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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.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

“They’re late.” Shelly handed Dave another glass.

He was sitting on a stool he’d pulled over behind the bar, polishing the glasses Shelly took from the dishwasher, then giving them to Patrick to put away. It wasn’t the world’s most necessary or efficient assembly line, but it made the job more entertaining and gave them a chance to talk.

“They were late yesterday too,” Patrick said. He fumbled the next glass but caught it by pinning it to the edge of the counter with his hip at the last second. “Whew, that was close.”

“Make sure you didn’t crack it,” Dave told him.

“Tiny little old me?” Patrick held a hand splayed against his chest dramatically. “I don’t weigh a hundred pounds soaking wet. I’m the original ninety-eight-pound weakling. You aren’t seriously suggesting that I’d break a glass with this, are you?” He caressed his hip, encased in skintight bronze denim, in illustration.

“Mostly what I’m suggesting is that Shane will be pissed off if one of us tries to serve someone a drink in a cracked glass,” Dave said.

“And he’s been pissed off enough lately.” Shelly handed him another glass.

“Ben’s in the worst mood ever and taking it out on Shane,” Patrick said in a rare serious tone. “It’s hard to blame him for passing it on.”

Shelly straightened up and gave Patrick the same look Dave had been considering. “Patrick, are you defending Shane? I never thought I’d live to see the day.”

Patrick tossed his head, a gesture he made seem natural, not affected. “Excuse me for being impartial. Or do I mean objective?”

“Both work,” Dave assured him drily. Patrick played the part of an airhead so well it was easier to buy into it than see past the fluff.

“Really? Go, me. And my impartial, objective opinion is that Ben needs to chill the fuck out and—” He broke off in response to a sound, turning to glance at the door leading to the office and storage rooms. Ben stood there, his expression ominous, Shane behind him. “Oops?”

Dave automatically accepted the next glass from Shelly but set it down on the bar instead of polishing it. Dealing with tense situations was second nature to him after years of Travis’s manufactured drama. It didn’t mean he enjoyed doing it, but it didn’t scare him. He could tell when he needed to be scared, and this wasn’t one of those times.

Patrick was wide-eyed, a guilty flush rising in his thin cheeks, clashing with the red streak in his fair hair. “Hi, you two. What are the roads like out there?” A thaw had reduced the size of the snow piles at the sides of the road but left water lying deep in some places, waiting for a drop in temperature to freeze over.

“Not too bad. Sorry we were late.” Shane nudged Ben’s arm. “Move, love. I want to check the bar sink. It wasn’t draining yesterday. If I find bits of lemon down it again, there’ll be trouble.”

Ben ignored him, his attention on the visibly shrinking Patrick. “That can wait. Patrick had something he wanted me to do besides chilling the fuck out. Well?”

There was a nasty edge to his last word, and Patrick blinked rapidly, then rallied, back straightening. “Let me see. Stick in your ass—remove it. Black cloud over your head—”

Ben took a step forward, mouth set in a forbidding line. “Don’t speak to me like that!”

“Hey!” Shane said, clearly alarmed, muscling past Ben to block his view of Patrick. “No need for aggro. Patrick, apologize for being cheeky.”

“No! He asked and I told him.” Patrick seemed close to tears, his voice wavering. “And it’s true. We’re all thinking it.” He shot an imploring glance at Dave, then Shelly. “Right?”

“It’s my fault they’re arguing in the first place,” Dave said, more to Patrick than anyone else, because he was the one who needed it. “If I hadn’t broken my ankle, I wouldn’t have ended up stuck in the office sorting through all that old paperwork and finding the pictures that kicked off this whole mess.”

“I should have thrown them out ages ago,” Shane protested, and Ben, who seemed to be itching for a fight at that point, whirled around to face him.

“Don’t start with that again! For fuck’s sake, I’ve heard it enough already!”

“Then get over it.” Dave found himself standing, his weight evenly balanced on both feet. He’d spoken loudly enough that Ben broke off and stared at him. Actually, everyone was looking at him, but he wasn’t self-conscious. “This might be your business, Ben, but that doesn’t give you the right to ruin it for the rest of us. Your dad might not have been there for you growing up, but he did you a favor leaving you all of us. Let it go. We deserve better than the atmosphere you’ve been poisoning for the past couple of days.”

“Fuck you,” Ben snarled, pointing at him. “I don’t owe any of you anything.”

It was quiet for a moment. Then Shane said, “Want to rethink that statement, Benedict?”

“Because it’s not that long ago we helped you rebuild this place.” Shelly crossed her arms. Her tone was gentle, not a rebuke but a reminder. “It’s your name over the door, yours and Shane’s, but we’ve all got a stake in this place. You owe us and we owe you. It balances. And this has never been a place where we tiptoe around the boss. You and Shane are in charge, but we’re a team.”

Patrick sniffed, then knuckled his eye, and she unfolded her arms, drawing him to her. They stood, arms around each other’s waists, united in hurt and disapproval. The mascara Patrick wore had smudged, giving him a forlorn appearance. It was lucky for Ben that Vin wasn’t here. Placid as Vin was, when it came to Patrick, his protective streak ran wide and deep.

“I—” Ben drew in a breath as shaky as Patrick’s voice, glancing at the people ranged against him. “This isn’t anything to do with you.”

“We know,” Dave stood. “That’s the point we’re trying to make. See a therapist if you need to, but don’t lash out at the people you’re closest to. Lean on us instead. Ask us about your dad if you want to fill in some of the blanks. We can share. We all knew him. But nothing’s going to bring him back so you can tell him he was an asshole or reconcile with him.”

“I know.” The desolation in Ben’s voice wasn’t any easier to hear than the anger. “I do. I thought I was over it, but seeing him with you all, living his life, happy without us—happy, goddamn it…” He spun around, arm outstretched, and slapped the glass off the bar. It flew through the air toward Shane’s face. Dave saw its path, but it happened too quickly for him to call a warning. That sweeping gesture, the glass hurtling through the crowded space—

Shane threw up his hand, not to catch it but ward it off. It struck his forearm and bounced, falling to smash on the floor.

“Shit,” Ben said in dismay. Everyone else was silent at first. Patrick and Shelly had their hands pressed to their mouths, and Dave was equally shocked. “Shane! Are you—”

“I’m fine.” Shane’s voice was grim, his face set in stern lines. He walked over to the nearest table, where the chairs were still up from the night before’s sweeping and mopping, and took one chair down, letting it fall the last foot so that it made a loud clatter when all four legs struck the floor. “Sit.”

It wasn’t often that Dave had heard Shane order Ben to do something—usually it was the other way around—but Ben obeyed, walking unsteadily to the chair and sinking down onto it. Shane crouched in front of him, hands on Ben’s knees.

“That’s enough, Benedict.”

Ben nodded. His eyes were wide, all pupil. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“I mean it,” Shane went on, sounding much more understanding than Dave would have ever given him credit for. “Enough. You’re going to hurt someone, most likely yourself, if you keep on this way.”

Ben lifted a shaking hand to his face and rubbed his mouth, then moved his hand higher and covered his eyes. His shoulders were hunched. “I’m sorry,” he said again, louder but muffled.

“I know.” Shane wrapped a hand around the back of Ben’s neck and tugged him in closer to lean on him. It had to be an awkward, uncomfortable position, but he made it look easy. “It’s all right now. You don’t need him anymore, do you? Not when you’ve got us.”

“Do I? Still?” Ben lifted his head to stare at the group at the bar, and Dave flinched from the misery on his face. “God, I can’t still be part of anything after that. I’m so sorry. All of you. I’ll take some time off. Work from home until I’m fit to be around.”

“Are you kidding me?” Patrick demanded. He came around the bar, hurrying, the tap of his ankle boots like a drumroll, and perched on the table, his hand resting on Ben’s back. “You threw a glass. You also threw a divalicious-sized temper tantrum. I didn’t think you had it in you. And you feel better for it, don’t you, soul sister?”

Ben blinked at him. “Uh, no. I could’ve hurt Shane.”

“Or me! Or me! You could’ve hurt this beautiful face, but you didn’t, and you’re sorry, and so am I.” Patrick bestowed a light kiss on the top of Ben’s head. “I have a mom who sucks. We can start a club. I’ll design us a T-shirt.”

“There should be a hoodie too.” Shelly shrugged when Dave turned to her in surprise. “What? I’m always cold in the wintertime no matter how much Shane cranks up the heat.”

“I mean it,” Ben said. “I shouldn’t be here if I can’t control myself.”

“We forgive you,” Dave told him. “Everyone’s entitled to a little breakdown now and then.” He refused to let Travis enter his mind when he said it, though even the effort conjured an image of the man.

“This was more than a little.” Ben studied Shane’s face. “I’m sorry. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“The glass didn’t break until it hit the floor,” Shane said. “I’ve had worse. Here, see?” He lifted his arm and pointed at the spot where he’d been hit. Dave couldn’t see it from where he stood, but he doubted there was much damage.

“I’ll talk to a therapist if you think I should,” Ben added.

“For Christ’s sake, Benedict, there’s nothing wrong with you,” Shane grumbled. “Your dad wasn’t there for you when you were growing up, and you’re a bit of a mess over it. I’d be more worried if you weren’t a mess. Patrick, would you fetch a bloody broom and sweep up that glass before someone walks through it?”

