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The Broken Triangle

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Prologue

Vin shrugged out of his jacket and winced as the collar caught his freshly pierced earlobe. He muttered some choice curse words under his breath and shoved his jacket into his locker, then swore some more in his mother’s native Mexican when one of his textbooks fell out onto the floor.

“Jesus, Parker, weren’t you born here? Can’t you swear in fucking English like the rest of us?”

The jeering note underlying the words robbed them of any humor. Not that they would’ve been funny said in a friendly tone.

Vin picked up the book, put it back in his locker, closed the door, then turned slowly, unwilling to back down but hoping by the time he’d tidied up, Gary Brookes would’ve moved on. The guy had the attention span of a toddler, after all, and the sulky pout to match when he was thwarted.

“Yeah, I was born here. Doesn’t mean I need to limit myself when it comes to expressing my emotions.”

“Huh?”

Vin bit back a sigh. “I can swear in two languages.”

And B comes after A, and two plus two is… Oh, never mind. That’s always going to be too advanced for you.

“That’s the fucking problem, dumbass.” Gary rolled his eyes and exchanged a weary look with the boy beside him, a sharp-featured suck-up with a gaze that never settled, making Vin want to glance over his shoulder to see what Jason was staring at. “How does someone this retarded get to go to school with the normal people?”

Vin was never going to make the honor roll. He was bright enough; he just wasn’t interested in following the instructions on every report card he’d ever gotten and applying himself to subjects that seemed pointless. Math appealed to him, its patterns and structure striking a chord, but one good grade wasn’t enough to pull up his average.

He wasn’t failing the way Gary was, though.

“English should be good enough for you,” Gary continued. “If it isn’t, you and your greaser family should slide back over the border, comprende? But I’m a nice guy. I don’t mind helping you out. Want some tutoring?”

Asshole. “Not really, and I’m late for class. See you around.” He tried to edge past Gary’s not inconsiderable bulk. It wasn’t easy. The muscles and large frame that had gotten Gary a place on the school football team, lost after he missed too many practices, allowed him to block Vin’s way.

“You’ve got time for this.” Gary slammed his hand against Vin’s shoulder, driving him into the unforgiving metal of his locker. “Repeat after me. I’m a stupid fucking Mex with stupid fucking hair and a gay-ass earring in my fucking ear.”

“Shouldn’t that be ‘stupid fucking ear’? You know what Mrs. McKulsky always says about keeping a consistent internal rhythm in a sentence.”

Gary grabbed Vin’s shoulders and forced him back against the locker again; Vin’s head ached from the impact and the echoing clang of metal. “Shut up!”

“Which is it?” Vin asked, and Gary, confused, paused.

“What?”

“You told me to repeat after you. Then you told me to shut up. Make up your mind.”

Vin knew he was asking for it. He might end up with a broken nose, but sometimes his mouth got the better of him. Gary raised a fist, and Vin’s eyes closed involuntarily as he waited for the blow.

It didn’t come. Instead, the hand pinning him to the lockers pulled away. Vin opened his eyes to see Gary being shoved—not hard, more like the kind of shove friends gave each other when they were horsing around—by Riley Wells.

Vin had dreamed about being the one to save Riley from danger, or hell, even a mildly awkward situation like not having enough cash to pay for his lunch. He was going to rethink the scenario next time. Being on the receiving end of a rescue wasn’t much fun. He was glad not to be bruised or bleeding, but this was humiliating.

Riley’s golden-boy good looks weren’t dimmed by his frown, but displeasure and the loss of his usual easy smile made him look older. “You trying to get suspended again, Gary? Because there’re easier ways.”

“I’m trying to beat some English into Parker’s thick skull.”

Riley’s gaze went to Vin, who jerked his chin up, meeting it squarely and ignoring his physical reaction to Riley standing this close. Hyped up on adrenaline and anger, it wasn’t easy. His face was flushed, his breath coming in quick, shallow pants. He wanted to do some grabbing of his own, but it was Riley—always, only Riley—he needed to touch.

He’d stopped calling it a crush a year ago. Crushes faded. Every day he fell deeper in love with Riley, a helpless adoration mixed with a more prosaic lust. Why Riley checked all the boxes for him, Vin didn’t know. At sixteen, self-analysis wasn’t high on his list of favorite things to do. Self-abuse, yes. He jerked off a lot—who didn’t?—though he felt vaguely guilty when he included Riley in his more lurid fantasies.

“Vin speaks English just fine,” Riley said, never looking away from Vin, his body angled, blocking Gary’s view of his victim. Out of sight, out of mind, with any luck.

The bell rang, and Riley gave Gary another friendly shove. Weird how he could combine the disapproval on his face with seeming like he wasn’t mad at Gary, which Vin thought he was.

“You’d better get out of here,” Riley told Gary. “You know Mrs. Billings checks all the hallways, and if she catches you, you’re in trouble.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m outta here.” Gary shifted to the side, glared at Vin like he was responsible for every bad thing that had ever happened to him in his life, and took off with his shadow Jason trailing behind him.

“You okay?” Riley asked.

Vin shrugged. “Could’ve been worse. I don’t think he’s clued in on the fact that I’m gay, so he only has me being half-Mexican to aim at.”

Riley scrunched up his nose. “Uh, he knows. You don’t go out of your way to hide it. Not that you should, but some people would, I guess. He might not like it, but he’s not gonna give you grief over that.”

The idea that Gary had standards of decency was as hard for Vin to wrap his head around as bacon cupcakes. It wasn’t like the guy batted for Vin’s team. Vin’s gaydar was rudimentary. He’d been hit on a couple of times and been oblivious until it’d been pointed out to him by one of his girlfriends. Even so, he was certain Gary was into girls and only girls.

“So what’s holding him back?”

“School policy, for one.” Their high school had a zero-tolerance rule in effect for bullying—not that it did much to stop people like Gary, who timed their attacks carefully—but the GSA at Weston High was militant, and Vin had never felt targeted because of his orientation. He knew from friends at other schools that he was lucky.

“Sure, but guys like him don’t think the rules apply to them.”

“No, but his sister’s out and proud, and she’d slap him silly if she found out he was hassling a kid for being gay.”

Vin shook his head, disgusted by the idea of someone giving him a hard time who had to know being different made for difficulties. “So he’s racist but not homophobic? Why doesn’t that make me feel better?”

“It shouldn’t. He’s a jerk, and he gets away with shit because he’s intimidating.” Riley raised his hand as if he wanted to touch Vin’s arm, but let it drop before any contact had been made. “I’ll talk to him. Tell him to back off. He’ll listen to me.”

“Why?” Vin asked bluntly.

Riley gave him a sunshine-bright smile that made Vin’s chest feel tight with longing. “He might be bigger than me, but I’ve known him since we were kids. I’ve got all the good dirt on him.”

“He wet his pants in kindergarten? Cried when his teddy bear’s ear got torn off?”

Riley’s grin got wider. “I’ll never tell—if he behaves. Hey, shouldn’t we be someplace else? Like in class?”

“Shit, yes.”

Vin turned to go but paused when Riley said softly, “Cool earring.”

He reached up to touch it, his heart hammering. He should say something. Push for more than the casual interactions they’d shared now and then, but Riley was already walking away. If he heard the croaked-out “Thanks” from Vin, he didn’t acknowledge it.

Chapter One

“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.

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.

“Hey! Riley!”

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.

Weird.

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.”

“That was a long time ago.” Riley gestured vaguely. “Not in years, I guess, but we’ve grown up. Changed. I can’t remember why I freaked out if I got a C or cared if the Sabres beat the Ghosts. It mattered then, but it sure as hell doesn’t count for anything now.”

“Yeah.” The door opened, and a group of five men came in, talking animatedly, heading for the bar as if it were iron and they were magnets. Shane had always encouraged that.

Someone comes in my pub, they come up to the bar and get a drink first, not a table. Concentrate on the important stuff. That’s the way we do it back home. And we don’t run tabs either. You pay up front before you get too pissed to remember where your wallet is.”

“Yeah, well, over here, we like being waited on, and running a tab keeps them ordering more instead of walking out after one drink,” Dave had pointed out, effectively silencing Shane.

The men were regulars—friends, not couples, two of them straight. They’d shared a house in college and stayed in touch. Vin liked them. Good tippers, and they talked to him instead of treating him like a drinks dispenser. Vin shifted his feet, irresolute. If he served them and Riley slipped out…

“I won’t take off.” Riley’s gaze was steady. “I promise. I don’t want more than this one drink, but when I’ve finished it, I’ll wait for you.”

“Okay.” It wasn’t like he could duct-tape the guy to the booth, so Vin had to trust him and go back to work.

It was a long hour, waiting for Diane to show up, but luckily it was also a busy one. Vin delivered a soft drink and some fries to Riley after twenty minutes, then went over when a couple of guys he didn’t know lingered at Riley’s booth, and offered them a free drink to move them on their way.

“Go on,” Patrick said five minutes before Diane was supposed to show up. “We’ve got this. Go with your friend.”

“Thanks,” Vin said gratefully. “I owe you one.”

“Don’t think I’ll forget that.” Patrick fluttered his eyelashes at Vin and gave him a gentle shove toward Riley, who had gotten up and was stretching like he’d been sitting in that booth a lot longer than he had.

“My place is upstairs,” Vin said as he joined Riley. “Used to be Shane’s, but after the fire, he moved in with Ben. Do you want to come up? Or would you rather go somewhere else? There’s a coffee place a couple of blocks away.”

Riley grinned, a flash of humor erasing some of the tension around his eyes, if only for a moment. “Staying here is fine with me. I always wondered what your bedroom was like. I pictured it being black on black, like your clothes.”

You could’ve seen it anytime you asked. Seen me in it. Joined me on the bed, and no, the sheets weren’t black. We could have had so much if you’d let yourself be what you are instead of what people expected you to be.

Vin swallowed the pointless words and settled for an answering grin as they started for the back staircase. “I wanted to paint the walls black when I was a kid, but my dad told me to wait until I was in my own place, and now that I am, I don’t want to. Besides, I rent it from Shane and Ben, and I don’t think they’d be any more in favor of it than my dad. Too hard to paint over later.”

“You’re still rocking the Goth look, though,” Riley said as Vin led him upstairs. “I like it. Can’t see you in a suit and tie, short hair, no piercings.”

“God, neither can I.” Vin shuddered, picturing himself bare naked like that, as he unlocked the door to his small apartment. Ben and Shane had a key to it, in case of emergencies, but they’d never used it. Vin kept it locked out of habit. He’d lived in some dives when he was asserting his independence, and he’d learned that anything not nailed down was considered up for grabs.

Losing money had been a pain, but when a photo of his family had gone missing, presumably for the silver frame, he’d moved out and bought a better lock for his new place.

Living alone suited him better, though he’d enjoyed the months he’d spent living at Ben’s. Ben was a peaceful man to be around, though Vin doubted Shane would share that view.

And there he was again, prodding at an aching tooth. One day he’d ask them what they had going on and see what they said.

Or keep his mouth shut and hang on to his job.

“Nice,” Riley said, looking around.

“Not really,” Vin said. “Functional.” Some of the furniture was left over from when Shane had lived there. The soft furnishings had suffered smoke damage, but Shane had salvaged the tables and chairs. Vin’s gratitude was genuine when Shane had told him to use them. He had better things to spend his money on.

“I like it.” Riley walked over to the small table—anything bigger wouldn’t have fit in the kitchen—and brushed his fingers over the little decorative water fountain that was one of Vin’s things. “This looks like you.”

“It’s peaceful. After that racket downstairs, it’s good to have something to calm the nerves, especially on my nights off. Speaking of which, do you want some tea? Or are you all beveraged up?”

“Tea would be good,” Riley said.

While the kettle boiled, Vin showed Riley around, more to have something to do than out of any real desire for Riley to see a bathroom too small for both of them to stand in, and a bedroom with a comforter tangled in the center of the bed.

“I make it usually,” Vin said, seeing his place through Riley’s eyes and wincing inwardly. Riley’s family was well-off, or at least that was the impression Vin had gotten. He’d walked by Riley’s home a few times during his high school days when he’d known the family was on vacation, drawn there by an ache of longing he couldn’t soothe. It wasn’t a mansion, but it was old enough to look settled in place, mature oaks shading a well-kept yard, huge stone planters filled with annuals making vivid splashes of color against the gray stone walls.

Truthfully, Vin preferred the life and bustle of the street he’d grown up on, row houses crammed together with tiny yards separating them from the sidewalk, and a narrow strip of land behind. His family wasn’t poor, but four kids made for a tight budget. For a few hellish years before his oldest sister, Anna, had gotten married and moved out, he’d been sleeping in an unfinished basement, the roar of the furnace jerking him awake in the winter. It’d been his choice; it beat sharing with Suzie, the sister closest to him in age, who was fond of drenching herself in perfume before breakfast, making Vin’s eyes water and his throat close up.

“It’s a great commute,” Riley said solemnly enough that it took Vin a second to get that he was being teased.

He laughed, elbowed Riley in the ribs as naturally as he would’ve done if it’d been Patrick, and turned in the narrow doorway after hearing the kettle click off. The electric kettle was one of Shane’s castoffs, something Vin had thought was weird but which had turned out to be surprisingly useful.

Riley didn’t move back as Vin had expected, and they collided, Vin grabbing Riley’s arm to keep his balance, the warmth radiating off Riley making him want to get closer still.

“Sorry,” Vin said automatically. He said it a dozen times a night working in the small space behind the bar, weaving between bodies as he mixed drinks. Generally the contact involved was minimal. In his job, when to zig and when to zag was learned early.

“I’m not,” Riley said and covered Vin’s hand with his, the shock of contact enough to make Vin’s heart stutter. Riley curled his fingers around Vin’s hand and tugged, loosening Vin’s grip on his arm. It wasn’t a rejection. When Vin let his hand drop to his side, Riley drew him into a hug, his lips brushing Vin’s cheek, then moving to take his mouth in a kiss.

Vin wanted the kiss—God, how he wanted it—but this was way too fast. He pulled back a little, trying to find a compromise between enough space so he felt okay and not so much that Riley felt rejected. “Wait.”

“Why? You want me. I can tell.” Riley seemed confident in that, at least. “Why wait?”

“Because I’m not jumping into bed with you less than two hours after seeing you again for the first time in four years. Five.” Vin stepped back until they weren’t touching at all. “We don’t even know if we like each other anymore.”

“Liar. You still like me. I haven’t changed.”

“Except for being gay now? Or is it bi?”

Riley glanced away. “Gay. That didn’t change as much as evolve.”

“Sit,” Vin said and pointed at the couch. “We’re going to have tea, and we’re going to talk.”

“Talk,” Riley said as if it were a new word to him. He rubbed his mouth, his large hand covering lips and chin, hiding his expression. “Sure, I guess. I didn’t mean to rush you or take anything for granted.”

The apartment layout meant the kitchen and the living area were separated by nothing but a change from linoleum to carpet, both new following the fire that had gutted the bar. The apartment hadn’t been damaged badly, but water and smoke had combined to cause as much destruction as the flames had done downstairs. Even with freshly painted walls and the new, if basic, flooring, the place managed to retain the tatty air it’d had when Shane had lived there.

It was easy to keep an eye on Riley as Vin made the tea, peppermint because that was all he had. He needed to buy groceries, but it was easier to grab breakfast at the nearest coffee shop and forage in the bar kitchen for the rest of his meals if he was around. Shane never minded, though Ben was making sounds about overheads as if Vin eating leftover pizza or stale sandwiches made the day before would lead to bankruptcy.

Riley sat, his hands linked, fingers twisting nervously, his gaze darting from the posters on the walls to the bedroom door. If Vin had been an artist and he’d drawn Riley, he’d have called it Man on the Move or something, because for all that his ass was planted on the couch, he was anything but relaxed.

Joining him on the couch, Vin tried to project calm and reassurance. It worked when his yoga teacher did it during a relaxation class, her voice soothing him into a state approaching sleep, but it wasn’t as if he could tell Riley to picture himself floating in a warm ocean.

Riley would probably point out that warm salt water usually had sharks.

“Here,” Vin said, handing Riley a mug. “Careful, it’s hot.”

“I don’t know how to do this,” Riley blurted out and set the mug down, which was good if the alternative was him spilling it.

“Okay,” Vin said. “How to do what?”

“This!” Riley gestured meaninglessly.

“Drink tea? Sit on a couch? Talk?” Vin suggested.

Riley snorted. “You definitely haven’t changed.”

“I just want you to stop freaking out, or whatever it is you’re doing, so you can make sense. You obviously weren’t talking about not knowing how to kiss—”

“Unless your reaction to it was an indication,” Riley muttered.

Vin couldn’t imagine not welcoming a kiss from Riley. “You surprised me, okay? Don’t get me wrong—I’ve dreamed about kissing you. But this morning when I woke up, I didn’t imagine ever seeing you again, let alone having you in my apartment, so give me a little time to adjust to the idea.”

Vin set his mug down on the table and turned toward Riley, whose expression had softened.

“I’m sorry,” Riley said. “I don’t want to rush you. I’ve dreamed about kissing you too, and I hate that I fucked it up when I finally got the chance.”

“You didn’t fuck it up.” Vin let himself reach out and brush his fingertips over Riley’s cheek, willing his hand not to shake.

“Do you think…” Riley swallowed, eyes searching Vin’s. “Could I try again? Just once?”

In reply, because he wanted Riley to know he wasn’t in this alone, Vin leaned in and pressed his lips to Riley’s.

Chapter Two

A mouth on his, soft lips, the scrape of stubble from hairs too fair to be visible unless the light caught them just right, the taste of Riley’s mouth—it was overwhelming, but Vin didn’t allow himself to feel doubt or hesitation. This was what he’d wanted all these years, why he’d shaken his head to every offer he’d gotten.

At first, it’d been loyalty to the love he’d felt for Riley. And yeah, it was all kinds of stupid choosing to live off a dream instead of searching for something real, but it’d worked for him. He’d seen friends fall in love and get their hearts broken, or men like Patrick screwing their way through life as if sex was as pleasant and meaningless as eating ice cream. He’d started to take pride in being aloof from it all. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs, and kept his caffeine intake down. Searched inside his heart for answers and let the tattoos and piercings take the place of sex.

You’re weird, Vin,” Patrick had told him one night at a party, blinking owlishly at him. “You’re the only sober one here, and it’s like you’re not here. Tell me you’re an alien. Please? It’d make me soooo happy.”

“Why?

Patrick had caught his lower lip between his teeth, flirting shamelessly with eyelashes frosted silver at the tips. “Because eventually it’ll be probing time? My ass takes extra large, honey, and don’t forget Earth boys need lube. Lots of it.”

“I’m not an alien. Did I even need to say that? Did you really think— How much have you had to drink?”

“Enough to see that you’re a lust time bomb waiting to go boom.”

“No, I’m someone waiting for the right time. The right man.” Easier to say that than to admit he’d found him years ago and could never have him.

Patrick had shaken his head. “Boring. So, so boring. Stick with the alien angle.” A guy who’d lost his shirt had wandered by, both nipples pierced, tall enough that Patrick’s head would be level with them. Vin had counted down silently. By the time he’d reached four, Patrick had introduced himself and was playing with one of the nipple rings, giggling when he made the guy yelp and getting his ass smacked when he tugged again, harder.

By the time Vin had gotten to ten, the two of them had disappeared, most likely heading for any room with a door that locked.

Vin parted his lips and let Riley’s tongue slide into his mouth, bringing more of a taste that made his cock harden, his balls go tight. He’d read about guys coming in their pants, but he had more control than that, didn’t he? If he got stressed, he took long, slow, deep breaths, reciting a mantra in his head, but he couldn’t do that when Riley was making soft, eager sounds between kisses, each one driving Vin’s arousal higher.

Any second now, Vin would pull back. If only Riley didn’t taste so amazing, if only his lips didn’t cling so perfectly to Vin’s. If only their mouths didn’t move together like they were made for each other. Vin wanted more. Like the bare skin of Riley’s back against his palms, or Riley’s cock warm and hard in his hand. That last thought felt like a slap, and he did pull away, shocked more at himself than anything they’d done.

“Okay?” Riley asked gently. God, he was as good-looking close-up as he’d been in his yearbook pictures.

For such a simple question, the potential answers were ridiculously complicated. “I think so,” Vin said, voice trembling. He tried to steady it. It’d been some kissing; that was all. He couldn’t fall apart over it. “But we need to talk. I’m in so over my head here.”

“Are you kidding?” Riley stroked a hand down along Vin’s arm. “I’m the one in over my head. You have no idea how much I want you.”

That was what Vin was afraid of. “It’s a line straight from one of my daydreams, but…”

“But?”

“It’s complicated.”

“You’d have told me by now if you had a boyfriend,” Riley said with flattering certainty.

“I would have, and I don’t,” Vin agreed. “Whatever you’re imagining, trust me, the reality is a lot less interesting.”

“Let me make it uncomplicated,” Riley said. “Because from where I am, it’s simple as hell. I like you, always have. You left and I missed you, and yeah, I’m not gonna blow smoke up your ass and say you were on my mind every day, but when I got it together and stopped trying to make everyone else happy and put myself first, I wished I’d had the guts to be like you were in school. Open. Out. Not giving a shit. If I had, we could’ve dated.”

“Maybe.” Hearing Riley lay it out so casually, as if the two of them dating in high school would’ve been no big deal, left Vin breathless. He knew it was easy to say now, knew it wouldn’t have been that simple for more than one reason, but for a moment he could picture it, the two of them at dances together, locked together, turning slowly under the flickering lights, with something romantic playing in the background.

Yeah. They wouldn’t have made it past the first few notes before someone threw a glass of punch over them and claimed it was an accident, or jostled them repeatedly, driving them off the floor.

“When I came out, when I went in those bars, I was looking for you without realizing it. Going for the dark-haired guys, hanging out in places I thought you’d like. You know. Edgy. Gay-friendly.”

Vin groaned. “Tell me you didn’t go to Dregs thinking it’s where the real action is. Please. That place is a dive.”

Riley shrugged. “Oops? Yeah. That’s where I met my first— Never mind. He wasn’t anything special.”

So why did you sleep with him?

Vin forced the question back. The answer wouldn’t make him happy, no matter what it was. “Dregs hasn’t been open long. A year, eighteen months. When did you come out anyway?”

“A little over a year ago,” Riley said. Good to get confirmation that Vin wasn’t completely crazy, at least. “Took a page from your book and told everyone I could within the space of a few hours. The first phone call was a killer, but after that it got easier. Now when I tell people, it’s like giving out my phone number.”

The quirk of his mouth, his self-awareness that life was funny even when it was fucked-up, was as appealing as his good looks. Vin wasn’t sure he bought the last part, though. No matter how many times he’d told people he was gay, he always braced for rejection or hostility, a physical flinch punctuating the words.

“That first call… Parents?” Vin guessed.

“Yeah. Thank God my mom was the one who answered the phone, or I might have chickened out.” Riley reached for his mug of tea. “I don’t think I could have said it out loud to my dad.”

Vin, who had decided to go the opposite route and tell his dad first, nodded. “How’d they take it?”

Riley shrugged. “Okay, I guess. They’re fine with it now, which is what matters. They claim they never suspected, but my mom must have read some PFLAG pamphlets at some point, because the stuff she said was like listening to a parrot: ‘I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to tell us. You know we love you no matter what.’ But I needed to hear it.”

