for them here where they can hang out when they’re on their breaks. Couch, a telly, that kind of thing.” He indicated at the door but put his arm out to block Ben’s attempt to open it. “It’s a dump; take my word for it. You don’t need to check it out. Not as if you’ll be spending any time in there.”
If Shane hadn’t seem so determined to keep him out, Ben would have let it go, but curiosity reared its head, and he pushed past Shane’s arm and opened the door.
In the small, crowded room, the young bartender was just pulling a maroon polo shirt over his head. His eyes widened when he saw them. Swiftly, he kicked at something on the floor next to the lumpy plaid couch until it was out of sight. “I was just changing,” he said, picking up a similarly colored wad of fabric. “Shane, that tap that was leaking, well, it’s not dripping now. It’s practically a stream.”
“Good thing we keep spare shirts,” Shane said, with a glance at Ben that seemed more than a little bit suspicious.
There was a blanket draped along the length of the couch and a second one balled into something resembling a pillow. It was easy enough to guess the young man had been sleeping there, and the worried glances he and Shane were exchanging told Ben there was some reason he wasn’t supposed to be. He cleared his throat.
“Right, sorry,” Shane said. “Vincent, this is Benedict Lozier. He’s got a half interest in the bar.”
“Since when?” Vincent seemed shocked.
“Since his father was the old owner and left it to him,” Shane said. “This is Vincent.”
“Vin,” Vin said. “He calls everyone by their full names. It’s a thing.”
“I noticed. Nice to meet you properly.” Ben shook Vin’s hand.
“Uh, yeah. You too.” Vin plucked at the shirt with a grimace. “Black’s better. Doesn’t show the dirt.”
“So change again when your shirt’s dry.” Shane sounded more patient with Vin’s outraged fashion sense than he had with Ben. “If you’re done here, maybe you should get back behind the bar.”
Vin scratched his bare forearm, drawing Ben’s attention to a display of ink that was both intricate and, to Ben’s eyes, painful. Shane’s much smaller tattoo was one thing, but he couldn’t imagine sitting still for the hours it would take to have that kind of artwork etched into skin. It was a dragon on a bed of skulls, all in black, apart from a single baleful red eye. Vin seemed to go in for decorating his body with more than ink. Multiple silver studs glinted dully in his ears, along with a dragon earring, and there was a small hoop in his eyebrow. They were probably the tamest examples. Yeah, there was the shine of a tongue stud.
Ben, who didn’t have a tattoo or a piercing to his name, felt nakedly normal and uncomfortably curious about what else Vin had embellished. Nipples, navel, cock? Okay, now he was the one grimacing.
“Not exactly fucking hopping out there, but sure.”
Vin edged past Ben as cautiously as if boring would rub off on him, and Ben sighed, halting him with a gesture. “You’re sleeping here? Why?” he asked bluntly.
“Me? Sleep here? No way.” Vin wasn’t a good liar in Ben’s opinion, and Shane’s exasperated sigh showed he thought so too.
“He got kicked out. New landlord looking to improve the image of the place. I’m letting him doss down here for a few nights. Already got feelers out for a place down on Austin Street that might open up soon.”
“He shouldn’t be staying here,” Ben said. “It’s just not suitable even in the short-term. I’m not telling you to kick him out onto the street, but you have to see that.” He could see chip crumbs on the floor by the couch, and a stack of pizza boxes on a table. The room smelled funky. He was willing to bet the staff washroom was doubling as Vin’s bathroom.
“I could stay with you upstairs,” Vin said with a hopeful look at Shane. “I wouldn’t be in the way.”
Shane shook his head. “I like my space, thanks. I don’t share. If I did, my couch, this couch—what’s the difference?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe because no one should be living here? And not just because it’s probably illegal. Where do you take a shower?”
Vin, gaze firmly locked on the floor, shrugged.
Ben sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He was starting to suspect he’d have to find a chiropractor. “Okay, you can stay with me tonight.”
“What?” Vin and Shane both spoke at the same time as if they’d rehearsed it.
“Well, he can’t stay here; it’s ridiculous.” Ben looked at Shane. “Plus he looks like he hasn’t had a real meal in forever.”
“I’m not looking for a handout,” Vin protested, but it was hard to read his expression.
“I’m not offering one. But you can’t sleep here, and the couch in my den folds out into a bed that’ll be a hell of a lot more comfortable than this.” Ben knew he was being impulsive and didn’t care. This was the new him. No more boring Ben; from now on he’d be a risktaker.
“You don’t know him,” Shane said. “He could rip you off, trash the place—”
“Hey!” Vin protested. “I wouldn’t. Any of that.” He turned to Ben. “He’s right, though. You don’t know me.”
“Yes, I do,” Ben said. “You’re one of my employees.”
The Broken Triangle #2
“Vin, can you give these to Shelly?” Dave held out a basket of fries as Vin walked by the kitchen door, and Vin took them automatically.