For once, Patrick kept his mouth shut and went to get the broom. Dave made a mental note to praise him for it later.

“It wasn’t your fault.” Ben met Dave’s gaze. “Not breaking your ankle and not finding the pictures. If I hear you say anything like that again, we’ll have a problem.”

It was good hearing that unconscious note of command in Ben’s voice again. Dave didn’t get off on it the way he suspected Shane did—and wasn’t that an uncomfortable thought—but it signaled a return to normal. It was more of a facade than a reality, but it was the first step taken, at least.

No, the meltdown had been the first. Ben’s emotions about Craig had been repressed and festering for a long time. Now that they were exposed, they could be dealt with. Dave believed in the people here. They’d helped him when Travis left, and they’d helped Patrick when he’d painted himself into a corner financially.

Ben wasn’t alone. And neither, Dave realized yet again with a small spurt of happiness, was he. The doors would open soon, bringing an influx of thirsty customers, but he’d make time to call Jeremy, if for no other reason than to hear his voice.

He excused himself from the group, guessing Ben wanted some time to recover his equilibrium, and found a quiet corner. There was a text waiting from Jeremy, and he opened it.

Guess what? Tires slashed!! Garage fixed them, but I’m wondering if I should report it. What do you think? Could be a gang?

No idea. Seems unlikely. Dave wanted to be reasonable, not stir Jeremy’s emotions up.

If it was one, I’d call it a fluke, Jeremy texted back immediately. But two?

Maybe you drove over something big on the road and didn’t notice. It could have been half-buried in snow. You might have thought it was ice.

I guess. But what if it’s happened to other people too? The police would know. Then they could keep an eye on the neighborhood.

You have a point there, Dave conceded. Okay, this is too slow. Calling now. He dialed Jeremy’s number.

“Hi,” Jeremy said, then launched into one of his long, sometimes confusing monologues. “If this was happening to other people who live nearby, it’s not as if we’d hear about it. I mean, unless it happened to the Seldons or Phil, and even then, they’d assume it was a nail and not bother to tell us, right? And that means we wouldn’t know.”

“How much coffee have you had today?” Dave asked, aware that he had a stupid smile on his face.

“Not a lot. Well, I guess that’s relative. Not a lot for me.” Jeremy’s train of thought had been derailed; Dave could tell. “Um. Anyway. The guy at the tire place said someone had taken a knife to the tires. No way I drove over a knife on the road.”

Dave had to agree with that. “Probably not.”

“Kids today, huh?” Jeremy sounded entirely too upbeat and cheerful. “I blame the violent video games they play.”

“Do many of them feature tire slashing? They usually go for the throat.”

“Gross.” Jeremy sighed. “Okay, then I guess someone out there doesn’t like me.”

“What? Who?” Dave asked sharply.

“Uh, it’s a figure of speech. A car goes by and splashes you with water, or you get one number wrong on the lottery and miss winning a zillion bucks, and you say—”

“Someone up there doesn’t like me. Up there. God. Fate. Whatever. You said out there.

“Slip of the tongue?”

“No.” Dave clutched his phone tighter until the edges bit into his palm. “I’m not sure they happen. If you say something like that, it’s not a mistake; it’s the part of your brain that’s worried sending out a message because it’s being ignored.”

“You’re overreacting,” Jeremy said. “I can’t even see your face, and I can tell. Relax. It was some teenagers with a pocketknife and a backpack. You know, so they could steal whatever from any unlocked cars they came across. My friend Brandon had that happen to him last year. He didn’t lock his car one night, and when he came out the next day, somebody’d taken not only the change in the cup holders but his radio. Can you believe it? Okay, maybe you can because you hadn’t seen his radio. It was a million years old, and it didn’t even work. It’d be more useful as a doorstop than anything else.” After pausing for breath, he went on. “So how’s work?”

Dave could barely wrench his brain to accommodate the change of subject. “Long story. I’ll tell you later.”

“Not sure I like the sound of that.”

Dave could picture the expression on his face—worried but curious. “It’s fine. Good, actually. I can’t talk about it now.” Glancing over at Ben and Shane, he saw that they were still talking quietly. “I can give you a ride over to pick up your car, if you can wait until I get up tomorrow. It won’t be before ten.”

“That’s fine. I can always take a cab if I need it before then, but I won’t. My freezer is well stocked with pizza. I mean, gourmet meals from… Oh, never mind. It’s pizza.”

Dave almost laughed. “You can eat pizza three times a day if it makes you happy. Wherever it’s going, it’s not to your waistline.”

“You don’t strike me as a guy who’d mind if I put on a few pounds,” Jeremy said. It was true, though how he’d guess that, Dave had no idea.

“I wouldn’t. But I can’t picture you letting yourself slide. You seem a pretty put-together guy. Even lying in the snow, I noticed that.”

“I like clothes.” Jeremy sounded apologetic, as if he was confessing a terrible character flaw. “Fashion in general. I can barely thread a needle, but I adore Project Runway and I follow a dozen fashion blogs or more.”

Dave wore T-shirts in the warm weather and sweaters in the cold. That was the extent of his knowledge or interest in fashion. “You’ll have to give me a makeover.”

“You’d be stunning in hunter green, but no, I like you the way you are.”

Hunter green sounded woodsy and dull, but Dave didn’t leap to conclusions. Maybe it would do incredible things to his eyes. If he dug around in his closet, he might discover something in that shade, and he could surprise Jeremy with it. Of course, it might turn out to be leaf green or emerald green or lettuce green or—

“Dave?”

“Still here.” He cleared his throat, realizing his thoughts had started to ramble the way Jeremy did. Maybe chattering was contagious. “Uh, I’d better get back to work.”

“Yeah, me too. Talk to you later.”

“Yeah.” Impulsively, Dave added, “Be careful.”

“Of what? I mean, anything in particular I should look out for?”

Dave rolled his shoulders, as if doing that would dislodge the uneasy prickle between his shoulder blades. “Be careful,” he repeated.

“And now I’m officially on red alert, DEFCON whatever.”

The call ended with Jeremy’s chuckle echoing in Dave’s head. He leaned against the wall, processing the antsy sensation, but he couldn’t pin it down.

The noise level from the bar rose after the doors were opened to the public, and he shook off his misgivings and went in search of something useful he could do from a chair. It turned out to be peeling potatoes, scraping carrots, and chopping onions for a stew to go on the evening menu. Boring but soothing. He’d be glad when spring came, for more reasons than one, but the biggest would be the change in menu to the fresh ingredients he favored. He was heartily sick of root vegetables.

“I saw someone getting a tour of that space next door on my way in this morning,” Helen said.

That captured his attention. “Yeah? It’s been empty awhile.” Maybe that was about to change.

“Almost six months.” Helen shrugged when Dave turned to her. “What? I asked. I’m not allowed to be curious?”

“I’ve never even seen the Realtor,” Dave said. “What’d he look like?”

“The Realtor, or the potential renter?”

“The renter.”

“It was a she,” Helen said. “Nice enough, I suppose. Young. I always worry about the young ones getting in over their heads.”

“She probably is.” Most people who were considering opening a restaurant were ill prepared for the amount of work it would take, and if Dave remembered correctly, more than 60 percent of new restaurants went out of business within the first few years. “Any idea what type of place she’s thinking of opening?”

“Now who’s curious? That wasn’t what I was interested in.”

There was something in Helen’s voice that made Dave pay attention. “Was she cute?”

“No.” Helen scratched the tip of her nose with her knuckle. “Interesting face. Not cute. Big eyes, or maybe that was the glasses she wore. Long dark hair down to her waist. Tight jeans. Killer boots. Italian.”

“Any more out of my depth and I’d be walking on the ocean floor. How can you tell what nationality a boot is, for God’s sake?”

Helen grinned. “If I have to tell you, you’ll never get it.”

Dave threw a piece of carrot at her. “I’m dating a fashionista. I get him.”

“Oh, are you officially dating now? Is that the word we’re using?” Helen bent down, picked up the carrot, and threw it into the trash, then moved to the sink to wash her hands. “You do realize Patrick’s been referring to Jeremy as your boyfriend?”

“It would be pretty hard not to realize what Patrick is doing,” Dave said. “He does all of it so loudly. Dating. There’s nothing wrong with the word dating.”

“It’s better than when you wouldn’t admit you were doing even that much. All right, I’m going to bread this chicken, so if there’s anything that needs doing in the next ten minutes, you’re either on your own, or you’ll have to get someone else to do it.” It was a messy job that required dipping the strips of chicken breast in egg, then a flour mixture. It was easiest done with one’s hands rather than utensils.

“Brave woman,” Shane said, coming into the kitchen with an armful of empty plates.

“Much tougher than these Americans, we Brits,” Helen agreed.

Dave, who’d been about to ask after Ben, decided that probably wasn’t wise following Helen’s statement and instead went with, “Helen says we might be getting a new neighbor.”

“Restaurant next door? That could work out well for us if it’s the right sort of place. And it’s been empty too long. Makes the whole block seem shabby.” After scraping leftovers into the trash barrel, Shane stacked the plates in the dishwasher. “As long as it isn’t another one like the last. No wonder it went out of business.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t the right food for around here.” Dave put down his paring knife. “People like value for money, but they don’t mind paying for organic and locally sourced either. And they don’t want whatever the latest trend is. They can get that anywhere. They’re searching for something that tastes good, looks good, and does them good.”

