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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.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

“It’s cold,” Vin whined as Marnie drove off. Patrick shook free of his thoughts and got an arm around him.

“I know. Come on, let’s get you inside where it’s warm.”

Warm was a bit of a stretch. Patrick had always wondered if the upstairs apartments in his building were better heated, because his was always cold. The fact it was half underground should’ve helped, but it sure as hell didn’t seem to. He hadn’t left any lights on, and Vin managed to stumble into the corner of the table first thing.

“Ow!”

“Stay still for a second.” Patrick fumbled for the light switch.

“Sorry,” Vin said, leaning on the table. “I forgot this was here. God, I screwed up. Riley’s gonna be so mad at me for messing up his party.”

“Okay, one, it wasn’t your fault, and two, if he’s mad at you for something that wasn’t your fault, he’s a jerk.” Patrick shrugged off his coat and helped Vin with his. “I’m going to be super nice and let you have the bed, so I hope you’re appropriately grateful in the morning. Assuming you even remember any of this then.”

He let Vin use the tiny bathroom without company, hovering close enough that he would hear a crash if Vin passed out. Heading off hangovers before they arrived was part of his weekend routine, so he made Vin drink a huge glass of water and swallow some painkillers, adding in a dose of vitamin B for good measure. He refilled Vin’s glass and put it on the crate he used for a night table. He’d painted it black and gotten his friends to decorate it with metallic markers, but it still looked like what it was—cheap. Vin had chosen a glittering red and drawn a lopsided dragon.

He didn’t think Vin would throw up, not now, but he put a plastic bowl he used for chips by the bed too and dug out a gag gift he’d gotten on his birthday one year—a night-light in the shape of a penis. He plugged it in and watched the cock glow pink. Tacky as hell, but he hadn’t gotten much else that day, so he’d kept it even though he’d never planned to use it. It lit up the room enough that if Vin woke in the night, he wouldn’t be disoriented.

It was still early, way too early for him to contemplate sleeping, but that was okay. He would put Vin to bed and listen out for him until he was sure Vin was settled.

The bathroom door opened, and Vin came out, arms wrapped around himself and looking thoroughly miserable. “If I die before morning, tell Riley I’m sorry.”

“No,” Patrick said firmly. The whole thing was ridiculous. “Come lie down. You’ll get a good night’s sleep, and in the morning, everything will be fine.”

“I love your bed.” Vin fell onto it and hugged one of Patrick’s pillows. “I love your bed so much. I’m going to spend the rest of my life here.”

“Nah. Tomorrow you’ll go home and start wondering what you ever saw in me and my shitty little apartment.” The thought was depressing. Patrick sat down on the edge of the bed, a box spring and mattress on the floor, and pulled the covers up over Vin.

“You’re stupid,” Vin said, voice muffled by the pillow.

Patrick sighed. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“I’m cold,” Vin said a moment later. “Freezing. Aren’t you cold?”

“No, and neither are you. You’re just drunk.” Patrick petted Vin’s hair. It was meant to be a brief, soothing gesture, but it turned into something more. Vin’s hair was so soft that Patrick found himself running his fingers through it.

Vin muttered words Patrick couldn’t understand.

“What?”

Turning his head to the side, Vin said, “C’mere. I need body warmth.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” It was a stupid thing to say, because if Vin remembered it later, it would be all kinds of ammunition.

“You’re wrong. It’s a great idea.” Vin shifted to make room for him, and reluctantly Patrick kicked off his shoes and got under the covers. “Mm. Much better.”

At least they were both dressed. Though he’d have to make Vin take off his jeans, or they’d dig into his stomach, and the state Vin was in, any added discomfort wasn’t a good idea. Once they were warmed up, he’d suggest it, help as needed, and slide out and onto the couch.

Oh God, was he really thinking about peeling Vin’s black jeans down his legs, exposing olive skin dusted with dark hair and the black boxer briefs he knew Vin wore? The clinging ones, outlining every curve of ass, every luscious inch of Vin’s cock, which would be pushing against the fabric as it hardened, molding it promisingly as the warmth of Patrick’s breath—

He groaned, then bit down hard on his lip before he said something stupid. Like suggesting Vin get undressed. Because that wasn’t a good idea. Practical, yes. Normal, even. No one slept in their clothes on purpose, after all. No matter what the time of year, Patrick always slept bare-ass, hating the constriction of even a T-shirt.

It was still a very bad idea. He was only human. A horny, distressingly sober, desperately-in-love human.

In love? Was he? With Vin? Vin, who was fixated on his high school crush, blinded by the romance of getting his dream-come-true ending and off-limits, taken, spoken for. That Vin?

No. Not going to happen. He liked Vin. A lot. He was attracted to him, yeah. Vin wasn’t his type—not his type at all—but Vin was still hot with that repressed-virgin thing making him as tempting as a chocolate truffle, even though Riley had technically bitten into Vin’s soft center—and that wasn’t something to dwell on. Patrick had bumped into Riley’s first hookup, and after the mildest of threats and hissed reminders of how long they’d been friends, he’d gotten Jazz to spill every detail.

Riley’s cock was adequate—something Patrick tried to be glad about for Vin’s sake—but he didn’t know what to do with it.

He’s one of those poke-and-push guys. Took him forever to line up. Then he shoved in so hard my throat was sore the next day. Nice, though. Not a jerk. Just average.”

“Well, they can’t all be supersexy studs,” Patrick had said magnanimously and bought Jazz a drink out of gratitude and guilt.

So that was it, then. He cared about Vin as a friend.

And the fact he couldn’t stop stroking Vin’s hair didn’t contradict that conclusion at all.

Another groan escaped. He was fucked. He fell in love and out once a month, but none of those men had done more than ream his ass with dedicated thoroughness, telling him what a sweet little slut he was if they were the poetic type. What he had with Vin, one-sided though it was, felt totally different. Scary but right.

“If you want to puke, you can use my bowl,” Vin murmured sleepily.

“I’m good,” Patrick said. “Hey, Vin? You love Riley, right?”

“Hmm?”

“Riley. You remember, your boyfriend?”

Vin snuggled a little bit closer. “Mmm-hmm. He’s nice. Even though I’m no good in bed. It’ll be better next time, he says.”

That was alarming, and probably more detail than Vin would reveal if he were sober, at least without Patrick begging for it. “What will be better next time?”

“You know. Me.” Vin’s arm had been loosely draped over Patrick’s waist, which was fine because they were both fully dressed. They weren’t doing anything wrong. Now, though, Vin grabbed a handful of the back of Patrick’s T-shirt and tightened on it. “He says it’s supposed to hurt the first few times, but not like that. I was too tense or something.”

“He hurt you?” Patrick tried not to sound too horrified, because sure, getting fucked up the ass could hurt even if it wasn’t your first time, but the thought of someone hurting Vin was something else. Vin didn’t answer. “Vin? Riley hurt you?”

“Not on purpose,” Vin muttered.

Oddly, even after tonight’s events, that was easy to believe. It confirmed what Jazz had said about Riley’s technique being on the basic side. Riley wasn’t mean or selfish. Kind of weak when it came to taking a stand and being loyal. Deficient in the area of protecting Vin from psycho exes of psycho arsonists, definitely. But all in all, when Riley was stacked up against Patrick, most people would point to Riley as the upstanding citizen and ideal boyfriend and Patrick as the loser.

Patrick would even agree with them when he wasn’t envying Riley for having Vin so much that he couldn’t be fair. Agreeing Riley was right for Vin, though, no. A big, fat, hairy no. Something about that didn’t click. Riley needed to be with someone else. Anyone else. Patrick was willing to come up with a list of possibilities. He didn’t know many rich, boring gay men any mother would be happy to meet, but he was sure he could find some.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. You know that, right?”

“Want to make him happy. Love him.”

“Please don’t say that to me. I’m begging you, Vin.”

Vin frowned. “Why not? It’s nice. Been waiting so long. Lonely and waiting, and now I’m not.”

But I am.

He didn’t say it aloud. What was the point? Instead, he said, “Tell me what happened when he hurt you.” Maybe it had been an accident of some kind, and Riley had been distraught and had begged for forgiveness. Hearing that would make Patrick feel better.

Vin curled forward and pressed his forehead to Patrick’s chest. “It’s embarrassing.”

“I know. You hate talking about stuff like this, but maybe I can help. That would be good, right?” Patrick hoped he wasn’t being too manipulative.

“I didn’t know it would be like that,” Vin said. “I mean, I’m not an idiot. I read some how-to articles online, before.”

“You read articles online about how to get fucked up the ass?” Patrick felt bad that he found the idea amusing.

“Yeah. You know how it’s supposed to go. Use lots of lube, take it slow, be relaxed. I wanted to do it. Everyone else loves it. What’s wrong with me?” Vin sounded miserable; Patrick hated that. “Maybe I was never supposed to find Riley again because I’m screwed up somehow, and I’m supposed to be single forever. Or at least never have sex.”

Patrick was having a hard time listening to this. He didn’t want to know the details—didn’t want to have to picture Vin and Riley naked and in bed together—but he kind of needed to. “How did he start off? Did he take it slow?”

“How slow is it supposed to be? I don’t know. You told me one time you got laid during a commercial break. Started it fully dressed, ended it naked and covered in lube.”

“That sounds exactly like something I’d say, but it’s not necessarily true.”

He thought back to that afternoon. Hmm. Pretty accurate. The lube and rubbers had been handy because they were watching TV in the guy’s bedroom, and “fully dressed” was overstating it, unless socks and a ripped T-shirt counted, but Jack, John, Jim, whatever his name was, had slid into Patrick’s offered ass with a pleased grunt and ridden him fast and rough, coming before Patrick was even close and pulling out, job done.

Which was why Patrick had put on the rest of his clothes and slammed out of the room, doing that in record time too.

“Even if I do go in for the wham-bam fucks now and then, that’s me, and my ass is used to it. Someone like you, there isn’t any such thing as too slow.” He should let Vin sleep. He should. “You need to take off your jeans if you’re feeling warmer now. Easier to sleep without them.”

“Yeah.” Vin rolled to his back, fumbling under the covers and getting nowhere.

Sighing, Patrick sat up and helped, doing his best not to look, which wasn’t as hard as it might have been because of all the covers. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for his dick, apparently as well trained as Pavlov’s dogs to perk up at the mere mention of sex. Ah well, he was going to the couch where he could jerk off in peace. He leaned in and kissed Vin’s hair. “Good night, sleeping beauty,” he murmured.

Vin caught his shirtsleeve. “Don’t go.”

“Well, I can’t sleep here with you, silly. You have a boyfriend who wouldn’t like it.” Patrick pried Vin’s fingers from his sleeve and kissed his knuckles instead. “Not to worry, hon. I’ll be right on the couch if you need anything.”

“I need you.” Was it Patrick’s imagination, or had a new flush crept onto Vin’s cheeks? “I don’t want to sleep alone, okay?”

It was hard to deny Vin anything he wanted. Doubly hard when it was what Patrick wanted too. “Okay. Let me change into something else first. I’ll be right back.”

They’d changed in front of each other a hundred times without a thought, and Vin was half-asleep, but somehow Patrick couldn’t help turning away when he peeled off his tight jeans and put on an old pair of sweatpants he’d bought last year when he’d been pretending his New Year’s resolution was to start exercising. He took a minute to visit the bathroom, brushing his teeth and taking out his contacts. When he crawled back into bed with Vin, he was glad for the warmth.

“Yay, you’re back,” Vin said in a whisper.

“Yeah. Now will you sleep?”

“I want to. Want to pretend this whole night never happened.”

Patrick smiled. “Would be nice, wouldn’t it? I was thinking on the way home if I’d known how tonight would turn out, I would have faked sick and made you stay here and bring me chicken soup.”

“Now I’ll never believe you if you say you’re sick and can’t go to something.”

“You’re just not going to sleep, are you?” He recognized the signs. Vin had moved into the drowsily chatty stage. He’d probably fall asleep midsentence at some point, but until his brain switched off, his mouth was going to keep moving, speaking words freed by alcohol from whatever box Vin had stored them in.

Patrick had a few boxes like that, but his were padlocked, wrapped in chains, and buried in concrete. Better for everyone that way. When he got drunk—not often these days, because he couldn’t afford it and he’d learned his limits—he got embarrassingly sentimental, slopping baby talk and endearments all over the place, but he didn’t share secrets as much as personal shit.

Like being an orphan. Because when people said you were dead to them, that kind of went both ways once it’d sunk in they meant it.

Patrick wasn’t stupid. Poor judgment at times, yeah, he’d admit to that. He knew a therapist would draw a straight line from his abandonment issues to his long string of sexual partners and sprinkle in some buzzwords about low self-esteem and lack of ambition as a method of avoidance.

Knowing the reasons he was fucked-up didn’t help. And mostly he was happy. It didn’t all have to be doom and gloom. He had a job, a place to live, some close friends, and a crowd of people who liked him, and sex wasn’t just about a way of giving his mom the finger. He liked it. Really, really did. And he got a lot of it.

Just not often from the same guy for very long. It wasn’t as if, quickies aside, he wanted it to be that way. He’d meet someone who seemed nice, they’d click, sex would follow, and the next morning, there wouldn’t be a quick escape but plans to meet again. He’d get his hopes up, only to come on too strong and be left watching a door close in his face a few weeks later.

“You think louder than most people talk.” Vin yawned and nestled closer. “Shane says he can hear the wheel spinning but the hamster’s wandered off. He’s funny. Do you think he’s funny?”

“Not if that’s the kind of stuff he’s saying,” Patrick said sourly.

Vin pouted, actually pouted. Vin never pouted. “He wasn’t being mean. He was kidding around. You know, in that British way he has. It’s not an American sense of humor; it’s a totally different animal.”

“Like the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Patrick didn’t feel any better about it.

“Exactly! British people are weird. I mean, would you ever date Shane in a million years?”

“Not if he was the last guy on earth,” Patrick said fervently. “Well, maybe if he was the last. What do you think Ben sees in him?”

“He’s hot as hell, for one. Especially when he wears a short-sleeved T-shirt. His arms are huge.” Vin sounded genuinely appreciative. “And all that intensity…mmm.”

“I’d rather have it directed at someone else, thank you very much. He’s been a lot easier to deal with since Ben came on the scene, though. He definitely would have fired me the other night if it wasn’t for Ben.”

Patrick shivered at the thought, and Vin rubbed his side comfortingly.

“Poor baby. It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not. I’ve been working my ass off, and Shane keeps adding to the to-do list like he’s in some army movie and I’m a recruit he’s trying to break.” In porn, Patrick totally got off on that scenario since it inevitably ended with the recruit getting fucked by someone big and mean in a uniform, but at work and coming from Shane, it wasn’t much fun. “For someone who gets off on being ordered around, he sure as hell doesn’t seem to mind telling me what to do.”

Okay, he shouldn’t have said that, but Shane asked for it. Patrick had to clean the bathrooms every day now and had been told to come in early before his shift started to do it.

It’s either that or close them when you’re working on them. Well, not the ladies. Guess you’re safe enough in there,” Shane had said without a glimmer of amusement showing. No smirk either, but the dismissive flick to the words had stung.

“You keep saying stuff like that. I don’t see it.” Vin’s hand was warm against Patrick’s side, resting there as if Vin had forgotten he was touching Patrick. “And if Shane hears you talking about him and Ben, he’ll lose it. He’s really private about his relationship. You can tell they’re in love, but they’re not all over each other.”

“They’re older,” Patrick said. “Sex drive fading. Probably have sex every other Saturday, if that.”

“Older, yeah, but they’re not dead,” Vin said, then started to giggle at what he’d said for some reason, laughing helplessly without being able to stop, trying to catch his breath between gasped apologies and explanations about zombies and dicks falling off, none of which made any sense.

Patrick gritted his teeth. Sometimes laughter like this was contagious, feeding on itself until everyone involved was weak from it, tears pouring from their eyes, breathing an issue. It’d happened to him a few times, and it was scary how hard it was to stop, even when the initial cause wasn’t that amusing. Not tonight. Vin was squirming around, curling up on himself, then kicking out his feet, his flailing hands brushing against Patrick and arousing him without intent.

Patrick tolerated it for as long as he could—which wasn’t long—then reared up and pinned Vin to the bed beneath him. Vin gave up the ghost immediately, chest heaving, eyes wide. “Sorry,” Vin said, gasping. “Did I hurt you?”

It took a few seconds for Patrick to realize Vin thought he’d kicked him in a vital area. Thank God he hadn’t. “No. I was more afraid you’d hurt yourself. Or fall out of bed.”

“Not far to fall,” Vin pointed out. He was solid and wiry beneath Patrick, and his breath still smelled like vodka.

“Right.” Reluctantly Patrick moved away, lying back down but leaving a couple of inches between them. It was one thing to sleep in the same bed but another to have Vin warm underneath him, squirming or not. “You’re right. We shouldn’t talk about Shane and Ben.” They were his employers, after all, at least until he fucked up again and got fired for real, and he was sure Vin didn’t want to know the kinds of things they got up to when no one else was around.

“They’re good people,” Vin agreed, which wasn’t exactly what Patrick had meant, though he didn’t disagree. The atmosphere at the Peg was a friendly one, with the staff feeling like they were part of a team. After the fire, and sense that they’d all been attacked, everyone at the bar had rallied around, taking care of things as Shane recovered from breathing in smoke, supporting Ben as he dealt with the cops, insurance companies, lawyers, and the press.

Everyone but him. Patrick hadn’t been needed. He’d offered, but he’d gotten the impression he was in the way. He’d been part-time back then, sure, but so what? Either he’d belonged or he hadn’t, and it’d felt like he hadn’t. He’d been surprised to be given a full-time position when they reopened.

He didn’t fit in. He didn’t belong. Everyone else was smart and capable, and he was kind of a loser.

No wonder he’d never had a real boyfriend for more than a few weeks.

Vin had gone quiet. Patrick waited and listened. Vin’s breathing was slow and even, like he was either asleep or well on his way. Good. The poor guy would feel like hell in the morning. Patrick wasn’t sure how Vin would react to what had been done to him when he was sober enough to care. Would Vin blame Riley—who should be doing a better job appreciating and looking out for his boyfriend—and decide to break up with him? Vin deserved somebody better than Riley. Being rich and good-looking only went so far.

Well.

Even if Patrick would never be good enough for Vin, he didn’t have to be the same loser forever. He wasn’t a complete moron, and he knew he could learn. He had guys like Vin and Ben to model himself after. If he really tried and focused all his energy on it, he could do better. He could be a good employee. He could stop sleeping with anyone who so much as looked his way. He could even go back to school, not that he had the faintest idea what for.

And maybe, just maybe, Vin would see him differently.

Chapter Ten

Waking up with Vin curled against him, soft breath on Patrick’s face, hard dick pushing against his, would have been nice in a tantalizingly agonizing way, but it didn’t happen. Patrick peeled his cheek off a drool-soaked patch of pillow and rolled to his back. No one in the bed, and the night-light had been unplugged, but he could hear water running in the bathroom.

Living alone, the fact his apartment was a single room, apart from the carved-out section for a toilet, sink, and shower stall, didn’t matter. When someone stayed over, it was more of an issue. Daylight did the apartment no favors either, exposing its deficiencies without mercy. Some of them, like the mold by the kitchen sink, weren’t Patrick’s fault, but the mess and general grunginess were. He always seemed to have something better to do than clean.

He could smell coffee. That was nice but weird, because he didn’t own a coffeemaker, and his jar of instant coffee was empty and resting in the overflowing trash can wedged into a corner.

The bathroom door opened, and Vin came out, fully dressed, moving like a man who’d enjoyed a good night’s sleep and was well rested and ready to face the morning.

Patrick managed a surly gurgle by way of greeting. So not a morning person unless he was being woken by a blowjob, in which case he was prepared to smile.

“Hey, did I wake you with the shower? Sorry, but I need to meet Riley for breakfast, and I smelled kind of funky.”

Patrick sat up but didn’t get out of bed, because he’d lost the sweatpants at some point in the night. He vaguely recalled kicking them off because he was too hot. His resolutions from the night before had lost some of their force, but enough of his determination to change remained that he didn’t want to give Vin an eyeful of him naked, his cock stiff with morning wood.

“I got you coffee and a cinnamon bun.”

Without his contacts in, the paper cup with the coffee in it was a blur on the table, but he could see enough to realize it was from the expensive place he always walked past, going two blocks farther to a cheaper coffee shop. His glasses were on the crate by the bed, but he never let people see him in them. Vanity beat out seeing the world clearly every time.

“Thanks,” he said. “Um. How are you?” He waited until Vin turned away, then reached down and flailed his hand until he found his sweatpants.

“Fine. The breakfast is an apology, by the way.”

“An apology for what?” Patrick pulled his pants on under the covers and swung himself into a sitting position.

“Last night. All of it. Getting drunk like that.”

“That wasn’t your fault!” Patrick protested.

“You having to leave the party and bring me home, and the way I kept you awake for hours talking was. It’s embarrassing, not to mention a reminder of why I am never drinking again.”

“You didn’t mean to drink last night. Thanks.” Patrick took the cup of coffee Vin brought over for him.

Vin sat down next to him, less blurry this close up. “Black, two sugars.”

“You know me so well.” It was too early for flirting, plus he needed to get a handle on that anyway. “But you don’t have to apologize. None of it was your fault.”

“It wasn’t Riley’s either.” Vin was giving him an earnest look, all wide-eyed insistence. “He’s so sorry; you have no idea. He thought that girl was joking around and being bitchy. He didn’t think for a minute she’d spike my drink.”

“You talked to him?” Belatedly he remembered the breakfast date. “Sorry, I forgot you said you were meeting him, so unless you’ve both become telepathic, of course you did. Not awake yet.”

The smile Vin gave him was sweeter than his coffee. “Yeah, you sleep like the dead. Didn’t miss me at all when I got out of bed, just rolled over and did a starfish impression.” Vin’s gaze slid to the side. “That’s when you kicked the covers off, but it felt kind of chilly, so I put them back on you.”

“Well, if you have to wake up to a naked ass, mine’s cuter than most.” Once again, his brain lagged behind his mouth. If Vin took that as a dig at Riley’s ass—not that he’d meant it that way—they were going to need another round of apologies, and it was too early for those too.

Fortunately Vin kept smiling. “I’ve seen worse. And I’ve seen yours before.”

“Along with many other people, so don’t get conceited.”

Great. Remind Vin he’d spent the night snuggled up to the local good-time boy.

“So what do you have planned for the day?” Vin asked. “You’ve got the evening shift, right?”

“And you’re off until tomorrow, lucky you.”

Patrick swallowed some coffee and contemplated the day ahead. He was not going to count the hours until he saw Vin again, because that would be juvenile, immature, and childish. And he wasn’t going to waste time hanging around in a bar or at the crowded mall. “I’m spring cleaning early,” he said and made it sound casual, part of his usual routine. “The place needs it.”

Vin didn’t disagree, because he wasn’t a pants-on-fire liar. “I’d stay and help, but…”

“If you saw what was lurking in my cabinets, you’d run screaming, but thanks for the offer.” Prolonging the moment, though Vin was probably dying to hurry off and meet Riley, he asked, “What about you? Going to get that new tattoo soon?”

“Now that I’m sure we’re going to get those bonuses, yeah, I might.”

Color rose in Vin’s face. The man did like his ink and metal. Patrick couldn’t contemplate the pain involved without his stomach lurching, but he definitely approved of the end result. Vin was hot, but the tattoos and piercings he had made him stunningly erotic, though Vin seemed unaware of that. He’d taken his T-shirt off once in the bar when a pump had malfunctioned, spraying him with beer, and the place had fallen silent before erupting into wolf whistles. Even Shane had gotten an eyeful, an amused look on his face.

“Did I show you the design?”

“No. What’s it going to be? Another dragon?”

“Yeah.” Vin shifted so he could stick his hand into his pocket and bring out his phone, then scrolled through until he found what he was looking for. He handed the phone to Patrick. “Here. Cool, right?”

Patrick checked out a photo of a line drawing. The dark tribal lines that made up the bulk of the design were thick and dark. The dragon they curled themselves into managed to seem both aggressive and beautiful at the same time; its talons bit into the bloodred heart it was clutching. “Very cool.”

“Riley’s initials are going to go in there somewhere, but I haven’t figured out where yet. Jasper said he’d make some suggestions, do some sketches before I go in. He’s the artist for a reason.” Vin took the phone back. “Anyway, I like to sit with the design for at least a few days, and I haven’t changed my mind yet, so I figure that means I’ll be able to live with it, you know?”

“Yeah.” Patrick didn’t, and no way was he was going to say the other stuff that was on his mind, like pointing out Vin shouldn’t even consider putting another set of Riley’s initials on his body forever. Wasn’t one set enough? It had worked its sympathetic magic, after all, and brought Riley back to Vin.

If Patrick had thought it might have a chance in hell of working for him, he’d have tattooed Vin’s initials on his face. It didn’t seem fair to try to talk Vin out of it.

“Where is it going?” Would it help if it was somewhere he’d rarely see, like Vin’s back or chest? On an arm, the way Vin went in for sleeveless T-shirts, Patrick would be staring at it every day, stomach twisted with regret.

Wasn’t love supposed to make you a better person, selfless and considerate? So far it was making him miserable, filled with enough negativity that if he had an aura the way his friend Kim swore everyone did, it would be bruise-colored, a roiling, churning ickiness surrounding him.

“On my chest. Right here.”

“Over your heart,” Patrick confirmed gloomily. Of course it was going there. Where else?

He heaved a sigh, releasing his emotions with the exhaled breath and giving himself a stern lecture about respecting and supporting Vin’s choices. All of them, from the tattoo to his boyfriend.

Even if he thought the tattoo would look better without any initials and the boyfriend was just wrong for Vin.

“What?” Vin asked.

Shit. Patrick was being transparent, and he hated that. The least he should be able to manage was putting on a happy face for his friend—his best friend, when it came to it—instead of dragging him down.

“Nothing! Okay, you got me. Someone kept me up half the night talking about our bosses’ sex lives and British comedy. So I might be a little tired from all the sleep I didn’t get. Hmm, who should we blame for that?” Patrick fluttered his eyelashes and gave Vin a playful shove with his shoulder. “At least promise me you’ll have fun today while I’m working my fingers to the bone.”

“You’d better work them at least partway to the bone,” Vin said seriously, and Patrick nodded, wanting to reassure him.

“I will, word of honor.” He held his hand up in a vague salute. “Trust me, this is me turning over a whole new leaf. Model employee.”

“That’s a good thing,” Vin said, and something in his eyes—gladness, relief?—made Patrick want to promise him the world.

“Say hi to Riley for me,” he added on impulse when Vin was at the door.

“Really?”

“Yeah. I met a couple nice people at his party, after all, and I got to confirm my rich-people-are-mostly-assholes theory, so it’s all good.” Patrick got up and shuffled over in his half-blind state.

“You know they’re not.”

“I do?”

“Riley’s rich,” Vin said with a patient look. “There’s your theory blown out of the water.”

“Exception that proves the rule,” Patrick countered and closed the door before he had to add to all his negative karma with more lies and omissions.

Three hours later, he was reconsidering the advisability of disturbing perfectly good leaves. He’d made a great start, stripping the bed and doing the laundry. One perk of his apartment was that the landlord, reluctant to see money slip through his hands, had installed a coin-operated washer and dryer in a room off the lobby. Washing sheets Vin had slept in might not have been romantic, but it felt symbolic.

And on a more practical level, they were stinky. Standards: he had to get some.

Dishes done, threadbare carpet vacuumed, bathroom scrubbed, he took a break. He’d eaten the cinnamon bun as soon as Vin left, but he found enough in the fridge to make a cheese-and-ham sandwich, though the bread was stale, and he didn’t have mayonnaise or butter. He swallowed the last bite and glanced around, wondering why cleaning was making the bits he hadn’t gotten to look so much worse than they had before he started. Discouraging.

Hanging some festive decorations might help, but they cost money. The Square Peg had decorations up, and so did every store he walked into; that would have to scratch his glitter itch.

He was deciding what to focus on next when someone knocked on his door. He opened it to find a guy he remembered from some time back standing there looking uncertain.

“Hi,” Patrick said, wishing he knew the guy’s name. “Uh, how’s it going?”

“Good! I wasn’t sure this was your place. I was standing on the sidewalk trying to figure out if it was this basement apartment or the one up that way.” Mmm, this was the kind of distraction Patrick needed: tall, long legs, big hands, hair long enough to tangle his fingers in. “You remember me, right?”

“Of course! We met at that thing. Okay, no. I mean, I recognize you, obviously—it would be a crime not to—but I’m blanking on your name.”

“Neil. I came into the bar where you work, with some of my friends, and you brought me home with you. We, um…on the bed. And afterward in the shower, remember?” Neil licked his lips hopefully, and Patrick stepped back to make room.

“Come on in,” he said.

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Neil moved past him, waited for Patrick to shut the door again, then turned and pushed him up against it, kissing him hungrily.

Patrick gave a little squeak of surprise but was happy enough to get with the program. Neil’s shirt was untucked in the back, under his coat, and Patrick ran his hands up and along Neil’s bare skin. Neil moaned and rubbed against him; Patrick could feel Neil’s cock hardening against his thigh through his sweatpants.

“You weren’t busy, were you?” Neil mouthed his way along Patrick’s jaw and nipped at his throat.

“Not with anything as fun as this.” Patrick found one of Neil’s hands and brought it to the front of his sweatpants, curled it around his erection. God, that was good. He definitely remembered Neil now—remembered Neil fucking him facedown across the mattress, long cock driving into him so hard he’d almost hyperventilated.

The mattress. On the bed. The bed Vin had slept on last night, trusting, confiding, and adorable Vin.

He’d never despised himself as much as he did in that moment. When had it gotten to the point that men thought they could knock on his door if they were in the mood for a no-strings fuck? What did that say about him? Nothing good.

The shame he felt changed a simple situation—hot guy offering sex—into a choice between his old life and the new one he’d planned out a few hours before. The stomach-lurching panic made it an easy choice, but that wasn’t the point.

“I’m in love with someone,” he blurted out and squeezed himself out from between Neil and the door, skipping back a few steps, because putting some distance between him and temptation was a sensible idea. Unfortunately he could see the outline of Neil’s cock clearly from over here, and it made his mouth water and his ass clench in anticipation of getting reamed.

Which wasn’t going to happen. Reflex action, no more than that. His body wanted it, but his heart? No. He wanted Vin, and he wasn’t accepting a substitute.

“Yeah? Congrats. Now get back here, and let’s take care of this, huh?” Neil palmed his erection and wiggled his eyebrows, his smile undimmed.

“In love,” Patrick repeated, feeling a glow of nobility similar to the one he’d had after discovering the bathroom tiles were white, not gray, once scrubbed. Well, cream, anyway. “So I don’t do this kind of thing anymore.”

Neil’s forehead puckered in a frown. “Since when? Because you were totally into it like ten seconds ago.”

“I know. Sorry for raising, umm, false expectations and all that.”

Not to mention eight inches of cock.

Patrick bit his fingernail, worrying at it as he waited for Neil’s reaction. It tasted of the goop he’d used to scrub the top of the stove, and he gagged. That was foul. Was it toxic? Was he about to die without ever kissing Vin, apart from that snatched one under the mistletoe? No, even for him that was amping up the drama too much.

It was disturbing how easy he’d been to seduce. He barely knew Neil, and he’d let the man walk in and grope him. He took secret pride in being hot, but viewed objectively, maybe he was just easy, and who could be proud of that?

“Force of habit,” he explained, wishing he could buy the excuse. “But I can’t have sex with you. It’s like an early New Year’s resolution.”

Neil’s expression changed from perky to droopy when Patrick went over to the door, yanking it open and letting in a cold breeze. “I always break those in a day or two.”

“Me too, but not this one.” Patrick shivered. “Look, I’m freezing, and I’m in the middle of cleaning up this dump, so you should go. If you’re in the bar over Christmas, I’ll buy you a drink, but that’s all you’re getting.”

“For real? Because I wouldn’t tell anyone.” Neil scratched the side of his nose. “Though with the rep you’ve got, what would one more fuck matter?”

Good point. Insulting but valid. And Patrick hated that he was seen that way. “It just would, okay? It would matter to me.”

Neil shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He was probably hoping if he hung around long enough, Patrick would change his mind. “You need to get off; I need to get off. I get what you’re saying, I do, but since we’re both hard and we’re both here, this could be your last hurrah. Something to remember when you’re middle-aged and celibate.”

And wasn’t that a terrifying thought? Neil was hitting the nail on the head over and over, building a cage around Patrick, keeping him from moving forward. But when it came down to it, the thought of being trapped in his old life was even scarier than the picture Neil painted.

“It’s not about being celibate. It’s about waiting until I find someone I care about. And who cares about me.” That made sense, calming his jangled nerves, though it was still weird to be working it out with this guy he barely knew standing right there.

“I could be someone you care about,” Neil said, then ruined it by adding, “For the next ten minutes, at least.”

“A whole ten? Wow.” Patrick gestured at the doorway. “No. Sorry. Thanks, but no, thanks. See you around.”