“Yeah, sure. Just this?” French fries on their own weren’t an uncommon request—people who came to the Square Peg were usually more interested in a snack to go along with a few drinks than an actual meal—but Vin didn’t want to deliver half an order.
“Uh-huh. Thanks. Busy night!” Dave stepped back into the kitchen, humming tunelessly the way he did when he was happy.
The smell of fried food was making Vin hungry. He was used to his new work schedule, but his meal schedule was another story. Some nights he didn’t have dinner until after last orders, his blood sugar so low that his hands would shake as he lifted the first bite to his mouth. That was an indication of the bar’s success since it’d reopened six weeks before, with Vin moving into Shane’s apartment above the bar to keep an eye on things. The renovations following the fire had gone as smoothly as anyone could’ve asked, but the months when it’d been closed had been hard on everyone. It was good to be back to normal.
A quick glance at his watch as he handed Shelly the fries to deliver told him it was later than he’d realized—Helen and Patrick were both due in anytime for the late shift.
“Hey, Vin!” One of the regulars lifted a hand as Vin walked by his table. “You see that game last night?”
“Sure.” It was a lie Vin told easily, but only because it was a running joke between them. Weird how he could have a joke with someone whose name he couldn’t remember. It definitely started with a C, but after that it could have been anyone’s guess. Cody? Colin?
“And that play near the end there? That was amazing.”
“Good thing our favorite sports team is so talented.”
Vin raised a hand in greeting to Helen as she came in. He saw a few empty glasses that needed collecting at the far end of the room, but the guy was talking again. “Hey, my friend last week was asking about you.”
Now the friend Vin did remember. Tall, strong jaw, dark hair, and tight little nipples visible through the thin fabric of his shirt. “Was he?”
“Yeah. He was hoping I’d have some suave way of finding out if you’re seeing anyone, but I couldn’t figure out how except just asking.”
Vin shook his head. There’d been a time when the subject made him uncomfortable, but he was over it now. “Sorry. I don’t date.”
“What, guys?” Possibly-Colin’s eyes widened. “You aren’t straight. My gaydar is not that rusty.”
“Your gaydar’s fine,” Vin assured him. “I’m gay, and I don’t have a boyfriend or a husband, but I’m single and not interested in changing that.”
“Is it one of those taking-back-your-virginity things?” The man was curious; he wasn’t being an asshole about it, so Vin was okay with the conversation continuing, at least a little longer.
“Nowhere to take it back from,” Vin said. Telling the truth had always been simple for him; he was built for honesty, not deception. Living his life as an open book meant no complications, and that was how he liked it. “Patrick here, on the other hand…”
Patrick had arrived for his shift less than a minute after Helen had, and he stopped when Vin reached out to snag his sleeve. “That’s what I like, proof that I’m wanted,” Patrick said. His cropped blond hair was spiked with gel, tinted contacts turning his eyes a startling shade of blue tonight. “Good to see you, Cal. How’s everyone?”
While Patrick and Cal—he’d known it started with C—chatted, Vin let his gaze move slowly across the room, taking it all in—the crowd, the mood, and the way money was changing hands. He liked to think he could sense when something was off.
With a nod to Cal, he went to collect the glasses, putting them behind the bar in a plastic bowl, ready to be carried through to the kitchen for washing. After dumping his jacket in the break room, Patrick joined him, nibbling at a fry he must’ve snagged from Dave.
The front door opened again, and a young man about Vin’s age and height entered. Blond hair like Patrick’s, nervous the way so many guys were the first time they came in, unsure of what to expect from gay bars in general or the Square Peg in particular. The guy’s chin rose as he looked around, and when his eyes met Vin’s, all the air seemed to go out of the room.
“Vin?” The note of uncertainty in Patrick’s voice would’ve captured Vin’s attention any other time, but with Riley standing a few yards away, it barely registered.
The tattoo on his arm, with Riley’s initials worked into the dragon’s tail and inked into Vin’s skin, was a reminder of the young man he’d fallen in love with during high school, but Vin had never needed it.
Riley was impossible to forget.
Five years wasn’t long looked at one way, but the gulf between eighteen, when Vin had last seen Riley, and twenty-three, their current age, was huge. He knew exactly how old Riley was because they’d been born on the same day, and Vin had celebrated his birthday a few weeks earlier with a day off and a cake Patrick had persuaded the ever-talented Helen to bake. High school Vin had seen their shared birth dates as a sign from the universe rather than a coincidence.
He should move now. Say something. Smile. Solve world hunger as an encore, because that was equally impossible, frozen with shock as he was.
Riley Wells. In his bar. Staring at him with eyes Vin remembered as blue gray, which darkened when Riley was worked up about something, clear as water the rest of the time.
Riley dug his teeth into a lip Vin had dreamed of kissing, and stepped forward, the scrape of his boots on the wooden floor loud because the bar had fallen silent.