“Yeah. It’s more how they are afterward that counts. When they see you kissing a date for the first time, or the way they tell other people when it comes up. You can see if they’re okay or faking it, but even faking it’s better than freaking out. I’ve got one friend, Patrick, and he’d barely gotten the words out and boom, his mom was packing a bag for him.”

“That has to suck.” Riley set his tea down after one sip, steam curling up from it, fragrant with mint. “So we were both lucky.”

“Sounds that way.”

Vin’s parents had gotten married against the objections of his mother’s family. Maria had been engaged to an older man when she met the American student who’d walked into her while taking a photograph, sending her stumbling to her knees. Serenely confident in their love’s ability to smooth their path through life, they’d withstood every argument raised against their plans to marry when Jon had finished his degree. Time had proved them right, and the arrival of Anna, followed by Celine and Suzie, had chipped away at the wall between Maria and her parents that Vin’s birth had finally brought down.

Gabriel and Celia Perez idolized Vin. They only got to see him once a year when the family took the long trip south to their coastal town, but they made the most of him when he was there, smothering him with affection. His sisters tolerated Vin getting spoiled because it didn’t happen at home, where all four children were treated equally. It didn’t stop them from teasing him, but at eight, with the biggest piece of cake on his plate, not theirs, Vin had considered it a fair trade.

Finding out their only grandson was gay had made the next visit tense, with many long silences in place of a stream of questions. With his mother’s expression silently daring her parents to criticize her son, Gabriel and Celia, as they’d done once before, set their misgivings aside.

“So what happened? Did you have a bad breakup or something?” Riley interrupted his thoughts with a question Vin had known would be asked, but it still took a moment to get his mental feet under him.

“No,” he said slowly. “It’s not that.”

“What, then?” Riley pressed.

“I’ve never gone there, okay? I know it probably sounds weird, but it’s not. I wasn’t ready. I figured, I don’t know, that I wasn’t built for it.” It wasn’t easy to explain; even though Vin understood it on a deeper level, putting it into words was another story.

“Wait,” Riley said. “What, exactly, are we talking about here?”

Vin took a deep breath and looked Riley right in the eyes. “All of it. Everything. I’m not just single; I always have been. Celibate too. And I work in a bar but don’t drink. Funny, right?”

He could hear his voice, and he didn’t sound amused. He sounded depressed. Now was the part where Riley felt sorry for him, which was the last fucking thing Vin wanted.

“So you’ve never had sex,” Riley said, rallying after a pause that managed to be awkward and stunned. “Big deal. You’re what, twenty-three? Yeah, you must be, because you told me once we shared a birthday. Remember? That nutty girl was going around the class wanting to know everyone’s star signs to prove some theory about why we were sitting where we were.”

“Liv. And she wasn’t nutty. Just different.”

“Dude, we were sitting in alphabetical order!”

“You can tell me I’m nuts too.” Vin smiled. It was an effort to make his lips take the shape, but he did it. “You won’t be the first, and there’ve been times I would’ve agreed with you.”

Except now, with Riley sitting beside him, wanting him, Vin knew he’d made the right choice.

“Tell me why. Then I’ll decide if you’ve earned it.” Riley shifted position, bringing him closer to Vin without trying to make it seem accidental. His knee nudged Vin’s thigh, his arm, slung along the back of the couch, dropping to rest around Vin’s shoulders. “Religious reasons? You’re a Catholic, or at least you were.”

“My mom is, and my dad isn’t anything, so he let her bring me up as one, but it didn’t take. I asked too many questions. It’s nothing to do with my faith.”

“You gonna make me play Twenty Questions? I can think of better games.” Riley drew his fingers up the side of Vin’s neck, a light, casual caress leaving Vin’s touched skin tingling.

It was hard to concentrate with Riley so close. Vin had never been drunk, but he’d felt this way once before, riding his bike down a steep hill, his speed building to the point where braking would’ve been as disastrous as hitting a stone. He’d clung to the handlebars, wind rushing past him, whipping his hair back and flicking away the tears from his watering eyes. It’d been terrifying and exhilarating, and when the hill had become a long, straight piece of road, stealing the bike’s momentum, he’d felt as much regret as relief.

With that same sense of inevitability, he surrendered to the pleading look in Riley’s eyes. Riley deserved to know if anyone did. It might screw things up, but if Riley had come looking for a one-night stand, Vin wasn’t interested. His cock was, but his heart was less easily seduced. And if Riley wanted this to be the start of something, it had to begin with truth between them, not evasions.

“I fell in love with someone. No one else was good enough. I didn’t stand a chance, I knew that, but knowing he was out there, I couldn’t settle for second best.”

“Someone.” Riley drew Vin into kissing distance and played with the edge of Vin’s T-shirt sleeve. It was crazy how much something so simple turned Vin on. “This someone got a name?”

Vin made an inarticulate sound, a groan, deep and hoarse. “God, you know it’s you. It’s always been you.”

Riley leaned back, his gaze searching Vin’s face. Was that surprise or shock in his eyes? Whichever it was, as Vin watched, it became a warm smile. “Wow. So you were waiting for me all this time? That’s pretty romantic.”

“That’s—” Vin swallowed and took a calming breath. “That’s exactly why I need a little time. I can’t jump into this because it’s like some kind of Disney fairy tale.”

Riley chuckled. “I don’t think Disney’s added gay princes to its repertoire.”

“Don’t distract me from the point of this conversation.”

The humor left Riley’s face, wiped off it cleanly. “You just told me you’ve kept it in your pants for five fucking years because you loved me when we didn’t do much beyond smile at each other in the hallway or share notes on a class we’d missed. I’m trying to work out what I did to deserve that. I’m trying to decide if I should feel flattered or guilty as hell.”

“We had more than that!” Vin protested, the solid foundation of his love for Riley suffering a blow from within. “You know we did. You were there for me, stood up for me. And this is how I feel. It’s on me. You have nothing to feel guilty about.”

“I’ve been out for long enough to know men who look like us can get laid every night of the week,” Riley said. “I’ve been careful and I’m picky, so I haven’t taken advantage of that as much as I could’ve, but I know it’s out there if I want it, and God, I do! How the hell have you said no to sex all this time?”

“It hasn’t been that hard. Maybe because I didn’t know what I was missing?” Vin studied Riley’s face; somewhere during their conversation, his expression had become wary, and Vin wasn’t sure when or why. “Anyway, that doesn’t matter. What matters is why you’re here. Why’d you come looking for me?”

“Because I liked you, okay? I always did. I thought we’d be good together.” Riley bit his lip, gnawing at it nervously before realizing what he was doing and stopping.

They were sitting so close—ridiculously close for men who hadn’t seen each other in years and had only been casual friends, but not close enough for lovers. Caught between the reality of how little he and Riley had to base any form of relationship on and the undeniable fact that Riley had come looking for him, Vin wasn’t sure if he should edge closer or back off.

“Do you still think that?”

“Well, you don’t seem to have turned into a raving asshole, if that’s what you mean.” Riley reached out and touched the metal stud under Vin’s lip. “Some of this is new.”

Every time Riley touched him, something in Vin quivered, restless, eager for more but unsure of what to ask for. He wasn’t innocent or naive. Patrick’s frank detailing of every sexual encounter he’d enjoyed had given him a good idea of what was on the menu, but what was he hungry for?

When it came to Riley, he’d been holding an empty plate for so long.

“Yeah, I didn’t stop with my ears, that’s for sure.” Vin stuck his tongue out far enough to show off the stud through it. He’d had a ring in his eyebrow, but he’d taken that out on a whim. He should put it back. His face seemed naked without it.

Riley didn’t flinch or look put off, but he didn’t look appreciative either. Vin was used to being teased about the tongue stud. Patrick had moaned with delight when he’d first seen it, babbling about out-of-this-world blowjobs until Shane had reached across the bar and given the back of his head a smack to shut him up.

“Yeah, I noticed when we were kissing.” Riley raised his eyebrows. “Got any more?”

Okay, that didn’t sound disapproving, exactly, just noncommittal. Maybe Riley was curious but didn’t want to seem nosy? “Yeah, but I’d have to get naked to show you them all.” Vin felt warm and light, a balloon filled with air ready to float away. He was flirting with Riley. Un-fucking-believable.

Riley blinked, and yeah, Vin saw a hint of shock there, quickly smothered. “I don’t even have my ears pierced. My dad would freak if I did. He’d say it made me look unprofessional.”

“So go for it where it doesn’t show.” With the sense of a line being crossed, Vin drew his thumb over Riley’s chest, feeling the bump of a nipple, hard even in the warm room. “Get these done.”

How hot would that look?

“Never even considered it,” Riley said. His voice was hoarse now, though, and his hand was on Vin’s hip, anchoring Vin. “You know you’re driving me crazy, right?”

Vin genuinely had no idea what to do. Stop touching Riley? Impossible. Plus it seemed only fair that he was driving Riley crazy, because Riley was driving him crazy. “I don’t think I can stop,” he whispered, and the confession earned him a kiss.

Riley’s mouth was amazing, perfect, and Vin was so hard he thought he might die. He wanted to climb onto Riley’s lap, wrap both arms around him, and kiss him, and apparently this was some kind of magical night when wishes were granted, because he was doing that, and Riley seemed to like it as much as he did if the hands on Vin’s ass were any indication.

He ran his tongue over the roof of Riley’s mouth, flicking it with the stud, tiny taps, a coded message he hoped Riley could decipher. I’m here. I’m yours. Love you. Want you.

For the first time, he had the taste of another man’s mouth in his, addictive, arousing. He wanted to be greedy, kissing Riley until their tastes mixed and became one and Riley’s lips were hot, bitten-soft, and swollen.

He wanted Riley naked beside him, license granted to touch and be touched. It was too soon, too fast to think of sleeping with him, but he couldn’t stem the rising urgency of his desire. When had he last felt this turned on? It was agony to pull back and search Riley’s eyes for a matching need, but he had to see for himself he wasn’t alone in this.

“We can do whatever you want,” Riley said. “But we don’t have to. Okay? I was you not that long ago, and I want you to be good with whatever happens.”

Vin tucked a stray lock of Riley’s hair back behind his ear, then leaned in and bit Riley’s earlobe gently. “I’m good,” he murmured. “What do you want?” He wasn’t sure how far he’d be comfortable going, but knowing what Riley expected might help him figure that out.

Riley turned his head and kissed the side of Vin’s throat. How could warm lips, soft against his skin, make him shiver? “Me? I want everything. Want to take off all your clothes and spread you out, taste you.”

Vin moaned, picturing lying there waiting for Riley to stop looking and touch. He clutched at the back of Riley’s shirt, the fabric filling his hands.

“You like how that sounds?” Riley’s lips did something delicious and obscene to the edge of Vin’s jaw. “I want to suck you. No one’s ever done that, right? Put his mouth on your cock, all hot and wet? Licked you until you couldn’t hold back anymore?”

“No.” It sounded more like a whimper than a word. “Would you?”

“I will. I’ll do it until you come. Make you come.”

“Won’t take long.”

Vin wasn’t sure he’d last longer than it took for Riley’s tongue to leave that first wet stripe. Riley could probably get him off just by talking about what he had planned. More safe sex—because it didn’t get safer than jerking off. The hell with it. He’d gotten a weird kick out of denying himself the pleasure of sex at times or taking as long as possible to come, but the root of his decision to stay single and celibate lay in his love for Riley. Now that he had Riley here, willing and eager, Vin was damned if he was going to miss out on what Riley was offering.

“God, that’s such a fucking turn-on. You wanting me that much. Me being the first.” Riley shifted position restlessly, then nuzzled into Vin’s neck, biting it, his teeth pinching Vin’s skin, leaving a hot sting that faded fast. “Want me to do it here?”

“Yeah. Here sounds good.” The bedroom sounded better, but Vin would have to stand and walk there. He wouldn’t make it.

“Take off your shirt,” Riley said and was already shoving it upward by the time the words made sense to Vin. “Hey.” He blinked at Vin’s tattoos as Vin let his shirt drop to the floor next to the couch. “I didn’t realize you had so many.”

“Let me guess. You’ve never considered getting one?” Vin felt exposed suddenly and less turned on as a result. Shit. Was this over before it’d started? “You don’t like them.”

“I didn’t say that,” Riley told him, but Vin knew it wasn’t an emphatic denial. “They’re on you, and I like you.”

Riley gripped Vin’s waist, his hands cool and strong, and leaned forward, kissing Vin’s upper chest.

“Where were we?”

Vin closed his eyes as Riley started to undo the front of his jeans. After all these years of waiting, he was here, in his apartment, straddling Riley Wells’s lap. Being undressed by Riley Wells. He’d never have guessed in a million years that this would happen.

“And you’ve never done this before.”

Was it a question? Vin wasn’t sure. It seemed to matter to Riley, and that was good. It had meant plenty to Vin, after all. He hadn’t seen his virginity as something to lose or gotten screwed up over it as a symbol. It was more if he did this, he wanted it to be with someone he loved, and he loved Riley.

“Never even kissed someone?”

Okay, that was a question. A hesitant, mildly incredulous one.

“No,” Vin said, then corrected himself. “Well, once, but it didn’t count.”

Riley slid his hand inside Vin’s black jeans, shaping it to the solid length of Vin’s cock, rubbing firmly. Even separated by a layer of cotton, the heat of his palm seeped through to skin, a subtle caress, though what Riley was doing with his hand was direct enough.

“For me, a kiss wouldn’t count. For you it had to. Tell me about it.”

“Why? I forgot it before it was over.”

Riley pushed Vin to his back so he was lying on the couch, staring up into blue eyes lit with desire and mischief. “Tell me.” Riley pulled his hand free of Vin’s jeans, bracing himself with his other, and drew a circle around Vin’s pierced nipple with his fingertip. “Then I’m gonna really make you forget he existed.”

Vin laughed, enjoying being teased. It distracted him from the beat of blood in his ears and the answering echo in his rigid cock. “I work with him, so you’d have to wipe my memory every day.”

“Giving you a daily blowjob? Not a problem. You working with someone who kisses you might be. Is he a problem? Competition?”

“Really isn’t.” Vin bit his lip as Riley tugged the ring through his nipple just this side of pain, probably because he didn’t know how sensitive a piercing could be. “Uh, ease back? It feels good, but not when you do it that hard.”

“Shit, I’m sorry.” Riley’s contrition was instant and sincere, an anxious expression replacing the twinkle. He bent and kissed Vin’s chest above the nipple. “That better?”

“I’m fine,” Vin assured him. “But it’s painful as hell if they get torn out.”

Riley screwed up his face as if he’d stepped in shit. “Gah. Gross. I’ll leave them alone.”

“No!” Vin shook his head. “I told you. It feels good. That’s one reason to get them pierced. I, uh, I play with them when I’m jerking off.”

“You’re blushing.” Riley chuckled. “You’re pierced and inked up, a bad boy all in black, and you’re blushing. It’s sweet.”

“Fuck you,” Vin said, grinning as he tickled Riley’s ribs, digging his fingers in hard. “I’m not cute, adorable, or sweet. I’m a guy waiting for a blowjob.”

Riley yelped and straightened, dodging Vin’s hands. “Kiss story first.”

“Were you always this stubborn?” He remembered Riley as easygoing, but people changed. “It was last Christmas, okay? Shane hung some mistletoe over the door. Big mistake. Everyone kept stopping to neck, and no one could get in or out. He sent Patrick over to take it down. It took him about ten minutes, because he kept asking guys to lift him up so he could reach it, and well, you get the picture. Lots of ass grabbing and more kissing. So Shane lost his temper. This was before Ben came on the scene. Shane’s mellow these days. Kind of. Anyway, Shane sent me over. Patrick grabbed me when I was reaching up. He kissed me; I told him to knock it off. End of boring story. By the way, my jeans come off. Feel free to test that theory anytime you want to.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t an entirely accurate account of the kiss, because Vin had liked it more than he’d have admitted to Patrick, if not himself, but—

“How about now?” Riley gave him another long kiss, then wrestled with Vin’s jeans and the rest of his clothes until he was naked. “Ah, much better.”

Vin considered pointing out he shouldn’t be the only one not wearing anything, but if Riley was naked, he might expect more than Vin was willing to give. As turned on as Vin was, and as desperately as he longed to get intimate with Riley, he had no intention of anything penetrative happening, not tonight.

Riley slid down to the floor, kneeling between Vin’s thighs and— Oh Christ, what had Vin been thinking, waiting all these years for this? Riley’s tongue was amazing; his whole mouth was amazing. Vin clenched the couch cushion as hard as he could, trying to focus on making his knuckles hurt.

“Okay?” Riley asked, and Vin whimpered at the change in sensation as his wet skin met the cool air.

“I’m gonna come in about five seconds,” he said.

“That’s okay,” Riley said. “It’s kind of the point.” Before Vin could protest further, he took Vin’s cock into his mouth again.

Hot. Wet. Good. Vin was reduced to outward silence and monosyllabic thoughts when he wanted to pour out his reaction in a grateful flood of words. He was panting when he wasn’t holding his breath, striving not to buck his hips and choke Riley, the need to move, to fuck, overwhelming.

He was losing it. No longer the onlooker, involved in the action, the distance that allowed him to observe and judge reduced to nil. Riley’s hands slid under his ass, raising him, as if Riley couldn’t get Vin’s cock deep enough into his throat.

The tip of his cock nudged the roof of Riley’s mouth, rubbing over the arch of his palate. Riley choked and gulped, his tongue sliding over Vin’s shaft as he fought for breath. Vin cried out, a guttural yell that sounded loud in his head and emerged as a primal grunt. He came, his cock still mostly inside Riley’s mouth, the familiar surrender to pleasure amplified to the point his climax seemed endless.

Riley pulled away, coughing to clear his throat, his eyes watering, but Vin was still coming, two or three weaker spurts of fluid pulsing out, smearing his stomach, warm streaks pale against the dark hair forming a thin line between his navel and the root of his cock.

Vin knew he should ask if Riley was okay, but his heart was pounding like never before. Maybe this was why he’d waited, because he had some kind of congenital defect no one had ever known about, but somehow his body had known an orgasm with a partner would be too much for him. Huh, no. His heart rate was returning to normal. He reached out a trembling hand to touch Riley’s face. “You okay?”

“Yeah, of course. Are you?” Riley wiped his mouth without a hint of self-consciousness.

“I wondered for a minute there.” It was awkward being the only one of them who was naked.

Vin wanted to grab a cushion to put in his lap.

“It’s different, right? The first time with someone else.”

Different is a good word for it,” Vin agreed. “Come up here, would you?”

Riley moved to sit beside him with flattering eagerness, pulling him close and kissing him. Vin wasn’t sure how he felt about the taste of himself in Riley’s mouth, but the way Riley kissed, like he knew what he was doing and was determined to teach it to Vin, soon distracted him.

“I want to see you naked.” Was he being too pushy? Asking for too much? Riley had to be in need of release after what they’d done. If he wasn’t, Vin would be worried. “Let me make you come?”

“I’d like that, but now I’m the one thinking I’m rushing you. Usually it doesn’t matter if it’s fast. Hell, one time I didn’t even get his name before he was out the door.” A flash of hurt passed over Riley’s face that Vin understood. It had to suck knowing you’d been used by someone to get off, your mouth, hands, ass the only important parts of you. Vin hated that idea so much that any shred of regret he felt for the years alone was swept away.

“My name’s Vin,” Vin said deliberately, holding Riley’s gaze. “It’s nice to meet you, Riley, and I want to see you again. And right now, I’d love to see more of you. Please?”

Riley rested his forehead on Vin’s bare shoulder, hiding his face and the flush that stained it scarlet, his exhaled breath warm, leaving heat and dampness behind.

“Vin,” he whispered, the break in his voice making him sound younger, the Riley Vin remembered. He held on to Vin, a fine tremor racing through him. “Vin.”

“I’m right here.” Vin stroked Riley’s hair and the back of his neck. “You’re not rushing me, and it’s you I want, not just anyone available.”

“Promise?” Riley lifted his face and Vin felt sick at the sight of the uncertainty in his eyes.

“I promise.” Vin kissed him and smiled until Riley’s lips lifted in a tentative answering smile. “There. Now let me show you too. Okay? Can I do that?”

Riley nodded. God, he looked so vulnerable. He deserved to be loved. “Okay,” he said, and Vin set about proving to him how much he was wanted.

Chapter Three

“Oh my God, would you stop already?” Vin said, exasperated by Patrick’s badgering.

“I can’t believe you let him leave,” Patrick said, not for the first time. “Your true love shows up, and you watched him drive away?”

Vin groaned and dropped his head onto the bar. “He had to go to work today,” he said. “I had to work today. This isn’t some fairy tale, for God’s sake. Real life actually exists.”

“La-la-la, can’t hear you.”

“Less yapping, more work.” Shane put a case of bottled beer on the bar with a thud that made the bottles clash, and gave them both a stern look. “Or I’ll dock your wages for the time you’ve wasted. That sound fair?”

“You don’t have a romantic bone in your body.” Patrick tossed his head, all drama, all queen. “I can still hear the violins playing.” He hummed a tune Vin didn’t recognize and took a few steps, twirling an imaginary partner in the confined space. The dance ended when he banged his elbow against a beer pump. “Ow! Fuck.”

“I’m glad you two got back together,” Shane said, addressing Vin and ignoring Patrick’s pained whimpers. “About time, if you ask me.”

It wasn’t worth correcting Shane’s assumption Vin and Riley had once been a couple. Vin settled for a smile that turned into a grin. The kiss he’d gotten when Riley left a few hours before had been bone-meltingly hot. “Yeah, it’s great. I’m seeing him tonight. That’s why I’m working the early shift; Diane swapped with me. She owed me after yesterday.”

“If she bails, I can do a double,” Patrick offered, still rubbing his elbow.

“Thanks.” It felt like forever since he’d seen Riley, and there were hours to go before he’d see him again. The thought of taking Riley out for a romantic dinner filled Vin’s head. His talk of real life not being a fairy tale had been an attempt to convince himself as much as Patrick. Vin was crazy, head-in-the-clouds in love. He understood now why people’s lives seemed to revolve around boyfriends and girlfriends and weddings. The romantic gestures he’d rolled his eyes over for years seemed understandable with Riley in his life.

“Were you thinking of putting those away anytime soon, or should I give you the day off without pay and be done with it?” Shane asked.

Vin realized he’d been standing there holding two beer bottles for way too long.

“Sorry,” he said.

“I know you are.” Shane’s eyes were kind in a way Vin hadn’t seen often. The last time had been the night Shelly came down with food poisoning and Shane had to pick her up off the bathroom floor and drive her home. “I get that you’re head over heels, but try to keep your mind on your work. If nothing else, the day will go faster.”

It was good advice, but though he pulled himself together enough to give the appearance of efficiency, Vin’s thoughts stayed stubbornly stuck on Riley. He had so many questions to ask him. They hadn’t talked much the night before, and there were five blank years to fill.

He’d swapped phone numbers with Riley, but he wasn’t sure where Riley lived. A loft apartment had been mentioned, but there were a few of those around, factory space gutted and converted into trendy living spaces. Way out of Vin’s price range, and something about them rubbed him the wrong way, like the shabby-chic, fake-distressed furniture one of his aunts went in for. He’d offered to rub down and paint a table for her, running his finger over the chips and cracked finish. She’d gaped at him for a moment, then laughed, telling him it was brand-new and she’d paid for it to look that way.