He punctuated his speech with a slap to the chopping board, making bits of carrots leap up as if they were applauding.

“Catchy. You should put that on the bottom of our menu,” Shane told him.

“I’ll save it for when I have a place of my own,” he said without thinking.

Shane narrowed his eyes. “Something you want to share?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you in the lurch. It’s an ambition. One day.”

“You’re pushing fifty. You’ll be retiring in fifteen years.”

Reminding himself Shane’s bluntness stemmed from a dislike of polite evasions, not a desire to insult or hurt, Dave nodded. “True enough.”

“Bit late in the game, is all,” Shane said, dismissing the conversation. “Charlie and Logan and that gang came in. You know what that means.” They did. The group always began with many orders of appetizers before moving on to full meals, and on more than one occasion Logan had begged them to consider adding desserts to their menu.

“You could have said something before I was up to my wrists in raw egg!” Helen sounded aggrieved, but Dave was reasonably sure it was put-on.

“You’re a tough Brit. You can handle it,” Shane said, then left the kitchen before either of them could respond.

“I should have wiped my hands on him.” Helen wiggled her fingers. “Give me a few minutes, and I’ll drop some fries and rings.”

“I can do it,” Dave protested, getting up. “I’m not a total invalid.”

“Okay, okay. I don’t want you to set back your recovery. How’s the pain and the swelling?” Helen was so casual it was hard to get annoyed.

“Better. Jeremy keeps saying it’s all part of the process, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve gained four pounds.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re so fit Jeremy could bounce a quarter off your abs.”

Interesting image. He shivered as if cold metal had struck his skin, picturing Jeremy smiling down at him, then catching the coin, ready to bounce it again.

He started the order, pleased to discover his ankle could take short spells of standing, and let his thoughts drift to a place of his own. Leaving the bar didn’t appeal, but a bigger kitchen, with full control over the menu did. He’d seen places go belly-up within weeks, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t room for another restaurant in the area.

In fact, this street was an ideal location, and the empty store next door would be ideal. A gay-friendly restaurant and bar side by side. Meet up for a drink in the Peg, then go next door for a meal. Except that would rob Shane and Ben of revenue and customers, which wasn’t something he wanted to do.

His dream shriveled like a frostbitten flower, and he sighed, shaking oil off the fries. “Why can’t I be a complete bastard who doesn’t care about people?”

Helen snagged plates and began assembling the food into eye-pleasing heaps. “Rhetorical or actual question?”

“Rhetorical. I wouldn’t like myself, and you know what they say about that.”

“No, but Patrick’s probably got a T-shirt that tells me.” Helen nudged him with her hip. “What’s up? Was it what Shane said? Because he talks a load of bollocks at times. Fifty is the new forty, and you’re still a couple of years off it anyway. You can do anything you want.” She rubbed at the edge of the plate with a cloth, her voice muffled. “It’s never too late to walk away from a mistake.”

Sometimes not pushing was as rude as being intrusive. Faced with an invitation to ask questions, Dave couldn’t do what came naturally and stay quiet. “Is that what you did? Walk away?”

Helen was silent for long enough that Dave assumed she wouldn’t answer. He prepared an apology, then abandoned it when she spoke. “I’m not saying it’s easy, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.” She sighed and hooked a stool closer so she could sit down. “You want to hear the whole sordid tale, don’t you?”

“Not if you don’t want to tell it,” Dave assured her, but Shelly came to the hatch to collect the plates of food, Patrick on her heels to help, and their conversation had to be paused. It would have been a good opportunity for Helen to pretend none of it had happened, but when they were alone again, she cleared her throat.

“Still want to hear it? Last chance.”

“Of course.” Anything else seemed less than respectful, and Dave had a hell of a lot of respect for Helen.

“I was looking for some housemates,” Helen said. “You know I’ve always worked this sort of job. It pays well enough to live on, but I’ve never managed to put away enough to buy my own place, and at the time I was working part-time at two different restaurants.” She made a face. “I answered an ad in the paper, a couple renting out their spare room. I liked them right away.”

“It happens that way sometimes,” he agreed cautiously. “You click with someone.”

“In this case, two someones.” She placed her hands on the table, a ring glinting on each hand. “Mitch and Anna. One ring for each of them. I fell in love without knowing I was doing it. Never happened like that before. It was as easy as slipping into a bath. We laughed at the same jokes, felt comfortable around each other. One night I walked in on them making love on the couch, and when I apologized, backed out, they exchanged glances, then told me to join them. And that was easy too.”

“It’s unusual, but it sounds open. Honest.”

“Yes!” She nodded, head bobbing emphatically. “There was no sneaking around. No lies. We didn’t bother with one of those awful talks that drain the life out of everything, because we knew how it needed to be to work. And it did. For two years or more.”

“Then it fell apart?” There were many ways a complex relationship could crack and shatter. Jealousy being the primary hammer.

“Anna got pregnant.” Helen rubbed her thumb over the ring on her left hand. “I was so happy at first. We all were. Not planned, but it didn’t matter. I felt them drawing away. It was going to be their baby. Not mine. There wasn’t room for me anymore.”

Dave wanted to say something comforting, but what the heck could he say? He couldn’t even imagine how horrible that must have been for her. “Was that why you moved here?”

She nodded. “I couldn’t bear the thought of running into them on the street, pushing a pram. I put some clothes and things in a bag and walked out. Jumped on a bus and never looked back.”

“You didn’t say good-bye?” He hadn’t realized until he said it how it would sound, as if she’d done something wrong.

“I left a note, but believe me, they wanted me gone, and it was hard to blame them under the circumstances. It wasn’t their fault any more than it was mine.”

It seemed a healthy way to view it. Not for the first time, Dave found himself admiring Helen.

“They would have been all right being friends, eventually,” she went on. “I could do lots of things, but that wasn’t one of them.”

“So what now?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you dating?”

Helen snorted. “That’s rich, coming from you. You weren’t dating until Jeremy railroaded you into it.”

“He didn’t!” Helen’s amused and skeptical smile spurred Dave to repeat himself with less vehemence and more detail. “He didn’t railroad me. I wanted to be with him, but I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. I’m older than he is, and I’m the first serious male relationship he’s had. He deserves better.”

“Someone has to be his first, so why not you? From what I’ve seen, you’re both happy, and that’s what matters.” Her gaze softened, amusement changing to understanding. “Or is it more about you not deserving to be happy after Travis? I’ve been there. Beating myself up for a failed relationship when it wasn’t my fault. Not with Mitch and Anna. This happened years before that, but walking down memory lane gets boring after a while. Turn around and walk in a different direction, see something new.”

“Travis was a bad habit I couldn’t break. When it came to him, I was a doormat, so yeah, it was my fault it dragged on so long.” Bitterness choked him. Years of being the patient, responsible one, enduring Travis’s moods and deceptions, unable to shake the unreasoning attraction he felt for the man. It’d been a twisted, unhealthy love, but strong enough to strangle his self-respect. He’d let Travis own him, use him, and it wasn’t an experience to shrug off easily.

Only when he’d come to see that every day spent brooding was another day under Travis’s thumb had he roused from his misery.

“But you did break it. It took you too long, but what’s done is done. You’re moving on.”

Dave raised his injured foot and grinned, deliberately lightening the mood. “Limping on.”

“You are a horrible person,” Helen told him. “Truly horrible.”

“Thanks,” Dave said.

Shane came in. “Charlie says they need two more orders of onion rings and one more of chicken fingers. And where did that bloody sauce go?”

“I don’t think we have ‘bloody’ sauce,” Helen said innocently. “Did you mean tartar sauce? Brown sauce? Ketchup?”

“You know what I mean.” Shane waved his hand. “The stuff we bought specifically for Charlie and Logan, what is it?” He could never remember, a fact that amused the rest of the staff to no end.

“Oh, the duck sauce,” Dave said, as if he hadn’t known all along what Shane was talking about. “Bottom shelf of the fridge.”

“Stupidest name for a product I’ve ever heard.” Shane crouched down in front of the open fridge. “Duck sauce. Thank God there aren’t any ducks in it.”

With a stifled giggle, Helen asked, “Why? Would it drive you quackers?”

“You’re hilarious.” Shane stood without using his hands, ass and thigh muscles flexing. Dave looked. Shane was Ben’s and he was Jeremy’s, but he looked. And looked away before Shane swung around to glare at them. “Back to work. Or I start docking your pay.” His lips twitched. “Might duck it too.”

“That wasn’t even funny.” Helen shook her head sadly. “You’re letting the side down, boss. The English are a witty people. Consider what we’ve given the world. Monty Python, for one.”

“Bunch of posers.” Shane might’ve been more convincing if Dave hadn’t seen him declaim the dead-parrot speech while standing on the bar one memorable Saturday night. “Bet they were a right bunch of wankers in their uni days.”

“Cambridge is a lovely city, though.” Helen sounded wistful. “Don’t you miss England sometimes? How green it is, and all the old bits. Walking down the high street and there’s a Tudor building to the left and part of a medieval wall to the right. It’s so new over here.”

“Yeah.” Shane didn’t go misty-eyed. Reflective, maybe. “Miss it sometimes. Might take Benedict over there one day for a holiday. ’Course, that costs money, and we’ll be bankrupt soon with all this standing around nattering.”