“Fine. But if you’re gonna wait for true love, you’re gonna be waiting a long time.”

Neil swept out the door, and Patrick pushed it shut with a lot more force than necessary, taking a strange satisfaction in the loud slam.

He’d turned down sex with a hot guy in favor of cleaning out the fridge and scrubbing the sink. That wasn’t normal.

No, he corrected himself. I turned down sex with someone who thinks I’m easy and took me for granted, and I did it because I’m in love.

None of which would get the sticky brown spill off the shelf of the fridge or make the faucets sparkle, let alone console his disappointed dick, but it made him feel better.

Vin had gone without sex for years. Patrick hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but until he knew for certain he had zero chance with Vin, well, Vin was the only one with the key to his pants.

Apart from himself. Jerking off didn’t count. Even Vin had done that.

Thinking about jerking off made him want to—he was still half-hard—but instead he dragged the trash barrel and a chair over to the fridge, opened the door, and sat down. Time to dump all the once-food, now-science-experiments that were tucked into the backs of all the fridge shelves.

Time for a fresh start and a new life.

Chapter Eleven

“If they’re not sparkling, they shouldn’t be there,” Shane said from over Patrick’s shoulder.

He inhaled slowly and reached for the glass he’d taken out of the dishwasher and put on the shelf. “Looks okay to me.”

“Then you might want to think about getting your eyes checked,” Shane grumbled, taking it from him and holding it up between Patrick and the light. “There, see?”

Patrick tried to be a good employee, but he looked closely, and all he could see was a clean glass. “It still looks okay to me.”

Shane sighed in frustration and reached for a dish towel. “Then you might also want to think about getting a new job.”

Something inside Patrick twisted painfully tight, and he found himself on the verge of tears. “Okay, fine. If you want to fire me, and I know you’ve been dying to since last week, just do it, okay? I can’t take this anymore. I’m really trying; I’m just a loser. You’d all be better off without me.”

“You said it, not me.”

Shane put the glass back, looking no different than it had before, humming under his breath as if losing loyal employees happened every day. It was too much. Patrick grabbed the towel from Shane’s hand and flailed at him with it, getting in a few good hits before Shane snatched it away, looking startled rather than annoyed.

“What the hell?”

“I hate you! You’re a fucking asshole, and you treat me like shit, and it’s not fair when I’m trying so hard to be different.”

“Well, now.” Shane sucked air through his teeth, studying Patrick thoughtfully. “Someone’s got her knickers in a twist today.”

Patrick made an inarticulate sound deep in his throat, so much wrong with Shane’s statement that he didn’t know where to start. “I am not a fucking girl!”

Shane held up his hands in what might have passed for an apology if the glint of amusement in his eyes weren’t so obvious. “Sorry. The hissy fit and foot stamping confused me.”

“Say that in front of Shelly!”

“Unlike you, I’m not feeling suicidal.” Shane tilted his head. “Want to land one on me? Give me a black eye, bloody nose? Come on. Take your best shot. Let it all out, princess.”

Patrick’s fist flew out before he could process Shane’s sincerity or the possible repercussions, driven by the force of his need to prove himself. It was stupid, it was playing right into Shane’s manipulative hands, and he didn’t care, because it would hurt Shane, and no one deserved it more.

Shane dodged Patrick’s punch with a casual shift of his body, swaying to the side so the blow missed him by an inch or two. “Okay, you’ve convinced me you’re serious. We’ve got twenty minutes before we open so—”

Patrick swung at him again, Shane’s words barely registering through the buzz in his ears. He needed to do this, or Shane would keep calling him names, keep laughing at him.

Shane, frowning now, captured Patrick’s hand in his, squeezing it hard enough to draw an anguished yelp. Patrick had seen Shane lift full crates and toss out unruly customers without breaking a sweat, so it shouldn’t have been such a shock to discover how strong Shane’s hands were.

“You only get one shot, mate, but if we danced all night, you still wouldn’t hit me, so let’s call it quits and get a bloody drink. Sit down.”

Patrick’s anger fled as quickly as it had come, leaving hopelessness in its wake. If Shane had told him to leave, not sit, he would have gone without a word. Instead, he nodded and went around the bar to sit on a stool while Shane got them each a drink.

“I’m sorry,” he said when Shane joined him.

“You should be.” Shane drank from his pint glass and slid the glass he’d gotten for Patrick an inch closer across the surface of the bar. “Drink. Then tell me what’s been going on.”

“What would be the point?” Patrick sighed gustily. Rock bottom. That was where he was. It was dark and depressing, and he didn’t like it at all.

“It wasn’t a suggestion,” Shane said. He rested his glass on his knee and looked at Patrick until Patrick picked up his pint and sipped from it. “Something’s wrong. You’ll feel better when you’ve told someone what it is. Despite appearances, I do care that you’re all right, so come on, then.”

Christ. Well, if he was going to spill his guts, he ought to have some alcohol in his system first. He gulped half his glass, wiped his mouth, and said, “My life’s a mess.”

“That’s nothing new.”

“Okay, I’ve realized that my life’s a mess.”

“Well, that’s a start, then. Can’t fix it if you don’t know it’s broken.” Shane was sitting close enough that with anyone else, Patrick—the old Patrick—would’ve assumed it was an invitation to touch. He didn’t make that mistake with Shane. Even before Ben had come on the scene, he’d never gotten any sense that Shane was attracted to him.

Which was probably why they hadn’t gotten along. Patrick liked being wanted. He’d told himself he wasn’t Shane’s type and felt satisfied when the arrival of Ben and Shane’s subsequent complete capitulation had confirmed that theory. The problem was that he and Shane both went for the same kind of guy—strong, forceful, controlling. The men Patrick fucked were usually playing at it. Ben wasn’t. And when Patrick thought about it, Vin was nothing like that, and he was the one Patrick had fallen in love with.

Even when it came to mindless sex, he’d been doing it wrong.

“I take it you do want to fix it?” Shane asked, the tone of his voice hinting the answer had better be in the affirmative.

“Yeah. I do.”

“Why?”

Patrick took a sip of beer. Shane was so direct. “Why not?” he hedged. “You said yourself, it needs it.”

“Your arse has needed a boot up it for years,” Shane said. “Just wasn’t room for it most nights.” He scratched his chin. “How many times a week do you get laid anyway? Doesn’t it get boring?”

Patrick drew in a breath to answer, not with numbers but an assurance that no, it didn’t, because he did it right, but Shane waved him silent.

“No, scratch that. None of my beeswax. Tell me what’s made you come to your senses all of a sudden and why it isn’t making you any happier. Because it’s not like you to take a swing at someone.” His eyes widened. “Shit, you tested positive, didn’t you?”

Shane slammed his pint down on the bar and leaned in, his hands warm and heavy on Patrick’s shoulders, his face twisted with a concern so real Patrick could only blink at him. “Should’ve seen it coming. Listen, whatever they told you, don’t worry, okay? We’ve got your back, and anything you need—”

“I didn’t test positive! Safe sex! Always! How stupid do you think I am?”

It took half a minute for Shane to get himself under control. He leaned back, wiped his mouth, picked up his glass, and drank again. “Okay. Good. And for the record, I don’t think you’re stupid. Not living up to your potential, maybe.”

Patrick hadn’t realized until he exhaled that he’d been holding his breath. “That’d require having potential, don’t you think?” Which, of course, was just proving he was stupid, since what he wanted Shane to do was assure him he had a ton of potential, and the chances of that were slim to none.

“You do, if you’d stop arsing around and spending more time worrying about getting laid than what you’re being paid to do.” Shane held up a hand when Patrick opened his mouth to protest. “I know, I know, things will be different from now on, but that only goes as far as you take it. If I didn’t believe you had it in you, I would have sacked you the other night and not lost a wink of sleep. The question is, are you going to make the effort? Because it’s not as simple as deciding. You have to actually do the work.”

“I am! I will.” Patrick scratched the back of his neck, thinking. “I might not be looking forward to it, but I’m serious. This isn’t just a whim.”

“Good.” Shane finished his pint and gestured at Patrick’s. “Drink up, lad.” He waited until Patrick’s mouth was full before adding, “Still haven’t told me why you’re doing this. Is it because I scared the shit out of you?”

Patrick swallowed with an effort. To tell or not to tell? “You’re not that scary.” Shane arched his eyebrows, clearly disagreeing, and Patrick sighed. “Okay, maybe you’re intimidating, but I kind of get off on— No, I didn’t say that!”

“Yeah, you did, but you didn’t mean it,” Shane said calmly. “That might float my boat, but it doesn’t do it for you.”

Hearing Shane flat out admit something Patrick had always considered a secret—not a dirty one, no, but still, not something Shane and Ben wanted the world to know—made his decision easier. If Shane trusted him with that knowledge, it meant more than Shane’s instinctive impulse to comfort Patrick.

“I’m in love,” he said and braced himself for a hoot of scornful laughter.

It didn’t come. Shane drummed his fingers on the bar, a pained look on his face, but he didn’t look amused. “I was hoping it wasn’t that.”

“Why?”

Shane slid off the bar stool and cupped Patrick’s face in his hand for a moment, the gentle touch as shocking as a blow. “Because I know who he is—you don’t have much of a poker face—and I don’t think you stand a chance. Sorry.”

“Shit.” Of all the responses Patrick had imagined, Shane knowing hadn’t been one of them. “Does everyone else know?”

“Why would you think I’d have a clue what everyone else knows? Ben would have a better idea. Want me to ask him?”

Patrick made a face. “No. Um, yes? I don’t know.”

“He’s a hell of a lot better at sorting out these things than I am,” Shane said. “And you can trust him not to spill the beans. Come on.” He started toward the office, and Patrick got up and followed him.

Ben looked up from his laptop when they walked in, his ready smile for Shane fading when he saw Patrick. It was another push to behave seeing how one look at him could put that worried tenseness on Ben’s face.

“Relax. He’s not in any bother,” Shane said before Ben could speak, reaching back to usher Patrick in, an arm around his shoulder. “Well, not the kind we care about.”

“Good to know.” Ben turned away from his laptop to face them. With anyone else, Patrick would’ve sneaked a peek at the screen, assuming it was porn, but this was Ben, and it was bound to be accounts or time sheets or something equally boring. “So what can I do for you?”

“We open soon, so I’ll make it quick,” Shane said. “If I were to ask you who lover boy here was pining for, would a name come to mind?”

“Uh…” Ben cleared his throat. “Is this a trick question? One you want me to answer a certain way? Give me a clue here.”

“For the love of God, just tell me!”

Ben’s lips tightened, but Shane stood firm. Whatever games the two of them played in bed didn’t mean Ben called the shots out of it.

“Just give him an honest answer,” Shane said.

“Don’t have a clue,” Ben said flatly. “And unless it’s either of us, which would be awkward as hell—”

“It’s not!” Patrick didn’t elaborate on why that was as likely to happen as him developing a gag reflex. They might not want him to have a crush on them, but no one wanted to hear they weren’t even on someone’s radar.

“There. Feel better?” Shane asked.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“Please tell me one of you is in the mood to share,” Ben said. “Otherwise I’m left sitting here feeling stupid.”

“Patrick’s got a crush,” Shane said and looked at Patrick like he expected him to clarify.

“It’s not really a crush.” Patrick felt like it was important to get it right, to be accurate. “A crush is something ten-year-olds have. This is based on something.”

“So who is this not-a-crush on?” Ben asked.

Patrick swallowed and looked down. Once he said it out loud, it would be real, and that scared the crap out of him. “If I tell, you have to promise not to. Not anyone.”

“We wouldn’t.” Ben glanced at Shane, who moved to sit on the edge of the desk. “He still hasn’t, and I’m his partner.”

Partner. Ben said it so casually. He could, since it was technically true in a business sense as well as a romantic one, but Patrick felt a jolt of what had to be jealousy. “It’s Vin.” It came out sounding small and miserable, not at all how he wanted.

“Ah.” Ben’s face got the inward expression that usually meant he was adding up figures in his head. Patrick, who got lost beyond two plus two, wasn’t sure how Ben could total a column of numbers faster than Shane using a calculator. “Vin. Mmm.”

“Is that all you’ve got?” Shane demanded. “You see where this is going, don’t you? Moping, brooding. Then one of them leaves, or both of them do, and we’re shorthanded. Workplace romances are bad for business.”

Ben picked up a pen, tapping it against his palm, his voice bland as he replied, “I’ll try not to take that personally.”

Beside Patrick, Shane shifted position, rolling his shoulders restlessly, his gaze fixed on the measured swing and tap of the pen. “You know I didn’t mean us. But Vincent’s with Riley, and he seems happy enough, so I can’t see a good way out of this for the lad.”

“It’s none of our business,” Ben pointed out, his words feeling like a warning to Patrick, though they were addressed to Shane.

“True, but you’re always saying a good employer keeps on top of his staff.”

Ben’s lips twitched in a half smile, and with growing indignation, Patrick realized the two of them were flirting in their own way.

“Should I open up?” he suggested, not even trying to keep the acid from his voice.

“Good idea,” Shane said, checking his watch. “Probably got a crowd of thirsty punters hammering on the door, sick and tired of spending their money on presents for other people.”

“I wish,” Ben said. “Though Dave’s turkey and cranberry sausages are going down well with the lunchtime customers.”

“We’re here to sell beer,” Shane said. It was an old argument, and Patrick didn’t want to sit through another rehash.

“So we’re finished talking about me, then?”

“Why did you wait so long?” Ben asked abruptly. “You’ve known Vin a few years. You’re close. Why wait until he’s with someone and he’s happy to decide you want him? And what the hell was that blowjob in the bar about? Trying to make him jealous?”

That was so many questions clumped together Patrick hardly knew where to begin. “I wasn’t trying to make him jealous. I wasn’t thinking about him at all.”

“You weren’t thinking at all,” Shane clarified, and he was right.

“That too.” Patrick sighed. “And it doesn’t have anything to do with Riley. I mean, I don’t think Riley’s good enough for Vin—I know, neither am I, right? I’m not disagreeing with you. But it’s not about that either. I don’t know why I noticed now and not before. I guess I was always waiting for Vin to realize I’m not even good enough to be his friend.”

“You need bloody therapy,” Shane muttered.

“Stop,” Ben said, reaching out and touching his arm. “It’s obviously more complicated than we can get into right now, and Patrick is entitled to his privacy if he wants it. We don’t have to railroad him into talking. Is that what we’re doing?”

Patrick shook his head. “Not really. I think I needed to talk to someone.”

“Why not Vincent?” Shane asked.

“What?” Even thinking about it made Patrick feel sick to his stomach with a weird combo of excitement and dread. “No way!”

“If you don’t, your chances with him do what I didn’t think were possible, and drop below zero.”

“Shane’s got a point.”

“And Vin’s got a boyfriend,” Patrick snapped. “He loves Riley. He’s waited years for him, and they’re going to crash and burn eventually, but I’m not going to be part of what causes it by dumping all my shit onto Vin and making him choose.”

“Because you know he wouldn’t choose you.” It wasn’t a question, so Patrick didn’t give Ben an answer.

“I’m changing myself,” Patrick said when the silence had gotten sticky. “Making something of my life. Being a better person. No more hookups, no more blowing my paycheck on crap so my fridge is empty. And I’m going to pick up some extra shifts over Christmas, not ask for time off to go clubbing. In fact, I’ll do a double shift today.”

Ben looked skeptical, which wasn’t surprising. “At the risk of sounding like a self-help book, don’t do that because of Vin. Do it for yourself. That way if you, uh, realize the thing with Vin is going nowhere—”

“Dead in the water right now, if you ask me,” Shane put in.

“Shane, be quiet.” Ben fixed Patrick with a steady gaze. “As I was saying, that way you’ll still be motivated to keep up with the changes, not discouraged enough to give them up.”

“Or go too far in the other direction and get fucked on the pool table during happy hour.”

“Shane.”

Shane widened his eyes as Ben glared at him. “What? I’m speaking my mind like I’m entitled to, and you know what Patrick’s like. He won’t stick to this for more than a week or two; then a big dick attached to a pretty face will swan past, and boom, he’s out of love and on his knees.”

If the memory of Shane’s concern in the bar weren’t still fresh, Patrick would’ve tried his luck at punching him again. Asshole. Though Ben’s careful tact was pissing him off too.

“Give him a chance,” Ben said. “Patrick, let the thirsty hordes in. We can always talk more later.”

Not that Patrick would want to. He spent his shift focused on one thing—being a model employee. He didn’t think about Vin, because Vin was something he couldn’t think about and still have a single brain cell free to concentrate on work. So instead he pretended he was someone else. Alternate-universe Patrick. Someone who was great at his job, not even remotely tempted by the handsome, smiling men who flirted with him, worried only about pleasing his employers. The fictional Patrick had one definite advantage over normal slacker Patrick—working hard made his double shift fly by, and when he discovered it was almost closing time, he was shocked.

Maybe there was something to this model-employee thing.

He was so fixated on making sure the glasses were clean—by Shane’s exacting standards—before he put them away that he didn’t notice Vin come in.

“Hey. Are you not paying attention to the time? The last bus just went by.” Vin’s presence was more important than his words at first, so Patrick didn’t feel dismay until he’d finished blinking and absorbing.

“Is it that late?” A quick glance at his watch showed it was. “Shit.” Dave had left ten minutes before, so his chance of catching a ride with him was shot, and no way was he was asking Shane and Ben, even though they were still finishing up.

“Don’t worry about it.” Vin patted his shoulder. “You can crash upstairs. Payback for the other night.”

Patrick had done that before. Vin’s couch was wide and long enough to be a reasonable substitute for a bed. Spending a second night with Vin sleeping close by might be more than he could handle, though.

“What? I’ll take you home if you want, but I want to crash.” Vin’s eyes weren’t as clear as usual, and the yawn he punctuated his sentence with was a jawbreaker.

Patrick gave in. “Sure. Did you throw out my toothbrush? The pink one?”

“Are you kidding? I built a little shrine to it out of toothpicks and floss.”

“Funny.”

“I splash it with mouthwash every morning.”

“You can stop anytime, you know.”

“And if it’s been a bad day, I—” Vin’s voice faltered.

Putting the last glass away on the shelf, Patrick frowned and looked at him. “What? Please tell me you don’t clean the toilet with it.”

Vin snorted. “No. Are you done? You’re usually out of here half an hour before this.”

“Because I don’t want to miss the bus,” Patrick said, even though that wasn’t entirely true. He also didn’t feel like sticking around any longer than he had to. “Yeah, I’m good. Are you sure you don’t mind me staying?” He’d turned over a new leaf, but that didn’t mean he was going to turn down the opportunity to spend time with Vin when it was conveniently presented to him.

“Of course I don’t mind. You’ve done it a hundred times. Come on.” They went down the hallway and passed the office, where Ben was straightening some paperwork and Shane was waiting impatiently for him to finish. “Are you guys done? We’re going up.”

“We’re off in a minute,” Shane said. “Or at least that’s what this one keeps telling me, but it’s already been five, and I’m still standing here.”

“See you tomorrow,” Ben said absently, like he was barely paying any attention to Shane’s complaints. That could be how he managed Shane, by letting all that attitude roll off his back.

Once upstairs, Patrick felt better. The apartment wasn’t huge, or a showplace like Riley’s, but it made his basement look like the slum it was, and it had a casual comfort about it. It welcomed him.

“I like it here,” he said, stretched out on the couch and sipping a decaf herbal tea. Ginger and peach. So not his usual choice, but Vin had offered it along with a beer, and Patrick had opted for healthy. With Christmas coming, this was the worst time to detox, but his timing always had sucked, as Ben had pointed out.

“Yeah? Thanks.” Vin sipped his drink. “Riley wants me to move in with him,” he added.

Patrick sat up, narrowly missing spilling his tea. “What? Fuck! Really? Are you going to?”

No more nights hanging out with Vin, curled up like puppies and fighting over the last handful of popcorn or what movie to watch? Awkward double dates planned by a Vin oblivious to Riley’s seething hatred of Patrick?

And that invitation meant Riley didn’t agree that Vin’s place was nice. Or was Patrick knee-jerking his way to bitchiness and being unfair? Maybe Riley wanted them to spend more time together, and his loft had triple the square footage and didn’t smell of beer and fries, so it was, unlike Patrick’s tea, the obvious choice.

Aiming for noble and self-sacrificing, Patrick added, “I think it’s great. The two of you together. Living together. Together.” He gulped at scalding tea to shut himself up and yelped as his tongue started to cook.

“Patrick!” Vin rushed to the sink and brought him a glass of water. Patrick took a few hasty swallows, hating that Vin was taking care of him again, because he was too stupid and screwed up to take care of himself. “Okay?”

“Yeah. Thank you.” Patrick set the glass down beside his mug. He hoped Vin would change the subject. He wasn’t sure he could handle talking about Riley’s perfections anymore.

No such luck.

“Anyway, he seemed a lot more into the idea before I showed him the drawing of my next tattoo.” Vin bit his lip and rubbed the back of his neck.

“He didn’t like it?”

“He doesn’t like any of them. Or the piercings. He hasn’t gone so far as to suggest I get laser therapy to have the tattoos removed, but he thinks I should take all the piercings out.”

“What? Why does he care?” Patrick was trying hard not to rag on Riley, but it wasn’t easy.

Vin gave a quick, impatient shrug. “I don’t know. It could be I look different from how he remembered.”

“Well, it’s been five or six years. I’m sure you look different in other ways than the mods, and I’m sure he does too.”

“I guess. It’s pretty extreme, though. You don’t expect to bump into someone from high school and discover that they’ve, I don’t know, grown a twelve-inch purple Mohawk. It can be kind of a shock.”

Patrick wasn’t sure what to say to that. Vin looked great—hot, confident, happy in his own skin. How could Riley want him any other way?

“I like them. They’re you. But I’ve never known you any other way, so…” He let his awkward words drift off into an equally awkward silence. It wasn’t quiet inside his head. He was lecturing the absent Riley, and he didn’t need to channel Shane to get a sharp edge on his words.

It helped that in his head the imaginary Riley was murmuring meekly or offering up incredibly pathetic excuses, making it easy for Patrick to vanquish him and turn his attention back to Vin.

“You can’t take the ink off. It’s part of you. You chose it, and you loved having it done. You’d spoil the memories if you had them stripped away or whatever they do.”

Vin ran his hand over his arm, caressing the tattoo with Riley’s initials worked into it. It was a gesture Patrick had seen him make a hundred times. More. Watching it had always given him the feeling he was intruding on an intensely personal moment, but now there was no half smile on Vin’s lips, no longing in his dark eyes.

Vin looked worried and a little frustrated, as if he were up against a problem with no solution.

“It was like sex. Better than sex,” Vin said.

Patrick giggled, horrified and gleeful. “God, tell me you didn’t say that to Riley.”

“Huh?” Vin blinked and scratched his arm, his nails leaving it scored with red lines fading fast. “Oh. No.” His lower lip quivered, then went firm. “But it was.”

“Tell me what it’s like.”

Vin leaned back, feet tucked under him, and fiddled with the frayed bottom hem of his jeans. “The needle part is like a sewing machine, you know? In and out really fast.”

“You’re right. It is just like sex!” The comparison was enough to set Patrick off again for a few seconds, but he got himself under control because he was curious to hear what Vin had to say. “Sorry. I’ll stop.”

“It’s okay.” Vin waved at him, spirit fingers. “Anyway, knowing how it works, you’d think you’d know what it would feel like, but it isn’t like that at all. It feels like being cut with a sharp knife. Not razor sharp, because you might not even feel that at first, but sharp enough. Slow, like the person doing it is having a good time. It kind of seems, I don’t know, impolite not to appreciate that.”

“I always figured after a few minutes, adrenaline would kick in and you’d stop feeling it.”

“You figured wrong. It’s there the whole time.” Vin smirked and rubbed his hand over his arm again, as if he was remembering it. “But the part about the adrenaline, yeah. It does kick in, and it makes you feel amazing, like there’s all this energy gathering under your skin, waiting. Waiting for you to do something with it.”

“Like have sex,” Patrick suggested. “I mean, not you in those days. Obviously.”

He wasn’t going to point out that if Vin told Riley about that, Riley wouldn’t be so opposed to more tattoos. What kind of guy would refuse the promise of hot, adrenaline-fueled sex?

“Not back then, but this time I was kind of hoping he’d go with me.” Vin caught his lip between his teeth, biting down hard enough that Patrick’s lip throbbed in sympathy. “I wanted him to share it with me.”

“I’ll go.” The words popped out, eager, too fast. Patrick eased back on the enthusiasm. He was offering support to a friend. What did that sound like? “If you want someone to hold your hand. It’d be funny if I got bitten by the bug and got one too.”

Vin gave him a fond look. “You’d pass out at the first drop of blood, but thanks.”

“Okay, maybe it’s true I’ll never do it, but I want to see you get yours done. I do.”

The hell with not coming on too strong. With the way Vin had described it vivid in his mind, Patrick wasn’t capable of doing subtle. He wanted to share the experience with Vin, see the passion and heat flare in Vin’s eyes, hear the bitten-off sounds he made and translate them to a different setting, a different cause. The needle sliding in like a cock pushing forward slowly, inexorably. Yeah. He wanted to watch.

Vin blinked at him, bemused but smiling. “Okay. Sure.” His smile faded. “Though I might not bother to get it done now. Doesn’t seem much point.”

“You’re doing it for you, not just for—” Patrick paused, a sound distracting him. He cocked his head. There it was again. “Did you hear something or someone downstairs? A thud? Ben and Shane left a while back, didn’t they?”

“Thought I heard them lock up,” Vin agreed, rising in a smooth movement, then heading for the door. All those yoga classes had paid off. Maybe that was something else Patrick could take up. Watching Vin during a class, sweaty but serene, his body flowing through a graceful series of moves, would be the perfect motivator to get fit. Right now, dancing in clubs was his only form of exercise, that and walking when he couldn’t afford to take the bus.

It occurred to Patrick as Vin disappeared through the doorway that someone could have broken in. Someone could be setting another fire right that very minute. His heart racing, he bolted after Vin fast enough that he bumped into him at the top of the stairs, where Vin had paused to listen.

“Shh!” Vin turned toward him and breathed into his ear. The heat of it would have had Patrick hard in the space between heartbeats if he weren’t half-terrified. “Quiet. Don’t want them to hear us.”

Them? The possibility it could be a whole gang of people bent on some kind of destruction made Patrick’s palms damp with nerves. But Patrick couldn’t leave Vin to deal with the threat alone, so he crept down the staircase after him, doing his best to make sure the steps didn’t creak under his weight.

Vin paused again at the bottom of the stairs. Patrick listened, closing his eyes so he could concentrate, then opening them again when he realized someone might sneak up on them and hit him over the head with a vodka bottle or a broom handle or whatever it was assholes like that might use as an impromptu weapon.

What was that? It sounded rhythmic, like someone pushing something heavy across the floor an inch at a time. Heavy breathing too. Vin crept forward again. It was too late for Patrick to hiss at him to wait, to insist they go back upstairs and call 911. Patrick followed, keeping close.

The door into the bar had swung open a crack. Patrick had closed it, he was sure. Or maybe he’d pulled it to and it hadn’t caught? It gave them a view into the bar, and with the lights off in the hallway, they were as close to invisible as it got. Crowded beside Vin, he peered through the narrow opening, scanning the familiar surroundings for a threat, his heart hammering with apprehension.

The only source of illumination was the light over the pool table. His gaze went to it, and he swallowed back an exclamation, not at what he saw, but because Vin’s hand slid into his, gripping it with a whispered warning to stay quiet, stay still.

It wasn’t needed. Like Patrick was going to interrupt Ben and Shane fucking or let them know they weren’t alone? Not a chance in hell. The first shock of discovery over, he drank in the view, his throat achingly tight, his arousal tinged with despair because it had never been like this for him, ever, and it hurt to watch, but he couldn’t look away.

He didn’t feel a shred of guilt. Interrupting them would’ve been the sin, and even if Vin and he could’ve tiptoed away unheard, Patrick wasn’t sure he could take that first step backward.

Not when Vin was as transfixed as Patrick, his breath coming in quick, shallow gasps, lost in the rhythmic slap of flesh on flesh as Ben fucked Shane with powerful, driving thrusts.

It was a brutal fuck, viewed objectively. Shane grunted with every snap of Ben’s hips, his legs straining as he tried to keep his ass tilted up. He couldn’t relax and slump because Ben’s hand was gripping a handful of his hair, using it to pull his head up and back, his throat a taut curve.

“Is this what you were begging for all night? Is it?”

Ben shouldn’t be able to sound as hot as that, commanding, demanding, a sharp edge to his voice, asking the question and making it clear it wasn’t rhetorical. For all his sly guesswork about the way the two of them played, it was a lot more intense than Patrick had imagined, and it made his world spin wildly.

And his cock stiffened to the point of discomfort, trapped in his jeans, no space to grow.

Patrick opened his mouth, aware he was going to gasp or moan, knowing it would get them caught and that even so there was nothing he could do to stop it. Something must have alerted Vin to the danger, because Vin tugged him away from the doorway. Patrick found himself pushed up against the wall with Vin’s hand clapped over his mouth and Vin pressed close to him.

Vin shook his head but didn’t otherwise move. His whole body was against Patrick’s, solid. “Quiet,” Vin whispered.

“They’re gonna catch us,” Patrick whispered back. It wasn’t true. The hall was dark. Even if Ben and Shane had looked through the doorway toward them, they’d be invisible, hidden in the soft black. He shivered with excitement, and Vin leaned in and rested his forehead on Patrick’s shoulder, breathing and listening.

“Yeah,” they heard Shane say. It couldn’t be in response to Ben’s question; too much time had passed. “Want it. Fuck, Benedict.”

“Damn right, fuck.” Ben groaned, and Shane grunted an agreement.

Vin was hard against Patrick’s thigh.

The new, good Patrick would push him away. Gently, not to hurt him, not to reject him, but to save him. But it seemed like the new, good Patrick had fled, leaving weak Patrick in his place, because all he could do was stand there with Vin’s palm against his lips and listen to the sounds of his employers making love. And that was what it was.

“You need to learn how to ask for this,” Ben said. Was that a slap dealt out, an answering moan from Shane? “Don’t you?”

“Did,” Shane gasped, defiance shaping the word. “Asked? Fuck, I was begging all day. Thought you weren’t—” His voice broke, shattered by whatever Ben was doing to him. Patrick’s imagination couldn’t paint between the lines after seeing the reality of the stark, uncompromising passion between them. “God—yeah, like that—thought you weren’t listening.”

“I always hear you,” Ben said, and either he was whispering or the roaring in Patrick’s ears was getting louder, because the words were hard to grasp, fading away to nothing in the darkness.

No one could see him with Vin. If no one saw them, it wasn’t real, so he could lick the palm silencing him, a flick of his tongue to wet it, a kiss to warm it. Could let his hands rove, mapping the rise and fall of Vin’s chest as Vin’s breath stuttered and caught. Could send those hands down, around, to cup Vin’s ass, not a casual fondle and grope, as it would’ve been with someone else, but a wordless question: This? Do you want this from me? It’s yours. I’m yours.

He wanted it so badly. Wanted to peel off Vin’s clothes and taste every inch of him, kiss him like he’d never kissed anyone before. It seemed crazy—and impossible—that there’d been times he thought he’d die if he couldn’t have some beautiful, hot guy, and yet here he was with Vin, knowing there was no comparison. He wanted Vin so much he was trembling with it, but he couldn’t, wouldn’t, let himself move or do any of it.

Shane cried out in a series of short, desperate sounds like they were being forced from him by the relentless shove of Ben’s dick. They were right out there, half-naked and gasping, fucking like they weren’t a million years older than Patrick and Vin.

Vin shifted and tilted his head toward the back stairs, telling Patrick without words but with a glance that they needed to go. Patrick agreed with him all the way. He was sure Shane had come, and even though he could hear that Ben was still moving, that wouldn’t last long. If they didn’t want to get caught lurking in the dark—and Patrick so didn’t want to get caught—it was time to flee.

As silently as possible, they crept to the stairs and up, Patrick wincing at every creak until they were in Vin’s apartment with the door closed behind them. The fear of being discovered had done a lot to lessen his arousal, thank God. He went over to the couch and threw himself on it, one hand resting over his heart as it beat frantically. “Oh my God.”

“I know.” Vin perched on the edge of the coffee table.

“Oh. My. God.”

“I know.

“Tell me they didn’t see us, didn’t hear us,” Patrick begged.

“No way.” Vin was flushed darkly, his eyes gleaming, and Patrick’s dwindling erection made a partial recovery. This had to be what Riley saw when he kissed Vin’s lips tender, blurred their shape with the nip of his teeth, the press of his mouth. Vin was turned on, undeniably so, and everything in Patrick responded to that in kind. “They wouldn’t have noticed if we’d gone in there singing the national anthem and doing backflips.”

“I hope so.”

Patrick lay limp against the couch, his skin prickling with goose bumps, the adrenaline rush dying, stranding him far out of his comfort zone. The way they’d made love had been a revelation. Not scripted like porn, not impersonal or fumbling the way so many of Patrick’s encounters were. They’d known exactly what they were doing, and all of it, the harsh words, the edge of pain slashing across the pleasure, had come from a place of shared strength and more. He couldn’t let himself think the L word. He’d thought he was unshockable, jaded. He felt so fucking young.