Vin had seen men come into the bar, all bravado and swagger or jittery with nerves, and yeah, some of them hadn’t stayed long enough to cross the floor and order a drink. Gay or straight, they hit a wall and turned back instead of climbing over it. Riley wasn’t running. He was going to keep walking over to Vin, back into his life.
Riley glanced around, meeting one curious stare after another. Heat colored his fair skin, and the broad shoulders that always made his shirts look tight on him curved forward in a defensive hunch.
Stop fucking staring! Vin wanted to yell at everyone in the bar, including his bosses. Ben and Shane were a few feet to his right, as engrossed in the drama as the customers, Ben’s hand resting on Shane’s shoulder, a possessive, unthinking caress that Shane was leaning into like a petted cat. Before Vin could say it aloud, Riley spun around, jerking the door open and letting it slam behind him as he left.
“Fuck, no. No fucking way are you running,” Vin said into the expectant hush. He tossed aside the damp cloth he’d been using to wipe down the bar, feeling the air meet his palm in a cool kiss. Taking his gaze off the door for a moment, he turned to Ben and Shane. “Boss? Both of you? I’ll be back in a minute.”
Without waiting for permission—he knew them well enough to be sure of it—Vin followed Riley out into the November night.
It was mild, but even if it had been freezing cold, Vin didn’t think he’d have felt it. There wasn’t room inside him—he was too filled up with shock, confusion, anticipation, and most of all, the overwhelming need to touch Riley, to reassure himself this wasn’t a dream. “Hey!”
Riley was facing away from him, walking toward the small city lot where most of the bar’s patrons parked. He kept walking and didn’t respond to Vin’s call. Whether he hadn’t heard or was assuming Vin wasn’t talking to him, Vin didn’t know, so he tried again.
Riley paused and turned toward him, and Vin moved closer cautiously, part of him worried that Riley might bolt. He looked skittish as hell.
“I thought it was you,” Vin said. “It’s been a while, but you look about the same. A little taller, maybe.”
“You…you look the same too.” Riley wasn’t just taller; he’d filled out in the shoulders.
They stood there. A car drove past them, the engine noise disturbing the silence between them. “So,” Vin said.
Riley didn’t say anything. His gaze flickered from Vin’s face down to somewhere near his waist and back again.
“First time in a gay bar?” Vin asked, and Riley blinked, startled.
“Uh, no.” Riley swallowed. “First time in yours.”
“You were looking for me?” Vin could be reading too much into it, but he didn’t think so.
“Yeah.” Riley rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been. You’ve got this whole life here, and I came strolling into it like it was given you’d be glad to see me.”
“How could I—when would I ever not be glad to see you?” The words revealed everything Vin had kept hidden during high school, less with their content than the emotion behind them. He’d never told Riley how he felt. What was the point? Straight, popular, destined for college and a bright future, Riley ticked the boxes for unavailable, out of your league, not interested, and half a dozen more.
A few of those boxes had gotten unchecked. Not Riley’s first gay bar? The implications of that were huge. Vin had always assumed wishful thinking lay at the root of his dreams that Riley might one day lean in and kiss him with slow, sweet intensity. He’d seen Riley kiss girls that way and envied them. If the connection he’d felt with Riley from time to time was something more than an echo bouncing off a wall, it changed everything.
“Yeah?” Riley wrinkled his nose, a habit of his when he was uncertain that connected past to present with a click for Vin. He’d seen Riley do that a hundred times. “At school you never said, but I saw you…the way you looked at me. We were friends, I guess, but then you dropped out, and I never saw you again.”
“School wasn’t where I needed to be. I went to classes and got my diploma a few years later, to get my parents off my back, but…” Vin shook his head, impatient with himself. They could play catch-up anytime. What they’d done after school wasn’t important. What mattered was why Riley had been in the bar. “Why were you looking for me? You need something? It’s yours. Anything, man. I mean it.”
Riley didn’t seem convinced. “Really?”
“For sure. We were friends; we still are, as far as I’m concerned. Is something— I mean, are you okay?” A hundred thoughts were flying through Vin’s head of a hundred possible things that could be wrong, but all led back to why him. Why not one of the dozens of friends a guy like Riley probably had?
“I don’t know.” Riley looked lost, and Vin decided it was time to do what he did best.
“Well, we’re not going to figure it out standing here. My shift will be over in about an hour. Do you want to come in and have a drink, hang out for a while until I’m off? It won’t be long. Or you could come back later.” He’d promised Diane, one of the newer employees, that he’d take the first hour of her shift tonight, and wow, was he regretting it now.
Riley’s body language screamed indecision, his weight shifting from one foot to the other, his hands dug deep into the pockets of his leather jacket, but he nodded. “I can wait around. I don’t have anywhere else to be.”