That was amusing, because the business was doing better than ever. Ben had an instinctive ability when it came to making good decisions about the Peg.

“Better let us get back to work, then,” Dave said, as if he’d stopped dicing vegetables when Shane had come into the kitchen.

“Right.” Shane, holding two small bowls of duck sauce in his hand, put the jar back into the fridge and went off.

Dave and Helen worked in companionable silence for a few minutes before Helen said reluctantly, the words dragged from her, “About what I told you…”

“I won’t share it,” Dave promised, sure that was where she was going. “Gossip isn’t my style.”

“I know. I wouldn’t have told you if I thought it was.” Helen moved to the sink to wash her hands again. “Bit strange, sharing it.”

“I can imagine.” Dave blew out a long breath. “Travis is this huge no-go area for me, but Jeremy asks about him sometimes. When I mention him, it’s either like pressing on a bruise or squeezing a zit. Both hurt, but one lets the poison out. The trouble is, I’m never sure which it’s going to be.”

“Nice image there.” Helen dried her hands, even that mundane task accomplished neatly and quickly. “I suppose eventually there won’t be any hurt at all. Some regrets, but at a level you can live with.”

“I wish.”

“The oil in the fryer needs changing, by the way. It’ll see us through until closing, though.”

And with that, the personal conversation was over. Conscious of relief, mixed with pleasure that Helen trusted him enough to open up, Dave focused on the task at hand.

Chapter Nine

Jeremy ran up the stairs to his front door, breath clouding the air. He’d investigated his freezer and seen its contents through Dave’s eyes. In need of fresh air, he’d decided to walk to the vegetarian café two streets over before it closed and get a bowl of three-bean chili with a crisp wedge of garlic bread, the butter and melted cheese combining to make every mouthful bliss.

Stuffed with good food and a sense of virtue, he slowed his pace to a walk for the last few steps. With spring on the way, he should start exercising more. Or at all. It would be something else he could do with Dave, and that thought pleased him more than the vision of bounding up the steps without arriving at the top out of breath, pulse racing.

With a regretful glance at Dave’s door, wishing he could knock on it and have Dave answer, he pulled out his key. A piece of paper was taped to his door, one corner loose, flapping in the breeze. Puzzled, he stepped closer, smoothing the paper flat so he could read it.

No words. Just a picture of Blitz lying stretched out, obscured by a cross painted over it in something that’d dried to a rusty brown.

Jeremy stared at the photo without blinking, as if he did it long enough, his brain would translate what his eyes saw into something else. Time stopped.

A moment later it moved again. His heart pounding quickly in his chest and lodged in his throat at the same time, he grabbed the door handle. Part of him was convinced he’d find it turned easily in his hand even though he’d locked it when he left. He didn’t know whether to be more or less terrified when it resisted. He fumbled the key into the lock on the fourth try, cursing under his breath, and shoved the door open with a hand that trembled.

“Blitz,” he said, but it came out more as a croak than a real word.

The apartment was silent, the piece of paper crumpled but still somehow in his grip.

“Blitz!”

Another few heartbeats of sickening terror, and the distinct sensation that he was going to throw up, and there was Blitz’s little chirping sound of greeting when he came around the corner from the bedroom, then trotted over to rub against Jeremy’s legs.

The strength went out of Jeremy at once. He sank down onto the floor and tried to gather his cat close. Blitz squirmed and twisted as Jeremy did his best to make sure he was unharmed, but the cat’s loud purring and determined struggles were all the reassurance he needed.

“Blitz,” he said. “Blitz.”

As if sensing his turmoil, Blitz head butted his chin once, then squirmed free, pushing away with sufficient force to startle a grunt from Jeremy. He watched Blitz take three or four stiff-legged steps, then settle into a complex position allowing him to lick the ruffled fur on his belly.

“Hey. I was worried about you.”

Blitz ignored him, pink tongue applying delicate, finicky laps to fur as soft as any kitten’s. Muss my fur? he seemed to be saying. No emergency calls for that! What were you thinking?

Jeremy made amends by announcing, “Treats!” It got him an interested look, at least. He struggled to his feet and went to the cupboard set aside for Blitz’s food. He still held the piece of paper, and with a shudder of revulsion, he let it drop to the counter, flexing his hand, rubbing his thumb over his knuckles as if they were covered in something noxious and sticky.

The treats could wait, even if Blitz sulked some more. He wanted to wash his hands. And he wanted Dave. God, how he wanted Dave.

He didn’t feel clean even after the third soaping and rinsing of his hands, but he stopped then because doing any more seemed like crossing a line into territory best avoided. Blitz paused long enough in his grooming ritual to accept a treat. He then dropped it on the floor, stepped on it a few times, and walked away without eating it.

Right then, though, Jeremy was unlikely to be annoyed by anything the cat did.

He forced himself to smooth the paper flat on the countertop so he could study it. It had come from a color ink-jet printer, and once he studied the cat in the photo, he could tell it wasn’t Blitz. The coloring was close, but Blitz’s striped markings came farther down his sides. That helped slow Jeremy’s thudding heart rate.

There was no writing on the page, only the cross painted in a dark red brown simulating dried blood. Again, upon closer inspection, it was obviously paint, but on first glance it had done what it was supposed to do and struck fear into him.

Jeremy’s terror turned to anger. Who the hell would do something like this? His friends were decent people, well aware how he felt about Blitz. Even the ones with a weird sense of humor wouldn’t consider this funny. This wasn’t a joke. It had come from someone who wanted to upset him.

Dave’s warning from earlier surfaced in his head. At the time, he’d put the words down to the news about his tires. Now he wondered if Dave knew more than he was saying. He trusted Dave, he did, but if the guy was holding out on him, he wouldn’t be happy.

A knock at the door had him leaving the floor, as startled as a wild animal by a gunshot. The extreme reaction perversely calmed him. Idiot, he scolded himself. Get a fucking grip. If it’s whoever left this, then good. You can show him what real blood looks like when you punch him.

He’d never hit someone in anger in his life, but if it scared them off, he was more than willing to change that.

After scooping up Blitz and unceremoniously dumping him in the bedroom—out of sight, if not hearing, since Blitz immediately yowled a protest—he flung open the door. Prepared to face a stranger, primed for battle, he was disconcerted to find himself facing a smiling Dave.

“I know it’s late, but I saw the light was on. Hey, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

Seeing the smile vanish, replaced by concern, snapped the tenuous hold he had on his emotions. “You told me to be careful.

Dave frowned, reaching out to touch him, his hand dropping when Jeremy stepped back. “Yeah, I did. Has something else happened to your car?”

Jeremy slapped the door, part of him enjoying the release it gave to strike out. “Here. On my door. A picture of Blitz. No, not Blitz, but they wanted me to think it was. Blitz covered in blood. You knew something like this would happen. Who was it? Who are you protecting?”

“Wait. What?” Dave stood unmoving, but it was a clear effort, his shoulders taut. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t lie to me.” Jeremy was angry, and even if he regretted it later, right then it felt fucking great. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Dave’s eyes darkened. “If I did, I wouldn’t be asking. And can we discuss it inside? It can be my place if you don’t want it to be yours.”

“Why, are you worried the Seldons will hear? What would they do, call the cops? Good. I should have done it before.” Jeremy made no effort to lower his voice; he almost hoped someone would overhear and call the police.

“Stop,” Dave said firmly, and even though Jeremy was pissed off, something in Dave’s tone calmed him. “I’ll listen to whatever you want to say, but not in the hallway.”

Jeremy made himself nod and step back. “Okay. Fine. Come in.”

“Thank you.” Dave came in and shut the door. “Now take a deep breath and tell me what’s going on. What’s this about a picture of Blitz?”

“See for yourself. I found it on my front door.”

He watched Dave’s expression alter from wary to shocked as he looked at the picture. That told him nothing he didn’t already know. Anyone would be taken aback by the implied threat. “It’s not Blitz. Wrong markings, and you don’t have a brown carpet in any of the rooms.”

“Yeah, well, forgive me for not analyzing every fucking pixel and realizing it was a sick joke, not a dead pet waiting on the other side of the door!”

Blitz began a determined assault on the door, scratching it vigorously. Jeremy hissed out an exasperated breath and released the cat. Blitz padded out, scanned his surroundings, then turned and went back inside the bedroom.

“You can’t believe I had anything to do with this.” Dave tossed the paper onto the counter. It slid a few inches but didn’t fall to the floor. Good, because Jeremy didn’t want to touch it again. Hazy thoughts of lifting fingerprints off the paper passed through his head, but he dismissed them. The police wouldn’t be interested. Too trivial. “And I don’t know who put it there.”

“You mean you’re not certain, but you can guess.” Jeremy nodded, the action, once begun, hard to stop. With an effort, he made himself motionless, alert to every shade of expression passing over Dave’s face. “Yeah. You can. My tires. This. It’s your ex, isn’t it? How ex are we talking about, huh? Is this some game you two play? Break up, find someone to fuck to get him steamed and jealous, then have some nice makeup sex and start over?”

Dave swallowed. “You know I wouldn’t do that.”

“Do I?” Jeremy wished he could punch something—a wall, a door, a face—and gain relief, but it wouldn’t work. If he hit Dave, the brief moment of savage joy would evaporate an instant later, replaced by sick disappointment in himself. Even thinking about it made him less angry. “Tell me, then. Tell me what the hell is going on, because I know it’s not as simple as a bunch of coincidences.”