“But we know what we saw, and we’re going to have to look them in the eyes and pretend we didn’t see what we saw.” He stared at the ceiling, letting his emotions pour out of him in a garbled, muted cry to the heavens. “I can’t do it. I can’t. Fuck it, I’m moving to Canada.”

“No, you’re not.” Vin was calmer than Patrick would have guessed he’d be.

“Yes, I am. No, even farther. Iceland. Australia.” He knew he was being dramatic, but it made him feel better.

“You’re not. You’re staying right here. You are not abandoning me.” Vin looked into his mug. “This is cold. Want a fresh cup?”

“Are you kidding? I’ll be up all night as it is. I’m never sleeping again. I’ve been scarred for life. Haven’t you?” Patrick got up and carried his mug and the emergency glass of water Vin had brought him into the kitchen, though, because he wasn’t entirely giving up on new, good Patrick.

“It was just sex,” Vin said, following him.

“What? What the hell is wrong with you? You should be whimpering on the floor.” Okay, that wasn’t the best choice of words. It made him imagine Vin lying spread out on the floor underneath him, naked and whimpering. “You’re the one who should be scarred for life, Mr. Vanilla.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” The way Vin could stay so cool and collected was so unfair. Patrick wanted to find out what would make Vin lose it completely. “There’s nothing wrong with vanilla. But you’re not moving to Canada.”

“Nope!” Patrick said cheerfully. “Australia.”

“Or Australia. Or Iceland.”

“It would be fun,” Patrick said. “An adventure. I like adventures.”

“Yeah, well, it wouldn’t be an adventure for me. You leaving? That would suck.” Vin flicked the switch on the teakettle. “Sure you don’t want more tea?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You know it doesn’t really have caffeine in it, right?” Vin asked.

“Yeah, I know.” Patrick smiled. “Okay, I won’t move away.”

“And you won’t breathe a word about this to anyone.” Vin was channeling Ben, had to be, because the question was stern enough that it left Patrick huffing with indignation.

“In the first place, I’m not suicidal, and if I said a word to anyone, Shane would kill me. Kill me dead.”

“He wouldn’t do that, but I could see him punching you,” Vin agreed. “More to defend Ben than himself, I think.”

“Yeah, he’s a real British bulldog. Woof, bloody woof.” Patrick rolled his eyes, then got back on track, poking Vin in the chest for added emphasis. “Second place, I wouldn’t do that to them. I just wouldn’t, okay? Shane was, well, he was nice and an asshole to me today, but I’m a better person now, and I’m concentrating on the part where he thought I…” He ground to a halt. He didn’t want to tell Vin what Shane had assumed. Why remind Vin that he’d slept with a lot of losers? “Thought I needed help and I didn’t, but it was sweet of him to offer.”

“What’s the better-person bit all about?” Vin grinned at him. “Found God?”

“I know where he is, thanks. I don’t want to visit anyone who’s a close friend of my mom’s. Forget about that. I’m trying to stop being a loser. No flirting. Cut back on the clubbing. Save some money and get a better class of slum to live in. Baby steps to being a grown-up.” Patrick stared at the floor, unwilling to meet Vin’s gaze in case he saw amused skepticism there.

“Hey.” Vin touched Patrick’s arm, then his face, tilting Patrick’s chin up. “Don’t shut me out. I think that’s great. Totally behind it. Love that you’re trying, not letting life suck you down. That takes guts, man.”

“Really?” Vin’s approval was sweet as honey. Patrick savored it for a moment, beaming goofily and not caring.

“Really. And even if you don’t turn into the world’s most perfect grown-up, you’re okay.”

Scared to let Vin get too serious, Patrick blinked his eyelashes rapidly. “If you start quoting Bridget Jones, I’ll die of happiness.”

“Better than dying because Shane killed you,” Vin said. “That was weird, huh? Downstairs?”

“Beyond weird. I don’t think I can talk about it. It was so bizarre.” Patrick shuddered, though it was all for effect. It had surprised him because he’d never thought he’d see it, not because he hadn’t been able to imagine it happening.

Vin turned to pick up the kettle, which had clicked off. “Do you think they’re always like that?”

“What, fucking on pool tables? I hope not.”

“Not that.” Vin rolled his eyes. “Okay, a little like that, but I was more talking about kinky.”

“Honey, that’s not kinky.” Patrick was torn between wanting to educate Vin and wanting to protect him from harsh reality. Education won out. “Over the line into kinky territory, sure, but not really kinky.”

Vin unwrapped another tea bag and put it into his mug, then poured water. “I have watched porn, you know. It’s not like I’m a fifteen-year-old virgin.”

“If you count what I did with Matt Peterson when we were supposed to be working on a science project in his room, that’s something I can’t be accused of having been.”

“You had sex at fourteen?” Vin’s eyes went wide and shocked.

“We fooled around,” Patrick said evasively.

They’d been kids, so it’d been a few clumsy kisses and hands that had fumbled, retreated, then clasped hard flesh with growing confidence. Matt had beaten Patrick up two days later when Patrick had tried to kiss him in an empty classroom, his face contorted with panic and revulsion, as if even punching Patrick in the stomach was risking cooties. After that, Matt had retreated so far into the closet that the last Patrick had heard, he was the father of twins, and his wife was expecting a third. Not a happy memory, and why did he do this to himself?

“You said you thought they were into playing games,” Vin pointed out. “That sounded like one. What they were saying. The way Ben was—” He licked his lips, a nervous swipe of his tongue that left them shining. “You know. Grabbing Shane’s hair. That had to hurt.”

“Sometimes you want it to.” Patrick tapped the tattoo on Vin’s forearm. “You’d get that if anyone would.”

“Maybe.” Vin’s lips went firm, the way they did when he was sure of himself. The guy was sweet but an immovable object at times, unswayed by any arguments or opposing opinions. Patrick envied him that certainty. He was more of a leaf blowing where the wind took him, lacking roots, hating to be at odds with the crowd. “And it was kinky what they were doing. Oh, not the actual sex, but the way it felt. The way it made them feel. You could tell.”

“I could tell you got off on it,” Patrick said, blurting the words out before he could censor himself.

Shit. He’d planned to pretend the whole up-against-a-wall, erections-poking-holes-in-each-other thing hadn’t happened. Easier that way. Avoidance was bliss.

“So did you.” Vin’s jaw was set stubbornly, and he was blushing.

“Yeah. It’s normal. Like watching porn, only weirder. And we’ve done that before.”

To be fair, they hadn’t watched porn together on purpose for a long time. At least a year. And when they had, Vin had been too shy and awkward for Patrick to even consider suggesting they take care of things, even on their own. When the movie had ended, he’d excused himself and jerked off fast and furious in the bathroom, then come out to find Vin sitting on the couch, flushed and breathing too heavily for him not to have been doing the same.

“We could make a fortune,” Vin said blandly. “Set up a few video cameras downstairs, leave them running after hours, then sell the files on the Internet.”

Patrick gaped at him. He was kidding. Had to be. “What?”

“You’re so easy,” Vin said, laughing.

“Thank God.” Patrick collapsed onto the nearest kitchen chair. “For a second I thought you were serious. Don’t do that to me. My heart can’t take it tonight.”

Vin shot him an amused, affectionate look. “I could make you hot cocoa instead. With little marshmallows in it.”

Patrick sat up. “Ooh, do you have any? Because that sounds awesome.”

“Baby,” Vin said, but he got out the cocoa.

Chapter Twelve

“I appreciate you doing this,” Patrick said, wiping his hands dry on the small towel he had with him, then taking a seat across from Ben.

“It’s not a problem.”

“It’s kind of embarrassing, though.” Patrick bit his lip anxiously as Ben looked at the page of scribbles he’d jotted down the night before.

Ben had suggested they go over his finances together, and Patrick was serious enough about wanting to sort out his life that he’d jumped at the offer. It hadn’t been until he worked out how much cash came in and where he spent it that it’d sunk in that he was a clueless idiot who was hemorrhaging money. Laying that out in excruciating detail to one of his employers would make it clear how much of a clueless idiot he was.

“Don’t be embarrassed. Focus on the changes open to you.”

Ben glanced at his computer screen and hit a button, and a second later the printer behind him sprang to life, spitting out not one or two but three pieces of paper.

Patrick wasn’t sure if that was good news or bad news.

After a few minutes of reading and jotting down some notes that Patrick couldn’t decipher from where he sat, Ben stacked the papers and clicked his tongue. “That’s all? No payday loans or money you owe a friend?”

“I’m not stupid enough to go to those places, and no one I’m friends with has any spare cash to lend.” And if they did, Patrick wouldn’t have asked. It was one of his few scruples. He’d accept a drink from someone, but not money, no matter how desperate he was. He’d seen friendships warped into bitterness that way, and it wasn’t a path he wanted to take.

“Good to know. Okay, I want to study these in more detail, but I can make a few suggestions that might help. Like cutting up all but one of your credit cards. You’ve got four, all close to maxed out, and you’re paying off the interest without reducing the main debt in any appreciable way.” Ben shook his head, a sharp, annoyed jerk. “Why those companies give out credit cards to people without a sound financial standing, I don’t know.”

Patrick did. “To make money off us.”

“They won’t make any more off you.” Ben tapped his finger on the top piece of paper. “This credit card is from the same company I use. They’re running one of those offers where you can consolidate debts by transferring balances to them and be charged a small amount of interest for six months. Did you get that letter too?”

“I don’t read it if it isn’t a bill,” Patrick admitted.

Ben gave him a puzzled, does-not-compute look. “Oh. Well, if we take advantage of this, in the short-term only, obviously, since after the six months the rate will go up, you’ll save, hmm, let me see.”

Patrick tuned out the tapping on a calculator and the rustle of paper, concentrating on the possibility there might be some way out of the hole he’d dug.

Ben and numbers were the perfect match. They obeyed him, marching to the beat of his fingers and saluting him smartly. In less than a year, even with two sets of renovations to pay for, the Square Peg had gone from teetering on the edge of ruin to showing a small but steady profit.

If Ben could work that magic on Patrick’s finances, it would be a miracle. What would it feel like to wake up without that ever-present worry clouding his mind, driving him to do reckless, stupid shit like spending the little he had because what was the point of saving ten bucks when he owed thousands?

“You can be debt-free and save at least a thousand over the course of the year, if you follow the rules. Are you prepared to do that?” Ben looked at him seriously.

To save a grand? “Yeah, of course I am.”

“I mean it. No exceptions. When you run out of cash for the week because you spent too much on fancy coffee, you can’t put groceries on your credit card. You have to suck it up and eat the canned soup in your cupboards, even if it’s boring and you want pizza.” Ben’s expression softened. “And if you’re hungry, let me know, and we’ll work out an extra discount on stuff from the kitchen. I don’t want you to starve.”

“I won’t; don’t worry. Not that I don’t appreciate the offer.” Patrick shifted his chair closer and gestured for the papers. “Okay. I’m ready. Lay it on me.”

Before Ben began speaking, Vin appeared in the office doorway. “Oh good, there you are. Didn’t you get my text?”

Patrick frowned, already digging his phone out of his pocket. “No, or I would have answered it. Huh, it’s not on silent but I didn’t hear it.”

Vin was vibrating with pent-up emotion. The problem was, Patrick couldn’t tell what kind of emotion it was. “Can I talk to you? Ben, can I borrow him? I’d say it was for a minute, but it’s more like the whole afternoon. He’s not scheduled to work, right? Not until tonight?”

“It’s fine with me. I could use some more time with this anyway,” Ben said, gesturing at the papers. He pointed a finger at Patrick. “But come back half an hour before your shift starts so we can go through this. And don’t consider your afternoon with Vin to be some kind of free-for-all of spending before you start to save.”

“I won’t,” Patrick promised him. “Thanks.”

It felt like escaping from the principal’s office, though that wasn’t fair to Ben, who was doing this in his spare time and, like Shane, showing astonishing kindness considering the many times Patrick had let them down by skimping on an assigned chore, turning up late, or asking for a shift change at the last moment.

It was a wonder anyone was speaking to him, but Dave gave him a friendly wave as he walked out through the bar, and Vin had stuck by him, always.

“I’m so lucky when it comes to my friends,” he said when they were outside, standing by Vin’s van. He got a grunt in reply, Vin’s lips pressed so tightly together they were pale. “Oookay. You look pissed. I’m guessing it’s not with me, which means I’m needed as a shoulder to cry on or someone to rant at. Bring it on and let it out. I’m ready to hate on anyone you want as long as it’s not Ben, because he’s saving me money and I love him. So who are we mad at?”

“Riley,” Vin said, biting off the word. He slammed his hand against the side of the van, dislodging a piece of rusty metal that fell to the ground, leaving behind a larger hole. Vin drew in a breath and let it out sharply. “He told me if I get this new tattoo, it means I don’t love him. Then he hung up on me, and he won’t answer his phone or any of my texts. What kind of bullshit is that? How can what I do to my body—mine—have anything to do with me loving him?”

“Did he say why? Or are you supposed to magically figure it out?” Patrick focused on being supportive, not hard when he was supporting Vin against Riley.

“He hung up, remember?” Vin kicked the wheel well, which wasn’t rusted, at least, then sighed. “Get in. I need to go get something to drink. A coffee for a change.”

“Sure.” He’d trust even an angry Vin behind the wheel, and Vin’s favorite coffee place was only a few blocks away. They could have walked if it weren’t so cold.

The van started up without complaint, and Vin shifted it into drive with more aggression than necessary. “I know he doesn’t like the tattoos or the piercings, but I thought he got it.”

“Got what?” Patrick held his hands up when Vin whirled on him, eyes furious. “Hey, I’m on your side, honey, but I need more to work with.”

Vin growled and tightened his hands on the steering wheel. “I thought he got that this was me. I’m not hiding anything. Why did he even want to get with me if there were all these things he doesn’t like?”

Patrick didn’t have an answer, and he was afraid to get into a conversation where he was supposed to defend Riley, because he didn’t want to do that. But he was stuck, because if he told Vin that Riley was an asshole and didn’t deserve him and they should break up, he’d feel terrible forever. Hello, rock and a hard place.

“Come on. I’m buying.” Vin parked, and they went inside, the rich smell of roasted coffee beans hitting them as soon as they went through the door. The line was short for once. Vin didn’t bother to ask him what he wanted, just ordered for them both and gestured at one of the little round tables flanked by two chairs.

“Be careful, or I might get used to this,” Patrick joked after they’d taken a seat. “You buying me coffee.”

“It’s the least I can do, considering I keep using you as my human sounding board,” Vin said.

Patrick frowned and reached out to touch Vin’s hand, flinching at how cold it was. “Hey. You aren’t using me. I’m your friend. That’s what friends are for, or so Elton John told us, and I’m sure we’re supposed to listen to him.”

“I love Riley so fucking much. I want to make him happy. That’s what it’s all about, right? Making someone you love happy?”

Patrick gave it some consideration instead of tossing off a glib agreement. He wanted Vin to be happy, yes, but he knew Vin well enough to trust what made Vin smile was never something that would hurt someone else. Could the same be true for Riley? Patrick wasn’t sure. He didn’t think Riley was a horrible person—it would’ve made this so much easier if he was—but Riley was like a piece of fruit that looked fresh and perfect on the outside, and when you bit into it, it was mushy and tasteless.

What that made him, he wasn’t sure. A pineapple? All tangy and sweet inside but bumpy and lumpy to look at? No, he was too pretty for that. He ran his hand over hair that today was a subdued honey blond, suitable for serious financial discussions with accountants, patting it into place, then gave the sleeve of his jacket a fond stroke. Not everyone could wear this shade of purple, but it had always suited him.

“Patrick?”

“Hmm? Oh.” Patrick breathed in the richly scented steam rising off his coffee before speaking. “That only works if they’re doing it right back at you. He isn’t. And someone has to make sure you’re happy, and if it isn’t Riley, it’s got to be you.” He hesitated before the last word, longing to substitute me for it. “He’s letting you do all the work in the relationship, and that’s not fair.”

Wow. Listen to him sounding all logical and reasonable. Mature, even.

“Yeah.” It wasn’t much of a reply, but Vin was sipping at his coffee, so Patrick let that be an excuse for almost a minute. Vin finally looked at him. “I know. You’re right. But I love him. I’ve loved him forever, it feels like. I don’t know how to let anything else be more important than that.”

“You’re more important than that.” Patrick’s coffee had thick creamy foam on top, and he knew it would taste amazing when he drank it, and that almost made him not want to start. He wanted to be able to make it last as long as possible because he didn’t know when he’d get to have another one. “You’re the only person I know who’s exactly who he is, for real. You can’t let anyone take that away from you. Not even Riley.”

“He’s not,” Vin protested, but he didn’t sound convinced. “I mean, he doesn’t want me to be someone different.”

“Doesn’t he?”

“Not really. He wants me to think before I jump.”

“It’s not like it’s your first tattoo. You did your thinking already, years back. You like them. They suit you. They wouldn’t suit everyone, but they look stunning on you.”

Had he said too much and given away how desperately he wanted to touch, kiss, taste every single place where the ink had sunk into Vin’s body? No. Anyone with eyes—anyone but Riley—could see how the warm brown of Vin’s skin made the perfect background for the ink paintings he’d chosen with care and thought. It wasn’t as if he’d gotten drunk one night and had something tacky slapped on his ass to remind him not to mix tequila shots with, well, anything.

“Yeah, but maybe enough’s enough and I should stop with what I’ve got?”

Vin was all but begging him for advice. Patrick felt six inches taller. It was a heady sensation being deemed responsible. He could get addicted to it.

“The real secret to making a relationship work—okay, not speaking from personal experience here, but I’ve read Cosmo in the lineup at the supermarket often enough—is compromise.”

“I either get the tattoo or I don’t. Where’s the possible compromise there?”

Patrick took a small sip of coffee and licked away the inevitable cream mustache. He needed to look serious for this, not adorably cute. “You get it without his initials. Because honestly? I think that’s what’s bugging him the most. Being part of it when he hates them on you.”

Oh, he was good. He was so fucking good.

“You think that’s it?” Vin sounded doubtful, but Patrick could tell from his expression he was already starting to believe it. “God, it is. You’re right. Why didn’t he just say so?”

“Because he thinks he’ll sound like a jerk, because he hasn’t realized it himself yet, because he doesn’t want to be that controlling. Pick one.” Patrick grimaced. That last suggestion took things too far, even if it was true.

“It is controlling, isn’t it?” Vin asked. He screwed up his face as if he’d bitten into something sour. “Why is he doing this?”

Guilt washed over Patrick. He’d made Vin feel bad by trying to help. But was he really trying to help? He decided he was, despite his ulterior motives. “Talk to him. I mean, he’s a good person, right? And he loves you. He must want to find a compromise as much as you do.”

“Well, I’m not abandoning this tattoo just to make him happy,” Vin said. His jaw clenched. “If you’re right about the initials, fine, I’ll leave them out for now, but I’m not going to let his attitude change my mind.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s the way to go. You cave over this, you’re setting a whatchamacallit, a precedent.” Patrick nodded. “Slippery slope. He’ll want you to ditch the all-black look because it’s depressing, change your job so you’re working somewhere upscale, and dump your friends because we’re not classy enough.”

The muscles in Vin’s cheeks tensed, the slight wince eloquent as a speech. Patrick gaped at him in silence, waiting for Vin to reassure him. It didn’t happen.

Heat rushed into Patrick’s face, and sparkles danced at the edge of his vision, as if he were going to pass out from sheer fury and humiliation at being judged Not Worthy. “He didn’t tell you to ditch me. He fucking didn’t. Oh, who am I trying to kid? Of course he did. He hates me, always has. What is it? Jealous because we hang out? Or am I just too, too me? Too gay?”

He gulped at his coffee, choking on it, forced to dab at his front to mop up the drips. Way to go, Patrick. Smooth as silk.

“He doesn’t get it,” Vin said, hitching his chair closer to Patrick’s like that would help somehow. “You don’t know what his life’s been like.”

“Right. Poor Riley, with his perfect face and his ridiculous bank account. You want me to feel sorry for him? No way. I’m trying to be fair, but I am not joining in on this round of Poor Little Rich Boy.” Patrick wanted to punch something, but he knew if he did, he’d end up with bruised knuckles. “I love you, but don’t ask me to do that.”

He only had a moment to be horrified he’d let the L word slip out, because Vin was already rushing in to reassure him like it hadn’t even been spoken.

“I’m not,” Vin said. He reached out and touched Patrick’s hand much too briefly. “I’m not, I promise. I wouldn’t. I want you to understand what it’s like for him, because it’s not his fault he doesn’t get it. He never had to worry about if his parents could afford to pay for his after-school sports, or how he was going to pay his bills, and it’s not fair to blame him for that.”

“He’s got an imagination. He should use it so he knows what it feels like to look under the couch cushions for enough money to buy a slice of pizza.” Patrick had totally lost control of his emotions; he was all over the place. “He doesn’t have to not like me because he ‘doesn’t get it.’”

Vin bit his lip and shifted his coffee cup on the table. At least he wasn’t going to lie and tell Patrick that Riley liked him. That was something. “He doesn’t know you,” he said after a long pause.

“He doesn’t want to know me.” Irritated and hurt by Vin’s blind loyalty, Patrick stood. “Thanks for the coffee. If you’ve finished using me as a way to rubber-stamp what you’ve already decided to do—because we both know you’re getting that tattoo—I’m heading out. Dave suggested saving money on overpriced lattes by investing in a coffeemaker, and there’s always one or two at the thrift store.”

“You can’t get one from there,” Vin protested. “People donate them for a reason. It’d be clogged up or break inside a week.”

Patrick couldn’t deny it. “Then I’ll lower the standards your boyfriend doesn’t think I’ve got and go back to drinking instant. All I need for that is a pot to heat the water in, and I’ve got one of those.”

“You hate instant!”

“I hate spending thirty to forty dollars a week in places like this even more.” Patrick had been stunned by that total, but he’d added it up twice, and some weeks it was closer to fifty if he treated himself to a lemon-and-blueberry muffin or a giant ginger molasses cookie to go with his drink.

“I’ll buy you a coffeemaker!” Vin blurted it out like he hadn’t thought about it before offering, but he didn’t try to take it back. “If you’ll come with me. Please? I want to get the tattoo, but I don’t want to do it alone.”

“So now I’m someone you keep around so you won’t have to be alone?” Patrick let himself sound hurt, because he was, but also because he wanted to know how Vin would respond to the accusation.

“No.” Vin stood. He gazed at Patrick, and he didn’t look mad or upset. He looked hopeful. “No. I want you to come. Not just anyone. You.”

A shiver of pure longing hit Patrick. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. You know I don’t go around saying a bunch of stuff I don’t mean.”

“Okay,” Patrick said, fighting to keep the elation he felt from showing. “But you’re not buying me a coffeemaker.”

Frowning, Vin said, “I’m not?”

“I might be a slut, but I’ve never charged for it. My company or my ass are both free to a friend.” Too late, he realized where his unruly tongue had gone, but he rescued himself with a giggle. “Well, in your case, let’s concentrate on the company part, huh?”

Was that a speculative gleam in Vin’s eyes or a reflection of the sunlight coming through the window? “Sure. But when you do buy one, tell me, because I’m buying you a couple of pounds of beans to go in it.”

“One bag of beans,” Patrick said. He added, “My favorite flavor is maple bacon,” to see what reaction that would get.

Vin rolled his eyes. “On the days when you get taken over by aliens, sure. Is that flavor even real?”

“Real, if revolting, yeah. So what is it, then?”

Vin smiled, smug and confident. “Chocolate raspberry on Sundays to go with your pain au chocolat. The rest of the week if you go for the flavored crap, it’s always something involving hazelnut, but you’ll take it any way it comes as long as it’s strong. And sweet.”

“You make it too easy for me,” Patrick said sadly. “There’s no fun in twisting what you say to sound dirty when you already filthed it up.”

“Poor thing,” Vin said and patted his shoulder. “I’ll do better, I promise. Plenty of opportunities, and I won’t stomp over your best lines.”

“Good.” Patrick followed him out the door into the cold. “Now if your rust bucket will start, we can go ink up a few more square inches of your skin.”

“It can be my early Christmas present to myself,” Vin agreed. He slung an arm around Patrick’s shoulder, no more than a friendly gesture. Patrick didn’t have to think of an excuse to pull away, because the van was right there, and in a second they’d be in it with the gearshift between them. “Merry Christmas to me.”

“Merry Christmas to you,” Patrick echoed and climbed into the front seat like the dutiful best friend he was.

Chapter Thirteen

Patrick blinked and looked again at the photo of some guy’s tattoo in the huge photo album balanced on his knees. “Wow.” He tipped the book toward Vin. “Some people are brave.”

“Braver than me.” Vin made a face. “Not my style.”

“I don’t even want to think about how much that must have hurt.” Tattoos in general Patrick could understand. But having your dick tattooed? Including your balls? Yikes. If he ever met anyone who didn’t believe masochism existed, this would be all the proof they needed.

“It would cross the line for me,” Vin agreed. The annoyance that had made his voice sharp, his movements jerky, had faded, and he was the Vin Patrick was used to, mellow, philosophical even, totally Zen.

If Patrick had been waiting for someone to poke needles into him, he would’ve been jittery, stalking around the place, unable to settle. Restless as a butterfly, his mom used to say back in the days when she considered him to be her God-sent cherub or something equally nauseating. Having a mop of golden curls and big blue eyes had a lot to answer for. The gold had turned to a nondescript shade between light brown and fair, and he’d needed glasses by the age of eight, but that was what hair dye and contacts were for. Now he was blond and blue-eyed on his terms, on the days he felt like it.

Independence was a wonderful thing. No wonder Vin felt restive with Riley clamping down on him.

But Vin loved the jerk. Patrick sighed and covered it with a cough when Vin gave him a questioning look. Vin unhappy and angry upset Patrick. There was only room for one of them to be dramatically depressed, and he had that role down, baby. Christmas was four days away. He could fit in a visit to Riley and do some bridge building. Get to know him. Give him some tips on handling Vin—no. Not that. But do something to salvage the sinking ship.

He wanted it to sink, sure, but Vin didn’t.

“Vin? Ready for you.”

Jasper was as hunky as ever, just Patrick’s type before he’d settled down. Pity he was straight, but Patrick allowed himself one quick, appreciative glance for old time’s sake. He hadn’t had sex in how long? Jesus. His dick would be wondering what was going on and planning an intervention. He was enjoying the sense of saving himself for Vin, though. Celibacy felt as deliciously kinky as the night he’d let two guys spank him at the same time, their big hands bouncing off his butt until it was steaming.

“There’s a chair for you,” Jasper told Patrick, pointing at it. “You can sit near him if you want, but wherever you end up is where you need to stay until I take a break.”

“Sure.” Patrick slid the lightweight metal chair across the floor to the opposite side of the padded one from where Jasper had his supplies set up.

“This okay?” he asked Vin.

“Yeah.” Vin reached out and squeezed his hand. “Thanks.”

“Nowhere else I’d rather be,” Patrick told him. “Unless you start bleeding a lot, in which case I might rather be unconscious on the floor.” He glanced down. “And this tile looks hard.”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to hit the floor, but it’s usually the person getting pierced,” Jasper said, grinning. “Not even because it hurts. It’s a blood-pressure thing. You’ll be okay.”

“Warn me if you hit an artery.” Patrick stuck out his tongue.

Vin rolled his eyes. “You’re such a drama queen. You’re supposed to be reassuring me, not making me worry my blood’s going to shoot up to the ceiling like a geyser.”

“You’re not worried,” Patrick told him, watching as Jasper cleaned Vin’s skin with rubbing alcohol and applied the stencil he’d spent the past half hour working on.

“No, I’m not.” Vin sounded far away, his breathing settling into a slow rhythm after a few deep, centering inhales and exhales. More yoga stuff. Patrick had to go to a class. Really. Not this side of Christmas, but in the new year, with all those resolutions waiting to be kept for the first time. Hmm, what color mat would go with his hair no matter what shade it was? Vin’s mat was black, sexy in a stripped-down way, but Patrick had seen the rolled-up cylinders in every shade of neon and hankered for lime green or hot pink. They weren’t the most relaxing colors, though. Suppose he got a leaf-green one for the meditation classes and a fire-engine red for the hot yoga Vin loved?

And he’d mentally blown about a hundred bucks or more when the chances were good he’d discover after one class that it wasn’t for him.

Saving money was hard. And so was not drooling over a shirtless Vin, perfect pecs and abs on display. Patrick crossed his legs to hide the growing bulge at his crotch and whimpered as his balls protested.

“Fainting’s okay, but don’t puke,” Jasper said over his shoulder.

“That goes beyond drama queen and into too revolting for words.” Patrick let his gaze wander the small room, trying to think about something other than Vin. A shelving unit stood in the corner, packed so full of books, magazines, and collectibles it was a wonder it hadn’t collapsed under the weight of them. The second shelf from the top was kind of bowed. “What’s all the stuff for?”

Jasper didn’t look up from his work. “What stuff?”

“On the shelves.”

“It’s inspiration.” Jasper seemed capable of carrying on a conversation; Patrick assumed he’d be told to shut up if he was being too disruptive. “Sometimes people bring something with them to show me what they’re thinking of, then leave it as a souvenir for me. Sometimes I pick things up at flea markets.”

“Oh, I love going to those!” He’d picked up an incredible assortment of treasures from the one closest to his place, including a mailing tube, bought for a dollar, containing a dozen vintage movie posters. He could’ve sold them, but he’d used them to brighten up his walls instead.

The intermittent buzz of the needle made Patrick want to swat at whatever bug was hovering, but it was soothing after a while, Jasper finding a rhythm that worked for him. The outline appeared on Vin’s chest, clear and dark, and Patrick, fascinated, watched it blossom.

As the minutes ticked away, he started to wonder if Vin’s whole Zen thing had something to do with this. Not the pain, but the hypnotic sound of the machine. The humming changed pitch as the needle pressed into Vin’s skin and moved away again, and Patrick found his eyelids getting heavy, his breathing slow as he watched the picture come to life. It would be hidden behind a smear of ink—how could Jasper see what he was doing?—then appear again when Jasper wiped Vin’s skin clean.

“Five-minute break,” Jasper said, turning off the machine and stripping off his gloves. He flexed his hand like it was cramped. “Bathroom’s down there on the right if you need it.”

“You okay?” Vin stretched and yawned.

“Yeah, fine. How are you?”

“Good. It hurt a lot at first, but I knew it wouldn’t last. I always think the darker ink is worse, but there’s no real reason that would be the case, right? Gotta be psychosomatic.”

“The way you go for black, I’d think you’d like it better.”

“Good point.” Vin seemed intrigued by Patrick’s observation, pursing his lips as he gave it some thought. “I love the purity of black, how it just is, you know? People get freaked and think I worship evil or shit like that, but I tell them evil’s not black. I see it as this swirl of negativity.”

“Like a giant pool of puke,” Patrick agreed. His stomach lurched as he pictured it. “Gah. I grossed myself out.”

To distract himself, he went over to Vin, peering down at the dragon and heart. “It’s going to look spectacular.”

“In a week or so when the soreness dies down.” Vin sighed deeply enough that the dragon’s wings seemed to beat. “Riley won’t like not being able to touch me there. Sorry. You don’t want to hear about our sex life.”

“I’ve inflicted the details of mine on you plenty of times. Not that there’s anything to share these days. I’m following your example.”

“What do you mean? You’ve got a boyfriend? Someone you’re serious about?” Vin didn’t sound too pleased about that, though he tried to hide it, tacking on a smile and a perfunctory, “Which would be awesome.”

“How could I have met Mr. Perfect without you knowing? No, I’ve tied a knot in it. No sex, no hookups. Just me and this.” He held up his right hand and wiggled his fingers. “Plus lube and my favorite nine-inch—”

“Stop right there.” Vin grinned at him, close enough that Patrick got a whiff of sweat and skin. It made his nose tingle and his cock follow suit. “How can you make no sex sound so raunchy?”

“Talent and practice.”

“You’re not serious. No more sex? Ever? I might believe until the end of the year.”

“That’s only like ten days, tops! You don’t think I can hold out longer than that?” Patrick wasn’t offended, but it was fun to tease Vin.

“Sure I do. But what brought this on? It’s one thing to try to get a handle on your finances, but that doesn’t mean you have to become celibate.”

“Celibate? This one?” Jasper came back into the room and gave Patrick a doubtful look. “He doesn’t strike me as the type. No offense.”

“None taken,” Patrick assured him, retaking his seat. “Not celibate as in I’m never having sex again. I’m waiting for someone I’m serious about. No more casual sex.”

Vin relaxed as Jasper put on a fresh pair of gloves. “That sounds okay.”

“Okay, which I’ll point out is not the same as fun.” Patrick shrugged. “I’m good with it.”

“Hey, whatever works for you works for me.” With a warm smile for Patrick, Vin settled back into his zone, lying as still under the insistent beat and prick of the needle as a dedicated sunbather on a beach.