Tonight he’d be somewhere he couldn’t give in to that strong, insistent beat of arousal. They’d talk and get to know each other as adults, equals, the barriers that had seemed so impenetrable in high school thinned to nothing. Riley was still good-looking and popular, still from a rich family, but he’d come looking for Vin when he could’ve had anyone.

And how incredible was that?

Vin went through the next few hours in a daze until Patrick bumped a hip into him, jolting him out of his reverie. “Shane said—and this is a direct quote—you can push off and make yourself beautiful for lover boy. If you need help scrubbing your back, just whistle.”

“Do you ever stop flirting?”

“I’m like a shark. They stop swimming, they die.” Patrick shrugged, the faux-diamond stud in his left ear catching the light, as fake and sparkling as his charm. “I live to flirt and fuck. There something wrong with that?” He assumed a saintly look, casting his eyes down demurely. “You know I never sleep with anyone in a relationship. I do have some standards.”

“That would sound noble if you asked them if they were seeing someone before you pulled down their zipper.”

Patrick leered, losing his halo but still looking cute. “Hey, it’s a friendly fuck, not an interrogation. If they’re not honest and up front with me, that’s on them. And think about it. If I asked, they’d lie, so why spoil the moment?”

Irritated, Vin shook his head. Patrick usually amused him, but not today. He didn’t want smudges on his happiness, and Patrick was getting grubby fingerprints all over it. “Your logic is as screwed as you every Saturday night.”

“Hey, I resent that! I get screwed every night.” Patrick tapped Vin’s shoulder. “And sweetie? Leave the bitchiness to me. You truly suck at it.”

There were about a hundred different retorts Vin could have made, but the way Patrick was grating on him was throwing him off balance. It made him feel bad, it really did, because he loved Patrick. But he wasn’t sure how long Shane’s tolerance of his work being affected by Riley’s reappearance would last, so he figured he’d better take advantage of it now.

He’d texted Riley when he’d gotten confirmation Diane could take over his shift. The plan was that they were going to meet for dinner at seven at Isis. It was a restaurant usually reserved for swanky anniversary meals or people who made a hell of a lot more money than anyone Vin was friends with. He had decided after Riley suggested it that he would look on the opportunity as a chance to see how the other half lived. He was ready to play the part of someone who went places like that all the time, and he was going to enjoy it.

Vin took a quick shower, shaved, and put on his best clothes. Thank God his friends Devlin and Jeanie had gotten married earlier in the year and insisted they’d buy the wedding party’s clothes as a gift. His stint as a groomsman had earned him tailored dress slacks and a shirt he’d worried about spilling something on all night. He’d saved them as mementos of the special occasion, doubting he’d ever wear them again. Now he was grateful he had something suitable.

A quick glance in the mirror reassured him he looked okay, and he went out the back door and into the alley behind the Square Peg so he wouldn’t have to hear whatever everyone else had to say about how he looked. The drive across town to the restaurant had him fretting again. He hated that his van was so old, even though at that point he’d replaced almost everything that could break and he tried to think of it as a brand-new machine.

He parked a block away from the restaurant and checked his reflection in the mirror again out of sheer nervousness. The dragon earring that never left his ear, though the others he wore changed frequently, caught his eye. It seemed out of place somehow. Juvenile. He fingered it, the metal cool and the shape familiar. He loved dragons, enjoying any book that featured them as a child, even when the dragon was the laying-waste-to-the-neighborhood kind. They were magical, majestic, compelling. And they could fly, which would be his superpower of choice if anyone ever offered him one. He’d worked Riley’s initials into his dragon tattoo as a way of combining two of his favorite things, three if he counted getting tattooed itself.

Should he take the dangling earring out? He let his hand drop. No way. He wanted Riley to like the way he looked, but he wasn’t going to pretend to be someone different. It wasn’t his style and never had been. And why did he think Riley would want him to change? He resolved not to let insecurity ruin the night, but the walk to the restaurant was too short to calm him. His heart was beating uncomfortably fast, and he was sweating, the damp prickle defeating his antiperspirant.

“Vin! Hey, wait up.”

Vin spun around. A smiling Riley was walking toward him, raising a hand in greeting. His first thought was thankfulness that he wouldn’t have to walk into the restaurant alone, his second that he wanted to kiss Riley full on his smiling mouth.

He settled for an answering wave and, when Riley got closer, a grin. “Good timing.”

“Perfect,” Riley agreed, his gaze sweeping over Vin. “You look great. Wow.”

“Too much?”

“Black tie would’ve been too much. You’re just right.” Riley smiled. “We’re going to skip dessert, I can tell.”

With Riley’s mouth curved knowingly, Vin didn’t care if they skipped the whole meal. Riley had suggested going back to his place after they ate, and Vin knew what would happen as soon as the door closed behind them.

He plastered an inquiring look on his face. “The portions are that big?”

Riley snorted. “You know exactly why we’re skipping it.”

He gave Riley honesty in place of more teasing. “Yeah. Yeah, I do. That’s fine with me.”

“Cool. Come on. I want to show you how nice it is inside.” Riley had told Vin how he’d been to the restaurant a few times for his birthday meal with his parents, but that he’d always imagined going there on a date instead. Vin was more than happy to help fulfill his dream.

“Wow.” The understated elegance of the place made Vin lower his voice automatically. Everything was gleaming, from the wood floors to the wineglasses on the tables. The tablecloths were a rich shade of dark red, and the woman waiting at the hostess station was dressed in all black, her hair pulled back into a low ponytail and her teeth shockingly white when she smiled at them. Vin found himself wondering if it was a job requirement that employees had their teeth bleached.

“Hello, gentlemen. Welcome to Isis. Do you have a reservation?”

Vin felt a moment of panic, but Riley nodded. “We do. It should be under Wells.”

She glanced at her leather-bound book, running her finger down the entries. “Here it is. Let me show you to your table.”

Once settled and presented with menus by a waiter summoned by a subtle gesture from the hostess, Vin forgot his nerves. The menu had no prices, and half of the dishes contained ingredients he didn’t recognize or names he couldn’t pronounce with confidence, but Riley’s foot was nudging his under the table, reminding him of what was important.

“The food here is incredible.”

“It looks it.” Vin watched a waiter go by holding two plates of salad, the lettuce leaves airy, glistening with dressing. He scanned the menu. He’d been drooling over a hearts of romaine salad with coppa and shaved Grana Padano, served with a jalapeño emulsion.

Oh.

“I want to pay for this,” he blurted out.

Riley shook his head. “No way. I invited you, and I’m paying. I got a bonus last week, so this is a celebration.” Riley leaned forward, resting his elbows on the tablecloth. Vin’s mom would’ve told him off for that. “Double celebration because I get to share it with you. How about we ignore what wine goes with whatever we order and get champagne? Be rebels?”

“I don’t drink, but if you want to, sure.”

“You can have a glass with me at least,” Riley urged. “Come on, don’t be a killjoy.”

“I’m not. I never drink. I promise I’m just as much fun sober. And I’m driving anyway.”

He braced himself for Riley’s scorn or annoyance, not that he’d let it sway him, but after a long moment, Riley sighed. “You’re so different, Vin. Everyone I know, me included, gets drunk on a regular basis. Not you. Okay, how’s this? We get the most expensive sparkling water they have and pretend?”

“I love you.”

Riley stared at him, the blue of his eyes lost in the subdued lighting, the heat in them flaring bright. “And that’s different too.”

“I know I shouldn’t say it this soon. There are probably rules, like I’m supposed to wait a few months or something. There are probably rules for everything that I know nothing about. I’m gonna do this all wrong.”

Vin wished he could get himself to shut up, but he’d never managed it before now.

“Not wrong,” Riley said, shaking his head. “Different.”

“Different is sometimes bad.” Vin met Riley’s gaze steadily.

“It isn’t. It’s just different. And it’s a relief, finding out that how this dating thing works isn’t always going to be the same. I was starting to wonder.” Riley did look relieved; that made Vin feel better. “I really like you, if that’s enough.”

Which wasn’t the same as love, but it still made Vin feel warm with pleasure.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to say it back.”

Riley smiled. “I probably will. Give me a couple of weeks.” He seemed ready to continue the conversation, but their waiter came up to take their drinks orders, and by the time Riley had asked for sparkling water, Vin felt even more off balance.

“Sorry,” he said gruffly. “Not so good at this.”

“You’re fine. And I’ve never done this either, remember? We’re figuring it out together.”

“You’ve done it with girls. Lots of times.”

Riley exhaled, blowing out used air as if he were shedding a burden. “And I was faking it every second. Trying to fool myself it was working when it wasn’t. I’d kiss a girl and wait, you know? For the spark, the tingle, the heat. Never came. And mostly, neither did I.”

It was hard to keep the dryness from his voice when he remembered the swarm of girls hovering around Riley. “Mostly.”

“A blowjob with your eyes closed can do the trick.” Riley flushed, fiddling with his place setting, moving the cutlery an inch out of place, then back again. “It wasn’t what I needed.”

“That had to—”

“If you say suck…”

Laughing, Vin raised his hands. “I promise I won’t make any puns. Look, I don’t have a clue what most of this on the menu is. Help me out?”

Vin saw surprise in Riley’s eyes, but he nodded readily enough. “Sure. Break it down, and most places do pretty much the same thing. Should we start with an appetizer? Soup or salad? How about the entrée? Meat, fish, vegetarian?”

“Salad, and I’d love to see what their vegetarian options are. I do eat meat and fish when I’m out, but mostly because the options are so limited otherwise.”

“It sounds plain, but their gourmet mac and cheese is one of the things they’re known for, and there’s a black-bean chili if you like to spice it up.” Riley leaned over and pointed at it on the menu.

Vin read the description. He made chili a lot, stirring up a huge batch and freezing it in portions, but did he ever put a polenta cake at the bottom of the bowl and work in sweet-potato chips? No.

The waiter appeared with their drinks, a pleasant smile on his face. “Are you ready to order, or would you like some more time?”

Riley exchanged an inquiring glance with Vin, then answered for both of them. “We’re ready.”

Vin took a sip of his water, the bubbles bursting on his tongue, bright and cold, the slice of lime in it bobbing against his lips. He was ready to order but less than confident about what would follow the meal. Riley wouldn’t rush him, but Vin wanted to give Riley more than anyone ever had, not less.

He pushed aside his misgivings. “Live for the moment,” Patrick had told him once. Most of Patrick’s advice was suspect, but Vin could see the merits of that statement.

The food was good, but with Riley on the other side of the table, Vin had a hard time focusing on it. It was too easy to get caught up in watching the way the tines of the fork slid between Riley’s parted lips, the way Riley’s tongue occasionally made a brief appearance, and the way Riley’s throat moved when he swallowed. Vin knew there were times when he stared, but he was confident Riley didn’t mind, because their gazes met repeatedly during the meal, and finally Riley reached across and held his hand.

“Let’s get out of here,” Riley said, and Vin nodded.

The waiter handed Riley the bill without more than a flicker of a glance at Vin. That stung, but Vin’s eyesight was sharp, and he caught a glimpse of the staggering total. One meal had cost as much as his mom would spend feeding the family for the week. It’d been delicious, but was it worth it?

“Remember we were celebrating,” Riley murmured in his ear as they left.

“Yeah.” Belatedly Vin asked, “What was the bonus for? What do you do? You said you worked for your dad, and he was in construction?”

“You make it sound as if he’s a bricklayer,” Riley teased, throwing his arm around Vin’s shoulders for a hug. “What I did was put together a team for a job that got the renovation of the city museum done on time and under budget. I think it kept the museum director from being fired,” he added reflectively. “It might not sound like much, but—”

“It does.” Vin hadn’t been to the museum since a field trip in eighth grade, but he’d followed the saga of the renovation in the local paper. Two contractors had failed to meet deadlines and been replaced, and the architect had threatened to sue the city, though Vin wasn’t sure what that was all about. If Riley’s efforts had helped to resolve the money drain, Vin could see why people would be grateful. “They needed a specialist in mosaics for the wall showing the history of the city, didn’t they?”

“No-last-name Mario? He was a nightmare to handle, but a genius. Yeah, he’s one of the people I got to come on board. He has this reputation for being difficult, and he lives up to it, but if you stroke his ego the right way, he’s okay.”

“Was that all you stroked?” Vin was careful to make it a joke. Truthfully, he hated the idea of Riley getting involved with anyone in the name of work, but he didn’t want to sound jealous.

Riley hooted with laughter. “God, yes! He’s ancient. Sixty, sixty-five.” They’d been walking along the sidewalk as they chatted, heading toward the place where Vin had left his van. Riley came to a halt at a crosswalk. “My car’s down here. If I give you directions, do you want to follow me over to my place? There’s a guest parking lot around the side of the apartment building. I’ll meet you there, because otherwise you won’t be able to get in. The security’s insane. You’d think the Queen of freaking England lived there.”

Vin thought it through. If he asked to go in Riley’s car and they left his van, Riley would have to give him a ride back sooner or later. Later, with any luck, but making things more complicated was bad. “Sure,” he decided. “I’ll follow you. It’s like a test.”

“A test?” Riley sounded amused.

“Caravanning. You know, some people are easy to follow, and other people gun it through the yellow lights and leave you to run the red or be abandoned.” Vin tilted his head to the left and looked at Riley thoughtfully. “I think you’re easy.”

“As long as you mean it as a compliment,” Riley said and leaned in for a quick kiss before relaying the directions and going off to get his car.

“You weren’t kidding,” Vin said ten minutes later as they went in through the building’s side entrance.

“About the security? Yeah. It’s a nice place, though. Not as old-money as where my parents live, more new and shiny, but I like it. And the people who live above me are this old couple, so quiet it’s like the apartment is empty.” Riley pushed the elevator button and took hold of Vin’s tie to pull him closer. “You look nice, by the way. In case I didn’t mention it.”

“You did,” Vin reassured him. “But I like hearing it again. It’s not too little kid dressing up in his dad’s clothes?”

Riley made a face. “No, on so many levels.”

“I guess that did come out sounding creepy.” He would have said more, but once they were inside the elevator, Riley kissed him, the first kiss they’d shared in private all evening. The elevator paused at the next floor, the doors sliding open to reveal an empty hallway, but Vin was lost in the gentle push of Riley’s lips against him, the kiss endearingly clumsy at first, their mouths not quite lining up.

The doors closed, and Vin drew back. “Are we moving again?”

“Maybe. Don’t care.” Riley shook his head. “No, I do care. The elevator’s got security cameras in it.”

“It does? Shit.” They’d only been kissing, but Vin was hot with embarrassment at the idea of some security guard snickering over them.

“It matters because it means I can’t suck you off. Or find out how your mouth feels on me, and believe me, I’ve given it a lot of thought.”

“I don’t…” Vin’s voice trailed off as Riley pushed buttons to get them moving up again. What could he say? He’d thought about it too.

His first moments inside Riley’s apartment, instead of being spent with his mouth on Riley’s dick, were spent with his mouth hanging open as he wandered around in a daze. White carpeting? Who did that? Of course, it wasn’t like Riley had chosen it. He was kind of afraid to ask.

“And the kitchen.” Riley gestured into it. “Do you want a beer? Oh jeez, sorry, no, of course you don’t. Glass of water?”

“I’m good.” Vin took in the shining wood cabinets, the cream-colored tile floor, and the stainless steel appliances. The place was like an advertisement for rich-people housing. “Let me guess. There’s a hot tub in the bathroom.”

“No, just one of those jet tubs. Big enough for two, though.” Riley sounded puzzled by the question.

Vin ran his finger over a quartz countertop, the slick, smooth surface cool under his fingertips, free of any stickiness or crumbs. It shone with a dull luster, a blend of colors that called to mind a latte, a rich brown with swirls that picked up the shade of the floor tiles. The room—hell, probably the whole place—had been decorated as a single project, not pieced together over the years. His nose felt ticklish, as if he were coming down with something, but he thought it was the air freshener Riley used. He didn’t recognize the scent, but it was sweet and floral.

“Your home is like something in a magazine. How do you keep it looking like this?”

“I don’t. The cleaner does.” Riley leaned against the counter and folded his arms across his chest, his eyebrows lifting as he took in Vin’s involuntary grimace. “Wait, am I oppressing the huddled masses or something by having someone in to keep it looking good when I don’t have the time myself? Donna’s been my mom’s cleaner since I was twelve. She’s great. Single mom, three kids—and yes, I know their names—and she says I’m one of her best clients because I pick up after myself. Mostly.”

“I’m sorry.” Vin gestured at the apartment, trying to convey what he felt with a wave. “You’ve seen my place. You know how differently we live.”

“I’m not a freaking millionaire,” Riley said, hurt sharpening his voice. “You could afford a place like this if you had a decent job. It’s an apartment, not a house, after all, and the location’s up-and-coming, not totally gentrified. It’s a great investment, though; this area’s ripe for development.”

He might as well have been speaking Swahili.

“Right,” he said, not wanting to seem like a total idiot. “Yeah, I know. It’s kind of a surprise. I wasn’t expecting this.”

“I could show you something you’ll like,” Riley said. “How do you feel about bedrooms?”

“I like bedrooms,” Vin said and followed Riley down the hallway to a bedroom with a huge bed covered by a down comforter.

“Bathroom’s through there,” Riley said, pointing. “In case you need it. There’s another one off the living room, but it’s nice to have this one so close by.”

Vin found himself wondering how many men Riley had brought here. It wasn’t a good thing to think about, because it made him self-conscious. There had to be a hundred eligible guys who were better for Riley than he was—guys who didn’t get wide-eyed over a tour of his apartment, for one.

“I’m fine for now.”

“Yeah?” Riley scratched his nose, his color rising. “Will it kill the mood if I admit I’m nervous? I’ve usually been drunk when I’ve done this. Not falling-over, puking-my-guts-up drunk, but—” He stopped, took a deep breath, and scratched his nose again, hard enough to redden the skin. “Listen to me babble. It’s always been quick and impersonal before this. Not that there were all that many times, but doing it in the club, or back at their place, both of us tanked up, well, it took the edge off. Now I’m in my own place, with you, and it’s different. It matters. And I’m freaking out on the inside in case the way I can’t shut up isn’t enough of a clue.”

“We don’t have to do anything but talk.” It was crazy how happy it made him to know he was the first man Riley had brought back here. “Get to know each other better.”

“But we do know each other,” Riley said. “That’s the point. I know who you are, and I’ve known you for years. You can’t bullshit me you’re someone you’re not, because I know the truth. Not that you would. You never pulled that kind of crap. In school, everyone put up this wall, all glitz and shine, and hid behind it, but you were out in the open, wearing as much black as they’d let you get away with. You were honest. I can trust you. And if you think I want to talk more than I want to have sex, sorry to disappoint you, but I’m all talked out.”

That left Vin spinning theories and scenarios to account for the value Riley placed on being honest and trustworthy. They were good qualities, sure, but guys their age were usually more interested in less sterling attributes.

According to Patrick, big dicks and staying power were high on the list.

Questions would have to wait. Riley had talked himself back into being confident and assured, and Vin had no difficulty interpreting the gleam in his eyes. Time to push his self-doubt aside and get with the program. It wasn’t that hard to do. He’d enjoyed the night before, and this would be so much better.

Silence falling, they undressed, their gazes locked, the heat building with every piece of clothing that hit the floor. Vin palmed his cock, the familiarity of his hand on it reassuring him, and took a step forward, moving his hand to wrap it around Riley’s erection, comparing the subtle differences in thickness and feel.

Riley tilted his head and bit at Vin’s neck, the scrape of his teeth making Vin shudder in reaction. “Yeah. Like that. You’re so fucking hot.”

Vin was going to come soon, but he’d be ready to go again almost right away. “You’re the one who’s hot. You’re amazing. Would you lie down so I can look at you?”

“As long as you’re planning on doing something more than just looking sooner or later.” Riley tugged down the covers and lay on the bed, displaying himself for Vin to drink in.

Riley had wide shoulders with a dusting of freckles across them, a flat stomach with a hint of a six-pack, and a narrow waist. His pubic hair was a blond cloud that made Vin’s fingers itch to stroke it to find out if it was as soft as it looked. He groaned when Vin got on the bed, his cock jerking as if eager for a caress.

“Shh,” Vin said. “I’ll get there.”

He leaned in and kissed Riley’s hip—not his cock, not yet—before sliding his hand down along Riley’s inner thigh. Riley trembled. “Touch me.”

“I am touching you,” Vin said, unfairly. He knew Riley didn’t mean being touched on the knee or having the arch of his foot stroked, but Vin needed to learn Riley’s body. He needed to remind himself, as Riley had, that they did know each other.

He’d watched porn, jerked off, fantasized, but it’d all been so two-dimensional compared to the reality. Touching himself didn’t come close to the thrill of dragging his hand over Riley’s thigh and feeling the muscles flex, the strength under the smooth skin. And the images fucking so mechanically on his computer screen, muttering scripted words of encouragement, didn’t carry the smell of an aroused man to him with every breath. Riley’s scent, unique, so intimate shared this way, made Vin want to go to the source. He ran his tongue over the crease of skin at the top of the thigh he caressed, and nuzzled into that pale fuzz of hair.

The quick rise and fall of Riley’s chest was as eloquent as any loud cries for more.

“Vin, don’t be a fucking cock-tease.” Riley sounded irritated. “If you don’t want to blow me, jerk me off.”

Vin sat back on his heels, jolted out of his enjoyment. “Are we on a deadline here? What’s the rush?”

“It’s sex. You don’t have to make it last. I get off; you get off. It feels as good if it takes five minutes or fifty.”

In Vin’s experience, limited though it was to jerking off, that wasn’t true. Sometimes, sure, he’d been so turned on he’d barely wrapped his hand around his cock before he’d come, the pleasure intense, but he’d learned to spin a session out, rocking into the loose grip of his curved fingers, playing with his balls until they were so sensitized the scrape of a fingernail had him moaning.

Coming after that had left him sprawled across his bed staring blankly at the ceiling.

“I couldn’t make it to fifty, not with you, but we haven’t even gotten to five.”

Riley threw his arm up over his eyes and groaned. It wasn’t a good groan. “I’m such an asshole.”

“No, you’re not.” Vin hesitated, then pulled Riley’s arm away from his face. “You’re not. A little impatient, but under the circumstances I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to be.”

“I’m rushing you.”

“Kind of.” There were times when Vin hated that he always had to be so honest. “I’ve never done this. I waited a long time, you know? I don’t want to turn around and wonder how it all happened so fast. I want to remember all of it.”

Riley rolled toward him and brushed warm lips over his thigh. “Ignore me. I don’t want you to look back and think how it could have been so great except I was pushing you into stuff you weren’t ready for.”

“I’m ready,” Vin assured him. “Take some deep breaths. I promise you won’t still be lying here tomorrow morning wondering when the hell I’m going to get you off.”

Sitting up, Riley kissed him, hand sliding to grasp Vin’s cock. He squeezed gently, and Vin exhaled against Riley’s lips. “I have an idea,” Riley whispered. “Lie down like this. Don’t do anything you don’t want to. Just try it.”

Vin lay on his side, facing Riley’s cock. It was flushed with blood, eager for him, and the skin looked so soft he had to touch it. He would have done more without prompting, but Riley’s mouth closed wetly over the tip of his cock, delicious hot suction that had him moving to do the same.

Riley, like Vin, was uncut, but Riley’s foreskin had folded down to expose the cleft head of his cock. The narrow slit yielded a taste that spread over Vin’s questing tongue and filled his mouth, a bitter saltiness.

