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The Empty Box

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Chapter One

Last November

Dave tugged the zipper on his jacket higher and tucked his hands into his pockets before he crossed the street. November was always cold, but he felt it more as he aged. Not that he was old. Okay, yeah, he was probably officially old at this point, a few years from fifty. His nephew, born a week before Dave’s thirtieth birthday, had gotten his driver’s license, for God’s sake.

The farmer’s market was tiny at this time of year, half a dozen vendors at most. One of them sold nothing but pumpkins. She had a scarf wrapped around her neck and the lower half of her face and stood outside the small barn with the pumpkins lined up on a series of shelves made with rough boards propped on cinder blocks. Her sign said, LAST DAY! HALF OFF.

“They’ll be fine for weeks,” Dave told her by way of greeting.

“I know, but I won’t be. This is the end of the year for me. My blood’s too thin for this weather.”

“Can’t say I blame you. It was freezing when I got up yesterday.” There’d been frost on the windshield of his little blue Civic, for sure. What could he do with a bunch of cheap pumpkins at the Peg? Soup? With some crumbled bacon on top, it would go great with the harvest ales they were featuring. He’d have to find a recipe and see if he could sneak the addition to the menu past Shane’s watchful eye. Shane was of the firm opinion that pumpkin didn’t belong in any food group and definitely not in a pie served with whipped cream. Dave chalked it up to being English and didn’t take Shane’s rejection of his menu suggestions personally.

Baby steps. Compared to the basic bar food the Peg had offered in the past, the current selection was a huge improvement. Stuck in the kitchen, Dave didn’t see the reaction to his food, but any positive comments were passed on by the bar staff, and there were enough of them to make him confident he was on the right track.

After purchasing four pumpkins and stowing them in his car, he went back to the stalls, moving quickly to stave off the chill. The honey man was in his usual corner, and Dave saved him until last. Locke, as everyone called him, was a giant of a man, a bushy gray beard cascading down his wide chest. He smiled at everyone but didn’t say much. The sign over his stall told the world that his name was MICHAEL LOCKE, BEEKEEPER, and a small painting of a bee decorated the bottom corner, a vibrant splash of gold and brown.

Locke sold more than honey and honeycombs. Beeswax candles and honey soap, lotions and creams, salad dressings and more covered the sturdy table. The candles fascinated Dave. They were handmade, odd, irregular shapes that, like clouds, could be interpreted in different ways. He smiled at Locke and picked up a squat, heavy candle tinted rich amber, enjoying the weight of it in his hand and the smooth texture.

“The flames of these always seem brighter than with a regular candle.”

“Beeswax burns cleaner than most commercial waxes,” Locke said. “Lasts longer too.”

“It’s been such a long time since I burned a regular candle that I’ll have to take your word for it.” He had one at home on a little plate, never lit. It probably had a nice thick coat of dust on it by now.

“I wouldn’t mind regular candles so much if they didn’t smell like perfume.” Locke wrinkled his nose. “Makes my stomach turn. My wife loved them. I’d put up with them again if it meant having her back, that’s for sure.”

It wasn’t the first time Locke had mentioned his dead wife, but he did it so naturally that it didn’t make Dave squirm. “It’s easier to deal with something you’re not crazy about if someone you love likes it.” He swapped the candle for a jar of honey. “I’d better have an extra jar this week. I bought some pumpkins from the woman outside.”

“Hmm. Soup? Or are you going to roast it?” Locke reached for a paper bag, then filled it with the jars of honey.

“Not sure yet. Soup, definitely, and honey goes well with that, but I might do mini muffins too. A double dose of pumpkin.” He breathed in, imagining smelling not the crisp air of the market, redolent of vegetables, but the hot curl of steam rising from a fresh muffin, split in half and waiting for a knob of butter. In the kitchen, ideas sparked in ways they never did at home, browsing recipes online. He’d thought about setting up a blog to share some of his recipes, but there were so many sites out there offering food ideas it didn’t seem worth it. “You’re inspiring me.”

Locke nodded, pleasure lighting his brown eyes. “The bees do that for me. They’re clustering now, you know—forming a layer, heating the hive with their bodies. Some will die doing it, but they do it anyway.”

Uncomfortable with the idea of that level of self-sacrifice, sure he’d never measure up if he were faced with a comparable situation, Dave pasted an intelligent look on his face and took out his wallet. “They’re fascinating creatures. Could I get a receipt, please?”

Ben, co-owner of the Peg and Shane’s partner, was also an accountant. Requests for reimbursement with no receipt to back them up led to lectures in Ben’s patient voice, punctuated by Shane muttering, “Give him the fucking money and get back behind the bar.” Which led to Ben pinning Shane with a stern stare holding enough heat to toast bread. Shane never minded what amounted to PDA, but Dave did. He was fifteen or so years older than them, but not too old to want what they had—a committed relationship with passion spicing the day-to-day contentment. Seeing them happy made him envious, not jealous, but it sometimes hurt to contrast his loneliness with their easy companionship.

Dave didn’t think about his ex. There’d been a time when he’d thought he and Travis would be together forever and that their struggles meant that they were destined to be partners.

Stupid. In the long run, he’d learned the struggles meant they had no business as a couple. It was called a breakup for good reason; it had nearly broken Dave when they’d split, and there’d been days when work was the only thing that got him to leave the house. Over time, he had reached the point where he could contemplate meeting someone again.

“There you go,” Locke said, shaking him from his thoughts with the sharp tear of paper from the receipt pad. “Thanks for your business. Again.” Dave turned away, and Locke added, “Say, if you ever wanted to come see the hives, you’re welcome.”

Dave paused. Locke was straight, so it was an offer of friendship, nothing more. That threw him more than a pickup line. He was out of practice at making friends. There were people he was friendly with, coworkers at the bar, like Helen and Shelly, but he was pretty solitary these days.

“I’d like that. Bees don’t bother me. I mean, I’m not allergic to their stings.”

“They’re quiet in winter, but they don’t sting friends.”

The idea of bees as friends rubbed it in how few human friends he had, but Dave pushed the thought away firmly. Self-pity wasn’t as physically dangerous a drug as the ones Travis took, but it was addictive and destructive all the same. He was healthy, debt-free, and in a job he loved. Whining over his lack of a social life was asking for karma to retaliate even if he kept his regrets to himself. He worked in a bar with a mostly gay clientele, and there was nothing to stop him from hanging around before or after a shift and meeting someone his age. Nothing but habit telling him flirting was off-limits because he was in a relationship.

Travis had moved on. Dave had seen him in the distance a few times over the past year, once arguing animatedly with a tall, dark-haired man, then breaking out into laughter, head thrown back. He knew those mood swings and how amusement could turn to arousal, followed by a cold withdrawal as if Travis was punishing his lover for wanting him. He’d learned to anticipate, distract, and it wasn’t until weeks after Travis’s departure that he’d realized how stressed-out he’d been. The knowledge that he’d shaped his life around appeasing his lover instead of standing up for himself had poisoned the peace brought by Travis’s absence.

“Come out any day that suits you.” Locke tilted his head, studying Dave with a gaze direct enough to be unnerving. “Come soon. The bees can help you. There’s something calming about them.”

“You think I need to calm down?” Dave chuckled. “I work at a bar, but I don’t remember the last time I had a drink or went out. Most people would say I needed livening up.”

“Most people would be wrong.” The certainty in Locke’s voice was a dismissal, and the arrival of a mother with a double stroller and two screaming toddlers made fading away simple.

Dave stopped at the grocery store on his way to the bar. They had most of their supplies delivered, but somehow they were always running low on something or other, and a quick check online suggested some apple cider would go nicely in the pumpkin soup. The bar had hard cider on tap, but filling a jug and carrying it back to the kitchen with the risk of spilling didn’t appeal. He was usually the first person in the building, but today Helen had beaten him to it and was already unloading last night’s final load from the dishwasher.

“You’re early,” Dave commented, setting the plastic shopping bags down.

“Good morning to you too.” It was a running joke between them, that everyone else’s afternoon was their morning. “Farmer’s market?”

“Where else?”

“Don’t they close for the winter?”

Dave put the extra bacon he’d bought along with the cider into the fridge. “Nope, they’re open pretty much year-round. It’s down to bare bones even now, though.” He watched Helen stack the last of the plates, then said, “I bought pumpkins. Help me bring them in from the car?”

In the small parking lot behind the building, Dave realized another reason why Helen’s presence had been a surprise.

“No car today.”

“It’s in the shop. I got a ride.” Helen held her arms out, and Dave handed her two of the pumpkins. “Hey, come on. I can carry more than that.”

“You’re so butch.” It was the closest he’d come to teasing her. She had a great sense of humor that didn’t extend to her personal life, and a talent for shutting down anything that crossed the line. He gave her a third pumpkin all the same.

Following her back into the building, he considered what a private person she was. It was why they got along so well. He had almost no clue what Helen’s life was like outside of work, and she never asked any questions about his. The closest they’d come to intimate conversation had been a few gentle pats on his shoulder the day he’d had a desperate, broken phone call from Travis, when even casual words had been more than his shaky voice could manage and his misery had been written all over him.

Customers sometimes spilled personal details along with their drinks, treating the person behind the bar as a confidante if the place was quiet enough to allow for conversation. Dave wondered what he would say, perched on a bar stool, alcohol loosening his inhibitions. To Patrick and Vin, in their twenties, probably very little. They were nice young men, but their confidence would have discouraged him. Vin engrossed in his new relationship with Riley, his high school crush, Patrick squeezing every drop of enjoyment he could out of each moment—they couldn’t imagine failing at anything.

Shane and Ben were closer to his age but insulated by happiness. Dave couldn’t reach them. No, if he wanted to share, he’d look outside the bar. He worked with these people. They didn’t need to realize how fragile he was, how slow to heal. He was reliable Dave, quiet, efficient, tucked away in the kitchen, and that was how he liked it.

“Halloween is over,” Shane said half an hour later, walking into the kitchen and heading for the coffeemaker. “Why are you elbow-deep in pumpkin guts?”

“Soup.” Dave scooped out more of the stringy innards. “And other stuff.”

Shane snorted. “Those things aren’t meant to be eaten. Waste of time, if you ask me. Make something simple. Chicken nuggets and fries. Salty food, so it gets people drinking more.”

Behind Shane’s back, Helen rolled her eyes, grinning. They’d heard this speech from Shane before. It’d been a while since Dave bothered to defend himself. The profits from the bar food did that for him, and if Shane got too carried away, Ben would rein him in with a reminder of how many people came to the Peg specifically for the food.

“They can get beer anywhere,” Helen said, taking Ben’s lines since he wasn’t in the room. “For Dave’s food they have to come here. So stop putting him off before he slices his finger and you’re the one in here chopping onions all day.”

“Bunch of ingrates I’ve got working for me,” Shane grumbled.

“We know you love us,” Dave said, more for Helen’s benefit than Shane’s. He knew it would shut Shane up, and sure enough, the man poured his coffee—two cups, Dave noted, because for all his gruffness, Shane doted on Ben in lots of ways—and walked off again without comment.

“You deserve a medal,” Helen said once he’d left.

“For knowing how to handle him?” Dave shrugged. “I’ve been here awhile, that’s all. He’s easier to deal with since Ben came on the scene.” He moved to the sink to wash the pumpkin off his hands.

“I find that hard to believe.”

Dave glanced at her. She was at the stove frying bacon on the double-burner griddle. “It’s true. Love makes people soft.”

“Isn’t that meant to be a good thing?”

Drying his hand on a towel, he nodded. “It is for us. I’m pretty sure Patrick wouldn’t have a job anymore if it weren’t for Ben.”

“Patrick.” Helen sucked in air, shaking her head slowly so the fall of hair on the left side of her head swung gently. She’d shaved the right side, an extreme look, but it suited her. “That boy is a sweetheart, but he doesn’t have a clue. I don’t know if I want to hug him or smack him sometimes. Maybe both.”

“He’s popular with the customers.”

Helen wrinkled her nose, the tiny emerald stud in it glinting. “And that’s ninety percent of the problem. He’s popular with everyone. Sometimes two everyones at a time, if you buy his stories. He needs to slow down before he burns out.” A desolate expression flashed across her face, robbing it of its usual warmth and animation. “Not that I’m in any position to give relationship advice.”

There were two wedding bands on her left hand. Dave didn’t know if they stood for two failed marriages and wasn’t about to ask. One might belong to her mother, he supposed, but the implications of that weren’t happy either. He gave her what he hoped came over as a sympathetic look but didn’t say anything. If she wanted him to know, she’d tell him.

Predictably, she didn’t, instead going back to flipping slices of bacon one at a time. If it had been Dave, he’d have flipped them three or four at a time with a spatula, but he’d learned years back not to criticize anyone’s technique in the kitchen as long as it got the job done. Soon enough, the somewhat awkward silence shifted into the comfortable working one they often shared, and by the time Patrick came in for his shift, the soup was bubbling on the stove and Helen and Dave were talking about the tomatoes Dave had failed to grow a few summers ago.

“And the woodchucks ate all of them?”

“Oh no.” Dave could be cheerful about it now, even though at the time he’d been furious. “They ate the ripe ones. No interest in the green ones at all.”

“That’s a Southern thing. Fried green tomatoes.”

Dave shook his head. “Didn’t think of it in time, and as soon as a tomato turned the slightest bit red, it was gone.”

“Poison,” Helen said, and something about her saying it in her British accent made Dave laugh.

“You two are having fun!” Patrick announced from the doorway, hands on his hips. “Don’t let Shane overhear, or he’ll fire you both on the spot.”

“He’s not likely to do that when you’re around to draw his fire.” Helen sounded sharper than usual. “And he has a sense of humor.”

“Brits sticking together.” Patrick nodded. “I get it. God save the Queen, or this particular queen, at least.” He sketched a curtsy, pulling it off even in skintight black jeans.

“Brat.” Helen slid the bacon onto a plate covered with a paper towel to soak up the grease. “If you’re here to give us an order, get on with it.”

Patrick rattled off four orders, reading from his notebook, then tore off the page and clipped it to the wire in sight of Dave’s work space. “Getting busy out there.”

“Then you’d better get back to work.” Dave said it mildly because it wasn’t his job to give anyone but Helen orders, and she didn’t need them.

With a wink, Patrick saluted him, clicking his heels smartly. “Yes, sir!”

“Brat doesn’t seem strong enough,” Dave said wryly when Patrick had gone. “He’s acting out. Something’s bothering him.”

“If it was, we’d know about it.” Helen scrunched the bacon inside a clean piece of paper towel. “Remember when he thought a zit was a cancerous mole? Or the time a guy dumped him on Valentine’s Day and he went into the gents and set fire to the card he’d bought the guy, triggering the smoke alarm?”

“True, but that was Patrick being Patrick. These days it’s as if he’s forgotten how to be him and he’s overcompensating.”

“If you’re trying to tell me he’s a shape-shifting alien, can I point out no self-respecting invader would walk around planet Earth wearing a T-shirt that says, Bite Me. No, really. Please.

“Give him a break,” Ben said, coming into the kitchen with one of the coffee cups Shane had left with a while before, obviously intent on getting himself a refill. “He’s not a bad kid.”

That seemed to bring Helen up short. “We didn’t mean it like that.”

“No?” Ben wrinkled his nose. He wasn’t Dave’s type, but there were moments he came off as cute. “No, I know you didn’t. He might not, though. He’s more sensitive than he lets on.”

“Patrick? Sensitive?” Helen sounded doubtful. It could be because she was dropping baskets of French fries and chicken fingers into hot oil, Dave supposed.

“Because he’s young and adorable doesn’t mean his life is perfect,” Ben pointed out. “Ease up, will you? Shane gives him a hard enough time for all of us put together.”

Helen snorted. “True.”

Dave waited until Ben had left before saying, “See, what did I tell you? Something’s going on. I’m going to figure out what it is, mark my words.”

Of course, first, he’d better fill those orders, or he would be the one on Shane’s shit list, and that was never a good place to be.

Chapter Two

January

The wind drove tiny hailstones directly into Dave’s face, scouring skin raw and making him squint when he checked for traffic. This late at night, the only window lit in the block of condos was his. He always left a lamp burning because he hated walking into a dark room. The block held four apartments, two on each floor, compact but more than large enough for a single man. He’d moved there after Travis walked out, selling the fixer-upper only he’d ever put any effort into working on. Travis had slapped a coat of paint on a wall or two, then lost interest. Maybe if Dave had put the house in both their names, it would’ve made a difference, but it’d belonged to his grandmother and something had stopped him from taking that step. After the first year, Travis had abandoned even the pretense of paying rent, compensating by taking Dave out to overpriced restaurants or buying him expensive, useless gifts.

Mr. and Mrs. Seldon on the ground floor would be in bed, and their neighbor, Phil, a brash salesman who had a handshake firm enough to leave Dave’s fingers numb, was away on business. The man who lived next door to Dave was new. He’d moved in the week before and hadn’t gotten around to introducing himself. Dave had seen him walking down the stairs and formed a vague impression of height without bulk and a shock of straw-colored hair. A scarecrow, but one dressed in a long black coat that even fashion-blind Dave knew was cashmere.

He hurried across the road, head down, intent on reaching the haven of the lobby. Snow buried the curb, but he’d dug out a path earlier that week, braving the latest January storm, and he aimed for the gap in the wall of plowed snow.

Almost there. He could soak in a hot bath, treat himself to a splash of brandy in a cup of cocoa. Burrow down under his comforter and listen to the wind without its sting against his skin. Heaven after the long shift.

A car horn blasted nearby. He jerked his head around, blinking against the eye-watering flurries. Black SUV, lights on full beam. Jesus, it was right on top of him and swerving erratically, the driver going insanely fast on the icy roads. Spurred on by the imminent danger, he leaped forward, his goal no longer warmth, but safety.

The moment’s relief he felt at reaching the curb was fleeting; his heel came down solidly enough, but ice coated the cement and his forward momentum threw him off balance. He pinwheeled his arms frantically, trying to recover, and failed. His left ankle twisted in one direction, and the rest of him went the other. The next thing he knew, he was down on the ground without knowing how he’d gotten there.

It hurt so much he couldn’t do anything but sit there, wet soaking into his slacks, the combination of bitter cold and nauseating pain more than he could bear. After a minute or so, he remembered the SUV, but it was quiet now except for the bouncing of the hail. The guy had almost run him over, then left him. If he hadn’t been so overwhelmed with the pain, Dave would have been indignant, even pissed off, but he didn’t have the energy or focus for anything except praying that the agony would ease and he could get up off the sidewalk before he froze to death.

Tentatively, he placed one hand down against the ground and tried to shift his weight. The fresh bolt of pain that went from the sole of his foot to above his knee disabused him of the notion that he could get up unaided. He fumbled to get his phone out of his pocket, then heard someone ask, “Hey, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I always sit on the ground in the middle of snowstorms,” Dave growled. It was hard not to be an asshole under the circumstances, though he’d regret it later.

He looked up to see his new neighbor standing over him. The man had a gorgeous, probably designer scarf wrapped around his neck and held a paper bag twisted around a bottle. “What happened?”

“Some idiot almost ran me over, and I fell.”

His neighbor bit his lip uncertainly. “Can you get up?”

“No.” Dave was all out of snark. “And I can’t get my phone out of my pocket.”

The man tucked the bottle under his arm and dug his phone out of his overcoat. “We could use mine?”

“That might work,” Dave agreed. His rescuer wasn’t winning prizes for initiative or problem solving, but he’d said we, not you, and that got him points. Dave tried to make out the man’s features, but craning his neck hurt. Hell, breathing hurt. Younger than him, the thick fair hair disheveled by the hailstorm. Not a scarecrow tonight, but a dandelion gone to seed.

“You can’t stay down there. You’ll freeze. But moving you is a bad idea too.” The man shook his head, frustration roughening his voice. “I suck at real life. Too many variables.”

That was one way of putting it. Dave pushed aside the shakiness twisting his stomach into knots and projected calm certainty. “I’ve sprained my ankle, maybe broken it. I didn’t hurt my back, and I didn’t bang my head. If you can get me to the bench over there, that would be great. You can call 911 and get me an ambulance.”

“Or I could get my car and take you to the hospital myself. That would be faster.” The man nodded, eagerness replacing hesitancy. “And we need ice. Ice is good for sprains. There’s this acronym. RICE. It stands for—”

Biting back a pitiful whimper, Dave said, “I know what it stands for. The bench. Please—uh, what’s your name?”

“Jeremy Reed.”

“Jeremy. Great. I’m Dave Adams. The bench? Please?”

“Okay. Take it easy. Don’t put any weight on it if you can help it.” Jeremy was trying hard to be helpful, but Dave wanted to snap at him to stop talking and concentrate. Hopping on one foot still hurt like hell, and he was terrified he’d slip and sprain the other ankle. “Easy. Okay, good.” Jeremy straightened, now that Dave was sitting on the bench, and looked over his shoulder. “So do you want ice? Should I call the ambulance? Or do you want me to bring my car over?”

“I’ll pass on the ice.” Dave gritted his teeth, then tried to force himself to relax. “It’s cold enough out here.”

“It’ll take a minute to get my car. Stay here.”

As if he had any choice in the matter. Dave cupped his hands in front of his mouth and blew into them to warm them. This was great. Not only was he supposed to work tomorrow night, but now his new neighbor would despise him for being a klutz, and a klutz who begged for help at that. He wouldn’t even think about the medical bills; he had insurance, so they wouldn’t destroy him, thank God.

Jeremy was quick to bring the car around, and careful to position it so it was a straight shot from the bench to the passenger seat. That didn’t make it any easier to hop over there, even with Jeremy’s shoulder to lean on.

“I’ll turn the heat up. Fasten your seat belt. It would suck if we slid off the road and you ended up needing the emergency room for more than one injury.” Jeremy grinned at him, showing the first hint of a sense of humor, and pulled away cautiously. “You live across the hall, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Have you lived here long?”

“About a year and a half. It’s good. The downstairs neighbors are nice. You’ll like it.”

“The last place I lived was a nightmare,” Jeremy said. “Bigger building, lots more neighbors, and most of them were college students or recent graduates. It was a round-the-clock frat party.”

“You like a quiet life, huh?” Concentrating on the conversation was a distraction from the pain.

Jeremy tapped his index finger against the wheel. No gloves. No hat. Just the scarf. Long fingers, the nails trimmed, not bitten. Dave focused on Jeremy’s hand, because watching the whirl of snowflakes that’d replaced the hail did nothing to settle his stomach. “Interesting question.” It was? It’d seemed like the most banal collection of words possible. “I like noise when I’m making it. When I can turn it up or down or off. I work best at night, so they weren’t keeping me awake, but they were distracting.”

“Were you planning to work tonight? I’m sorry for imposing like this.”

The tapping stopped. “I chose to help you. Offered to drive you. That’s not an imposition. I could’ve called 911 and left you on the bench.” Jeremy straightened in his seat. “I did okay, didn’t I? Didn’t panic. Much. I mean, at first I thought you were drunk. That worried me because you freeze faster when you’re drunk. Weird, because alcohol doesn’t freeze.”

“It lowers your core temperature. So you drink it and warm up for a moment or two, but it’s not helping.” Dave wondered if Jeremy always rambled like this when talking to someone he didn’t know, or if maybe, like he’d said, it was due to panic.

“Yeah. Want to know something funny? I had a bottle of brandy in the bag.”

“Why is that— Oh! Like a Saint Bernard dog in the Alps?”

“Mm. It’s cooking brandy, but I don’t suppose they give the dogs the good stuff. I saw this recipe on TV I wanted to try, and I had everything but the brandy. And the peppercorns. Oh, and the shallots, but I decided onions would be close enough.”

“Right.” Any other time, Dave would’ve explained that shallots and onions weren’t as interchangeable as most people thought, but it was too much effort. His ankle throbbed even when he wasn’t moving it, the pain shooting into the red with the smallest shift of his foot.

“Is talking helping?” Jeremy gave him a worried look. “I mean, is it distracting in a good way? Or is it making it worse?”

“It’s good. What do you do for work, that you do it at night instead of the daytime, and at home?”

“I build computers. You must have seen all the deliveries I get? Boxes upon boxes, even though I buy some stuff through a wholesale place that’s semilocal.”

“No, I work a weird combination of late first and second shift.” It wasn’t the most accurate way to describe his work hours, but Dave had found it made sense to people. “Usually not around when the mail is delivered.”

It was as if Jeremy hadn’t heard him or was determined to share every detail about his packages, because he added, “And a lot of it I have to sign for, because it’s valuable.” Jeremy frowned and slowed down, peering out the windshield at the falling snow. “Damn, I missed the turn. I should have plugged in the GPS, but it’s in the glove compartment and I always think I’ll figure it out.”