Patrick gave Vin’s crotch a surreptitious peek, but if Vin was getting off on the experience, it didn’t show. Not that he wanted Vin to pop a boner with Jasper hovering over him. Embarrassing for everyone.

Well. Almost everyone.

Getting a tattoo of the size and detail Vin had chosen took kind of forever. Patrick hated to think how long a full sleeve would take. By the time it was done, Patrick didn’t feel anything but bored. He did appreciate how the new tat looked on Vin’s chest once Jasper had wiped it clean and coated it with a thick layer of shiny ointment.

“It’s beautiful,” Vin said, gazing into his reflection in the hand mirror Jasper gave him. “You’re a Picasso.”

Jasper snorted. “Aubrey Beardsley, maybe. Picasso’s a little too cubist for me, unless you want to talk about his blue period.” He taped some gauze over Vin’s new tattoo, his fingers deft.

Patrick hoped they didn’t need to talk about any of it. He was too old and broke to go back to school now, and even if he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have considered an art degree. If he was going to change his life, he needed something practical. Business, accounting, that kind of thing. Once he could figure out what it was that would earn him a decent living without making him want to die of boredom.

Vin slipped his shirt back on, and Patrick trailed behind him out to the front desk.

After paying, Vin turned to Patrick. “Back out in the cold?”

“Yeah. I have a couple things I need to do before I go back to the bar.”

“I could drop you somewhere?” Vin offered.

Patrick shook his head. He didn’t want Vin knowing where he was going, not yet, not until he knew how it turned out. “No, I’m good. There’s a bus stop half a block from here.”

“Okay.” Vin hesitated, then hugged him, keeping their chests from touching. Oh, yeah, Riley wasn’t going to like those kinds of hugs at all. “Thanks for coming with me.”

“You’re welcome,” Patrick said. He didn’t let himself give in to the temptation to hang on longer than he should. “See you later.”

“Don’t forget Ben.”

“Huh? Oh. No.” Shit, he had. Totally. He had time, just, but it was going to be tight.

He considered it a good omen that the bus pulled up within a minute of his arrival at the stop.

And ignored the rush-hour traffic that had it crawling along. That wasn’t an omen. That was the insanity of the season.

Chapter Fourteen

Knocking on Riley’s door was difficult. Not the action itself but the knowledge that once his knuckles hit wood, he’d have to follow through. The woman he’d accompanied into the building to avoid being buzzed in had lingered in the hallway, giving him a suspicious, I-have-911-on-speed-dial look, so he threw her a smile and rapped loud and clear on the door.

Riley had a frown going even before he saw who was disturbing him. With no buzz to alert him, he probably expected a neighbor with fruitcake and holiday cheer or something equally annoying.

“Yeah?”

“Most people start with ‘Hi.’”

Riley smothered a burp and slouched against the door frame as if it were a bed. He smelled like he’d been drinking. “Most people can bite my fucking ass.”

“Well, I guess the sun’s over the yardarm somewhere in the world.” Patrick pushed past Riley with zero problems and headed for the kitchen, blithely ignoring Riley’s startled protests. He’d blown three bucks on bus fare coming here. It wasn’t going to be for nothing. “Coffee for you— OMG, you have Jamaican Blue Mountain? I hate you. Coffee for both of us.”

“I don’t want any coffee.” Surly but not actively hostile. In fact Riley looked puzzled more than anything.

“And I don’t want to have this conversation with a drunken you, but I’m working against the clock. The coffee won’t sober you, but it’ll stop you from drinking anything else, and I need one to warm up. I just walked two blocks in the snow. You have terrible bus service out here, you know that?”

“People who live here have cars.”

“Even the cleaners and janitors? Lucky them.”

“Look, I’m not being rude, but why are you here?” Riley was standing in the kitchen doorway like standing in doorways was his new hobby.

“Wandering the streets of our fine city was starting to get old, so I figured I’d come back here again, see how the place looked when it wasn’t packed with pretty young things, and make sure you weren’t getting anyone drunk against their will.”

“That wasn’t me,” Riley said quietly, and Patrick sighed.

“I know. Sorry. That wasn’t fair.” He leaned against the countertop and stuck his right hand into his coat pocket. “Vin got a tattoo today.”

Riley’s face was impassive. Patrick wondered if he would have let something show if it had been someone else standing there in his kitchen, like a friend or a boyfriend. “Did he now. And how do you know? Let me guess. He texted you as soon as it was over.” But apparently Patrick’s expression wasn’t nearly as difficult to read. “Oh. You were there.”

“He wanted you to be,” Patrick said, then could have kicked himself. He wasn’t here to piss off Riley; he was here to make things better between them. “I went to keep him company.”

“I’m surprised he went through with it.” Riley was watching him carefully, and Patrick was definitely the mouse, not the cat.

“Because you didn’t want him to?” Patrick shook his head and tried to focus the love he felt for Vin into what he was saying. “Listen, he’s crazy about you, but you’ve got to give him a little space to breathe. He’s still his own person.”

“And he’s making bad decisions. What kind of boyfriend would I be if I sat back and let him? If he was shooting up or pouring vodka on his cornflakes or planning to join a cult and I was trying to stop him, would we be having this conversation? No, we sure as shit wouldn’t, because you’d be there with me.”

The image of Riley on his team for anything was disconcerting. Behind him, the expensive coffeemaker was brewing a half pot with discreet burbles and hisses, filling the air with fragrance. Patrick hoped he’d get to drink a cup. He was chilled to the bone, and even being in the toasty-warm loft wasn’t thawing him.

“Yeah, I would. But this isn’t the same thing. A tattoo is body art. He goes to someone safe, he knows the risks and accepts them, and he loves the result.”

“Do you?” Riley asked point-blank. “You don’t have any tattoos, and as far as I know, the only piercing you have is in your ear.”

Patrick fingered the stud in his earlobe. “Yeah, well, different strokes. And when I see someone covered in cheap, crappy designs or with a face full of metal, it doesn’t do much for me, but Vin, well, it works on him. You’ve got to see how hot he looks.”

“Will they look so hot when he’s sixty?”

“God, we’re in our twenties. Like sixty even exists! It’s all about the now, and I’m telling you, back off on this or you’ll lose him. He’s a sweet guy, but you can’t push him. Do you think no one ever tried to persuade him to have sex? They did. I did. Got nowhere, and his hormones had to be screaming for him to give in, but he wouldn’t.”

“Because he was waiting for me.” Riley rubbed his hands through his hair as if he were trying to scrub away the fog from drinking in the daytime. “I thought that was romantic when he told me. Now it feels like it’s a lot to lay on me. I’m the reason he did it, but I never asked him to! I never knew he—”

“Existed?” Patrick finished.

“No. I always knew he was there, and I admired him for knowing who he was and not being scared of it, but more like you’d admire a character in a book.”

“Well, I’ve got news for you,” Patrick said slowly. “He’s a real person. You can’t treat him like he’s some kind of fantasy doll for you to dress up. You don’t get to take off his shirt or his tattoos to see if he looks better to you like that. He loves you, so he’s trying to figure out how to put up with it, but he shouldn’t have to, and I don’t think in the long term he will. Sooner or later you’re going to push him too hard, and he’ll be out of here. Is that what you want?”

“I’d think it would be what you want.” Riley was blunt. Patrick could appreciate that.

“I want him to be happy. He loves you. Don’t screw this up; that’s all I’m saying.” Patrick shrugged helplessly. “He’s my best friend, and I don’t want to see him hurt. I’d like it, and I think he’d like it, if you and I could figure out a way to be, uh…”

“Friends?” Riley sounded doubtful.

“Probably not that,” Patrick agreed. “Civil? We don’t have to hang out all the time or anything, but chances are we’re going to be at some of the same parties occasionally. It’d be nice if we could exchange a few words without shooting daggers at each other.”

Riley studied him, his eyes for once free of the vague distaste they always seemed to hold when he looked at Patrick. “Okay,” he said. “So I guess the civil thing to do would be to tell you the mugs are in the cupboard behind you, and I take mine black.”

“Civil means asking me to wait on you?”

Riley rolled his eyes, the gesture natural, unforced, a grin appearing. “Get your whiny ass out of the way, and let me do it. How’s that?”

“Much better,” Patrick told him. He checked his watch. Time for one cup before he headed out into the winter wonderland that in the city translated to icy winds channeled by long, straight streets and sidewalks either shiny with ice or ankle-deep with slush.

The bus ride over to the bar gave him time to come up with some ideas to present to Ben, though. He felt proud of one of them, that he could give part of his nightly tips to Ben to deposit in an account that Patrick couldn’t access easily because Ben would hold the card and choose the password. It meant trusting Ben with his money, but that wasn’t a problem. Patrick had been serving one night when Ben overcharged a customer for a large round of drinks. The customer hadn’t noticed, but Ben had stood there, frowning, lost in thought, blind to everyone around him as he reworked the calculation.

Vin had been helpless with laughter when Patrick acted out Ben’s horrified, mortified reaction at discovering he’d been twenty-six cents out. The bewildered customer had been reimbursed, Ben’s apologies had been profuse, and yeah, if there was anyone out there who would treat looking after Patrick’s money as a sacred trust, it was Ben.

Ben was behind the bar when he got there. “Half an hour before my shift, as promised,” Patrick told him, and Ben nodded.

“I’ll be in the office in a minute,” he said. “Those papers are in a folder on the desk. Check them out while you wait for me.”

The folder was easy enough to find. Too bad Patrick couldn’t have said the same about his ability to translate the papers inside, which might as well have been some kind of scientific formula as far as he was concerned. He hated science.

“Do these come with Cliffs Notes?” he asked when Ben joined him.

“You won’t need them. They’re more representative than anything else. The first page is your earnings, the second is how you’ve been spending your money, the third is a proposed budget, and the fourth is how much money you’ll have saved up in six months if you can stick to the plan.”

Patrick flipped to the last page, since that sounded like the good news. “Wow. For real?”

“For real, if you can stick to the plan,” Ben repeated. “Which would be your hint that now is a good time to look at the plan.”

Patrick gave his best piteous moan, but Ben raised his eyebrows in a way that made him feel approximately seven, and sat waiting for him to begin reading.

It made sense as he read it, absorbing each point. It made so much sense, in fact, that Patrick wasn’t sure why none of it had occurred to him before. He said as much, and Ben shrugged.

“It’s always easier to fix someone else’s problems. I’m not emotionally involved in it the way you are, and I’m not seeing the figures through a haze of panic.” Ben’s expression softened. “I wish you’d asked me for help before it got to this point. I don’t mind. In fact, though your situation is about as far from complicated as it gets, I enjoyed working on it. I love being here, helping Shane build the bar into a going concern, but I do sometimes miss my old job.”

That side of it hadn’t occurred to Patrick before. Ben’s accountancy career had seemed like a living hell of dusty papers and long lines of numbers to total. He’d pictured the office as a hushed gray space, with quill pens scratching at parchment. Well, the twenty-first-century version, anyway.

After clearing his throat, he put forward his plan about saving some of his cash. He’d wondered if Ben would protest the idea as too complicated, but Ben nodded. “Good plan. We’ll set up a way for it to go directly into a new savings account at the same bank I use, with the best interest rate we can get, which isn’t much these days. It could get messy from a legal perspective if you can’t access it, though. Consider it a test of willpower. Just forget the account exists.”

“I’m going to keep myself busy,” Patrick promised. “No time for spending money, even less for thinking.” If he was going to craft himself into the new, better Patrick, he couldn’t screw around. No daydreaming about what Vin would be like in bed, no imagining a steamy-hot first kiss between them, no creating the perfect romantic date. Hell, he wouldn’t have the money for a date anyway, and he hoped Vin would understand that the truce he’d negotiated between himself and Riley was the only Christmas present he’d be able to afford this year.

“That’s the attitude,” Ben said. He hesitated, then asked, “How are things going?”

“You mean with my unrequited love?” Projecting a sense of humor about the situation seemed the way to go. “Oh, you know. Unrequited. That’s sort of the definition.”

“Have you said anything?”

“Are you kidding? Having you and Shane know about it is bad enough. Can you imagine what my life would be like if Vin knew? Perish the thought.”

“Because he has a boyfriend.” Ben seemed uncertain, like he wasn’t sure this was a path he should be treading.

Patrick decided it was a great path, if viewed through rose-colored glasses. “I know, right? I couldn’t possibly consider letting anything slip now. It would be like I was doing it to break them up.”

“You could only do that if there were cracks showing.” Ben glanced at Shane’s favorite coffee mug, an official Everton Football Club souvenir shipped over from England. Shane was always leaving it about with an inch of coffee at the bottom. Now it was perilously close to the edge of the desk. Ben moved it to safety, a faint color rising in his face as if it’d been Shane he’d touched. “A dozen men could tell me they loved me, and it wouldn’t matter because what I have with Shane is solid.”

“That’s still how it’d look to people.”

“You don’t care about that. You care about how it’d look to Vin.”

“Yeah,” Patrick said after a moment. “And it would upset him, so I’m going to let them do their thing, and if it cracks, if it breaks”—he pointed at Shane’s mug—“I know I did my best to save it.”

Ben’s expression became wary—not the best compliment in the world, but Patrick didn’t take it to heart. He didn’t have a reputation for being tactful and diplomatic, after all. “What did you do?” Ben asked.

“I went to see Riley. Told him that if he gave Vin grief over his new tattoo, he’d lose him. I could’ve stayed out of it and waited for the boom, but it didn’t feel right.”

“And how did it turn out?” Ben was careful to sound neutral, Patrick could tell.

“Okay. We talked. He gave me coffee. He sort of came around to seeing it my way, or at least he pretended to. I don’t know him that well.” Patrick looked down at the papers he was holding again, then set them on the edge of the desk. “You don’t have to answer this if it’s too weird, but has Vin talked to you about him?”

“It might be weird to share it if he had, but he hasn’t,” Ben said. “Nothing you wouldn’t have heard, at least.”

Patrick hated to say it, but he needed to bounce the idea off someone else, and it wasn’t like it could be Vin. “I think Riley’s kind of controlling.”

“But not abusive?” Ben stiffened, waiting for the answer.

“Not like that,” Patrick rushed to assure him. “Nothing like that. If he was, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I’d be calling the police.”

“Controlling can mean different things to different people.”

Ben was choosing his words, and Patrick bit back a groan when he figured out why. Shit. How could he tell Ben he knew what Ben and Shane had was totally different without telling Ben that he knew what he and Shane had?

“I get that. I do. I have friends who, um, take that and run with it, if you know what I mean.” Ben made a noncommittal sound that Patrick took for agreement. “This isn’t like that. It’s more like he wants to make Vin different. More, oh, I don’t know, socially acceptable. So he fits in with Riley’s rich buddies. Because right now, Vin doesn’t. I saw them at the party he threw, and they’re all designer labels and sports cars. Some of them were good people, but they spend more on a haircut than Vin and I make in a week.”

“If that’s your idea of asking for a raise, forget it.”

“You know it’s not. I’m making the point that Vin can’t keep up with them. Hell, the places they hang out, buying a round would leave him broke. And Riley’s going to want to go on vacation somewhere. Does Vin go as his toy boy or something, everything bought and paid for? He’d hate that. But he won’t be able to afford it any other way.”

Ben leaned back in his chair. “Then it sounds like you don’t have anything to worry about.”

“What?” That shocked Patrick. Ben didn’t understand at all. “I don’t want him to get hurt. That’s what I’m worried about! You think I want him and I don’t care how I get him?” As what he’d said sunk in, Patrick realized what it meant. And that it scared the hell out of him. “I want him to be happy.”

He’d said that before, but each time he did, the truth of it sank deeper.

“I can see that.” Ben pursed his lips, looking pensive. “Your shift’s about to start. You’d better get yourself out there and get to work.”

“Right. Thanks.” Patrick stood, still more than a little bit stunned, and picked up the papers Ben had given him, rolling them up so he could stick them in his coat pocket. He’d look at them again later. “And thanks for this. I appreciate the help.”

“Somehow I don’t think you’re going to need all that much,” Ben said. “But you’re welcome.”

Chapter Fifteen

“I didn’t think you’d be happy about the tattoo.” Vin could feel the inked skin throbbing under his loose shirt, a slow, measured beat he treasured as a reminder.

It didn’t look as attractive right now as it would later, not with only two days’ healing behind it. The skin around it was inflamed, but that would fade, leaving behind the dark drama of the outline and the vivid colors of the heart and dragon. He’d shown it to his parents and endured his mother’s fussing over her baby being hurt, which made no sense at all, and his father’s indulgent shake of the head. With a few days to go before Christmas, their house smelled of the season, the real tree exuding pine, the kitchen of cinnamon and coffee.

He’d delivered his gifts and stacked them under the tree, waiting to be opened on Christmas morning. Riley wouldn’t be there, of course—too soon for them to be involved in each other’s traditions. Even if Riley had invited him over, his mother’s disappointment at his absence would have made it impossible for Vin to accept.

He’d bought Riley a few things. Nothing expensive. He couldn’t afford it, and he didn’t intend to skimp on presents to his family to give Riley something fancy when Riley had everything anyone could need or want anyway.

And he’d gotten Patrick a gift for the first time, not the forbidden coffeemaker, but something else he knew Patrick would like, prompted to it by the valiant attempts his friend was making to turn himself around.

Vin hadn’t realized how in debt Patrick was, or how dissatisfied with his life. Patrick had always seemed like the original party animal, sleeping with anyone who took his fancy, getting very drunk, very often, carefree and content. Dust off the glitter, and underneath was a lot of loneliness. Vin had never been lonely. His family surrounded him with love and support. Even when he’d been longing for Riley, he hadn’t been unhappy.

“I’m not going to lie and say I’m glad you did it, but it’s you. Can’t be mad at you, baby.” Riley took a handful of cashew nuts from the bowl on the coffee table, an elegant rectangle of metal and glass that Vin kept banging his knee on. He popped them into his mouth, chewing slowly as if to give him an excuse not to elaborate.

God, he was beautiful. The years they’d been apart showed on his face, of course, but they served to make him better looking to Vin, more like a man and less like a boy.

“I knew you wouldn’t want me to change who I am.” He hadn’t known it, not for sure; he was relieved and grateful.

“Of course not.” Riley frowned as if the idea bothered him. “Come over here; you’re too far away.”

There’d only been a few inches between them, not enough to complain about, but Vin moved closer. “I missed you last night,” he said, putting a hand on Riley’s thigh and murmuring appreciatively when Riley’s arm encircled him.

“You should get a regular day job. Then we could be together every night. Isn’t that what you want? When you move in—sorry, I mean if; I know you haven’t made your mind up yet—I want you here in bed with me, not out at that bar until three in the morning.” Riley ran a hand up Vin’s back and into his hair, then kissed him.

“Mm.” Vin loved his job, but this wasn’t the time to say it. “I could make it up to you right now.”

“Yeah? That sounds good.”

“It’ll feel good too.” Vin reached for the hem of Riley’s shirt and pulled it out of his waistband, then bent and kissed his stomach. Riley was fit, so the softness under Vin’s lips was the velvet of skin. He felt the solid press of Riley’s cock as he undid his zipper.

“Already does,” Riley said with an anticipatory groan that made Vin’s balls tighten.

He couldn’t get used to the fact that sex was part of his life now. It wasn’t something he took for granted the way other people seemed to. It also wasn’t exactly the way he’d pictured it. Sex made him feel closer to Riley, and it left his body humming happily, but sometimes he had a flash of frustration that it didn’t feel better. Maybe because it was over so soon? Riley came quickly, and though he was always willing to finish Vin with his hand or mouth—usually his hand—Vin felt guilty, as if he was robbing Riley of the chance to bask in the afterglow. He’d tried coming first instead, but it wasn’t like he could snap his fingers and climax at will. He wanted to enjoy the journey; Riley was all about crossing the finish line first.

It was hard not to feel like he was doing something wrong. The night he and Patrick had seen Ben and Shane together—a night he hadn’t been able to get out of his head—Vin had felt flushed, a rush of heat and envy overwhelming him. It wasn’t that he was into the idea of being that rough in bed, surprisingly hot and less surprisingly disturbing as it had been to play voyeur to his employers’ passionate encounter, but the intensity and intimacy he’d witnessed were missing from his sex with Riley. Maybe he’d gone too long in life without that kind of connection with another person. Maybe that kind of profound bond took a while to build, and with time he and Riley would have something similar together.

Maybe.

Pushing aside his vague discontent, he settled down to blow Riley, knowing it would put Riley in a good mood and make him less likely to push Vin into a decision Vin wasn’t ready to make. Living over the bar worked for him. He was getting the place to look better, and it was the way he wanted it to be. Riley’s loft was already perfect—an impersonal, professional version of perfect that left Vin cold.

Dump though it was, Patrick’s basement was crammed with personality, from the poster-covered walls to the gaudy splashes of color from his clothes hanging from a stretched rope because Patrick didn’t own a closet.

Honey, I came out of one once,” he’d said when Vin had asked him about it, “and I’m never going back in, not even my clothes. This way they get air, and the creases drop out.

An iron was something else on the list of items Patrick lived without, but so did Vin, for that matter.

Riley’s hand resting on his head brought his attention back to his current task. He knew he could make Riley come in three minutes tops, and once he had, they could relax for the evening, just take it easy and not talk so much. Vin didn’t want to argue. He wanted peaceful, happy times, with lots of laughing. Like when he and Patrick hung out, except with a boyfriend.

“Yeah, like that. You’re so hot when you suck my dick.” Riley’s fingers twisted in Vin’s hair, pulling it harder than was comfortable. He might be into the pain that came with piercings and tattoos, but he didn’t like it with his sex. “Christ, yeah.”

Vin’s lips were slick with saliva, and he had to remember to breathe on the upstroke if he wanted to breathe at all. Riley’s hips lifted, not that he could do much with Vin’s weight draped partly over his lap, and Vin could tell he was getting close to coming. He got his hand around the base of Riley’s cock to provide a little more stimulation that way, and Riley groaned, bitter fluid flooding Vin’s mouth.

He couldn’t rid himself of the belief it was rude not to swallow, so he choked it down and wiped his mouth as he pulled back, glancing up at Riley. “How was that? Was it good?”

“Are you kidding? Of course it was good. You’re good.” Riley petted his hair affectionately. “My sweet little boyfriend.”

“I’m not little,” Vin protested.

“I didn’t mean it like that.” Riley stretched to grab some tissues from the nearby box and wiped himself as Vin moved out of the way. “Should I do you?”

Vin was only half-hard; he’d been too distracted to be into it. “Maybe later,” he said diplomatically. Riley might suggest fucking him again, and that wasn’t high on his list of turn-ons. “Want to watch TV?”

“I was thinking we could meet a couple of the guys for drinks later,” Riley said.

“I have to work tonight,” Vin reminded him.

Riley shrugged offhandedly, then gave a sigh as theatrical as any of Patrick’s. “I guess I’ll go on my own, then.”

The sigh rasped Vin’s nerves. “Look, I know it’s not ideal, but it’s my job. Would you be getting this pissed off if I worked in a restaurant? Because their hours are as bad as mine.”

“I just don’t see why you can’t be more ambitious. Why you’re settling for awful hours, crappy pay, and a dive to work in.”

Stung by the insult to a place he considered home, Vin retorted, “The Square Peg is not a dive!” He remembered something Ben had once said and repeated it. “It’s the heart of the neighborhood and a safe place for people like us.”

Riley flicked his fingers dismissively. “I don’t need to go to a gay bar to feel safe, and I don’t know why your bosses insist on limiting themselves with that label. Getting a reputation for being somewhere to go to get picked up isn’t helping them or the neighborhood. It’s no wonder—”

“What?” Vin demanded, dull dismay choking him as he finished Riley’s sentence in his head. Let me be wrong, God, please. “No wonder what?”

“That some people,” Riley said carefully, “think it would have been better if the place wasn’t there. It’s not the right neighborhood for a place like that.”

“Some people?” Vin hitched himself a few inches away from Riley, putting space between them but not yet ready to get up and leave. Not yet. “At least have the balls to say what you really mean.”

“Fine. Tony Carter and his friends. I’m not saying what Marco did is excusable, because it’s not. I’m saying I can understand how he got the idea that he was doing people a favor. Places like that encourage the kind of stuff we should be avoiding.”

Screw it. Vin stood, so angry he wanted to hit something. Someone. “What kind of stuff? Feeling safe? Being able to have a couple of drinks with some friends without worrying that some homophobe is going to beat you up because you touched your boyfriend’s knee?”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it!” Riley stood too, bouncing on his toes as if he was preparing to fight.

“Then what do you mean? Spell it out! I didn’t go to college like you. Didn’t get to vacation around the world expanding my cultural horizons or whatever you said it did.” Words heated by resentment boiled over, sputtering out of his mouth, old wounds, imperfectly healed, bleeding again. “What did your friends call me at school? Half wetback, all loser? How many times did they say that around you, and you grinned and let it go?”

Riley’s mouth hung open for a moment. He had a piece of cashew stuck between two teeth, Vin noted absently. “Wait, what? You know I stuck up for you when they were being racist assholes, and anyway, that was years ago! Why are you bringing it up now? Jesus, let it go.”

“I can’t,” Vin said. “I don’t even think I want to.”

“You can. You’re making yourself crazy over nothing.” Riley didn’t seem to know whether to plead with him or be mad. “This isn’t a big a deal. Being gay isn’t as important as other stuff.”

“What?” Vin gaped at him. “Who are you?”

“Same guy I’ve always been.” Riley spread his hands out at his sides, love me or leave me, and his heart sinking, Vin knew his choice was made. “Don’t be so unreasonable.”

“I’m not being unreasonable,” Vin said. “And if you’re the same guy you’ve always been, then I’ve been wrong all this time. We aren’t right for each other at all.”

“You’re breaking up with me?” Riley went from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye, folding his arms across his chest in a gesture of rejection. “Fine! You’re too screwed up for me, anyway. At least now I can go to Marco’s appeal without worrying how you’ll react.”

“His what?” Vin took a step back. He couldn’t breathe past the clog of emotions in his chest, a hard mass of it, making his heart hammer erratically. He could still taste Riley when he swallowed, the acrid tang of spunk lingering as it always did. The abrupt change left him feeling humiliated. He’d serviced Riley, placating him with a blowjob. He wanted to spit out the bitterness, leave Riley’s white carpet stained. “How can he appeal? He did it!”

“Not to get released, just a sentence reduction or better conditions. They’re basing it on extenuating circumstances. State of mind at the time. Peer pressure.” Riley shrugged as if it didn’t make much difference which option Marco’s lawyer went for. “They want me as a character witness.”

Vin wasn’t naive. Arson was a federal crime, and Marco wasn’t getting out of his punishment, but there were ways to lessen the ordeal for those with influence and the money to back it up.

A rich kid with a powerful father was in a cell, surrounded by men who’d see him as fresh meat to fuck with and bully. Can’t have that. Let’s pull strings, agree he’s been naughty, let his sentence get reduced, his stay in prison be as comfortable as it gets.

“And you were going to do it?”

“It came up in conversation,” Riley said, evading the question. “We were friends, you know. Not recently, but at one point. I’m loyal to my friends.”

“This is about your father and his business, not you and Marco.” Vin’s chest felt heavy with grief, but somehow it was easier to breathe now. He stood tall and straight, head up, shoulders back. “You’re the perfect witness for them if you cooperate. Gay. Dating me. No one could say you were biased toward Marco. Whatever you said to help him would count double because you’ve got every reason to hate him.”

“I’d never say he was in the right for doing what he did. That was fucked-up. But they’re not going to ask me. They don’t care what I think about that, just what I know about his morals or whatever.”

“Yeah, burning down a business and almost killing a bunch of people, including me, makes him a paragon of morality.” Vin didn’t try to hide the bitterness he felt.

“He screwed up, but that doesn’t mean he should be in prison. He could do community service or something, you know, to make up for it.”

“There’s nothing that will make up for it. Shane almost died. If you could have seen the look on Ben’s face—” Vin shook his head. “Never mind. I forgot. You don’t care, because the Square Peg is, what, a dive bar?” He couldn’t believe this was happening. To go from that moment when he’d seen Riley again at the bar, that perfect moment of hope and clarity, to this in the space of two months was killing him. “I was stupid, wasn’t I?”

“What do you mean?” Riley tilted his head, frowning.

“Thinking this could work, you and me. It can’t. We’re too different.”

“We don’t have to be,” Riley said. “Your life, it could be different.”

“You mean more like yours.”

“I mean more normal. You’re not stupid. You could have any job you wanted, a regular job. Move in with me, get a nicer car…”

“I don’t want to change,” Vin said, as bleak and cold as the weather. “I like who I am. I thought you did too.”

“I did,” Riley said, then winced as the words registered. “I mean, I do.”

“Not enough.” Vin went over to the door. He slipped on his winter boots and his jacket, then wrapped his scarf around his neck while Riley watched him from a couple of feet away.

“So that’s it? You’re ending it?”

“You did that.”

Riley took a few steps toward Vin, then paused, irresolute. “Years of waiting for me and you got bored with me after two months?”

“No. Not bored.” Vin hesitated, his hand on the door. “And if it helps, I’m not angry with you. Just disappointed. And more with myself for not seeing you clearly. You were nice to me at school, and I thought that meant something. Maybe it did. But I gave you too much credit for it.”

“Fine,” Riley snapped. “But don’t think you can come crawling back in a couple of days when you realize what a mistake you made, because when you leave, that’s it. It’s over.”

“Yeah. It is.”

Vin made himself open the door and walk down the hallway without looking back.

He knew who he was. No way was he changing. Not for Riley, not for anyone. He’d decided what to do, and he was standing by that decision.

No matter how much it hurt.

He felt too terrible to appreciate it when his van started despite the freezing temperatures, and he barely noticed that his hands were ice-cold. It was a relief to pull into his space in the tiny parking lot behind the Square Peg and feel like he was home. The bar welcomed him with warmth and the smell of hops and lime juice.

“Hey, Vin! You’re early. Your shift doesn’t start until—” Shelly got a look at his face and stopped dead in her tracks. “What’s wrong?”

Vin hadn’t realized he was so transparent. “Riley and I broke up.”

“What?” She sounded horrified. “Sit down. I’ll get you a ginger ale.”

His teeth were chattering, not from cold but a nervous chill. The people closest to him gave him curious looks but didn’t comment. Shelly glared at them anyway and put her arm around Vin’s shoulders, shepherding him to a quiet table in a corner. “There. Or do you want to go up to your place?”

It would be so quiet up there. Quiet and empty. He shook his head. “The drink would be great, thanks.”

Shelly patted his arm and left.

His drink arrived on a tray carried by Dave, along with a bowl of vegetable soup and a warm buttered roll on a plate. Dave sat down across from Vin and pushed the soup closer when Vin didn’t touch it. “Go on. Homemade. You’ll like it.”

“W-will I?” He’d take a spoonful and end up wearing it if he couldn’t stop his teeth from chattering.

“Yeah. You will.” Dave sounded so definite about it that Vin picked up the spoon and scooped up some broth with chunks of potato and carrot in it. He tried again, this time getting liquid, and sipped. It warmed his mouth, and the act of swallowing helped to calm him, but he felt frozen, as if his body had been injected with whatever the dentist used before he drilled into a cavity.

“More.” Dave could be as bossy as Ben in a quiet way. Vin nodded obediently because it was easier than arguing, and drank his soup in small, careful sips, pretending it was important not to spill a drop. The bread was harder to deal with, but he washed it down with the ginger ale.

Dave sighed. “Okay, now you don’t look like you’re about to pass out. Good.”

“It was such a shock,” Vin tried to explain.

“Two-timing you? Deciding he wasn’t gay after all? Moving to Europe?”

Dave’s deadpan delivery of options was funny, but Vin didn’t let himself smile. Hysteria would follow, and he worked here. He didn’t want the customers pointing him out as that flake who caused a scene in the bar.

“The asshole who set fire to the place is appealing to get his sentence reduced. Riley’s going to testify about what a great guy he is.” Saying it, Vin felt ashamed, tainted by association. “He doesn’t even believe that. It’s business. His dad and Marco’s work together. Scratch each other’s backs. Riley’s doing this for money.” He turned the spoon in his hand, cheap metal, but the handle was clean and bright. “That makes it worse.”

“Yeah.” Dave glanced back past the bar toward the office. “Don’t tell Shane, unless you really want something to be shocked about.”

“I wouldn’t,” Vin assured him. “But he’ll hear about it anyway. If it works, at least.”

Dave nodded at Shelly. “Yeah. I’m gonna get back to work before these guys start rioting over a lack of fries and mozzarella sticks. You hang out down here if it helps.”

Vin had barely been alone two minutes before Shelly came over to check on him.

“Do you want to tell me everything? Or are we pretending nothing happened?” she asked, sitting down in the chair Dave had vacated.

“Nothing happened, I think. For now.” Vin bit his lip. “Patrick’s not working tonight.”

“No. I’m sure he’d come in if you need him.” Shelly reached out and patted Vin’s hand. “Call him.”

“He’s here enough when he’s working,” Vin said. “He doesn’t want to come in when he’s not on the clock.”

“He would for you.”