Eager now, any hesitation gone, he shifted on the bed and got a grunt of protest from Riley as his knee struck Riley’s chest. He drew back and murmured an apology that received no response. Talking was evidently not going to happen, and given what Riley was doing with his mouth, Vin couldn’t complain.

He settled down, moving with a care that robbed his arousal of its edge. Just as well after all his talk about taking things slowly.

Once Riley’s cock was in Vin’s mouth, Riley took it as a signal all systems were go. Vin choked, gagging as Riley pumped his hips fast, sending his cock too deep for Vin to deal with comfortably. His mouth filled with saliva, some trickling out onto his cheek and then to the comforter. Vin tried to work his hand into a position where he could wipe his face, but, lying on his side, Riley still fucking his mouth with short, forceful stabs, it wasn’t easy.

Riley sucked Vin’s cock harder, and it was like his tongue was everywhere at once. It felt too good. Vin tried to focus on the slide of Riley’s shaft between his lips and how to find a rhythm for his breathing that went along with Riley’s thrusts. That worked for twenty seconds or so. After that, nothing he thought about could have postponed the inevitable. He couldn’t even warn Riley, not with his mouth full of cock. His first time sucking cock.

That was the thought that pushed him over the edge, his climax violent and fast and not totally enjoyable because he was trying not to choke. Riley swallowing around his cock, fingertips on his balls teasing him as Vin moaned with relief and pleasure.

“Gonna come,” Riley muttered against his thigh a few moments later. “God, Vin.”

Slick, faintly bitter fluid pulsed into Vin’s mouth. He did his best not to gag, but it was a close thing. He pulled away before Riley was finished and made himself swallow, then wiped a hand across his mouth.

It didn’t taste pleasant. Was it supposed to? Spitting it out seemed rude, but it had definitely been his first instinct. He ran his tongue over his teeth and swallowed a few times, trying to wash the taste down.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Sure.” His nose was running. Vin sniffed and gave up on looking cool. “Uh, you said there was a bathroom?”

“Through there. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Vin hesitated. He couldn’t kiss Riley. Not with his lips coated with spit and cum. He didn’t want to inflict that on Riley, and he didn’t want to taste a similar mixture on Riley’s lips. He settled for patting Riley’s leg reassuringly and slid off the bed.

After taking a piss and swilling his mouth out, followed by washing his face, he felt better. He studied his reflection, checking for stray globs or food stuck between his teeth, but he seemed to be okay. Strands of black hair, long enough to fall past his shoulders, clung to his wet face, and he used a thick white towel to dry off.

His cock was damp too, and he cupped his hand under the faucet and rinsed his dick clean. Using the towel to dry it left him searching for a hamper. He was still looking when Riley knocked on the door.

“Come in!” Flustered, the towel still in his hand, Vin opened the door as Riley reached for the handle. They didn’t collide, but they ended up with not much space between them.

Riley gave him a quizzical look. “Not the cuddling type? I’m not either, but I know some guys go in for it, and I kind of thought you’d be one of them.”

“It’s not that so much. Just adjusting. You know. Everything’s kind of new, and I guess I needed a minute.” Vin knew he sounded like an idiot, and his legs were trembling. “I wouldn’t mind lying down, though.”

“Yeah, of course. Come on.” Solicitous, Riley led him back to the bed and slid in next to him, flipping the covers up. “At the risk of being annoying, how’re you feeling?”

“I’m okay.” Vin wasn’t annoyed; he appreciated Riley’s concern. “I promise. A little overwhelmed.”

“Is there anything I can do? I could get you a glass of water. Or tea? I think I have tea.” Riley was already moving to get up.

Vin caught hold of his wrist. “I don’t want tea. Stay here and keep me company.”

Lying down again, Riley shifted into a more comfortable position on his side and rested a hand on Vin’s hip. It felt nice there. Warm.

“Stay the night,” Riley murmured into his ear, following it with a kiss. “It’s not late. We can watch a movie or play a game. Whatever you want. Or we could just stay here.”

Vin had the early shift, but for the most part his job involved late nights or late mornings. The pub opened at eleven, and unless a delivery was expected, living on the premises meant he could usually sleep to a decent hour. After the fire that had come close to destroying the bar, Shane and Ben both got antsy when no one was around overnight, but this once wouldn’t matter; Vin was sure of it. Full of good food, his nerve endings still humming pleasantly, he didn’t want to dress and exchange companionship for solitude.

“Sure. Sounds great. Sleeping over, I mean.” Would he snore? Did he snore? The last time Vin had shared a bed was at a sleepover at his cousin’s house, and he’d been ten.

Riley traced the tattoo on Vin’s left shoulder, dark, slashing lines and curves making a dramatic statement. “This had to hurt.”

“In a good way.” Vin didn’t want to talk about his ink, not when Riley’s ambivalence was clear. “Do you have to get up early tomorrow?”

“God, yes. Dad insists we’re there before everyone else. Setting an example. It’s a good idea unless I’m hungover, in which case it sucks.”

“Does that happen a lot?” Vin wasn’t judgmental about people drinking—that would have made him a hypocrite, considering where he worked—but he was curious.

“What, me being hungover?” Riley shrugged with one shoulder. “Not really. Sometimes, I guess. I don’t keep track. What’s it like working at the bar?”

“There’s a lot less drama than you’d think, with all the alcohol and all the pretty gay boys.” Vin tugged the pillow under his head, then stroked his fingertips over Riley’s chest. “But most of them are watching their calorie intake, so there aren’t very many nights when we have to break up arguments or anything.”

“Benefits of working at a gay bar over a straight one.”

“I guess. We were closed down for such a long time after the fire, months and months, and I picked up some part-time work in other bars around town, filling in for people. Totally different feel to them. I had to listen to jerks making comments about gays and not tell them they were assholes the way I would if I’d been in the Peg.”

“Your bosses would back you up?”

Vin nodded. “All the way. Straight people are welcome, but any sign of trouble and they’re kicked out. Shane doesn’t mess around. He’s not big, but he’s tough, and he’s got this way of staring at people he doesn’t like that makes their balls shrivel. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard.” He grinned. “It could be a rumor he planted.”

“So you were there the night of the fire?”

Smoke curling through the air, panicked voices, and the stink of the ashes the next day added up to a horrible memory. Vin didn’t trust himself to talk about it without ranting, so he settled for another nod.

“It must have sucked.” Riley rubbed his back with gentle strokes. “No, I can tell. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“Good. I don’t know if I can. Not right now. Another time.” He didn’t have the emotional energy. At the risk of being accused of snuggling, Vin hitched himself closer to Riley until his mouth was pressed against Riley’s collarbone. “You smell nice.”

“Yeah? You too.”

They lay together chatting and cuddling for an hour or so, then watched the TV in the bedroom for a while. When it got to midnight, Riley turned off the TV and asked, “You’re still staying? Because I think I’d better get some sleep.”

Was that a hint he should go? Vin hesitated, but he was warm in bed beside Riley, and he wanted to spend the night, waking to hear Riley breathing, close enough to touch. “If you don’t mind.”

“You’re the one who should mind. It’s my alarm clock that’ll be waking you up at six thirty. And I’ll warn you now, I’m not a morning person.” Yawning, Riley reached to turn off the light, then adjusted the covers before settling down again. “Need anything?”

“No. I’m good.” Right then, Vin had everything he needed.

Chapter Four

“This movie always makes me cry.” Patrick dabbed a finger under his eye and caught what Vin was sure was an imaginary teardrop. Patrick with mascara was mundane; Patrick with black streaks on his face was unthinkable.

Elf is supposed to be funny,” Vin pointed out, still wondering why they were watching it.

Patrick was wearing skintight red jeans with gold glitter worked into the fabric so it shimmered when he moved. He’d topped it with a forest-green cropped sweater. The huge, rolled neck made him look like a baby bird poking its head over the side of the nest, looking for a worm delivery. It was his way of announcing the start of the festive season, though it was only the first of December.

Vin’s mother, Maria, had amended the Christmas traditions she was used to, adding in anything that was important to her husband, but Vin had been brought up with the celebrations—Las Posadas—starting on December the sixteenth. Maria had hung a piñata for her children to strike with sticks until it cracked, candy and small gifts showering over the floor. She’d stopped doing it when Vin, the youngest, protested he was too grown up, a patient hurt in her eyes that made him regret his words.

“It’s a tragedy, and it doesn’t know it.” Patrick sighed. “Next week, you get to choose what we watch. No more sad ones. Explosions that knock drool-worthy men out of their shirts. Porn. Anything with Matt Damon.” He tilted his head inquiringly, increasing his resemblance to a bird. “Unless you’re going to cancel our date to spend a few hours making big eyes at wonder boy?”

The weekly standing date with Patrick to watch movies, eat popcorn, and bitch about life was part of Vin’s routine. There was no specific day for it; it was arranged for whatever night they both had the evening free, but the idea of canceling it because he had Riley in his life now was ridiculous, and he told Patrick so.

“Hmm.” Patrick tossed a piece of popcorn up and caught it in his mouth, snapping his small white teeth triumphantly. “Girl, I’ve heard that before.”

“Not from me,” Vin said.

“Doesn’t matter. We’re men; we’re all wired the same. Opportunity for sex comes along, all bets are off.” Patrick was blinking his eyes fast, personality turned up to maximum volume, but he sounded serious.

“Not me.” But Vin wanted to be honest, so he added, “Don’t get me wrong. I like sex as much as the next guy, but going so long without it makes it seem a little less vital.”

“Less vital?” Patrick sounded scandalized at the idea. “You aren’t a newbie, honey. You’re insane.”

“I survived without it.”

“But now you’ve had it—had him—and you’re not pawing at the ground, zipper permanently down?”

“Jesus, no. What is wrong with you? You worry me sometimes. You’re hung up on sex, and it’s not all there is to a relationship. But how would you know? You’ve never had one that lasted.” Vin drummed his fingers on the arm of the couch he was sharing with Patrick, shoulder muscles tensing when Patrick sucked in an outraged breath. Patrick had nagged him about not getting laid, but Vin’s refusal to consider it had ended the conversation easily enough. Now that Vin was with someone, he expected approval, not an increase in the nagging.

It didn’t seem fair.

“Sorry. Guess you touched a nerve.” His words smacked into a wall of stony silence. That worried him. Shane had once said when Patrick stopped talking, it meant one of three things—he was pissed off, eating, or sucking dick.

Make that two things,” Shane had added reflectively.

Patrick sat still, frozen, his expression hard to read.

“I’m sorry,” Vin repeated.

“I thought you liked me.” Patrick picked at the toe of his green-striped sock.

“I do. You know I do—you’re my best friend.” There’d been times he’d wondered if something more might come of it, but Patrick wanted the kind of guy he was always chasing after, not someone like Vin. Even though Vin had been trying to reassure Patrick, he couldn’t help adding, “I don’t like how obsessed you are with sex.”

“I can’t help it. We aren’t all as lucky as you—waiting years for Prince Charming; then he turns up, and he’s not just tall and handsome and miraculously gay, he’s rich and nice to you.” Patrick gave a wistful sigh, then glanced at Vin. “He is, right? Nice to you?”

“Yeah. He is.” Nice enough that after a month he was still patiently waiting for Vin to decide he was ready to bottom. Riley had offered to let Vin fuck him, which had been the experience of a lifetime. Pushing inside Riley’s hot, tight body had been a revelation in sensual bliss. Vin had come almost immediately, but Riley had encouraged him to keep thrusting slowly, and he’d discovered he could stay hard and go a second time. Riley had loved it, hands clutching Vin’s ass as he climaxed. There had even been a quiet “Love—” that could have meant anything and hadn’t been repeated.

“I’m glad. You deserve him.” Patrick made it sound like condolences were in order.

Vin’s irritation fled. He grabbed on to Patrick’s sleeve and pulled him closer, then slung an arm around his shoulders. Riley sometimes stiffened when Vin did that to him, just for a moment, but Patrick snuggled in without hesitation, yielding, pliant. A tingle of pleasure warmed Vin, followed by a pang of guilt that he shook off along with the tingle. It didn’t mean anything, the way it would with another guy. He was making something out of nothing. It was Patrick. He snuggled up to everyone, like an affection-starved puppy, and he was Vin’s best friend. Nothing wrong with hugging your BFF. “Hey, come on. I’m sure your dream guy is waiting right around the corner.”

“Is that your way of implying I hang out on street corners?” Patrick tossed his head. “I’m more of a toy boy than a rent boy. An expensive toy boy.”

“I’m not even going to answer that.” Vin put both arms around Patrick and hugged him tight, the soft, wispy strands of angora making his nose itch. Patrick smelled like candy canes. Vin hoped it was from peppermint body lotion, not the flavored red-and-white-striped condoms Patrick had shown him earlier. He’d offered Vin one, but Vin had shaken his head. Riley would’ve thought they were tacky, not funny.

He drew back, fighting a sneeze.

“Or maybe I’m a boy toy,” Patrick mused, tapping his lip with his finger and miraculously not smudging the gloss that had survived three wine coolers and a bucket of popcorn. “What’s the difference?”

“Beats me. But you’re neither. You’re a guy who wants to have fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

It wasn’t how Vin wanted his life to be, but that didn’t make it a bad choice for Patrick. Just not the best choice.

“Now I’ve got Cyndi stuck in my head,” Patrick complained.

“Don’t try to pretend that’s a bad thing. And don’t change the subject.”

Patrick blew a raspberry. “I don’t remember what the subject was anymore. That’s the whole point of conversation. I talk, you talk, we take a nice little journey together. Come on, you’re distracting me from the wonder that is Will Ferrell.” Patrick turned his attention back to the TV, and Vin guessed they were done talking about their sex lives. Not forever, since in ten minutes they’d start again, but for now that ship had sailed.

Probably for the best.

They watched the movie for a while in comfortable silence. Then Patrick asked, “You working tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I wouldn’t be, but I swapped shifts with Joss. You?”

“Hmm.”

“Does that mean yes or no?”

Patrick’s contacts were lettuce green tonight. Staring at them as he suffered through a long, pitying look made Vin think of salads, which made him think of restaurants, which took him back to his first date with Riley.

All roads led to Riley these days. That should’ve been proof that Vin was going the right way, but now and then he found himself wondering what would’ve happened if he’d gotten together with Riley in high school. Would they be here, together, or would— No. They were meant for each other. He loved Riley, always had, always would. There were no bends in the road, no corners he couldn’t see around. He was running toward a happy ever after, just the way he’d imagined it.

“It means yes, I’ll be there to hold your hand in case we get a customer who wants a cocktail.”

His professional pride smarting, Vin retorted, “I can mix drinks as well as you!”

“Yeah, but you blush when they ask you for a Slow Comfortable Screw. I swear they do it to see you go red, because no one in their right mind wants to mix sloe gin with anything.”

“I’ve seen you drink weirder.”

Patrick flapped his hand. “Meh, I was drunk,” he said, as if it were a valid excuse instead of a frosting of nonsense on a crazy cupcake. “Speaking of which, now that you’re off the celibacy train heading for hairy palms and blindness, except we all know that’s not true, what about easing back on the not-drinking, body-a-temple thing? Christmas is coming. Nog your egg.”

“Gross.” Vin was talking about the phrasing, not the idea, though Patrick wouldn’t realize that. “You’re dying to get me drunk so you can laugh at me.”

“I wouldn’t laugh,” Patrick protested. “Well, maybe a little, but no. I want you to loosen up, have a good time. You’re as entitled as the rest of us. More.”

“I’m not more entitled than anyone else.” Where this argument had come from, Vin didn’t know, but Patrick wasn’t getting away with saying stuff like that. “And even if I was, what does entitlement have to do with drinking?”

“It’s not about the drinking. It’s about what denying yourself the drinking is a symbol of. Like you don’t think you deserve to have a good time.”

“Do you hear the things that are coming out of your mouth? That’s crazy! You genuinely think people who have self-worth feel entitled to drink?” Vin was on the verge of laughing over how ridiculous this conversation was.

“No. I mean… Gah, I don’t know what I mean.” Patrick dropped his face into his hands. “It made sense until I started trying to explain it.”

“Maybe that’s where you went wrong.”

Patrick gave him an uncertain smile. “I do that a lot, but you never seem to mind me screwing up the way other people do.”

“Who are we talking about here?” The kicked-kitten expression was exaggerated—Patrick used it too often for it to be effective—but genuine hurt lay behind the facade. That made Vin’s protective instincts kick in big-time. “If someone’s hassling you, tell me.”

Patrick’s head drooped. “Just people in general, no one in particular. You were talking about shifts, and I was thinking how many of them I do these days now that I’m not working at the clubs.” He sighed. “Miss that.”

Vin winced. As a DJ at raves, Patrick had been phenomenal, his choice in music unerring, his rapport with the crowd bringing the energy of the room up until not dancing was close to impossible. Unfortunately, his equipment had been repossessed after he’d failed to keep up the payments, and he was too much of a diva to work at places with their own sound systems where he was handed a set list and warned not to deviate from it.

According to my mom, I am a deviant. I wasn’t a good boy for her, so I don’t see me walking the straight and narrow line for you,” he’d reportedly told the owner of one of the biggest clubs in the area before stalking out, blacklisted.

Of course, it’d been Patrick telling the story, flushed with nervous exhilaration that’d faded to bleak depression. He’d covered it with his usual froth of smiles and flirting, but Vin had guessed the loss of something he loved doing had left Patrick in a slump. And that his exit had been less triumphant than he claimed.

“You know if people are giving you a hard time at the bar, all you have to do is say the word, and Shane will ban them. Heck, Ben will ban them.”

That was saying something. While there was a hint of cold steel in Ben’s eyes at times that gave Vin the chills when he saw it, Shane was the one who ruled the Square Peg, the one they could count on to throw out anyone who got too drunk or had too much attitude.

“Only if I was someone else. Anyone else. Shane cuts everybody slack but me.”

Vin refrained from pointing out Patrick wasn’t the hardest worker at the bar. “Are you on crack? Shane doesn’t cut anyone slack.”

“That rhymes.” Patrick looked impressed.

“Whatever. It’s not about that, and you know it. If something’s going on, you have to tell them.”

“Nothing’s going on.” Patrick picked up his nearly empty wine cooler, then set it back down without drinking from it. “We’re supposed to be watching the movie, not having you play amateur psychologist.”

“Not doing that. Just trying to be a friend.” Vin grinned. “We’re gay. We’re allowed to talk about our emotions. Hell, it’s a requirement.”

“Way to enforce stereotypes.” Patrick threw back his head. “Gah. I feel so unnecessary. They could replace me at the bar in a heartbeat, and when I dropped that bottle of vodka the other day, I could almost see Shane thinking I’d given him a great reason to fire me.”

“If he did, for something as nothing as that, I’d walk too.”

“And lose this place along with your job?” Patrick’s eyebrows, plucked so they slanted up at the edges, adding to the elfin look, rose skeptically. “We’re friends, but I don’t expect you to go that far for me.”

Half regretting his words but knowing Shane would never be that unfair, Vin said, “Well, I would. But they won’t, ever, so I get to sound loyal and heroic without taking any risks.”

Patrick stuck out a tongue the cooler had turned a deeper pink. “I’m rubbing off on you. That almost sounded cynical.”

“And I need you for lots of stuff,” Vin continued, trying hard to come up with an example. Inspiration struck. “Tell me how to swallow.”

“Excuse me?” Patrick looked in need of a lesson in that himself, sputtering his drink and leaving his sweater dotted with bright red drops of raspberry-and-lime cooler. “Swallow? We’re talking blowjobs?”

Vin smiled. It wasn’t often he saw Patrick disconcerted and never when the topic was sex. Why something as basic as a BJ had flustered him, Vin didn’t know. “Sure. Tips, hints, anything you’ve got. Riley hasn’t complained, but—”

“He’d better not complain!” Patrick sat upright, color flushing his cheeks. “Mooning over him cost you the best years of your life, and if he doesn’t appreciate that, he’s an asshole.”

“None of that was his fault. Except the part where he was the hottest guy I’d ever seen who was nice to me.” Vin hoped getting Patrick to talk about blowjobs would overshadow all the other stuff they’d been talking about. “Anyway, I swallowed once, but it was kind of gross.” He felt bad saying it, but it was true.

“What did you do the other times?” Patrick leaned back on the couch.

“Once I, um, spat it out.” Now he was the one blushing. “And the other times I moved at the last second. I’m getting good at that.”

“Some guys don’t taste nice,” Patrick said, pulling a reminiscent face. “There’s stuff you can try to make it taste better. Pineapple juice is supposed to help, and I think cutting out meat and dairy, but that’s crazy talk. What about mouthwash?”

Vin winced. “On his dick? Wouldn’t that be painful?”

“Probably.” Patrick snickered and shoved Vin with his foot. “Not on his dick, in your mouth. Before or after. Or both.”

“Umm. Maybe. It just seems premeditated. Sex shouldn’t be planned and organized. Right? More…” He sketched out a wave. “Unstructured?”

“I would never knock a wham-bam fuck against a wall, but sometimes it’s fun to set the scene, get in a few props, make sure you know where the handcuff keys are, that kind of thing.”

Visions of dungeons swam through Vin’s head. He couldn’t add Patrick to the picture without wanting to laugh. Possibly because in his mind, Patrick was decked out in pink leather straps and holding a feather duster. “Handcuffs? Tell me you’re joking.”

“I don’t go in for the whips-and-chains scene in a big way, but I know someone—someones who does. Do. Whatever.” Patrick gave Vin a meaningful nod and a wink.

Curiosity warred with a genuine dislike of gossip. People’s personal lives deserved to stay that way. “I don’t want to know.”

Patrick eyed him tolerantly. “You so do. You just know you’ll hate yourself afterward. Never mind. Back to the BJs. It’s an acquired taste. So acquire it. Practice on yourself.”

“Excuse me?”

“Jerk off, catch some, and take a lick,” Patrick said. “Don’t wait too long. It’s truly disgusting cold. It goes kind of jellified.”

Okay, that was the last time he asked Patrick’s advice about sex. “Oh my God. Stop. Please.”

“Poor honey.” Patrick patted his knee. “You’re still kind of a virgin.”

“Not just ‘kind of,’” Vin muttered without thinking about how that would sound. Patrick’s eyes went wide. “Okay, okay, don’t freak. We’ve had sex; I just haven’t bottomed. Doesn’t that make me still a virgin?”

“If it did, most straight guys would be virgins forever, no matter how many women they banged,” Patrick pointed out. “You’re not a virgin, and I’ve met plenty of men who never bottomed. Do you want to bottom?”

“Sure.” Vin shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think about it all that much. Should I?”

“Should you think about it? Yes. Should you bottom? That’s up to you, but you know what they say: how will you know if you like it if you’ve never even tried it?”

The movie had ended, and the credits were playing. Patrick shut off the TV and tossed the remote aside. “Has he ever been someone’s first time? Because trust me, you want someone who knows what they’re doing, or it’s not going to be a good experience.”

“I don’t know,” Vin said. “It’s not something we discuss a lot. I don’t want to know what he did with other guys.”

“Or girls,” Patrick said. Vin choked, and Patrick clicked his tongue. “What? You said he used to date them. We don’t own ass fucking, you know.”

“Yes, I know!” Vin picked at a small hole in his jeans, enlarging it without caring.

The conversation was depressing him now, Patrick’s acid-tipped barbs puncturing his happiness and letting reality ooze in. “I think with most of the girls he dated it never went far. And since he came out, well, sometimes I think he hasn’t done much more than me. I guess I should ask him, but he might think I’m some possessive freak who’s going to hunt down all his dates and beat them up or something.”