“Can we sit down?” How Dave stayed calm, with Jeremy shouting at him, was a mystery.

“You can,” Jeremy said. “No, I mean it. I can’t right now. Too much energy.” Pacing seemed like the better option. He followed Dave to the couch, remembering Dave’s ankle might be bothering him. “Are you okay?”

“Pretty sure I should be the one asking you that question.” Dave leaned back and looked up at him. “Yeah, fine. I’ll answer any questions you have, okay? Tell me what you want to know.”

“Your ex. Travis. Is he the one responsible for this? My tires, and now that photo?”

Dave’s gaze shifted a fraction of an inch to the left. “Honestly? It could be. And if it is, I’ll handle it. He won’t bother you again, I promise.”

“Bother?” Jeremy heard the incredulity in his voice. “You make it sound as if he’s a chatty neighbor or a barking dog. He’s insane! If I’d been there when he took a knife to my tires, would my face have been the next thing he slashed? If Blitz had gotten out, would I have found his body nailed to the door?” He choked over the last words, succeeding in grossing himself out so thoroughly he had to swallow back a wave of nausea.

“No! God, no.” Dave surged up from his seat and grabbed Jeremy’s arms. “He’s not dangerous. Not like that. When he’s using or drunk, he can be vicious, but he goes for the emotional hurt mostly.”

“Mostly,” Jeremy repeated flatly and shook Dave’s hands off him. “That’s not as reassuring as you assume.”

A flicker of irritation showed in Dave’s eyes. “We’re not even sure it’s him, so why don’t we give him the benefit of the doubt?”

“Right. Let’s worry about his feelings.” Blitz wove his way back and forth against Jeremy’s legs, reminding him how much worse it could have been. “You should go.”

“That’s your solution? I’m not comfortable condemning someone with no proof, so I’m out?”

Jeremy felt like pulling his hair in frustration. “You’re supposed to be on my side!”

“I am on your side!”

“It doesn’t strike me that way. It’s like you’re on his.”

Dave rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, then, I’m doing this wrong, because I’m definitely not on his side. I don’t even know where his side is. I promise you I haven’t seen him or even talked to him except for that phone call you were in the room for. That’s it.” He drew a shaky breath, then went on. “If you want me to, I’ll track him down and confront him.”

That wasn’t the point. If anyone tracked down Travis and confronted him, it would be Jeremy. He didn’t need Dave to protect him.

A security system, on the other hand, sounded like a wonderful idea.

“Give me his address.”

“No. One, I don’t know it, and two, you’d end up being fed a shitload of lies and half-truths. I know him. All his tricks, all his tells.”

Hard not to doubt that assertion. “You must know where he is.”

Dave thrust both hands through his hair, revealing more gray. “I’ve been working my ass off to get him out of my life, not keep tabs on him!”

Even in his anger, Jeremy found Dave attractive, and it disturbed him that he couldn’t push that appreciation aside. Loving someone without trusting him was a one-way ticket to getting hurt. Love exposed every vulnerability to a partner and asked for protection and an answering openness in return. Jeremy wasn’t ready to admit he loved Dave, but he’d bared more than his body, and to be left wondering if he’d been played for a fool hurt.

Now I know how a slug sprinkled with salt feels, he thought. I want to shrivel up. Hide. Did I misjudge him that badly? See the hotness, the kindness, and miss the fact he’s still in love with a loser? God, I’m so fucking stupid.

“I need you to go.” Jeremy did his best to keep his voice low and steady. “I need some time to think.”

“On one condition.”

“You don’t get to make conditions.” Jeremy bent to pick up Blitz, who for once, wonder of wonders, didn’t struggle to jump from his arms. When he straightened up, he looked Dave right in the eye. “You’re not my boyfriend.”

Apparently ignoring what he’d been told, Dave said, “Promise me you won’t search for him, and I’ll give you all the time you need.”

“You’ll do that anyway, and I don’t owe you any promises.” Jeremy didn’t want to examine the lines he was drawing in the sand too closely. “But I won’t. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to call the police, though, and make a report.” He had no idea what report that would be. Dave would know, but Jeremy was going to deal with this solo.

“Good. That’s for the best.” Dave hesitated, as if holding himself back from going for a hug, then nodded. “Okay. Will you call me?”

“Yeah. When I’m ready to talk.” At that moment Jeremy wanted to push Dave out into the hallway and pretend the man had never existed, but he was pretty sure that wouldn’t last forever.

By the time he turned the dead bolt behind Dave, it already felt like that long.

Chapter Ten

Travis’s friends never stayed friends for long, but when they were orbiting his sun, they were blind to his faults. Eventually, he’d borrow money one time too many, let them down when it mattered, or expose his ugly side, and the shine would rub off, but Dave knew better than anyone how well Travis could spin a story. Tracking him down would involve finding his current crowd and tugging a string here and there until an address was forthcoming.

And after that, it was a case of moving quickly, because Travis had impeccable timing when it came to staying one step ahead of someone hunting him. Dave couldn’t let this go. Jeremy might be a lost cause—Dave had seen that disillusionment in the mirror too often to believe he could glue shards together and expect them to have function or beauty—but unchecked, Travis would escalate his harassment.

That was unacceptable. Jeremy didn’t deserve it, and neither did he. The way his relationship with Travis had ended had been nasty, but he’d thought it’d been a clean break. He should’ve known better. How many desperate calls had he fielded? How many supposedly chance encounters had he walked away from?

If he’d been addicted to Travis, he saw now it was a mild compulsion compared to Travis’s obsession with him. And it’d been a long time since Travis had taken a hit. If Dave had to use himself as bait to get Travis alone, he’d do it. He’d feel grubby as shit, but for Jeremy, he’d do it.

In the morning he called the number Travis had used the week before. He guessed Travis was unlikely to have called from his personal phone, and it turned out he was right. “Hi, I’m looking for a friend of mine. Travis? I can’t find his number, and I know he’s used this one before.”

“Huh. Not sure who that is, but hang on a minute and I’ll try to find out.” That didn’t sound hopeful, and Dave suspected the guy would walk away and forget their conversation, but a couple of minutes later a woman picked up.

“Hi, who’s this?”

Crap. He should have come up with a fake name, and he wasn’t quick enough to do it now that he was on the spot. “Um, hi, this is Dave. Who’s this?”

“Laurie. Jimmy said you’re looking for Travis? He doesn’t live here. Crashed on the couch for a few nights, that’s it.” She sounded young but reasonably well put together.

“Yeah, I couldn’t find his number, and this was the only one I could find, so I thought I’d take a chance. Do you know how to get in touch with him?”

Laurie seemed to consider this. “You know, I don’t, but a couple of the other guys who live here might. They aren’t here right now, but if you want to leave your number, I can have them get back to you.”

He hadn’t slept well. Nothing had worked, from lying in bed reading, to a joyless, mechanical session with his dick and his hand. Viewed one way, his relationship had fallen apart in the space of a few moments. Looked at another, with Travis still in the picture, it’d never been real. An illusion of a future, a second chance. A mirage that, when it shimmered away, left nothing but emptiness.

He pressed his fingertips to his left temple, soothing a throb of pain. His headache was caused by operating on three hours sleep, if that, snatched after the sky had brightened with dawn, but knowing the cause didn’t stop it from hurting.

“Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks.”

Add changing his number to the list of chores once this was over. How many times had he done that since Travis left?

He didn’t wait for the nameless men to get back to him, but carried on making calls, waking some people who sounded drunk, getting no answer from others. Time to give up and search in person.

His shift was an evening one, so he had all day to search. When he left his condo, he glanced at Jeremy’s door. Clean. Bare. And somehow radiating a clear message that knocking on it wouldn’t be a good idea.

Driving over to the other side of town—he’d deliberately relocated some distance from Travis’s old haunts—Dave did his best to stay focused on the task at hand. Thinking about Jeremy distracted him, and being distracted was bad. He needed to concentrate on the best way to handle the situation once he found Travis, and past experience told him there wasn’t a best way. No matter what he tried, Travis would hear what he wanted to hear and do what he wanted to do.

This was a nightmare, and Dave was walking into it willingly.

A secondhand store selling CDs and video games operated a few blocks from what Dave still thought of as his grandmother’s house. Sometimes Travis had sold things there to make a quick buck, and he’d been pretty friendly with some of the employees. It seemed like a reasonable place to start, though Dave was careful to avoid driving past their previous home.

He didn’t bother to pretend he was shopping, but made a beeline for the register when he recognized the guy behind the counter.

“Hey, long time, no see!” The guy reminded him of Patrick with his skintight T-shirt and spiky hair, and it was a good thing he wore a name tag, because otherwise Dave wouldn’t have had the faintest clue.

“Hey, Gideon. How’ve you been?”

“Good, good, and you? I haven’t seen you in, what, at least a year? I thought you moved away or something.”

“I did. Only to the other side of town, though.”

“Now why would you want to go and do that?” Gideon came over as lighthearted, on the edge of flirtatious. “Everyone knows this is the good part of town.”

“I miss it, but at the time I needed to put some distance between me and my ex. Remember him? Travis?”

Gideon whistled through his teeth. “Hoo-ee. Hard to forget the T-man.”

“Yeah.” Travis had a dozen nicknames. None of them matched his age.