That wasn’t the point. She was right, obviously. Patrick was his friend, his best friend, and would come watch stupid movies with him or take long walks—if it weren’t so cold—or whatever would make him feel better. If their positions had been reversed and it was Patrick who’d broken up with someone, Vin would have been happy to play therapist and sympathizer. “I’ll text him,” Vin said, because Shelly was still watching him and waiting for an answer.

“Good. Let me know if you want anything else, okay?” She went back to work.

Composing the text took three or four goes. Normally he texted back and forth with Patrick sharing random trivial observations about his day, sometimes even when Patrick was a few yards away. That was fun, because he got to see Patrick’s smile as he read his text, then started to tap back, sacrificing accuracy for speed, but that didn’t matter because Vin always understood the most garbled text when it was from Patrick. They were in sync.

Now he was deleting text after text, trying to compress all his frozen, agonized pain into a few lines. And wondering if what was blocking him was a growing sense that he’d been a complete idiot when it came to Riley.

But as soon as he thought that, a fresh wave of loss came, and he found himself checking his phone for a message from Riley instead, explaining everything, offering the perfect apology, and making the last few horrible hours disappear.

He settled for a terse, brk up wt R. Feel like crap.

The response he got back was gratifyingly quick. Shit. Wht happened? You ok?

His text this time was easier to compose, though it still took longer than normal.

No. Huge fight, wht else?

Whr are u? I cn grb a cab, come get u?

Appreciation and gratitude combined to bring Vin close to tears. Patrick was the best friend ever. He was broke and working so hard to climb his way out of the hole he’d dug himself into, but here he was, offering to throw that away for Vin, to spend money he didn’t have to rescue Vin in his time of need. Okay, that was a little bit dramatic.

@ the Peg. Shelly & Dave takng care of me.

Almst hate 2 ask, but wht was the fight about?

Biting his lip, Vin typed, R’s going 2 B character witness, then backtracked and erased it. This wasn’t the kind of conversation he could have over text. He settled for, Can’t get in2 it now, wrking 2nite. Not enuff time. Tlk to u 2morrow?

Sure, Patrick texted back. It’ll be ok. You been awesome w/o him b4 & u will b again. Let me know if u need anything.

Will do and thnx. Vin paused before sending it without his usual sign-off. He usually added xoxox or a lighthearted luv u, but they didn’t seem appropriate. What was the matter with him? This was Patrick, and he never had to pretend around him or feel awkward. Patrick loved—liked—him the way he was, without reservations.

He got to his feet, stacking his used dishes on a tray. He’d go upstairs and get his head together before his shift began. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, and he couldn’t bring everyone else down with his problems.

Even if his mother would take one look at him and know something was wrong. Shit.

Chapter Sixteen

“This is last call, ladies and gentlemen,” Shane announced, and the round of disappointed groans was followed by a rapid round of orders that kept Patrick and the others even busier than they’d been all afternoon.

It was eight thirty, half an hour until closing on Christmas Eve. Shane had argued for them to stay open until their usual midnight at least, but Ben had insisted they close at a more reasonable hour so their employees could be with their families and loved ones. It had been an argument that had lasted a week and gone on behind closed doors like Ben and Shane thought that meant no one would hear about it. They obviously weren’t aware how thin the office door was. Or how loud their voices were when they shouted.

Patrick hadn’t been able to forget how they’d looked together when he and Vin had watched them fucking on the pool table, and he’d never look at a pool table the same way again. The incident had teased at his fantasy life ever since, a life that was full of possibilities after Vin and Riley’s split. He imagined what it would have been like if, right there in the darkened hallway, he’d gone down on his knees and taken out Vin’s cock. Just thinking about it made his mouth water.

“Hey, you okay?” Shelly asked, nudging him with her elbow.

Patrick blinked and forced his mind back onto his work. “Yeah, fine. Sorry.”

“You looked like you were a million miles away.”

Patrick set a full pint glass on the bar and started to fill another. He’d only been forty feet away, but also back in time with Vin’s cock sliding between his lips, and he couldn’t say any of that out loud. “I guess. What are you doing tonight? After this, I mean.”

“I’m going over to Jan’s.” Shelly smiled, sweet and sexy. “Let’s just say if tonight goes the way we’ve planned, I’m definitely on the naughty list, unless Santa’s more broad-minded than people think.”

Patrick gave it some thought as the level of beer in the glass rose. “He eats a million cookies in a night. I’d say he’s a guy who likes to indulge.”

“Good point. Excellent point.” Shelly’s smile widened. “Her tongue’s pierced, like Vin’s. You have no idea how interesting that makes it when she goes down on me.”

Beer cascaded over the rim of the glass, and Patrick yelped, closing the tap and setting the glass down in a hurry. Grabbing a bar towel, he dried his hand, then mopped up the bar, Shelly’s giggles providing background music.

“Never thought I’d see the day I made you blush.”

Unable to tell her he’d been imagining a metal ball warmed by Vin’s mouth flicking against his cock, Patrick smiled weakly. “Shy, delicate flower. Really.”

She snorted, still grinning, and spun around, calling out a greeting to a friend as she reached for a glass.

Patrick delivered the two pints of beer to his impatient customer and signaled to Shane that he was taking a two-minute break. Shane, a Santa hat set at a rakish angle on his head—making him look dangerous, not ridiculous, which took some doing—nodded.

Patrick escaped to the relative peace of the break room, the insistent beat of the music fading to an indistinct blur. If he heard that Slade song Shane loved one more time, he was going to find earplugs.

He took a can of soda from the minifridge and drained half of it in three long gulps, feeling the cold liquid travel down to his stomach. Sweat dampened his tight red T-shirt, and he knew he was flushed, eyes bright with the buzz going on out there and his fantasies. Was there time to jerk off in the men’s room? Probably not.

And definitely not a good idea, but now that he was alone, his cock was hardening, his body reacting to his mood, his arousal fed by his thoughts as it so often was.

“Hot out there tonight,” Vin said from the doorway.

Patrick swallowed some more soda, then said, “It’s all the people. Body heat or whatever.” Which wasn’t a thought that made him any less aroused.

“Yeah. I didn’t think there’d be so many. Last year we were open until midnight and the place was packed, but I figured with the earlier closing time, people would have gone somewhere else.” Vin looked amazing in his usual black T-shirt and jeans, but Patrick still found himself wishing for the opportunity to peel them off him.

“Maybe they didn’t realize until it was too late,” Patrick said, although Ben had put up signs days ago to warn their regulars things would be different this year.

“I think most of them did. Could be they want to have an early night. Go home with their boyfriends or girlfriends and go to bed.” Vin looked depressed.

Patrick moved closer. A depressed Vin was not okay. “Want the rest of this?” There were so many things he’d rather offer Vin, but the last sips of his soda would have to do.

“Sure. Thanks.” Vin drank it, then set the empty can down. “Sorry. I know I’m not very much fun to be around right now.”

He wasn’t; he’d been quiet and distant all night, to the point where a couple of people had asked Patrick if he knew what was wrong. “Don’t say that. You’re entitled to a few days in the dumps at least, under the circumstances.”

“Yeah.” Vin rubbed his hand across his mouth. “Okay, twenty minutes to go.”

Vin’s lips, slightly reddened from the brush of his fingers, drew Patrick’s gaze. The clear lines of Vin’s mouth, the flash from that tongue stud as Vin licked a drop of soda his hand had missed—temptation had never been so impossible to resist. He darted forward, impulsively kissing Vin full on those inviting lips, swinging his arms up and clasping Vin to him in a hug.

His kiss wasn’t returned. Not even close.

“Hey!” Vin struggled to get free, jerking his head to the side, the astonishment on his face as effective as a bucket of cold water when it came to quenching Patrick’s arousal. “What was that all about?”

Vin didn’t seem angry, just startled and puzzled, but it didn’t make rejection taste any less bitter.

Patrick wanted to think fast and come up with a believable excuse, but he was too rattled by what he’d done and by Vin’s reaction to it for his brain to function.

“I wanted to make you feel better.” He took half a step back, giving Vin some space, and forced himself to sound playful. “You know, a little patented Patrick-affection. It’ll cure what ails you.”

“Less cure, more pure shock,” Vin said.

That seemed unfair. Patrick had hugged Vin countless times—maybe not lately, definitely not since Riley had entered the picture—and given him a quick peck on the cheek or lips more than once, though only a real kiss, last year under the mistletoe, for real. “My breath’s not that bad.”

Vin studied him with an intention Patrick considered unwarranted. It made him nervous. What did Vin see in his expression?

“It’s fine. You just came on a bit strong.” Vin touched his lips with his tongue again, a tentative taste, as if he’d tried something exotic and wasn’t sure he liked it.

“What, I can’t hug you now?” Patrick demanded. He had on candy-cane-flavored lip gloss. Who didn’t love mint? “Do I need to, like, make an appointment? Request it in writing? In triplicate?”

“Patrick…”

“It was a hug! A friendly, you-feel-like-shit-and-I-want-to-make-you-feel-better hug.”

“And a kiss. A real kiss.” Vin said the words slowly, piecing a puzzle together, solving a clue.

Patrick made a scoffing sound. “You’re not Sleeping Beauty, though I’ve got the legs to make an amazing Prince Charming. It was a kiss, honey. Walk out into that bar, smile and flutter your eyelashes at some guys, and you’ll get a dozen more.”

Speaking of which, he’d been gone longer than his planned two minutes.

“Okay, I’m not running out on you, but I have to get back to work, or Shane’s going to have my head on a platter.” He was totally running out on Vin, and he knew it, and even if it was a great excuse, he didn’t know if Vin would buy it.

The next twenty minutes passed in a blur of customers finishing their drinks and bundling themselves into coats, hats, and scarves before shuffling off into the cold night. Ben held the door for the last of them and locked it behind them when they’d gone, then turned back to the staff and said, “Right. Drinks all around!”

That was new. Last year they’d been cleaning up so late they’d been too tired to do anything but go home themselves, and Ben hadn’t even been there. So much had changed. Patrick found himself watching Vin out of the corner of his eye as Shane got everyone their favorite drinks, including a cranberry and sparkling water, complete with a festive curl of orange rind, for Vin.

“We never got mistletoe,” Dave said with a little smirk as Ben handed him his drink.

“That’s because I told you last year that if I saw it again, you were all sacked,” Shane reminded him.

Patrick smothered a grin. The staff might’ve been banned from hanging any, but the customers weren’t obliged to obey the rule, and they hadn’t. A sprig of mistletoe hung from the ceiling in the men’s room, and though it was plastic, it had still worked its magic. He’d seen a lot of men come out of there hanging on to someone, kissing exuberantly.

“Don’t need mistletoe to do this,” Ben said and hit Shane with a kiss that made Patrick’s toes curl, a prolonged, intense smooch that managed to be both hot and tender. When it ended and they broke for air, a moment of silence fell as a tribute before a good-natured round of applause and whistles.

Vin didn’t join in, but he was smiling, a wistful look in his eyes that made Patrick long to punch Riley for putting it there, or himself, if it was his fault. Was it?

He kept watching Vin as the conversation got noisy, tired people finding one last burst of energy, the magic of the night casting its spell. Patrick had stopped believing in Santa so young that he couldn’t remember a time when he did, but he’d always loved the night before Christmas. The next day the gifts might disappoint, the family rows turn violent, the rain pelt down instead of drifting, dancing snow, but on Christmas Eve, every wish and hope seemed achievable.

Except his wish wasn’t going to come true, because Vin had jerked away from a kiss.

Too soon, he told himself. He’s hurting. Still hoping Riley will come back. That’s what he’s wishing for. Not you.

On cue, Vin came over and slung an arm around his shoulders. Patrick leaned against him gratefully, more focused in that moment on the friendship than any desire.

“You okay?” Vin asked.

“Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that?” Patrick hesitated. He wanted to apologize again for before, but he knew if he did, it would give Vin more information to fill in the blanks with. Vin was smart, and he’d figure it out sooner or later, whether he and Riley got back together or he found a new boyfriend.

Patrick didn’t want him to find a new boyfriend if it wasn’t him. But he also didn’t want Vin to go back to being alone. Vin deserved better.

“I’m good,” Vin said. “You know, not great, but I’ll get over him. It’s kind of weird, how I thought for so long he was the perfect guy for me, and then it turns out I was wrong. Makes me wonder what else I might have been wrong about.”

“He was an asshole,” Patrick said, thinking he was being loyal, then relented as soon as Vin frowned. “Okay, he wasn’t. I was even getting ready to try to be friends with him—not really friends; if anyone needs proof that sexuality isn’t enough in common for two people to get along, he and I were it. But he wasn’t good enough for you.”

“So who is?” Vin asked. “Anyone in your little black book you’d give the Patrick seal of approval to?”

Patrick gave a vehement shake of his head. If he owned an actual book like that, he’d burn it before letting Vin go near anyone in it. “No one I’ve ever been with is anywhere near what you deserve.”

“Same goes for you,” Vin said and touched Patrick’s face with his fingertips, a snowflake-light caress. “You should have someone perfect. Someone sexy and kind who sees you and loves you. Not the losers and users you usually go for.”

Patrick wasn’t sure he liked his choice of lovers being summed up that dismissively, but he couldn’t argue with the accuracy of Vin’s judgment. At the time, he hadn’t cared. He’d gotten out of it what he wanted, fooled himself sometimes that he’d clicked for real when deep down he knew he hadn’t, and moved on after a brief period of moping without a backward glance.

He couldn’t move past Vin. Hell, he couldn’t even move toward Vin without Vin backing away. And having Vin describe himself as Patrick’s ideal boyfriend wasn’t helping.

Time to put it out there. He’d been holding back, but if he missed his chance again, he might not get another.

He drew Vin over to a quieter area of the bar. “Listen, you’re right. About all of it. Who I should be with, how I’ve been settling for losers. But I’m not like that now. I’ve stopped picking up guys at random, and I’m ready to try something serious, with someone I care about. It scares the shit out of me, but I want it more than anything. I want him.”

He’d planned to say you, but his tongue had tangled at the last moment, and the safer him had slipped out. He was such a coward, but he hated being rejected, knowing he wasn’t good enough for someone.

“You’re in love with someone? For real? That’s why all the changes?” Vin’s dark eyes widened with surprise. He swallowed, the small sound audible because they were standing so close, then bit down hard on his lip, teeth digging into soft flesh, before asking, “Who?”

Part of Patrick wanted to kiss Vin again so badly he was light-headed with need. The rest of him was terrified. He shouldn’t have taken this conversation as far as he had, and what he wanted to do now was… Well, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He could fake passing out realistically, but knowing him, he’d hit his funny bone on the way down and end up rolling around on the floor whimpering.

“I can’t,” he whispered.

“Sure you can,” Vin said. Somehow it felt as if it were just the two of them in the room and no one else existed. “It’s me.” For a second, Patrick thought Vin did know, and felt like he might faint, but then Vin went on. “You know you can tell me anything.”

But he couldn’t. If he told Vin, things between them would change, and if he couldn’t have Vin as a boyfriend, Patrick couldn’t bear the thought of not having him as a friend. Later, when his life was a little more together, when he could come a little closer to deserving Vin, then he could tell him. Maybe.

Shelly—wonderful, amazing Shelly—came over and interrupted. “Hey, you,” she said, taking Patrick’s hand. “I’m out of here. If you still want that ride I promised you, say good night to your BFF and grab your coat.”

With an apologetic shrug for Vin and a wave directed at everyone else in the room, Patrick grabbed his chance along with his coat and hustled his ass out the door before he could do or say anything he’d regret in the morning.

Which made this Christmas Eve one hell of a lot different from the last three or four.

Chapter Seventeen

“A soup kitchen?” Vin knew his surprise was unflattering, but he couldn’t help it. “On Christmas Day? Really?”

Patrick hunched a shoulder, his gaze on everything but Vin’s face as they made their way through the crowded mall to the movie theater at its center. “Just for a couple of hours. I didn’t do any cooking; you know I suck at it. I helped serve and with the cleanup. It wasn’t like I had anything better to do, and most places were closed. I walk past it every day, and I knew they needed people. Not sure I’ll go back, though. Unless I’m on the other side of the counter.”

The bleakness behind Patrick’s words took Vin’s breath away. Volunteering at a shelter on Christmas Day was something Patrick should feel proud about, but he’d only told Vin after being prodded. Vin hadn’t heard from him since Christmas Eve, his increasingly worried texts unanswered until that morning.

“That’s not going to happen. You’re working; you’re saving. You’re doing okay.”

A couple went by, their hands full of bags crammed with everything from clothing to kitchenware. Patrick twisted his head as they passed, watching them walk away. “Look at them! They probably spent hours opening gifts, and here it is, the twenty-seventh, and they’re buying more stuff. What’s wrong with people?”

A year before, it would’ve been Patrick darting from sale to sale, exclaiming over markdowns, cooing over a find. Vin didn’t point that out. And he didn’t launch into any of the stories about his Christmas that he’d planned to share. Patrick didn’t need to hear about how happy Vin had felt to be surrounded by the unconditional love of his family.

A family who’d asked about Riley, then, when he’d haltingly told them about the breakup, had taken a collective breath and unleashed a comprehensive denunciation of Riley’s actions. They’d stopped when he’d begged them to change the subject, the tears he’d refused to shed welling up, but he’d been spoiled even more than usual, if that was possible.

And he’d eaten so much he planned to skip the popcorn, until they walked past someone in the lobby of the movie theater with an overflowing bucket of it, and the salty, buttery smell made Vin’s mouth water.

“Help me eat some popcorn?” he said, sure Patrick would agree if he couched it in terms of doing him a favor.

“Okay, but you have to let me pay for half.”

With no way to refuse, Vin asked for a medium instead of a large and only accepted two of the three dollars Patrick thrust at him. “That’s more than half. It was my idea.”

Patrick made a face but didn’t otherwise protest, which was good. Vin wanted them to do stuff together without encouraging Patrick to spend more than he should, which was what had prompted Patrick’s Christmas gift. His wide smile when he’d opened the box and found the movie theater gift card tucked inside had been one of the things that made Vin feel better about the whole holiday season.

“Patrick?” It was a girl’s voice from behind them, and by the time Vin finished paying and turned to see who it was, Patrick was already hugging her. “And Vin, right?”

“Marnie gave us a ride home from that party, remember?” Patrick asked. He was obviously trying to be diplomatic by not mentioning Riley. Vin appreciated it, even though it was unnecessary.

“I’m lucky I remember, considering how drunk I was,” Vin said, shaking her hand. “Hi.” Wow, she was pretty. If he’d been at all interested in girls, he’d have been drooling over her. As it was, he could still get pleasure in looking at her, because she was smiling at Patrick with unaffected delight, and it made the close-to-airbrushed perfection of her face real and warm.

“So no Riley?” Marnie glanced around expectantly, and Vin found himself searching the throng with her, wondering if Marnie had seen him earlier in the mall. Would he know if Riley was near him, some primal instinct alerting him? Probably not.

Patrick cleared his throat and said what Vin couldn’t bring himself to say. “Uh, Riley isn’t in the picture right now.”

“What? Oh my God, I’m sorry.” Marnie screwed up her face apologetically, covering glossy dark pink lips with her hand. “Putting my foot in it again. Oops.”

“Not your fault,” Vin said. “It happened a few days ago. We realized it wasn’t working out.”

She didn’t leap into a denunciation of Riley or offer him any meaningless comfort, for which he was grateful. “That happens. So here we are, three beautiful young people about to see… No, don’t tell me. Let me guess.”

She spun on her heel to study the movies on offer, listed on a display above the concession stand. It was a high heel, attached to the softest of caramel leather boots. Vin didn’t know enough about fashion to price them or even name the designer, but he was sure Patrick could tell him.

“I could cheat and pick one that’s about to start, but where’s the fun in that? Hmm. Kiddies’ cartoon. No. Rom-com.” She pointed at Patrick. “You, maybe. Vin, no.” She pursed her lips, moving to the next listing. “That one’s been out for ages. If you’d wanted to see it, you already would have, and it wasn’t good enough for anyone to see twice. How am I doing so far?”

“They were easy,” Vin said, enjoying the game. “Now it gets harder.”

“Okay.” Marnie looked again. “Definitely not the depressing foreign film. Patrick doesn’t like subtitles.”

Patrick seemed surprised but nodded. “Yeah, not so much.”

“Unless it’s the right movie,” Vin reminded him. “You liked that French one about the gay guys. With the greenhouse, remember?”

“That was an exception,” Patrick agreed, then explained to Marnie, “There was kissing. Plus it was a good story.”

“You’ll have to write that one down for me,” she said to Vin. “Okay, Vin’s not a Tom Cruise fan, I don’t think.”

Now that was a little more than a lucky guess; Vin was finding himself more and more fascinated by this girl. “Why do you think I don’t like Tom Cruise?”

“Well, people fall into two categories with him, don’t they? They either like him, or they don’t like him. You think he’s in the closet, and you have a hard time with people who aren’t honest. Am I right?” Her eyes sparkled when he nodded.

“Then I think it’s a toss-up between Les Miz and The Hobbit, and I’m going to go with the musical, because it’s got Hugh Jackman, not to mention Amanda Seyfried, and I don’t know a single guy straight or gay who doesn’t think she’s hot.”

With a grin, Patrick showed her his ticket, and she crowed with laughter. “Knew it! And so am I, but my girlfriend ditched me at the last minute to go skiing—which translates as getting drunk and laid at altitude, not sea level.” She gave them an appealing look that stopped just short of eyelash fluttering. “I hate going to movies solo. Really hate it. I feel like there’s this big neon arrow pointing at the lonely loser with no friends. Would you two mind if I sat with you? And you can say no without hurting my feelings if this is a date, because they’ve already got the Valentine stuff out on the shelves, so I’m feeling romantically inclined.”

The quick patter of words was like standing out in heavy rain. Vin shook himself dry, metaphorically speaking, and gave Patrick an inquiring look. He could read Patrick easily enough, and the flash of disappointment was a surprise, but the quick smile and shrug that followed were what Vin had been expecting.

“It’s not a date, and you’re more than welcome to join us.”

Marnie smiled at them. “You two are just the sweetest. One last favor. Even if I beg, don’t let me have any popcorn. In fact, I want to sit as far away from it as possible. I’ve put on three pounds already. Three!”

“Girl, if you did, they went in all the right places,” Patrick told her.

“Anyway, I’m on a strict diet now.” She gestured them closer and stage-whispered, “I have a bottle of water in my bag. No way am I paying four dollars for one here.”

Vin was liking her more and more. Pretty and practical? “Come on. Patrick will complain like crazy if he misses the previews.”

“Me too! But I promise I won’t talk during the movie.”

They got themselves into the theater and settled into seats, with Patrick in the middle between Vin and Marnie.

Vin had sat snuggled up to Patrick on a couch too many times to count, but before the lights lowered, Patrick reached over and patted Vin’s knee in a familiar, affectionate way that made Vin’s stomach do a weird and totally unexpected flip. Before he could react, the theater went dark, the intimacy of the setting deepening.

Vin found himself acutely conscious of the man beside him in a way he’d never been before. It didn’t make sense. Everyone in the crowded theater was looking at the screen, including Patrick, but Vin was watching Patrick—the animated face, the teased, spiked hair, the familiar line of his profile. Nothing had changed, but Vin was shockingly aware that something was different, like Patrick’s touch had electrified him in some way.

He’d been told to hold the popcorn, and that meant every so often Patrick thrust his hand into the tub resting on Vin’s lap and snagged a handful. The first time he did it, Vin gasped, a soundless exhalation of shock, reacting as if the popcorn didn’t exist and Patrick’s hand was going to keep going, heading for Vin’s groin, closing over his cock.

What was wrong with him? He gripped the arms of his seat, thankful for the empty space to his left, and tried to keep his breathing even. Patrick was always quick to pick up on Vin’s moods, and if he turned his head and caught Vin watching him, it would be awkward as hell.

It didn’t seem to matter. Vin knew if Patrick looked at him, things were going to get messy and fast, but he couldn’t stop. He thanked his lucky stars that the movie was loud, the singing louder, the theater dark, his growing erection hidden underneath the cardboard popcorn bucket. Keeping his head turned toward the screen, Vin watched Patrick out of the corner of his eye. Patrick’s tongue flicked out to lick lips that were salty from the popcorn, maybe a little bit greasy.

Lips that had been on Vin’s in that impulsive kiss on Christmas Eve. Startled, Vin had broken free, but the jolt of arousal he’d gotten had been less easy to reject. He hadn’t wanted to reject it. He’d wanted Patrick to kiss him again, craving that sweet shock, but by then Patrick had withdrawn into flippancy and it was too late.

He let his head turn a little bit too much toward the right, and his eyes met Marnie’s. Her expression, which had been dazed, distracted by the movie that he’d been ignoring, sharpened, and Vin jerked his head back toward the screen, knowing it was too late. She knew. Knew stuff he’d barely begun to recognize. The question was, would she keep quiet about it?

“You okay?” Patrick whispered, and Vin nodded, pretending to be engrossed in the movie.

He didn’t know what was going on. Clearly he was having new and confusing feelings about Patrick, but why now? It couldn’t be just because of that kiss. It hadn’t been the first time Patrick kissed him, after all, though the level of enthusiasm this time had been higher. Just thinking about it made Vin feel warm with guilty desire. He hoped it didn’t have anything to do with the fact his body had gotten used to regular sex with another person. Patrick was making such an effort to turn his life around—not that it had been that bad before, as far as Vin was concerned—and it wouldn’t be fair to fixate on him now and mess things up.

If anyone had asked him what the movie was about when they emerged into the light, Vin would’ve had to fake it, because he’d spent the last couple of hours doing nothing but going between arousal and guilt.

He wasn’t that guy, the one who could hop happily from partner to partner, never looking backward with regret. Patrick was, or had been, and maybe Riley was too, but Vin had been steadfastly loyal to one man for years. To discover he was interested in Patrick days after finishing with Riley felt like a betrayal of that long-held love.

He tried to tell himself it was physical, nothing more, his body reacting to Patrick, biology at work, but he couldn’t believe it. Under the lust, uncomplicated, intense, had been tenderness. He’d wanted to slide his hand into Patrick’s and feel it grow warm in his grasp. Turn his head and nuzzle a kiss against Patrick’s neck, feel those gelled spikes of hair brush his cheek, and smell the sweet, fresh scent that he associated with Patrick without being able to define it.

Riley. He was in love with Riley. Sure, they’d broken up, and Riley had disappointed him, but love couldn’t be switched off like a light. Shouldn’t he be devastated, not just disgusted with Riley’s way of thinking? Waiting for a call, a text? He’d turned off his phone before the movie began without giving a thought to missing a message from Riley, and it was still off.

Patrick pointed at the washrooms. “Won’t be a minute. My hands are all greasy.”

“I have to disappear, so I’ll say good-bye now,” Marnie told him and exchanged exaggeratedly affected air-kisses with Patrick before they grinned and hugged properly. Vin watched Patrick flit through the crowds, his hair a bright, bobbing point.

“Oh, you’ve got it bad,” Marnie murmured in his ear. “Is that why you and Riley split up?”

“No. And don’t say anything to him.” Vin sounded like he was begging, and he probably was. “I don’t know what’s going on—I swear, I’m not playing games—but I don’t want to hurt him.”

“I can see that. Are you just figuring it out?” Marnie asked with sympathy. “Kind of snuck up on you, huh?”

Vin swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat. Maybe it was time he admitted that his attraction to Patrick wasn’t new but coming to the surface after being buried for months. He’d pushed it down, ignored it, fixated on his feelings for Riley, but with Riley out of the picture, his feelings were refusing to stay buried. “You could say that.”

“Okay. Don’t freak out.” Marnie held her hand out, palm up. “Give me your phone.”

“What? Why?” Already obeying, Vin slipped it from his pocket and turned it on, then gave it to her.

“Because I’m giving you my number so you can text me later and let me know what happens. Or in case you need someone to talk to.” She frowned and pushed some buttons, then glanced up at him. “Figure it out fast, okay?”

Vin wanted to protest that he was still reeling, that he and Riley had just broken up and so he couldn’t possibly want Patrick, that Patrick was his best friend but that was all, but even in his head it sounded stupid. He took his phone back when she gave it to him and only managed a feeble, “Thanks.”

“No problem. Good luck.” Marnie hesitated, then leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Bye.”

“Thought she was in a rush to be somewhere.” Vin turned to find Patrick at his side, watching Marnie walk away. “I love those boots of hers.”

“We got talking. You know how it is. And yeah, they’re killer, but I can’t see you in heels.”

Patrick snickered. “Oh, I’ve worn them, but they’re hell to run in. Don’t ask.”

It should’ve been easy to fall into the usual back-and-forth, but it felt forced, as if he were reading from a script. “You know if I don’t, you’ll sulk and tell me anyway.”

That got him a playful elbow in the ribs. “I don’t sulk! I pout and look cute.”

“Yeah, you do.” Patrick’s eyes narrowed, gleaming with amusement, and Vin added hurriedly, “Sulk, I mean. Not look cute. You never look cute. You’re like the anticute.”

Patrick put his hand on Vin’s forehead. “Let me soothe that fevered brow, because if you’re saying I’m not cute, you’ve gotta be running a temperature, sweet thing. Ooh, thought so. Burning up.” He drew his hand back and blew on it, sending Vin a flirtatious glance. “Or maybe you’re just hot.”

Vin opened his mouth to reply when someone jostled him from behind. “Get a fucking room, Parker. Preferably south of the border.”

He knew who it was before he turned to see, but even when his eyes confirmed it, Vin had a hard time believing it. Gary Brookes from high school, the guy who had done his best to make Vin’s days there a living hell. Vin had seen the guy here and there over the years, but never this up close and personal. “Your hairline’s receding,” he said before he’d even thought about it.

Gary scowled, and Vin’s gut clenched in response, as if a direct line connected Gary’s expression and his stomach. “Figured you’d at least have moved to San Francisco or somewhere like that by now.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Vin said. He doubted Gary would start a fistfight right there in public with tons of people all around them, but that didn’t make him feel any better. He was aware of Patrick standing at his elbow, hovering, confused and worried.

“Is this your little boyfriend?” Gary turned his attention to Patrick, and that was just not okay. “Nice hair, faggot.”

Vin shifted, half a step closer to Gary and partially in front of Patrick, his protective instincts kicking in. “Leave him out of this.”

“It’d be easier to do that if freaks like you didn’t come out of your prissy little closets and parade around in front of our faces,” Gary said with a sneer.

He had a couple of friends behind him, and it made Vin feel better to note they looked uncomfortable with how this was going down. If Gary lost friends over this, it would be a small consolation.

“I know you might have trouble with the concept of mind-your-own-business,” Patrick said, stepping to the side so Gary had two targets, not one, “but I’m happy to explain it to you. Promise I’ll use really small words.” He held up his hand, thumb and finger a few inches apart. “This small. Look familiar?” The glance at Gary’s crotch was fleeting but pointed.

“Funny guy. Someone should’ve kicked your ass in school too,” Gary said, a dull flush rising in his face.

“We’re not in fucking school,” Vin said, tiring of it all. “Grow up, Gary. Not everyone in the world is like you, or thinks the way you do. Homophobic, racist—you’re the minority, not me.”

“Gary, shut up.” One of the men with Gary plucked at his sleeve. “Leave it. Just leave it. They haven’t done anything wrong, and you’re being an asshole.”

“Fuck off!” Gary shrugged free of his friend’s grip and rounded on him. “You one of them too, huh? Mikey likes to suck cock, does he?”

“You really are an asshole, in work and out of it.” Mike shook his head, pure disgust in his eyes. “I’m done with you and your shit-stirring. Make your own way home, because you’re not getting a ride with me.” He turned to walk away, glancing at the other man, who shrugged and fell into step with him, abandoning Gary, who stared after them, mingled indignation and shock making his mouth hang open.

“You queers make me sick,” Gary hissed as soon as he’d recovered enough to speak, leaving Vin wondering why they were still standing there. They should have walked away when Gary’s friends—ex-friends—had.

“Hmm, well. I think you’ll find that homophobia is making more people sick these days,” Patrick said, fluttering his eyelashes in a way that made Vin afraid for him. There was fighting back, and there was deliberately antagonizing. “You should think about looking into therapy for that. Come on, honey,” he added to Vin, taking his hand. “We have much better things to be doing with our time than standing here listening to this bozo.”

Vin let Patrick lead him away because he knew it was the right thing to do, but by the time they’d walked through part of the mall and ended up at the food court, his anger still hadn’t dissipated. “What were you thinking?” he asked Patrick, stopping next to an empty table.

“Excuse me? I was thinking we needed to get away from that asshole.” Patrick sat in a plastic chair designed to be uncomfortable. “You went to school with him?”

“Riley kept him from beating my face in one time,” Vin said. “A couple of times, actually, though me being half-Mexican was what he fixated on.” Remembering what Riley had said in high school, he added, “Plus the guy’s sister is gay! What is he thinking?”

“Would you sit down?” Patrick asked pleadingly, and Vin did, picking the chair next to Patrick’s instead of the one across from him. Their knees bumped together. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know.” All this was too much to have happen in one day. People should at least get a couple of hours between major incidents, and seeing Gary after discovering that his previously platonic feelings for Patrick might be romantic was a little more than Vin could handle. Okay, maybe they’d never been truly platonic, but the fact remained that it’d been a hectic few hours.