“Okay. Come on, then.” Vin held out his hand, and after a few seconds—long enough that Vin was ready to take back the unspoken offer—Riley reached out and took it. His fingers were cold where they threaded between Vin’s, and his grip was tighter than Vin would have anticipated.
The bar was back to normal when Vin pushed the door open, voices talking and the clink of glasses creating such a din that the best part of going upstairs to his apartment at the end of the night was the quiet. Even with their entry not making the noise level dip, he was aware of eyes on them as he led Riley to an unoccupied booth and gestured for him to sit. “I’ll get you a drink. What do you want?”
“Beer,” Riley answered, an upward inflection making it enough of a question that Vin considered suggesting a soft drink. A clear head beat a beer-clouded one when it came to making decisions. He didn’t drink himself, never had, and his job had given him a front-row seat to some shocking lapses of judgment.
Like mixing cherry brandy with cider because it was your birthday and you were picking drinks that matched your T-shirt. And if the pink cocktail had, the puke that Vin mopped up an hour later when Patrick threw up in the men’s room most definitely hadn’t. It’d been two weeks before Patrick had worn something pink, which for him was unheard of.
“Elephant’s Ear if you’ve got it on draft,” Riley added with a return to confidence that Vin put down to the fact that no one was staring now that Riley was settled at a table.
“Yeah, we’ve got it. Shane’s big on supporting the local breweries.”
“Shane? Is he your boss?”
“One of them,” Vin said. He was hesitant to leave Riley even long enough to get his drink in case he came back to an empty table, but he added, “Be right back,” and forced himself to turn and walk away.
Patrick, sporting shiny blue nail polish tonight and a painted-on pair of silver jeans that made Vin’s balls ache in sympathy, fell on him like a starving wolf as soon as he neared the bar. “Who’s that? Do you know him?”
“No, I always run out after complete strangers.” Vin rolled his eyes and pushed past Patrick. “Yeah, I know him. I’ll tell you about it later, okay?” That was the magical phrase most likely to get Patrick off his back, and as expected, it seemed to work.
He drew the pint into a glass without a single smudge marring its surface. With Shane in sole charge, the occasional lapse in standards had been tolerated when the bar was busy. Those days were long gone. Ben’s uptight attitude had mellowed considerably since he’d left his accountancy job and settled into running the bar with Shane, but his standards were unrelentingly exacting. Vin had ruined half a dozen lemons one night cutting them to the thickness Ben required and making sure no pips remained.
The relationship between his employers intrigued Vin. He let Patrick’s excited babble about his latest pickup flow past him for the most part, his attention only caught if Patrick was describing something outrageous he’d done—or said he’d done. Patrick went for big guys with porn-star dicks and no brains who fucked him hard and often. The better they were at making him scream, the longer they stuck around. Patrick was a self-proclaimed slut, but, like Ben, he had standards.
“No glove, no love,” Patrick had told him one night after hours, darting around the bar like a hummingbird as he collected glasses. “I mean, who doesn’t do that? Really? No smokers, no one who thinks soap operas are lame—but no one who watches them either, because, please, get a life.” He struck a pose, the light catching the rainbow on his shirt, picked out in glittering stones. “And absolutely no one under eight inches. Bare minimum.”
“Do you take their word for it, or do you carry a tape measure around with you?”
Patrick’s smile was evil in a cute way. “With my dates? I don’t take their word for anything, sweetie. But it’s amazing how being measured can add an inch. Me down there, my hands in all the right places, taking a lick to see if it tastes good. If it doesn’t, that’s another—”
“Enough! God. After talking to you, I feel like I’ve been in a threesome.”
Patrick had pouted, then mimed zipping his lip. Because he was Patrick, he’d unzipped it long enough to add, “Anytime you want that, just say the word.”
Patrick was a known quantity. Ben and Shane, not so much. Shane was talking to Ben now, up in his face, his finger stabbing Ben’s chest, but with no real anger there. As Vin left the bar to deliver Riley’s drink, he saw Ben say something to Shane, saw Shane’s bravado change to a waiting expectancy, his head sink down for a moment.
Then Shane was on the move, briskly wiping down the top of the bar, a small, private smile tugging at his lips.
At least when Vin took the pint over to the table, Riley was still there. “Here you go,” he said, setting it down. “On me.”
“Thanks,” Riley said.
“No problem.” The occasional free drink for a friend was one of the benefits of the job, and one Vin almost never took advantage of, so he figured he was more than entitled. He leaned against the wall, the throbbing in his feet too much a part of his life to be a distraction. “You gonna be okay here?”
Riley smiled. It wasn’t much of a smile, but it beat a frown. “I think so. Unless there’s something about this place I don’t know? I read the article in the paper about you reopening.”
Which, Vin remembered, had included his name. “That’s how you found me? That was weeks ago!”