“Now that’s a man who likes to party.” Hard to decide if Gideon approved or not. “He’s still around, still putting the moves on anything that moves. Going for the older guys. Ones with money. Think he’s running through them fast. I mean, even on the good side of town, there’s a limited supply of millionaires. Like, none.” Gideon chuckled as if he’d said something funny, but he shot Dave a shrewd look. “So are you trying to find him? Owe you money? There’s a long line.”

“No, nothing like that.” If Gideon was friendlier with Travis than he was letting on, Dave didn’t want him passing on anything that sounded bad. In fact, something appealing but vague would be better. “I miss him, you know? It would be good to touch base with him again. He called me not too long ago, and I was so surprised I came off sounding angry.”

“Dude.” Gideon seemed hesitant but leaned forward so he could lower his voice. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and I so don’t want to be the messenger who gets killed, but you might want to get checked out. He’s not the faithful type, and it’s safe to assume he wasn’t when you two were together either.”

Dave was relieved to hear something that didn’t come as a surprise. “Yeah, I know. Believe me, I’ve been tested all to hell and back, and everything’s fine.” He wouldn’t have been with Jeremy in some of the ways he had if there’d been any doubt.

No, not thinking about Jeremy.

“I’m glad to hear that, at least,” Gideon said, relaxing. “Anyway, if I see him, I can pass on a message or something, but I don’t know how to get in touch with him.”

“I do,” a man said from behind Dave, and Dave turned around.

Tall, receding hairline, gold-framed glasses, a little overweight, and with a target painted on his back—make that ass—as far as Travis was concerned. The kind of wealthy, middle-class man he tempted with a walk on the wild side, then abandoned when he got bored or they got wise. For Travis, the man represented work, not pleasure. Dave tried to project relief shaded with a hint of desperation. How much had the man heard? Dave could assume the role of an addict looking for a fix. Travis was too savvy to walk around carrying, but he knew sources for most drugs. “Really? That’s great.”

The man raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t say I’d share what I know. It’s possible Travis doesn’t want to be found, after all.”

Gideon piped up. “No, it’s cool, Mr. Blake. Dave’s known Travis for ever. Since they were kids. They’re tight.”

“That’s the truth.” Dave shrugged, spreading his hands. “I want to reconnect with him. Buy him a drink for old time’s sake.” He recognized Blake as a local businessman, fond of making charitable donations and getting his face in one of the local newspapers. Kenneth Blake, that was it. Openly gay, with a reputation for being generous but shrewd. As far from gullible as it got. Okay, not Travis’s type.

“Then you may or may not be pleased to hear that’s not something Travis would be interested in these days.” Blake tilted his head as if evaluating Dave, then offered his hand. “Kenneth Blake.”

“Nice to meet you.” The man’s hand was smooth, uncalloused. “Dave. How do you know Travis?”

“I don’t remember how we first met.” That was a weird thing to say. It set Dave’s brain spinning, trying to make sense of why. “A fund-raiser of some sort, probably. I go to a lot of those. And how do you know him?” It sounded like a test.

“Like Gideon said, we grew up together. We’ve lost touch over the past couple of years, though. How is he?”

“He’s fine.” Blake was still studying him. “If you give me your number, I can pass it on to him. If he wants to get in touch, he can.”

Blake didn’t know Travis well if he didn’t realize Travis would jump all over being handed Dave’s phone number via text, e-mail, or, hell, ballpoint pen written on the inside of a forearm. “That’d be great. Thanks.” Dave made a real effort not to sound too eager—that would be strange—without sounding disinterested. He wasn’t sure he succeeded, but Blake took his number down without any odd looks, so he counted it a win.

“I’m sorry I won’t give you his number.” Blake sounded genuinely apologetic. “It seems the best way to proceed.”

“Right, that’s fine. I understand.” Dave wasn’t sure he did, but he’d play along if it got him what he wanted.

And what it got him, thirty minutes after arriving home, was Travis on the other end of the line. Dave eyed the sandwich he’d taken one bite out of and pushed the plate away. Travis always did have lousy timing, from climaxing way before Dave and losing interest in continuing, to mentioning he hated garlic after the food was on a plate in front of him. And yeah, the paella incident still rankled fifteen years later. Dave had spent four hours cooking it as an anniversary surprise, and Travis hadn’t touched it. Then eaten garlic bread without protest a week later when it was offered to him by a twink with adoring eyes and the tightest little ass imaginable.

The sandwich was toasted ciabatta spread with cream cheese, a smidge of mango chutney, slices of heirloom tomatoes, and mushrooms cooked with a dash of freshly squeezed lime juice. It was Dave’s favorite, one he’d cooked to cheer himself up, but the call had ruined his appetite.

“I hear you’ve been looking for me. I don’t have to tell you it made my day.”

Triumph under wraps, Dave decided. Gloating at a minimum. He didn’t trust Travis in any mood, but it was better for the conversation to begin amicably, at least. “I thought it might.”

“You bumped into Ken. That’s more than a coincidence.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because he’s the one person who knows how to get in touch with me.” Travis hesitated—that was new; he’d never been a hesitant person—then said, in a softer, less certain voice, “He’s my unofficial sponsor.”

That surprised Dave so much that he wasn’t sure how to respond at first. “You’re in AA?”

“And NA. Figured if I was going to go to one, might as well do both, right? Go for broke?”

“I thought you were lying when you called before.” Dave told himself that Travis still might not be telling the truth, but something about his tone was convincing, and he found himself swayed.

“You didn’t give me much chance to explain.”

“No. You can’t blame me for that, though.”

“I put you through hell,” Travis said. “I’m sorry.”

It was the first time Dave could remember in years that he believed Travis’s apology, but he couldn’t bring himself to say that it was okay. It wasn’t. “So how did you meet this Blake guy, in AA? You said he’s your sponsor?”

“Not like that,” Travis said. “Not officially or anything. He’s had friends go through the program, so he knows what it’s like from that side of things.”

“So you’re friends? Or more than that?” Truthfully, he didn’t care. Once, yes, but not now. Everything he’d felt for Travis had been worn away to a flat indifference. Except sometimes he remembered loving him. It was never a good memory. Travis’s betrayals, major and minor, had stained their time together indelibly.

“There’s never been anyone but you,” Travis said fervently. Dave clenched his teeth, squeezing them together as tightly as he could. From the instant ache, he’d been doing it when he slept, a bad habit of his that his dentist scolded him about. In the old days, that claim would’ve triggered an argument, with him bringing up Travis’s many infidelities and Travis denying them as if that made his guilt vanish. Now he needed to let it go, for Jeremy’s sake.

“We were together a long time.” Factual worked. He didn’t have to despise himself for lying or cozying up to a man he disliked.

“Oh God, forever! I mean it. You’re part of my life, Dave. Part of me. I don’t know how you could walk away and leave me when we both know that’s true.”

“It was complicated.” Clichéd, but Travis dealt in those.

“It shouldn’t have happened. We’re too old to waste time playing games like kids.”

That prompted a memory of Jeremy’s accusation that he was being used by Dave to engineer a reconciliation. Dave swallowed drily, his throat closing up. Shit, this was difficult. “I need to talk to you. Can we meet for coffee somewhere?”

“Of course. Anywhere.”

Half an hour later, walking through the door of the coffee shop he’d had to cross town again to get to, Dave wanted to see Travis’s face to judge his sincerity. Even so, his discomfort must have been obvious, because Travis’s wide smile faded when he saw Dave’s expression.

“Hi.” Travis bit his lower lip, teeth digging in. “It’s good to see you.”

“Thanks for meeting me.”

“Are you kidding? I would have traveled farther than a few blocks.” Travis gestured at the table where he’d been sitting. “I bought you a coffee.”

Dave would have insisted on getting his own if given the option. It seemed rude to refuse, though. “Thanks.” They sat across from each other instead of next to each other. “A few blocks? You’re living near here, then?”

Travis nodded. He’d gained some much-needed weight and had a recent haircut. “With a couple of friends.”

“Friends in the program?”

Travis’s eyes went vague. “Yeah. It helps being around people who know what I’m going through. Supportive people.”

Dave had suggested AA to Travis once, and Travis had emptied every bottle of alcohol in the house down the sink, then smashed them against the wall, leaving Dave to clean up the broken glass. He hadn’t brought the subject up again. Should he have pushed more? Were Travis’s addictions something for which he was partially responsible? He knew any of his friends would’ve said no, emphatically, but it was hard to shake off the belief that if he’d been stronger-willed, he could’ve inspired Travis to make this effort earlier.

“That’s good. You know I want you to succeed.”

“Well, of course.” Travis laughed. “I couldn’t expect it to be like it was before with us and still work. I know that. You wouldn’t have to put up with my bullshit again. I’ve changed. No more crap going into my system, and I’m ready to settle down. With you. Only you.”

He put his hand on Dave’s. It was cool—clammy, even—and Dave wanted nothing more than to shake it off. He waited for Travis to remove it, offering nothing in response, and after a moment, with a disappointed pursing of his lips, Travis withdrew it.

“I’ve been seeing someone.” Dave looked directly at Travis, studying him. “Someone I care about. Do you know who I mean?”

“The guy who answered the phone that time? I was going through a rough patch, and I wasn’t nice to him. I’ll apologize if he’ll be open to it.” Travis gulped some of his coffee, then gestured at Dave’s cup, which he still hadn’t touched. “Don’t let that get cold. I know you don’t like it cold.”