Patrick leaned forward and took his hands, studying his face intently. “Did he hurt you?”

“What? No.” Vin shook his head. “I mean, not more than shoving me into a few lockers, stuff like that.”

“That’s plenty.” Patrick’s lips tightened, his hands warm on Vin’s. “When will it all stop? It’s not just if you’re gay. Kids got bullied at my school for the stupidest things. Having glasses. A mom who packed them cookies shaped like dinosaurs because she worked at the factory where they made them and got them cheap.”

“Bullies don’t need a reason, just a target.” He hated to do it, but Vin withdrew his hands from Patrick’s and sat back. Being that close was tempting him to steal a kiss, and he couldn’t. Patrick was in love with someone. It wouldn’t be fair. “Total change of subject. This is our day off, and we’re going to enjoy it. So tell me about the guy you’re interested in. You were about to, and Shelly grabbed you.”

“Oh.” Patrick nibbled at his lip. “That’s all up in the air. I’m going to tell him how I feel, but he’s not ready, and neither am I. I want to get on track first.” He fiddled with the wrapper from a straw someone had left behind, twisting it tightly. “You know when people diet and they give themselves a reward when they hit a target?”

“Sure. It’s how my sister justified buying herself an e-reader. Ten dollars for every pound she lost, then a bonus if she didn’t spend it when she hit a hundred bucks.” Vin shrugged. “I guess it worked for her.”

“Well, I need to turn myself around financially and emotionally.” Patrick sat up straight. “They’re connected. I don’t want to screw around now that I’m in love, so I’ve stopped drinking and clubbing. That saves me money, which helps with the debt. And when I’m out of debt and paying off my credit cards—credit card—every month, even saving some, then I’m going to go to him and ask if he’s interested, and by then, who knows, maybe things will have changed for him too.”

“Changed how?” Vin asked.

Patrick shook his head and mimed zipping his lips. “Ding! Another subject change. How’s the tattoo healing? You’re going to show it to me when it’s stopped looking gross, right?”

“It hasn’t looked gross for days,” Vin protested. “But yes, you can see it later. Not here.”

“What, you weren’t thinking about getting undressed at the mall?” Patrick loved to tease him, and when it came right down to it, Vin had to admit he liked it. Patrick was so darned cute. “I’m sure there are plenty of people around who’d appreciate it.”

“And plenty who wouldn’t,” Vin said, reminded of Gary Brookes. He looked around. “Wonder where he went?”

“That asshole? Probably running along after his friends, begging them to change their minds. Trying to convince them he was ‘kidding.’” Even Patrick’s air quotes were adorable. “Don’t waste another second thinking about him, honey. He’s not worth your time.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Vin nudged Patrick with his knee and shifted his chair back. The sound it made sliding over the tile floor was cringe-worthy. “Come on, let’s shop. What are you in the market for?”

“Today I’m not buying. I’m just looking,” Patrick reminded him. “Window-shopping, as it were. But there’s a new line of OPI nail polish I wanted to check out, if you don’t mind?”

The only thing Vin minded was that if Patrick fell in love with a particular shade of polish, he wouldn’t let Vin treat him to it. There had been nothing he could buy Riley, who had everything, and nothing Patrick would let him buy.

Frustrating.

“If you don’t want to go there, it’s fine.”

Vin shook free of his thoughts. “I do. In fact, I might get some myself.” He could buy whichever one Patrick seemed to like the most, use it once, decide he hated it, and pass it on to Patrick.

“You?” Patrick blinked at him. “Well, they do have a stunning metallic black. It’s kind of shot through with silver glitter, but subtle and shimmery. Not sure it’s really you, though.”

“New year, new me,” Vin said.

Patrick held up his hand for a high five. “Goes for both of us.”

Vin smacked his hand against Patrick’s and let himself absorb some of Patrick’s exuberance.

It would work out. He’d get over this sudden crush, get over Riley, get used to being alone again.

No. Get used to being single. He wasn’t alone.

He had Patrick.

Chapter Eighteen

Shane locked the door behind the last of the nightly customers—it had been a busy night even though it was two days into the new year, and the level of crazy had ratcheted back down into something resembling normal—and made an impatient gesture at Patrick. “Check the bathrooms. Then you’re off the clock.”

“Really?” Patrick looked at Shane in disbelief. Letting him leave before everything was cleaned up? That was unprecedented. “Are you sure?”

“Are you sure you want to argue with me?” Shane grumbled.

“No! I mean, no, sir.” Patrick beat a rapid retreat to the women’s room, which was relatively tidy, then moved on to the men’s room. Enough scraps littered the floor that it needed a quick sweep, but that was all. Patrick paused in the middle of it to text Vin, who’d worked the afternoon shift and planned to spend the evening upstairs in his apartment watching bad TV.

That was easy since Vin considered most TV bad.

He texted, Hey! S letting me out of here early, want 2 hang out?

He’d barely finished sweeping the trash into the dustpan when Vin’s reply came.

Sure, if u don’t mind watching a Friends repeat.

Up in 5, Patrick texted back.

Shane was leaning in the doorway of the office talking to Ben when Patrick went past it, and the atmosphere was thick with tension. Good tension, Patrick was sure, but he didn’t want to think about it too much, not now that he knew what his employers got up to when no one else was around.

Well, okay, he thought about it sometimes. When he was alone. He might be practicing celibacy—key word practicing—but he wasn’t a saint.

Vin opened his door wearing loose sweatpants and a short-sleeved T-shirt, both black of course, and with bare feet. The combination got to Patrick in a way the most outrageously skimpy outfits he’d seen in clubs couldn’t match.

“I’m slobbing out here,” Vin said, closing the door behind Patrick, then ambling back to the couch. He’d built himself a nest out of a fleece blanket, but he shook the blanket out, making room for Patrick to sit beside him, and muted the sound from the TV.

“Slobbing is good for the soul sometimes.”

“If you don’t do too much of it,” Vin agreed. “Want a drink? Food?”

“Nah, I’m good. Just wanted to say hi.”

Vin nudged Patrick’s knee with his foot, his bare toes clean, the nails cut evenly. “So say it.”

Patrick leaned over, staring into Vin’s eyes. “Hi,” he said in a deep, husky voice, ramping up the drama.

Vin edged forward until their noses were almost touching. “Hi,” he said before dissolving into giggles that set Patrick off.

“You are such a doofus,” Patrick said a moment later, still snickering.

“Sometimes. I think you bring it out in me. Hey, come here a sec, will you?” Vin beckoned him closer, staring into his eyes again, but intently this time. Patrick caught his breath, his amusement fading, a familiar ache of longing taking its place. “Patrick, what color are your eyes? For real?”

Patrick frowned, trying to remember which contacts he was wearing, trying not to lose his sense of control of the situation. This was playing, not serious. “Blue,” he said. “Not as blue as these contacts make them look. They were when I was little, though. They were really bright blue, like this. Now they’re grayer.”

“I want to see,” Vin said. He was close enough to kiss if Patrick leaned forward. “Show me.”

“I can’t,” Patrick told him. “I don’t have my case or my glasses with me, and once I take them out, the first thing I’ll do is walk into a wall. Though I guess you could videotape me doing it and put it on YouTube. Might get a lot of hits. Then I can trade this life of drudgery for the luxury I deserve.”

Vin reached out toward Patrick’s face, and Patrick froze. Vin’s fingertips were cool, like little icy kisses where they pressed briefly and lightly to the thin skin under Patrick’s eyes. “Okay. But sometime? I want to know what they look like.”

Every part of Patrick was screaming at him to lean forward and kiss Vin. He wanted to warm Vin’s lips with his, to taste his mouth and touch every inch of his skin.

“Sure,” he said hoarsely, then cleared his throat. “Sometime.”

“Do you still want to see my new tattoo?”

Whimpering pitifully would lead to questions Patrick couldn’t answer. Saying no would too. He nodded, mouth too dry to speak, and edged back to give Vin room to pull up his T-shirt.

Instead, Vin peeled it off, a swift up-and-over, so that Patrick went from staring at black cotton to drinking in the sight of Vin’s bare chest in the time it took to blink twice.

Thanks to a careless driver, he’d been drenched by icy spray from a puddle a few days earlier, the shock of the water hitting him driving his breath from his body. This felt like that, a physical reaction that robbed him of coherent thought. Smooth brown skin over defined muscles, the glint of metal through the dark, peaked nipples, inked colors spilling like liquid—his gaze absorbed it all. Arousal tore at him, ripping away his good intentions and his determination not to push Vin too far too soon.

He put out his hand and stroked the dragon’s wings, making Vin shudder, a sigh escaping him. Patrick would’ve snatched his hand away, apologized, but Vin arched his back, offering his chest up to be caressed again. His eyes were hazy, his lips parted, and his gaze was fixed on Patrick’s hand as if what it was doing mattered more than anything else.

Patrick dragged his fingertips over Vin’s skin to his pierced nipple. He watched Vin’s face, not his fingers, though he felt Vin’s nipple prickle and tighten in reaction to his touch. Vin’s pupils widened, and his chin lifted until his gaze met Patrick’s.

“What are we doing?” Vin whispered.

“I don’t know.” There were a thousand things Patrick could have said, but he was too scared to say any of them.

“I’ve been thinking.”

“About what?” Reluctantly Patrick pulled his hand back, but Vin caught it.

“You, mostly.” Vin held Patrick’s hand in a firm grip, like he was afraid Patrick would leave without it. “I’ve been thinking about you. I can’t stop.”

Patrick could’ve said so much to that, but in the end, after swallowing back half a dozen versions of Do you mean it? he settled for a whispered, “Don’t stop. Ever. Please.” His heart was beating quickly, adrenaline racing through him, but inside was a still, calm space waiting for Vin’s answer to fill it.

“But you— There’s someone you like.”

The mingled hope and despair in Vin’s eyes made them darker, or maybe Patrick was on the verge of passing out from holding his breath in case he missed anything. He sucked in a hit of oxygen, clearing his head. “Yeah. That’s actually you, but I was waiting for you to get over Riley before I threw myself at you again, because it didn’t go so well the last time I kissed you.”

“Me? It’s me?” Vin looked adorably confused, and Patrick had reached his limit on being patient, giving Vin space, turning his life around, all of it. He still wanted to change, but not to the point where he couldn’t recognize himself in the mirror.

“You, yes, it’s you. Of course it’s you.” He put his free hand against Vin’s face, shaping his palm to the angle of Vin’s jaw, stroking Vin’s cheek with his thumb, a slow, sweet drag of skin on skin. “If I kissed you again, would it be different? Would you kiss me back?”

Kissing had never mattered much with anyone else. He’d been with guys and the only place on them his lips had touched had been their cocks, but he craved a kiss from Vin like a flame craved air.

“Of course I would,” Vin said. “I know I freaked at the time, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.”

Something in his tone blared a warning to Patrick, a huge BUT written in twenty-foot-high neon letters across the metaphorical sky.

Patrick’s stomach felt like he’d swallowed a rock. “What?” He drew back, not wanting to but needing to.

Vin’s hands caught at him, and no matter how much Patrick wanted to protect himself, he couldn’t hurt Vin by denying him the contact. “Whatever it is you’re thinking,” Vin said urgently, “stop, okay? Let me say some stuff. I need us to figure this out.”

“Okay.” Patrick took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. Talk.”

“What if this doesn’t work?” Vin asked. He sounded more scared than Patrick had ever heard him.

“Why wouldn’t it?” Patrick knew that was unfair, because he’d asked himself the same thing a hundred times. “No, I mean it. Why?”

“What if I’m not what you want?” Vin gestured at himself, then seemed to realize that he was still sitting there without his shirt on, glancing down at his bare chest. “I’m not really your type.”

“You are,” Patrick told him desperately. “That’s exactly what you are. You’re totally my type; I was just too stupid to see it at first. What else?”

Vin scraped his teeth over his lower lip, all indecision. “What do you mean?”

“You’re going to give me a list of reasons why we shouldn’t do this, and I’m going to tell you why they’re wrong.” Patrick could see it so clearly. Why couldn’t Vin? “Can’t we skip this part? Whatever excuses you have, that’s all they are. I love you. I’ve loved you forever.”

As soon as the words were out there, he knew they were a mistake. Vin had seen him with guys, so many of them, listened as he babbled tearfully about being abandoned by them, looked uncomfortable when he’d drooled over their big dicks and what they’d done with them. Claiming a love that dated back more than a few months was problematic, and they both knew it.

He cleared his throat. “Forever means—”

“Since I met Riley.” Vin’s gaze was steady, even sorrowful. “That was when you decided you loved me, wasn’t it? And even then you didn’t stop screwing around. That time in the men’s room—”

“Oh God, don’t!” Patrick hid his face in his hands for a moment, his cheeks burning. “That was it, the last one. He let me see I’d hit rock bottom. I thought you had Riley, so I didn’t stand a chance, and it was easy to be what everyone expected. Then I saw the way you looked at me when I came out, and I felt such a fucking slut.”

“You weren’t,” Vin said. “You made your choices, and they weren’t always ones I think were right for you, but you were playing. Having fun. You didn’t hurt anyone.”

“Yeah, I did. It was junk-food sex. Fast, cheap, crappy sex. It was all I thought I deserved, and it seemed like plenty good enough at the time.” Patrick clenched his hands into fists, squeezing tight as if keeping his hands steady would stop his voice from shaking. “What I had with you was so different from what I was used to thinking of as love that I didn’t recognize it. We were friends. We liked each other. You didn’t…you didn’t go away. So totally different. Then I saw you with Riley and it all clicked into place, but it was too late. You’d gotten your happily-ever-after ending, and I was too fucking late.” He hammered his fists against his thighs with the last three words, knowing he’d screwed up his chances with Vin again.

Vin reached for him, curling his hands underneath Patrick’s so Patrick had no choice but to stop. He’d hurt himself, but he wouldn’t hurt Vin, and Vin knew it. “I don’t want to start something we’re going to regret, that’s all.”

“Yeah.” Patrick felt like he was shrinking. Of course Vin didn’t want to get involved with him. Of course. He never should have let himself dream, not even for a second. “I get it.”

Vin was looking at him with so much sympathy and understanding that Patrick didn’t know what to do. “No, you don’t,” he said affectionately. “You think I’m saying no.”

“Isn’t that what you’re saying?”

“I’m saying we have to be grown up and talk about it before we say yes.” Vin sighed. “This sucks.”

“Yeah. It does.” Patrick tried to be mature, like Vin said. He thought about what mature people would do in these circumstances. They’d wait, talk, talk some more, analyze every feeling to make sure it was genuine and not the result of jealousy or envy or whatever. It didn’t sound appealing when he was inches away from Vin, the rise and fall of his chest mesmerizing. “You know what wouldn’t suck?”

“What?”

“Kissing me. To see if there’s a, uh, a spark. Because if there isn’t, if there’s as much zing as you’d get kissing that jerk you were at school with, then we don’t need to bother with the talking and the thinking, and we can go back to being friends.”

He held still, barely breathing as he waited for Vin’s answer, not wanting to jinx it with more words. One kiss didn’t sound like much, but in a fairy tale, a single kiss could wake a lover from an enchanted sleep. Of course, they lived in the real world, and it was more likely that they’d bump noses.

“Okay,” Vin said readily. “Not going to lie. I want to kiss you so much I can’t say no, and there were plenty of sparks last time, but I think it’s a bad idea to—”

“Stop talking,” Patrick pleaded. “They weren’t sparky enough, or you wouldn’t have pulled away. You’ll change your mind. Kiss me. One kiss, Vin.”

“Not sure I can stop at one,” Vin said and put his mouth against Patrick’s with the delicacy of a bee landing on a flower. Did that count as one? If it did, Patrick didn’t feel cheated. That light brush, the brief slanting contact, left his lips tingling, a slow, powerful throb of desire rippling through his body. He swayed closer, sliding his hands along Vin’s bare back, up under the fall of hair that covered Vin’s shoulders, murmuring encouragement.

Vin kissed him again, lips closed, tracing the shape of Patrick’s mouth, a careful exploration with a rising urgency behind it held at bay as if Vin didn’t trust himself to let go. With his palms flat against Vin’s back, Patrick could feel him tremble, a racehorse waiting for the signal to run.

No spark? If the power went out, they’d light up the block.

“It’s okay,” Patrick said while their lips were still touching. “It’s all good, whatever you want. If you want to do this, we can, and if you want to stop—”

“Shh.” Vin licked Patrick’s upper lip from side to center, drawing a groan from Patrick. “Don’t talk.”

“I thought you wanted to talk,” Patrick protested, and Vin shook his head. Vin’s palm was resting on Patrick’s chest like he couldn’t decide whether to push him away; strangely, that reassured Patrick. If Vin wanted to stop, he could.

“No talking,” Vin murmured. “Just this.”

With anyone else, at any other time over the past several years, Patrick would barely have considered what they were doing kissing. It was such a careful movement of lips against each other that it was more like an anticipation of kissing than the real thing. But at the same time, it was the best kissing Patrick had ever experienced. He was rock hard inside his jeans, and if he looked down at himself, he would see a damp spot where the head of his dick was pressed to the denim, and yet part of him didn’t even care if they went any further.

The intensity of his reaction would’ve been scary if it’d been anyone but Vin causing it. The power Vin had over him was absolute. Through a haze of arousal, it was difficult to think, but one thing was clear: he could trust Vin not to hurt him.

A memory, faint because everything that wasn’t Vin seemed insubstantial, swam to the surface. Ben and Shane in the bar. There was that same passion, deliberately tamped down, needing the slightest touch to make it flare white-hot, that same shared trust and love. Patrick wasn’t into the games they played, but in this they were the same.

Except Shane and Ben were fully together, partners, and there were so many obstacles between Vin and him.

He abandoned thought, forgot words, and opened his lips to the demanding sweep of Vin’s tongue, holding still for the light tickle as Vin ran his tongue over the sensitive underside of his lips. Had anyone ever done that to him before? Patrick could remember hard kisses, tongues thrust deep into his mouth, but never being tormented so lovingly, each tantalizing stroke of Vin’s tongue followed by another.

No rush. No hurry.

He relaxed, giving Vin what he wanted—the license to set the pace, the silent assurance that this was what Patrick wanted too. He lay back against the cushions, drawing Vin on top of him, moving nothing but his mouth as they kissed. Ignoring the instinct to rub his erection against Vin, he offered his mouth up for Vin’s shallow kisses until his lips burned with a steady flame, bruised by the repeated caresses.

His left hand was settled on the small of Vin’s back, his right resting below it on a spot too high up to be considered Vin’s ass, thumb rubbing the bumpy waistband of Vin’s sweatpants. He could tell Vin wasn’t wearing anything underneath the sweatpants. He shouldn’t have let himself think that, because it reminded him how physically aroused he was, even if mentally he was prepared to do nothing but make out until Vin put a halt to things.

Vin must have read his mind, or at least the tension in his frame, because he pulled back enough to ask, “You okay?”

“Are you kidding? I’ve never been this okay in my life.” It was the truth. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I don’t know how long we should keep doing this, though.” Vin seemed to hesitate before sitting up, but he tugged Patrick along with him, which was reassuring.

Patrick wiped his fingers across his lips. “You want me to go?” He meant it. If Vin wanted to call it a night, he’d be okay with that, even though he’d probably have to go home and jerk off three times before he’d be able to sleep.

“If you did, I’d be thinking about you so much it’d be like you were still here.”

“And that would be a bad thing? A good thing? An okay—”

Vin put his hand over Patrick’s lips, his fingers warm. “Stop it. Good, of course.” He moved his hand but only as far as Patrick’s shoulder, resting it there. “But if you stay…”

“I’ll sit over there,” Patrick said, jerking his head at the kitchen table.

He knew how that sentence would end. If he stayed, if they kept kissing, they’d go further than Vin wanted. And further than he wanted too. With anyone else, they’d have finished by now, or moved on to round two. He was enjoying the slow pace Vin had set. He was dizzy with arousal, so turned on he could’ve come from a touch in the right place, but it wasn’t a frantic, knee-jerk arousal, quickly satisfied, meaningless beyond the crucial moment. They weren’t kissing, but the connection between them hadn’t been broken. He was acutely aware of Vin, from the deep breaths Vin was taking to calm down to the slight tremors still racing through him.

“You can put your shirt back on and some socks, and we can talk all you like.”

“Socks?”

“You with bare feet is hot,” Patrick explained. “I don’t have a foot fetish, so don’t ask me why it is, but it is.”

“My bare feet are hot?” Vin looked down at them in confusion.

“No, you’re hot when your feet are bare. Never mind. We’re getting off topic.” Patrick gestured at Vin’s discarded shirt, which was wadded up on the floor. “Put that on. Then we’ll talk.”

He moved over on the couch, putting some space between them. It was only a few inches, but he’d have been lying to himself if he thought any amount would help. He wouldn’t want Vin any less if he were halfway across town in his apartment, in a different country, or on the moon.

“I don’t want you to go,” Vin said, muffled through the cotton of his T-shirt as he pulled it on over his head. “Just to clarify.”

“I don’t want to go.” Any more clarification on Patrick’s part would muddy the waters, so he left it at that. “We should get some sleep. I can stay out here on the couch.”

It wouldn’t be the first time, but it would be the first time he’d be lying there after making out with Vin, knowing the taste of Vin’s mouth.

There’d been more than one time he’d slept on Vin’s couch, brokenhearted after some guy he’d fucked twice had called it off. In retrospect, that was kind of funny. There’d never even been anything to call off, but he’d thought his heart was broken.

In some ways he was as much a virgin as Vin had been for so many years.

“I don’t want you to do that either. I want you to sleep with me.” Desire was written all over Vin’s flushed face; Patrick had to stifle a moan.

“You know, just once,” he said conversationally, “it would be nice if you weren’t so damned honest.”

“Things are confusing enough without me lying to you, even if I wanted to, and I don’t.”

“So tell me, how much sleep do you think we’d get? Because I think we settled the whole spark/no-spark thing there, and we’re talking Fourth of July.”

Vin raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, like that was a surprise to you?”

Patrick grinned. “Busted.”

“You liked it? Just the kissing?”

The hesitancy in Vin’s voice made Patrick wonder, not for the first time, what Riley was like as a lover. Not awful, but sure as hell not the right match for Vin.

“It was hotter than your feet.” Vin smacked him on the arm, and Patrick fended him off. “No, seriously. Hot, hot, hot. If that’s how you like it, I’m a fan. You could spend hours doing that, and I wouldn’t try to hurry you up or get impatient.”

“Really?” Vin ducked his head. “Because Riley— No, that’s not fair. I guess I never told him what I wanted.”

“You can tell me.” Patrick took Vin’s hand in his, linking them again. “You definitely can’t shock me, and I need to know because if—when, God, let it be when—we do this, it’s going to be perfect for you. You’ve waited so long, Vin. Then everything went wrong, and I want to make it right for you. If that means more waiting, I’ll do it.”

Vin was looking at some spot on the floor like it had become his new best friend, like he was embarrassed or ashamed or something else Patrick couldn’t bear for him to feel.

“Hey, come on.” Patrick lifted Vin’s knuckles to his mouth and kissed them. “Talk to me. Whatever it is you’re thinking, it’s okay. I love you no matter what.”

The L word seemed to shake Vin out of whatever he was tangled up in, but when he looked at Patrick, his eyes seemed unnaturally bright and damp. “I think I’m scared.”

“What?” Patrick didn’t even try to resist the urge to gather Vin close and hold him, to stroke his hair comfortingly. “Shh, no. Don’t be scared. You can have whatever you want. Whatever you need. There’s nothing to be scared of.”

Vin clung to him. “I can’t help it.”

“Okay. That’s okay.” Patrick tried to think of what would help. “If you need to be scared, that’s okay too. I’m right here.”

“I want you so much,” Vin whispered against his neck.

“You’ve got me. I’m all yours.”

Vin pulled back and took Patrick’s face between his hands, soft palms cradling him, enough warmth in his eyes to take Patrick’s breath away. “I can have what I want?”

“Anything,” Patrick assured him.

“Then I want you to come to bed with me. Will you?” Vin leaned in and kissed the corner of Patrick’s mouth. “Please.”

“Of course,” Patrick said. “Of course I will.”

Chapter Nineteen

Vin knew how much experience Patrick had with men. He knew because Patrick had told him, and even allowing for Patrick’s habit of exaggerating, there had been a lot of sex with a lot of men, and it’d been wild and kind of rough. Some mornings, Patrick had walked carefully and refused to sit down. But he’d smiled as if the pain was worth it.

Vin couldn’t see himself fucking Patrick raw until a wince accompanied every movement. And he wasn’t sure he believed Patrick’s assurances that slow worked for him. Too good to be true. The only certainty he had was that settling for less than he craved wasn’t going to happen. Not again. He’d let Riley dictate the pace of their encounters and ended up vaguely dissatisfied. If Patrick was saying what he thought Vin wanted to hear, Vin would soon know. Patrick wasn’t good at hiding his feelings. Vin would see the flicker of impatience in his eyes, then be left with that horrible sensation of being different, out of step with the way everyone else had sex.

But Patrick hadn’t rushed him when they’d been kissing. Vin had been tense, anticipating being rolled to his back, Patrick taking over, and it hadn’t happened. Patrick had expressed his eagerness in a different way, giving Vin his lips and nothing more, restraining himself without protest or regret.

How far could Vin spin foreplay out before Patrick protested? What state would they be in when he did? Patrick’s mouth looked tender, reddened, his face flushed, his cock so hard Vin had wanted to soothe it with the lightest caress and hear Patrick moan. Would Patrick keep still with Vin’s hand on him? And what would Vin do if he moved? Punish him with a dozen more kisses, leading him back to the start every time Patrick tried to overtake him? But maybe Patrick would be good and Vin would need to be the one who moved them on, choosing the path they took, never, ever running.

Vin cast a critical eye over the bedroom as they went into it after hitting the bathroom for the usual before-bed chores. He wasn’t a slob; it was fairly neat and clean, and he’d washed the sheets after he and Riley broke up so they were fresh enough. Patrick had stopped just inside the doorway, his thumb tucked through one of the belt loops of his jeans like he was trying to seem casual.

“I can sleep in my clothes,” Patrick said, and Vin gave him a look of disbelief.

“Right, because that would be comfortable.” He moved to the dresser and pulled a drawer open, then rummaged around until he’d found the pair of sweatpants he was looking for. “You can borrow these. They’re a little long on me anyway.”

“Okay.”

By the time Vin had shut off the overhead light and crawled into bed, Patrick had managed to change into the sweatpants and take off his shirt, which wouldn’t have been comfortable to sleep in. His skin shone in the golden glow from Vin’s reading lamp, and he wrapped his arms around himself.

“You’re freezing,” Vin said. “Come to bed.”

“I’m half-naked,” Patrick said.

“You don’t say.” Vin rolled his eyes and patted the mattress. At least he felt more in control of what was happening between them. “Come on. Don’t make me ask again, or I might decide to make you sleep on the couch after all.”

That seemed to be an effective threat, because Patrick immediately joined him under the covers. Vin ditched his T-shirt, not seeing any need to keep it on when Patrick was bare to the waist and the sheets covered them. It was going to feel weird enough sleeping with the sweatpants on when Vin usually sprawled out naked.

“Not all that sleepy,” Patrick confessed. “Being in bed with you is like a double shot of espresso.”

“I could do something to make you feel sleepy. Like rub your back?”

The look Patrick gave him was despairing and longing at the same time. “You’re evil, you know that?”

Vin ran his hand down Patrick’s slim arm, enjoying teasing Patrick more than he probably should. “Yes or no?”

For answer, Patrick flung himself onto his stomach and buried his head in the pillow. “Evil,” he repeated.

Vin straddled Patrick’s hips and put his hands on Patrick’s shoulders, admiring the view. Patrick’s hair curled at his nape, question-marks of blond, and his shoulder blades were sharply delineated. Vin wondered what tattoos would look good on them if Patrick ever changed his mind about getting one. Not a dragon. That wasn’t Patrick at all. Something with wings, though, light and quick. “You’re tense.”

“You’re confusing tense with turned on.”

“You don’t need to be turned on. You need to let me—” The words caught in his throat, the intensity of his need choking him.

Patrick twisted his head, the angle awkward as the silence lasted beyond a few seconds. “Let you what?”

“Touch you,” Vin murmured, lowering his voice as he would if he were confessing to something shameful. It felt that way. Like he was being selfish. He needed it so much he had to ask, though.

Just this once he wanted it to be the way he’d imagined it would be, more than a direct grope and rub, a single-minded concentration on a climax that was over in seconds. He wanted all of Patrick, not just his cock, his hands, his mouth, his ass. Why did people settle for so little when they could have so much more? “Please? When you’ve had enough, tell me, but let me do this for as long as I want?”

“Let you touch me? Just that?” Patrick held Vin’s gaze for a long moment, as if he was searching Vin’s expression for a hidden meaning. Vin waited, his hands still, holding his breath, but in the end Patrick turned his face into the pillow again and gave a long sigh, some, if not all, of the tension leaving him. “Do whatever you like, Vin. Anything. I mean it.”

Vin bent and pressed his lips to the back of Patrick’s shoulder in a featherlight kiss, then straightened up again and threaded the fingers of both hands into Patrick’s hair. It was too short to curl around his fingers, but it had enough body that it seemed to cling to him all the same. It was soft and smelled faintly of shampoo when he ruffled it. “Smells nice.”

“Yeah? It’s from the dollar store.” Patrick’s words were audible even though the pillow muffled them.

“You’ll have to show me which one.” Vin’s shampoo was ultramasculine, the scent more like aftershave than anything else. He leaned in with his thumbs, finding the bumps at the base of Patrick’s skull. “This is good for headaches,” he said.

“You go to medical school when I wasn’t looking?”

Vin chuckled and moved his hands lower, massaging where Patrick’s neck and shoulders met. They were places he thought he might like to bite later on. Not hard enough to hurt but enough to leave marks that would linger. “Read it in a book.” He tightened his grip until Patrick gasped, then let up. “I haven’t spent enough time practicing, though.”

“Can practice on me anytime.” Patrick’s right hand, which had been resting at his side, slid down to touch Vin’s knee.

Without thinking about it, already falling into the same dreamy calm he’d felt during the kissing, Vin captured Patrick’s hand and drew it up level with his head, pressing it into the pillow.

“I don’t get to touch?” Curious, maybe amused, but not hurt or aggrieved, Vin decided.

“Not yet. You’re distracting, and I want to concentrate on you, not what you’re doing to me.”

“But I’m doing stuff to you by letting you do stuff to me?”

Vin gave up on working that one out before Patrick had finished saying it. He kind of got it anyway. “Don’t talk? Because that’s—”

“Distracting,” Patrick finished. “Zipping it right now.”

Vin expected that to last until the next thought Patrick had to share, but to his pleasure, Patrick did stop talking, the only sounds escaping him a grunt when Vin dug his knuckles into a tight knot of muscle, or a hum that verged on orgasmic when Vin curved his hand around the back of Patrick’s neck, pressing in carefully with his fingers and thumb before kneading the skin using a circular movement. He’d had that done to him in massages before and liked it, but it seemed to drive Patrick wild.

Vin smiled, unseen. He was going to find every hot spot Patrick had. Not all at once, but he’d find them, and he wouldn’t forget a single one. He concentrated on Patrick’s neck, bracing himself on his hands and lowering until his torso was an inch away from Patrick’s skin, holding the position easily, his yoga lessons paying off. Blowing across Patrick’s nape made him shiver, but he held still when Vin murmured, “Don’t move,” in his ear and licked the warm skin.

Both of Patrick’s hands were on the pillow now, and as Vin watched, they flexed, fingernails digging into softness and releasing it over and over, a spasmodic clutch, with the rest of Patrick’s body obediently quiescent.

Vin brushed his fingertips across every inch of Patrick’s skin in short strokes. He started at Patrick’s shoulders and moved down along his spine, smiling when the light touch over Patrick’s ribs elicited a shiver. “Ticklish?” he asked, and Patrick nodded.

By the time he’d reached Patrick’s lower back, fingers weren’t enough, and he was using his lips and tongue, tracing each bump of Patrick’s spine and tasting each hollow. Patrick was still quiet, though the growing tension in his muscles told a different story.

“Turn over?” Vin moved off Patrick so he could, then straddled him again when he was lying on his back, which put their matching erections in close contact through the fabric encasing them. It felt great, but it wasn’t Vin’s focus just then.

He rested his fingers on Patrick’s mouth, and Patrick kissed them. Patrick’s pupils were wide in the low light, his lip swollen from their previous kiss fest. When Vin trailed his fingers over Patrick’s chin and throat, he could feel the faint rasp of stubble. He wondered what Patrick would look like with more than two days’ beard growth—the most he’d ever seen him with, and barely visible then, slight hints of dark blond.

When he leaned down and pressed a series of kisses to Patrick’s throat, Patrick inhaled but there was no touch of his hands, which lay on either side of his head. Vin moved his mouth lower to Patrick’s collarbone, to his chest, to his tight nipples, where he meant to spend a few seconds lingering. He ended up focusing on them for a long time, alternating between licks and a scrape of teeth that had Patrick trembling and begging.