Patrick hooted, genuine amusement making him look younger. “Vin, no one would ever go there with you. You’re the most levelheaded, centered man I know. You’re a rock of sanity.”

“I am?”

“Absolutely. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Shane let you have his apartment, for God’s sake! He sure as hell didn’t offer it to me.”

“Shane didn’t want to move back in here after the reno. He liked staying at Ben’s too much.” It was mostly true.

“That too,” Patrick conceded. “Look, talk to Riley, okay? It’s not as weird as you’re making it out to be, and you’ll feel better. And I’ll feel better, which we both know is more important.”

“Thanks. Your sympathy is overwhelming.”

The shrug he got told him Patrick was getting bored. “It’s a dick up your ass. Tell him to use a pint of lube and take his time.”

“I know all that.” Vin gave an involuntary wriggle, warmth spreading through him. God, that first time fucking Riley had felt incredible. He’d loved the way the tight hole had yielded, taking his fingers, then his cock, with Riley’s breathing harsh and loud in the silent room. “I’ve fucked him, after all.”

“Ooh, you didn’t tell me that.” He had Patrick’s interest again, fake-green eyes lit up and sparkling. “Details?”

Enough was enough. “No. It’s private. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

“Well, you’re no fun.” Patrick gave him a speculative glance. “So when do I get to meet him? Officially, I mean, not just a nod and a hi in passing when he picks you up after work.”

“Meet him?” Vin repeated. “Uh, soon, sure. Sometime.”

Patrick sniffed. “I’m not good enough for your rich, handsome boyfriend? Too slutty? Too cheap?”

“No.” He said it without emphasis. It was the truth. It didn’t need dressing up. “We go can clubbing this weekend after we close, if he’s up for it. Got to be honest, though; I don’t see you having much in common.”

Patrick ate one last piece of popcorn before replying. “Yeah, we do. We both love you, don’t we?” He stood and bestowed a careless kiss on the top of Vin’s head. “Night, sweetie. Need my beauty sleep.”

Bewildered at the abrupt end to the evening, Vin trailed after him to the door, getting a final glittering smile, all Patrick’s walls up.

He closed the door and leaned his head against it, groaning. Shit. Patrick and Riley together? Think gasoline and a lit match. Throw in alcohol and a crowd already in a holiday mood, and it was going to get wild.

Vin straightened, a grin on his face as he focused on the positives. Dancing with Riley. Showing him off to the world. Having some fucking fun.

Wild? He could do wild.

Chapter Five

“Go,” Ben said, making shooing motions. “Now. I’m not kidding.”

“Are you sure?” Vin repeated, but Patrick was already tugging at his sleeve.

“If you ask me that again, I won’t be.” Ben was smiling; he was such a good-natured guy. Sure, he could be a hard-ass about certain things, but overall he was a lot more easygoing than Shane. “Don’t worry. I can handle Shane.”

Vin didn’t doubt that. “Okay. Thanks. Leave whatever you don’t want to deal with, and I’ll come in before the early shift tomorrow to take care of it.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

With anyone else, Vin would’ve assumed that wasn’t meant seriously, but Ben said what he meant and he meant what he said. Vin smoothed his hand over the tight black T-shirt he wore, checking for dampness. A customer had spilled his drink—luckily club soda—and in the resultant rush to mop it up, Vin had gotten splashed. The T-shirt was stretch, a watered-silk pattern making it take the light well, and it was sleeveless, showing off his ink. It had gotten a low whistle of approval from Patrick, and even Dave, taciturn as ever, had winked at him.

Vin didn’t worry it was too much. Not where they were going. He’d seen men on the dance floor in nothing but posing pouches. His black leather pants were cut to show off his ass, and his boots—also black leather—were kinky hot, according to Patrick, but he wasn’t going to stand out in a bad way.

He’d been nervous about the restaurant on his first date with Riley, but he knew all the clubs, and he fit in, welcomed, known. He wanted to be with Riley in a place where they could be themselves. It was going to be great.

His anticipatory smile faded as they walked to his van. He’d arranged to pick Riley up and be the DD for the night, but even an hour spent cleaning the van couldn’t disguise the fact it was rust held together with string. Literally in the case of the front bumper. And Riley’s eagerness to go to a club had lessened when he’d discovered Patrick was joining them.

I’d seen him around before we met up again,” Riley had said flatly. “I didn’t know he was a friend of yours then, or that he worked with you. He’s got a reputation for being kind of a slut, you know.

He’s a good guy,” Vin had said. “That’s all that matters to me. Give him a chance.” He’d kept his tone mild, and Riley had grudgingly agreed. Still, it was the kind of comment that got under Vin’s skin, and he was sure it wouldn’t be the last time they talked about it.

Patrick was bouncing next to him, uninhibited and frenetic as if he were on the dance floor. “Are you sure you don’t want to drink? Not that I don’t appreciate that you’re always willing to be the sober friend, but it could be a whole new experience for you, and at least you’d know you’ll be going home with your responsible boyfriend.”

“Responsible?” It wasn’t a word Vin associated with Riley.

“Yeah, you know. Good job—better than ours, anyway. He has to dress up to go to work. Plus he has a nice apartment, nice car, money in the bank. Face it. He’s a catch.”

“I don’t get how any of that makes him responsible.” Vin wasn’t arguing. “Out of my league, maybe.”

“No one’s out of your league.” Patrick gave him a reproving look before they shut their doors, the passenger side one squeaking loudly. “I mean, if you got drunk, he’d take care of you. Make sure no one took advantage of you, and put a cold cloth on the back of your neck while you were throwing up. That kind of thing.”

“You do realize this conversation is making me even more determined never to drink?” Vin asked.

“There’s the good bit in the middle where you feel confident—hell, brilliant. You shine.”

Vin reached over and nudged him affectionately. “You don’t need alcohol for that. Your T-shirts do the job all by themselves.”

“Do you think I’d have the guts to flirt with the men I want if I was sober? No.”

Okay, that was worrying. “Patrick—”

“Moving on, who’s riding shotgun? Do I have to ride in back when Ri-Ri gets in?”

“Don’t call him that. And, um, would you? It’d make it easier. He’s taller than you. He’d be bumping his head every time I hit a pothole.”

The van had two doors. To get to the bench seat in the back, the front seats had to be folded down. It wasn’t ideal.

“Fine.” Patrick’s pout was epic, but when they pulled up outside Riley’s apartment and Riley came out of the lobby, waving a greeting, he sighed and got into the back, even pulling the front seat up to save Riley the task.

“I was starting to think you’d be late,” Riley said, shutting the door.

“I’m never late,” Vin said.

“I know! That’s why it was a joke.” Riley leaned over to kiss him, and Vin went along with it even though he wasn’t sure how he felt about PDA in front of Patrick.

“Hey,” Riley said grudgingly into the backseat.

“Hi,” Patrick said, reaching out a hand like a queen to a subject. Riley shook it after a hesitation so brief Vin hoped he was the only one who had noticed it. “I’m Patrick Embry. I’ve heard so much about you. I feel like I could write a biography.”

Riley shot Vin a look of sheer panic.

“Now he’s joking,” Vin reassured him.

“I am. Sorry. Vin says you’re great. That’s all I meant.”

If nothing else, Vin thought, the conversation kept Riley distracted from the rough rumble of the van’s exhaust system, loud as hell when they were idling. Patrick made a valiant effort to draw Riley out, and Riley responded without letting himself relax.

It was a relief to get out of the van, even though an icy shower earlier had left the sidewalk slick. Patrick automatically slipped his hand under Vin’s arm, chattering away. It was so familiar to have Patrick use him as a source of body heat that Riley’s meaningful grimace didn’t register at first.

Oh. Right. Unwilling to shrug Patrick off, he gave Riley the sweetest smile he could and put his arm around Riley’s shoulders. “Anyone else feel like we should start singing ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’?”

Patrick snorted with laughter. “Well, clearly I’m Dorothy.”

“And I’m the Tin Man. Except I found my heart now, I guess.” As soon as the words were out there, Vin felt a blush burning his face. Shit, how sentimental and sappy could he get?

“And I’m Toto,” Riley said with a growl that didn’t sound like an attempt to get into his role. “Couldn’t we have parked any closer? I’m freezing.”

“It’s right around the corner.” They were there in half a minute. Patrick went ahead, showing his ID and paying the cover charge that never failed to annoy Vin. Most of the guys there would buy at least three drinks over the course of the night, even if he wasn’t one of them, and the whole cover-charge thing seemed greedy. The music was so loud he could feel it right down to his toes, his chest resonating with the beat.

“Come on, let’s go!” Patrick spun around, arms in the air, then disappeared into the crowd of dancing bodies, no doubt expecting Vin to follow.

Tonight Vin held back, preferring to be with Riley. “Do you want to get a drink?” he asked. Having to lean in close to speak into Riley’s ear made him feel warm and tingly. He wondered what Riley would be like to dance with. He’d danced with Patrick often, but that was different.

“Do you?” Riley asked, looking confused.

“Well, a soft drink, sure!” He tugged Riley’s hand and led him over to the bar, where he ordered a soda and Riley asked for a draft beer that came in a cheap plastic cup. They wove their way over to a less crowded section of floor, and Vin got close again. “Are you okay?”

Riley nodded and swallowed some beer. “Yeah.”

Vin’s drink was mostly ice, the combination of cold, sweet, and fizzy lifting him as it always did. He stayed away from caffeinated drinks, but he allowed himself to drink them in the clubs, just for the buzz. Talking wasn’t easy, so he settled for standing close and smiling a lot, scanning the crowd for anyone he knew. After he’d waved or spoken to half a dozen people, some Square Peg regulars, Riley leaned in.

“You know a lot of people.”

“Comes with the job.”

They were almost shouting over the heavy beat of the music; the freedom of being able to yell without disturbing anyone was exhilarating. Vin never wondered why young kids ran around screaming for no apparent reason. They did it because it was fun.

Riley drained his beer and set the cup down on a nearby table, already crowded with empties. Vin gave it a severe look. That should’ve been cleared by now. Still, not his problem and not his job.

He added his empty drink to the rest and grabbed Riley’s hand. “Dance?” he yelled, needing Riley to agree, the pull of the music unbearably strong.

Riley shook his head but, before Vin could react, pulled him in close and kissed him, long and hard. “Now dance!” Riley said into his ear, and Vin found himself on the dance floor, surrounded by sweaty, gyrating bodies. He didn’t recognize the song, but that didn’t matter. It had been playing for a long time, so it had to be some kind of dance remix like so many of the tracks they played here. All that mattered was that it had a fast, solid beat and everyone was into it.

Vin knew he wasn’t a great dancer, but that didn’t matter either. He liked watching Riley, who was a good dancer, and attracting a certain amount of attention from some of the guys nearby. It made Vin feel good to know other people appreciated Riley’s hotness. Riley had been out here on the scene, dating and sleeping with anyone who struck his fancy, but when he was ready to get serious, he’d come looking for Vin.

It was easy to lose himself in the music and flashing lights and forget that he was tired. One song ended and the next began, and after a while he lost track of how long they’d been dancing. Riley left to get another drink and came back only to vanish to the washroom. Occasionally Vin caught a glimpse of Patrick dancing with a tall, skinny guy with glasses. He didn’t recognize the man, but Patrick probably didn’t know him either.

An in-between song started, the kind where you could either dance frantically or slow it down. Vin had no interest in protesting when Riley pulled him in close and ground against him.

He’d seen couples—sometimes groups—doing this, the sight arousing in a distant kind of a way. He’d never wanted to be part of the group he was watching, but how often had he dreamed of being on the floor dancing with Riley?

The Riley he’d pictured, loved for so long, was fading now, replaced by the reality. In some ways, Riley, the real Riley, was less perfect, but Vin had surrendered the imaginary boyfriend without a moment’s regret. He’d airbrushed his memories into someone impossibly perfect and unattainable, but the man he was pressed up against was anything but that.

Sweat stuck his T-shirt even closer to him, dampening his hair. He was hot, flushed, needing Riley so intensely he understood why some couples couldn’t wait to get home to fuck.

Not that he intended to take things that far. Riley deserved better than a quick, sordid blowjob in the less-than-pristine men’s room.

Vin turned his head so he could speak into Riley’s ear. “I want to take you home.”

“Good thing you’ll get to.” Riley grinned at him.

“No, I mean now!” Vin let the hand that had been resting at Riley’s waist slide back around toward his ass. He wasn’t groping Riley in public, but pretty close. It made him feel crazy with power, like he could do anything, all the things other people had always done while he stood by and watched. He’d stepped into the real world somehow.

Riley leaned in until no space existed between them, their movements reduced to a slow sway, the press of the crowd walking them in. “Let’s get out of here.”

Turning to go, Vin caught sight of Patrick through the crowd again. Shit. “Give me a minute. I need to make sure Patrick can get a ride.”

Riley looked less than thrilled, but nodded and gestured toward the bar. Vin wasn’t sure if he meant he’d get another drink while he waited or if he was pointing out where he’d be. Winding his way through the crowd, Vin headed to where Patrick was remarkably still dancing with the same guy.

Getting Patrick’s attention wasn’t easy. The music was back to frenetic, and Patrick was having sex with the air, gyrating in a way Elvis would have disowned, his hands over his head, singing along to lyrics the song didn’t have, eye fucking guy-with-glasses, who looked overwhelmed but was hanging in there.

Patrick spun around, a pirouette he didn’t have room to perform, and wobbled. As Vin got closer he saw Patrick flail his arms in search of his balance and in the process smack the man behind him full in the face.

“Sorry!” Patrick said, still too far away for Vin to hear it, but he could read lips after years of working in noisy bars. Patrick smiled, at his most charming, and said something Vin didn’t catch because someone pushed past him, blocking his view for a second or two.

His next sight was of Patrick flying backward, not punched but shoved, a two-handed lunge from a man with blood dripping from his nose, giving the white T-shirt he wore a new, macabre pattern.

Crap.

“Hey!” Vin moved faster than he thought possible, getting between the two of them and holding both hands up in a placating gesture. “Hey, come on! It was an accident.”

“He hit me!” The guy sounded muffled from the hand under his nose trying to stem the flow of blood.

“What the fuck?” Patrick was already scrambling to his feet with the help of his dance partner, who looked shocked by the incident. “I didn’t mean to.”

“I know,” Vin told him, then turned back to the bleeding guy, who thankfully was starting to lose steam. “It was an accident, okay? Take it easy.”

“Yeah, whatever.” The man shoved past them, headed toward the bathroom, so Vin was able to focus his attention on the wide-eyed Patrick.

Patrick adjusted his shirt as if getting it to lie straight was vital. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” Vin took Patrick’s face in his hands and tilted it, surprised by the degree of worry he felt.

“Yes.” Patrick was looking at him like they were the only two people in the place, instead of surrounded by hundreds of men and the throbbing beat of the music. “I’m okay. I didn’t hit my head; I landed on my ass. Trust me, it’s had worse.”

“Why do you always say stuff like that? No wonder people call you a slut. You make them say it.” Worry morphed into anger, and Vin gripped Patrick’s shoulders, shaking him, a rough, impatient action he regretted even before Patrick’s mouth fell open, eyes widening to match it.

As stricken as Patrick, he stepped back, muttering an apology that didn’t come close to the groveling he should be doing, and collided with someone. Oh God, now what?

He turned, hoping he didn’t meet a fist flying at him, and found himself face-to-face with Riley, whose carefully blank expression was almost as hard to take as a blow.

Riley nodded in Patrick’s direction without quite looking at him. “Is he okay?”

“He’s just fine, thanks,” Patrick said, his voice tart. “Going to have some interesting bruises tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be Sunday without them.”

“Then why don’t we get the hell out of here?” Riley asked Vin. It felt like he was asking for more than that.

“Sure. Yeah. Let’s go.”

Vin felt dazed as they left the club, though he was grateful for the fresh, cold air and the sudden lack of music ringing in his ears. Riley put an arm around him as they walked; he was grateful for that too.

“What was that all about?” Riley asked, kissing his hair, and Vin burrowed closer to him for warmth and comfort.

“Patrick hit that guy—you saw how he was flailing around—and the guy pushed him. No big deal.” Vin had seen worse in clubs and in the Peg, but having Patrick be the target of it was different somehow. He felt off balance and unsettled and wanted Riley to make him feel grounded again. “Let’s go back to my place, okay?”

“Okay.”

For once, Vin wished he wasn’t the one who had to drive. It would have been nice to sit and let the adrenaline coursing through him ease off instead of having to be behind the wheel, but at least it didn’t take long to get home. They slipped in through the back entrance—the bar was quiet, everyone long gone—and up the stairs. As soon as they were inside his apartment with the door shut, Riley kissed him, and Vin kissed him back, hard and determined, parting his lips until Riley groaned.

“Bedroom,” Riley said hoarsely and led the way.

Getting naked with Riley watching him had lost its novelty—Vin had never been all that body-shy anyway—but he didn’t ever want to get used to the flare of appreciation in Riley’s eyes. When they were lying side by side in bed, it gave him the confidence to push the condom Riley gave him back into Riley’s hand.

“You don’t want to fuck me?” Riley asked.

“Always.” Vin ran his hand down Riley’s arm, enjoying the feel of smooth skin and firm muscles against his palm. “But I’m in the mood for something new.”

“Yeah? You wanna get your kink on, baby?” Riley delivered his kiss with a grin, blurred around the edges by drink, but the erection pressing into Vin’s stomach was rigid enough. “Want a spanking? Or maybe tie me up?”

Vin shook his head. He had friends into that, but it didn’t feature in his fantasies.

“No. Not my thing. I want you to fuck me.”

He relaxed as he said it, already feeling the intimacy of the act surround him like a blanket. Riley inside him, the two of them joined, would feel incredible. Why was he holding off on trying it when he knew how good it felt to slide slowly into Riley’s hole, working his way deeper with every thrust? Riley loved being fucked, going by his reactions, and Vin knew he’d enjoy it too.

Riley held the condom up, turning it between his fingers, a magician flipping a card. “You sure?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

That got him a shrug. “I don’t know. Okay. Let’s do it.”

“We don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Vin said.

“Of course I want to; are you crazy?” Riley kissed him, a lingering kiss that left Vin’s lips damp and tingling. “I just don’t want to push you into anything.”

“If it’s my idea, you aren’t pushing me.” Vin looked up into Riley’s eyes, trusting him to make it good. “Now can we stop talking about it?”

“Yes,” Riley said. “Absolutely.”

Vin lay back, then handed Riley the lube, apprehensive again as Riley slicked his fingers and slid a hand up his inner thigh. They’d done this much, Riley’s fingers playing with the outside edge of Vin’s hole while his lips were around Vin’s cock, but not much more than that. He couldn’t imagine what it felt like to have one of Riley’s fingers slipping inside him. Vin knew he should have tried it before, done it to himself, but it had seemed awkward and weird, so he never had.

The first push, the initial intrusion—and it felt like that—had him inhaling sharply, a blush crawling up his face. He wanted to squirm, uncomfortable with the idea that Riley’s finger was in his ass. It didn’t hurt beyond a faint burn, but it didn’t feel good the way the wet, hot lick of Riley’s tongue on his cock did.

“It gets better.” Riley inched his finger deeper. “Trust me.”

“I do.” Vin took a deep breath, willing his body to relax and feeling a glimmer of something pleasurable as Riley’s finger stroked him from the inside.

“That’s it.” Riley kissed him and pulled his finger out, the loss as disconcerting as the insertion. Vin lay waiting for Riley to put a condom on, unsure of where to look or what to do. He felt achingly isolated and vulnerable.

“Should I— How do you want to do this?”

Riley patted his thigh in what felt like a signal, not a caress. “On your hands and knees would work.”

“Okay.”

He got into position, and could he stop blushing? Please?

“This tattoo on your back is so big.” Riley traced it with his finger. It was a stylized bird of prey, wings spread wide, covering Vin’s shoulder blades. “Wish it wasn’t there. It’s like it’s hiding your skin from me.”

He drew his nails across it as if he were trying to scrape the ink away. It hurt as much as his words, but a moment later Riley kissed where he’d scratched, a penitent press of his lips. “Sorry. It’s part of you, I guess.”

“It’s not going anywhere.” His voice felt rusty, unused. Why didn’t Riley do something? Positioned like this, unable to see Riley’s face, Vin felt his earlier certainty fade.

“Neither am I,” Riley whispered against Vin’s skin, his breath tickling it. “So fucking hot like this, waiting for me. Want to make you feel good, Vin. Show you what you’ve been missing.”

“Do it.” Vin concentrated on the feel of his cock hanging heavy and hard between his thighs, knowing this wouldn’t be good, not at first, but after that—

When Riley pushed into him, it was slow, and it hurt about a hundred times more than Vin had expected it to. He lost his erection in a heartbeat, his body straining away from Riley to escape the inexorable pressure of the cock splitting him open. He made a sound like a whining cry, and Riley gripped his hips like a vise, holding him still.

“Shh, I know.” Riley pushed deeper; Vin was shaking, fighting to remember how to breathe. “I know it hurts at first. Relax. Once you relax, it’s gonna be— God, you’re so tight.”

He couldn’t talk; he was sure as soon as he opened his mouth he’d make another pitiful whine. He focused on relaxing, because he knew Riley was right about that. Any second now, his body would stop fighting this, and it would be amazing.

Any second.

Riley eased back until only the head of his cock was inside Vin. The loss of the thickness forcing him open was a guilty relief, but the raw burn remained. Vin panted, willing the pain to subside. He’d done this to Riley? Hurt Riley like this? God, he was such a fucking jerk.

He felt a cool trickle of lube run down the crack of his ass. “There,” Riley said as if he’d done something clever. “That should do it.”

None of the lube was inside Vin, but maybe some had landed on Riley’s cock? Before he could ask for Riley to use even more, like the rest of the bottle and the hell with the mess it would make, Riley jerked his hips forward, ramming his cock into Vin’s hole with a forceful shove.

Vin screamed. The sound was torn from him, with no breath behind it to give it volume, the agony staying inside him, lodged as deeply as the cause.

He wasn’t sure what happened after that. Riley pulled out of him—thank God—and somehow he was lying on his side, grateful for the mattress underneath him but less so for Riley’s hands petting him and Riley’s desperate voice seeking reassurance.

“I’m sorry! Vin, tell me what to do. Are you bleeding? Should I call an ambulance?”

The pain was mostly gone now, and what was left Vin could handle. “No,” he said. “Give me a minute. I’m okay.”

“That’s never happened before,” Riley continued. “It’s always been fine. I don’t think I did it wrong—”

“It wasn’t you. It was me.” Vin rolled over onto his back, wincing as his ass clenched in protest. If Riley hadn’t been so ridiculously apologetic, Vin might have been mad, but as it was even any lingering annoyance was fading fast. “If you’ve done it before, I mean.”

“Well, not for anyone’s first time. I figured, take it easy, use lots of lube, everything would be fine. I didn’t know it would be like that.” He stroked Vin’s arm with gentle fingers. “I didn’t know.”

“I know,” Vin said.

The unintentional echoing of Riley’s words seemed to help; Riley heaved a sigh and gave him a rueful smile. “Guess sex is off the menu for tonight?”

If he expected Vin to disagree, he was going to be disappointed.

Chapter Six

“If you don’t stop adjusting your tie, I’m going to take it off you and throw it out the window,” Vin said.