“Yeah.” He got an abashed look from Riley. “It took a while for me to get the nerve up to come and see you. After the fire there was a lot of talk about this place. I might have ended up here not knowing it was where you worked. That would have been a surprise.” Riley smiled again, and this time it seemed more genuine.
“It was a surprise for me this way. Like time travel.” When Riley gave him a confused look, Vin explained, “I felt like I was back in high school, seeing you standing over there.”
The Empty Box #3
The wind drove tiny hailstones directly into Dave’s face, scouring skin raw and making him squint when he checked for traffic. This late at night, the only window lit in the block of condos was his. He always left a lamp burning because he hated walking into a dark room. The block held four apartments, two on each floor, compact but more than large enough for a single man. He’d moved there after Travis walked out, selling the fixer-upper only he’d ever put any effort into working on. Travis had slapped a coat of paint on a wall or two, then lost interest. Maybe if Dave had put the house in both their names, it would’ve made a difference, but it’d belonged to his grandmother and something had stopped him from taking that step. After the first year, Travis had abandoned even the pretense of paying rent, compensating by taking Dave out to overpriced restaurants or buying him expensive, useless gifts.
Mr. and Mrs. Seldon on the ground floor would be in bed, and their neighbor, Phil, a brash salesman who had a handshake firm enough to leave Dave’s fingers numb, was away on business. The man who lived next door to Dave was new. He’d moved in the week before and hadn’t gotten around to introducing himself. Dave had seen him walking down the stairs and formed a vague impression of height without bulk and a shock of straw-colored hair. A scarecrow, but one dressed in a long black coat that even fashion-blind Dave knew was cashmere.
He hurried across the road, head down, intent on reaching the haven of the lobby. Snow buried the curb, but he’d dug out a path earlier that week, braving the latest January storm, and he aimed for the gap in the wall of plowed snow.
Almost there. He could soak in a hot bath, treat himself to a splash of brandy in a cup of cocoa. Burrow down under his comforter and listen to the wind without its sting against his skin. Heaven after the long shift.
A car horn blasted nearby. He jerked his head around, blinking against the eye-watering flurries. Black SUV, lights on full beam. Jesus, it was right on top of him and swerving erratically, the driver going insanely fast on the icy roads. Spurred on by the imminent danger, he leaped forward, his goal no longer warmth, but safety.
The moment’s relief he felt at reaching the curb was fleeting; his heel came down solidly enough, but ice coated the cement and his forward momentum threw him off balance. He pinwheeled his arms frantically, trying to recover, and failed. His left ankle twisted in one direction, and the rest of him went the other. The next thing he knew, he was down on the ground without knowing how he’d gotten there.
It hurt so much he couldn’t do anything but sit there, wet soaking into his slacks, the combination of bitter cold and nauseating pain more than he could bear. After a minute or so, he remembered the SUV, but it was quiet now except for the bouncing of the hail. The guy had almost run him over, then left him. If he hadn’t been so overwhelmed with the pain, Dave would have been indignant, even pissed off, but he didn’t have the energy or focus for anything except praying that the agony would ease and he could get up off the sidewalk before he froze to death.
Tentatively, he placed one hand down against the ground and tried to shift his weight. The fresh bolt of pain that went from the sole of his foot to above his knee disabused him of the notion that he could get up unaided. He fumbled to get his phone out of his pocket, then heard someone ask, “Hey, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I always sit on the ground in the middle of snowstorms,” Dave growled. It was hard not to be an asshole under the circumstances, though he’d regret it later.
He looked up to see his new neighbor standing over him. The man had a gorgeous, probably designer scarf wrapped around his neck and held a paper bag twisted around a bottle. “What happened?”
“Some idiot almost ran me over, and I fell.”
His neighbor bit his lip uncertainly. “Can you get up?”
“No.” Dave was all out of snark. “And I can’t get my phone out of my pocket.”
The man tucked the bottle under his arm and dug his phone out of his overcoat. “We could use mine?”
“That might work,” Dave agreed. His rescuer wasn’t winning prizes for initiative or problem solving, but he’d said we, not you, and that got him points. Dave tried to make out the man’s features, but craning his neck hurt. Hell, breathing hurt. Younger than him, the thick fair hair disheveled by the hailstorm. Not a scarecrow tonight, but a dandelion gone to seed.
“You can’t stay down there. You’ll freeze. But moving you is a bad idea too.” The man shook his head, frustration roughening his voice. “I suck at real life. Too many variables.”
That was one way of putting it. Dave pushed aside the shakiness twisting his stomach into knots and projected calm certainty. “I’ve sprained my ankle, maybe broken it. I didn’t hurt my back, and I didn’t bang my head. If you can get me to the bench over there, that would be great. You can call 911 and get me an ambulance.”
“Or I could get my car and take you to the hospital myself. That would be faster.” The man nodded, eagerness replacing hesitancy. “And we need ice. Ice is good for sprains. There’s this acronym. RICE. It stands for—”
Biting back a pitiful whimper, Dave said, “I know what it stands for. The bench. Please—uh, what’s your name?”