That rubbed Dave the wrong way. Travis was trying too hard to remind him that they had a history together. “Right.” He wrapped his hand around the sturdy paper cup and shifted it without picking it up. “His name is Jeremy.”

“Okay. I mean, it doesn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong. I feel bad for the guy. I’m sure he’ll be sad when you break up with him, but he has to understand that you and I have something special.”

“Is that what we’re calling it?” Dave sighed. “I need to ask you something, and I need an honest answer.”

“Of course you do.”

That wasn’t the same as agreeing to tell the truth, Dave realized, but he went on anyway. “Some stuff’s been going on, and Jeremy thinks you might have something to do with it. Did you do anything to his tires?”

“Tires? His car, you mean?” Travis widened his eyes, voice rising in pitch and volume, drawing glances from people around them. “Hey, what is this? What are you accusing me of doing?”

Five years ago, Dave would’ve backed down. Apologized, even. Now he shrugged. “Not an accusation. A question. One you haven’t answered.”

“I don’t even know what car he drives.” Travis’s voice was stiff as a starched shirt and full of pained dignity. “And I don’t appreciate his attempts to poison you against me. That’s plain mean.”

Time to derail that line of thought. He didn’t want Travis with more reasons to hold a grudge against Jeremy.

“He didn’t. This is all coming from me. How did you know he had a cat?” He was hammering at Travis from different angles, trying to get him angry enough to let something slip, but it was a damn good point. Blitz never went outside, so how did Travis even know Jeremy owned a cat, let alone know the color? He might’ve followed Jeremy around the supermarket and seen him buying cat food, or quizzed the neighbors, but that didn’t sit right for some reason. Dave was missing something. Something Jeremy had said after the tires were slashed. Yeah. A strange customer who’d come to his condo and ranted about loyalty. Someone who’d spooked him, and Dave, like an idiot, hadn’t asked for details, or shown any interest, because it was Jeremy’s work and nothing to do with him.

“A cat? What is this crap?” Travis pushed back his chair, face tight with panic. He was scared and angry, Dave could tell. Not good, even if Travis was sober, at least. “I’m leaving.”

One final jab. “Why? Got a computer to buy from my boyfriend?”

Travis stood, knocking the chair sideways. He caught it before it fell, hanging on to it for support, swaying, eyes glassy, tongue flickering out to wet his lips.

Merciless through determination to end this, Dave persisted, sick to his stomach at Travis’s visible disintegration. This was horrible. Like slapping a smiling child who expected a kiss. “Do you think he didn’t know who you were? That we didn’t laugh about it afterward?”

Travis let go of the chair when Dave stood, and stepped toward him, grabbing on to his sleeve before Dave could back away. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Travis said, his voice low and his eyes intense. “You’re going to regret this.”

“You’re going to regret it,” Dave told him, trying to stay calm.

“That kid is young enough to be your son.” Travis’s hand tightened on Dave’s sleeve, twisting so the fabric dug into Dave’s skin. “That’s sick, Dave. Sick on a whole different level. I might be an addict, but you’re a twisted cradle robber, and that’s not something you recover from. I can get sober. You’ll always be fucked up. So fucked up that no one’s ever going to want you. I’m your only chance unless you want to die alone. Is that what you want?”

Dave was aware that the people around them were uncomfortable. Instead of being embarrassed, he was grateful for their presence. He was pretty sure Travis wasn’t going to cross the line that would result in a call to the police by a concerned citizen. “You should go.”

Travis shook his head. “That’s not what you want either. Once I’m out of your sight, there’s no way to know what I’m going to do.”

“I know you won’t do anything stupid.” Dave prayed it was true.

“True. I’m not stupid. In fact, I’m so smart whatever I decide to do, I’m not going to get caught.” Travis let go of Dave’s sleeve and straightened, smoothing his shirt. “Have a good day, okay? I hope your boyfriend doesn’t run into any more trouble.”

Ignoring the rustle of curious, shocked whispers, Dave addressed Travis as calmly as possible given that he was shaking, sweat damp on his back. “Why are you doing this? You and me, it’s over. We’re over. I don’t want you, and when you were with me, you didn’t want me either, so why?”

“Wrong.” Travis flicked his fingers against Dave’s cheek, leaving it smarting, humiliation washing over him. “You’ve always wanted me, always will. My shadow. I got a kick out of seeing you crawl, putting up with anything I did and begging for more. You’re pathetic, but you’re mine. No one takes what’s mine. If they do, I deal with them. Gonna deal with toy boy. He won’t look pretty when I’m done. Still going to drool over him then?”

Punching Travis was a mistake, but if he’d let that go, it would’ve been impossible to breathe. The outrage filling him needed an outlet, and driving his fist against that smiling mouth provided one.

Travis saw it coming and leaned back, robbing the punch of some of its force and giving him the perfect opening to fall backward.

Dave had watched soccer matches with Shane often enough to recognize a dive when he saw one, but to the onlookers, the fall must’ve seemed wholly caused by the punch.

Travis stayed down, raising his arms to protect his face, cringing. “Don’t! Please! Someone help me! He’s got a gun!”

“I don’t!” Dave tried to protest, but things became confusing fast after that. A couple of men wrestled him to the floor, and one of them sat on him while someone else called the police. It felt like forever before they arrived. Dave’s cheek was crushed against the floor the whole time, and it was hard to breathe with the weight of a determined do-gooder holding him down. He couldn’t see what was going on, but he could hear people comforting Travis, someone bringing him an ice pack that he didn’t need, then the sound of a police car arriving.

The man on top of Dave moved, but his weight was immediately replaced by a police officer who barked orders at Dave. “Keep your arms spread out. Out!” Dave’s arms were knocked out away from his body before he could obey, and rough hands patted him down. “Do you have any weapons? Don’t lie to me. I’ll find them if you do.”

“No,” Dave managed to gasp out. “No weapons.”

“Okay. I want you to stand up and put your hands behind your back. I’m going to cuff you and put you in the squad car. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” It was a relief to be pulled up off the floor, even though Dave was so scared he’d moved into numb. Being cuffed made his shoulders ache; he was going to be bruised to hell later after being tackled to the tile floor like that, but it was a small concern compared to everything else that was going on. Was he being arrested? Could he go to jail for being accused of having a gun even when there was no evidence?

For a few seconds he was terrified by the thought that Travis might have planted one on him, but he pushed the fear away.

The cop perched him on the edge of the backseat. “I’m Detective Ellis. What’s your name?”

“Dave Adams.” Something about the cop was familiar. Dark skin, short hair. A memory clicked into place. “You investigated the fire at the Square Peg last year, didn’t you? Your partner took my statement. Redhead, freckles forever.” It cleared his head to have made the identification, and he straightened, shaking off his emotions. Too much was going on for most of it to register. He was a drowning man expected to be annoyed it was raining.

Ellis snapped his fingers. “Yeah. I knew I’d seen you before, but in my line of work, that doesn’t make me assume the best. No offense.”

“None taken. And I don’t have a gun. He said that to get me arrested.”

That got him an impassive glance. “But there was an altercation?”

Dave nodded tiredly. “He threatened someone and I punched him, but he made it look worse than it was.”

With a grunt that could’ve meant anything, Ellis shut the rear car door and climbed into the driver’s seat. “We’ll take both of you in and see who says what.”

“Am I under arrest?” Didn’t they have to read him his rights?

A second police car pulled away with Travis in the back. Was he cuffed too? Probably not.

“And add to my paperwork? Let’s see if your friend wants to press charges. Until then, you’re helping us resolve a situation. If it goes to a formal interrogation, you’ll be read your rights.”

“And the cuffs?”

Ellis had the grace to appear regretful. “Procedure. Okay, here’s Officer Denton finally joining us. I’m sure he’ll be glad to know you remember his freckles.”

Denton got into the front seat, ignoring the freckles comment. “This is a nice change of pace,” he said. “Getting called in for a fight at a coffee shop. That doesn’t happen often.”

“It wasn’t a fight,” Dave said. “He threatened a friend of mine.”

“Friend? Or boyfriend?” Ellis asked. To Denton, he added, “Works at the Square Peg.”

“People can work there without being gay.” Dave knew he should keep his mouth shut, and it was a stupid argument anyway. “I don’t know. He’s sort of my boyfriend.”

“Lot of trouble to get into for a ‘sort of’ boyfriend.” Ellis hadn’t put the siren on. That had to be a good sign.

He’s worth it. Dave’s thoughts were running in circles. Did he need a lawyer? Who could he call? Ben—he’d be practical; he’d know what to do. “Do I get a phone call?”

Denton turned. Jesus, he was skinny. He could have been eighteen years old. “Take some deep breaths, okay? My partner here’s giving you a hard time. You aren’t in a ‘lot of trouble.’ I mean, you would have been if you’d had a weapon, but you didn’t. And it isn’t as if he doesn’t have a history.”

“So why am I being taken away?”

“Forgetting the punch?” Ellis asked, driving with the air of a man who expected traffic to get out of his way. “If, uh…”

“Endicott,” Denton supplied. “Travis Endicott. Few priors for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. Connections with known drug dealers, but nothing’s stuck, using or dealing anytime we’ve had him in for questioning. He’s been lucky or clever.”