“Please.” It was a whisper, but Vin could hear the heat of desire behind it, feel it in the press of Patrick’s cock against his sternum.

The whisper, quiet though it was, reverberated in Vin’s ears, bringing him out of his absorption and into the here and now. He was hard, balls tight, cock like iron, and an awareness of his arousal hit him, driving a gasp out of him. He felt like a tightrope walker with no net under him and a long drop to the ground.

Panic rose, but Patrick was quicker. What he saw in Vin’s expression, Vin didn’t know, but Patrick deliberately raised his hands an inch off the pillow, drawing Vin’s attention, then let them fall back. “Anything you want,” he said, with the slightest stress on the second word.

Relief swept away the doubt. Patrick was enjoying this. Was as unwilling as Vin for it to end. It was all he needed to know.

He moved down the bed, making space for him to kneel between Patrick’s legs. The sweatpants Patrick wore were old enough that the elastic at the waist was stretched, and on Patrick’s thinner frame they would’ve hung loosely even when new. It was easy to slide his finger an inch inside the waist and run it across skin that tensed under the slow drag of his fingernail. He did it again, from hip bone to hip bone, against skin stretched taut over bone, to the sweet hollow that was going down on the hot-spot list. From there, the skin was softer, smooth, until his finger met the first wiry hairs clouding Patrick’s stomach. He paused, twisting a few of them between finger and thumb, tugging at them. Patrick bit his lip, then pressed his lips together firmly, then opened them on a moan, the small, indecisive movements betraying his struggle to lie still.

Vin inched backward and slid his hands down along Patrick’s hips to his thighs, thumbs pointed toward each other so that the cotton stretched tight over Patrick’s solid erection, Vin’s hands and the waistband creating a frame around Patrick’s cock. The head and shaft were easy to see, the scrotum more a vague, tantalizing shape. Vin let his thumbs sweep upward until they brushed Patrick’s balls through the material, and glanced up in time to see Patrick’s tongue flicker out and wet his lips.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Patrick’s voice was low and rough.

“Good.” Vin bent and blew hot, moist breath through the fabric over Patrick’s balls. He felt Patrick’s cock throb once, lifting away from his belly as if it had a mind of its own and wanted Vin’s mouth as much as Vin wanted to taste it.

Patrick raised his hips as Vin tugged the sweatpants lower—not off, but down enough so that Patrick’s cock was free. Vin had seen it before, but not up close like this, not when it was hard and damp at the tip. He touched it with a hand that was suddenly trembling, fingertips moving from head to base as Patrick’s soft, dark blond pubic hair crinkled against his palm.

Unable to wait another second, Vin closed his mouth around the head of Patrick’s cock for a moment, wetting it. A desperately eager sound escaped Patrick’s lips, and Vin wanted nothing more than to make Patrick repeat that sound, over and over, until the inevitable flood of release bathed his tongue. Vin cradled Patrick’s balls in one hand, the pad of his pinky finger pressed to the sensitive spot behind them. He took Patrick into his mouth again, sucking softly, no teeth. He wondered how long Patrick could take it if he was gentle and slow. He wanted to ask but would have had to pull his mouth away to do that, and just then he needed the solid length of Patrick moving between his lips and pressed to the insides of his cheeks more than anything else.

Patrick whimpered, and Vin tasted a hint of what was to follow, surprisingly sweet on his tongue. It made him ache for more; he found himself sucking harder without having intended to, anxious to take Patrick’s pleasure past the point of no return.

“Let me. Oh God, let me,” Patrick begged, the tumble of words accompanied by a pulse from his cock, yielding a fresh burst of taste in Vin’s mouth. “Please, Vin.”

Even as he begged, Patrick locked his muscles, straining not to thrust up, waiting for Vin to decide when it was time to end this.

They could do this again, Vin realized with a joy intense enough to leave him shaken. Patrick liked it. No, loved it. Was keening out his pleasure as Vin gave tacit permission for him to come by taking the rigid shaft as deep as he could before pulling back and swirling his tongue around the head.

Swallow or not? He’d never liked it with Riley, but this was Patrick, and everything was different with him. Patrick cried out, and Vin let the cock slide back into his mouth, timing his swallow with the first strong jet of fluid to avoid choking. It made a huge difference getting the timing right. He swallowed again and again, clearing his mouth, counting the weakening pulses as Patrick’s climax tapered off.

Patrick panted for breath a few times, then made a questioning sound, and Vin looked up. “C’mere,” Patrick muttered. “Come here, please?”

Vin did as asked, leaving Patrick’s sweatpants midthigh and shifting up on the bed to lie beside him. Patrick wrapped an arm around him in an awkward half hug and kissed him. The kiss was awkward too, but Vin didn’t care about that.

“Was that good?” he asked, worried about the possible answer and what he might see in Patrick’s contact-blue eyes.

Patrick’s smile, sweet and warm, provided instant reassurance. “Are you kidding? It was amazing.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Vin said, biting his lip. “I mean, I’m still kind of figuring it out.” Patrick had been with so many guys, and probably 99 percent of them had had more experience than he did.

“Well, you must be a quick learner, because it was perfect.” Patrick hitched himself onto his side and took Vin’s face between his hands. “Perfect. You’re perfect. Stop freaking out about this, please.”

“I’m not freaking out,” Vin protested, then smiled weakly. “Okay, a little. It’s just that you—”

“Let’s not talk about what a slut I am,” Patrick said. “Was. That’s over now, and I only want you.”

Vin frowned at him. “You know what? Don’t ever call yourself that again. You weren’t, and you sure as hell aren’t now.”

“No,” Patrick said and smiled. “Now I’m yours. All yours.”

There was the hint of a question there, and Vin answered it, making the decision he’d hesitated over earlier. “Yeah, you are. We’re doing this. It’s going to work.”

“Mmm.” Patrick wriggled closer still. “So what happens if I slip and use the S word?”

Vin ran his hand down Patrick’s back and took hold of his ass, the muscles bunching as he squeezed. “I don’t know. Maybe I fuck you so slowly you’re crying by the end, but I never, ever go faster. Glacier slow. Ketchup-out-of-a-bottle slow.”

Patrick blinked so fast Vin could feel the draft, his expression stunned, then thoughtful. A smile spread across his face, and he snuggled in, closing the last inch between them. “Evil,” he said with profound satisfaction.

“If you say so,” Vin murmured and kissed Patrick’s tousled hair.

Chapter Twenty

Patrick woke to the annoying sound of Vin’s alarm clock. It was too early. If it had been up to him, he’d have set the alarm to a much later time and stumbled downstairs to their shift at the last minute, but apparently being forced into wakefulness hours before he needed to be was one of the drawbacks to sleeping over at Vin’s.

“Morning,” Vin grunted and reached over him to shut off the persistent beeping.

Blessed silence.

“Why?” Patrick whined a moment later. “Do you hate me? You hate me, don’t you?”

“I don’t hate you,” Vin murmured into Patrick’s hair. His arm settled over Patrick’s waist, warm and comforting.

Maybe there were benefits to sleeping over at Vin’s, in addition to drawbacks. Patrick wasn’t going to abandon the whining, though. Not if it earned him more reassurances from this new version of Vin, a Vin who wanted him, who’d done things to him that, even sleepy and grumpy, Patrick couldn’t remember without a shudder of delight.

That massage. That blowjob. The slow, thorough possession of his body as Vin learned it through touch and taste. God, so hot, all of it. Patrick kicked out his legs, stretching the way he did before he got out of bed, arousal doing the job of coffee. Not that he was moving anywhere. He needed to take a piss, but not desperately thanks to a bathroom visit in the middle of the night. He’d stubbed his toe on the bed and gotten a questioning murmur from Vin, but they’d fallen asleep again within minutes.

What would it be like to be fucked by Vin? They’d kept it at the BJ last night, Vin shaking his head when Patrick had offered to blow him.

I want to wait.”

“For how long? Because I’m not sure I can keep my eyes open.

Vin had grinned, palming his erection and giving a shiver, biting down on his lip and looking so fucking sexy Patrick’s cock had twitched with renewed lust. “I’m not planning on coming tonight. Feels too good being like this. Knowing it’s because of you. I want to enjoy it, not bring it to an end.

Patrick hadn’t gotten that at all. “But coming is the fun bit, the whole point of it.

Not for me.” Vin had run his tongue over his lips as if he could still taste Patrick, a slow drag that left them glistening. “Waiting is. Letting the intensity build. Getting off on how it feels to be hard…yeah, even when it hurts a bit.” He’d given Patrick an anxious look. “Am I freaking you out?

Why would being in love with a Zen master of sex freak me out?” Patrick had snuggled in close, carefully not rubbing against Vin’s cock. “You’re different, Vin, not gonna lie, but when did I ever complain about different? Wait all you like. I’ll be here.

Now Patrick shifted backward a few inches, bumping into Vin in a way that was most definitely not innocent.

“Mm,” Vin said. “I like waking up with you in my bed.” He pressed his lips to the back of Patrick’s neck in a soft kiss that was probably meant to be affectionate instead of arousing, but it was first thing in the morning, and Patrick’s cock was, as usual, happier about being awake than the rest of him.

He closed his hand around Vin’s wrist and tugged it down to his swelling erection. “Mm is right. I like it too.”

“You know this is why I set the alarm for when I did, don’t you?” Vin slid his hand under the waistband of Patrick’s borrowed sweatpants and closed it around Patrick’s cock.

Patrick groaned. “I think I might be able to learn to live with getting up at dawn. Unless you’re just teasing me. You aren’t just teasing me, are you?”

“No way.” Vin bit Patrick’s neck gently—maybe a little too gently, but it was early, so Patrick was willing to forgive him. “Teasing would imply that I don’t have any intentions of following through. And I have every intention.” He stroked Patrick’s cock. “See? Following through.”

Rocking his hips back against Vin’s, Patrick let his ass meet Vin’s erection. “Does that mean you’re gonna fuck me?”

“Do you want that?”

Patrick huffed. “I’m assuming you’re asking questions you know the answers to because you think it makes you look smart. Yeah. Always. Now. For future reference, that’s always going to be the choice I make.”

“You might not like the way I do it.” That note of uncertainty was back, but Patrick knew how to make it vanish. If he smacked it on the head hard enough and often, maybe it’d get the message and stop popping up for air.

“Are you going to skip the lube?”

“No, of course not.”

“Or go bare?”

“No.”

“Hurt me because you’re too impatient and can’t wait to get balls-deep in—” Patrick paused. “Hmm. Doesn’t sound like you.”

“I get it. I’ll stop angsting over my kinks scaring you off.”

Patrick smiled, even though Vin couldn’t see him, preening because there was only amusement in Vin’s voice now. “Good, because I’m going to love it. Getting fucked is one of my favorite activities, even with someone whose idea of being considerate is a reach-around once he’s shot his load. If you got inside me and didn’t move an inch, you’d still be a better lover than ninety percent of the guys I’ve slept with.”

“Inside and not moving? It’s like you read my mind,” Vin murmured against the skin under Patrick’s ear, his lips brushing it, his breath warm. “I said you might not like it because you’ve always gone in for having your ass hammered, and I just don’t see the appeal.”

“Sometimes you will,” Patrick told him. He was more than willing to go along with Vin’s way of operating. The slow-rising intensity packed one hell of a punch, after all. Didn’t mean he wouldn’t crave a wall-slam and a quick, rough ride now and then.

But not now. Still drowsy, curiosity as potent as arousal, he wanted this first time to be orchestrated by Vin.

“Maybe.” Vin didn’t sound convinced. “But we’ve got an hour or more before we have to get up, and I want to spend every second making love to you.”

“Yes, please,” Patrick said.

“Good.” Vin let go of Patrick’s cock—Patrick whimpered in protest—and patted his hip. “Take off your clothes.”

That was more like it. Patrick hurried to do as he’d been told, not too tired to note that Vin did the same. Naked in bed together, having sex before work… Getting up before noon might not be his idea of a perfect day, but a leisurely morning fuck brought it a heck of a lot closer. Patrick kicked his pants toward the floor and squirmed around to kiss Vin, who let him—but only once.

“Uh-huh,” Vin said. “Turn around again. I liked you where you were.”

“Ooh, baby, that’s it. Order me around.” Patrick obeyed, getting back into the position he’d been in before, then looked over his shoulder at Vin. “Like this?”

“It wasn’t a complicated request,” Vin pointed out. The feel of him, pressed naked to Patrick’s backside, was delicious. He tugged gently at Patrick’s balls, making Patrick murmur appreciatively and spread his legs, but Vin slid his fingers lower than anticipated. “Sometime I might want to use a dildo on you. A nice big one.”

Patrick shivered at the idea. “Would you?”

“Why do you keep asking? When do I say stuff I don’t mean?”

“Good point.”

“I like the idea of you being filled and stretched with me able to play with the rest of you.” The matter-of-fact explanation, a world away from the rote dirty talk Patrick was used to, had Patrick lost for words, so turned on by the idea that he could only gasp, sucking in air in an attempt to stop his head from spinning.

“You—”

“On your hands and knees, maybe, butt up in the air so I could see your hole, nothing hidden. Run my finger around it through all the lube and scratch at it just a bit, make you feel it. It’d be tight as a drum.”

“Oh God.”

“Could stare at that for the longest time.”

“Tell me you’d do more than stare.” Patrick’s heart was thudding, but the thoughtful delivery of Vin’s plans was doing a lot to slow it down, redirecting the storm of desire into a determination to make this last.

“I’d work it in and out, watching you take it, but I’d push it in all the way in the end, fill you up. Move on to your balls. Cover them with lube so they roll in my palm, slippery until they got tight—you know how they do—and then I’d—”

“Do it.” Patrick moved restlessly, squirming. “All of it. Please, Vin.”

“Don’t have a dildo,” Vin said regretfully.

“Fuck!” Patrick bit the pillow under his head, the cotton dry against his tongue. “Fuck,” he repeated, this time muffled.

Vin kissed his shoulder. Turned on as he was, it was as much as Patrick could have handled just then. He really wanted to spin around and kiss Vin’s mouth, have Vin’s tongue stroking over his, but he knew if he did, he’d probably come in thirty seconds. Plus Vin would be annoyed, and he didn’t want that.

“You’ve driving me crazy,” he said instead, his voice shaking.

“Good. That’s what I want. I want you crazy for me.” Vin’s fingers ghosted featherlight over the tip of Patrick’s cock, dipping into the slick wetness there, and Patrick whimpered pitifully.

“Can you come without being touched?” Vin asked. He sounded curious, like he was asking a question in science class.

Patrick wasn’t sure how he felt about being an experiment, but Vin was teasing him to the point where his toes were curling. “Yes, but it hasn’t happened much. Couple of times, maybe. I’m gonna come right now if you don’t stop.”

Vin’s hand moved to settle on his hip. Patrick shuddered in a combination of relief and regret. Vin said, “Is it okay if I get some lube?”

“As long as you aren’t thinking about rubbing it into my hair,” Patrick said. “Or making me drink it.”

“Okay, one, ew. And two, ew. In your hair. That’s awful. Please tell me no one’s ever done that to you.” Vin wasn’t reaching for the lube; he was waiting for Patrick’s answer.

“No, nothing like that. I just have an active imagination. I’ve always thought it was one of my better qualities,” Patrick said.

“You have plenty of those.” Not a trace of sarcasm, even though Patrick had been joking. What good qualities did he have? Make that what good qualities did Vin think he had? Coming up with a few possibilities distracted him enough to conquer the urge to drop his hand to his cock and give it the firm touch it craved.

The lube was cool, but the goose bumps on Patrick’s arms were caused by the caress that spread it over his balls. Vin’s palm cradled them, just as he’d promised, the excessive amount of lube turning it from a familiar sensation into something new.

“When they get this slippery, it feels like they belong to someone else.”

“You’ve done this with—” Patrick broke off. He’d had dozens of lovers, and Vin wasn’t complaining; asking Vin to act as if Riley hadn’t happened would be unfair.

“I’ve done this to myself.” Vin rocked his wrist, jiggling Patrick’s balls. “I’m so fucking good at jerking off. You have no idea.”

“Show me one day?” Patrick couldn’t think of a hotter sight than watching Vin bring himself off, spinning it out for the longest time, eyes closed, hands languidly drifting over a rock-hard cock.

“One day. Or we can do it together.”

“See who can come last?”

“I’d win.” Vin sounded positive. And amused.

His competitive side challenged, Patrick retorted, “I’m going to start practicing. With a stopwatch.”

“You do that,” Vin said. He followed this mild response with sliding his slick hand up to grip Patrick’s cock while at the same time slipping his other hand down and pushing what felt like two fingers into Patrick’s hole.

Patrick gasped and arched, his entire body going from mostly relaxed to electric-tense in seconds. “Oh my God. God. Vin.”

Vin didn’t stroke him, just held him there, caught between his hands, as in control of Patrick as anyone had ever been. Patrick could feel himself trembling. He didn’t even know if he was turned on—no, of course he was turned on, painfully, agonizingly turned on—or shocked or what.

“Still think you might win?” Vin asked calmly. He didn’t move either hand, though the one wrapped around Patrick’s erection tightened the tiniest amount, which was all it took to make Patrick moan.

“No. Oh God, Vin, I’m gonna come.”

“Not yet.” Vin didn’t move. How was it even possible to stay still like that? “What do you think about when you don’t want to come?”

Patrick always wanted to come. “Um.” It was so hard to think with Vin’s fingers inside him, stretching him the perfect amount, making him tremble. “Something boring. Cleaning.”

“You think about cleaning during sex?” Vin sounded unconvinced. He pushed his fingers a little bit deeper, rubbing firmly over Patrick’s prostate.

“Yeah. No. Vin, please. God.” He was expected not to come and be coherent? Pick one, because he sure as hell couldn’t manage both. He couldn’t move either, not an inch, because Vin’s fingers were exactly where they should be. They coaxed—no, demanded—a response Patrick was willing to give. If he shifted and wriggled as he wanted to, he’d lose that perfect spike of pleasure sizzling through him like an electric charge.

Stay still. Concentrate. Ride each wave and hope the next didn’t pull him under. He could do that. Maybe.

“Cleaning does involve a lot of polishing.” Vin accompanied the words with a slow sweep of his hand along the length of Patrick’s erection. “Getting into every nook and cranny.”

Patrick had been wrong. Vin’s fingers hadn’t been in the perfect spot before. Now, with a slight twist and a small push deeper, they were. His surrender was a fall from a mountain, a rush of wind taking his breath, his limbs flailing. He jerked like a hooked fish, cried out Vin’s name, and clutched at the pillow, losing the ideal angle but saving himself from coming before Vin wanted him to.

Not disappointing Vin mattered to him more than coming—and when had that ever been the case?

“I don’t think I can wait a lot longer.” He felt like it was important to be honest. God, the need to move his lower body, to fuck himself on Vin’s fingers, was shockingly strong.

“I might not want you to,” Vin said thoughtfully. His fingers pushed deeper, stretching Patrick more than he’d been before. “Is this too much?”

“Not even close,” Patrick gasped. “I mean, it’s good. It’s perfect. But I can take more.” Please, give me more.

“So three would be okay?” Vin slid his fingers from Patrick’s body. Patrick could barely keep himself from sobbing, but Vin didn’t wait long, just rubbed his fingers along Patrick’s lube-slick balls before plunging what had to be three fingers into Patrick’s hole.

Patrick cried out, trembling on the verge of release. “Please,” he whispered. “Please, Vin.”

“You want to come?” All Vin did was ask questions. It wasn’t fair. “Say it.”

“I want to. I want to come. I want—” That was it; Patrick couldn’t wait anymore, his body too caught up in the pleasure Vin was giving him to hold off for more than another second or two. As soon as Vin’s hand starting moving on Patrick’s cock he was gone, openmouthed, eyes closed, cock jerking in Vin’s grip as his orgasm overwhelmed him.

Vin didn’t leave him, there throughout it all in a way Patrick wasn’t used to. Coming was so fucking personal. Even on the rare times when he came at the same time as the other guy, they felt locked away in their own worlds. This wasn’t like that. Vin surrounded him, drawing out Patrick’s climax with slow thrusts of his fingers and caresses that gradually gentled until he held Patrick’s cock in a light clasp, comforting without irritating the sensitized flesh.

Vin didn’t speak, thank God, just kissed Patrick’s shoulder and neck, his lips finding places to press against that sent aftershocks through Patrick. He let himself enjoy the moment, knowing that this wasn’t the end but a resting place. Vin had promised him an hour or more.

“Not going to be able to walk after this,” he mumbled.

Vin chuckled. “One glare from Shane will stiffen your knees.” He withdrew his fingers, taking his time, not wrenching them free and leaving Patrick empty. “And I’ll stop anytime you tell me to.”

Patrick rolled to his back, smiling up hazily. “Stop? Are you kidding me? I want to see you come.”

“I want to be inside your ass when I do.” Vin snagged a tissue from the box beside the bed and wiped his hands, then took some more to deal with the wet streaks on Patrick’s stomach.

It felt strange to be taken care of like this, but Patrick liked it.

He glanced down. Vin’s cock was hard, temptingly flushed, so ready to be touched or tasted.

“Yeah,” Vin said, his voice unsteady. “I need you. Want you.”

“But you’re still not gonna rush?” Patrick stretched his arms over his head, spreading his legs, inviting Vin to do whatever the hell he liked, posing unself-consciously. “Fine. Doesn’t mean you can’t touch me.” Vin wasn’t the only one who could paint pictures with words. “Don’t have to use your hands. I’ve dreamed about your hair on me, whipping across my chest or wrapped around my cock. Or just brushing my skin when you kiss me, all silky and ticklish.” He smiled dreamily. “Love your hair. I want to kneel behind you and brush it when it’s wet and heavy, hanging down your back, get every strand smooth. Brush it until it’s dry and clinging to my hands like it loves me and doesn’t want to let go.”

“Patrick…”

“Or use your cock. Rub it on me, over my mouth, not letting me suck it, just letting me smell it, taste it. All over my face and tell me not to move, just lie there and take it, feel it on my cheeks, smooth and wet at the tip.”

He was babbling, desire rising when he saw Vin’s face twist with longing.

“Anything, Vin. Trust you. Want you. Love you. Just don’t stop…” Stop what? He didn’t know. “Don’t stop,” he repeated, helpless and lost.

“I won’t.” Vin settled down beside him and pulled him into a comfortable embrace, Patrick’s head resting on Vin’s shoulder. At that moment, it was exactly what Patrick wanted, to be held, Vin’s hand rubbing his back gently. “This is so good. You’re so good.”

“Am I?” It was pitiful, begging for reassurance, but Patrick couldn’t help it. He’d worked so hard over the years not to care when guys didn’t want to sleep with him more than once or twice, when none of them ever seemed to want him as a boyfriend.

“Of course you are. I love you.” Vin turned Patrick’s face to look at him. “I’ll tell you as many times as I have to.”

“I know you love me,” Patrick said. He did believe that. “I’m just not sure I deserve you.”

“Yeah, well, that’s because you’re crazy,” Vin said affectionately. “I’ll convince you that you deserve me too, even if it takes years. You’ll see. We have tons of time.”

Patrick wrapped himself around Vin as best he could and kissed him—not just his mouth, though he started there, but his closed eyes, his temples, his throat and ears. Vin made appreciative sounds and slid his hand down to Patrick’s ass, cupping it, then directed Patrick’s lips to his own and went back to kissing him, long, eager kisses that had Patrick’s cock stirring with interest even though he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to get hard again right away.

“I don’t want to rush,” Vin murmured. “But I do want to be inside you. Is that okay?”

Patrick nodded into the next kiss. “Of course it’s okay. I want you so much. You have no idea.”

Vin rubbed his very hard cock against Patrick’s hip. “Pretty sure I do.” He parted Patrick’s lips with his own and tasted the inside of Patrick’s mouth with his tongue.

Waiting for Vin to be inside him was the crystallization of every time he’d ever held a wrapped gift and willed it to be just what he’d always wanted. He felt that same tense anticipation, undimmed by cynicism because he trusted Vin to deliver in a way Santa Claus or his mom rarely had.

Vin had to be hurting, hard for so long, still following the path he’d mapped out, but there was no impatience as he rolled on a condom, not even when he screwed up putting on the first one and had to ditch it.

“Guess you haven’t done it often?”

Vin shook his head, his hair flying. “Not really. They’re worse than tape. You can’t get hold of them.”

“Let me help you? Please?”

Patrick could put a condom on a cock using his mouth; he’d taught himself how after seeing it in a porn movie. It went down well with his one-night stands, but there was no way he was doing that with Vin—too tacky for words. He could make it foreplay, not a chore, though. It let him get his hands on Vin’s cock, close enough to kiss the tip before he covered it in latex.

Vin’s hand closed over Patrick’s, holding it against his cock. “Thanks.”

Patrick flexed his fingers, a glib reply impossible with his mouth dry with longing. Vin wasn’t hung to the point where even looking at his erection made Patrick’s ass clench, but he was hard as rock. That cock would be pushed into his hole soon, worked in and out of him at whatever pace suited Vin.

God. God.

“You can take your time when it’s in, but get it in me now,” he said, not caring that he was flat-out begging. He fell back on the bed and spread his legs. “Like this? On my hands and knees? Tell me.”

“Like this for now.” Vin was already crawling between his thighs, but instead of covering Patrick with his body, he bent and pressed a line of kisses to Patrick’s inner thigh, slowly working his way upward.

Patrick shivered. “Please, Vin. Now?”

“Okay,” Vin said. “Now. But be patient.”

Confused as to why he needed to be patient if Vin was finally—finally—going to get inside him, Patrick rested his hand in the small of Vin’s back as Vin moved into position. Vin wrapped his fingers around his cock, guiding it into place. It wasn’t until Patrick felt Vin’s cockhead bump wetly against his opening, then move forward half an inch, that everything clicked. Vin was going to do this in slow motion.

“Easy,” Vin said when Patrick tensed up. “Give me time. I know it’s hard—”

“I can tell,” Patrick interrupted. “So hard.”

“Ha-ha.” Easing forward another half inch, Vin leaned down and kissed him. Patrick returned the kiss with desperate enthusiasm, wanting nothing more than to encourage Vin to lose his control, but Vin wrenched his mouth away and gasped, “Troublemaker.”

“You know it, baby. Isn’t it why you love me?” Patrick lifted his hips, and Vin shifted his weight, using a hand to pin Patrick to the mattress.

“It might be one of the reasons,” Vin agreed. “But I want you to listen to me and stay still. No moving. I’m the one doing the fucking here, not you.”

That was right. Patrick was the one being fucked—in theory, at least—and he was also the one who’d come ten minutes ago but was now getting hard again.

“This isn’t easy. Not easy at all. If I hold still, I want a gold star. Cookies. A T-shirt that says ‘I did it.’”

Vin grinned. “Where do you want the gold star? Here?” He bit Patrick’s nipple, a sharp, sweet stab of pain Patrick welcomed as a distraction, even though the throb that followed took a few seconds to fade.

“Do not do that to my cock,” Patrick said, trying for stern and failing because Vin rocked his hips, pushing deeper into Patrick’s ass. He hissed through his teeth, sweat beading his forehead as he pressed his hands against the bed, clutching the sheet to anchor himself. “Oh God, that feels good.”

Not moving was frustrating and went against every habit he’d picked up, but he couldn’t deny it heightened the sensations he was feeling. With nothing to do but take Vin’s cock, that became all he could think about, the sole focus of his attention. The tingle of his bitten nipple, the lingering taste of Vin on his lips—they existed, but like the eager beat of blood in his cock, they were background music, no more than that.

Vin’s cock. His hole. One meeting the other, filling it, being surrounded by it. Not a battle to be won, or an invasion, but a joining.

Left to Patrick, it would’ve been accomplished in a few shoves, but it wasn’t up to him, and Vin’s way was better. God, so much better. It made his heart beat frantically, his chest tight as he fought to control his rebellious body, but it also made him keen out his pleasure with every exhale. He’d never been opened so slowly, filled so completely.

Mind and body found a common goal in yielding, and his heart rate slowed, his hands relaxed, palms up, cupping air. He was floating, drowning, flying.

“Yeah,” Vin said as if Patrick had asked a question, but he hadn’t. Questions implied doubts, and he had none. He wanted this slow fuck to go on forever.

Vin pulled back again, moving at what had to be one-quarter speed, maybe one-fifth. Either way it was more math than Patrick was capable of right then—or possibly ever, if he was being honest, though if he was, it was because any inhibition he might have had left was going, going, gone. Every bit of him was focused on the deliberate strokes of Vin’s cock in and out of his body.

Patrick wanted to tell Vin he’d never been so turned on in his fucking life, to acknowledge his shock that it was possible for his body to be mastered like this. But he didn’t have the breath. He stared up at Vin’s face as Vin fucked him, marveling that Vin could be so in control. Vin was paying careful attention to what he was doing, focused on the measured movements.

“Is this good?” Vin asked, and it wasn’t fair that he could still talk.

Trembling, so close to a second orgasm that he could feel it in his aching balls and in his gut, in his throat, in his fucking fingernails, Patrick could only blink up at Vin in response. No talking, no way. He couldn’t talk. He could come, though. All he needed was for Vin to touch him, just the faintest touch on his dick, and he would come like the world was ending.

Please, please. He wanted it. He needed to feel himself tightening around Vin’s unrelenting cock, to know that it was Vin who was doing this to him, giving this to him. Don’t stop, don’t stop.

Vin clenched his teeth, relaxed his jaw again. “Not gonna touch you,” he managed to say, and Patrick whined, high-pitched and disbelieving. “Want you to come like this. You can. You said so. Do it, Patrick.”

“I can’t.” Patrick whimpered back in his throat. God, Vin wanted so much from him. “In a year maybe you’ll have trained me so I come when you snap your fingers—no, not that. Ben does that to get Shane’s attention, and it could be really awkward, but something—”

“I’m not training you,” Vin said, the interruption cutting the tangled mess Patrick’s words had become. “Is that what this feels like?”

Patrick met Vin’s gaze, then had to look away. So much heat and longing. So much love. He wasn’t worth it. “No. I need something. A touch. A stroke. Hell, even you breathing on me would do it.”

That got him a head shake. “Then you’re not ready. It’s okay if you need more time.”

Vin moved the barest amount possible to qualify as a thrust in and a pull out. The slick drag of his cock inside Patrick’s ass felt good, but the connection between that pleasure and whatever switch needed flipping to make him come wasn’t strong enough.

“How much time do I have?” Patrick asked, and as he did, he caught a look at Vin’s eyes again and this time didn’t look away.

And that was it. That was all he needed, not a touch, not even a breath. Just the certainty that he could that he saw in Vin’s gaze. Vin followed it up with a rough, heartfelt kiss; the pause created by their discussion melted away like it hadn’t existed, and Vin thrust into him again, more fully and a bit faster, wrenching all Patrick’s attention back to what their bodies were doing.

“God,” he gasped. “Vin. Love you so much.”

“Yeah?” Vin looked wild around the eyes, as if the control he’d been master of for so long was finally breaking free. “You too. Love you.”

Patrick lifted his ass an inch or two off the bed, searching for a better angle for Vin’s next thrust, and Vin didn’t argue. Whatever they’d been playing, the game was over, and it was just them now, just the two of them and the pleasure they were creating. It was amazing, perfect. Well, close to perfect until Patrick came, which seemed inevitable.

“Gonna come,” he muttered, because he was and because he knew saying it would make it easier. “Jesus, Vin, I’m gonna come. Just from you fucking me. God.

“You’re so hot like this.” Vin was moving fast and hard and steady now. Patrick could see how close he was by the flush in his cheeks, but what really held Patrick’s attention was that look in Vin’s gaze, the one that communicated so clearly that Patrick was worthy of being believed in.

It was something Patrick needed so desperately that seeing it was what pushed him over the edge. Release curled low in his belly before striking, lightning-quick and so hot that it burned. His body contracted hard around Vin’s cock, and he cried out, shuddering as Vin’s cock drove into him again and again.

He clutched at Vin, not wanting to lose the feeling of being filled, completed, and Vin relaxed against him, his weight reassuring.

Patrick ran his hand down Vin’s back, over inked skin and bare, breathing in the mingled scents of their aroused bodies. They’d need to shower, but in these moments before words broke the fragile silence, he relished every musk-laden inhale.

“You smell good,” he said drowsily, and there was the silence shattered, but really, someone had to say something eventually, and it was probably always going to be him.

“Thank you. I think.” Vin sniffed. “Okay, if by good you mean sweaty, we both do.”

“It’s sexy. Not like stinky socks or something.”

“If you say so.” Vin reached down to where they were joined. “I should…”

Patrick sighed, resigned to the inevitable. “Yeah.”

They lay beside each other, not talking much but kissing often. Patrick’s body felt pleasantly heavy, every movement as slow as if he were underwater. Now and then a shiver would go through him, a fading echo of the ecstasy Vin had created.