“Jeremy. Great. I’m Dave Adams. The bench? Please?”
“Okay. Take it easy. Don’t put any weight on it if you can help it.” Jeremy was trying hard to be helpful, but Dave wanted to snap at him to stop talking and concentrate. Hopping on one foot still hurt like hell, and he was terrified he’d slip and sprain the other ankle. “Easy. Okay, good.” Jeremy straightened, now that Dave was sitting on the bench, and looked over his shoulder. “So do you want ice? Should I call the ambulance? Or do you want me to bring my car over?”
“I’ll pass on the ice.” Dave gritted his teeth, then tried to force himself to relax. “It’s cold enough out here.”
“It’ll take a minute to get my car. Stay here.”
As if he had any choice in the matter. Dave cupped his hands in front of his mouth and blew into them to warm them. This was great. Not only was he supposed to work tomorrow night, but now his new neighbor would despise him for being a klutz, and a klutz who begged for help at that. He wouldn’t even think about the medical bills; he had insurance, so they wouldn’t destroy him, thank God.
Jeremy was quick to bring the car around, and careful to position it so it was a straight shot from the bench to the passenger seat. That didn’t make it any easier to hop over there, even with Jeremy’s shoulder to lean on.
“I’ll turn the heat up. Fasten your seat belt. It would suck if we slid off the road and you ended up needing the emergency room for more than one injury.” Jeremy grinned at him, showing the first hint of a sense of humor, and pulled away cautiously. “You live across the hall, right?”
“Have you lived here long?”
“About a year and a half. It’s good. The downstairs neighbors are nice. You’ll like it.”
“The last place I lived was a nightmare,” Jeremy said. “Bigger building, lots more neighbors, and most of them were college students or recent graduates. It was a round-the-clock frat party.”
“You like a quiet life, huh?” Concentrating on the conversation was a distraction from the pain.
Jeremy tapped his index finger against the wheel. No gloves. No hat. Just the scarf. Long fingers, the nails trimmed, not bitten. Dave focused on Jeremy’s hand, because watching the whirl of snowflakes that’d replaced the hail did nothing to settle his stomach. “Interesting question.” It was? It’d seemed like the most banal collection of words possible. “I like noise when I’m making it. When I can turn it up or down or off. I work best at night, so they weren’t keeping me awake, but they were distracting.”
“Were you planning to work tonight? I’m sorry for imposing like this.”
The tapping stopped. “I chose to help you. Offered to drive you. That’s not an imposition. I could’ve called 911 and left you on the bench.” Jeremy straightened in his seat. “I did okay, didn’t I? Didn’t panic. Much. I mean, at first I thought you were drunk. That worried me because you freeze faster when you’re drunk. Weird, because alcohol doesn’t freeze.”
“It lowers your core temperature. So you drink it and warm up for a moment or two, but it’s not helping.” Dave wondered if Jeremy always rambled like this when talking to someone he didn’t know, or if maybe, like he’d said, it was due to panic.
“Yeah. Want to know something funny? I had a bottle of brandy in the bag.”
“Why is that— Oh! Like a Saint Bernard dog in the Alps?”
“Mm. It’s cooking brandy, but I don’t suppose they give the dogs the good stuff. I saw this recipe on TV I wanted to try, and I had everything but the brandy. And the peppercorns. Oh, and the shallots, but I decided onions would be close enough.”
“Right.” Any other time, Dave would’ve explained that shallots and onions weren’t as interchangeable as most people thought, but it was too much effort. His ankle throbbed even when he wasn’t moving it, the pain shooting into the red with the smallest shift of his foot.
“Is talking helping?” Jeremy gave him a worried look. “I mean, is it distracting in a good way? Or is it making it worse?”
“It’s good. What do you do for work, that you do it at night instead of the daytime, and at home?”
“I build computers. You must have seen all the deliveries I get? Boxes upon boxes, even though I buy some stuff through a wholesale place that’s semilocal.”
“No, I work a weird combination of late first and second shift.” It wasn’t the most accurate way to describe his work hours, but Dave had found it made sense to people. “Usually not around when the mail is delivered.”
It was as if Jeremy hadn’t heard him or was determined to share every detail about his packages, because he added, “And a lot of it I have to sign for, because it’s valuable.” Jeremy frowned and slowed down, peering out the windshield at the falling snow. “Damn, I missed the turn. I should have plugged in the GPS, but it’s in the glove compartment and I always think I’ll figure it out.”
“No, you’re okay. Take the next left.” Dave decided that Jeremy wasn’t really weird, just a little awkward. Spending most of his time alone wouldn’t help.
“Do you visit the emergency room often?” Jeremy asked with a raised eyebrow.
Dave shook his head. “No, but I’ve lived here for a while. In the area, I mean. Are you new to town?”