“No, you’re okay. Take the next left.” Dave decided that Jeremy wasn’t really weird, just a little awkward. Spending most of his time alone wouldn’t help.

“Do you visit the emergency room often?” Jeremy asked with a raised eyebrow.

Dave shook his head. “No, but I’ve lived here for a while. In the area, I mean. Are you new to town?”

“No. Guess I’ve been lucky with my health. Oh, there’s the sign.” Jeremy drove carefully, which Dave appreciated under the circumstances.

Once inside the grounds, Jeremy drove up to the emergency entrance and, with a blithe disregard for signs telling him not to linger, helped Dave out and into the reception area, less crowded than Dave had feared. There were wheelchairs there, battered but serviceable, and Dave sank into one with a small sigh of relief. “Thanks. So much.”

“You look awful. Maybe it’s the lights in here.”

His jeans were soaked, the discomfort of cold, clammy denim against his legs and ass making itself known now that he was inside. It’d been a long night. Patrick had sulked because he’d wanted to flirt with Vin, so Shane had put them on opposite shifts. Then a late order from a group of six had come in near closing. Awful probably didn’t come close to describing it. Jeremy, on the other hand, was as delectable as a chocolate-dipped strawberry, all high cheekbones and lush lips, with thick dark lashes around deep blue eyes. His nose had a bump in it that saved him from perfection, and he seemed unaware of the admiring glances from the woman behind the reception desk, but he was still too damn pretty for a man who must be in his midtwenties.

“No, I can safely say it’s me. I can handle it from here. You’d better go before they tow your car. And thanks again. I owe you.”

“Are you kidding? What kind of an asshole do you think I am?” Jeremy seemed genuinely affronted. “I’m not leaving you here on your own. You’re right about the car, though. I’d better move it. I’ll be right back.”

He returned while Dave was still waiting for his assessment, which he assumed would include X-rays. Jeremy came in, brushing snow away. Instead of his damp hair making him seem mussed or unkempt, he ended up looking more like a fashion model. He built computers? The man was a riddle.

“Okay, what can I get for you? Do you want a coffee? A bottle of water?” Jeremy glanced around the waiting area. “A four-year-old magazine?”

Dave snorted despite himself, which made him wince. “I’m fine. Sit down and keep me company, if you’re insistent on playing the hero.”

“You’re lucky I’m so mellow,” Jeremy told him, sitting in the nearest chair. “You aren’t the easiest guy to get along with, you know.”

“I actually am. You’re not seeing me at my best.”

“Appearance or attitude?”

“Both, but don’t get the idea I clean up much better than this. I’d hate to get your hopes up.”

Jeremy gazed at him thoughtfully, his attention focused but impersonal. “You have good bone structure, and I like the color of your eyes. They’re not washed-out like most people’s so you can’t tell if they’re blue or gray or whatever. Yours are dark gray. It’s different.”

Dave scratched the back of his head, ruffling damp hair that matched his eyes, though he hoped Jeremy didn’t mention it. “Thanks. I think.”

“I’m sorry.” Jeremy smacked the side of his head lightly. “Bad me. It’s from working alone all day. I say what comes into my head, and usually the only person listening is my cat, and he doesn’t tell me to back off. You can. I won’t mind.”

“I’m not that rude. And I shouldn’t be fussy about compliments. They don’t come my way often.” Dave heard the words and rolled his eyes. “And that sounded pathetic. Ignore me. My ankle’s broken, not my self-esteem.”

“Do you think it is? Broken, not sprained?”

“I heard it crack.” The sound played back in his head, definite, uncompromising, though at the time, it’d been less of a sound than a sensation. “They say it’s better to break it. Heals faster and cleaner.”

Jeremy grimaced. “Nothing about it sounds better to me. I’ve never broken anything, and I prefer to keep it that way.”

A nurse came to collect him, cutting short the conversation. “Well, thanks,” Dave said when the nurse turned his wheelchair. “I appreciate the help.”

“No problem. I’ll hang around for a while.”

“Because hospitals are so much fun?” Dave knew he was being difficult, and he was self-aware enough to know why, but somehow he couldn’t stop himself.

“Are you kidding? I love a good gift shop.” Jeremy waved as if Dave were setting sail on an ocean voyage, not traveling a short distance to a cubicle. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” It sounded grumpy even to him.

It wasn’t luck that Dave ended up needing, but time, because everything took five times longer than necessary. First there were all the preliminaries such as his medical history and taking his blood pressure.

“A little high,” the nurse commented.

Dave manfully refrained from pointing out that was hardly surprising under the circumstances. Next was a series of X-rays proving his ankle was, indeed, broken. More waiting was followed by the application of a cast and a lesson in how to use crutches. By three a.m. Dave was convinced Jeremy was long gone, not that he’d blame him.

He had the number of a cab service on his contact list. All the Square Peg employees did, with orders to call one for any customer too drunk to drive. Dave didn’t often serve behind the bar these days, but the number was still there. Balancing on his right foot, the crutches tucked under his left arm, he leaned against a wall and took out his phone. Holding it in one hand, he struck the screen with a finger and brought the precarious house of cards down with a single tap. The crutches clattered to the floor, his shoulder slid on the smooth wall, and he fell again, helpless, clumsy.

“Got you,” Jeremy said with annoying cheerfulness, grabbing Dave around the waist and hoisting him up. Being treated as if he were a cross between a toddler and a sack of potatoes was bad enough, but Jeremy’s enthusiasm jarred Dave’s body from head to foot. Only his ankle was broken, but the rest of him had picked up an assortment of bruises in the fall too.

The man had waited hours to give him a ride home. Saved him from sprawling flat for a second time. He should be thinking about ways to say thank you, and instead he wanted to bat Jeremy away, acting like he was a buzzing fly that wouldn’t shoo.

“What is wrong with you?” he snapped. “Are you a martyr or something?”

“Not that I know of. Guess I’m a sucker for gray eyes.” Jeremy propped Dave back against the wall, more gently now. “You must be exhausted.”

“Yeah.” Unexpectedly, Dave felt his throat go thick with emotion. He swallowed past it and blinked a few times, overwhelmed.

“Okay. Who were you getting ready to call? A friend?”

“A cab.”

“You can put that away, then.” With one hand on Dave to steady him, Jeremy bent and retrieved the fallen crutch. “Can I trust you to hang out here while I get the car?”

Dave nodded. Jeremy studied him as if trying to decide whether to believe him, then turned and left. Raising a hand to his face, Dave silently berated himself for being an asshole. The pain was no excuse, or at least not a good one. This had to stop. By the time Jeremy came back through the automated doors, Dave had managed to plaster a smile on his face.

Jeremy faltered when he saw him. “Um.”

“What?” Belatedly, Dave realized his smile was more of a fixed grimace. “It hurts,” he said without stretching the truth too far and added a groan.

“I could get the wheelchair again. Aren’t you supposed to be in one anyway? I thought they always made you ride around until you were officially discharged.”

“It’s possible I sneaked out when they weren’t looking,” Dave admitted. “No, honestly, I want to get home, into bed, and pass out.”

“You’ll wake up eventually.” Jeremy stepped backward, watching him without touching. “Is there someone who can take care of you? I assume you don’t live with anyone, or you’d have asked me to get them.”

Dave hopped toward the exit, wary of damp patches on the floor from tracked-in snow. “I’ll call my employers in the morning and let them know what happened. Someone will come by and make sure I’m not starving to death. We’re a pretty friendly bunch.”

“Where is it you work?” Jeremy held open the door, still keeping a careful distance. “It sounds nice.”

The door swung closed, and Dave watched his breath cloud the air. The storm had passed by, and the world was still and white, crackling with cold. “I’m the chef at a local bar. The Square Peg.”

“I’ve driven past it. Never been in. What kind of crowd do you get?”

“My crowd. Gay,” Dave said bluntly, and for the first time, he studied Jeremy’s face. He wanted to see Jeremy’s reaction as it happened. If the guy was a homophobe, this was when he’d find out, and even though it would be disappointing, it was important to know.

Jeremy’s expression didn’t change. “Cool.”

“Is it?”

“Did you see me calling you a fag and pushing you down in the snow? I’m not an asshole.”

“No, you’re not,” Dave told him. “But it’s hard to know how people are going to react sometimes. Sorry.”

After a moment, Jeremy nodded. “It’s smarter to be cautious. You want to know if there’s a bigot living across the hall.” He grinned. It took ten years off him, not that he needed it. “Now can I help you to the car without you thinking I’m making a pass at you?”

“Do people even say that anymore?” Dave asked when Jeremy, not waiting for his answer, got him moving across the sidewalk.

“What, making a pass? Apparently they do. Or I do.” Jeremy opened the passenger door and took the crutches so Dave could lower himself painfully onto the seat. “Careful. Do you like it? Being a chef, I mean, not having a broken ankle. We can safely assume that part’s no fun.”

“Yes, I do. I’ve done other jobs, but this is the first to make me happy.” Sitting in the car a second time around, without shock and pain blinding him to details, he absorbed the tidiness. No receipts jammed into the cup holders, no layer of dust and grit over the dashboard. The mat his feet were on was wet with snow, yes, but not crusted white with dried salt from the roads. The car smelled clean without the use of an air freshener. He hated the chemical pine smell most of them had. It reminded him of the Square Peg toilets in the time before Ben took over, when the cheapest cleaners had been used. “Is this car new?”

“No.” The questioning inflexion showed Jeremy’s surprise. “It’s seven years old. I bought it about three years ago after some jerk ran into my old car in the supermarket parking lot and did so much damage to the front end it wasn’t worth repairing it.”

“Seems like we’ve both suffered from bad driving. Were you hurt?”

“Oh, I wasn’t in it. I came out with a cart of groceries, happy about the two-for-one deal on cat litter. Then I saw my car and this huge SUV doing a mating dance. It took two hours to separate them. I called the other driver a jerk because he spent the whole time whining about how it wasn’t his fault while my ice cream melted and my boneless, skinless chicken breasts turned into a haven for salmonella.”

“That’s not much loss,” Dave said. “Bone-in taste better.”

The abrupt silence from Jeremy told him he’d screwed up. When Jeremy spoke again, it was in a voice so carefully neutral it made him wince. “The point is, he didn’t apologize. I don’t like people who won’t admit they’ve done something wrong.”

Dave couldn’t help but think this was a deliberate message not about Jeremy’s past, but about their mutual present. Not that they had a mutual present. He couldn’t deny that it would be nice to have a friend across the hall. Or even a friend at all, outside of work. “What about complete screwups?”

“What do you mean?”

“Come on. You know. Like me. If I had to apologize for everything I’ve said wrong since we met, I’d have less time to say wrong things.” Okay, that sounded stupid, which he guessed meant it was another wrong thing to add to the list. “I’m not usually like this, I swear.”

Jeremy seemed focused on driving, but after a minute, he said, “I believe you. It’s been a crazy night.”

“You aren’t seeing me at my best. I’m sorry.” Dave sighed. “Really sorry.”

“It’s okay. Let’s forget about it. We’ll start fresh when you’re better.” Jeremy sounded sincere enough, but Dave didn’t believe absolution should be that easily granted.

“You’ve been nothing but kind. A modern-day Good Samaritan. And me, I’ve been an asshole. In pain doesn’t mean I get a pass on basic manners.” He blew out a long breath, surprised by his strong desire to atone for his ingratitude. “When I’m up on my feet again, how about I cook you a meal? Whatever you want. Or I can surprise you. I could buy you a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer, but I’d like to say thanks in a way that involves more effort.”

“I’d like that.” Jeremy shot him a sidelong glance. “Not so much the free meal, though I can’t imagine you not making something delicious, but getting to know one of my neighbors. Who knows when I’ll need to borrow a cup of sugar?”

Dave grinned. “White, brown, demerara, turbinado, powdered, or muscovado?”

“Are you serious?” Jeremy grinned. “You are. You’re serious. You have all those in your kitchen?”

“Well, probably not the powdered,” he admitted. “I’m pretty sure I used that up when I made a Christmas cake for one of my bosses, and I haven’t replaced it yet.”

“Is that like a birthday cake, but for Christmas?” Jeremy asked.

“No, it’s a British thing. It’s fruitcake, soaked in rum or brandy, and it has a thick layer of white icing on it, over a layer of marzipan. You’re supposed to decorate it with, I don’t know, fondant holly leaves and berries or something, but it was either skip that part or miss the work party altogether.” He’d been almost an hour late, but the pleasure on Shane’s face, and the grateful squeeze Ben had given his shoulder later, had been worth the trouble.

“Let me guess. You have a collection of Martha Stewart cookbooks.”

Dave snorted. “I’m not that gay. No Martha Stewart. I did take one of her magazines out of the library a few years back, if I’m being honest.”

“I promise not to tell.” Jeremy gripped the steering wheel tighter; Dave saw the skin over his knuckles go pale. “So, you’re gay? Not just working at a gay bar?”

“Yeah. We all are.” Helen had never said either way, now that he thought about it. To forestall a potential discussion on the merits or drawbacks of positive discrimination, he added, “Not that Shane and Ben wouldn’t employ someone straight if they were right for the job.”

“They’re the owners?”

He nodded, tiredness settling over him like a thick, smothering blanket. “If I fall asleep, poke me.”

“I can’t carry you upstairs or even into the emergency elevator—assuming it works—so you can count on it.”

In the end, he managed to get to his front door with minimal assistance, the two of them making as little noise as possible to avoid disturbing the other tenants when they struggled their way up the stairs.

“You’ll be okay?” Jeremy asked.

Dave held out his hand, unable to extend it far without dislodging the crutch. “I’ve got it. And thanks again.”

Jeremy shook his hand, the briefest of touches. “Anytime.”

“I’d prefer never again when it comes to the broken-bones part.”

“Understandable.” Jeremy yawned widely, covering his mouth, then turned away. “If you need anything, you’ve got my number. I’m always around.” They’d exchanged contact details before leaving the car. Jeremy’s idea, not Dave’s.

Dave waited until Jeremy had closed his door before releasing a relieved sigh. Nice guy. Sweet. And as persistent in his offers of assistance as a puppy who wanted to play. “Maybe he’s working on a merit badge,” he muttered, fumbling for his key.

As if the universe wanted to punish him for being sarcastic, the key ring slipped through his fingers to the floor, out of reach without acrobatics. He eyed it, then Jeremy’s door, and sighed again before hopping across the hallway.

Chapter Three

Jeremy turned his dead bolt and kicked off his damp shoes, then realized he’d left his bottle of brandy in the car. He stood there debating whether he should go back for it when someone knocked at his door. Stepping forward meant his sock landed in a bit of melting snow, so he was scowling when Dave, balanced on crutches in the entryway between their apartments, caught sight of him.

“Sorry,” Dave said.

“No,” Jeremy said quickly. “I stepped in snow. What’s up?” He noticed the keys lying on the floor behind Dave. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Not so much okay on my own, as it turns out. If you pick those up for me, I promise I won’t bother you again for at least twenty-four hours.”

Jeremy snorted. “Give me one second to put my slippers on so you won’t have to look at me making that face again.” When he turned back around after having done so, Dave eyed his Cookie Monster slippers with amusement. “They were a gift from my sister.”

“Is she ten years younger than you?” Dave asked, which was a fair question.

“Twelve, actually. She was one of those surprise, late-in-life babies.” Jeremy had been horrified as a young teen to learn his mother was pregnant—he preferred to pretend his parents never had sex—but by the time Allison was born, he’d come around to the idea.

He opened Dave’s front door for him and, without waiting for an invitation, stepped inside and left the keys on a small table, making space for them among the clutter. Dave seemed to be in the habit of dumping the contents of his pockets on the table when he walked in, then forgetting to move the items to their correct places. Jeremy didn’t understand that form of laziness, but he held back from neatening a stack of junk mail. People didn’t like being tidied up. He’d discovered that truth early on in life.

“Good night. Oh.” Dave’s frown was hard to miss, his exasperation impossible to mistake for physical discomfort. And that meant Jeremy had screwed up again.

He mentally retraced his actions since the knock on his door, searching for his error. It didn’t take long. “Sorry for barging in like that.”

Dave lost the frown, but there was an all-too-familiar stiffness about his nod when he murmured a polite dismissal of Jeremy’s apology.

It wasn’t ignorance or rudeness. Jeremy knew the rules, all of them, but when he concentrated on a task, in this case getting a visibly exhausted Dave inside quickly, he tended to push that knowledge to the back of his head. It was a matter of priorities. If he’d gone through the rigmarole of asking for permission to cross the threshold, or waited for Dave to issue an invitation, the end result would’ve been the same, so why waste time?

Right then, it was probably best to attend to the practical, even if it was what had gotten him into trouble in the first place. “What can I do? Where do you want to get settled?”

“I want to go to bed,” Dave said. “After brushing my teeth.”

“Do you want me to hang around? You can call me if you need anything, but only if you want to leave your front door unlocked, and I don’t recommend that. On general principle, not because anything’s wrong with this neighborhood.”

“I don’t know,” Dave grumbled. “Apparently it’s full of drivers who enjoy running people down.” He hitched himself over to the couch and leaned against it while he took off his coat. “I’m so tired I don’t have the energy to argue. If you don’t mind sticking around for another ten minutes, that would be great.”

It was awkward, but Jeremy stayed while Dave made his way into the bathroom, did whatever, then came back out and leaned against the door frame.

“You’re officially off duty. Thank you. I mean it.”

The overhead light wasn’t kind, and Dave’s face was grubby with fatigue, his pallor highlighting the drag of shadows under his puffy eyes. It was close to four in the morning. Even for Jeremy, it was late, and he was used to working past two.

It didn’t matter. He couldn’t stop staring, hungry for details to store in his memory.

He’s a…what is it? Oh yeah. A silver fox. Except it’s more of a gray wolf with that hair and those eyes. Sexy. Thin face. Sad when he’s not trying to hide it. God, his hands. Strong hands. He does stuff with them. I like that. And he gets angry fast, but maybe that’s because he’s hurting. He said he’s sorry. And he wants to cook for me. Didn’t sound like a version of I want to fuck you. And maybe he doesn’t. I didn’t tell him, so… He’s probably with someone. No one but him here, but that doesn’t mean much. He works at a gay bar. Lots of men there to choose from, even if he is in the kitchen most of the time. Got to stop staring at his hands. Get out of here. Let him sleep.

“I’m going to bed now.” Dave glanced at the door of his apartment, less of a hint than an order. “Try not to bang the door. It wakes up Mrs. Seldon, and she’ll complain. Trust me, you’ll be hearing about it for weeks.”

“Okay. Right.” Jeremy’s internal musings had thrown him off balance, and he struggled to find his way back to a place where he didn’t end up sounding like an idiot. “Check in with me when you get up. You know, if you need anything or whatever.”

“Thanks.” Dave waited a moment, then turned away, presumably to go to his bedroom in the apartment that seemed to be a mirror image of Jeremy’s place, and Jeremy made himself leave.

He was careful not to let the door slam on his way out. When he went back into his place, he caught Blitz sniffing his discarded, wet shoes. The cat went wide-eyed at his reappearance and ran off down the hallway.

“At least you don’t weigh much,” Jeremy said. “Wouldn’t want to wake up Mrs. Seldon.” Not that he had any idea whether Mrs. Seldon lived on the first-floor apartment underneath Dave’s or his. It might not matter, if the building was constructed so that sound carried, though Jeremy hadn’t noticed any noise from any of the other apartments, even Dave’s.

Blitz came back and rubbed against his legs, glancing up at him hopefully.

“You have food,” Jeremy told him. “I can see it from here.”

Yielding to a plaintive chirp that was Blitz’s version of a meow, he shook out a few treats, then got ready for bed. He’d left the brandy in the car and missed a deadline, but he didn’t care.

He’d met someone who stirred him emotionally as well as physically. Someone who didn’t seem at all into him, granted, and potentially unavailable, yes, but still. Even so. He’d spent years knowing he was attracted to men as well as women, but beyond some kissing and fumbled caresses at student parties, he’d never acted on that desire with a man. Women, yes. He’d had his share of girlfriends, and the sex had been satisfying for him and his partner, but whenever he met a man he liked, the obstacles piled up faster than leaves in the fall.

He had no illusions about his looks, but no vanity either. In the mirror, he didn’t see a version of his ideal man. He liked his men older, a tough, weathered strength to them. Men who knew what they were doing and weren’t in a rush to move on to the next available ass to fuck.

If he’d wanted one-night stands, he could’ve had company in his bed every day of the week, but he didn’t.

Jesus, it was well past his bedtime, but he knew he wasn’t going to be able to sleep anytime soon. There was one solution for that, and tonight it wasn’t masturbation, but his BFF, whom he’d never met in person, though he hoped to one day.

A click of his mouse woke up his sleeping computer, and he typed a quick Good morning! and waited.

Nearly noon, came back a moment later. It was hours in the future in London, where his best friend, Isla, lived. They’d met years back on an Internet forum about building computers, and a few months of casual conversation had led to friendship. You’re not generally up at this hour. Early meeting?

Never went to bed. Met one of my new neighbors.

Ooh, do tell! Is she hot? Please tell me you didn’t go to bed with her, then sneak out after she went to sleep!

Jeremy snorted. I’m not that stupid. And it’s a he.

Even better! I need all the details.

There aren’t any. He’s not into me. Or he already has a boyfriend. Either way, there’s no chance.

Never say never. And remember, I’ve seen you. You are NOT hard on the eyes, mister. And I know you’re a sweetheart, which matters more. Unless you’re an underwear model. And you could’ve been.

That is NOT a compliment! They always look plastic. Like mannequins. I’ve waited tables in a diner, answered phones at a funeral home, and I was one of Santa’s elves when I was sixteen and needed the money, but modeling, no.

Sorry!!! Didn’t mean to hit a nerve.

You didn’t. I’d Skype you if I wasn’t so tired, and you’d see I’m smiling.

Go to sleep, then.

Can’t. Too wired. Been at the hospital, and no, don’t freak, I’m fine. Found my neighbor lying in a snowdrift with a broken ankle. A hit-and-run, but the car didn’t hit him, just made him jump out of the way.

Wow! That’s some bad driving. Poor guy. So you took care of him?

If you can call it that. Jeremy sighed and rubbed his eyes. He was glad Isla couldn’t see him, because he suspected he was deteriorating into depression and that it was written all over him. Drove him to the emergency room. He was all bristly—is that a real word, or did I make it up?—and miserable and, frankly, not very nice. But it was hard to blame him under the circumstances. And he was so surprised I hung around to drive him home afterward, like he didn’t expect anyone to be even a little bit nice.

Perhaps he hasn’t had good experiences with people. And it’s safe to assume he hasn’t got a boyfriend, or at least not a serious one, if he was alone at the hospital.

Good point. I knew you’d help me make sense of this. Blitz jumped onto Jeremy’s lap, startling him.

You’re exhausted. Go to sleep and we’ll talk again later, yeah?

Yeah. Thanks. TTYL.

Blitz nudged Jeremy’s hand with his nose, the message clear: If you’re awake and sitting, why aren’t you stroking me?

Smoothing already smooth fur was relaxing, the repetitive action automatic, the pleasure of igniting a purr a flicker of light in the grayness. He stayed there for a while, hand resting on ginger fur, the vibration of the purr traveling through his arm. Thoughts drifted through his mind, wisps of them, impossible to catch, disappearing to leave a peace of sorts and a dull resignation. He’d been handed Dave like a gift. They lived next door to each other, and he’d rescued the man from a painful, potentially life-threatening situation. Scene set for romance. And he’d screwed it up by coming on too strong, trying too hard. Letting too much of his weirdness show.

Why couldn’t he have been more efficient in those first few moments? He’d floundered, faced with too many options and unsure of which to choose. Dave had tried to get rid of him, and he’d clung like a burr.

Computers were easy. They did what they were told, and they were predictable. He could assemble the most complex of them without making a mistake, giving customers exactly what they’d asked for. Why couldn’t he do the same with his love life?

Except he’d tried the human equivalent by joining an online dating service, and to say it’d gone badly was being kind. The system hadn’t liked his willingness to date either sex, so he’d erased his profile and started over, asking to meet men. And the requests had poured in, but if they’d been food, not men, they’d have been a burger and fries, every single one. A fast, no-strings fuck was all they wanted.

He stood, scooping Blitz into his arms for a kiss on the head, between the two ragged ears, and went to bed. It already was tomorrow, with dawn turning the leaden sky a shade lighter, so he couldn’t even tell himself tomorrow would be better, because he already knew it wouldn’t be.