Riley, who was driving and should have had both hands on the wheel, made a face that went from protest to hopeful. “Undressing me? Promises, promises.”

Vin could have taken that as a jab, but he knew Riley didn’t mean it as one. They’d had plenty of great sex since their disastrous attempt at having Vin bottom, with the firm understanding they wouldn’t try it again until Vin was ready. Vin couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong with him, though. Not that he could see a doctor about it.

Hey, Doc, I think there’s something wrong with my ass—my boyfriend can’t fuck me.

Yeah, no way was that happening.

“After brunch,” he promised. Riley took a hand off the wheel to pat his thigh, which was an improvement over fixing his perfect tie. “Don’t be nervous—they’re gonna love you.”

“So you keep telling me.” Riley sighed and glanced at him. “Tell me again.”

“Turn right up here at the stop sign,” Vin said first. “My parents will love you, I promise. What’s not to love? And they know you’re good to me.”

“I want to be,” Riley said, more seriously than he needed to sound, in Vin’s opinion. “I mean, you waited for me. For years. It feels like I owe you for that.”

“Oh God, no.” Vin shook his head hard enough that his dragon earring struck his cheek. “Can we forget that, please? It was my choice, and it wasn’t all about you. I wasn’t ready for dating, and maybe it was my way to justify not jumping into the pool? I don’t know. I just know if you want to be good to me, do it because of some other reason.” He took a deep breath before he screwed everything up even more. Riley’s expression was a weird mix of affronted and relieved. “See the red car? Pull in behind it.”

Without talking, Riley shut off the engine and sat with his hands on the wheel, staring out at the street. The neighborhood was busy, as always, old men sitting out in rocking chairs on porches, the painted wood under their feet faded and cracked, their soft breath clouding the air; young kids trundling up and down the sidewalks on scooters or bikes, bareheaded, gloveless, and indifferent to the cold. It was a scene being replicated in a thousand streets in a thousand cities, but this street was home, and Vin felt part of it and distanced at the same time, because he’d moved out, after all.

And some people had been glad to see him go.

“It’s gonna be fine,” he told Riley. “Do you want a minute?”

“No. They’ll think I’m scared to come in or something.” Riley looked at the front door, which was still closed, and leaned across to kiss Vin. “Besides, I have it on good authority they’re going to love me.”

Vin was grateful that he wasn’t nervous; taking a first boyfriend home to meet the parents was the kind of thing that fueled nightmares. Still, he couldn’t help but note the peeling paint on the front steps or the way the wood creaked under his weight. He knew the door wouldn’t be locked. It never was. He had a key, but he’d used it so infrequently he wasn’t sure he’d even recognize it anymore. “Hey, we’re here!” he called toward the kitchen and made room for Riley to pass by him so he could kick the door closed again.

“Your mother’s in the kitchen,” his dad shouted from the living room. “I’m watching football!”

“Football?” Riley asked. “This early?”

“It doesn’t have to be on,” Vin explained. “He has some kind of classic sports package. He can watch games from three years ago. Come say hi.”

He caught a glimpse of Riley’s expression as they threaded their way through a narrow hallway made narrower by the overflowing coat hooks on one wall and the bookcase on the other. His mother approached reading with a reverent addiction, rarely letting a book pass out of her hands once she’d acquired it, never leaving even the cheapest paperback facedown. Vin had dropped a library book in the bath as a kid and gotten a tongue-lashing that’d left him quailing. The house had to seem cramped to Riley, but nothing showed on his face but mild apprehension.

Jon raised a hand in greeting when Vin ushered Riley into the room. “Vin. Good to see you, son.” He rose from the couch with an effort, fighting springs his weight had compressed into a concave space over the years. Jon was a big guy, broad-shouldered, tall, his hair showing some gray now. It was a family joke that if he lost an inch of hair as it receded, he found it again on his waistline. “And this is Riley?”

The speculative glance Riley got wasn’t unfriendly, and Jon’s smile and handshake were warm, but Vin felt his shoulders hunch, a prickle of tension running through him.

Riley said all the right things, his manner a shade too polite for the casual surroundings, but that was understandable given the circumstances. This was a big deal for everyone in the room.

Not for the first time, Vin’s mother saved him. She came into the room on a wave of kitchen scents, spicy, mouthwatering, and enveloped Vin in a hug that left him breathless, shattering the awkwardness with a flow of endearments and reproaches for not visiting sooner. Maria barely topped Vin’s shoulder, the beautiful girl she’d once been still visible in the older woman she’d become, every wrinkle in her face formed by a smile. Vin considered himself lucky to be her only son. It was shallow, but he liked knowing he was the golden boy in her eyes. He didn’t have to compete for her shining love with any brothers; the girls were a different story.

“Here he is,” Maria said, letting go of Vin and turning her attention to Riley. “Hmm. I did look you up in Vin’s yearbook—he left it behind with his other high school things when he moved out—but I didn’t think I remembered you. Your hair is shorter now.”

“Mom, that was years ago,” Vin protested, but Riley seemed okay with the conversation.

“I didn’t do a lot of teenage rebelling in high school.” Riley lifted his hands like he was going to straighten his tie again, then lowered them. “Growing my hair to my collar was about as far as I took it.”

“And now that you’re grown, you keep it short,” Maria said approvingly. “I want to hear all about you, but first I need to finish in the kitchen.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Riley probably thought he was being ingratiating. Vin should have warned him not to bother. His mom’s views on some things were liberal, but her opinion of men in the kitchen was downright archaic.

“What? Of course not! Sit, sit.” She gestured at the love seat. “Both of you, sit. I’ll bring food.”

“Not too much, Mom. Not if you want us to eat later.”

She gave Vin a scornful sniff and left without replying, returning at intervals with drinks and snacks until the coffee table was full and Vin’s stomach matching it.

“These are so good,” Riley said around a chile relleno square. Maria didn’t confine herself to cooking Mexican food, but she knew how much Vin enjoyed it when he came home. “Too good. Don’t let me have any more.”

Vin sipped at his ginger ale, sharing the sentiment. Maria would be hurt if they didn’t touch the snacks and offended if they didn’t clear their plates and ask for seconds when it came to the main meal. They were doomed to leaving with uncomfortably full stomachs.

Jon patted his belly. “Won’t hurt either of you to put on a few pounds from some good home cooking.” He nodded at Riley. “Your mom the same when you go home? Feed you like you’ve been starving?”

Riley looked bemused. “Not really,” he replied, choosing his words with obvious care. “She’s sort of on a permanent diet, so she kind of assumes the rest of the world is too. My dad eats out a lot, so he doesn’t care.”

“What does he do?”

“Construction,” Riley said. “Wells Construction. We’re small potatoes nationally, but we’re getting a good reputation in the state, I think.”

“Riley put in a lot of work on the museum renovation,” Vin added, anxious for his dad’s approval. He didn’t want his parents to think of Riley as a freeloader, pulling a salary based on his relationship to the boss. It wouldn’t have been fair. He knew how many hours Riley worked at the office or out on the building sites.

Jon grunted. “Good. Make sure you wear a hard hat. You ever seen—”

To Vin’s relief, the arrival of his older sister Anna interrupted the anticipated horror story.

The bustle as she came in with her two kids, Vin’s nieces Sophia and Ella—the latter swinging from Anna’s arm in her car seat, chubby hands clutching a toy giraffe—was overwhelming. It reminded Vin, not for the first time, how grateful he was to be gay. He loved the girls because they were family, but he couldn’t have honestly said he liked them very much. They were like little alien life-forms. Knowing he’d never get anyone pregnant was comforting.

“Unca Vinnie!” Sophia wrapped her arms around Vin’s knees as soon as he stood. “I’m a princess!”

That was nothing new. “Yeah?”

“See? I have a crown!” It was more like a tiara, cheap rhinestones glittering in what looked like plastic instead of metal. Sophia tossed her head. “Ella isn’t a princess. She’s just a baby.”

“Right.”

Anna set the car seat at her father’s feet, leaned down to kiss him, and said, “Keep an eye on her for a minute? I have to put this in the fridge.” She had a plate covered with foil balanced on her other hand; how she’d opened the front door was a mystery.

“Hi, Vin. This the new boyfriend?”

“New?” Riley widened his eyes at Vin and turned to Jon, who’d taken Ella out of her car seat and was unzipping her snowsuit. “Can I hold her?”

“She doesn’t mean—” Vin gave up on his explanation and sat again. Jon, his expression indulgent, the way it always was around his grandchildren, was telling Riley that Granddad got the first hug from his treasure, but sure, after that, why not.

He handed her over a minute later. “Don’t drop her.”

“I won’t,” Riley assured Jon and settled Ella on his lap, cradled in the curve of his arm so he could coo down at her. “I like babies. They’re not complicated. They want love, food, and a diaper change now and then. That’s all easy. And you’re beautiful, aren’t you, sweetheart? A little angel.”

“She’s teething,” Jon warned him. “If she starts yelling and arching her back, those wings disappear, and it’s like holding an eel.”

Ella’s small face crumpled, the delicate rosebud mouth stretching into an alarmingly wide circle.

“She needs feeding!” Anna called from the kitchen as the first wail hit the air. “Bottle’s in the side pocket of the blue bag, Dad.”

Jon fished it out and handed it over. “See if this works. It might be too cold.”

“No, she likes it,” Riley said, the frantic, greedy sucks the bottle got backing him up. “That’s what it was, huh? You were hungry?”

Watching his boyfriend dissolve to mush was disconcerting. Vin rubbed his thumb over the tattoo on his forearm, tracing the lines over and over and trying not to feel excluded. Babies. They were cute and all, but they didn’t do anything. They were the ultimate in selfishness. Ella wanted feeding, so she cried and got a bottle. Telling her to wait would have been as futile as ordering a cloud to stop raining. And it wasn’t as if things improved once they got older and could talk, because Sophia was just the same.

“I’m sorry,” Riley said, nudging Vin’s knee with his. “I grabbed her, and I bet you’re dying for a cuddle.”

“No, it’s fine. She’s happy with you.” Vin was glad for the ready excuse. “I can hold her anytime.” Not that he wanted to.

Ella was drinking from the bottle and staring up at Riley’s face, eyes wide. She’d dropped her giraffe and was holding on to Riley’s pinky finger instead. Sophia was struggling with the zipper on her little pink backpack; Vin considered offering to help but decided she could handle it. His sister and mom were talking in the kitchen, Anna happy to let her father supervise the children.

“She’s so cute.” Riley wrenched his gaze from Ella’s and glanced at Vin. “She looks like you.”

Vin laughed. “She looks like my grandfather. Same bald head.”

“Maternal or paternal grandfather?” Riley asked absently.

“Paternal,” Vin said.

“Good. That means you’ve got a better chance of keeping your hair.” Riley grinned at him, and Vin, not getting it, smiled back. It was easy to smile back at Riley.

“You see yourself with a family sometime down the road?”

It was a shock to hear the question, another to realize his dad was asking it of Riley.

Who was answering without embarrassment or awkwardness, as if the subject under discussion were as trivial as the game Jon was watching, the outcome already settled.

“Well, sure. Being gay doesn’t rule that out, not these days. You’ve got options like adoption or surrogacy.” Vin didn’t think he’d whimpered with horror, but Riley cleared his throat and shot him a sideways glance, adding, “Not for a long time, though. When I’m thirty or so.”

That was years away, but it still sounded way too close for Vin’s liking.

“Ever think about settling down in a more traditional way?” Jon asked. It took a few seconds for Vin to realize what he was really asking, and by the time he had, Riley was already answering that question too.

“When I was younger,” Riley said. “When I was still pretending I was straight. But I gave up on that a while ago. I wasn’t happy. Even if it was the only way I could have kids, I’d have to go without kids. It wouldn’t be fair to the woman. Or to me.”

Jon nodded. “Best you know who you are. My brother’s gay. He cried like a baby when he told me, and we were in high school at the time. Vin’s sister Celine had a girlfriend too. We’ve known about PFLAG forever.”

Riley seemed a little stunned by all this, even though Vin was sure he’d told him some of it before. Maybe it was different hearing it from the older generation. “Your sister’s gay?”

“Bi,” Vin said. “As far as I know. She’s got a boyfriend now, but in college she had a long-term girlfriend. Um, not Anna—she’s the one in the kitchen.”

“With the husband,” Riley said. “And the ridiculously cute kids.”

Sophia tugged at Vin’s pant leg. “Unca Vin, look at my picture.” She held up a page covered with crayon scribbles.

“Wow. Good job.”

“It’s a fairy with wings.”

“Blue wings,” Riley said, glancing over at it without dislodging the bottle from Ella’s mouth. “Nice.”

Vin could see some blue squiggles, but given that they were floating a good way from what did, he guessed, look vaguely like a figure, he wasn’t sure how Riley had come to that conclusion.

“Sparkly blue wings,” Sophia added with an approving smile directed at Riley.

“You’ve got a place of your own, Vin tells me,” Jon put in. “That’s good. Owning property gives a man roots.”

“It’s an apartment, not a house like this, but it’s good to get on the property ladder young, my dad says.” The self-deprecation sounded genuine, though Vin guessed Riley’s place would sell for three times the price of his parents’ house. “I’ve got a loft over on Princes Terrace.”

Jon’s face hardened, the skin around his mouth bunching into tight lines. “That was developed by that asshole Carter, wasn’t it?”

Riley ducked his head, pretending to adjust the angle of the nearly empty bottle. “Uh, yeah, I think that’s the company behind building it. I just live there.”

“Dad!”

Jon raised his hand in apology. “Sorry, sorry. I get so damn angry when I think about Carter. Him and his arrogant son risking killing you so they could make more millions to go on top of the ones they already have. People like that make me sick.”

“I don’t— It’s just a place to live—” Riley sounded stifled, what little Vin could see of his face flushed red. Ella jerked her head away from the bottle and began to cry, loud and high. Riley swung her up, her head over his shoulder, patting her back until she burped between wails loud enough to derail the conversation.

It wasn’t that Vin didn’t agree with his dad, but why put Riley on the spot? This visit was turning out to be stressful as hell, and he hated that. Coming home should feel as comforting as slipping into a hot bath. This was more like a crab’s final moments in the pot.

Anna appeared in the doorway, taking in the situation at a glance. “You got the whole bottle into her? Wow, thanks. Let me take her. She’s always fussy after she’s fed, ungrateful girl.”

“I think it was leaking out as fast as it was going in,” Riley said, studying his hand and the dark patch spreading over the buttercup-yellow all-in-one sleeper Ella was wearing. “She’s soaking wet.”

“Those damn cheap diapers.” Anna shook her head. “Never again, no matter how much they’re marked down. Here, I’ll take her. You’ll want to wash up.”

“Thanks.” Riley stood and handed the baby over.

Vin, already anxious to flee, stood too. “I’ll show you where the bathroom is.”

He led Riley to the back of the house, past his mother’s sewing room and the smaller room that had once been his dad’s den but was now more of a storage room. The door couldn’t shut anymore because there was so much stuff piled in there.

“Here you go.” Vin flicked the light on and stepped back to make room for Riley.

“I’m only going to wash my hands,” Riley said. “You can come in if you want.”

Vin hesitated, then shrugged and leaned against the door frame. “There isn’t room at the sink for both of us anyway.”

“You all grew up in this house?”

“Yeah, but there’re two more bathrooms upstairs.”

“It must have been crowded but friendly, I guess.” Riley turned on the hot tap and picked up the soap, rubbing it against his hands under the stream of water that never got more than warm. “When I was a kid, Sophia’s age, I had nightmares now and then. I’d wake and yell, but no one ever came. My parents slept way at the other end of the house, and they couldn’t hear me. They got upset in the morning when I told them I’d been crying, but it was too late by then.”

In Vin’s experience, Anna could hear one of her kids when they were hurt or distressed from a mile away. Riley’s parents’ house wasn’t that big, or at least it didn’t look it from the outside, but he didn’t say anything.

“If I’d yelled, someone would’ve come,” Vin said, “but once I cottoned on to what sex sounded like, I would’ve killed for thicker walls. Double that when I got old enough to jerk off.”

Riley pulled a face, wrinkling up his nose and making it look cute. He dried his hands on a white towel, fluffy enough that Vin suspected it’d been put out for Riley’s benefit. “Parents having sex? Isn’t that illegal?”

“Should be,” Vin agreed. He was close enough to Riley that he wanted to kiss him, steal a taste from the mouth Riley had used to wake his body to pleasure so many times now. He would’ve done it, but he needed to know something first. “I don’t mind about you living where you do. Dad’s right about that guy, but it’s not your fault. When you moved in, you didn’t know what he was like.”

Riley hung the towel over the rail, adjusting it with finicky precision, as if making the edges line up mattered, when it didn’t. “Yeah, well, that’s the thing. I kind of did. He’s a family friend. He and my dad do business together, and his wife and my mom are friends. Marco went to a different school, but we hung out together a lot until he found out I was gay and cooled things off.”

He shrugged as if it were no big deal, but Vin didn’t buy the indifference. Riley had pulled in on himself, every muscle taut, his eyes wide, unblinking as he waited for Vin’s reaction.

It was difficult not to start yelling, but Vin forced himself to be fair.

“You didn’t know what they were capable of—”

Riley interrupted him with a laugh as bitter as the lemons Ben made Vin slice every shift to a perfect uniformity, ready to adorn the rim of a glass. “Are you kidding me? Jack Carter’s ruthless as hell. He doesn’t go in for breaking kneecaps or anything like that, but he’ll take over a floundering company and leave a hundred people out of work without feeling a twinge of regret. What Marco did annoyed him because it wasn’t subtle and, worse, Marco got caught, but he didn’t care about you or your bar.” Riley swallowed, his throat working. “If you’d died, he wouldn’t have shed a single fucking tear.”

“Hey.” Vin hesitated, then moved closer, crowding Riley on purpose so he wouldn’t try to get away. “He’s not you. You’re not responsible for him. What does your dad think?”

“That it’s all business.” Riley was keeping his voice quiet now, like he was afraid of being overheard. “If it’s not, he doesn’t talk about it. He’s single-minded. He cares about work and appearances—if the two overlap in a way that would make him look bad, he makes some excuse and gets out of there as fast as he can.”

“What do you think?” That was more important to Vin.

Riley shrugged. “I guess I think he can’t win. If he says he supports his friend, he’s an asshole and a homophobe. If he says he doesn’t, he screws with his standing in the business community. He could lose everything.”

“No, I mean— I don’t know what I mean.” Vin sighed and patted Riley’s hip in an apology. “You aren’t responsible for anyone but yourself.”

“Yeah, but the thought that you could have been hurt kills me.” Riley hugged him. “You know I’d never want that.”

“I don’t see how anyone could.” Vin didn’t dream about that night, but he revisited it in his thoughts sometimes, a whiff of smoke from a cigarette, a flash of red, or a voice raised in panic triggering the replay. He found himself exploring what-ifs and if-onlys, sketching out alternatives that stopped the attack and saved the bar and Ben’s car from being gutted by flames.

Pointless, all of it. What was done was done.

“Just don’t hate me for knowing them.”

Vin was the one holding Riley now, comforting him with kisses, gentle and loving. “Hating you is impossible. I can’t go there. Nothing you did could make me stop loving you. Nothing.”

He believed it, but he wasn’t sure Riley did.

Riley clung to him for much longer than it should have taken to wash his hands, making it likely that someone would come looking for them soon. Vin didn’t have the heart to draw away, not when it felt like they were holding each other together. Life was so complicated sometimes. Why couldn’t it be simple?

Finally, Riley pulled back far enough to kiss Vin once, hard, then plastered on a somewhat unconvincing smile. “Okay, come on. They’re going to send a search party for us soon.”

“They might not even notice we’re missing,” Vin said without believing it for a moment. “It’s kind of crazy once we’re all around the table.”

He wasn’t exaggerating the craziness, but he could still see the surprise on Riley’s face when they joined the rest of the family in the dining room. Somehow, when the table was crowded with plates and platters and there were a bunch of them sitting—on a combination of chairs and high chairs and booster seats, these days—their numbers seemed to swell.

Suzie, the youngest of Vin’s sisters, appeared from upstairs with her makeup perfect and what looked like a recently ironed dress. “Hi, Vin,” she said with a bright smile directed at Riley. “New boyfriend?”

“You say new like I’ve been bringing a whole parade of them home,” Vin complained.

“He isn’t one you’ve had before, so he’s new.” She raised an eyebrow, a trick she’d spent a summer learning. “See the logic, baby bro?”

His reply was automatic. “Don’t call me that. Ever. Jeez.”

She looked intrigued. “You want me to come up with something worse? Really?”

“You’re not going to win this one, are you?” Riley murmured loudly enough for Suzie to hear.

She grinned. “He never has, but he keeps on trying. Got to love a determined man.”

Riley slid his hand down Vin’s thigh, the tablecloth hiding the caress. “Can’t argue with that.”

“Soup,” Vin’s mother announced, placing a huge tureen on the table, steam rising from it.

Riley’s hand squeezed, moved higher, squeezed again, before he pulled it back.

Vin knew what was in store: three courses, a long period of digesting, followed by a snack for the journey. It would be hours before they could leave gracefully, and now he was counting the seconds.

Chapter Seven

“My feet are killing me.” Patrick pouted and sat down on the nearest chair. His new shoes were fabulous, but he should have broken them in slowly instead of wearing them for a full shift.

“Don’t even think about taking them off unless you want to look for a new job.”

Vin glanced toward the office, where Ben and Shane had been arguing about how to rearrange furniture last Patrick knew.

“I won’t.” Patrick waited until Vin’s attention was back on his bar polishing, then slipped off a shoe and rubbed his foot. Ooh, that felt good. He put his shoe back on before asking, “How’s the love of your life?”

“Fine.” Vin didn’t look up.

“Well, that was convincing.” Patrick got up and strolled over to sit on one of the bar stools opposite Vin.

“I took him home to meet the folks,” Vin quipped and gave him a quick, strained grin.

“It didn’t go well?” Patrick guessed.

Vin shrugged. “It was fine. Just kind of, you know, awkward.”

“They like me,” Patrick pointed out, knowing he sounded smug, but not caring. He’d never been invited over formally, but he’d met Vin’s family on a few occasions. The first time he’d been heartbroken over a breakup, his eyes red-rimmed, his ass aching from that final farewell fuck. The second, third, and fourth times, he’d been recovering from nights so late they’d become mornings, but he’d looked pretty, and he’d remembered his manners. And a few words of Spanish to greet Vin’s mom with. She was a doll. Looking at her was like seeing the blueprint for Vin, and what was not to love about that?

“They think you’re…” Vin paused, visibly searching for a tactful way to put it. “Very you.”

“Well, who else could I be?” Patrick sniffed, disappointed Vin couldn’t come up with anything better. “I mean, can you see me ever being mistaken for, well, just anyone? I stand out.”

He made sure of that. When you were his height, you had to do something to avoid being trampled by the giants of the world, especially when giants did things to his libido that made him want to stand close and get friendly. Dyeing his hair every shade of the rainbow except orange—not his color, it really wasn’t, not even at Halloween—and dressing to show off everything he was willing to share usually did the trick.

The door opened, and a fresh wave of customers came in. Patrick eyed them, looking first for potential trouble, then for possible dates. Dismissing the three guys as harmless and boring, he took advantage of the lack of bosses around and took the shortcut back to behind the bar, sitting on the glossy surface and swinging his legs over. His foot hit a glass, but Vin caught it.