“No. Guess I’ve been lucky with my health. Oh, there’s the sign.” Jeremy drove carefully, which Dave appreciated under the circumstances.
Once inside the grounds, Jeremy drove up to the emergency entrance and, with a blithe disregard for signs telling him not to linger, helped Dave out and into the reception area, less crowded than Dave had feared. There were wheelchairs there, battered but serviceable, and Dave sank into one with a small sigh of relief. “Thanks. So much.”
“You look awful. Maybe it’s the lights in here.”
His jeans were soaked, the discomfort of cold, clammy denim against his legs and ass making itself known now that he was inside. It’d been a long night. Patrick had sulked because he’d wanted to flirt with Vin, so Shane had put them on opposite shifts. Then a late order from a group of six had come in near closing. Awful probably didn’t come close to describing it. Jeremy, on the other hand, was as delectable as a chocolate-dipped strawberry, all high cheekbones and lush lips, with thick dark lashes around deep blue eyes. His nose had a bump in it that saved him from perfection, and he seemed unaware of the admiring glances from the woman behind the reception desk, but he was still too damn pretty for a man who must be in his midtwenties.
“No, I can safely say it’s me. I can handle it from here. You’d better go before they tow your car. And thanks again. I owe you.”
“Are you kidding? What kind of an asshole do you think I am?” Jeremy seemed genuinely affronted. “I’m not leaving you here on your own. You’re right about the car, though. I’d better move it. I’ll be right back.”
He returned while Dave was still waiting for his assessment, which he assumed would include X-rays. Jeremy came in, brushing snow away. Instead of his damp hair making him seem mussed or unkempt, he ended up looking more like a fashion model. He built computers? The man was a riddle.
“Okay, what can I get for you? Do you want a coffee? A bottle of water?” Jeremy glanced around the waiting area. “A four-year-old magazine?”
Dave snorted despite himself, which made him wince. “I’m fine. Sit down and keep me company, if you’re insistent on playing the hero.”
“You’re lucky I’m so mellow,” Jeremy told him, sitting in the nearest chair. “You aren’t the easiest guy to get along with, you know.”
“I actually am. You’re not seeing me at my best.”
“Appearance or attitude?”
“Both, but don’t get the idea I clean up much better than this. I’d hate to get your hopes up.”
Jeremy gazed at him thoughtfully, his attention focused but impersonal. “You have good bone structure, and I like the color of your eyes. They’re not washed-out like most people’s so you can’t tell if they’re blue or gray or whatever. Yours are dark gray. It’s different.”
Dave scratched the back of his head, ruffling damp hair that matched his eyes, though he hoped Jeremy didn’t mention it. “Thanks. I think.”
“I’m sorry.” Jeremy smacked the side of his head lightly. “Bad me. It’s from working alone all day. I say what comes into my head, and usually the only person listening is my cat, and he doesn’t tell me to back off. You can. I won’t mind.”
“I’m not that rude. And I shouldn’t be fussy about compliments. They don’t come my way often.” Dave heard the words and rolled his eyes. “And that sounded pathetic. Ignore me. My ankle’s broken, not my self-esteem.”
“Do you think it is? Broken, not sprained?”
“I heard it crack.” The sound played back in his head, definite, uncompromising, though at the time, it’d been less of a sound than a sensation. “They say it’s better to break it. Heals faster and cleaner.”
Jeremy grimaced. “Nothing about it sounds better to me. I’ve never broken anything, and I prefer to keep it that way.”
A nurse came to collect him, cutting short the conversation. “Well, thanks,” Dave said when the nurse turned his wheelchair. “I appreciate the help.”
“No problem. I’ll hang around for a while.”
“Because hospitals are so much fun?” Dave knew he was being difficult, and he was self-aware enough to know why, but somehow he couldn’t stop himself.
“Are you kidding? I love a good gift shop.” Jeremy waved as if Dave were setting sail on an ocean voyage, not traveling a short distance to a cubicle. “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” It sounded grumpy even to him.
It wasn’t luck that Dave ended up needing, but time, because everything took five times longer than necessary. First there were all the preliminaries such as his medical history and taking his blood pressure.
“A little high,” the nurse commented.
Dave manfully refrained from pointing out that was hardly surprising under the circumstances. Next was a series of X-rays proving his ankle was, indeed, broken. More waiting was followed by the application of a cast and a lesson in how to use crutches. By three a.m. Dave was convinced Jeremy was long gone, not that he’d blame him.
He had the number of a cab service on his contact list. All the Square Peg employees did, with orders to call one for any customer too drunk to drive. Dave didn’t often serve behind the bar these days, but the number was still there. Balancing on his right foot, the crutches tucked under his left arm, he leaned against a wall and took out his phone. Holding it in one hand, he struck the screen with a finger and brought the precarious house of cards down with a single tap. The crutches clattered to the floor, his shoulder slid on the smooth wall, and he fell again, helpless, clumsy.