Jeremy slept heavily, and when he woke up, it was midafternoon, the sunshine bright where it streamed in through the cracks of the blinds. Blitz, who had been sleeping on his feet, took advantage of his slight movement and attacked, hugging him through the blankets and kicking with his rear legs. “You’re lucky those blankets are thick,” he slurred. He couldn’t resist the temptation to wiggle his toes when Blitz paused to groom his shoulder, which of course set off another round of biting and kicking.

When Blitz lost interest and jumped off the bed, Jeremy stumbled to the shower. Hot water, the sharp smell of his shampoo, and, once dry, his first cup of coffee restored his energy. The mail had probably been delivered, so he opened his front door to check.

Blitz darted out through the opening, and Jeremy yelped, grabbed for him, and missed. By the time he’d followed, a young man he didn’t recognize had picked Blitz up.

“He’s fast.” The man scratched the back of Blitz’s neck in a way that had Blitz purring. “I assume you didn’t want him outside?”

“No,” Jeremy agreed. “I moved in recently, and I’m afraid he won’t know where home is. Thanks for grabbing him.”

“No problem.” The young man, dark-haired with an impressive collection of piercings, stepped forward to give Blitz back to Jeremy. “I’m Vin. I was dropping something off for Dave, poor guy. You must be the neighbor who took him to the hospital last night?”

“That’d be me.” Jeremy studied Vin. Was he Dave’s boyfriend? There were plenty of reasons why Dave might not have called Vin last night, even if Jeremy was having trouble thinking of any right now with a squirming Blitz in his arms.

“Shane says if you come by the bar, there’s a pint waiting for you.”

Blitz chose that moment to wriggle free. He landed with a thud and darted back inside, allowing Jeremy to close the door.

“Shane? Oh, one of the owners of the bar, right?” So maybe Vin was a work friend, nothing more. He did seem young for Dave, early twenties at most.

“Yeah. And if you saw the plate number of the arsehole who ran Dave over, you can drink for free all night.” Vin smiled. “Shane’s British, in case you didn’t guess.”

“I don’t go to bars often, but tell him thanks. I wish I could help, but by the time I arrived, the car was long gone.”

“You helped plenty,” Vin assured him. “I hate to picture Dave lying there hurt. How could anyone drive away and leave him there? Even if they knew they’d get in trouble, they should’ve stopped to help.”

To most people, a fast exit would seem the sensible way out of a bad situation, but Jeremy agreed with Vin. “They might not have seen him. If the driver hit ice and skidded, he’d be too busy staying on the road to notice Dave. He didn’t actually hit him, you know. Dave said he jumped out of the way and landed badly.”

Saying Dave’s name was like pressing a bruise.

“Still. It makes you think.” Vin wrinkled his nose. He was cute, in a much-too-young, not-at-all-Jeremy’s-type way. “Anyway, thanks. We all appreciate it.”

“What’ll happen now?” Jeremy asked. “With his job, I mean?”

“You mean is he going to get fired because he can’t show up tonight?” Vin shook his head. “No way. At the bar, we’re a family. A crazy, mixed-up, queer-as-hell family, but our other boss, Ben, deals with the legal stuff like health insurance and disability. He’ll figure it out. The rest of us will cover some of Dave’s hours, and Helen—she’s the other cook—will step it up. It’ll be a mess, but what else is new?”

Jeremy’s head spun from trying to keep up. “Does Dave’s boyfriend work at the bar?”

“Dave’s boyfriend?” Vin frowned. “Did he tell you he has a boyfriend?”

“Um, not exactly.”

The look Vin gave him was both calculating and amused. “Did you ask him?”

Flushing, Jeremy shook his head.

“Okay, here’s the situation, but you didn’t hear it from me: Dave’s single, and he’s been single for a while. At least a year. He doesn’t talk about it much, but I’ve overheard enough of the details to be under the impression his last relationship ended badly. He’s been in avoidance mode ever since.” Glancing over his shoulder at Dave’s apartment door, Vin rubbed his hands together to warm them. “Remember, you didn’t hear any of this from me. What’s your name?”

“Sorry. Jeremy.”

Vin stuck his hand out, and they shook. “Don’t expect him to jump into anything. Even if he wasn’t gun-shy, he’s not the jumping type. Give him a little time to adjust to the idea.”

This was going way too fast, a carnival ride spinning off its tracks. And yet the giddy sensation wasn’t unwelcome. “Hey, slow down! I just met him! And he doesn’t like me. I get on his nerves.”

“You just met him, and when you did, you were saving his life, and you still managed to annoy him?” Vin grinned. “You’d get along well with my boyfriend, Patrick. He can make Shane go ballistic five minutes after walking through the door.”

“I didn’t mean to be annoying. He kept telling me to go home and leave him, and I couldn’t.” Jeremy ran his hands over his face as if he could scrub away the residual tiredness clinging to him like cobwebs. “He was hurt.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Vin stepped closer and wrapped his arms around Jeremy in a brief, warm hug, startling him. The last hug he’d gotten had been months ago. It’d left him with a T-shirt smelling of Marla’s favorite perfume, Paloma Picasso, and damp on one shoulder from her easy tears, shed when she explained what they had wasn’t working, but she’d always love him. “I’d have stuck with him too, and he’d have told me the same thing. He’s not used to people taking care of him, and he hates being helpless. He’s probably kicking himself for screwing up his chances with you.”

“Umm, that’s a nice thought, but…”

Vin smiled and patted him on the side of the head, a gentle cuff that somehow managed to be affectionate. “You wait and see. Maybe I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. See you around.” He headed off down the hallway.

Watching Vin turn the corner toward the staircase, Jeremy realized Vin assumed he’d be going over to check on Dave.

Ridiculous. Of course he wouldn’t do that.

Well, not unless Dave called him and asked for something. It would be rude to say no to someone with a broken ankle.

He ate breakfast—two toaster pastries, a glass of orange juice, his second cup of coffee—then got dressed. He tried on three shirts before settling on one; he prided himself on being fashionable, but that was a little much even for him. Speaking of reflections, he needed a haircut, and he wondered how he’d know if he was a candidate for eyebrow waxing. There were definitely a few hairs across the bridge of his nose, and even if they were pale blond and almost invisible, he knew they were there.

Despite telling himself that he’d sit down to work any minute, he found himself standing outside Dave’s door with a fist raised, the echo of his knocks ringing in his ears. He heard the scrape of the lock and felt a sudden, knee-weakening fear that made him want to bolt back to his apartment before someone spotted him.

No question about it, Jeremy thought when Dave, balanced on crutches, swung the door open. He was losing his mind.

“Hey.” Dave smiled in a friendly way. “Come on in. You want a cup of coffee?” Moving back, he gave Jeremy room to enter. He seemed about twenty times more comfortable on the crutches than he’d been the night before.

Jeremy, who’d been imagining a weak, wan Dave who needed help walking across the room, preferably in the form of Jeremy’s arm wrapped around his waist, had no idea how to respond to the reality. “Uh. Um.”

“Or something else. Tea? Shane’s taught me how to make proper English tea. At least, if proper English tea means putting a few tea bags in a pot and pouring on boiling water. He says tea leaves are for old biddies and a bag in a cup is for sad wankers. I say he’s making it up as he goes along.”

Wondering if Dave was talking to gloss over his guest’s inability to form complete words, let alone sentences, Jeremy took a calming breath. “Didn’t you say your assistant was British? You could ask her how she makes tea.”

“I could, but when it comes to all things British, she’s formed an alliance with Shane, and they back each other up no matter how outrageous their stories get.” Dave raised dark eyebrows. “Well, what’s it to be? And I’ve got soft drinks, fizzy water, beer, wine, even mead. I know a man with bees.”

The man liked reeling off lists. A multitude of options confused Jeremy in restaurants and he usually went for the last one, but in this case that wouldn’t be wise. He’d never tried mead, but it sounded strong. “Does it have to be anything? I didn’t come over to make more work for you.”

Dave tilted his head. “If you’re not thirsty, fine, but there’s a pot of coffee made, and if I drink it all, I’ll get so wired I’ll forget I need the crutches and break my other ankle too.”

“Well, in that case, sure. Coffee would be great. Black’s fine.”

He accepted a cup for himself and waited for Dave to gesture him toward the couch before taking a seat, wary of overstepping again. The couch was deep and long, made for lying on, upholstered in purple velvet, rubbed shiny in spots. It was shabby and out of place in the modern condo, but sinking into it, he discovered it was sinfully comfortable.

Dave sat beside him, propping the crutches against the arm of the couch, then reaching for his half-drunk coffee. The coffee table was dark wood, polished to a gleam but covered with half a dozen glossy magazines, mostly food-based from what Jeremy could see. One was open, and he glanced at it to avoid meeting Dave’s gaze. Apparently chicken wings were going to be the next big thing. Over one billion were eaten on Super Bowl weekend. That had to be wrong. Half a billion dead chickens? Gross. Or did they count the legs too?

Clearing his throat, Dave asked, “So are you here to discuss menu plans or yell at me for being an ungrateful asshole last night?”

“What?” Startled, Jeremy looked at Dave, whose ears were the ideal size for his head and whose mouth had superhot little indentations at the corners. Were those dimples? Was there such a thing as mouth dimples? Shit, he’d already forgotten the question. “Oh! Um, no. I wanted to see how you were. And you weren’t an asshole.”

“I’m pretty sure I was.”

“Well, they were extreme circumstances. You get a pass.” Jeremy sat up straighter and wondered if he could drink some coffee without spilling it all over himself. “Anyway. I thought you might need me to pick up a prescription—did they give you one for pain pills or whatever?—or, I don’t know, go to the grocery store. I didn’t know one of your work friends was going to come over.”

“Vin? He has a boyfriend,” Dave blurted out.

“Um, yeah. He mentioned that.” Searching for something to talk about, Jeremy settled on, “He kept my cat from running off down the hallway, so that was cool.”

Dave nodded and seemed to relax. “You said you have a cat.”

“His name’s Blitz. He’s about five, I guess, but he still acts like a giant kitten most of the time. He likes to hide behind the shower curtain, then come bursting out and scare the shit out of me.” Jeremy felt himself grinning.

“We had a dorm cat when I went to college,” Dave said. “We weren’t supposed to, but someone let him in and someone else started feeding him, and after that he hung around for a couple of years. Some girl even took him home for winter break and over the summer. The week before I moved off campus, he took off and never came back.”

“That’s awful!” Thinking about losing Blitz that way made Jeremy’s stomach lurch. “It’s worse than if he died, because you’d always wonder what happened to him.”

“Yeah.” Dave glanced to the side as if avoiding the subject as much as Jeremy’s gaze. “Maybe he was taken to a shelter and adopted by someone nice.”

“Could be.” Jeremy found himself drumming his fingers against his thigh. He laid his hand flat and willed it to stay still. He got twitchy when he was low on sleep and high on caffeine, but today he suspected being this close to Dave was the cause. “So there’s nothing you need from me?”

Dave’s eyes widened a fraction. “Uh, what did you have in mind?” He shook his head before Jeremy formulated an answer. “Sorry, that came out wrong. Patrick’s a bad influence on me. He’s Vin’s boyfriend. If you meet him, he’ll have you blushing before the introductions are over, but he’s a sweet kid.”

“You work with some great people. You’re lucky.”

“We stick together,” Dave agreed. “It hasn’t been an easy couple of years for any of us. There was a fire at the bar right after the renovations were finished, and that was a horrible time, but it’s easier to cope with people at your back.”

Dave spoke quietly but with confidence. It was a compelling mixture, and it made Jeremy lean closer, anxious not to miss a word. “Vin said I should drop into the bar sometime.”

“You should. I mean, if you’re cool with the gay thing. There are plenty of straight customers, but anyone who says something even hinting of homophobia gets thrown out.”

“Why wouldn’t I be okay with the gay thing?” It was the closest Jeremy could bring himself to admitting that he wasn’t entirely straight, his past notwithstanding, though Dave didn’t know about any of that anyway. “Wait, thrown out how? Physically?”

Dave set down his coffee cup. “Sometimes, if it’s necessary. It’s usually not. We have enough tough-guy gay patrons that a few of them standing at a table with their hands on their hips is all it takes to convince a bigot that he isn’t in the right bar, and that’s not even taking Shane into account. He’s terrifying when he’s mad.”

“Is this supposed to be convincing me to go to, what’s it called, the Square Peg?” Jeremy should have looked it up online so he didn’t sound clueless. “Because now I’m scared.”

“I’d take you in myself, to prove to you there’s nothing to worry about, but it’ll have to wait a couple of days at least. I’m still a little unsteady on the crutches, and there’s a lot of snow out there.”

That came close enough to being asked out on a date that Jeremy’s stomach twisted in a combination of hope and fear. “So why did Vin come by?”

“He went out and picked up these.” Dave reached out and nudged a prescription bottle with his good foot. Jeremy hadn’t noticed it, but to be fair, it was next to a pile of magazines, junk mail, and unopened bills.

“Are you in a lot of pain?” He hated the idea of Dave suffering, but there was no way a broken ankle wasn’t going to hurt.

“Some. It throbs, and getting comfortable in bed was next to impossible, but I was so tired I crashed despite the cast.”

Images of Dave in bed, restless, sprawled out, did nothing to tamp down his attraction. He was twenty-nine and acting like a man a decade younger with a crush, but he couldn’t help it. He’d never met anyone who pressed so many of his buttons at once and so hard.

Okay, linking Dave and hard even in his thoughts was a bad idea if he wanted to keep his cool. And letting Dave believe he was straight wasn’t all that helpful either, but they were strangers, and going from Hi, nice to meet you to a detailed explanation of his sexual preferences was a huge leap.

“I couldn’t sleep at all. Ended up talking online to a friend of mine in London. The English London.”

Dave smiled. “I assumed that, considering the time. So how did you meet her?”

“Why do you assume she’s a woman?”

That earned him a slow blink. “Is she?”

“Yes, but…”

“I know, I know. Long-distance relationships are hard.” There was that word again. “Are you in the phase where you think you’ll get together?”

“No.” That at least was the truth. “She’s more like a sister at this point. We have a lot in common, considering how different we are in other ways.”

“Being from different countries adds a whole layer of complication.” Dave finished his coffee and stared into the bottom of the cup mournfully. “Huh.”

“Do you want some more?” Jeremy leaped to his feet. “Let me get you a refill.” It didn’t occur to him until he was in the kitchen, pouring, that Dave hadn’t protested, but when he took the cup back, Dave accepted it with a somewhat dopey smile. “You okay?”

“Now I am. I have coffee.” His eyes were relaxed, as if he was on the verge of dropping off to sleep.

“Did you take one of those pain pills?” Jeremy asked.

As if it were an effort, Dave held up two fingers. “Two.”

“Were you supposed to take two?” Jeremy picked up the bottle without asking for permission, not that Dave seemed to notice or care, and read the label. Okay, two pills was right. That was a relief. He didn’t want to follow up their first date to the emergency room with a second, and he shouldn’t label taking an injured man to the hospital as a date, even if said man was ridiculously, distractingly hot.

“I’m fine. Not in pain, which is good. I like that part.”

“Dave…” He trailed off, unsure of what to say. He couldn’t order the guy to go to bed and sleep it off, but leaving Dave to wander—hop—around his apartment and possibly take another tumble wasn’t going to happen.

“Hmm?” The pills had kicked in now, Dave’s mellow good humor turning to a blissed-out haze.

“How about a nap? Make up for the sleep you lost last night?”

“Sure,” Dave said agreeably. “Why don’t you use my bed?”

“Not me. You.”

“Too much coffee to sleep.” Dave yawned. “God, those pills are wonderful. Foot doesn’t hurt at all. Wham. No pain. Fast as turning off a light. Pills don’t normally do that. Y’see all these commercials for painkillers and they’re bullshit, but these little bitty ones are magic. Everyone should have them. You take some. Go on. Take them. They gave me hunners—hundreds—of them.”

“I don’t have any broken bones, but thank you.” It was disturbing to watch Dave disintegrate, going from a levelheaded man to a slurring, rambling wreck within the space of minutes. Some people reacted badly to painkillers, and clearly Dave was one of them.

“Just a broken heart.” Dave nodded, eyes owlishly wide and fixed. “Because they walked away and left you. Left after years and years and years of being there. And I don’t miss him, but I’m so fucking lonely and I’m not used to being single. It’s weird. I’m the odd man out. Everyone’s with someone, and I’m not and I hate it. Hurts. Going to take ’nother pill and make it stop.”

“Um, no. A great big world of no.” Jeremy tucked the bottle of pills into his pocket and hoped he wasn’t going to have to wrestle Dave to keep them there. Even if the thought of wrestling with Dave was more appealing than it ought to be. “How about if you have something to eat?”

“Not hungry.” Dave tilted his head, studying Jeremy with an intensity that would have made Jeremy squirm if it hadn’t been so unfocused, as if Dave wasn’t seeing him no matter how hard he tried. “But okay. I mean, no one ever cooks for me. Might be nice if someone did.”

“I’m not promising miracles.” Glancing back over his shoulder at the kitchen, Jeremy asked, “Is it cool if I go through your fridge and stuff?”

“Sure.” Dave waved a hand magnanimously and yawned. “Mi casa es su casa. Or should that be tu? I can never keep it straight. Vin would know. Hell, Patrick would probably know.”

Pretty sure that was supposed to mean something, Jeremy nodded and went to scope out the kitchen. Dave hadn’t been kidding about having all those different varieties of sugar; he also had four different kinds of vinegar, some fresh vegetables Jeremy didn’t recognize, and enough wedges of fancy cheese that Jeremy didn’t even bother trying to count. “What about an omelet?” he called.

It was a relief when Dave answered, since that meant he wasn’t unconscious or worse. “Sounds good.”

Jeremy wasn’t much of a cook, but he could manage an omelet with some cheese. He used the cheddar and had to grate it himself, because it seemed Dave didn’t believe in preshredded cheese. He added two slices of buttered toast. It smelled good enough that he almost wished he’d made some for himself. He pushed aside what Dave had said before about being lonely. It was depressing, but this wasn’t the time to get information out of Dave, or at least not any that made much sense.

With the plate of food on his lap, Dave picked up his fork and began to eat, his movements languid, his eyes hazy. “It’s good,” he said after the first mouthful. “Want some?” He held out a forkful of omelet, pale yellow with a thick layer of melted cheese a shade darker oozing out of it temptingly.

The intimacy of sharing a meal—hell, sharing a fork—tempted him more than the food, but Jeremy shook his head. “I ate earlier.”

Dave studied the piece of omelet, shrugged, and ate it. After that, he set the fork down and picked up the toast. Jeremy had put plenty of butter on it, and within a few bites, Dave’s lower lip was shiny. The sheen of butter reminded Jeremy of women he’d kissed, their mouths painted pink, sticky with gloss. There’d been something erotic about kissing the color off, and he’d never minded when the lipstick transferred itself to him. He wanted to lean in and taste Dave’s lips with that thin layer of salt and oil, bite down on the yielding flesh.

“You’re staring.” The comment knocked Jeremy out of his reverie as effectively as if Dave had kicked him.

His face flushing hot, he looked away. “Yeah. Sorry. I guess I zoned out. Not enough sleep.” He felt guilty about the lie, but it seemed less embarrassing for both of them.

“Mm. That’s my fault.”

“No, it isn’t.” That much was the truth. “How’s your ankle?” Sometimes a change of subject was called for, although a different subject might have been preferable to bringing attention to Dave’s injury. Jeremy considered smacking himself in the forehead.

Dave had to think about the question for longer than he probably should have. “It’s okay.” He sounded surprised. “It’s barely even there.”

“The painkillers hit you pretty hard.”

“No, the sidewalk did.” Dave didn’t crack a smile, and neither did Jeremy. After a moment, Dave sighed. “That was a joke. I’m not funny, huh? Everyone says I’m the quiet one. Not quiet in my head, but I’m surrounded by people who talk up a storm. Helen doesn’t. It’s why I like her. Not that I don’t like all of them, but she’s peaceful.”

“I got the joke,” Jeremy assured him. “But you falling isn’t funny. It’s awful. If I hadn’t gone out, you could’ve been lying there for hours.”

“Felt like hours.” Dave grimaced. “Or a peek at being old and helpless. Well, I’m already old.”

“You aren’t,” Jeremy said with more fervor than the statement deserved. “Really, you’re not.”

“Older than you.” Dave cocked his head to the side. “I could be your dad.”

Jeremy shuddered. “I love my dad, but don’t go there. And you’re not. I’m twenty-nine. You’d have to be—”

“Twenty-nine? I thought you were younger. But trust me, I’m still old enough.” Dave leaned back and closed his eyes. The food had helped, Jeremy thought, and Dave’s voice was less slurred, but the effects of the pills wouldn’t wear off for a while. At least he wasn’t in so much pain, but it wasn’t safe for him to be alone, and Jeremy didn’t intend to leave him. “Feel ancient right now.”

“That’s because you’re hurt. It won’t last.”

“I hope you’re right. This sucks.” Dave sighed. His eyes were still closed, and even if Jeremy wasn’t going to leave him alone, half propped up with pillows on the couch wasn’t any way to sleep.

“Hey,” he said, getting up and going to loom over Dave. Looking down at him was strangely appealing, especially when Dave wasn’t looking back at him. “Dave? If you’re going to go to sleep, you should go to bed.”

“I’m not,” Dave rumbled. “I mean, I could, but I don’t think I will. You’re gonna have to talk to me, though.” His gray eyes opened and focused on Jeremy’s, and this time Jeremy didn’t want to squirm.

“Talk. Okay. I don’t do that much, working alone.”

Dave chuckled, the corner of his mouth curling into a half grin. “You don’t really strike me as the silent type. Not so far, at least. You talk a lot. Like water from a broken tap. Just keeps pouring out.”

He did? Was it annoying Dave? “Sometimes, when I first meet someone, I get nervous and babble. But the rest of the time, I’m actually quiet. I mean, I talk to my cat, but that’s more of a one-way deal. I tell him they shipped the wrong parts again, and he licks his stomach. I stub my toe, and when I’m hopping around cursing, he demands food.”

“Never had a cat. Wouldn’t have minded one, or a dog, but Travis was allergic to them. I took him to the animal shelter to choose a pet, but he cooed over the cute ones, then said he couldn’t breathe and left. He wasn’t allergic. He didn’t like taking care of anything. The world’s supposed to take care of him.”

Jeremy folded his lips in on themselves in a straight line, a habit of his when something he couldn’t fix annoyed him. In this case, a stranger’s selfishness. His mom always scolded him for it, saying it made him ugly. Why ugly was wrong, he didn’t know. He sat again, closer to Dave. “Travis was your ex?”

“Yeah.” Dave rolled his head against the back of the couch. “It’s been a long time, though. Since we were together. Year and a half.”

“Are you still friends?”

Dave snorted. “There are so many things wrong with that question I don’t even know where to start.” Jeremy waited, and after a moment Dave added quietly, “Sometimes I’m not sure we were ever friends once we grew up.”

It occurred to Jeremy that it might not be the most ethical thing to be questioning Dave when he was high on pain medication. “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

“It’s more that I don’t know what to say. It’s complicated.” Dave rubbed his forehead over his eyebrows. “I guess it always is.”

“Not for me,” Jeremy offered. It seemed fair to share something personal in return. “Maybe that means I was doing it wrong.”

“Doing what? Living? We breathe in and out a billion times if we’re lucky; then we die. You can’t screw that up.” Dave shook his head. “But we’re talking about love, not life. And it’s impossible to get that right, I don’t care who you are. So don’t beat yourself up.”

“I’m not.” Jeremy settled himself more comfortably on the couch and forced himself to relax. Which was a contradiction, but if he stayed this tense, he’d pull a muscle. “I’ve been dancing around this, not that it’s something I have to tell you, because I don’t, but it’s getting to the point where it’s starting to feel like a lie.”

“Jeremy.” Dave patted his shoulder, missing it on the third pat. “My head’s spinning enough. Got something to say? Say it.” He yawned. “Preferably before I pass out. Those pills did a number on me, huh?”

“Yeah, they did. Which is why I’m not letting you take any more. I could call your doctor and get them to prescribe something different.”

“That’s what you wanted to tell me? That I’m spaced out and high? You didn’t need to tiptoe around it. I know I am.” Dave pressed his hands against his skull. “Is my head bigger than usual? It’s like a balloon, all full of space.”

“I’m bi, not straight, and I have a thing for you.” Jeremy exhaled. Dave stared at him blankly, no spark of interest showing. “And you won’t remember me saying that. Which means I’m going to have to tell you again. Shit, once was hard enough.”