Vin always saved his ass. Patrick liked that about him. “Oops and thank you. Now what exactly was awkward—”

“Do that again, and I’ll use your face to clean the bar when we close.”

Shane really did have a nasty habit of popping up unexpectedly. Wiggling his toes inside his shoes to get some circulation going, Patrick turned to face his employer and went for his most winsome smile. “Just wanted to be ready to serve, O Lord and Master.”

Okay, given what he suspected he thought he knew about the way Shane and Ben played, that was a touch on the mean side, but his feet hurt, and jumping down from the bar hadn’t helped.

“Remember who’s master of your paycheck,” Shane said. “You too, Vincent. You’re meant to be assistant managing, and that includes watching over this lazy git.”

“I’m not lazy!” Patrick protested. “Look, I’m working.”

The new customers had settled their jackets at a table and come up to the bar, so he spent the next few minutes checking their IDs, making drinks for them, and putting their cash in the register. He folded up the tip and tucked it into his pocket with some effort. He kept reminding himself to wear less tight-fitting jeans to work, but when it came time to get dressed, he chose whatever he’d look hottest in.

“You can relax now. He’s gone,” Vin said, patting his shoulder.

Patrick glanced around to make sure, but Shane had disappeared again, presumably back to the office. “I do know how to work, you know. I wasn’t just doing it for show.”

“I know.”

“So going back to our previous conversation…” Patrick knew he wasn’t the smartest guy on the planet, or even in the bar, but he tried to make up for it by being determined. And cute, obviously.

“What were we talking about?”

Vin sounded too innocent for Patrick to buy the act.

“You were telling me why taking the amazing Riley home to meet your family was so awkward.”

“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t.”

“Well, you were about to.” Patrick trailed a finger down Vin’s upper arm. “Come on, honey, you’ll feel better once you get it off your chest.”

Vin’s T-shirt—black, as always, which Patrick approved of because it meant the two of them never clashed—was short-sleeved, showcasing all those lovely toned muscles and ink. Touching Vin’s arm felt good enough that Patrick wanted to do it again, using more than a fingertip. His palm itched to stroke, his tongue to lick.

He was a bad boy, no doubt about it. Vin came with a giant TAKEN AND IN LOVE sign around his neck. Patrick respected signs like that. Mostly. Though it was a sin and a shame to cover Vin’s neck with anything but the inked design it already had and maybe a red mark from a hard kiss, which it didn’t.

And why didn’t it? If Patrick had been Riley—and wasn’t that idea enough to send an icy shiver down his back—he would’ve never sent Vin out without some kind of hint to the world that here was a man with a wild and passionate lover waiting for him in bed, naked, hard, lube in hand.

The shiver became one of pure lust. He’d lie there for hours if he knew when the door opened, Vin would walk through it, those dark eyes narrowing as they took in the view. He would’ve been a teensy bit impatient and jerked off already, so his skin was damp with spunk, the sheet under his ass creased from all his squirming. Vin would punish him for that in the most delicious ways, making him wait, making him beg, rubbing that solid, thick cock of his all over Patrick’s face but never sliding it between his lips.

A smack delivered to the back of his head, this time by Ben, ended his fantasy abruptly along with any chance of getting an answer from Vin. And a fantasy was all it was. Vin was a sweet guy, and yeah, hotter than a hot thing, but when it came to sex, well, he was still practically a virgin.

And Patrick wasn’t.

“Sorry,” Ben said. He looked it. “I didn’t mean that to be as hard as it was.”

“Hey, you know me,” Patrick said, more concerned with fixing his hair than rubbing the sore spot where Ben’s hand had made contact. “I’m a big fan of hard things.”

“Shane’s in there moaning about you goofing off, and I don’t want to hear it. He has enough to complain about as it is.”

Patrick couldn’t imagine what that might be. The business had taken off like a shot as soon as Ben got involved, and even the months they’d been out of work after the fire while the place was being rebuilt hadn’t done more than pause the upward climb. Not that Ben and Shane shared the exact details with their employees, but there’d been raises across the board when the Peg reopened—tiny ones, but still an excuse to celebrate with a shopping spree—and heavy hints that there’d be Christmas bonuses in the near future. What on earth could Shane have to complain about?

He realized he was still standing there in front of Ben, not working, and maybe his employers had a point when they nagged him about being lazy. “Right,” he told Ben, striving for brisk efficiency. “I’m gonna go check the bathroom, make sure it’s clean.”

“Good idea.”

The ladies’ room was Shelly’s territory, and even when she didn’t work for a couple of days in a row, a quick mop after closing was enough to keep it clean. The Square Peg’s regulars were mostly men, and the occasional group of female customers seemed to be less disgusting than guys when it came to bathrooms. Patrick glanced in through the doorway, but the lights were off, so he turned his attention to the men’s room.

It smelled fresh, which was still a novelty. There was no denying it; a year ago, this place would’ve been on the stinky side, floor wet with splashed water and piss, toilet paper as rare as a winning lottery ticket, and the soap dispensers empty for long enough that they were bone-dry inside. Not that anyone had complained at the time, but now that they were used to it being clean, they’d probably get fussy if things went back to the way they were. People were funny like that.

A tall blond guy was taking a piss, the muted sound of his stream hitting porcelain lost a moment later when a toilet flushed. Patrick gave the man who emerged from the stall a brief smile that changed to a reproving frown when the man didn’t wash his hands. Eww. He stepped aside to let him leave and peeked into the three stalls to make sure the toilets were clean and the supply of paper was adequate, holding his breath when he got to the one that’d been recently used.

“You always this fussy about where you take a shit?”

Patrick whirled around. Tall-and-blond was leaning against the sinks, drying his hands on a paper towel.

“What? No. I mean, yes. But I don’t want to.”

Ooh, that was a nice smile he was getting. Friendly. Sexy. Knowing his reaction to it wasn’t going to be easy to hide in his jeans, he didn’t even try, doing some leaning of his own against the nearest stall.

“So you were looking for something in there? Maybe I can help you find it.” The man balled up the towel and tossed it into the trash, then adjusted his dick through his dark pants, taking a little too long for it to be innocently done. His cock was already hardening to a mouthwatering length. “Unless it’s really small. Is it?”

An afternoon quickie would be just the thing to take his mind off his shoes and dislodge naughty thoughts about Vin from his head. It would also get him fired, because the way his luck was running, his knees would hit the floor, his mouth would open wide, and Ben or Shane—no, both of them—would walk in and find him.

“I’m short, but my dick isn’t, I swear.” Patrick caught his lip between his teeth, hitting the brakes before he took flirting past the point of no return. “Look, I work here, but I finish at six—”

“Not interested in waiting.” The man moved in closer, three long strides, not touching Patrick but filling the space before him. He leaned over, pursing his lips to blow across the side of Patrick’s neck. Every hair Patrick had rose, and his dick decided to copy them. Anything done to his neck worked for him. Licking, biting, light touches, or a tight grip. Total kink of his. “I am interested in seeing if you’re telling the truth about your dick, though.”

“Suppose I lied?” Patrick fluttered his eyelashes. He overdid the twink sometimes, but it worked for him. “Would you be mad at me?”

Gray eyes twinkled down at him. “I’d blister your little butt, but I could see from across the room you weren’t lying, so I guess you’re safe. Now tell me again how you’re working, but you’re still going to blow me in the next two minutes, because I’m just that hot.”

Patrick hesitated, but he already knew what his answer would be. He was easy, and anyone with even a hint of gaydar had always been able to tell—and most of them had been willing to take advantage of it. This was who he was. Why try to change? It wasn’t as if anyone looking for something more serious than a quick fuck was ever going to give him a chance. Guys who wanted someone permanent—guys like Vin—didn’t want a slut like Patrick.

“Okay, stud,” he said, jerking his thumb at the handicapped stall, which at least would give them room to breathe. “Let’s make some magic.”

It went well. When didn’t it? Patrick knew what he was doing, and he had a dozen tricks for spinning a BJ out or making a guy shoot helplessly within a minute. His personal best was thirty-eight seconds, though he’d stopped counting in his head toward the end, so maybe it was more like forty-eight. Even through latex, he could feel the heat of the cock he was sucking, melting the last of his hesitation and making him wish they had more time.

Punishing the man for his impatience was something he owed it to himself to do, though. Patrick was a slut, and he got off on big butch guys pushing him around a bed or to his knees, but he was always in charge, even if that was a secret he kept to himself.

So he jiggled and rolled a heavy pair of balls in his hand with an expert twist of his wrist, dug the tip of his tongue into every sensitive place he found on the cock in his mouth, and—because that smile had been a nice one—handed over a wad of toilet paper for the guy to put to good use when it was all over.

A familiar slack-jawed gape of pleasure had replaced the smile. Patrick smiled demurely and, still on his knees, took out his cock, jerking off into a generous handful of toilet paper with a minimum of noise and mess. He could’ve gotten the guy to do it, but right then pulling up a zipper was giving the man issues, so Patrick wasn’t about to trust him with something as important as his dick.

Jerking off didn’t take long either. When he’d finished washing his hands and checking his reflection, he found himself wondering if it’d been worth it.

And that was a scary thought for a Monday afternoon.

With a final flutter of his lashes and a casual flick of his fingers in farewell, he sauntered back out into the bar. Shane glanced over at him, but Patrick was good at hiding his emotions. His cheeks might have been a shade pinker than usual, but he made sure he looked like an employee who’d completed a boring task, not a man who’d gotten lucky.

He would’ve gotten away with it if Tall-Blond-and-Stupid hadn’t come out of the toilet a moment later, glowing with satisfaction, everything from his strut to the wink he gave Patrick giving the game away.

Patrick swallowed, his lips dry, his heart hammering painfully. Fuck. Please let Shane be struck blind. No, that wasn’t nice. Let Shane have looked away. Yes. Dropped something and bent to pick it up, giving that stupid bastard time to walk away and out of Patrick’s life forever.

He sneaked a peek at the bar, and his glance collided with Shane’s furious glare. Shane’s mouth was tight, his nostrils flared, the powerful body a solid mass of anger. He raised his hand, crooked his middle finger, then stabbed it at the door leading into the office space, his message clear.

Shit.

“Shane, I didn’t—” Patrick tried when he got closer, but Shane shook his head.

“Shut it. Now.”

Meekly Patrick shuffled past him and went into the office, where Ben was sitting behind the desk. Ben looked up and smiled, but the smile turned into a confused frown when Shane came in and shut the door with a kick of his heel.

“That’s it,” Shane growled. “I’ve overlooked too much for too long. Let you get away with shit that would have had you shown the door a dozen times anywhere else. But this—”

“What’s going on?” Ben interrupted and stood, coming around the desk and putting himself between them. Patrick was grateful for the buffer zone. Shane could be hot as hell, and his accent had at least half a dozen customers creating excuses to extend their conversations with him each week, but right then he was reading more terrifying than sexy.

Patrick kept quiet, wanting to see what Shane had guessed rather than confirming his suspicions.

“He’s fucking customers in the toilet,” Shane snapped.

“I’m not!” Patrick snapped back. “It was one guy, and I didn’t fuck him! And for the record, I’ve never fucked anyone here at the bar. Well, okay, once, but it was in a car outside, so it doesn’t count! You don’t own the whole world, you know!” Patrick knew he was making things worse, but he couldn’t help it.

Shane sucked in an outraged breath. “I bloody well own you during the hours I’m paying you to serve drinks and wash glasses and mop up piss!”

“Both of you, stop shouting,” Ben said. He managed to sound calm and stern at the same time. “Patrick, were you having sex in the bathroom? It’s a simple question.”

Patrick’s voice cracked when he tried to answer. “No.” But he didn’t want to lie to Ben. “I…I sucked a guy off.”

“That’s only ‘not sex’ in an alternate universe,” Shane growled. “That’s it. I’ve had it with you. There are dozens of people who’d be grateful for a good job like this, instead of arsing around on the company’s time. You’re—”

“No.” Ben was fierce in a way Patrick had rarely seen him. “Not another word. Patrick, wait outside. Shane and I need to discuss this alone.”

The air in the hallway seemed ten degrees cooler, but Patrick’s face still stung hot with humiliation and anger. He slumped down on the floor, leaning his head back against the wall, and waited for the office door to open again.

He could get another job easily enough—probably by doing what he’d done in the stall—but nowhere like this. The Square Peg staff felt like family, and Vin—God, he’d miss Vin so much. Their shifts would never line up and let them spend time together, not with the Riley factor to consider. They’d drift apart, and Vin would forget all about him.

He choked back a moan, and was he crying? Was he? Shit, he was.

“Patrick? Shit, what did he do to you?” Vin slid to his knees on the floor and put his arm around Patrick in an awkward half hug. “He yells, but he doesn’t mean half of what he says. It’s his safety valve.”

“‘Sound and fury, signifying nothing,’” Patrick said wearily. Vin made a puzzled sound. “It’s from a play. Macbeth. I had a thing for the English teacher in my senior year. Thought memorizing a few lines from Shakespeare would get him to eat my apple, if you get my drift.”

“Did it?” Vin kept any hint of censure from his voice, but Patrick doubted Vin approved of what had been a harmless crush on an oblivious teacher.

“No, and what is wrong with me?” He banged his head against the wall a few times, ignoring the dull throb it left behind. Maybe it’d teach him that when he did something crazy, the consequences weren’t fun. Except this happened so often it was a lesson he seemed incapable of learning.

Vin’s hand slid between Patrick’s skull and the wall. “It was kind of stupid. Did you even know him?”

Patrick closed his eyes. “He had a nice smile. No brains, but his dick was a seven, easy. Does that count?”

Vin’s sigh was answer enough.

“They’re kicking me out,” he told Vin. It hurt to say, but it was less physically damaging than the head banging. “Ben’s probably telling Shane not to make the kicking literal, but I’m done here.”

“You are so fucking not.”

That got his eyes popping open. Vin was close enough to kiss, not that Patrick would ever go there. Watching Vin flinch back would hurt too much. “I’m not? Are you, like, the secret owner and they work for you? Because if you are, I swear I’ll behave from now on.”

Vin hissed with exasperation and yanked his hand away. Ouch. Wall. “No, of course I’m not. Do you ever take anything seriously?”

He closed his eyes again, shutting out the world and the next ten minutes of his future. He wasn’t going to enjoy them; therefore he was going to keep his eyes closed until they were over. It was a good strategy. Ask any ostrich.

“Not taking anything seriously is my safety valve. I’m toast. It’s done. Be nice to my replacement. Well, not too nice. In fact, I hate him already, whoever he is, so you have to hate him too.”

“You go, I go.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“Patrick. Look at me.” Patrick obeyed because it was Vin giving the orders. “How often do I say things I don’t mean?”

“I don’t know.” Trying to be fair, Patrick thought hard for a minute. “Never?”

Vin nodded. “I mean it. If they fire you, I’m gone. They might be able to replace you without much trouble—sorry—but not both of us.”

“No, it’s okay. Shane said the same thing. There are tons of people who’d be better employees than me. I suck.”

“Sounds like that was the problem,” Vin said.

Patrick’s eyes flooded with tears, hot and spilling everywhere.

Vin gathered him close and held him. “Hey, shh. Don’t cry.”

“I deserve to be fired. I’m a terrible person. I’m no good at my job, and…I’m a slut. No decent guy is ever gonna want me.” Patrick spoke between sniffles but sprang to his feet when he heard the office door opening.

Ben was the one standing there to deliver the verdict. Was that good or bad?

“Shane and I have agreed,” he said. “One more chance, Patrick, but that’s it. We’re serious. You’re on probation, and if you screw up again like that, we’ll have no other option but to let you go. I’ll write up something to that effect for you to sign before your shift ends. All right?”

Patrick nodded, aware his bottom lip was trembling. “Thank you. It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“Good. Now back to work, both of you.” Ben included Vin in his stern look, and Vin grabbed on to Patrick’s arm and started towing him in the direction of the bar.

“I need a drink,” Patrick announced.

“Not a good idea, even if you pay for it this time.”

And that was unfair. A quick shot of vodka at the end of his shift was a traditional perk, and even Shane turned a blind eye, ignoring Ben’s protests about profit margins, as long as it didn’t happen too often. “It’s a great idea, and I was thinking about a ginger ale.” His mouth tasted funky. Gross. Tears and BJs didn’t mix. “And we’re allowed as many of those as we want.”

Vin grimaced. “Oh. Sorry.”

Guilty because Vin’s first assumption had been the right one, Patrick shook his head. “No need to grovel. When it comes to me, assuming the worst is the safest option.”

Vin brought him to a halt, his hand gripping Patrick’s shoulder tightly enough that it hurt before he took it away. “You’ve been given a second chance. Don’t talk yourself into screwing it up to prove a point.”

He pouted, throwing in a toss of his head for the hell of it. The way Shane had reduced him to sniveling made him feel bruised and grubby. He needed to reassert himself, in his eyes and Vin’s, at least. “I don’t need to. Shane just has to wait a week or two, and he’ll find some excuse to fire me. You’ll see.”

“Don’t give him a reason to.” Vin put both his hands on Patrick’s hips like he wanted to get his attention. He had it, even if gazing back into Vin’s eyes was scary, like looking over a cliff at a sheer drop. “I mean it, Patrick. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me, okay? You think I’d last a week here without you?”

“I think you’ll have an amazing life whether I’m here or not,” Patrick said truthfully.

“Are you kidding me?” It was hard to know what Vin’s expression meant.

“Hey, guys! Any chance I can get another drink this century?” Derek, one of their regulars, was at the bar with an empty glass, and for once Patrick was grateful for impatient customers and interrupted conversations.

“Yeah, sure. Of course.” Pulling away from Vin, Patrick gave him a sunny smile. “Got to live up to my bosses’ expectations, right? We can talk later.”

Not that he had any intention of letting that train continue along the tracks. The thought of what Patrick’s life would be like without Vin was depressing as hell. If it meant being the world’s best employee so he could keep his job and Vin in his life—because Patrick wasn’t an idiot; he knew if they didn’t work together, they never would have been friends in the first place—then Patrick would be the best drink server and piss mopper the world had ever known.

Chapter Eight

“He’s not going to want me there.” Patrick had said it three times, if not more, but Vin wasn’t listening to the meaning behind the words, just the words themselves, and he was ignoring them.

Which was a mistake, because if Patrick was sure of anything in this world, it was that Riley didn’t like him. Not in a big, dramatic, you-killed-my-father-prepare-to-die way. No, Riley just thought he was trashy. Slutty. Cheap.

And too close to Vin. Riley hated how much time they spent together outside work. Vin had turned up to the last weekly date at Patrick’s an hour late, flushed and muttering something about a call from Riley that’d gone on for a while.

Phone sex. Had to be. Riley was lower than dirt and devious as hell. Patrick gave him points for exploiting his advantage as Vin’s boyfriend, but deducted twice that number for being so boring he made Patrick’s teeth ache. He’d been waiting for Vin to realize the hunk of yummy hotness he’d crushed on as a teenager had turned lukewarm, but so far he was still waiting.

Riley was good-looking, with money in the bank. He was clearly fond of Vin, and he didn’t kick kittens. So what? He wasn’t right for Vin, not in any way at all. Patrick knew he was in a club with a membership of one, because everyone else was still cooing over how romantic it was that Riley and Vin had met again, but he wasn’t buying it.

Discovering Marco and Riley had been friends—it’d taken him a full twenty minutes to get Vin to spill, but he’d kept at it—had him spinning conspiracy theories about revenge and retribution at a feverish rate, but he’d reluctantly set them aside.

Patrick would have loved to hear every detail about the court case that had resulted in a guilty verdict for Marco from the source, but it hadn’t come as a surprise that Shane and Ben didn’t want to talk about it. He knew Shane had been pissed off when Marco’s sentence ended up being the absolute minimum. His boss had punched a hole in the drywall and spent the rest of the day seething with bandaged knuckles, Ben interceding whenever anyone wanted to talk to him.

He’d had one stilted, awkward conversation with Vin about it. For once it had been Vin who wanted to share instead of Patrick trying to worm it out of him, but Vin had been so shaken by the whole experience that Patrick had been glad when the discussion trailed off and turned to other things.

“There’s going to be a ton of people there,” Vin said again.

“So I can stay out of his line of sight, and he won’t know I’m there?” Patrick pouted. “Sounds like fun.”

“It will be fun, if you’ll stop being so weird about the whole thing. You didn’t have to come, you know.” Vin wasn’t being mean, but that didn’t change the fact it made Patrick feel worse.

“It’s a Christmas party. Like I was going to miss one of those.” Patrick smiled just enough to get his dimples showing, spinning around as the snowflakes fell from a leaden sky. They looked stunning against Vin’s black hair, like lace on silk. “Just think, there might be someone there I can fall in love with, and we can hang mistletoe in every room, all year round, and have ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ as our song.” He clasped his hands and stared soulfully skyward. “And all our dildos will be red or green. And all our lube will be candy-cane flavor. And—”

He had to stop there. Vin was snickering too much to take in anything Patrick said.

“Promise me you’ll never dress up as Santa and an elf when you have sex with him,” Vin said when he’d gotten his laughter under control.

Patrick opened his mouth to swear solemnly, then reconsidered. Soft red velvet, all that fur. No beard, of course, but ooh, the black leather boots would be hot. And he could so pull off the sexy-elf look. Especially a naughty sexy elf who’d fallen behind on his toy making and needed to go across Santa’s knee.

Vin groaned. “You’re quiet. Tell me I didn’t put weird, kinky ideas in your head.”

“Oh, they’re always there,” Patrick said absently. “You have no idea what goes on in my mind.”

“Never tell me.”

“It’s more fun if I show,” Patrick agreed, stamping his feet to get the snow off his shoes as they arrived at the entrance to Riley’s place. They’d decided to walk since it turned out Patrick lived only about ten blocks from Riley. Funny how his crummy part of town wasn’t too far from Riley’s Very Nice part. Vin would stay with Riley anyway, and Patrick would either walk home, catch a ride with someone, or with any luck, spend the night with someone hot.

Of course, that depended on how many gay friends Riley had. Patrick had gotten the impression Riley had developed a whole little queer circle of friends before reconnecting with Vin, but even if that was true, they might not be the kind of people who would appreciate him. Patrick didn’t have any illusions about who he was, and there were plenty of people who’d turn their noses up at him like the fact he wasn’t privileged meant he’d never learned to shower.

“Wow,” he said after Riley buzzed them in. “This place is even nicer than I thought.”

“I know, right?” At least Vin got it. If he hadn’t, Patrick didn’t think he’d have had the guts to walk through the entranceway. “The first time I was here, I was kind of afraid to touch anything.”

“I feel like I should use my indoor voice. You know, church voice?” Patrick was already doing it, speaking in a hushed tone that seemed appropriate to the surroundings.

Vin knocked their shoulders together as they waited for the elevator. “It’s just an apartment building.”

“Yeah, but it’s so upper-class.”

“I got lucky with Riley,” Vin said.

He got lucky. I hope he knows it.”

The elevator arrived in a smooth, silent rush, and they got in. The walls were mirrored, the floor carpeted in dark gray with a discreet pattern of red squiggles. Patrick automatically checked his reflection. He’d gone for a spray-in, wash-out silver on his hair and ice-blue contacts. Red and green was too obvious a choice this close to Christmas. He wanted to stand out. His winter-white jeans qualified as spray-on too, and he’d finished off his outfit with a thrift store My Little Pony T-shirt. The brand-new, artificially aged ones in the stores were so fake, but he adored this one, featuring Firefly and the slogan I disagree with you, but we can still be friends! He’d added when you admit I’m right across the back in permanent marker, because what kind of message did the front send?