“Got you,” Jeremy said with annoying cheerfulness, grabbing Dave around the waist and hoisting him up. Being treated as if he were a cross between a toddler and a sack of potatoes was bad enough, but Jeremy’s enthusiasm jarred Dave’s body from head to foot. Only his ankle was broken, but the rest of him had picked up an assortment of bruises in the fall too.
The man had waited hours to give him a ride home. Saved him from sprawling flat for a second time. He should be thinking about ways to say thank you, and instead he wanted to bat Jeremy away, acting like he was a buzzing fly that wouldn’t shoo.
“What is wrong with you?” he snapped. “Are you a martyr or something?”
“Not that I know of. Guess I’m a sucker for gray eyes.” Jeremy propped Dave back against the wall, more gently now. “You must be exhausted.”
“Yeah.” Unexpectedly, Dave felt his throat go thick with emotion. He swallowed past it and blinked a few times, overwhelmed.
“Okay. Who were you getting ready to call? A friend?”
“You can put that away, then.” With one hand on Dave to steady him, Jeremy bent and retrieved the fallen crutch. “Can I trust you to hang out here while I get the car?”
Dave nodded. Jeremy studied him as if trying to decide whether to believe him, then turned and left. Raising a hand to his face, Dave silently berated himself for being an asshole. The pain was no excuse, or at least not a good one. This had to stop. By the time Jeremy came back through the automated doors, Dave had managed to plaster a smile on his face.
Jeremy faltered when he saw him. “Um.”
“What?” Belatedly, Dave realized his smile was more of a fixed grimace. “It hurts,” he said without stretching the truth too far and added a groan.
“I could get the wheelchair again. Aren’t you supposed to be in one anyway? I thought they always made you ride around until you were officially discharged.”
“It’s possible I sneaked out when they weren’t looking,” Dave admitted. “No, honestly, I want to get home, into bed, and pass out.”
“You’ll wake up eventually.” Jeremy stepped backward, watching him without touching. “Is there someone who can take care of you? I assume you don’t live with anyone, or you’d have asked me to get them.”
Dave hopped toward the exit, wary of damp patches on the floor from tracked-in snow. “I’ll call my employers in the morning and let them know what happened. Someone will come by and make sure I’m not starving to death. We’re a pretty friendly bunch.”
“Where is it you work?” Jeremy held open the door, still keeping a careful distance. “It sounds nice.”
The door swung closed, and Dave watched his breath cloud the air. The storm had passed by, and the world was still and white, crackling with cold. “I’m the chef at a local bar. The Square Peg.”
“I’ve driven past it. Never been in. What kind of crowd do you get?”
“My crowd. Gay,” Dave said bluntly, and for the first time, he studied Jeremy’s face. He wanted to see Jeremy’s reaction as it happened. If the guy was a homophobe, this was when he’d find out, and even though it would be disappointing, it was important to know.
Jeremy’s expression didn’t change. “Cool.”
“Did you see me calling you a fag and pushing you down in the snow? I’m not an asshole.”
“No, you’re not,” Dave told him. “But it’s hard to know how people are going to react sometimes. Sorry.”
After a moment, Jeremy nodded. “It’s smarter to be cautious. You want to know if there’s a bigot living across the hall.” He grinned. It took ten years off him, not that he needed it. “Now can I help you to the car without you thinking I’m making a pass at you?”
“Do people even say that anymore?” Dave asked when Jeremy, not waiting for his answer, got him moving across the sidewalk.
“What, making a pass? Apparently they do. Or I do.” Jeremy opened the passenger door and took the crutches so Dave could lower himself painfully onto the seat. “Careful. Do you like it? Being a chef, I mean, not having a broken ankle. We can safely assume that part’s no fun.”
When I was eight I decided to write a book. I found a notebook, scribbled a few hundred words about triplets with improbable names, and lost interest. Three decades later I still wanted to write a book, but the dim realization dawned that meant I had to actually, well, write something.
Yes, it surprised me too.
So I did. Not about triplets, but love, angst, hot and spicy smut, and for the most part they're m/m romances.
There's a shelf in my library where I keep the books with my name on them and yeah, there they are. I did it.
That eight-year-old me expected a lot of her future self though. Like being an astronaut. Did not do that.
Sorry, younger me. Here, have a wine gum.
Free reads and my fanfic are here: Jane Davitt at AO3.
Alexa Snow is an emotional person who appreciates practicality in others. She's prone to crying at inconvenient times, drinking too much coffee, and staying up too late playing with words (either reading or writing.) A background of schooling she wasn't all that interested in resulted in a Bachelor's degree in Sociology and a vague sense of wasted time. Alexa lives in a tiny old house in New England with her husband, young son, and a small collection of pets.
The Square Peg #1
The Broken Triangle #2
The Empty Box #3