Dave blinked and studied him. It was hard to tell what was going on inside his head, but Jeremy suspected any thoughts were moving slowly. “You’re attracted to guys.”

“Some guys,” Jeremy clarified.

“You should come to the bar sometime,” Dave said, as if it were a new idea he’d come up with and they hadn’t already discussed the possibility. “Lots of guys your age there. Maybe you’d meet someone.” He yawned, showing off a set of straight white teeth. “I’d better go to bed.”

Jeremy moved to get Dave’s crutches. “Let me help, okay? Take it slow. I’ll never forgive myself if you fall and hurt yourself.”

“I’m not this uncoordinated in everyday life.” Dave would have stumbled, but Jeremy was right there to steady him.

“It’s the pain pills,” Jeremy told him. “You’ll sleep for a few hours, and when you wake up, you’ll be back to normal.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“I am.” He was more worried about what a conversation between them would be like when Dave returned to normal.

Chapter Four

Dave woke and stared at his bedroom ceiling. He was flat on his back with his bad leg propped on a comfortable pillow, and at first he couldn’t remember having gone to bed. As if through a morning-after hangover, it all came flooding back to him: Vin delivering his prescription pain pills, him taking two despite his understandable reluctance, and Jeremy coming over from across the hall and making him breakfast. Jeremy putting him to bed, since he’d pretty much been unable to do it on his own.

Just what he needed, another favor he owed Jeremy. This was the worst possible situation: a neighbor who was young, attractive, and kind. Had Jeremy said he had a thing for Dave? Could that be an actual memory? No. It had to be a dream. A crazy, stupid dream that was a result of the pain medication, which Dave knew he should never have taken in the first place.

His mouth was so freaking dry. He turned his head and saw a glass of water on the bedside table. A few sips solved his most immediate problem but did nothing about the one waiting for him in his living room, watching TV, by the sound of it.

Drinking awoke another need. The bathroom had two doors, one opening into his bedroom, the other onto a short hallway with a closet at the far end. He sat up as quietly as possible, cursing every creak of the bed, and swung his legs around. The cast slowed every movement, like an anchor on a boat. It was a simple fracture, he’d been told, and the cast would stay on for six weeks. Six weeks during which he’d have to navigate icy streets and rely on Helen to do the bulk of his job. He was supposed to keep his weight off his foot when possible, and Ben, who’d probably been researching broken bones online once he’d heard the news, had forbidden him to come to work for a week.

After that, they’d give him rides into work, shuttling him around until the cast came off and he could drive again. He’d listened to Ben’s matter-of-fact voice listing the ways in which this new problem would be dealt with and felt relief and, under it, a determination to be as little a burden as possible. He wouldn’t need a ride once he learned to walk with his crutches. A bus would take him to and from the bar without much walking needed, because the bus stopped less than a hundred yards from the condo, and he could get off practically at the door of the Square Peg. Food could be delivered instead of picked up for a few months and the menu simplified.

He could handle this. Handle anything. But until he found out where Jeremy had put his damn crutches, he wasn’t going anywhere, and he needed to piss.

Raising his voice, he called Jeremy’s name, trying to sound upbeat, not ticked off. He’d shown that side of his character to the poor guy enough. “Hey! Jeremy, are you still here? I need my crutches.”

Jeremy appeared in the doorway sooner than he’d have expected, crutches in one hand. “You’re awake. I mean, obviously you’re awake. How do you feel? I’m sorry I took them. I was worried you might wake up and not realize I was here and still be unsteady, and I didn’t want you to fall trying to get up on your own.”

That was a lot to try to respond to, so Dave didn’t try. “Thanks. I need to use the bathroom, so…”

“Oh!” Jeremy brought the crutches over and gave them to Dave, then hovered nearby while Dave rose, fitting the padded rests under his arms.

“I’m good, thanks. I’ll be out in a minute, okay?”

Jeremy seemed to get the hint, thank God, and went back to the living room, where he was waiting, perched on the edge of the couch, when Dave joined him. Using the bathroom had been easier than he’d imagined; maybe he was over the worst of the uncertainty. Thinking that gave him a little bit of hope, at least.

A glance into the kitchen showed a dish drainer full of clean dishes and an empty sink. “You cleaned the kitchen.”

“I’m the one who made it messy,” Jeremy said.

Dave, who was happy enough to admit that he wasn’t much of a housekeeper, was a stickler for a clean kitchen. “I could have done it.”

“I know. But I wanted to stick around until I made sure you were okay—you know, after those pain pills—and I needed something to do.” Jeremy seemed anxious now. “I didn’t poke around or anything, I swear.”

“Didn’t say you did.” Dave lowered himself onto the couch. There was a commercial on the TV. “What are you watching?”

“A rerun of a sitcom. I wasn’t watching. I know the punch lines, who’s going to walk through the door covered in soup, and who’s going to trip on a rug and stumble into the arms of the woman he’s been in love with since episode one.”

Dave picked up the remote and pointed it at the TV. “There doesn’t seem much point in finishing it, unless you want to.”

“I guess not.” Jeremy stared at the blank TV as if it was more interesting than Dave, hands locked together in his lap. Dave didn’t take it personally. Travis had told him more than once he was as boring as a wall painted beige. Jeremy sucked in a breath and said flatly, “You have zero tolerance for those painkillers. You shouldn’t take any more.”

Ah. He touched Jeremy’s arm to get the man’s attention, smiling reassuringly when Jeremy shot him a panicked glance. “You’re right, and don’t worry. I don’t plan on doing anything with them beyond sticking them in the bathroom cabinet. They can’t make the bone knit together any faster, and the pain’s good in a way. It’ll stop me from doing too much. And I want to. Hate sitting around on my ass.”

“Being bored sucks.” Jeremy relaxed, hands loosening, shoulders sinking an inch. Dave must’ve been a total asshole for the guy to be this on edge around him. “You’re welcome to hang out over at my place. I work from home—I told you that, right?—and it’s not so complicated that you’d be a distraction. I build the computers in a room Blitz isn’t allowed into because cat hair and machines don’t mix, so you could keep him company if being with me got boring.”

Again, Dave wasn’t sure how to respond to so many comments at once. It was a completely different conversation from the kind he was used to having. “You couldn’t be boring if you tried.” He meant it.

Jeremy smiled slowly. It took his attractive face to a whole new level, one that made Dave want to reach out and touch him. “I’m not always this wound up,” Jeremy said. It sounded like an apology.

“It’s fine. It’s okay to relax, I promise. I’m not always the jerk I was last night.”

“You weren’t! You should stop saying that.” Jeremy stood, then sat again. “Okay, you’re right. About the relaxing thing, not the other thing. You weren’t a jerk; you were in pain.”

“I’m in pain again now,” Dave pointed out, trying not to grin. This verbal sparring was fun. “And no, I’m not taking any more pain pills. We agreed to that.”

“Good,” Jeremy said. “I put them on the top shelf of your medicine cabinet, by the way, because it seemed pushy to throw them away. Don’t flush them, though. I read an article online that said they end up poisoning the water that way, and some other person who doesn’t have any tolerance could end up half out of their mind from drinking some tap water.” He paused to breathe. “Do you drink? Alcohol, I mean, not tap water.”

“Um, what?” Dave might not be under the influence of tramadol anymore, but it was still hard to keep up when Jeremy got rolling. “Yes, I drink, but not much. Long story there. I promise not to flush the meds. There has to be a better way to get rid of them.”

“I’ll look it up,” Jeremy offered.

“Appreciate it.” Life with Travis had taught him that ignoring a problem made it worse, so he metaphorically took this one’s cheeks between his hands and put them nose to nose. “So did I hallucinate the part where you said you were bi and into me?”

Instead of a stream of babble or a stunned stare, Jeremy opted to reply with a rising flush, his fair skin blotchy within a few seconds. “Umm, tell me what you’d like the answer to be. Then I’ll know whether to lie or not.”

Neat way of answering. “I’m flattered, but you’re too young for me, and I’m too close to a bad breakup to be in the market for someone else.”

He could lie too. There was plenty of truth in there, but it wasn’t the whole story. If he was honest, he’d have told fresh-faced Jeremy to look for someone his own age, someone who hadn’t made mistakes and wasted years, fucking years, on a user and a loser. But that would reveal what a fool he was, and Jeremy didn’t need to know that.

“I go for older men. That began when I went to high school and they assigned me a mentor in his final year.” Dave’s surprise must’ve shown, because Jeremy elaborated. “I was at a school for gifted kids. They were determined to stamp out bullying, and they had this scheme where for the first month the senior would be there to make sure you didn’t get lost or picked on. Pointless because everyone there wanted good grades. I’m not saying geeks and nerds don’t eat their own, but there wasn’t a whole lot of stuffing people into lockers going on. Peter was my first crush, not that I ever did more than let him star in my fantasies when I jerked off. Too shy to tell him, and as far as I knew, he was straight anyway. I thought I was gay, and again, not a problem at that school, but then this girl transferred in after Christmas, and bam, I was in love. It sank in that I wasn’t all that hung up on gender.” Jeremy made a face. “And yeah, I was fickle as hell back then, but that changed, I swear.”

Conversations with Jeremy left Dave floundering in a sea of oversharing. After years of working with Patrick, he should’ve been used to it, but Patrick mimicking an ex in the throes of a climax didn’t reveal much about Patrick. Jeremy opened himself up and invited Dave to stare.

He rallied. “You with a crush on a boy three years older isn’t the same as wanting a man close to two decades older.”

“You think I’m weird.”

“I think you’re beautiful.” Damn it. Maybe he could blame his lack of discretion on the lingering effects of tramadol.

Jeremy swallowed audibly. “Really?”

Focusing on the practical, Dave said, “That’s not the point. The point is, if you want a boyfriend, I can help you find one. We’ll take you to the Square Peg, introduce you around. You’ll meet someone in five minutes.”

“I already met someone.” Jeremy’s hand, resting on the couch between them, twitched as if it was looking for something to hold on to.

“You hardly know me.” Dave hoped he sounded kind, because it would kill him to hurt this sweet guy who was obviously desperate to make a connection, even with a virtual stranger. “I have a history, okay? A complicated one. I’m not ready to get involved with anyone again.”

“Not ever?” Jeremy scrunched up his nose in a completely adorable way. Jesus, Dave needed to get him out of his apartment as fast as possible. “That’s unrealistic. Don’t tell me you intend to be a hermit for the rest of your life.”

Dave had no idea how to answer that, so he was grateful when the phone rang, then frustrated when he realized it was halfway across the room. No way he’d be able to answer it before it went to voice mail.

“Want me to get that?” Jeremy rose, heading for the phone before Dave told him yes. It was as if Jeremy didn’t see the lines other people avoided crossing. And yes, they were invisible lines, but that didn’t mean people didn’t know they were there.

Okay, either he was still affected by the painkiller, or Jeremy’s tangled way of thinking was contagious.

“No, he can’t come to the phone right now. I mean, he could, but he’s supposed to be resting, and the cord on this isn’t long enough for me to take it over to him.” Jeremy turned his head and addressed Dave. “They make cordless phones, you know. You should look into them. Or ditch your landline and— No, sorry, I wasn’t ignoring you. I just wondered why Dave’s phone was— No, I’m not his new—What did you call me?” Jeremy’s mouth hung open for a moment, then snapped shut. He straightened and said curtly, “Get lost, you foulmouthed fuck for brains.”

Jeremy slammed the phone back into its cradle and stayed where he was, breathing heavily, shoulders curving inward, head hanging. Dave struggled to rise, alarm filling him. He’d assumed the caller was selling something; all his friends had his cell number. When Jeremy’s cordial voice sharpened, he’d felt the first stirrings of concern, sweat prickling over his back as his body reacted to an unseen threat.

“Who was it? What did they say?”

“Don’t get up.” Jeremy reached out to straighten the phone, then pulled back with a shiver of distaste as if the phone were covered with filth. “I don’t know. A man. He asked for you. You heard the rest.”

“Come here.” Jeremy obeyed without protest but sat out of reach, not that Dave should be touching him anyway. He radiated distress, and Dave had no choice but to try to fix it. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, of course. I’m fine.” Jeremy inhaled slowly before glancing at him. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t sound fine.”

“Well, I am. It was a prank or whatever.”

“Tell me what he said.” Dave made his tone low, hoping for the same quiet obedience he’d observed before.

Jeremy shook his head. “I don’t remember.”

Dave shifted enough so he could bump Jeremy’s knee with the back of his hand, wincing when his ankle twinged. “Hey. I know I can be a pushover sometimes, but even I’m not stupid enough to fall for that.”

“No.” Jeremy met his gaze. “You’re not stupid. It was some guy, okay? That’s all. He wanted to know if you were here. Then he started with something about how you’re his, and I couldn’t have you. Maybe he had the wrong number.” His blue eyes asked Dave to agree that must be the case.

As much as Dave wanted to, he couldn’t lie. “No. It was my ex. Travis.” It was hard to push the name out past the lump in his throat. “I’m sorry. He hasn’t called in a long time.” Almost six months. “If I’d thought it might be him, I wouldn’t have let you answer it.”

“What’s his deal?”

Dave didn’t want to talk about it. He’d pretty much built his present on not talking about it. He wasn’t in denial; it was more that he’d drawn a thick, permanent line between Then and Now, and it seemed healthier not to look back over that line into Then. But he owed Jeremy an explanation of how he’d ended up here and why.

If Jeremy was lucky, it would be enough to kill any romantic interest he had in Dave.

“I’ve known Travis all my life, or close enough. First as a friend, then, when we were teenagers, as someone safe to be with because we were the same and we never had to discuss it. We knew.”

Sleepovers with Travis spooning him, his arm flung over Dave, keeping him close. Roughhousing that ended with them laughing, faces inches apart, a swift, teasing kiss delivered as a coup de grace, then the kisses turning hotter, accompanied by clumsy, eager explorations of bodies wakening to desires that scared them at times with their intensity.

Oh, they’d always known.

“So you dated?” Jeremy sounded so quiet, so tentative.

“Not really.” Dave thought back to seeing Travis making out with another jock in the overgrown patch of woods behind the high school, the way Travis had dismissed his questions with a shrug, then a threat to buy Dave’s silence, as if Dave would ever have betrayed him. “We fooled around the way kids do. Then we drifted apart after high school for a while.”

He’d thought he missed Travis, but college had been absorbing, and he’d met guys willing to do more than fool around. Mideighties, AIDS beginning to scare people, including him, but he’d been careful, still hung up on his feelings for Travis, who’d gone straight from school to a job and was making good money, from what his mom told Dave’s mom.

Aware that Jeremy was waiting for him to continue, Dave went on. “When he came back into my life, we were in our midtwenties. It was casual at first, sex here and there—I was in between relationships at the time—but then I met someone. Corey. I guess it’s telling that I struggled to remember his name.”

“You were in love with Travis.” Jeremy was still quiet, hanging on his every word.

This wasn’t going at all the way Dave had hoped, but it was too late to stop now.

“Yeah. I wasn’t self-aware enough to realize it at the time, but in retrospect, yeah. Corey was into me, though. He pursued me. Expensive gifts, romantic dinners. He was eight years older than me and used to getting what he wanted.” It was a haze in Dave’s memory. He’d been so flattered by the attention, and Corey had been good enough in bed that the sex had been easy. “Travis came by and saw me wearing my new watch, and when I admitted I was seeing someone, he got quiet. At first I didn’t know what to think, but then he went into this whole thing about how he thought I understood that we were a couple.”

Jeremy turned toward him. God, he was so attractive. It was too bad he didn’t have better sense. “I take it that was news to you.”

“Yeah. But he was convincing.” Travis had always been convincing, unfortunately. “I apologized for the misunderstanding and let him take off the watch.” Along with everything else he’d been wearing, though Dave wouldn’t mention that part. “After that, it was official.”

“For a long time, if you split up a couple of years ago.”

“Most of my adult life, yeah. He’d captivate me. Charm me into overlooking things he did or said. If I was angry, he’d flip it around so he was the one yelling and I was the one apologizing.”

“He bullied you.”

“Manipulated me.” Dave didn’t want to see the pity in Jeremy’s eyes. “Okay, yeah, he bullied me. Not physically. I mean, yeah, some of the fights got physical, but not throwing blows, just pushing me and I’d walk away and he’d grab me. And when he’d been using, the sex could go places I didn’t enjoy, but…” His words trailed off, throat closing, grief and anger choking him. “Jesus, you must think I enjoyed being a doormat, but most of the time it was good.”

“It doesn’t sound good.” Jeremy glanced at the phone as warily as if he expected Travis to materialize from it like an evil genie. “I don’t get why you stuck with him so long, but why did you leave him in the end?”

“He walked out on me, but I forced him to.” Dave remembered the sick satisfaction he’d taken in using Travis’s tactics against him. “He was doing drugs. He thought he could stop anytime he wanted, that he was stronger than the coke, but he wasn’t. He emptied our bank account apart from a few hundred dollars and set up one in his name. He used our savings to pay for his next fix, or to gamble with. He dealt with the finances, always had, so I didn’t know until I tried to draw out twenty bucks and saw an insufficient-funds message.”

“You made it so easy for him.” There was no condemnation or scorn in Jeremy’s voice. He sounded regretful if anything.

“Candy from a baby,” Dave agreed. “So I called him on it and told him he got help or I’d leave him. We argued for a week. Hellish. The cops were called in at one point. The neighbors weren’t willing to be a live audience for our reality show. The house was mine, so if we split up, he’d have nowhere to go.” He was telling Jeremy the bare facts, but he had images in his head that wouldn’t fade, vicious words echoing, corrosive, degrading encounters that’d left him ashamed and nauseated. “I changed the locks. He tried to break down the door, and I stood in the window, recording him. He saw me and he stopped. He changed in front of my eyes. Went from this raving animal to cool, urbane, smiling. Like a horror-movie transformation in reverse. Except in some ways it was scarier than if he’d grown fangs. Told me to open the door and let him collect his stuff, then I’d never see him again.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask.”

“I said no.” It was one of the things Dave had done he was genuinely proud of. “He asked a few more times, just as politely—I was still taping him—and I said no every time. And he left.” He’d kicked a nice dent in Dave’s car in the parking lot and cracked his side-view mirror for good measure, but admitting that wasn’t something Dave wanted to do, even if he was hoping this whole sordid tale would turn Jeremy’s stomach.

“He hasn’t given up on calling.”

“Obviously. He doesn’t come into the Peg anymore, though. Shane made sure of that.” The night that had happened, when Shane had barred Travis permanently and held up his cell phone with 911 already dialed, was one of the worst in Dave’s memory, even if he’d been grateful at the same time. “He still calls once in a while. Usually when he’s high. Or when he wants to be.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too. Sorry you answered the phone and had to hear about it.”

“I’m not sorry about that. But that you had to go through it? Yes. I had a friend in high school whose mom was an alcoholic, so I have a little experience watching someone deal with an addict, but she got sober our senior year.”

“I keep thinking Travis will go to AA. Or NA, I guess. Otherwise he’s likely to end up dead in a gutter somewhere. I’m not in love with him anymore,” Dave hastened to add, then regretted it, because it sounded like something you’d say to a new love interest, which Jeremy wasn’t. “But I wish he’d get clean, for him.”

“His choice.” Jeremy’s indifference was refreshing. “Get used to him as an SEP.”

“You mean an SOB?”

“Someone Else’s Problem.” Jeremy wrinkled his nose. “Though the other one works too. I swore at him. I never do that. He’s majorly irritating.”

The simplicity of the idea struck him like a splash of icy water. Travis wasn’t his problem. Not now, not ever again. He’d known that without accepting it, still tethered to his identity as Travis’s partner. Following on the realization came amusement at Jeremy’s aggrieved tone. He began to laugh, waving off Jeremy’s concerned questions when he found he couldn’t stop. “I’m okay. I— Oh God, the way you said that!”

Jeremy smiled politely, his bemusement plain. “I don’t know what I said that was so funny, but you’re getting red in the face. I could get you some water?”

Dave took a few deep breaths, fighting back the next wave of laughter. “No, I’ve stopped, I promise.” He used the hem of his T-shirt to mop his tear-wet eyes and lowered it to find Jeremy staring at him with undisguised longing.

“You’re in good shape for someone as ancient as you claim to be.” Jeremy kept his tone light, though Dave noticed his fingers tapping against his thigh, betraying his tension.

“I’m not,” Dave lied. He was. Not only did he have a gym membership, he used it, and he wasn’t a snacker, though he loved good food. Shit, he’d have to be careful he didn’t pack on pounds while he was laid up. “And you should stop looking.”

“I can’t help it,” Jeremy said in a small voice.

Dave meant it when he said he wasn’t ready to get involved, but he couldn’t bring himself to suggest they’d better not spend time together. It wasn’t that he was lonely; Jeremy was the first person he’d met in a long time whom he was actually interested in, not as a potential romantic partner but as a friend. “I’m serious. Even if I wasn’t too old for you, which I am, I’m not boyfriend material.”

“You don’t get to decide either of those things for me.” Jeremy’s ability to rally was much more appealing than it ought to be, but Dave glared and he relented. “Okay, okay. You get to decide them for you, absolutely. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. And if you want me out of here—your life, not your apartment—say the word. I’m gone.” He wasn’t moving, though, as if he already knew what Dave’s response would be.

“Don’t be so dramatic.” Dave rolled his eyes. “Do me a favor and bring me a glass of orange juice, would you?”

Jeremy grinned and bounced to his feet. “Sure.”

Dave found his gaze lingering on Jeremy’s ass when Jeremy crossed the room into the kitchen, and realized, not for the first time, that he was in a world of trouble.

Chapter Five

“If I draw on it, I can cross something off my bucket list.” Jeremy pinned on his cutest expression, totally not practiced in front of a mirror for a moment like this. “Please?”

Dave slapped at Jeremy’s hand, narrowly missing the red marker Jeremy held more in hope than in an expectation of using it. “Nope.”

“The cast’s coming off next week, so what’s the big deal? It’s not exactly pristine.” More of a grubby indeterminate shade, in fact.

“No, it’s not. But it’s not decorated with crappy drawings and signatures either, and let’s keep it that way.”

“It looks as if no one loves you.”

Dave snorted. “Yeah, complete strangers stop me in the street and weep on my shoulder, they’re so sorry for my loveless state.”

A month had taught Jeremy to see beyond the occasional snap to the smile behind it, and he grinned unrepentantly when a furtive sneak attack on the cast was batted aside yet again. Truthfully, without permission he wouldn’t set nib to cast, but teasing Dave was fun.

And that was all he was allowed to do. Dave had steadfastly refused to consider Jeremy as a potential boyfriend. He was too young, too inexperienced when it came to guys, too damn pretty to waste himself on Dave, who was apparently using a fun-house mirror when he shaved. Because the guy saw himself as old, gray, and wrinkled, when the truth was, at forty-seven, he was head-turningly attractive in a classic way. Gray-haired, sure, but so what? Jeremy had pointed out, with some asperity, that he’d had sex often in his life, and it wasn’t a short one.

I’m not some sweet innocent virgin with a sexual-identity crisis. I like women, and I like men. Totally happy with that. Right now, I like you. Want you. Have you seen the porn on my computer? You’d get off on half of it. Assuming you’re into porn and more or less vanilla, because I’m not so much into the kink. And you wouldn’t be the first man I’ve kissed or seen naked in the flesh, so don’t assume I’ll run away screaming and leave you with blue balls.”

And Dave had smiled, unmoved and unpersuaded, murmured something about a visit from his friend Michael, and hopped out of Jeremy’s apartment without looking back.

Now a knock at the door interrupted Jeremy’s playful attempts to draw on the cast. “Oh, good. Pizza.” Jeremy jumped up, mouth watering already.

“I’ll pay.” Dave struggled to get his wallet out of his pocket while he was seated, but Jeremy waved the offer away.

“I’ve got it. You paid for last night’s dinner.”

“And you cooked it.”

Calling Jeremy’s valiant but ultimately futile efforts cooking was generous but laughable. “I burned it,” he said, opening the door. “To a crisp.”

“Hey, man, no worries,” said the young guy holding the pizza box. He wore a baseball cap with a cheese appliqué on it. “That’s what delivery’s for. Large deluxe? Seventeen forty-nine.”

“A bargain,” Jeremy told him, handing over some folded bills that included the tip. “Some people aren’t meant to be in the kitchen, am I right?”

“That depends on if you’re talking about cooking or eating,” the guy said. “I’m all about the eating.”

“Anyone can learn to cook!” Dave called.