“Well?” he prodded. “Does he?”

Vin shrugged. “If I say he does, it sounds like I’m patting myself on the back.”

“Like this?” He suited action to words, making the pats hard enough that Vin turned to fend him off, grinning again. The lurch as the elevator stopped was barely noticeable, but off balance as they were, it had them grabbing at each other to stay upright.

Awkward to have Riley waiting outside the elevator ready to greet them, but they weren’t even hugging, let alone sharing a lip-lock, so why Riley was glaring at him, Patrick didn’t know.

“Still snowing, I take it?” Riley’s eyes softened as he looked at Vin, then brushed lingering snowflakes from his hair.

“Yeah. Not too much. I don’t think the roads will be too bad later.” Vin stepped in and kissed Riley; the look Riley gave Patrick as he pulled back was triumphant, like he’d won some unspoken competition between them.

Patrick wasn’t that stupid. He couldn’t lose a competition he knew better than to enter in the first place. “Hi, Riley. Thanks for letting me come.”

“The more the merrier,” Riley said.

He led them to his door, which was cracked open, the sound of voices and music from within bleeding out into the hallway.

“Let me introduce you around.” It seemed like more of an offer to Vin than the both of them, but Patrick trailed along anyway, shaking hands and repeating names in an attempt to get them into his head.

“I’m going to get Vin a drink. You’ll be okay, won’t you?” Riley asked and took Vin off toward the kitchen before Patrick could answer.

“Hi! I’m Timothy.” Thank God for adorable, friendly guys who were willing to glomp on to complete strangers. “How do you know Riley?”

“My best friend is dating him,” Patrick said.

Timothy nodded. He was taller than Patrick, and skinny, but with the wide shoulders and wrists that meant in a few years he’d fill out. “I’m a friend of a friend. He seems cool, though. I like his place.”

“Not sure I do,” Patrick said, then heard how it sounded and tried to explain. “It’s a little too nice. Makes me nervous I might spill something on his couch and incur his wrath.”

“He doesn’t seem like the wrathy kind.”

Tired of talking about Riley—it’d been a whole ninety seconds at least—Patrick tapped the bottle of beer Timothy was drinking from, noting it was strong and expensive, produced by a local brewery. They sold them at the Peg, and this one, a Christmas special featuring a hint of cranberry, was meant to be drunk from a glass. “So who do I have to blow to get a drink?”

He’d been prepared to bring along something to drink for the evening, plus a grudgingly given bottle of wine for his host, but Vin had nixed that idea. “He said not to bother for either of us, and he meant it. There’ll be plenty there, so help yourself.

Timothy turned a charming shade of pink. “Um, there’s a bar in the corner over there for the liquor, and the beer and wine’s in the kitchen. I don’t think you have to do anything but know how to use a bottle opener.”

Sweet, but dim and unimaginative. Oh well. After promising to be right back—though the glint of alarm in Timothy’s eyes made him wonder if they’d spend the rest of the night avoiding each other—Patrick drifted over to the bar. Nice selection of the basics, plenty of mixers on ice, and a few bottles with an inch missing that were probably years old and only taken out at parties like this because no one knew what to do with them.

He pursed his lips. So what could he do with them? He picked up a stainless steel cocktail shaker, filled it with ice, and reached for the Bombay Sapphire because the bottle matched his eyes.

“You look like a man who knows what he’s doing.”

The husky drawl was attractive, but when Patrick turned his head, he saw the man who’d spoken had his arm around a pretty girl, her long red hair falling sleek and shiny down her back. Expensive hair. Expensive dress. And he’d have bet a week’s pay every stitch the man was wearing was designer.

“Is that so. And what do I look like I’m doing?” Oops. Don’t flirt with the straight guy. And he wasn’t that special to look at, but that voice was killer. Patrick smiled at both of them, ready to be friendly.

“You look like you’re going to mix us a drink. Gin and tonic for me and a Zombie for her.” The man snapped his fingers, or tried to. He covered up his inability to coordinate with a brusque, “Chop-chop. The lady’s thirsty.”

Patrick’s smile faded. His chin came up with a jerk that hurt his neck. “Excuse me?”

“Riley pointed you out. Said you were the bartender. Are you going to make us a drink, or do I have to tell him he hired the wrong guy?”

“Oh, you don’t need to tell him anything. I’ll do that myself.” Patrick set the shaker down. “And FYI, I’m a guest here, not the hired help, and do you even know what’s in a Zombie? Because you’re not going to make one from what’s here.” He waved at the bottles. “I mean, do you see any Velvet Falernum? Do you? No. So you’re not going to get a Zombie, and if that was your plan to get laid, you’re going to need a better one.”

“He would have struck out anyway.” The girl’s previously pleasant expression had shifted during their brief conversation. She stepped away from the guy’s arm and gave him a look of disgust that had Patrick feeling a little bit of sympathy for him, knowing what it was like to have that sort of loathing focused in his direction.

Then the guy opened his mouth again, and even Patrick’s fine tendrils of sympathy dissolved. “Stop fucking around and make me a gin and tonic.”

“Honey, if I felt like fucking around, trust me, you’d know it.” Patrick turned his flirt level to top volume and focused all his attention on the guy in a way that was calculated to either send straight men running or have them doubting their heterosexuality. “You do know how to dress, though. I’ll give you that.” He let his gaze travel slowly down along the man’s chest. “Wonder if you look as nice underneath the clothes?”

Predictably, the guy stammered out an excuse and fled. The redheaded girl smiled at him and said, “You did that on purpose.”

“Of course I did. Now, I can’t make you a Zombie—and I don’t know if you’d want one anyway, unless your tolerance is a lot higher than I’m guessing—but there’s stuff here for, let’s see, a Fuzzy Navel? Orange juice, peach schnapps. Yeah, that works.”

“It sounds perfect, but I can make it myself.” The girl set her little glittery clutch down on the edge of the bar and held out her hand. “I’m Marnie.”

“Patrick.”

“And you’re not the bartender? I’m not making excuses for that jerk, but that was the impression we got from Riley.”

“Well, technically I’m a bartender. Just not here.” Patrick watched as she put ice in a glass—a real glass, not a plastic cup like at most of the parties he went to—and followed it with orange juice and what looked like an accurate shot of schnapps. “Sorry I scared off your date.”

“I don’t know that guy. I think his name is Taylor. Something like that.” Marnie sipped her drink and watched him over the rim of her glass. Her eyes were a shade of green a little too bright to be real, colored contacts just like Patrick’s. “The first thing he asked was if I was single. Then he kind of latched on to me. He seemed okay at the beginning, but it didn’t take long to realize I’d have to ditch him, so thanks for the help.”

“Anytime.” Patrick saw Riley through a gap in the crowd. The son of a bitch was part of a group of four men, with Vin one of the four but somehow, subtly, excluded. Not by Riley, whose hand rested on Vin’s back in a possessive way Patrick resented, but by the other two. They were Taylor clones, as good-looking as clothes and accessories could make them, their teeth white and straight, their hair as well cut as Marnie’s. Patrick ran his tongue over his teeth, feeling the bump of an uneven eyetooth he’d never been able to afford to have fixed. He didn’t let it stop him from smiling, but he was conscious of it.

Riley’s group laughed at something, with Vin lagging behind a beat, his expression polite, a little bored. As Patrick watched, Vin lifted the glass he was holding and took several gulps from it like it was the only way he could distract himself from Riley’s insufferable friends. Okay, maybe that was just Patrick’s interpretation of the situation.

Patrick contemplated storming over and causing a scene about the bartender thing, but that was probably what Riley was counting on. Then he’d play the innocent, claiming he’d been misunderstood and he’d meant Patrick knew how to mix drinks, nothing more. No, of course he didn’t expect Patrick to work. Don’t be silly. You’re a guest. Oh, you have to leave? What a pity. What a shame. Don’t let the door hit your ass—

Marnie poked him in the ribs. “Are you okay? You’re staring into space and muttering to yourself.”

“Me? I’m fine.” Patrick inhaled long and slow. “I really need a drink.”

“Well, it’s right there.”

“So it is.” Would it choke him to drink something Riley had paid for? Patrick eyed the display of bottles and decided no, it wouldn’t. Definitely a theory that needed to be tested, though. He’d gone off gin, but he whipped up a favorite of his, vodka and Cointreau with a splash of lemon soda. The liquid looked silver in the glass, matching his hair. Perfect.

He tapped his glass against Marnie’s. “Bottoms up.”

Marnie gave him a wicked smile. “Am I the first woman you’ve ever said that to? I’m flattered.”

Patrick snickered, appreciating someone with a sense of humor, unlike poor neglected, forgotten Timothy. “We’re going to get along fine.”

“Thank God,” Marnie said, with enough emphasis that Patrick knew she meant it. “My best friend bailed on this thing at the last minute, and I’d already promised to come, so here I am.” She sipped from her glass, not lowering the level much.

“So you aren’t one of Riley’s friends?” Patrick was confident in her answer, and she didn’t disappoint him.

“I wouldn’t say that. My best friend knew him in college, and he still gets invited to all these group things. Sometimes I tag along.” She pushed her hair back behind her ear, revealing a sparkling earring that must have cost a fortune if it was made of real diamonds, and it probably was. “I think Riley likes having girls around, even now that he’s defected to your side.”

“My side?” Patrick laughed without much humor. “Believe me, the only thing Riley and I have in common is our sexuality.”

“And maybe his new boyfriend? The one you can’t take your eyes off?” Okay, clearly Marnie was even smarter than she was beautiful.

“Vin? We’re just friends. We work together.” Patrick tried to make it sound casual, but she didn’t seem convinced.

“Please. You can tell him that if you need to, but you can’t fool me.” Marnie looked around, then tucked her hand through Patrick’s arm and nodded toward a corner of the room where there was empty seating. “Come on. Sit and tell me all about it.”

“There’s nothing to tell,” Patrick said, but he let her take him over to the seats, and after a few sips of his drink, it wasn’t hard to start talking.

He was ten minutes into explaining how Vin wasn’t his type, really wasn’t, with the glimmer of amusement in her eyes letting him know she wasn’t buying it, when the topic of conversation came over.

No, lurched over, unsteady in a way Vin never was, the glass he held tilting as he walked.

“Patrick! Where were you? I was looking for you.”

Patrick was on his feet before Vin had finished speaking, supporting him with his hand hooked under Vin’s elbow. “What’s wrong?”

Vin shook his head, the movement exaggerated. He was pale, his mouth awry. “Don’t know. I feel weird. Everything’s fuzzy. Feel like I’ve been to the dentist. Mouth’s numb.” He screwed up his face. “Feel sick.”

“Looks like someone got a Zombie even if it wasn’t me,” Marnie commented, rising to hold Vin up from the other side.

“He doesn’t drink,” Patrick told her tersely, but even as he said it he knew she was right. Vin’s eyes looked normal, so it wasn’t drugs, and he’d been perfectly fine an hour ago, so it wasn’t likely he’d been hit with food poisoning or a virus. Patrick took the glass from Vin, sniffed it, then took a cautious sip. Coke, with the unmistakable kick of vodka lacing it. It was a big glass. If Vin had drunk it quickly, needing something to do with his hands because he felt nervous, he could’ve had a couple of shots without realizing it.

He cast an expert look over Vin, used to gauging how drunk someone was. For a nondrinker like Vin, and on an empty stomach because Riley had said there’d be food later, a couple of shots would feel like triple that amount. Vin’s system could handle it, and throwing up wouldn’t kill him, but that wasn’t the point.

Vin hadn’t chosen to drink the vodka. No way. This had been done to him. A rare, cold anger filled Patrick, anger that needed a target.

“Sit,” he said to Vin and eased him onto the love seat he’d been sharing with Marnie. “Can you get him some water? And I mean water, nothing else.”

“Sure.” With a practicality he appreciated as much as her sense of humor, she darted behind the bar after grabbing an unopened bottle of water from it and came back with an empty ice bucket, placing it in Vin’s lap. “Aim for it, not the carpet, if you feel sick.”

Vin gave her a dazed look, took the water bottle she’d uncapped for him, then nodded, his lips pinched together. Patrick sat beside him, his arm around Vin’s shoulders. “You’re going to be fine, okay? A headache tomorrow, but you’ll live. We’ll go in a minute when you’ve had some water. Small sips, that’s it.”

“Why is it every time I see you, you’re groping my boyfriend?”

Riley. Angry, not quite sober, glaring at Patrick like he had every right to be annoyed. Oh, Patrick was going to enjoy this.

“You mean your drunk boyfriend who doesn’t drink? I wonder how something like that happened. The way I see it, you either spiked his drink or had someone else do it. So what kind of boyfriend does that make you? Hmm, let’s think about that for a minute.”

Patrick glanced at Vin to check he was drinking the water Marnie had brought him, then continued. “I’m pretty sure that makes you an asshole. Because only an asshole would do something like this. Hey, people?” Raising his voice, Patrick stood to get everyone’s attention. “I wanted to make sure you all know that our host here? He thought it was a good idea to spike his boyfriend’s drink. So if you’re driving, you might all want to check yours. You know, just to be on the safe side.”

“Shut up,” Riley growled, pushing past him, and dropped to his knees in front of Vin. “Vin? Are you okay?”

“I’m sick,” Vin said. He was pale. “Feel terrible.”

“Poor baby.” Riley sounded more sympathetic than Patrick would have given him credit for. “Come on, I’ll put you to bed. You can sleep it off.”

“No way.” Patrick sat down beside Vin and put an arm around him. “No way is he staying here with you.”

“He’s my boyfriend,” Riley said. “Who the hell are you to say where he stays?”

“Someone who’ll take better care of him than the guy who got him drunk without his consent,” Patrick said hotly.

“Would you stop fucking saying that? I didn’t ‘get him drunk.’ You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Riley seemed righteously angry, which confused Patrick.

“I don’t?” For a second or two, Riley almost had Patrick convinced. But no, no way. “Whatever. I don’t believe you. And I’m not leaving him here with you no matter what you say.”

“So what, you’re going to kidnap him?” Riley snorted.

“No! I’m going to let him decide.” As soon as the words had passed Patrick’s lips, he regretted them, because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to leave Vin here even if Vin told him to. “Vin? Listen to me.”

Vin turned his head; he hadn’t thrown up yet, at least. “What?”

“You’re drunk, sweetie. Did you get drunk on purpose?”

“I don’t drink.” Vin frowned at him. “You know that.”

“Did you ask Riley for a drink?”

“Sure. Coke. I had it here somewhere.” Vin glanced around. “Where did it go?”

Riley said, “Patrick probably took it. Seems like he wants to take a lot of things that aren’t his.” The look Riley shot Patrick was a challenge, but desperation lay behind it too, as if Riley could feel the situation slipping away from him. “Isn’t that right?”

“Don’t put ideas in my head,” Patrick warned him. “And don’t try to stop me from taking Vin home.”

There were people at Riley’s back now, some curious, some hostile. Marnie stepped closer to Patrick’s side, a silent ally, but Patrick could read a room, and he didn’t like the way this was going. Music was still playing, but with everyone listening to the confrontation, the room was full of an edgy, simmering energy.

“Jesus, Ri, let the little fairy fly away,” a man said, one of the ones Riley had been talking to earlier. “And if he wants to take your bit of dark meat with him, well, so what?”

“Are you going to let them talk about him like that?” Patrick demanded, disgust filling him.

Riley got to his feet, his expression strained as he glanced from his friends to Vin. “You should go. I’ll call Vin in the morning. Explain it all.”

“Yes,” a female voice chimed in. “Throw out the trash, Riley. Or do you want Marco’s dad to know you’re in bed with the man who helped put his son in prison?”

Tired of people towering over him—and the woman who’d spoken was in four-inch heels, so she was doing a good job—Patrick stood. “Who the hell are you?”

“Jenna, if you must know. Marco’s girlfriend. Was.” She sniffed, executing a hair flip that she had to have practiced in front of a mirror. “I mean, obviously I’m not now, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t have feelings for him, and it’s making me sick to my stomach seeing that man here when he’s rotting in a cell.”

Patrick’s hair was too short to toss around, but he could roll his eyes, and he did. “Oh please. He and his brain-dead friends are exactly where they deserve to be after what they did.”

“Jenna, did you spike his drink?” Riley demanded, cutting across Jenna’s indignant hiss. “You said it’d be funny to get Vin drunk. I heard you. Well? Did you?”

She shrugged, looking bored now, as if sustaining an emotion was too much effort. “Maybe my hand slipped when I was pouring myself a drink, and some vodka got in his glass. What’s the big deal? He didn’t have to drink it. He must have liked it.”

“I can’t taste anything,” Vin said. “My nose has been stuffed up since we got here.” He stared at Jenna. “You wear too much perfume.” He rubbed his nose and sneezed. “Gah. Being here makes my throat close up.”

Marnie snickered. “Oh, you’re not the only one who thinks that, honey. She bathes in the stuff. Lucky for her it’s cheap.” She touched Patrick’s arm. “Time for me to go, I think. Did you drive, Patrick? No? Well, I’ll drop you both off on my way to somewhere more interesting. Thanks for the invitation, Riley, but next time leave me off the list, hmm?”

Riley, who must have realized anything he could have said to her would make him look like a total ass, backed off immediately, though he followed them to the door, then out to the elevator. “Look, I’ll talk to her, okay?” he said to Vin as the elevator doors opened. “Make sure she apologizes.”

“Thanks,” Vin said. He added plaintively, “I wouldn’t have drunk it if I knew what was in it. I don’t drink. Why does that bother people?”

“I don’t mind,” Riley assured him. “Really.”

“I’m sorry I ruined your party.” Vin was subdued, no fight in him as he leaned against Patrick’s shoulder.

“You didn’t. As scenes go, this was nothing for this crowd. Sleep it off, and I’ll call you in the morning.” Riley moved in like he wanted to claim a good-night kiss, but Patrick chose that moment to guide Vin into the elevator, leaving Riley standing awkwardly in the hall with a worried expression on his face.

It was almost enough to make Patrick feel sorry for the guy. Not enough, but almost. It did keep him from making a biting comment, as the elevator door slid shut, about how Riley didn’t need to worry; he’d take care of Vin since obviously his “boyfriend” wasn’t able to. When it had, Vin shuffled closer to Patrick and leaned on him a little more. “I feel terrible.”

“I know. Please tell me you’re not going to puke on me, though? I like this shirt.”

“You’re such a Brony,” Vin muttered, making Marnie giggle.

Patrick smiled at Marnie. “Thanks for the help, by the way.”

“No problem. I just wanted to get you two out of there. He really doesn’t drink at all?”

“He doesn’t even do caffeine much. The Coke probably had him high even without the vodka.”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Vin said, burrowing his head into Patrick’s shoulder. “Is this how it’s supposed to feel? It’s horrible. I’m saying stuff in my head, and it’s clear. Then I talk, and it’s coming out all mushed up. You don’t sound like that when you’ve been drinking. Not fair.”

“You’re not that bad,” Patrick assured him. “On anyone else, this would be a mild buzz. You just don’t have any tolerance for it. Me, I’ve had years of practice.”

“I remember the first time I got drunk,” Marnie said as the elevator doors opened. “Wine coolers. I kept tilting sideways, and I couldn’t figure out why. Kept telling people it was because of my shoes, so in the end I took them off and threw them in the pool. Then I threw up in the pool. When there were people in it.”

“Good times,” Patrick said, not entirely ironically. He got Vin through the main doors and into the chilly evening. The snow had stopped, but the ground was frosted white with it, their breath visible on the air. “Look, if you meant it about the ride, that’d be great, but I can’t promise he won’t puke.”

Marnie studied Vin. “He looks better now that he’s in the fresh air. I’ll risk it, I guess. We can keep his window down. That should help.”

“No more perfume,” Vin agreed and took a deep breath before pulling free of Patrick. “I can walk.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Patrick said, after watching Vin take two wobbly steps on the icy sidewalk. “But I’d appreciate a shoulder to lean on, so how about you let me hang on to you, huh?”

“Okay. I don’t want you to fall.”

It wasn’t hard to hide his smile against Vin’s hair. They made their way slowly through the parking lot to Marnie’s car, where Patrick folded Vin into the backseat. “I’ll scrape the car if you want to let it run for a minute,” he told Marnie, and bless her, she gave him one of those scrapers that had a built-in mitten to protect his hand. Still, by the time he got back in, he was shivering and wishing he’d thought about a hat and gloves earlier in the evening.

Of course, if he’d known how things would turn out, he would have faked being sick and gotten Vin to give the party a pass altogether. Or tried. With the way Vin felt about Riley, Patrick would’ve had to have broken his leg to manage that.

Marnie paused the car at the edge of the lot. “Okay, where are we going?”

“Right, then I think eight blocks, and a left. Thanks so much for this.”

“Will you stop thanking me?” Marnie said. “You did me a huge favor by giving me an excuse to get out of there when you did. I’m ridiculously grateful. I owe you way more than a ride.”

“You might not be saying that if I throw up,” Vin said weakly.

“You won’t,” Patrick told him. “Don’t think about it. Think about something else, something nice.”

Like me.

The breeze from the open window didn’t do anything to warm him up, but he felt a small glow kindle when Vin, without replying, turned to hug him and stayed there, his head on Patrick’s shoulder. It was more of a slump than a hug, and he didn’t want Vin to go to sleep before they’d gotten inside, because Vin was too heavy to carry, but it felt so good to have Vin turn to him that Patrick pushed his misgivings aside.

They drove in silence for the most part, Marnie concentrating on the road and Patrick’s directions, Patrick giving in to temptation and stroking Vin’s hair. It was as sleek as cat fur, and each tacitly welcomed pass of his hand gave him hope, made him wonder if Vin would ever do this sober and fully awake.

“So this is your place?”

“Yeah,” Patrick said, not bothering to apologize for its run-down appearance. He lived on the edge of a rough neighborhood in a tiny basement apartment that smelled funky no matter how many scented candles he burned, and he’d never be able to move out until he started being responsible and saving money instead of blowing his cash on drinking and clothes.

Which meant he’d still be here when he was an old man, with no hair left to dye outrageous colors and a saggy ass no one wanted to fuck.

It was going to suck to be old him, but that was a long way off, so he didn’t think about it often.

“He’s staying with you tonight, then?”

“My place was closest, and he’s got to be with someone.” Okay, that sounded a touch defensive.

Marnie chuckled. “And I’m guessing Riley knows where Vin lives, but not you, so if he comes looking for Cinderella, he won’t find her? Clever.”

“I just want to take care of him,” Patrick said. It was true. “He’d do it for me. He has.”

“Then you’re a good friend.” Marnie looked at him from between the seats. “You want a hand getting him inside?”

But Vin was already fumbling with the door handle. “No, I think we’re good,” Patrick said. “Vin, hang on a sec. I want to give Marnie my number.” He didn’t have a house phone—did anyone these days?—but he liked this girl, and he doubted Riley would tell him how to get in touch with her.

“Here, put it in my phone.” Marnie pushed a few buttons and handed over a shiny new iPhone.

Patrick entered his number and gave the phone back. Vin was ignoring him and clambering out onto the sidewalk, shuffling long footprints into the snow.

“Text me,” he told her as he got out, instead of saying thank you again, and shut the door.

He’d wondered whose bed he would end up in tonight and who he’d be sharing it with. He’d never expected this.

Did it mean he was on Santa’s good list or the other one?

Hard to say.