“I can’t believe I made it to the end,” he confided, kissing Vin’s shoulder and getting in a surreptitious lick confirming that Vin tasted as good as he smelled. “I mean, this is me. I don’t do the whole not-moving thing. I wriggle.”

“I wondered…” Vin hesitated, then said, “There was a moment I thought it wasn’t much fun for you. That maybe you’d had enough.”

Honesty had to be the way to go, Patrick decided. “Maybe. Just for a second. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to. I just thought I couldn’t. That I’d let you down. Made me panic.”

Vin seemed to get everything that lay in the spaces between Patrick’s disjointed words, because the next kiss Patrick got he felt down to his toes. Fervent, adoring, grateful… He couldn’t choose a single label for it, but it left him in no doubt that Vin appreciated the efforts he’d made.

That felt better than the kiss.

Chapter Twenty-One

Patrick wrung out the mop again, trying to avert his eyes from the water in the mop bucket, which was starting to look disgusting. “This is so gross!” he wailed through the men’s room doorway. He’d propped the door open with a chair and opened the small window in the room to create a slight cross breeze, but it wasn’t helping to freshen the air the way he’d hoped it would.

“If you didn’t complain so much, you’d be done in half the time,” Shane called back to him from behind the bar. They were opening soon, and everyone was getting things in order.

That wasn’t fair. He was working hard, cleaning the filth from the floor with the damp mop, which was the last step in cleaning the bathroom after scrubbing the toilets and urinals—even more vomit-worthy—and cleaning the sink. Wasn’t he entitled to complain about the worst part of his job, especially since he’d completely reformed and become a model employee in every other way? And extra especially since coming downstairs to clean a filthy bathroom after a morning in bed with Vin seemed like such a hard transition?

Vin, who’d been sweeping the floor in the main part of the bar, paused and said, “You’re almost done.”

“I know. But why do people have to be so disgusting?” It was a rhetorical question.

“I don’t know. They just do.” Vin went back to sweeping.

Patrick finished up and started to roll the mop bucket toward the janitor’s closet where it was stored when someone banged on the door of the bar. He glanced at the wall clock and frowned. “Jeez, some people really can’t wait to get a drink.”

“We don’t open until eleven!” Vin shouted through the locked door.

The sound was repeated.

Shane sighed dramatically. “Ignore them,” he said and disappeared into the snug.

When more banging followed, forceful enough to rattle the door frame, Vin leaned the broom against a table and went toward the door. “Maybe they couldn’t hear me.”

A second later, Patrick heard the door open. Then Vin said, in a small, shocked voice, “Hi.”

Riley stood in the doorway.

And that was when what had started out an amazing, beautiful, and orgasm-filled morning took a sharp left turn into suck town. It didn’t help that Patrick was clutching a mop instead of doing something cool, like shaking up a cocktail. Feeling disgruntled at the universe, he decided to make the situation better by ditching the bucket. By the time he’d done that, in an ideal world, Vin would’ve gotten rid of Riley.

The bucket-in-cupboard, cupboard-door-closed part of the plan went smoothly, but then that’d always been the easy bit. Getting rid of Riley seemed to be giving Vin problems, though. Maybe because Riley was in his face, hell, grabbing Vin’s arm so he couldn’t back off.

For God’s sake. Righteous indignation felt good, and Patrick was brimful of it. That was his boyfriend Riley was manhandling. A quiet voice told him that if he was so sure Vin wouldn’t take Riley back if offered a pretty enough apology, this encounter wouldn’t bother him as much as it did, but he ignored it.

He got close enough to hear what they were saying, not liking the way the conversation was taking place in low, urgent whispers.

“—blocked your number, that’s why!” Vin said.

“Why would you do that?” Riley sounded upset, but Patrick couldn’t summon a shred of sympathy. “We had an argument. People—couples—do that all the time. I gave you space to get over it, and I even told Marco’s lawyer I wouldn’t be at the hearing. I did that for you, Vin.”

“You should’ve done it because it was the right thing to do,” Patrick said as he stepped closer, meaning every word. “And get your hands off him. He bruises easily.”

Okay, that last bit was a deliberate dig, but Riley had earned it.

“Mind your own business,” Riley snapped.

“That’s what I am doing.” Calculatedly, Patrick reached out and ran his fingertip along the edge of Riley’s ear, and as hoped, Riley let go of Vin and jerked out of Patrick’s reach. He hadn’t expected Riley to smack his hand away with enough force to make him wince, but hey, life didn’t always go the way you planned.

“Fuck off, you little asshole!” Riley’s arm was still raised, and Vin stepped sideways and shuffled Patrick out of reach, glaring at Riley.

“Don’t touch him,” Vin said. “And don’t call him names. If you want to talk, I’ll talk, but not like this.”

Riley lowered his arm slowly. “I want to talk to you, not him.”

Vin sighed and looked at Patrick, and Patrick knew, just knew, Vin was going to say yes. “Five minutes, that’s it. I promise.”

“What, you have to get his permission now?” Riley asked before Patrick could respond.

“He doesn’t need my permission,” Patrick said. That much was true. “You might. He’s doing you a favor, after how you treated him, so you should consider yourself lucky if he’s willing to talk to you at all. But keep your hands to yourself, or you’re going to be sorry.”

“I’m terrified,” Riley sneered.

“Stop,” Vin said sharply to Riley. “Go sit down over there.” He gestured at a table and turned his attention to Patrick like he expected Riley to obey, and to Patrick’s surprise, Riley did. “Five minutes, okay? Then that’s it, for good. I’m not going to let this drag on, I swear.”

Patrick wanted to protest, but even more he wanted Riley out of Vin’s life forever. If he had to tolerate Riley for five minutes to buy his absence for the next however many years, he’d deal. “Okay. But if he hurts you, I’ll beat the shit out of him with my mop.”

He went to loiter near the bar, wanting to keep an eye on things, as Vin joined Riley at one of the tables. Patrick had been there ten seconds or so when he heard someone behind him and turned to find not just Shane but Ben.

“What’s going on?” Ben asked, keeping his voice low.

“Unfinished business that had better be finished in five minutes.”

Shane grunted. “Yeah, can’t say as how I’m surprised, and you shouldn’t be either. Nice lad like Vincent, you don’t let him walk away to keep your old man sweet, do you?”

Patrick had no answer. Hard to speak with his mouth dry with apprehension.

“He’ll make the right choice,” Ben said quietly, resting his hand on Patrick’s shoulder for a moment, the weight of it comforting.

Shane cleared his throat. “Yeah, but that might mean forgiving Riley, not— Ow!”

Ben had smacked the back of Shane’s head. “Vin’s looked happier the last few days than he has in a while. It’s a look I recognize because I often see it in the mirror.”

Shane’s glare softened, and he rubbed his hand over his mouth, trying and failing to hide a pleased smile. “Yeah. Well.”

“If he goes back to Riley, I’ll die,” Patrick said with conviction. He could feel the color leaching out of his life, leaving it gray and drab.

“Not going to rattle your brains again, but you won’t. You’re a fighter, like me. You’ll get him back if it’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Shane slung his arm around Patrick’s shoulders and pulled him in for a hug. “Look, his lordship’s pissed off about something—and that’s a look I recognize.”

Vin and Riley had been talking in low voices, but now Vin was getting loud enough that Patrick could catch every second or third word, not that it helped him figure out what was going on. Riley stood abruptly, shoving his chair back so it scraped across the floor, and leaned forward with both hands braced on the table. It was an aggressive stance that made Patrick’s stomach twist with apprehension, but if Vin was tense, he was doing a great job of hiding it.

“Easy, tiger. He can take care of himself.” Shane patted Patrick’s shoulder, which did little to reassure him.

Riley slapped one hand down on the table and straightened up. He ran his fingers through his hair—Patrick wished he was holding his cell phone so he could have snapped a picture of Mr. Perfect with his hair sticking every which way—and said something Patrick couldn’t hear with an angry expression on his face.

“Get out of here!” Vin said, and that much at least was loud and clear. “And don’t come back.”

“Fine!” Riley stormed out, whipping the door open with enough force that it banged against the wall and not bothering to close it after him. Vin glanced back at Patrick and the others before going to shut it, and by the time he’d done so, Patrick was there, a hand on his back to let him know he wasn’t alone.

Vin turned toward him, trying to force a fake smile onto his face. “I’m fine.”

“Obviously they rewrote the dictionary when I wasn’t looking, then, because you’re as far away from fine as I am from wherever it is in Scotland that Shane’s from.”

“I’m from England, you ignorant git!” Shane called across to him. “Don’t they teach you kids geography over here?”

He might have annoyed Shane, but it was worth it to see Vin smile for real, if only fleetingly.

“So what did he say? No, what did you say? You told him to get lost and that you were madly in love with me and I’m way prettier than him, right?” Patrick put his hand over his mouth apologetically. “Oops. Babbling. Sorry. Just suffering a major anxiety attack here.”

“He started out okay,” Vin said. “He realized he was wrong trying to get me to change, he missed me, he wanted to try again. Stuff like that.”

Patrick was working hard to breathe slowly and not freak out. “Then what?”

Vin sighed. He looked like he’d been put through the wringer, and Patrick stopped feeling sorry for himself and started feeling sorry for poor Vin. “I told him I’d moved on. He didn’t like that.”

“Because it was me.” Patrick swallowed. “You told him it was me, right?”

“Yes, I told him, and yes, he didn’t like it because it was you. Although to be fair I’m not sure he would have liked it no matter who it was.”

“But then there was yelling.”

“I think he was on the verge of crying.” Vin leaned against Patrick, and Patrick held him, rubbed his back. “And I don’t think he really does crying, so he has to get mad instead, you know?”

This was deeper into Riley’s psyche than Patrick cared to tread. “That doesn’t make it okay for him to yell at you.”

“No.” Vin sighed again. “He accused me of having something going with you the whole time I was dating him.”

“I wish,” Patrick said fervently, and Vin started to laugh. “Well, it’s true!”

“You would never have done that. It’s one of your rules. No messing around with someone else’s man.”

“Was,” Patrick corrected him. “I don’t need rules like that now, do I? It’s just you and me.”

“Yeah.” Vin shook his head. “When he came here the first time, I thought that was it. Love of my life walks through the door—how is that going to end other than us riding off into the sunset together?”

“With violins,” Patrick added. “Or some kind of music going on.” He hummed a few notes, then gave up. “Happy endings suck. It’s like hitting a brick wall. This is it, as good as it gets. It’s not going to be like that with us.”

“It’s not?” Vin asked, the dragon earring swaying as he tilted his head inquiringly.

“No. No way. Not a chance.” Patrick wanted to kiss Vin, but this wasn’t the time. “People always think they’re the ones who are different, but we actually are. You know?”

“Not really,” Vin said.

Patrick tried to come up with the right words to explain it. “If you think about it, how things have been for us, it’s like one of those graphs where the national debt keeps going up and up—”

“Please tell me this isn’t going to turn into another financial lecture,” Vin said, lifting an eyebrow.

“Hey! I’m not that bad. Am I?” Patrick had to admit he’d been reading a lot of stuff Ben had recommended—Web sites and books—about how to get control of his debt, and possibly he’d been talking about it a little more than necessary, but it wasn’t like he was turning into a parrot. Although if he had turned into a parrot, it would be Vin’s shoulder he’d want to ride around on, and okay, tangent.

Vin grinned. “No, you’re not that bad.”

“Okay. Whew.” He tried to remember where he’d been going. “I mean, we started out as friends. Then we got to being really good friends, and best friends, and now we’re together.” Patrick shuffled a little closer to Vin. “It’s like climbing a mountain, only there’s no top to get to.”

“There’s always a top,” Vin said, but more like a man who wanted to be convinced he was wrong.

Patrick shook his head firmly. “Not if random birds keep dropping stones on it and building it higher.”

“Random birds?” Vin’s voice went high. “Random birds?”

“Yeah, okay, it’s out there,” Patrick said as Vin began to laugh helplessly. “But never underestimate the power of nature.”

“More like the power of Patrick.”

Hmm. That had a nice ring to it now that he thought about it.

“We’re open!” Shane called out and gave the bell behind the bar a tap, the mellow clang ringing out. “Get over here, Vincent. Patrick, if you think these ice buckets are full, I’ve got news for you. They’re not.”

“Yes, boss,” Patrick said and decided now was the time to kiss Vin, so he stepped in close and did it. The fact that Vin kissed him back with affection and a certain amount of heat told him he’d made the right decision. “Later tonight I’ll prove to you there’s always a higher place to climb to.”

Vin’s lips lingered on his again. “Promises, promises,” he whispered, and they both went back to work.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Vin shut the door to his apartment and flicked the dead bolt automatically. “You hungry?”

“Not really,” Patrick said, kicking off his shoes.

“Picking at fries and mozzarella sticks again?” Vin went to the fridge and took out the water pitcher he and Patrick had bought together with a coupon printed out from the Internet, then poured them each a glass. It was weird how they could be pouring drinks for people all night and somehow end up never drinking much themselves, but they were always thirsty when they finished their shifts.

“Guilty as charged.” Patrick took the glass Vin handed him. “Thanks.” He drank. “Busy night.”

“Wild,” Vin agreed. “Good for business, though.”

The bar had been packed because two regulars were getting married the following weekend and had decided since they’d met at the Peg, that was where they’d kick off their joint bachelors’ night. Shelly and Helen had jumped on the idea, persuading Shane and Ben to let the best men decorate the bar before opening and helping to organize some games that’d made Vin blush.

It’s great publicity,” Shelly had pointed out. “We can ask the paper to cover it. They’ll probably go on to a club after we close, but if we can keep them here for more than a round or two, the way they’ll be drinking…ka-ching.”

Ka-ching? Thought women were romantic and went gooey over weddings.” Shane had shaken his head, giving in as Shelly glared at him. “Fine. Do it. But you’re clearing up the mess when they go.

In the end, they’d all pitched in at closing, and it hadn’t taken long to pop the balloons and pull down the streamers, though the floor was going to need a second mopping in the morning. Vin had enjoyed seeing Rick and Craig’s exuberance as they celebrated. They’d pretty much been poured out the door after drinking a few too many of the cocktail Patrick had invented in their honor.

Patrick drained his glass and put it in the sink. “Want to get an early night?”

“I want to go to bed.” Vin sent him a sidelong look. “Not the same thing.”

“No, it isn’t.”

Patrick had taken to spending the night more often than not, and Vin had emptied out a drawer for him so he could keep a few clothes there. They’d found a leather bag at a secondhand store—Patrick had replaced his old shopping habits with a different one he called “treasure hunting,” to the point where he’d made friends with a few of the local store owners—and he used to it bring things back and forth. They did stay at Patrick’s occasionally, and sometimes they spent the night apart, but it felt wrong to Vin now, and he’d been formulating a plan he was going to share with Patrick when it seemed like the time was right.

They stood companionably in the bathroom, side by side, brushing their teeth. Vin leaned down to spit, then rinsed out his mouth and said, “Take out your contacts?”

“I won’t be able to see if I do,” Patrick said.

“Your glasses are in your bag. You can wear those. Please?”

Patrick wiped his mouth and stuck his toothbrush under the faucet. “Not fair. You know I can’t resist when you ask nicely.”

“Maybe,” Vin agreed. “But you can still say no, if you don’t want to. You can always say no.” He worried sometimes that a lot of the things Patrick had done before they got together had been because Patrick didn’t want to say no.

“Saying no to you wouldn’t make sense. You never ask me to do anything I don’t want to do.” Patrick gave him a shrewd glance. “Do I need to give you the talk about believing me when I say the sex is out of this world again? Because it is.”

“When we’re making love, I know that. When I’m thinking about what I want to do with you, I sometimes step back and think, wow, I must seem like a total freak.”

“Are you kidding me?” Patrick shoved his toothbrush into the mug with such force it fell over, luckily not breaking. He poked Vin’s chest hard with his finger. “You know how you hate me calling myself a slut? Well, I hate you calling yourself that. In case you hadn’t noticed, there’re two of us in that bed, so that makes both of us freaks, and I will say no to you putting that label on me.”

Indignant, ruffled Patrick made Vin’s chest go tight with love for some reason.

“I’m sorry. I just… Last time I thought I’d gone too far.”

“Yeah, me close to passing out when I came because it was so good had to have been a real red flag.” Patrick tossed his head, then gave a terse huff and bent to take out his contacts, straightening a moment later and blinking around the room. The unfocused gaze made him look vulnerable. Vin didn’t like that particularly, though it roused his protective instincts, but he got off on having Patrick in bed with him unable to see beyond a few feet, Vin the only clear object in his view, his glasses resting on the bedside table.

He brushed his fingers under Patrick’s eyes, a light, slow caress. “Thank you.”

“If you don’t want me to see, you could blindfold me.”

Vin shook his head, though he could tell the idea intrigued Patrick. “I’d just tell you to close your eyes. Much easier. Then I could see if you cheated.”

“If I had a blindfold on, it wouldn’t matter if I cheated.”

“It’d matter to me.”

“Everything matters to you, Mr. Perfectionist.” Patrick tilted his head back, offering his mouth for a kiss that Vin gave readily, though they both tasted of toothpaste. The harsh blast of mint would fade soon, and he’d get to taste Patrick.

“Come on. Let’s go to bed.”

Patrick let himself be led to the bedroom, where they both undressed. Then Vin pushed Patrick down onto the mattress and kissed him some more. They hadn’t bothered to turn on any lights, so it was pleasantly dark.

“You know how much I love you?” Patrick asked.

“How much?” Vin rubbed his thumb over Patrick’s lower lip.

“A lot. Some really huge number.” Patrick hesitated, then said, “Can we do something new? Would that be okay?”

“Sure. What do you want to do?”

Patrick rolled them so he was on top and slid down until he was face-to-face with Vin’s cock. “I kind of thought I’d start here.”

“That’s not new,” Vin said, then gasped as Patrick’s mouth closed hotly around the tip of him. “Not that I’m complaining.”

Every time they went to bed together, Vin was shocked all over again at how good Patrick was at, well, everything, but especially sucking his cock. Not that he had a lot of guys to compare Patrick to—which was fine; he was okay with his life choices. He was even okay with the choices Patrick had made: he loved Patrick for who he was, and that included his past. But with Patrick’s lips and tongue teasing at him, most of his ability for conscious thought fled, leaving him trembling and moaning and sometimes grasping at Patrick’s hair a little more roughly than he should.

“You’re so good at that.” Vin closed his eyes and concentrated on the amazing suction, then the feel of Patrick’s tongue licking down his shaft and across his balls. Then lower, to his— “God!”

Patrick was too busy to reply in words, and if it meant stopping what he was doing, Vin didn’t want him to, but he patted Vin’s thigh reassuringly.

The wet softness of Patrick’s tongue continued to lap at Vin’s hole, a maddeningly perfect sensation, ticklish, yes, but Vin loved it. He rolled his hips up, mutely begging for more, and Patrick obliged, using both thumbs to spread Vin’s hole wide enough for the first shallow thrust of his tongue.

“You’re killing me here,” Vin said, the words separated by gasps as he fought to stay still and not grind down. “Feels incredible.”

“Going to do this to you for as long as you can take it,” Patrick said, his voice muffled. He turned his head and gave Vin’s inner thigh a nip from his teeth. “Roll over and grab a pillow. Yeah, under your hips. That’s it.” He planted a playful smooch on Vin’s ass cheek. “Get comfortable, honey, because I learned from the best how to make the good times last.”

Vin was already tense with anticipation as he shifted his weight for Patrick’s guiding hands. The soft, warm touch of Patrick’s tongue was like nothing he’d ever felt before; he couldn’t stop shaking. His cock was impossibly hard, and his hips shifted restlessly. The flicker of Patrick’s tongue was driving him crazy. When Patrick stroked and teased his hole with a finger slick with spit or lube, he felt no apprehension. He knew Patrick wouldn’t hurt him, and what was more, he wanted it. Patrick’s finger inside him would relieve the ache he felt.

“Same rules for you,” Patrick said, his voice a murmur threading through the gasped breaths Vin took. “You want me to stop, I will.”

“Are you going to fuck me?”

He heard Patrick exhale, slow and long. “I wasn’t planning on going that far.”

“Go there,” Vin said, reckless but trusting Patrick. “I want to try it.”

“You didn’t like it before. You don’t have to change your mind about that. I love being fucked by you too much to care if it turns out you hate it.”

“I might ask you to stop,” Vin admitted, giving Patrick the truth the way he always had. “Right now, I want you in me like you wouldn’t believe, but if it hurts and I tense up—”

Patrick chuckled. “After what I just did, you’re as tense as a bowl of pudding, sweetie. Listen, I won’t hurt you, I won’t rush you, and I will stop whenever you tell me. And if I’m balls-deep when you say it, I’ll pull out slowly because any other way would not be a good idea, so don’t panic and think I didn’t hear you, okay?”

Talking meant Patrick had stopped fingering Vin’s ass. He’d needed to hear what Patrick had to say, but Vin wanted to get back to what they’d been doing. Without consciously deciding to do it, he spread his legs a little wider, opening up to Patrick and feeling a delicious throb of anticipation. “Okay.”

“Then let me get what we need, and I’ll show you why I always howl at the moon when you’re inside me.”

Vin waited, closing his eyes as a drawer slid open and Patrick fumbled inside for lube and a condom. He didn’t feel nervous. Everything with Patrick was different from his experiences with Riley. Those few months seemed distant now, like faded copies that each day he spent with Patrick painted over with vivid splashes of color, layer after layer.

He hadn’t forgotten Riley, but he didn’t miss him. The loss of the habit of loving Riley hurt more than the loss of Riley himself. And it was a rapidly healing wound.

“Still with me?” Patrick asked, kissing Vin between the shoulders, then an inch lower, light kisses trailing down Vin’s back until they reached the upward curve of his ass. “Vin?”

“Yeah. I’m ready.” He groaned as Patrick’s tongue flickered over his hole again. “God, I want you to.”

“Okay, but it’s going to be slow. Really slow.” Slick fingers smeared lube where it was needed. “And don’t you dare keep quiet if it hurts, do you hear me? I’m serious. I’d rather never do this than hurt you.”

“I hear you.” Vin had done some reading and learned not every guy was into bottoming. Possibly he was one of them, but until he tried, he’d never be sure.

Patrick got up close behind him, and Vin felt the blunt end of Patrick’s cock pushing at him. He waited for the sudden thrust, and waited, but it didn’t come. Patrick’s dick was just there, stretching his hole. “Okay?” Patrick asked, stroking a hand along his thigh.

“Yeah. You’re not—” Vin had been about to say that Patrick wasn’t doing anything yet, but suddenly a tension he hadn’t realized was there disappeared, and Patrick’s cock went deeper into him. He gasped a little in surprise, and Patrick froze. “No, I’m okay. It’s good. It feels good.”

Patrick kissed his back; Vin could feel him shaking. “You feel so fucking good, you have no idea.”

Vin closed his eyes and concentrated on the feel of Patrick inside him, slowly thrusting. The pressure on his prostate was nice. The sensation of being stretched open was weird, but it didn’t hurt—a tiny amount of discomfort, but nothing more. Even though Patrick was moving carefully, Vin could tell he was getting into it by the soft moans and the clutch of Patrick’s hand on his hip.

“Still okay?” Patrick asked.

“Oh yeah. Stop talking now?”

Telling Patrick what to do in bed was too familiar, that order in particular, for Vin to give it a second thought, and judging by the distracted grunt he got in reply, Patrick felt the same way. Without needing to reassure Patrick, Vin could concentrate on what was being done to him. Inch by inch, gaining, then ceding ground, Patrick eased inside him, moving as slowly as Vin would’ve done if it’d been him fucking Patrick. He knew how the hot, slick clench of flesh felt against his cock, and he envied Patrick that feeling. His cock was squashed into the pillow, able to rub against the cotton, sure, but he missed the sensation of being welcomed into Patrick’s body, the forceful ripple of inner muscles like a caress.

Once Patrick could pull back until only the head of his cock was inside Vin, then thrust forward without stopping, he settled into a rhythm, quicker than Vin would’ve chosen, but nothing like the hurried slams Riley had inflicted on him.

At ease, enjoying himself in a mild way, Vin waited for it to get so good he was whimpering, the way Patrick did. He wasn’t inhibited when it came to vocalizing his pleasure, and Vin, shyer at first, had learned to let go. The throaty moans Patrick gave, the openmouthed, panted-out pleas and encouragement, turned Vin on so much that he wanted to add to them. He might blush afterward, hearing the echo of his cries and groans, but he didn’t let that stop him from making them.

Thrust after thrust, harder now, but still causing Vin no pain, just a stab of pleasure when Patrick hit his sweet spot. All good, all fine.

Just not spectacular.

Biting his lip, Vin tried to be less passive, meeting Patrick’s stroke instead of waiting for it, tightening his muscles when it seemed like the right moment to do that and relaxing when it didn’t.

“Oh God.” Patrick paused, shaking, then eased back, tugging on Vin’s hips. “Can you get on your knees? Yeah. Is this okay? Can I touch you?”

In response, because Vin didn’t feel like talking, he reached for Patrick’s hand and brought it down to his cock. Patrick’s hand was still a tiny bit sticky from the lube, and Vin’s dick was damp with sweat and the growing arousal that had been building again since this had started. Patrick thrust forward, and his hand stroked Vin’s cock, staying up near the head where Vin liked it best.

There, that was what he needed. He wasn’t on edge, not yet, but the combination of Patrick’s cock moving inside him and Patrick’s hand squeezed tight around his erection was more than enough to take him there. Vin let his head hang down, weight resting on his arms, each snap of Patrick’s hips telling him how into this Patrick was getting.

“You’re so good,” Patrick said. “God, I’m so close. Love you so much.”

Vin focused, narrowing all his attention onto the physical pleasure and imagining it was Patrick’s ass instead of his hand working tight around his cock, so that just before Patrick cried out and started to come, he was coming too, shuddering and pulsing and laughing all at the same time.

Patrick clung to him until they’d recovered, then eased out and disposed of the condom before lying down. Vin, who’d shoved the pillow with the wet spot off the bed onto the floor, was still grinning like an idiot when Patrick kissed him.

“I assume I didn’t hurt you.” Patrick sounded relaxed and happy.

“I promised I’d tell you if you did. No. It was fine.”

Patrick lifted an eyebrow. “Fine? That’s not exactly the word I had in mind.”

Trying to mix tact with honesty, Vin said slowly, “It was great to try it and like it. To erase the bad memories. Not that they were awful; it just hurt like hell, and that’s no fun. You were amazing, the way you took care of me. Love you for that. I do. You made it work, and I honestly don’t think anyone but you could’ve gotten me to try it. But if I had a choice…”

“I’d have been the one on my hands and knees, ass up?”

Vin gave him an apologetic look. “Yeah.”

Patrick sighed and snuggled in close, stroking Vin’s chest. “Lucky for you my ass looks incredible from that angle.”

Tightening his arms around Patrick and dropping a kiss on his head, Vin asked, “You don’t mind?”

“Not being able to convert you to the joys of bottoming? My pride took a hit, but topping doesn’t do it for me as much as being fucked, so I’d have to be nuts to complain that I’m going to be getting just what I want every time.”

Even with that assurance and the knowledge that Patrick was sincere, Vin was conscious of regret that he couldn’t tell Patrick it’d been wonderful. Patrick had tried so hard. That was what mattered to him the most—knowing Patrick had done everything possible to make it good for him. “I’m crazy about you, you know that?”

“I do, but I wouldn’t mind hearing it half a million more times,” Patrick said. “Speaking of crazy…”

“My family loves you,” Vin repeated obediently. He’d had to reassure Patrick of this fact so many times over the past few days that he might as well record his voice saying it and play it in a constant loop.

“It’s one thing for them to like me when I’m just your friend,” Patrick said. “But it’s a totally different animal when I’m your boyfriend. Are you sure they understand?”

“You’ve heard my end of at least three phone calls with my mom.” Vin smoothed Patrick’s hair with gentle fingers. “You’d know if she was freaking out. She’s not. We’re going to brunch on Sunday, and you’ll be able to see for yourself.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, you know.” Patrick sighed and hugged Vin. He didn’t need to explain. His family had disowned him, so it made perfect sense to Vin that he was worried about Vin’s family doing the same.

“We’ve been together a month now. If they’d had a problem, they’d have been over here on day one. And you know they’ve been asking for you to come and see them for ages. It’s just never worked out.”

Shortly after Christmas, his mom had gotten sick with a chest infection, followed by Dave breaking his ankle on an icy sidewalk. Covering his shifts had meant that every time Vin had the opportunity to see his parents, Patrick was working and vice versa. Vin had his fingers crossed for the brunch, though. Ben had promised them both the evening shift, rearranging his day off to make it work.

“Never worked out because we’re cursed. Fated. Doomed.”

“I love you, and you make me happy. That kind of buys you a million gold stars where my family’s concerned.”

“They liked Riley.” Patrick’s lip stuck out in an exaggerated pout, but the quaver in his voice wasn’t put on. “I remember you telling me how much they liked him.”

Vin shrugged. “They did. He was polite, he cuddled the baby, he ate loads of my mom’s food. Nothing for them not to like. But my oldest sister didn’t get married to her first boyfriend. She dated this one guy for two years. He was part of the family. Then one day, poof, he was history, and we were saying ‘Hi, Jeff’ not ‘Hi, Mark’ to the new one. That’s life.”

Patrick sucked in an indignant breath, pushing away from Vin to kneel beside him on the bed, his hair tousled, eyes flashing. “If you think telling me boyfriends come and go like…like… I can’t think of anything, but you know what I mean—”

“Skinny jeans? The seasons? Buses?”

“Not helping! None of it!”

“That’s okay, because it’s not what I’m saying.” Vin reached out and took Patrick’s hand, turning it so it was palm up. “I’m talking about my family, not about us. They liked Riley because I liked him.”

“Stop talking about Riley and how much you liked him,” Patrick said, pouting.

“And they love you because I love you.” He decided it was time to trot out a little tidbit he’d been saving. “Do you know what my mom said when I told her?”

Patrick went still, looking at him. “What?” he asked in a small voice.

“She asked what took me so long,” Vin said. “And she didn’t mean it like what was wrong with you that you didn’t see it. She meant why did it take you so many years to find the right guy. Which means she knew Riley wasn’t the right one for me.”

“That’s because she’s smart,” Patrick said with new loyalty. “I always said she was smart.”

“She’s really smart,” Vin agreed. “Smarter than me. I wasted years waiting for a dream.”

“Who turned out to be a snooze.” Patrick frowned and gave his wrist a light slap. “Okay, that was bitchy, but I could’ve said he was a nightmare and I didn’t, so my karma’s intact, yeah?”

“Dented in one corner.”

“I can live with that.”

“Why don’t you live with me instead?” It popped out before he could stop it, like the question had gotten tired of waiting to be asked.

“I thought I was.” Patrick sounded puzzled, but then understanding dawned. “Oh. You mean for real.”

“We’d both be better off financially. Half my rent is less than yours, plus Ben gives me a deal because I’m here to keep an eye on the building at night. You wouldn’t have to worry about getting home.”

“I’m not going home alone all that often as it is,” Patrick pointed out. He looked worried.

“And it’d save you more than the rent. Electric, heat…we could cook together…”

“We’re doing that now.” Patrick rubbed his lower lip. “You’re trying to save me money? Is that it?”

Oh. Vin realized what was going on here. “No. I’m trying to come up with reasons why you should say yes, but it’s selfish of me. I want you here, all the time. I don’t want you to say you’re going home and mean anywhere but here.”

“Is it too soon? Would you get sick and tired of me in your space? Would Ben and Shane go for it?” Patrick threw up his hands. “God! Listen to me. What is wrong with me that I can’t just say—”

“Yes?” Vin suggested, capturing Patrick’s hands in his and drawing them down to rest on Patrick’s thighs. He could feel Patrick struggle to keep his hands still, but he hung on until Patrick calmed enough for the tension to drain away. He could see the anxiety in Patrick’s eyes, a kid promised a treat he wasn’t sure would arrive. “I’d love to have you here. Ben and Shane wouldn’t mind, and if they did, we’ll move out and find a new place. And it’s not like this is a stately home that’s been in my family for generations. I haven’t lived here that long either, and I’m not the territorial type. If you want to paint the walls or buy a new couch—”

“Are you kidding? I adore that couch.” Patrick turned his hand to clasp Vin’s. “You kissed me on it.”

“I’ve kissed you on just about every piece of furniture we own.”

Patrick beamed at him. “Aww. You said we.”

“And I meant it.” Vin squeezed Patrick’s fingers in his. “You haven’t said yes.” He wasn’t worried about Patrick’s answer, not anymore, but he still wanted to hear it out loud.

“Yes! What are you, crazy? I’d love to move in with you.” Patrick kissed him, then frowned. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure,” Vin said. “I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t.”

“But are you sure you’re sure?” Patrick’s lips flirted with a smile. He was playing now, in that ridiculously adorable way he had. Vin couldn’t resist the urge to push him over and roll on top of him.

“If you keep asking, I’m going to have to do something to shut you up,” he said, grinning.

Patrick’s answering smile could have lit up half the city. “Yay,” he said softly, and after that they were too busy kissing to talk anymore.

~ * ~ The End ~ * ~