“Anyone but me,” Jeremy told the delivery guy. “Which is why tonight we’re having pizza.”

“Glad to contribute to your quality of life,” the guy said. “Thanks. Have a nice night.”

Spending time with Dave was always good, but Jeremy was getting restive. After two slices of pizza, he wiped his hands on a paper napkin and dabbed at his mouth.

“That’s it? You’re done?” Dave reached for a third slice, then hesitated, studying Jeremy with a resigned look. “You want to say something.”

“Yeah.” Jeremy pleated the edge of his napkin, watching his fingers move as if they belonged to someone else and he wasn’t sure what they would do next. “You and me. Us. We’re in this weird in-between place. Friends, yeah, no question about that. I love hanging out with you, and I will get to that bar of yours soon, I promise. Can’t wait to put names to faces.”

He’d met Vin that first day and heard the voices of other visitors when they came and went, but never met them. Dave had invited him to drop by the bar, but Jeremy had found plausible excuse after excuse, wary of being introduced to an alternative to Dave, as if men were interchangeable and anyone would do.

“They’d love to meet you.” Dave sighed. “Jeremy—”

“I’m pushing for more, and it’s bugging you.” He hadn’t said anything, not since that last rejection two weeks before, but his attraction to Dave hung between them like a cobweb, barely there but capable of capturing and killing their friendship. “It’d bug me if some jerk couldn’t take no for an answer.”

“You’re not a jerk and you’re not pushing, but yeah, I wish you’d get over it and move on, because you’re wasting your time. You could be with someone special right now, sharing pizza with them, not me. You should be.”

“Can you hear how stupid that sounds? I should move on from someone I like—and am incredibly attracted to, in case I haven’t made that clear—and search for some random guy who might not even exist?” Jeremy wished he didn’t get his hair cut on such a regular basis so that it was longer and he could run his fingers through it to express his frustration. “You might as well say I should sell my car and wander around the city looking at other people’s cars until I find one that has a FOR SALE sign on it, then hope it’s in as good shape as the one I sold.”

Dave smirked. “That’s an interesting analogy.”

“It’s an accurate one!” Jeremy stood, which he’d been trying to avoid, because Dave couldn’t do the same and it put them on uneven footing. He made himself sit again. “This is driving me crazy.”

Strangely, it improved his mood that for once Dave didn’t have a quick, sarcastic reply. “I can see that.”

“I don’t want to go meet other people,” Jeremy told him. “I want—”

“Why don’t you ask me what I think about being with you?” Dave put in. “That counts too, right?”

That threw him. “I already know. You’re not a fan of May, and you’re Christmas. Whatever.”

Dave inhaled, a spark of temper showing in his eyes. “Don’t be a brat. I get enough of that from Patrick, and he was at his worst today. I’m not the best choice you can make.”

The words boiled out of him, spurting like lava. “Because one kiss and that’s it, I can never date again? Did it ever occur to you that I might not want a one-night stand but I never said I expected us to get married on date three either? There’s a Goldilocks option here where we see each other for a while, and if it doesn’t work out, we move on, but we give it a chance.” A sudden, horrifying thought struck him. “Oh God, it’s me. You’re going blah-blah-still-in-diapers, but you’re trying to avoid telling me I don’t do it for you.” He slapped his face with the tips of his fingers, leaving behind a sting. “I know how I look, and it works against me as often as it works for me. Is that it?”

“It’s about as far from it as Australia is from New Zealand.”

That made no sense. “Aren’t they right next to each other?”

“Sure, if you overlook one thousand four hundred miles of ocean.”

Jeremy frowned, even though he was starting to figure out Dave was teasing him. He didn’t mind. It showed Dave was amused by his babbling, not irritated. “You could’ve said the North Pole and the South Pole.”

“You’re bigheaded enough.” Dave exhaled, then beckoned him closer. “Come here. Kiss me and see if we get sparks. If it doesn’t suck, we can see how it goes for a couple of weeks, if only to shut you up.”

A rush of desire so powerful it would have made Jeremy’s knees weak if he’d been standing went through him. It took his breath away, which was the second good thing, because otherwise he might have lunged at Dave and stuck his tongue down the poor guy’s throat, and that would have been, well, he wasn’t sure, but not great.

This might be the only shot he had. He wasn’t going to screw it up.

Swallowing, Jeremy hitched himself closer on the couch, careful not to jostle Dave and his still-healing ankle. He stared at Dave uncertainly. He wanted to put his hands on Dave before he kissed him, but wasn’t sure where.

“Changed your mind?” Dave asked gruffly, and Jeremy shook his head.

“No! Are you kidding me? No way. I don’t want to mess this up.” Okay, that was a little too honest even for him, but he’d been discovering that Dave brought that out in him. That was either a fantastic sign or a terrible one, depending on how things went between them.

“You’re thinking too much.” Dave hesitated, then brought a hand up to Jeremy’s face and rubbed a thumb over his lower lip. His mouth fell open like a button had been pushed—maybe it had—and he shivered. “Shh. It’s okay.”

“It’s not,” Jeremy said. “I’m scared.” He was such an idiot, such a fucking baby. No wonder Dave didn’t want anything to do with him.

“We don’t have to,” Dave told him. He cradled Jeremy’s jaw, and Jeremy’s body responded, waking up from hibernation.

“I want to.” He looked into Dave’s gentle eyes and tried to smile. “I do. You know I do.”

“Yeah. Stop thinking.” And before Jeremy could force himself to do that, Dave leaned in and kissed him.

Jeremy was sure it was supposed to be a short kiss, nothing like what it turned into, which was slow and steady and warm. He should pull back, but it was impossible. Dave’s lips would shift a little bit, clinging to his, and there was nothing to do but keep going.

Everything ends, but the kiss became Dave’s mouth on his neck, high up, close to his jaw, unhurried brushes of lips against skin Jeremy had shaved earlier. His breath was a rush of air in and out, quiet gasps as Dave broke him into pieces and remade him, a child twisting a kaleidoscope to create the perfect pattern.

Dave slid his hand around, cradling the back of Jeremy’s neck and discovering a place on his body he’d never realized was an erogenous zone. Shivers and tingles. His nipples hardened so abruptly he noticed it, the tautness of the skin around them producing an effect like invisible fingers plucking them erect. His cock had gone from a quiescent curl of soft flesh to a rigid thrust at the first touch of Dave’s hand.

It was a kiss, a caress, the space between them reduced to inches at most, and it was more intense than sex because he’d waited so long for this, every day increasing his yearning.

“Steady,” Dave murmured, and Jeremy stopped scrabbling futilely at the heavy shirt Dave wore in an attempt to reach skin. “I’m not going anywhere, and neither are you.”

“You said one kiss,” Jeremy reminded him. Technically their lips were touching, brushing against each other as they spoke, so they hadn’t stopped yet.

“No, I didn’t. Not sure how you got that idea.” Dave was breathing heavily too. “I take it you don’t want to stop?”

“Are you crazy? Of course I don’t.” Worried, Jeremy pulled back. “Do you?” He was falling for Dave, and the idea that it might not be mutual was a block of ice in his stomach. “Tell me.”

Dave shook his head and Jeremy’s at the same time, a gentle back-and-forth of Jeremy’s skull with the hand that had moved up to support it. “No. I don’t want to stop.”

Leaning in again, Jeremy kissed him. The feel of Dave’s mouth was addictive, and what he did with it even more so. Jeremy couldn’t remember being this turned on since his first sexual experience. But this was better, because Dave knew what he was doing and wasn’t fumbling around like a hot, desperate virgin.

“Easy,” Dave said gently.

Jeremy whined in frustration. “What happens if we don’t take it slow? If we take it to a logical conclusion instead. You, me, naked, sex.”

“Five minutes into our first date? You’d never respect me in the morning.”

Being teased didn’t bother him. The prospect of no sex did. “We’re not teenagers, and we’re not strangers. What would we be waiting for?”

“The cast to come off?”

Fair point. He rallied. “There’s plenty we can do with it on.” He put his hand on Dave’s lap, finding the place where denim lay over an erection and fondling it. Dave arched up with a startled grunt, then grabbed Jeremy’s hand.

“Enough. It’s been a while for me, and I don’t want this over before it starts.”

“You’re that close already?”

Dave raised his eyebrows. “Trying to tell me you’re not? You look like I’ve been fucking you for the past hour. All flushed and drowsy. Will you stop biting your lip? Please? You’re driving me crazy.”

“I didn’t know I was. Biting my lip, I mean. Well, no, I knew I was, but I wasn’t doing it on purpose.” He licked his lower lip tentatively. It stung. “Ow. Stopping. Right now.”

“Jesus.” Dave drew him closer with a yank, mashing their mouths together in a kiss that was the flip side of the first, a darkly erotic assault with Jeremy matching him bite for bite. Dave slid his tongue inside Jeremy’s mouth, demanding a response, urging Jeremy to take what he wanted in return.

He’d bite his lips until they were chapped and raw if it got him kissed this way, turned on enough to come in his pants. He became aware of an insistent, annoying sound coming from nearby.

“That’s my phone,” Dave muttered and kissed him once more before pulling away and reaching for it. “Damn it.”

The cell phone was on the other side of the pizza box on the coffee table where Dave had dropped it when he came over, out of his reach. “Hang on. I’ve got it.” Jeremy passed it over.

“Hello?” Dave’s face went shuttered as he listened to the person on the other end of the line, and somehow Jeremy knew it was Travis. Dave was quiet for a long time, avoiding Jeremy’s gaze. “No,” he said. “I’m glad for you that you’re clean, I truly am. But I’m done.”

Jeremy’s imagination provided plenty of fodder to fill the silence as Travis continued. I love you, and I know you still love me. I’m so sorry. I’m never going back to the drugs, I swear. Take me back. It would be hard to blame Dave for saying yes.

Sitting there with his mind racing was too hard. Jeremy stood, but Dave reached over and grabbed his hand, squeezing it.

“No.” Dave bowed his head, making it hard to read his expression. “Travis. No. Because it doesn’t matter why not, and I don’t owe you any explanations.” He swallowed. “No. I’m hanging up now. If you call again, I won’t answer, and I’m blocking your number.” Dave pulled the phone away from his face and stared at it, the sound of Travis’s voice audible, before he let go of Jeremy’s hand and pushed the button to end the call.

The apartment was quiet.

“He called from a new number. Not the first time.” Dave set the phone down on the table gently, when it looked as if he wanted to throw it across the room.

“Why is he stalking you?” Too late, Jeremy reevaluated his pursuit of an unwilling Dave and swallowed back guilt. “Is that what I—”

“No.” Dave’s sharp denial was comforting. “You were playful about it. It was cute. Do you think I’d come over this often if it upset me? He’s fucking with my head, and I hate it.”

“He still loves you.”

“He was screwing other men from day one, and he’s been with half a dozen more since we split up. If that’s love, I’ll scratch the word out of my dictionary. He wants something. Money, probably. He knows I sold the house at a profit. Or somewhere to stay if he’s between meal tickets.”

“He sounds horrible. Why does anyone go out with him in the first place?” Picturing going on a blind date and meeting someone like Travis, all sweet poison, made Jeremy shudder.

“I told you. He’s charming. No, he’s charismatic. You want him to like you. He sells you this image of himself, and you can’t get your wallet out fast enough. And if someone warns you about him and you bring it up, he spins a story about a jealous ex bad-mouthing him until you’re ready to hunt the ex down and punch him.” Dave fingered his jaw. “Ask me how I know.”

“He didn’t.” Horrified, Jeremy reached out, touching Dave’s face lightly as if the bruise still lingered. “Can you get a restraining order?”

“He hasn’t done anything. Being a pain in the ass isn’t illegal.”

Jeremy made a mental note to check the Internet later for more information on the subject of restraining orders. “It ought to be.” He wanted to pet Dave, to soothe him, but he drew his hand back instead, not sure how he fit into this puzzle and unwilling to force his piece in where it didn’t belong.

Dave smiled with half his mouth. “Come here, would you?” He gestured for Jeremy to move closer, and Jeremy did, molding himself to the curve of Dave’s body. Jeremy was taking comfort as much as giving it, but Dave was the one who sighed into Jeremy’s hair and hugged him more tightly. “Thanks.”

“I don’t know what for. I didn’t do anything.” Jeremy murmured the words into Dave’s shirt.

“You were here.”

It didn’t sound like much to Jeremy. “Would he, I don’t know, do something?”

“No.” Dave’s hesitation before replying wasn’t reassuring. “He’s like one of those dogs, you know. All bark and no bite? He talks a good game, and he’s believable as hell when he gets going, but he’s not a psychopath.”

“You’re not doing such a good job convincing me.”

Dave sighed again. “Not doing such a good job convincing myself either. But trust me, there’s nothing we can do, legally, unless he crosses certain lines, and so far he’s always stayed on the other side of them.” He rubbed Jeremy’s shoulder. “Don’t worry.”

“Easier said than done.” Okay, time to drop it. “I should put the pizza in the fridge before it sits out too long and we have to throw it away.” Jeremy had learned that Dave was particular about food safety.

“Or stay right here, and the hell with the pizza. It’s not what I’m hungry for, and yeah, I know that’s as cheesy as the food, but I mean it.”

“If anyone else had said it, I’d have snickered, but when it’s you saying it to me, not so much.”

“Different rules,” Dave said softly enough Jeremy had to lean closer to catch the words, and maybe that was a cunning plan, because seconds later they were kissing again, the interruption not forgotten but pushed aside.

Hot became heated, Jeremy’s arousal a lion roaring, craving meat. He’d been turned on before, walking into a hotel room with Marla and heading straight for the bed, suitcases dropped by the door, the two of them locked in a passionate embrace a minute later, but this was a whole new level of wanting. Dave smelled sexy in an indefinable way, making him want to nuzzle into every place where that smell was the strongest and breath it in, learn it. He was aware of the smallest details—the soft, thick strands of hair clinging to his fingers, the scrape of stubble against his freshly shaved chin. Eyes closed as they kissed, he mapped Dave’s body with his hands, glorying in the hard, muscular flesh waiting to be uncovered. Wishing he was as dexterous with his feet as with his hands, he rubbed his socked foot against Dave’s ankle and calf, toes curling when Dave slid a hand inside his T-shirt and caressed his back.

It was intriguing to be taken back to his teenage days, when necking like this was new and a huge thrill. He was so used to being confident when it came to sex, strolling a familiar path, and to branch off, even if the destination was the same, excited him. Not that his desire needed more fuel on the fire.

“Warn me if I’m too rough,” he gasped, pushing Dave’s shirt up out of the way so he could rub his jaw against Dave’s abs.

“Unlikely.” Dave’s fingertips traced the bumps of Jeremy’s spine. “How much have you done before?”

After pressing a line of kisses up along Dave’s chest, Jeremy paused at one small brown nipple. He ought to answer but had to lick across it once with the flat of his tongue and watch it tighten first. “With a guy? Not this much. Made out, but we were drunk enough at the time that we both fell asleep in the middle of it, and when we woke up in the morning, I guess you could say the spell had been broken.” He could remember how the other guy, a friend of a friend whose name was lost to him now, had refused to look him in the eye.

“Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.”

Jeremy bit Dave’s nipple gently. “Stop. You might be more experienced with guys than I am, but I’m not a virgin. And I don’t do anything I don’t want to.” He slid his hand from Dave’s waist down lower to rub Dave’s cock through his jeans. Dave groaned. “Right now, I’d like to put my mouth on you.”

Dave’s voice was unsteady. “Yeah. Please.”

Fingers that were uncoordinated earlier were agile now. Jeremy unfastened Dave’s jeans and peeled them and his boxer briefs back far enough to reveal his cock. It was flushed and erect, but the base was obscured by denim. “Can you lift a little, here?”

“I can manage that, yeah.” The tone was dry, but Dave’s voice shook, betraying him. Not nerves, couldn’t be—then Jeremy remembered how long it’d been since Dave was in this position with someone who wasn’t Travis and how much time had passed since Travis left.

It seemed to level the playing field. Both hungry, both unsure of themselves. It’d work out.

Without thinking too much, he cupped Dave’s balls, rolling them the way he liked it done to him, smiling when Dave voiced his pleasure with a soft moan. Man or woman, it made no difference to him. He knew what a male body looked like, and he knew what worked for him. It’d serve as a starting point until he knew Dave better.

He licked the head of Dave’s cock, curious about the taste and feel of it against his tongue, encouraged by a second moan, stifled as if Dave didn’t want to startle him. Musky wasn’t a bad description, he decided. A warm, spicy scent too easily defined as sandalwood and ginger to be natural—had to be bodywash. He liked it. And when he took Dave in deep, bobbing his head slowly, careful not to nudge the back of his throat, he liked that too.

Oral sex was his favorite form of foreplay. The intimacy of it, the way he could use his tongue, engaging his senses more than with his fingers, turned him on. Having his mouth filled was new, but not his delight in the act.

“Sure you’ve never done this before?”

Jeremy had to pull away to answer, but he spoke with his lips against the base of Dave’s cock. “I’m sure. Had it done plenty of times, though. And I’m a fast learner.”

He went back to work, trying to remember what he’d enjoyed in the past, determined to prove to Dave that he could do this, and do it well. Listening to Dave’s soft, wordless encouragement helped. Jeremy had to make a conscious effort to ignore his erection when it responded to Dave’s sounds as if he were the one making them.

Dave’s hand touched his head, not pushing or even guiding. “I’m getting close.”

Good, Jeremy thought. That was the whole point. This was something he could give Dave, this pleasure, this release, and he wanted it as much as he’d ever wanted to come into a warm, willing mouth himself. He wished he could tell Dave to come without stopping what he was doing, which, of course, he couldn’t. Instead, he rested the hand not wrapped around the base of Dave’s shaft on Dave’s thigh, letting his thumb rub a gentle back-and-forth along the crisp hair mere inches from Dave’s balls.

He increased the amount of suction, and Dave cried out and stiffened. That was all the warning Jeremy got before a jolt of salty, bitter fluid slicked across his tongue. It had been years since he’d tasted his cum, and this was different, not as sweet, not that it mattered. What mattered was Dave’s hand clutching at his shoulder, the throb of his shaft in Jeremy’s grip, then the sudden, full-body relaxation and gasping for air.

He gulped, relishing the thick, heavy taste before the act of swallowing gradually washed it away. His lips were numb, rubbery, and his jaw ached, but they were minor issues.

“I’d forgotten how good that feels.” Dave sounded satisfyingly wiped out. “How could I forget?”

“Beats me.” Jeremy’s cock throbbed, reminding him that if it was better to give than receive, it was his turn to be on the receiving end. He didn’t want to seem pushy or break a gay sex-etiquette rule, but he’d assumed one plus of gay sex was two climaxes guaranteed. “Umm, I can take care of myself, I guess, but if you’re up to lending a hand, and that’s all you’d need to do, because I’m so close pulling my zipper down too fast would do the trick, but you’re here and I’d like it to be you doing it, not me.”

“It’s going to be me, if only to make you stop babbling.” Dave hitched himself upright, face still slack with pleasure. “Come here.”

Blitz chose that moment to pad into the room, signaling his arrival with a plaintive yowl before leaping up onto the couch to sniff at Dave’s stomach.

“Now it’s getting kinky,” Dave muttered. “Can we lose Blitz?”

“He’s not easily shocked, but sure.” On the plus side, getting up to relocate the cat allowed Jeremy to adjust himself, and because he hadn’t taken off his clothes yet, he was protected from Blitz’s claws. With Blitz safely on the other side of a closed door, Jeremy paused to take off his socks; it seemed wrong getting a handjob or blowjob wearing them.

“You could take those off,” Dave said when he returned, gesturing at his pants.

Jeremy wasn’t a prude, not at all. He was comfortable with his body, and with other people’s naked bodies. But with Dave, whom he’d been fantasizing about for weeks, still mostly dressed—Jeremy had pulled up his jeans and tucked himself away but not fastened the button—there was something about undressing that made him squirm.

“Or not.” Dave studied his face for a minute as if trying to figure out what was going on inside Jeremy’s head. “Please tell me you’re not having a hetero freak-out.”

“I’m not,” Jeremy assured him. “Not even close. I’m a little… I don’t know. I can’t even think of the word.” He hoped he wasn’t coming across as a total flake, but he felt as if half his brain cells had been swept away with the blood currently taking up residence in his dick.

“Come over here and let me touch you, okay? If that’s what you want.”

“It is.” Jeremy forced himself to take a step, and after that it was easy again. He went over to Dave’s side, undoing his button and zipper. He couldn’t stifle a groan when Dave slid a hand inside his pants and touched him through the thin fabric of his briefs.

“It would be easier if you took all this off.” Dave tugged at the elastic waistband until the head of Jeremy’s cock sprang free.

“Easier for whom?”

“Both of us,” Dave said as patiently as if it’d been a serious question. “You because cum gets everywhere and skin’s simple to clean, but who needs more laundry? Me because I can’t get you off if I can’t get at you.”

“Logical.”

“Yes, Mr. Spock.”

“Classic or new Spock?”

“They’re both hot, so who cares?”

In the end, Jeremy stripped naked, because that was how he did it when he was undressing for bed or a bath, and habit took over. Dave watched him from the couch, silently approving, judging by his half smile and the slow scan of his gaze.

“Not just a pretty face.”

Jeremy palmed his erection, viewing it objectively, or as objective as any man looking at his pride and joy. “Never had any complaints.”

“I can see why.” Dave’s gaze locked on target. “One of us had better start buying the economy-sized bottles of lube.”

Jeremy edged closer, intrigued by the possibilities opening up. “You, uh, you bottom?”

“It’s been known to happen. You’d enjoy it. Fucking me, I mean. More what you’re used to, except it’s tighter.” Dave ran his finger over his cock, lying against his stomach, still half-hard. “Hotter.”

“Temperature or—” Jeremy got that far; then an invisible hand squeezed his balls, his climax rushing over him when his mind supplied a vivid image of Dave, legs spread, Jeremy’s cock embedded in his lube-shined hole, widening it obscenely. He cried out, startled, and covered the head of his cock with his hand, cum spurting from him in a wasted climax he was too distracted to enjoy.

It beat out every embarrassing event in his life to date, an easy winner. And the gold medal for premature ejaculation goes to Jeremy, folks. Let’s give him a round of applause for coming so fast his only reasonable course of action now is to flee.

Bending, Jeremy grabbed his discarded T-shirt and used it to cover his dick, which was deflating out of shame. “Well,” he muttered. “I’m gonna—”

He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but before he could finish, Dave reached out and caught hold of the T-shirt too. “Sit down.”

“No, I’m—”

“Sit,” Dave said firmly, and keeping his gaze focused on the floor, Jeremy moved to obey, swiping himself clean with the soft cotton shirt as unobtrusively as possible. “Whatever you’re thinking, stop. So you came. That was the point of this whole experiment, remember?”

“The point was to convince you that I’m not too young and stupid and inexperienced to be worth dating.” He was doing a shitty job of it, and his sullen tone was making it worse. “Or to be relationship material. Whatever you want to call it. The point was not to act like a dumb kid who comes at the idea of someone touching him. So yeah. Sorry. You were right.”

“You convinced me you want me. That you’re into me.” Dave held up his hand, palm out, exposing reddened crescents where his fingernails had dug in. “This was how I kept from coming when you grabbed my balls, so I’m not casting any stones here. How about we clean up and get back to the pizza? In about an hour or so, we can try it again and focus less on impressing each other and more on enjoying it.”

“You didn’t get off on the blowjob?”

“Definitely not,” Dave said, rolling his eyes. “You need practice. Lots of it, with an understanding partner willing to overlook getting his mind blown along with his cock. I volunteer.”

Mood improving, Jeremy grinned at him. “You’re a brave man. Guess where I’m going to pin the medal.”

“Ouch.”

“Good guesser.”

Chapter Six

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Helen asked again.

“Yes. I’m fine. Would you stop with the twenty questions?” Dave gritted his teeth and focused on flipping the burgers on the grill.

He wasn’t okay. His ankle, freshly released from its cast two days ago, was killing him. Yesterday had been a rough first day back at work, but he’d soldiered through and figured after eight hours’ sleep, he’d get through today too. Now he had doubts. It was barely five o’clock, and he wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to stay on his feet, but he was pretty sure it wouldn’t be until the end of his shift.

“It’s one question, but I’ve asked it three times,” Helen pointed out. “All right, these salads are ready whenever we need them.” She carried the tray over to the refrigerator and slid it in, brushed her hands on her apron, and added, “I’m popping to the loo. Be right back.”

When she’d gone, Dave let himself wince and shift his weight to his good ankle. The bad one had been swollen by the time he’d crawled into bed that morning, and only slightly better when he’d forced himself to get up and ready for work. Now it had moved past aching into a steady throb that radiated up into his calf.

“Hey, are those burgers ready?” Vin asked.

“Almost,” Dave said, trying to sound normal. “Give me another minute and a half.” He clenched his jaw and walked over to the fryer when the timer beeped, pulling the fries up out of the hot oil and dumping them into the tray so he could salt them.

“Are you okay?” Vin sounded concerned, and Dave snapped, turning to glare at him.

“I’m fine! I’d be even better if everyone would stop asking me.”

Vin held up his hands. “It’s not a crazy question. You’re limping.”

“Not anymore, he’s not,” Ben said grimly, stalking into the kitchen with Helen on his heels. “Dave, come with me. Helen’s taking over in here.”

“What?” Dave was too stunned to protest when Ben came over and took his elbow.

“You think we don’t notice you because you’re stuck back here in the kitchen?” Ben moved toward the door, bringing Dave with him. After two steps, the hand on his elbow became an arm around his shoulders, supporting him, making the short walk to the office less of an ordeal.

“I’ve had enough time off,” Dave said after Ben settled him in the computer chair, his foot resting on a box of vodka bottles. The hum of music and voices from the bar that formed a background to his work in the kitchen was a murmur in here with the door closed. “Everyone’s sick of filling in for me and pulling double shifts.”

Ben perched on the edge of the large table, pushing his laptop to the side. “The customers were complaining because they missed your food, but no one was complaining about you needing to take the time to heal. You had a week or so off when it happened, an afternoon here and there for follow-up visits, and you’ve worked from home helping Helen with any questions she had about food prep and deliveries. No one, no one, minds covering for you until you’re back on your feet, and that wasn’t a pun.”

Dave closed his eyes for a moment against a sickening throb from his ankle. “Sorry.”

“For pushing yourself instead of asking for help? You should be.”

Shane opened the door, whistling tunelessly. He held a bag of ice. “Here you go. I’ve crushed it up a bit so it isn’t all lumps.” He pointed a finger at Dave. “Don’t tell me you don’t need it, or half of it goes down the back of your neck.”

“Shane.” It was all Ben said, but Shane pursed his lips and nodded as if a conversation had taken place between them.

“I can’t sit at home anymore.” As much as Dave had enjoyed getting to spend some uninterrupted time with Jeremy—who was not his boyfriend, not yet, not officially—Jeremy needed to work if he wanted to pay his bills. Dave liked to read, but even that had gotten old.

“We’re not asking you to. Look at this place.” Ben gestured at the office, and Dave did as he’d been told, staring at the piles of boxes and collection of mismatched filing cabinets. “I’ve been meaning to put it into order again.”

“This isn’t a conversation I’m keen on being around for.” Shane handed the bag of ice to Dave, then made a hasty exit.

“He thinks he’s responsible for this mess.” Ben sighed and closed his laptop, then moved to unearth a second chair from beneath a stack of file folders so Dave could prop his foot up on it. “There. Anyway, at this point it’s as much me as him. I straightened it out after Craig died, but since then it’s gone to hell and I never have time to deal with it.”

Dave settled the bag of ice against his ankle. Fuck, that hurt. He almost wished he had that bottle of painkillers on him. “I take it that’s where I come in.”

“I’d be grateful,” Ben said. “You’d be doing me a huge favor.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not your main motivation.”

Ben perched on the edge of the desk again. “It’s not as if I could ask anyone else to do it.” Dave had to admit Ben had a point there. “Can you imagine if I let Vin or Patrick back here? They’d have good intentions, but in the end I wouldn’t have things organized the way I’d want them.”

“I don’t know if you will if you have me do it either.” It was best to be honest. “You’ve seen my place. It’s not a shining example of good housekeeping.”

Waving that away, Ben said, “Totally different animal. Put in a few hours until the end of your shift. Please?”

What could he say but yes? After a stern warning not to do any of the sorting on his feet, Ben left, humming the same tune as Shane, but on key. Dave liked being around the two of them, but they were a vivid reminder of what he’d hoped for with Travis, and that hurt. Not so much since meeting Jeremy, though. If what he had with his neighbor fizzled, it’d shown him that romance after Travis was possible, at least.

Jeremy’s boundless enthusiasm for sex wasn’t surprising. Difficult to keep up with, yes. His continued insistence that Dave was everything he looked for in a man left Dave flattered but skeptical. He didn’t undervalue himself, but the first time Jeremy walked into the Peg, he’d see what he was missing out on. Best not to get too attached. Dave planned to enjoy the ride, pray they stayed friends after the inevitable breakup, and make sure Jeremy didn’t get hurt at any step along the way.

Without leaving his seat, he studied the room, mentally shifting furniture around. Before Ben had arrived at the Peg, Dave had helped out in here once or twice, and he knew the basic setup. There were three battered filing cabinets on the far wall. If he separated the records for the staff from those connected to the supplies, and used the third cabinet for miscellaneous bills and records, that would help. At the moment, each drawer in the cabinets was crammed with loose bills, their original order long since lost. Shane and Ben were often rushed off their feet, and when a document needed filing, it must have seemed quicker to open the nearest drawer than search for the correct one.

That would have to wait, though. He’d need to be more mobile to undertake emptying nine deep drawers and sorting through the contents. Maybe one of the boxes would be a better place to start.

With a sigh, wondering how Helen was getting along without him, he leaned over and grabbed the flap of a box under the window, edging it closer. Too heavy to lift without standing, but he placed it on the table without more than a warning twinge. Ice pack resettled, he began the excavation.

Dave had been at it for at least an hour and had moved on to a second box when the door opened without warning—Vin, uncertain.

“How’s it going? You need anything?” He sounded worried that Dave would snap at him again.

“I’m good.” Dave took a deep breath and let it out. “Sorry about before. It wasn’t you I was mad at.”

Visibly relieved, Vin came the rest of the way into the office. “I know. Don’t worry about it. It must be annoying that we’re all on you all the time.”

“It shouldn’t be. I should be grateful to have friends who give a crap about me. Sometimes I forget that.” Was he one of those people who didn’t deal well with being less than perfect? That was stupid, because it wasn’t as if he expected anyone else to be flawless. “Once I’m healed, I’ll do something to make up for it. Have a party.”

“You don’t have to,” Vin said. “But if you do, you’d better let Patrick be in charge of the decorations, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Dave hadn’t considered the details of his party yet, but he was confident they wouldn’t include decorations. Still, he wouldn’t mention that. “Okay. Hey, could you do me a favor and slide this over there, then grab that pile of papers for me?”

“Sure.” Vin did as asked, saying, “Can I bring you a drink or something?”

“Water would be great. The dust in here is an inch thick in places.”

Instead of heading to the nearest faucet, Vin lingered, playing with one of the earrings in his left lobe, twisting the amber stud. “So how’s it going with the boy next door?”

Jeremy had mentioned bumping into Vin, briefly enough to arouse Dave’s suspicions. Either they hadn’t hit it off—unlikely, given Vin’s sweet nature—or Vin had said something about him and told Jeremy not to share. He leaned toward the latter.

“I forgot you’d met him.”

“Yeah, but I’m the only one who has. Why doesn’t he come in for a drink? Too good for the Peg?”

Every staff member felt a fierce protectiveness about the bar. It was more than a place they worked; it was a second home. A haven. Dave didn’t waste time setting Vin straight.

“It’s my fault. I told him if he came in, he’d get picked up before he finished his first drink.”

Vin frowned, his bewilderment plain. “No one would bug him if he wasn’t interested. Tell him to come in on my shift, and I’ll take care of him.”

“It’s not that. He thinks I’m trying to push him off on someone else. And I am, but it’s complicated.”

“Oh God.” Vin cast his eyes heavenward. “Save me. He’s into you, I know that, and you talk about him more than you realize, so I’m guessing it goes both ways.”

“So does he.” It slipped out, and he grimaced. “Shouldn’t have said that. Forget it. Not that it’s a secret.”

Unfazed, Vin shrugged. “Bi? Okay. But mostly he’s dated women, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re worried he’s into you but the icky gay sex is going to scare him off?” Vin wiggled his eyebrows suggestively, succeeding in looking cute, not salacious.

Choking back a laugh, Dave shook his head. “Uh, no. Definitely not that.” Jeremy was curious, uninhibited, and relaxed about sex, more so than Dave had expected.

I screwed up so badly that first time with you I burned out my embarrassment circuit,” he’d explained after Dave asked. “So when I try to get my cock in you and the head keeps slipping off target until we’re both laughing too much to go on, I could say that’s it, never again, find me a corner to curl up in and cry, or I could try again sometime. Going to go with trying again, though I’ll take a rain check until your cast is off, because man, does that thing get in the way!

Dave wasn’t convinced it was that simple—Jeremy was still apprehensive about penetrative sex—but they’d spent hours making out and shared plenty of orgasms.

“What are you worried about?” Vin asked.

Unsure why he was letting Vin draw it out of him, Dave sighed. “He’s too young for me, okay? Or I’m too old for him. One or the other. Both.”

“That’s stupid.” Vin rolled his eyes when Dave spluttered a protest. “No, I’m serious. Hear me out. He’s, what, at least twenty-five, right?”

“He’s twenty-nine.”

“And he’s not, you know, um. Developmentally disabled?”

Dave gave him a disbelieving snort. “No. His internal filter might not always be in perfect working order, but he’s not handicapped. Do you really think that?”

“No. That’s my point. You’d trust him to make normal decisions, wouldn’t you?” Vin waved his fingers in the air as if he was trying to come up with examples. “Like which car to buy if he needed a new one, or whether he should go to the hospital if he was sick?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Then why do you think he’s incapable of deciding if you’re a reasonable person for him to get involved with?”

Put that way, it was indefensible. “He’s a good person,” Dave said quietly. “I want him to be happy.”

“You have to respect him enough to let him choose on that front,” Vin said. “I’ll get you that water.”

Left alone, Dave resisted the urge to bang his head against the desk. That had gone about as well as his experiment with shrimp curry, and even Shane, who adored spicy food, had refused to finish his first mouthful, spitting it out inelegantly but efficiently into the trash.

He’d told Vin part of the truth, but the real issue lay with him. He considered he made good choices in life, and mostly he did. He had money saved, he kept healthy, he’d never done drugs or smoked, and when it came to sex, he was careful. But none of that made up for his abysmal failure in picking a partner. Too stubborn to admit he’d made a mistake with Travis, he’d devoted his energy to patching up something so torn it wasn’t worth saving, less to help Travis than to justify his choice.

And now he was scared, mistrusting his feelings. He liked Jeremy. The man was attractive, kind, and he worked hard. The list of his good qualities was a long one. Sure, he was on the weird side in some ways, but so were many of Dave’s friends. He liked people with a new take on life. Locke, living surrounded by his beloved bees, was a prime example of that. But was he missing something when it came to Jeremy, blinded by his initial gratitude and the passion that’d flared between them?

He’d known Jeremy for less than two months. He’d known Travis all his life and still missed the warning signs.

Vin brought him the water, delivering it with a nod but no more advice. With a growl of annoyance directed at himself, Dave thrust his hand into the box and pulled out a sheaf of papers. If they were more posters for the pride parade from three years ago, he’d start a fire right here on the desk. Shane didn’t seem to believe in recycling or throwing out stuff that was no use to anyone.

Junk mail: postcards from real-estate agents, requests for donations of unneeded items to local charities, sale flyers for grocery store chains. It wasn’t safe to toss it without careful checking, though, because Dave had already found important receipts for bills paid tucked haphazardly between trash. No wonder Ben had put off this job for so long.

A wad of something slipped free of the pile and hit the floor with a sharp sound. Dave bent to pick it up and discovered it was a stack of photos, old ones if their condition was any indication. They were faded, almost sun-bleached, and he had to tilt them to catch the light from the overhead fixture so his eyes could focus and make sense of them.

The one on top was of a man with his arm around a woman’s shoulders. It took a moment for Dave to recognize the man. It was Craig Lozier, Shane’s former partner in the business and Ben’s father. Dave had met him a few times, back before he’d died of cancer and left the Square Peg equally to Ben and Shane, but he’d been much older than in this photo. Now, studying it, Dave could see that the woman must be Ben’s mother. Ben resembled his dad, but the shape of his face and jaw was his mom’s.

Moving to the next photo, which wasn’t as faded, Dave saw a Ben that might have been middle-school-aged. It might have been taken on the first day of school; Ben wore a blue backpack and a wide grin. Dave turned the picture over in case there was something written on the reverse side, but there was nothing. Ben’s parents had split up when Ben was a toddler, so chances were this photo had been sent to a Craig who hadn’t seen his son in a year or more.

The office door opened again, and Shane came in. “Don’t mind me. I’m looking for that extra box of bar napkins. Ah, there it is.” How he could spot anything that quickly was a mystery to Dave, but he’d run the place for years before Ben came along. Straightening up, holding the box, Shane glanced over at Dave. “What’ve you got there?”

“Some old photos of Ben’s dad.”

“Craig?” Shane sounded startled. “Shit. I thought I’d tossed those.”

“Why would you do that? Wouldn’t Ben want to see them?” Dave fanned through them, seeing more pictures of Ben at school, the official annual ones, with Ben posed against a background, staring directly at the camera, stiff, smiling self-consciously. Mixed in with them were some of Craig, pulling a pint behind the bar and laughing because beer had foamed up; with his arm around a grinning Shane, his free hand clutching a cheap trophy. Dave remembered that night. Shane and Craig had won a pool tournament organized to raise money for a charity. Craig had been a silent partner for the most part, leaving the work to Shane, but he’d dropped in from time to time, always smiling, never staying long.

Sometimes he’d been smiling too much, eyes unfocused, hands shaking. Dave had gotten along with him without ever getting close. It occurred to him that Travis and Craig shared several character traits, none of them good. Both charming, superficial, and into drugs. He couldn’t recall Travis ever meeting Craig, but if they had, he guessed they’d have either disliked each other or been inseparable.

“No.”

“I know Craig wasn’t the best dad in the world, but Ben should see these. My dad died when I was a kid, and I only have a few photos of him. I’d love to have more.”

“Your dad died. Not his fault. Craig was a druggie who abandoned his family.”

“Maybe he did it to protect them.” It was fatally easy to slip into the role of defender. He’d done it so many times for Travis, appeasing family, friends, irate employers. “Better for him to stay away than have Ben see him high.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s why he did it.” The heavy sarcasm grated Dave’s nerves raw. “Nothing to do with all the bits on the side he had.” Shane ran his hand through his short hair and blew out an exasperated sigh. “I worked with the bloke. I owed him for giving me the chance to run this place, and we got on okay, but he was a right selfish bastard. Ben didn’t like him alive, and he’s not too fond of him dead. Give me those, and I’ll get rid of them. Anything else you find of his, you toss, understand?”

Dave wasn’t convinced, but he was about to agree anyway when Ben came into the office. “Hey,” Ben said. “I was starting to think I put them in the storage room. Oh, never mind. You found them.”

Shane had the box of paper napkins tucked under one arm and was reaching for the photos.

It was too late for Dave to hide what he held, though he would have tried if he could. “Um,” he said, at the same time Shane growled, “Damn it.”

Ben blinked, stepped around Shane, and took the photos from Dave’s hand. His face, usually open and friendly, closed down.

“Thought I got rid of those ages ago,” Shane said. “Give them here, and I’ll take care of it, yeah?”

“No, it’s okay,” Ben said, though his tone made it clear it was anything but. He gazed at the photos as if they were the only thing in the room, his shoulders slumped. “It’s fine. Dave, you want to knock off for the night?”

“I can keep going,” Dave protested. He’d figured he would continue on until the end of his shift. He wasn’t finding the work physically demanding.

“No. Go home.” He’d never heard Ben sound so distant and disconnected, not even after the fire when Shane had been in the hospital. “And keep off that ankle.”

Dave glanced at Shane, not knowing how to handle this. Shane gestured at the door. “You heard the man,” he said. “Go on. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

It was clear that further argument wouldn’t be welcome. Dave rose and walked to the door, testing his weight on his ankle and trying his best to ignore the twinges of pain. He’d barely cleared the doorway when a sharper twinge made him pause and lean against the wall, out of sight of his employers but within earshot.

“Let me throw those away, love,” Shane said gently.

“And why would you want to do that? I look pretty good in this one, if you can get over the plaid shirt. God knows what I was thinking with that fashion choice.”

“Not the ones of you.”

“Oh, you mean the ones with Craig.” The bored indifference in Ben’s voice was fake as pleather, and it cracked as easily. “Jesus, you’ve got your arm around him as if he’s your best friend.”

“It’s a fucking photo. Someone shoves a camera at you and says smile. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“You knew him for years, and I have five memories of him. That’s so wrong I don’t know where to start.”

His voice intense, Shane ground out a reply. “I knew more about you in the first five minutes than after all those years knowing him. Do not get bent out of shape over this. I mean it. He’s dead. Any issues you had with him, you won. You’re still breathing. He isn’t.”

“Won? This isn’t a fight, Shane! If he was still alive, I wouldn’t have punched him out if we’d met. That’s your way of dealing with a problem, not mine.”

“Yeah? Tell that to my arse, because you did a number on it last night.”

Okay, Dave had to get as far away as possible, because this had become too personal to hear. Swearing under his breath, he limped away, doing more swearing when his injured ankle clipped a crate of wine bottles.

“Easy.” Jeremy reached out and steadied him the way he had a dozen times before.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Dave growled.

Jeremy, bless him, didn’t take it to heart. “You’re the one who kept telling me to come.”

“I thought I’d bring him back to say hi, since you weren’t in the kitchen.” Vin seemed pleased. “But here you are, swearing and complaining as usual.”

“Thanks,” Dave said. “That’s what I need, for Jeremy here to have a worse opinion of me than he already does.”

“I don’t mind the swearing.” Jeremy sounded cheerful, but Dave knew him well enough to see he was a little uncomfortable, out of his element. “I know you’re supposed to get off work in, what, an hour and a half?” Checking his watch, he added, “I figured I’d hang out for a while, get a feel for the place. Then we could have a drink together.”

“I’m officially off the clock for the night.” Dave pointed back down the hallway toward the bar.

“Oh! But that’s early, right? Unless I misunderstood. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Vin had stepped back to give them room, but he followed them, and Dave was aware of his interest in watching them interact. “No, you were right, but things changed. I’ll explain. Vin, could you bring us some drinks? Do you want a beer?” he asked Jeremy.

“Surprise me,” Jeremy told Vin.

Vin nodded. “I could get Patrick to mix you a cocktail. He’s come up with a new one. The Barbilicious.”

“Don’t surprise him that much,” Dave said before Jeremy accepted. Patrick’s cocktails tended to be pink, sweet, and lethal. After one, you wanted a second; after two, you couldn’t remember the first.

Jeremy rubbed his shoulder against Dave’s arm. Dave had seen Blitz do something similar to Jeremy when the cat wanted a stroke, dabbing a paw at an arm or leg. “I wouldn’t like it?”

Slinging his arm around Jeremy and letting the man take his weight a little, Dave grinned. “You’d love it until you were seeing it a second time around.”

“I’ll stick with beer.”

“Wise choice.”

“One Barbilicious for Dave, one draft for Jeremy. Got it.” Vin winked at Dave and edged past them. “Coming right up.”

“Two drafts!” Dave called after him. “I’m recovering from a broken ankle. I need to stay steady on my feet!”

“Hang on to your cutie,” Vin called back.

“Will he make you drink it?” Jeremy asked.

Dave snorted. “What’s he going to do, hold me down and pour it in? No, he’s teasing me.” And trying to get beyond the residual awkwardness of their recent conversation, Dave guessed. “But if you ever want to get well and truly wasted, you know what to ask for.”

“I’ve never been so drunk I had a hangover before,” Jeremy said when they were at a corner table with a good view of the bar. It was busy, the noise level high enough to provide privacy, the couple at the next table over engrossed in texting and ignoring each other. “I get to a certain point, decide I’ve had enough, and quit.”

“Bright man. Push that other chair over a little, would you?” Dave propped up his ankle and sighed. “Oh, that’s better.”

“You’re hurting,” Jeremy observed.

“Too much time on my feet. Foot. That’s why they had me back in the office, doing busywork.”

“Is that what it was?”

Dave wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or afraid that Jeremy was already able to read him so well. Tired and in pain, he was struck by the realization that he could be honest with himself sometimes. “No. It needs to be done, and it might as well be me doing it. They’re worried about me. I’m worried about me.” He’d heal eventually, but he suspected his new normal might not resemble the old version. Acceptance would make whatever road he had to walk easier than denial would. “Sorry. I’m in a mood, I guess.”

“You’re entitled. Don’t worry, the human body doesn’t always recover on a schedule. You have to give it some more time, and you’ll be back on your feet, literally and figuratively.” Jeremy stared at him fondly, which was an improvement on sympathy. He didn’t need pity, but affection went a long way. “Be honest. Should you be at home? Because we can skip the drink. I promise I’ll come back sometime.”

Dave shook his head. “I’m okay. If I’m off it, there’s no difference between being here and being at home.”

“True. And getting you home would involve at least some standing. Unless I do my caveman impression and throw you over my shoulder.”

The visual was on the ridiculous side, making him smile, which might’ve been Jeremy’s intention. “Or your fireman one. Probably more efficient that way.”

“True again.” Jeremy smiled back at him. Odd how the simple act of curving his lips upward made Jeremy look younger and Dave’s mood improve. “Nothing wrong with your brain.”

“There’s nothing wrong with any of me, apart from my ankle.”

“I’ll testify to that.” Jeremy touched Dave’s hand, pulling back before his fingers did more than brush against Dave’s. “In detail if needed.”

“Is it strange? Being out in public with a man?” Dave reached across the table and took Jeremy’s hand, running his thumb over the bump of knuckles. Strong, dexterous hands. “You don’t have to worry about it in here.”

Jeremy turned his hand and grasped Dave’s. “There’s a couple over there proving you right, though I don’t want to sit in your lap and eat your face off.”

Dave turned his head enough to see who Jeremy meant. The couple in question were going at it hot and heavy, hands sliding up under T-shirts and baring skin in the process, but he saw Patrick drifting over to their table, snagging empty glasses on the way. He’d interrupt them with a greeting, drop a friendly hint about one customer per chair, and break it up.

“But yeah, a little strange. Not bad-strange.” Jeremy ran a fingertip along one of the lines on Dave’s palm. “Do you believe in palmistry?”

“I don’t know. Never gave it much thought.” Dave shivered at the light touch but didn’t pull his hand away, even though other parts of his body were starting to respond. “Do you?”

Jeremy shook his head. “I went to a party in college where there was this girl who read palms. She said the first half of my life went one direction; then I’d take another path. Where do you think she saw that?” He offered his palm to Dave.

“It’s all lines to me,” Dave said, but he studied Jeremy’s palm anyway.

Vin came over and dropped off their beers without saying anything, obviously not wanting to interrupt a private moment.

“Well?” Jeremy asked after a minute. “Do you see yourself in there?”

“Maybe.” Part of Dave wanted to add I’d love to, but he opted for caution. Much as he enjoyed Jeremy’s company, in the long run they’d go their separate ways, and he didn’t want it to hurt too much when that happened. “A different path, huh?”

“I doubt it means meeting a man. That’s always been a possibility, you know? It could mean meeting you.”

“I live next door with no plans to win the lottery or climb Everest, so I doubt I’m going to make much difference to the way your life’s heading.” And for an encore, he’d yell at a kitten for being cute.

Jeremy pursed his lips in thought, not visibly deflated. “Could be I was stuck in one place, not going anywhere, and now I’m going forward.”

“I wish I was the sort of guy who changed lives, but I’m not. I’m a middle-aged cook in a bar with no ambitions to be anything else.”

“You don’t want to open a restaurant someday?”

“At my age, someday means never.

Jeremy snatched his hand away, leaving Dave closing his fingers on emptiness. “If you don’t want to wear your beer, stop saying at my age as if they’re measuring you for a coffin tomorrow! God. So annoying.” He picked up his beer and took several long, deep swallows before slamming it down again. The remaining beer, a hoppy IPA, sloshed around inside the glass but didn’t spill. “Maybe you’re right, and this wasn’t a good idea.”

Dave wasn’t sure what Jeremy meant and wasn’t sure he wanted clarification. “It isn’t too late to order a Barbilicious.”

“Don’t do that,” Jeremy said, quiet but intense. “Don’t change the subject when you don’t like what we’re talking about.”

“I don’t like it,” Dave said truthfully. “At least, I don’t think I do.”

“Stop it with the age thing. You wouldn’t do it if I was your age, not that it matters, so don’t do it with me. In addition to being annoying, it’s boring, and nothing else about you is boring. So quit it.”

“Okay. I’ll try.” He swallowed some beer, hoping it would loosen the tightness in his throat. “Is it okay if I change the subject now?”

Letting out his breath in a huff, Jeremy closed his eyes briefly. “Sure. What should we discuss?”

“Where you’ve been hiding your new boyfriend, for a start,” Patrick said, appearing at the table, eyelashes fluttering. He wore a skintight gray T-shirt with a cartoon cat on it. He gave Jeremy a small, flirtatious smile. “Hi, I’m Patrick.”

“Vin’s boyfriend,” Jeremy said. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same here. Dave hasn’t talked about you nearly as much as you deserve.”

“Why? What did he say?”

Even knowing Vin and Patrick were on their way to being as solid and unbreakable a couple as Ben and Shane didn’t stop Dave from slanting a back off glance his friend’s way. Patrick caught it, widened his eyes, all faux innocence, and turned the volume up another notch.

“Sadly nothing juicy, and now that I’ve seen you in the flesh, I’m even madder.” Patrick pouted, making a production out of it, lips painted bubblegum pink with gloss inviting a kiss. “When I think of all the stories I’ve told him.”

“They were about people who didn’t matter to you.” Dave kept his voice even. If Patrick scented blood, he could be merciless in the right mood. “I don’t recall you sharing much about you and Vin.”

“Well, of course not.” Patrick fanned the air in front of his face. “Too steamy for your generation to handle.”

“This one’s a troublemaker, I can tell.” Jeremy seemed so relaxed and unimpressed by Patrick that Dave felt the tension draining out of him. In that moment, he wanted to kiss Jeremy for more reasons than usual. “And you’re in a serious relationship? Vin must have to keep a tight leash on you.”

Patrick’s expression didn’t falter, but his gaze darted to find Vin in the crowded bar. “Oh, honey, I may be committed, but that doesn’t mean I can’t flirt. Flirting’s as vital as breathing. Let me know if I can get you anything, okay?”

“Crap,” Jeremy said when Patrick had gone off to another table. “Wrong thing to say. I didn’t mean to stick my foot in my mouth.”

“You didn’t know,” Dave assured him.

“What is it? Control issues? Vin didn’t strike me as the type.”

“He’s not. No, it’s more Patrick’s past. Until he and Vin got together, he had a reputation for sleeping with anyone who gave him a second glance.”

Jeremy knocked the heel of his hand against his forehead. “And I had to go and imply he isn’t capable of being faithful? I suck. The poor kid.”

“You don’t suck. You didn’t know,” Dave repeated. He didn’t point out that Jeremy was closer in age to Patrick than to him, even though it was his first instinct. Look at that—he was capable of personal growth. “Believe me, it’s not the first time he’s heard it. There are plenty of regulars who give him a hard time on a nightly basis.”

“Yeah, but he’s used to that. He’s not used to a complete stranger being able to see through him in less than five minutes.” Jeremy seemed genuinely upset. “I mean, not that I could. I was giving him a hard time. Sometimes I don’t think.”

Before Dave could stop him, he stood and plunged through the crowd, heading for Patrick. Shit. Dave swung his foot off the chair and lowered it to the floor, taking care not to jar it but hurrying. Patrick, uncannily perceptive at times, could inflict emotional damage in one of his brittle, glittering moods. The thought of Jeremy on the receiving end of a scalpel-sharp gibe made his protective instincts kick in like air-conditioning in August.

“Dave! Long time, no see. Heard you’d broken something.”

Finding his way blocked by a regular customer who spent lavishly and adored his cooking, Dave forced a smile. “Hi, Jake. Yeah, my ankle, but the cast’s off now. Still hurting, though, so I’m going to go to the break room and rest it.”

“You should.” Jake nodded, eyes owlish behind his glasses. He was in his early twenties, beanpole skinny and four inches taller than Dave. He rarely showed up at the bar alone. It wasn’t his money; there were plenty of guys who’d target him for it, but Jake seemed able to spot them unerringly. He dated men who interested him, and he moved on to the next one when they stopped. What they saw in him, Dave wasn’t sure. “Want to lean on me?”

Antsy with the need to catch up to Jeremy, Dave made his answer short and to the point. “No, I can manage, but thanks.”

He patted Jake’s arm and sidestepped to go around him, bracing himself on the table. A crash of glasses followed by an ironic cheer had his heart pounding. Patrick wasn’t the kind to hit anyone, but what about Jeremy? Had a verbal tussle turned physical?

“Thanks very much, folks. I’m here every night,” Vin said, holding up his hands to the crowd that had decided to give him an ovation for having knocked a few glasses off the bar. “Patrick, at least have the sense to move back out of the broken glass, or you’ll end up with slivers of it stuck in your soles.”

“Don’t interrupt us. We’re hugging it out.” Patrick’s voice, with Patrick and Jeremy drawing apart, coming into view when Dave stepped around the edge of the crowd. “Seriously, don’t worry, okay? It’s fine.” This last was directed at Jeremy, who looked relieved.

“It’s not, but thanks for being so forgiving.” Jeremy caught sight of Dave and frowned. “Why are you up? You’re supposed to be taking it easy. Watch the glass!”

“I have more experience with broken glass than you do,” Dave told him. Vin swept up the glittering splinters, and they all shuffled backward out of his way. Despite being careful, Dave stumbled over a nugget of glass, and Jeremy grabbed on to him.

“Okay, that’s it. I’m taking you home.” Jeremy sounded determined.

“You’re not taking me anywhere,” Dave said reasonably. “My car’s here, and there’s nothing wrong with my ability to drive.”

“Walking is another matter,” Jeremy said. “But I’m serious. It’s icy out there. At the very least, I’m walking you to your car and following you home.”

Dave was tired enough after his shift, abbreviated though it had been, that he figured that wasn’t a bad idea. “Okay, fine. I’m out front there.”

“I’ll get your coat,” Patrick offered and dashed off to retrieve it from the back hall.

Outside, it was cold, their breath showing white on the slow walk to Dave’s car.

“Hey, see that?” Jeremy asked when they passed the empty business space beside the Peg. “For rent.”

“Yeah, it’s been closed for a while.” Dave paused and looked at it. “It was a weird little restaurant, raw vegan food or something. They didn’t get many customers.”

“Not the right neighborhood,” Jeremy agreed. He wiped the glass clean with a gloved hand, then peered in through the window.

“Things change. It was the rough part of town, but when you run out of space, the good part tends to expand. Ben and Shane are lucky Ben’s dad bought the bar when real estate here was dirt cheap. They wouldn’t be able to afford it now.”

Mentioning Craig was a mistake; he tensed, still not over the scene he’d precipitated with his discovery. Ben had all his sympathy, but Dave didn’t appreciate the way Shane had borne the brunt of Ben’s meltdown. And Shane’s final words troubled him. Pushing the issue aside to think about later, he glanced through the window, not seeing much. The place had been gutted, all the tables and chairs sold cheaply and the kitchen stripped of its equipment.

“Home.” Jeremy kissed his cheek, the unexpected gesture leaving Dave warmed through. “I’ll make you something to eat. Grilled cheese. Scrambled eggs. Soup from a can.”

“Or we could defrost one of the half dozen casseroles in my freezer.”

“I hoped you’d say that. Say I give you an hour to take a bath and soak your ankle. Then I’ll come over with a bottle of wine? There’s half a chocolate fudge cake that needs eating too.”

“Sounds good.”

He was lying. It sounded great.

Chapter Seven

Jeremy fought back another yawn and glanced into his coffee mug, which, like the pot, was sadly empty. That meant he had to contemplate whether to make a second pot, something he tried to avoid unless he was working under a deadline. He wasn’t. He’d finished an order the night before, a high-performance gaming computer that was a birthday present for a sixteen-year-old with a rich, indulgent father, and he didn’t have to deliver it until Friday afternoon. Now he was waiting on a potential customer, who’d insisted he didn’t want to meet in a public place the way Jeremy preferred if he wasn’t going to meet at the customer’s office.

“I’d rather see where the magic happens,” the man had said. “If you don’t mind. You must let people come to your place sometimes.

He’d agreed because he didn’t have anything else lined up, and to be fair, he’d been taking more time off than he ought to because spending time with Dave was more fun. Turning away a new customer would be stupid.

Jeremy had brewed a second pot of coffee—only half-full, but he was irritated that he needed it—when the doorbell rang. It rang again before he’d reached the door, and he muttered, “Hang on, I’m coming,” under his breath so it wouldn’t be heard.

The man on the other side of the door was shorter than him, with straight dark hair that went past his collar. More like he’d been putting off a haircut too long than a styling choice.

“Hi. Robert, right?”

“Right.” Robert rubbed his hands briskly along his shirtsleeves and added, “Can I come in? It’s freezing out here.”

It wasn’t, but Jeremy said, “Yeah, of course. Come on in. Blitz, no.” He pushed the cat back with one foot and shoved the door closed once Robert was inside. On the phone, he’d thought Robert’s voice seemed familiar, but in person it didn’t. “I’m making some coffee. Want a cup?”

“Guess it’s too early for something stronger.” Robert raised his eyebrows. “Feel free to disagree with me.”

It was midafternoon, and sure, if he’d been at the Square Peg for lunch with Dave, he’d have ordered a beer, but who walked into a business appointment and asked for alcohol?

Telling himself his disapproval was unwarranted, he gestured in the direction of the kitchen. “Oh, my coffee’s plenty strong. Not stand-a-spoon-in-it strong, but close enough. I work late, and I need something to keep my eyes open. Want to try it?”

Robert’s brown eyes were bloodshot, matching Jeremy’s some mornings. A flash of amusement lit them. “I’ll pass. I don’t like putting stimulants in my body.”

But alcohol didn’t count? Or had it been a test of Jeremy’s work ethic? With a tight smile, Jeremy led Robert to the table by the window. His view was a good one, overlooking a small park with a pond at its center, frozen now, though the forecast called for a thaw soon. It couldn’t come soon enough for Jeremy. He was tired of winter, of slipping when he walked and seeing gray skies and muddy snow. “Why don’t we make a start on what you came here for?”

Robert sat next to him instead of opposite, bringing him entirely too close, in Jeremy’s opinion. A waft of stale, musty air from Robert’s clothing made his throat close up. The coat was expensive—one of Jeremy’s indulgences was his wardrobe, and cashmere was unmistakable—but the edge of the collar was grubby and a grease spot marred a lapel.

Blitz rubbing against Jeremy’s calf was a welcome distraction; he dropped his hand to provide the desired patting. Blitz took a few steps closer to Robert as if he was going to rub on him too, then seemed to change his mind at the last second and darted out of the room.

“Nice cat.” Robert watched him out of sight. “Shame he doesn’t like me.”

“He’s weird. Don’t take it personally,” Jeremy said. “So what do you need the computer for? Give me a basic idea, and we can go from there.”

“Oh, you know. Regular stuff. Um, going on the Internet, playing video games.” Robert didn’t seem interested in the conversation; he was more interested in scoping out the condo. “This is a nice place. Have you lived here long?”

“A couple of months.”

“Do you like it? I’m considering moving to this part of the city.”

Jeremy nodded. “It’s good. Quiet. So what operating system did you have in mind?”

Shrugging, Robert leaned back in his chair. “I’ll leave that to you; you’re the expert. What about your neighbors?”

“Um, they’re fine.” Jeremy was no good at having two conversations at the same time, but it seemed rude to shut down casual small talk.

“Are they friendly? What I mean is, are you friends with any of them?”

“Not really,” Jeremy lied. He wasn’t sure why his instincts told him something was off, but they were and it seemed wise to listen to them. “Are you sure you don’t want some coffee?” Maybe that would change the dynamic a little.

“Yeah, sure, okay. Black, four sugars.” Robert shifted his weight on the chair, fidgeting. He glanced at Jeremy and froze. “Already had three cups today,” he explained. “After two I can’t sit still. I like it a little too much, you know what I mean?”

That seemed familiar enough that it made Jeremy relax. Overcaffeination was something he understood. “Definitely. Don’t have more to be polite if it’s going to mess up your system.”

“No, it’s cool. I have a lot to do later today. I’ll consider this fuel. Thanks,” he added when Jeremy set a mug with a spoon sticking out of it and a bowl of sugar on the table. “So how long have you been building computers?”

“I started in high school, tinkering around with my old one when it broke, trying to figure out what went wrong. Later, I landed a Saturday job at a computer store and hung around with the team repairing them. I took a degree in computers, then decided to try this instead of working for someone else. You see, new computers don’t…” Jeremy faltered on the verge of launching into his spiel about everyone deserving a computer personalized to their needs, not a mass-produced one that ticked half the boxes. Robert wasn’t interested. His boredom was a tangible thing, expressed in a wide yawn exposing a furred tongue, and a roll of his eyes.

Rudeness troubled Jeremy. It was so unnecessary. He’d seen people smile when someone held a door for them, and it always warmed him. Interactions like that didn’t save the world, but they sure as hell made it a more pleasant one in which to live.

Robert’s reaction was less heartwarming and more global warming.

“Sorry.” Robert smiled blandly. “Late night. Barhopping. Do you do that much?”

“No. I don’t.” It was no use; he couldn’t match Robert’s discourtesy with curtness. “I’ve been to a club once or twice when I was dating someone who liked to dance, but most of my girlfriends would tell you I’ve got two left feet.”

Robert’s voice sharpened, his hand forming a fist where it rested on the table. “Girlfriends? You’re not gay, then?”

Wow. This was one contradictory, hostile man. “Why don’t we get back to your computer? What size screen?”

“Average size.” Robert leaned in closer, sour breath assaulting Jeremy’s nose. His face was flushed, accentuating the broken veins in his cheeks. “I dropped by the Square Peg. It was a decent place once, but it’s gone downhill since they went upmarket. People shouldn’t do that, should they? Get fancy ideas about trading up. Forget old friends when some new bit of ass comes along. It’s disloyal to fuck people over.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Jeremy said carefully. Although he could be made uncomfortable in some social situations, he considered himself someone who dealt well under pressure, and this definitely counted. Things were getting weirder exponentially. “Loyalty is so important.”

“And people shouldn’t take things that don’t belong to them,” Robert went on. Even though Jeremy was agreeing with him, Robert sounded almost angry, as if the opposite were true.

“No, they shouldn’t.” Eyes narrowed, Jeremy said, “Speaking of which, we’ll want to make sure your new computer is secure against hacking and viruses. We should discuss what measures we want to take.”

“Right.” Robert seemed distracted now, his focus no longer on Jeremy, who felt relieved to be free of it. “Okay. Look, I forgot another appointment I need to get to. Could we pick this up another time?”

“Sure, absolutely.” There was no part of Jeremy that was annoyed to be dropped with no warning in the middle of this meeting. He wanted Robert out of his apartment, the sooner, the better. “Can I give you some material to read when you get the chance?” Keep things casual and relaxed. Everything’s fine here.

Robert, coffee mug drained, although Jeremy couldn’t remember seeing him drinking from it, nodded. “That’d be cool. It’s not that I don’t want to finish this, but there’s this other appointment.”

“Sure. Happens to me all the time.” Social lying didn’t count as a sin or no one would be going to heaven, but Jeremy would’ve said anything to get Robert out of his home. This was the last time he met a client here before checking him or her out in a neutral setting. Maybe it was time to give up on the convenience of working from home and get office space. He was uneasily aware that the terms of his lease didn’t allow him to run a business from his condo, but he’d figured until someone complained, he’d chance his luck. It wasn’t as if clients visited often. Most of his clients e-mailed him their specs, and he never met them face-to-face.

Robert held out his hand when they reached the door. Reluctant to take it, some atavistic instinct making him want both hands free to defend himself, Jeremy clapped Robert’s shoulder. “No need to be formal.”

“You don’t want to shake hands?” Robert nodded, a smug smile flickering over his face. His gaze was trained on a spot an inch to the left of Jeremy’s head. It was unnerving. “Understandable, I guess.”

Door closed and locked, Jeremy exhaled, astonished to find himself trembling as if he’d evaded danger. He turned, wondering what had attracted Robert’s attention. The wall behind him held a coatrack. Draped over one of the hooks was a colorful striped scarf Dave had left behind one night and kept forgetting to take with him. Impulsively, Jeremy wrapped it around his neck, breathing in Dave’s scent as an antidote to Robert’s, which lingered in the air.

Wearing the scarf as a talisman, he flung open every window in the main room and let the winter wind cleanse his home.

His next instinct was to call Dave, not because there was anything Dave could do, more because the sound of his voice would have been reassuring. But Dave was at work.

A glance at the clock and a mental calculation told him it was dinnertime in London.

Hey there, you busy? he typed to Isla.

Always, she replied. How did it go at the gay bar last night?

Jeremy had forgotten that. Fine. Nice place. I had a freak of a client here, though.

At your flat? Why’d you have him there at all?

Poor judgment on my part. Won’t do it again.

Freaky how? Isla asked.

Putting it into words was a struggle. Um. Hard to explain, I guess. He creeped me out. I think he might have been on something. Once he’d typed that, he realized it was true.

“Something” being what, exactly?

I don’t know! How would I know? It’s not as if I’ve spent much time around people into stuff like that. He’d led a sheltered life on some levels, and that was okay with him. He was just…off.

Can you fire him as a client?

He’d never had to do that before, but there must be a way. I can avoid his calls.

Tell him you’re too busy and you’ll get back to him when you have proper time to devote to him. Then never get back to him.

I guess.

You’re too nice.

Are you kidding? I’m a monster. A mutant villain with radioactive blood. Grr. Snarl. Tough as nails.

Any nail I try to hammer bends like a banana, so FYI, your superhero name is now Captain Banana.

If you weren’t English and automatically prim and proper, I’d point out that sounds incredibly dirty.

Come over here and visit one day, and I’ll show you how unprim and improper I can be.

My spellcheck says unprim isn’t even a real word.

It’s American. It can’t spell anything right.

His mood lightening with every keystroke, he traded insults awhile longer, then moved the conversation to Isla’s vacation plans for the summer. Head full of lavender fields in Provence, vast expanses of rich purple, busy with humming bees, he went back to work.

He’d been putting off sorting through some boxes of basic parts he’d ordered. There was something appealing about the symmetry of going through them now when Dave was doing a similar job at the bar. Organizing the parts—cooling fans, hard drives, power supplies, motherboards—onto the metal shelving units that lined the walls of the second bedroom he used as his work space was peaceful busywork. By the time he’d finished, even with Blitz pawing at the door to come in, he’d recovered from his bizarre interaction with Robert. A few errands took up the rest of the afternoon, including a visit to the pet store, where he bought Blitz his expensive but supposedly healthier cat food, a stop at the office supply store for printer ink he should have remembered to order online, and a trip to the grocery store. Dave would roll his eyes at the frozen pizzas and fries he loaded into his cart, but that was okay. It wasn’t that Jeremy didn’t appreciate the gourmet food Dave preferred, but this was easier. He’d been eating this way for years, and luckily his metabolism didn’t seem to mind.

He didn’t notice the flat tire on his car until he’d already put the groceries into the back and taken the cart to the corral. “Shit,” he said in dismay, poking it with his toe as if that would make any difference. It wasn’t a little soft; it was completely deflated. About to rearrange the grocery bags and take out the spare tire, he glanced forward and saw the front tire was also flat.

“Double shit.”

That meant there was no point in putting on the spare. At least he’d seen the second flat before he went to the effort of wrestling the first one off the car.

The sun was setting when he called AAA and requested a tow. “Two flats?” The woman on the other end of the line tsked. “You should be more careful. You must have driven through some construction and picked up some nails or something.”

“Well, the construction guys should be more careful and not leave nails lying around,” Jeremy countered.

“It shouldn’t be more than half an hour.”

Jeremy waited almost twice that long before calling Dave’s cell phone. “Hey, sorry to bother you at work,” he said when Dave answered. “I know I said I’d come by near the end of your shift so we could hang out, but it’s not likely. I’m waiting for a tow.”

“What happened?” The worry in Dave’s voice made Jeremy want to reassure him even as he reflected on how nice it was to have someone in his life who cared. He had friends he could’ve called in an emergency, but he’d reached the age where invitations were always conditional upon him being with someone. A couple to invite to a dinner party was fine; a single man, not so much. One was an awkward number. Imperceptibly, people he’d been close to had married, had babies, moved away, leaving his social circle reduced to a handful of people.

“Flat tire. No, two flat tires.”

“Two? That sucks. Did some jerk smash a bottle in the road or something?”

“If they did, I didn’t see it.” He rested his head against the window. He’d waited outside for a while but gotten chilly and retreated to the relative shelter of his car. “I can’t believe how long I’ve been waiting.”

“I wish there was something I could do, but I guess you have to wait with the car?”

“I don’t know. They don’t need me in it to tow it, do they?”

“Don’t see why, but I don’t want you freezing your butt off either. Where are you?”

“Parking lot of the supermarket. At least it’s too cold for the groceries to defrost.”

“The one on Bruce? I’m heading over. We can leave a note on your car and wait in the nearest coffee shop. Isn’t there one opposite the store?”

Chiding himself for not thinking of that, Jeremy nodded automatically. “Yeah. Company would be good. It’s been a weird day.”

“How come? No, don’t tell me. Let me finish up here, and I’ll be with you in twenty. Less.”

Dave hung up before Jeremy could ask if leaving early would get him into trouble. Dave was doing make-work, though, so perhaps it wouldn’t matter.

As luck would have it, the AAA truck pulled up ten minutes later, the driver laconic when Jeremy complained about the wait.

“It’s icy out there. Lots of idiots driving too fast. You’re my fifth call since lunch, with another three waiting, so why don’t we load her up?”

“Sorry.” Jeremy took out his shopping bags and stacked them beside the car. “I call the garage to arrange a pickup, right?”

The man eyed it, mouth working as if he wanted to spit. “Yeah, Tirewise over on Fulton, but there’s no room for all that in my cab, mister.”

“No, it’s fine. I’ve got a friend— Hey, there he is.” Dave’s familiar car was coming toward them slowly. No doubt Dave had spotted the tow truck. “You need my key.” It was a struggle to take it off his key chain, but Jeremy managed. “Don’t get out,” he called to Dave. “I’ll be right there.” The tow truck driver was right about it being icy, and Jeremy would never forgive himself if Dave fell again.

He had to make two trips with the grocery bags to Dave’s car, but it was parked close by. “I don’t even need my hat now,” he said, getting into the passenger seat. “Whew.”

“Sucks about your tires.” Dave glanced over his shoulder before pulling out. “I’m sorry you were waiting so long. You should have called sooner.”

“I thought the tow truck would arrive quicker than it did,” Jeremy told him.

“Well, I can give you a ride over later, or tomorrow, whenever it’s done.”

“Sorry for screwing up your evening.”

“Are you kidding? When I wasn’t bored sorting through all that paperwork, I was trying to pretend I didn’t notice that my bosses are having, I don’t know… I guess Shane would call it a tiff.”

“They’re fighting? I was under the impression they were solid.”

Dave shrugged. “They are. You’d have to be a saint not to argue with Shane once in a while, but in this case it’s more Ben.” He sighed and looked at Jeremy. “I found some photos of Craig. He was Ben’s dad, and Shane’s business partner until he died. Ben didn’t take it well. They had a rocky relationship, I guess. Anyway, Shane says it’ll blow over, but right now Ben’s prickly as hell, and being stuck in the office he’s in and out of all day isn’t my favorite thing.”

It made Jeremy’s day seem less miserable in comparison.

“I don’t get why photos would make Ben angry. Sad, maybe,” Jeremy said.

“Yeah.” Dave tapped the steering wheel. “It must be strange knowing your partner spent longer with your dad than you did. And he and Shane were friends, and Ben flat-out hated his dad for leaving, so he’s not down with that either.”

Jeremy gathered his thoughts and found them falling apart before he could voice them. Absentee parents weren’t good, but blaming Shane for being friends with someone seemed unfair. If he was accurate with his reading between the lines and Ben blamed Dave for finding the photos, that was a whole new level of injustice. He settled for diplomacy instead of condemning a man Dave seemed to respect. “I don’t know enough about it to know whose side I’m on, or if there even is a right side. But I’m sorry people are unhappy and stressed. Mostly I’m sorry you’re affected by it, because I know you best.”

“It’ll blow over,” Dave repeated.

“It will blow over.” Dave gave him a I said it twice; what gives? look, and Jeremy shrugged. “‘What I tell you three times is true.’ Lewis Carroll. Hunting of the Snark.

Dave made a small amused sound. “Right. So tell me three times I’m going to win the lottery.”

Jeremy heaved a sigh. “I wish I could, but I used up my powers for the night.”

“You underestimate your powers, and if you’re in the mood, I could prove it.”

He loved Dave flirting with him, the quiet voice turning husky, the confidence tempered with a questioning inflection. Dave giving him a choice or Dave unable to accept Jeremy wanted him? He wasn’t sure, but he made his answer unambiguous. “Are we talking about sex? Please tell me yes. Even if, the way today’s gone, we’ll both be unable to get it up or something.”

“Don’t jinx us.”

“I’m not. It doesn’t work that way.” Not that Jeremy knew the way it did work, but whatever. “Thanks for the ride. Did I say that yet? I appreciate it.”

“I was glad to get out of there.” Dave seemed to consider his word choice. “I mean, even if I hadn’t been, you’re welcome. Happy to help. I don’t like the thought of you waiting out in the cold.”

“If my brain had been working, I would have noticed the coffee shop and gone over there, at least.” Jeremy wasn’t a fan of stupidity, and it made him remember how dumb it had been to let a stranger come over to his home. “That was twice today I didn’t go to a coffee shop when I should have.”

“Huh?”

“Long story,” Jeremy said. “This new potential customer asked if he could come to my place to discuss the computer he wanted me to build. I should have said no.” The look Dave shot him was alarmed enough that Jeremy had to say, “Eyes on the road.”

“What happened?” Dave asked.

“Nothing dramatic. I mean, it wouldn’t even make a good Lifetime movie. He was weird, that’s all.”

“In what way?”

Jeremy frowned. “I don’t know. It’s hard to describe. He was scattered, as if he forgot why he was meeting with me, and he had all these questions about the neighborhood and this diatribe about how people should be loyal.”

“Yeah, that sounds weird.” Dave pulled the car into their parking area and shut it off. “Okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re on your own with the groceries. Once you get them put away, come over, and I’ll make it up to you.”

“Put them away and feed Blitz,” Jeremy amended. “And deal with the litter tray. And take a shower.”

“It’ll be midnight by the time I get this hot sex I was promised.” Dave shook his head sadly. “Way past my bedtime. Skip the shower. You’ll need to take another, so what’s the point?”

“No, I want to warm up.” Jeremy shivered, a convulsive shudder brought on by the memory of Robert’s rant rather than the long wait in the cold. “I won’t take long.”

Dave leaned over and kissed him full on the mouth, the briefness of the contact lending it a zing. Jeremy craved more, but Dave busied himself with his seat belt, not looking at Jeremy. “Come over in a towel. Or a robe. How’s that for efficiency?”

“That works if I want to get frostbitten balls.” Jeremy considered it. Running across the hallway in a robe might be fun. “If I do, will you open the door right away?”

“I’ll leave it unlocked. You can come on in.”

“No, don’t do that.” Dave’s frown told him it’d come out too sharply, and he backtracked, unwilling to share how spooked Robert had left him. “It’s not safe. Anyone could walk in. I’ll knock.”

Even with that agreement, Jeremy hurried, shoving groceries into the refrigerator, dumping food into Blitz’s bowl, and taking the quickest shower of his life. He should have skipped it, he thought, scrubbing water out of his hair with a towel, but the routine had calmed him. After slipping into his thick robe, Jeremy went across the hall and knocked on Dave’s door.

Dave must have been waiting, because it opened immediately. “There, see?”

“I do. And I like it.” Jeremy stepped into the condo and Dave’s personal space. “Except for the part where you were standing here instead of resting that ankle.”

“I’m sick of resting my ankle.” Dave pushed the door closed. “And before you ask, it’s fine. Better today than yesterday.”

“Really? Because it looked to me as if you were having a hard time standing.” Jeremy kissed Dave, experiencing a rush of heat. “The best thing for you would be to lie down. Preferably in bed.”

“I can’t think of a better way to spend the evening.” Dave drew him closer still, arms around him, giving Jeremy a safe place to be. “Is it too soon to ask you to stay the night? Or is that rushing things?”

The intimacy of sleeping beside each other and waking up together appealed too strongly for Jeremy to care. “I doubt there’s a carved-in-stone timetable, and I’d love to. Except I don’t have a toothbrush. And I’d need to check on Blitz one last time. If he uses his litter tray and I don’t clean it, he tends to poop beside it to teach me a lesson, and that’s beyond gross. So I’ll get ready over there and come back. And you can leave the door open for me that time because I’ll be three minutes, tops.”

“Works for me.” Dave undid the belt on Jeremy’s robe. The robe fell open, and Jeremy caught his breath, cock rising in response to Dave’s casual assumption of control and the brush of cool air against his damp skin.

“You— God, you—”

Without speaking, Dave sank to his knees, hands sliding inside the robe to cup Jeremy’s ass. He took Jeremy’s cock into his mouth, the wet heat bringing Jeremy’s erection to full hardness. Moaning, he gripped Dave’s shoulders, unable to resist thrusting forward.

“I want you to fuck me,” he said, breathless and desperate for it, and Dave gasped and choked and pulled back. “I’m sorry! Are you okay?”

Dave smiled up at him, wiping the corner of his mouth. “I’m fine. And I’d love to, if you’re sure. You can change your mind anytime.”

They’d gone this route once before, the night after Dave had had his cast removed, but Jeremy had chickened out early on. A finger and even two up inside him, slicking him open with slow, careful thrusts, had blown his mind. The sudden realization that it would be Dave’s rather impressive cock instead had been overwhelming. Dave had been understanding in the aftermath of Jeremy’s mild panic: patient, reassuring.

He was like that now, acting as if that night had never happened. That he hadn’t been eager for it, then disappointed by Jeremy’s change of heart.

“I want to. I think about it all the time.” That was the truth. Coming with Dave’s lips wrapped around him and one of Dave’s fingers in his ass had been the most powerful orgasm Jeremy had experienced. The thought of it made his hands shake and his cock hard as rock.

“You can still change your mind anytime,” Dave said. “Before we start. After we’ve started. I’ll be angrier if I find out you wanted to stop and didn’t say than if you tell me to stop, even if I’m as horny as I’ve ever been in my life. Do you hear me?”

It was a weird conversation to have with Dave on his knees, but Jeremy appreciated it more than he could say. “I hear you.” He rubbed his thumb along the edge of Dave’s ear until Dave shivered.

“Bedroom. Before I finish you like this and blow our plans along with your cock.”

He thought he knew the ins and outs of sex with a man, but sometimes he stumbled over a gap in his knowledge. Admitting ignorance wasn’t one of his hang-ups. He would happily point at an item on the menu he couldn’t pronounce and ask the waiter how to say it. Not knowing something didn’t make you stupid; not asking questions did. “Why would that be a bad thing? You can fuck me if I’m not hard. And I could get it up again anyway. You have no idea how much you turn me on.”

Dave got to his feet, accepting Jeremy’s help with a nod of thanks. “You’ll tense up after you’ve come. Yeah, I know, an orgasm turns you to cooked spaghetti, but your ass muscles don’t get the memo. I don’t want this to hurt and put you off trying it again. You’ll still be sore the next day, though.”

Sex and pain didn’t go together for Jeremy. Beside a mild sprain in his wrist and some chafing when he’d discovered the joys of jerking off, he’d never felt any ill effects. “How sore?”

Dave rubbed the back of his neck. “If I skipped the lube and rammed into you, very sore. If I slicked you up until you were dripping and took it slow, inch by inch, not much. And that’s what I’ll be doing. But I can’t promise you won’t know you’ve been fucked once it’s over. Not your first time.”

“Like going the wrong way up a one-way street. You’ll get to where you want to go, but you’ll get a ticket.”

Dave leaned in and kissed him—a gentle kiss. “We aren’t going to do anything unless you’re fully on board, okay?”

“I know,” Jeremy assured him. “I trust you.”

The lines around Dave’s eyes softened. “Good.”

In the bedroom, Dave pulled down the covers, then unfastened the top button on his shirt. Jeremy stepped closer. “Let me do that.”

He took his time, slipping one button free at a time and pressing his lips to the skin that was revealed before moving on to the next one. Dave seemed calm at first, but when Jeremy had to kneel to kiss the delicate skin below his navel, Dave inhaled and reached for the front of his slacks, adjusting himself. “You drive me crazy.”

It was such a powerful thing to hear that Jeremy closed his eyes and leaned forward, rubbing his jaw against Dave’s fabric-covered erection.

“Yeah.” Dave’s breath hissed out, the sound so similar to an expression of pain that Jeremy drew back an inch. “No, it’s okay. Seeing you do that. I’m not used to— Sorry. Forget I said that.”

The silence following his words could’ve gotten sticky, but Jeremy wouldn’t let that happen. “We’ve been with other people. Right now I’m so turned on I can’t remember their names, and you’re the one I’m thinking of, but even so. My relationships weren’t serious, though. Yours was. It’s okay if you miss him. I won’t mind.”

“I don’t.” Vehemence wouldn’t have been convincing, but the note of surprise in Dave’s voice was. “Miss him, I mean. You’re everything he wasn’t, and trust me, that’s a good thing. But sometimes you’ll do something sweet, or incredibly hot, and it hits me how starved I’ve been of anything like that when it comes to sex.”

It was so typical of Dave to couch it in food terms that Jeremy couldn’t hold back a smile, even while part of him went to work on suitable fates for Travis, starting with lemon juice in every paper cut he had from now until the day he died, and becoming progressively nastier.

“Well, prepare to get indigestion from overeating.” Jeremy drew down the zipper on Dave’s pants with a slow, deliberate tug, then popped the button. His patience evaporated when he caught a glimpse of the dark hair low on Dave’s stomach, and beneath it the swell of Dave’s erection. He licked his lips, desire flooding him, his ass clenching in anticipation. “I want these off. Please?”

“Lose the robe.”

He had it tossed aside before Dave could kick off his pants, kneeling on the bed, hungry to look at Dave and all his bare skin. Still so new, being this close to a male body, muscled, hairy, strong. It made his heart beat faster, his skin heat. The novelty factor would wear off soon, he guessed, but not his attraction to Dave. He couldn’t imagine being indifferent to this man. “You’re so beautiful.” He didn’t care that it was a word more commonly used to refer to women, because the memory of Dave calling him beautiful had stuck with him.

Dave’s throat worked. It was on the tip of his tongue to deny it, Jeremy could see that, but he remained silent on the matter. “Come here.”

“Lie back and let me touch you,” Jeremy countered.

With Dave on his back, it was easy to avoid his healing ankle. Jeremy focused his whole attention on exploring Dave’s body, happy to be able to look and touch his fill.

“Tell me if there’s anything you don’t enjoy,” he added, and Dave shook his head.

“I love everything with you.”

“No one likes everything.” Jeremy rubbed his thumbs over Dave’s nipples, awed by the solid pecs under his palms and the few silver-white chest hairs among Dave’s normal darker hair. “Are you ticklish?” He’d avoided underarms until now—he was somewhat ticklish himself and had never met a woman who liked being touched there—but he stroked his fingertips through Dave’s underarm hair and lower along the sides of his rib cage, watching for signs that he should stop.

“Not really,” Dave said. “Well, my feet, but at least one of them is off-limits at the moment.”

“I don’t have a foot fetish,” Jeremy assured him, mesmerized by the sight of his index and middle fingers tracing the top edges of Dave’s pubic hair. Dave’s cock was hard enough that it stood up from his belly, but Jeremy wasn’t going to touch it, not yet.

“Good to know. I don’t like the idea of parts of me being neglected.” Dave arched up, mutely hinting. When Jeremy skated his fingertips over the hollow at Dave’s hip, the hint was upgraded to a direct request. “My cock, for instance. It’s sensitive to any suggestion that you don’t want to touch it.”

“Is it?” Jeremy pressed his lips to the hollow, taking care not to let his body touch anywhere sensitive. “Also good to know.”

Dave lay flat on the bed again. “As long as you’re avoiding it because you get a kick out of me whimpering, I don’t mind.”

“The blowjobs I’ve delivered over the past few weeks should prove I’m fond of that part of you, but I don’t play favorites. Roll over?”

Narrowing his eyes, Dave asked, “Why?”

Not seeing any point in being coy, Jeremy said, “I want to see your ass, which incidentally is hot. I’m an ass man. I want to bite yours like a peach, but I’ll control myself. And is it weird that I want an idea of the view you’ll have when you fuck me? Or do you want me on my back for it?”

Dave had turned over in the middle of his explanation, so when he spoke, it was muffled by the pillow. “That’s up to you, Ramblin’ Man.”

Funny. “I’d like to at least consider your thoughts on the matter.” Jeremy was tempted to straddle Dave’s waist and rub his cock along Dave’s spine, but he couldn’t do that and study Dave’s fine ass at the same time. Instead, he ran a hand down Dave’s back slowly, over the bump of each vertebra, then fit his palm over the curve of one ass cheek. “Yeah, definitely an ass man.”

Flexing, Dave pushed his ass into Jeremy’s hand. “Yeah?”

“Mmm. And you have a great ass.” He’d been serious about resisting the impulse to sink his teeth into it, but the temptation was strong.

“You can touch it as much as you want,” Dave said, reading Jeremy’s mind. “Anytime.”

“Not anytime,” Jeremy said idly, paying the conversation half his attention. He filled his hands with Dave’s ass and squeezed. “I mean, not in public.”

“I don’t know. Maybe a little. If you were subtle.”

“Yeah? An affectionate pat, when no one was looking?” Glancing at the bedside table, Jeremy asked, “Can you pass me the lube?”

“Sure.” Dave had to shift a bit to reach it. “What are you thinking?”

“Okay, this could be awkward, but I hope it isn’t. I want to rub off on you. Not come, because I trust you when you say it’s not a good idea, but…”

“Ride my ass a little?” Dave sounded amused and not in the least put off, judging by the enticing wiggle of said ass. “Go for it.”

“I love you,” Jeremy said fervently, then winced, unseen. Would Dave take that as a serious commitment instead of a flip comment? Which it wasn’t, not entirely.

“Want me to lift up a bit?”

“No, it’s okay.”

So they were going to ignore it? Not sure how he felt about that but too horny to get sidetracked, Jeremy drizzled lube onto the cleft of Dave’s ass. He’d planned to warm it in his hands first, but he enjoyed the way Dave yelped and did some more wriggling, spreading his legs so the lube could coat skin Jeremy hadn’t touched. He touched it now, running his finger down smooth skin until he reached the interruption of Dave’s hole. Swirling his finger around, he pressed inside, not far, watching his fingertip disappear. Warm. Tight. It was a rush, and he wanted to fuck Dave and be fucked by him at the same time, torn by desires so strong he bit his lip to hold back a sound he worried would emerge as a sob.

Dave held still, not passively accepting whatever Jeremy did but actively permitting it. The freedom was intoxicating. After withdrawing his finger, Jeremy spread Dave’s legs wider apart, then ran his hands over Dave’s ass again, pushing the curved cheeks together, then parting them, playing with him, teasing himself now.

“You still want to do this?” Dave shifted underneath him, lifting his upper body, and looked over his shoulder.

“I do,” Jeremy assured him. “You have no idea how much.” It was easy to imagine pushing his cock into Dave’s tight, slick hole. But the memory of how hard he’d come with Dave’s finger pressed against his prostate haunted him with the promise of more. Thinking about it made his hands tremble, and he pulled them back, resting them on his thighs. “I want you in me.”

“Do whatever you want,” Dave said. “It’s all good. If you want it, I want it.”

That wasn’t necessarily true, but Jeremy appreciated the sentiment. Bracing his hands on the bed on either side of Dave’s torso, he rubbed himself tentatively against the cleft of Dave’s ass. The lube eased the drag of skin along skin. Jeremy closed his eyes and drew his hips back, then thrust forward again. God, it was good. Not as intense as being inside Dave’s body would be, when the time came, but pretty incredible all the same.

“You can come on me if you want to.”

Jeremy groaned and stopped moving. “Don’t say that, or I will.”

Dave turned, revealing part of his chest, his nipple a tight point, and looked back at him. “Then you’d better stop.”

“You say that as if it’s easy. Do you have any idea how good this feels?” He thrust forward again, the angle different now, and grunted with frustration when his cock slid across smooth skin instead of along the shallow groove.

“There’s time for all of it.” Dave shifted position, going to his side, then pulling Jeremy down to lie beside him. “Let’s slow things down.”

Dave’s idea of applying the brakes was to slide his leg between Jeremy’s, leaving their bodies flush, and kiss him breathless. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. In Jeremy’s eyes, this was a step back to foreplay, and while he enjoyed it, the urgency of his need ebbed, a simmer, not a roiling boil.

Even so, within minutes he was panting between kisses and grinding his erection against the crease of Dave’s thigh.

“Killing me here. Need you. Don’t want to stop, but I need—” He broke off, frustrated and lost. With a woman, he’d usually been the one to dictate the speed of the encounter. He’d followed her signals to know when she was ready to take him inside her, or asked if he hadn’t been sure, but he couldn’t recall any of them ever saying no, not yet. He’d been in charge, and now he wasn’t.

It felt strange. And he wanted to call every woman he’d ever had sex with and apologize for making assumptions.

“What do you need?” Dave got a hand between them and wrapped it around Jeremy’s erection, squeezing it at the base.

“You.” Jeremy tried not to sound exasperated, because Dave was so calm and patient. “Would you get a condom? Please?”

In answer, Dave kissed him, then rolled away to retrieve and put on a condom. Jeremy watched, more eager to proceed than anxious. His eagerness increased when Dave found the lube and squeezed some out over his fingers. “Not gonna do anything more than this until you’re begging for it,” Dave said, wet fingertips brushing the entrance to Jeremy’s body.

For what felt like an hour, Dave kissed him and opened him up, pushing more and more lube into him, first with one finger, then two. It didn’t hurt, but Jeremy had to admit it felt weird—at least until Dave found his prostate. After that he went from hopeful and turned on to desperate for more. If he’d been less aroused, he might have had enough available brain cells to be embarrassed at his level of need, but as it was, all he could do was lift his hips to get Dave’s fingers deeper. “God,” he panted. “Oh my God. Please.”

Dave bit at his lower lip. “Not the kind of begging I had in mind.”

“What do you want me to say? Tell me and I’ll—oh, please—I’ll say it.”

“Am I being cruel to you?”

The hint of laughter sparked a reaction in Jeremy, and he growled, pushed past arousal to desperation. “Yes! Fuck me already. Get inside me and fuck me.”

Dave clicked his tongue reprovingly. “That’s not begging; that’s demanding.”

“Isn’t that allowed? If there’re rules about what I can’t say or do, tell me, but tell me later. Fuck me now.” Jeremy sank his teeth into Dave’s shoulder, not to hurt him but as a release for his intense frustration. In that moment he was close to resenting Dave for being so calm. Was he the only one of them who wanted this?

Dave put some space between them, his expression unreadable. Being studied in silence was unnerving, but Dave’s gaze softened. “I pushed you too far, huh?” He rubbed Jeremy’s shoulder, then let his hand fall away. “Yeah.”

Seeing the imprint of his teeth in Dave’s flesh, already fading but still visible, had Jeremy dipping his head to give the mark a penitent kiss. “Sorry. Sorry. I’m out of my head here. Need you.”

“I don’t want to push you.” Dave looked worried.

An idea leaped into Jeremy’s head, an idea that might be a solution. He rolled Dave onto his back with a hand on his hip. “Like this,” he suggested, lifting himself onto his hands and knees, looking down at Dave. “Would me on top work?”

“Yeah, okay. Yes.” Dave’s relief was obvious. He rubbed Jeremy’s thigh when Jeremy straddled him and got into position. “Take it easy. Don’t rush it.”

It took longer than Jeremy would have liked to figure out how they’d fit together. It always looked so easy in porn. Holding Dave’s dick with one hand, he sank back, repositioned, then whined in frustration. Finally, though, he lined up, felt the flared head stretching him wide. His breath caught in his throat, and he froze, though he wasn’t sure what he was waiting for.

“Easy,” Dave said. “Take it slow.”

Jeremy nodded, and after a moment he was able to ease back a little bit more, but then he had to stop again. God, it was impossible. There was no way his body could stretch enough to allow Dave’s cock to fit. He concentrated on his breathing and on relaxing his muscles. After what felt like forever, he tried moving again.

Burn and stretch, until he worried he was going to tear skin. It wasn’t pleasant or comfortable, but the memory of Dave’s fingers inside him, creating those intense waves of pleasure, made him reluctant to give up.

“Doesn’t have to happen tonight or any night.” Dave put his hands on Jeremy’s hips, supporting him. His voice was tight, as if he was holding back his emotions. Jeremy pictured himself an inch inside a vagina, waiting to be given permission to thrust, every instinct screaming at him to move, and felt a pang of sympathy.

Dave caressed Jeremy’s cock, a rough, casual touch, finding all the right places in a crowded few seconds, and arousal won out over caution and fear. Jeremy worked Dave’s erection deeper inside him, accepting the discomfort, glimpsing what lay beyond it if he could… Oh yeah. There. In.

“Did it,” he whispered, part triumph, part wonder. He savored the burn and the stretch, using them to spur him into moving, setting a pace that let him draw out this first time beyond what he’d thought was possible, given his arousal.

And now it was Dave sweating, face contorted, words leaving his lips in a confused rush, his grip tight, anchoring Jeremy to the moment and the man beneath him, inside him, with him.

One of Dave’s hands let go of him and grabbed on to the edge of the mattress, his knuckles white with the force of his grip. “Gonna come,” he managed, and Jeremy shuddered with arousal but didn’t stop moving.

“Good. Do it. Come on.” Focusing on the pleasure on Dave’s face was a good distraction. Jeremy shifted his weight and scraped over one of Dave’s nipples with his thumbnail in the way Dave liked.

With a harsh, startled groan, Dave thrust up into him and came. Jeremy identified the faint throb of Dave’s cock inside him, unmistakable even though it was the first time he’d experienced it. He kept moving, close enough to orgasm that it wouldn’t be long now, waiting for the moment when Dave stopped trembling beneath him and relaxed.

It turned out to be the same moment that Dave closed a hand around his cock. That was all it took. Jeremy’s ass tightened around Dave’s cock with each rhythmic pulse, and he bit down on his lip to stifle the sounds he made. He fell apart, torn to pieces by pleasure. His arms lost the ability to hold him up, and he collapsed onto Dave’s chest, still spasming. He tried to support some of his weight on his elbows but mostly failed. Breathing was a big enough challenge.

“You’d be more comfortable if you weren’t lying on my hand,” Dave said after a minute or two, when Jeremy was no longer gasping for air.

“Sorry.” Okay, there was still some gasping going on. “Here, let me move.”

“Careful! The condom.”

They managed to separate their bodies without Dave losing the condom. Jeremy lay down next to Dave and winced. “Ow.”

“Yeah, you’ll be pretty sore tomorrow.” Dave stroked Jeremy’s lower back. “Worth it?” It was a casual question, but Jeremy could hear the layers of concern behind it.

“Yeah. Definitely.”

“I ask a question and get a few words back, not a hundred? Must’ve done something right.”

“You did everything right.” He pushed up on his elbow. “Except for that whole you’re-not-begging-right thing. What the hell was that all about?”

If he’d expected an apology, he was doomed to disappointment. Dave’s grin was broad and unrepentant. “I guess I wondered how much you wanted it.”

“Huh.” Jeremy poked him in the shoulder. “You ever do that again when I’m seconds away from coming, and I’ll…”

“What?”

The concerned crinkle in Dave’s forehead wiped away the lingering shreds of resentment. “Nothing. I can’t stay mad at you, any more than I can with Blitz when he throws up on the carpet and the tiles are one foot to the right.”

“I remind you of a vomiting cat? Seriously?” Dave shook his head. “Never mind. He’s a cute cat.”

“He’s a fur ball with claws, but I love him.”

Twice. Twice in one fucking night. Banging his head against the pillow was pointless, but Jeremy wanted to. You didn’t bring up the L word this early. That rule held true whether you were with a woman or a man.

Dave didn’t ignore what he’d said, though there was a perceptible pause before he replied. “I can see why you would. I’m fond of him myself. Though his habit of climbing up my leg when I’m wearing jeans takes some getting used to.”

Was Jeremy supposed to decipher that and discover how Dave felt about him? Or were they discussing Blitz, no more, no less?

Deciding not to push it, he sank back on the bed. His ass ached, but his dick had never been happier. And he was falling in love, which had the potential to increase his happiness or transfer the ache to his heart, but it was a risk he was willing to take.