With Travis, it was both. He’d never been in trouble with the police when Dave had been with him, though. That was new and worrying.

Ellis chuckled. “See? Not just freckles. He’s got a good memory too.”

The tops of Denton’s ears turned deep pink. “I called the station and ran his name.”

“Honest too. Puts us all to shame.”

The ride went in silence for the most part, interrupted by crackling conversations from the police radio and small talk in the front seat Dave wasn’t invited to join. He contemplated bringing up Ellis’s daughter, Jackie, a regular at the bar, but decided it would seem like asking for special treatment. Making Jackie’s favorite sandwich for her even when it wasn’t on the menu wouldn’t buy him much.

When they arrived, Ellis did remove the cuffs so that Dave walked in with his hands free, flanked by Ellis and Denton. They led him through the reception area and into a large, busy room, the noise level a roar, not a hum. It was bewildering, and the sight of Travis in a chair, taking a fucking selfie, angling his face to get the best shot of his cut lip didn’t help.

“Denton, see to Endicott. Mr. Adams, you’re with me.” Ellis led the way to a corner desk, then waved Dave into a chair beside his.

Sitting was a relief, because his ankle was throbbing, but he began to shake, tremors running through him. This would be resolved, one way or another, but Jeremy would still be in danger. Was in danger. Travis might’ve texted friends, set wheels in motion to up the harassment. He knew people for whom beating up Jeremy would be a gentle workout, nothing more.

“Take it easy.” Ellis unlocked the cuffs. “You’re not going to get tossed in a cell. I want to know what happened.”

Wanting to get this over with, Dave launched into an explanation. “He’s my ex-boyfriend. Travis. He’s an alcoholic and a drug addict, has been for decades, and I broke it off for good a couple of years ago. Well, a little less than two years.”

“It’s not important for you to be that exact about the historical details.” Ellis smiled encouragingly.

The smile settled Dave’s nerves. “He didn’t take it well. I moved, had to change my number half a dozen times. To put some distance between us. A few weeks back he called me again—I’m not sure how he found me—and since then he’s been…I don’t know. Doing stuff.”

“Such as?”

“We’re sure he slashed the tires on my boyfriend’s car. Posed as a potential customer—he builds computers, the guy I’ve been seeing, and Travis used a fake name and met with him, pretending he wanted to buy a computer. He put a picture of— Okay, his name is Jeremy, my neighbor?”

“Wait, who’s the neighbor?” Ellis seemed confused, and it was hard to blame him.

“Jeremy. The guy I’ve been seeing. He lives across the hall from me. That’s how we met. He has a cat, and Travis put a photo of the cat with, I don’t know, red paint or something on it on his front door. He thought he was dead. Jeremy. Thought the cat was dead.” Dave was starting to lose the thread of the conversation; as explanations went, it was the worst one ever. It wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. Not that he would end up in court. Not over this.

“I’m going to go get you something to drink.” Ellis stood. “You want water? Or coffee?”

“Water’s fine,” Dave said gratefully. “Is it okay if I make a quick phone call?”

“Sure. Be aware that this room’s being recorded.” Ellis pointed at a camera up near the ceiling.

His first call was to work. Telling Shane he was at the police station and might not make his shift left him in the possession of a ringing ear from being yelled at. It was offset by a certainty that his friends had his back. Shane had calmed down fast and promised to do whatever was needed in the way of character references, rides home, a place to stay for Dave and Jeremy if needed, a lawyer, and as a farewell, the fervent wish that Travis would get struck by lightning or the number nine bus.

“Your boss?” Ellis asked, setting a paper cup of water on the desk within reach of Dave. “Which one? The Brit with a death wish or the numbers guy?”

Dave sipped the water, the cool flow easing his constricted throat. “Shane. But he doesn’t have a death wish.”

“No? He ran back into a burning building. I’d say that qualified.” Ellis picked up a pen and drummed it against the desk. “So, your ex isn’t happy you’ve moved on. He made threats against your new partner, and you arranged a meeting to persuade him to back off?”

“Yes.” Too late, Dave saw the trap. “I didn’t go there planning to hit him. If I’d wanted to scare him off, not that I could, I’d have asked him to come over, not met in public.”

“True. So why throw the punch?”

The water tasted stale now. Dave drank it anyway and dropped the cup into a wastepaper bin by the desk, planning his answer. “He said he’d hurt Jeremy’s face so I wouldn’t want him. Jeremy’s done nothing to him, but he doesn’t care. He sees me as his property, and he wants me back.”

“Property? Were you in one of those master/slave relationships?” Ellis leaned in a little, not lowering his voice but making it sympathetic. “I’ve seen them end ugly when someone walks away.”

“No, nothing like that.” Dave could tell Ellis wasn’t convinced. “If it was, I’d tell you. There’s nothing wrong with it, if both people are into it. I’m not. It’s more that Travis is, um, self-absorbed? I don’t want to play armchair psychologist or whatever, but he’d qualify as a narcissist.”

Ellis nodded. “He doesn’t have a record of physical violence. Do you have any reason to believe he’d hurt your boyfriend?”

Deciding it was wiser to abandon the claim that Jeremy wasn’t his boyfriend, Dave focused on the rest of the question. “Yesterday I would have said no. Now I’m not so sure.”

“Well, if we could keep people in custody because there was a slight possibility they might hurt someone else, no one would ever be released.” Ellis seemed dismissive and frustrated. “And he’s not in custody, so we’re clear.”

“Am I?”

“You’re here for questioning. I don’t know if Mr. Endicott has decided to press charges against you or not.”

“How long does he have to decide?”

Ellis clicked the nib of his ballpoint pen repeatedly. “That’s not how it works. He doesn’t have to make a decision immediately, so if and when we let you go, it doesn’t mean you won’t get a call from us later.”

Shit. Having this hang over him wasn’t what he wanted at all. “Suppose Jeremy pressed charges against him?”

“For what? Giving a false name and pretending he wanted to buy something? That’s not a crime. The tires and the photo, you can’t prove.”

“This isn’t right.” He glanced over at where Travis sat. “He’s going to do something awful, and you’re telling me we have to wait for it to happen before we act?”

Ellis pointed the pen at him in a warning. “There’s no we. If he commits a crime, you leave it to us to deal with. And I’ll have a word with him. If he knows he’s the prime suspect if your boyfriend so much as stubs his toe, he’ll back off.”

It was hopeless. No one understood Travis the way Dave did, grasped the twisted way he thought and the patience he could show when it was something that mattered to him. Dave had seen Travis storm out of a restaurant because he’d been made to wait for his appetizer a few minutes longer than Dave, seen him fret and pace at a bus stop before setting off to walk instead. But when it came to this, he’d wait as long as it took, then strike. “For a few months, yeah. But he won’t give up unless I go back to him, and that’s not going to happen. He’ll forget Jeremy when he sees it’s over between us, but the next time I meet someone—”

Ellis stood. “Well, much as I’d love to sit here discussing your love life, I’ve got work to do.” He beckoned Denton over. “Let’s see what’s happening.”

Fuming at his fears being dismissed, Dave folded his arms across his chest. The shaking had stopped. Now he was angry again. And his ankle fucking hurt. He wished he could track down the driver of the car and tell him what he’d done. A horrible suspicion rose. The driver couldn’t have been Travis; he’d never passed his test. But it was all too easy to picture him in the passenger seat, spotting Dave and telling a less than sober friend to aim at him and scare him into an undignified leap.

No. Dave couldn’t let himself believe that, or it would make him crazy. Until and unless Travis gave him some reason to think it might be true, he’d worry about the stuff he was already sure Travis was guilty of.

“He says it was a misunderstanding and he overreacted,” Denton told him. “He doesn’t want to press charges.”

“What does that mean?” Dave asked.

Ellis didn’t roll his eyes, but Dave suspected it was a near thing. “It means you’re free to go. But if you want my advice—and trust me, you do—stay away from Endicott. Don’t call him, don’t text him, don’t go anywhere if there’s even a remote possibility of running into him. You’ve heard the saying about there being three sides to every story?”

“Yeah. His, mine, and the truth.” Dave didn’t want to argue; he was more interested in getting the hell out of there as soon as possible. “Is there anything I should do if we end up with proof he’s responsible for that other stuff we were talking about?”

“Stay away from him,” Ellis reiterated. “And call me. Here, let me give you my card. I’m serious. Don’t mess around. You’ve given him enough ammunition already.”

“I hear you,” Dave said. “Thanks.”

He fled the building with Ellis’s card folded in his hand, glancing back over his shoulder in case Travis was right behind him. It wasn’t until he’d gone a block that he remembered his car was in the parking lot outside the coffee shop miles away, but at that point he didn’t care. He stepped inside the nearest building, which turned out to be a sandwich place.

“What can I get you?” the woman behind the counter asked while he got his bearings.

At random, he ordered a pastrami with hot mustard, though his stomach rebelled at the thought of food. He paid, tucking Ellis’s card into his wallet with his change, and slid into a booth to get off his ankle while he waited.

He couldn’t put off his next call. Jeremy had to know what’d happened, but he doubted the reaction would be as predictable as Shane’s yelling followed by unconditional support. After years of knowing how Travis would react, because he’d made it his business to know, it was refreshing to be genuinely uncertain of Jeremy’s reaction.

Not that it mattered. They weren’t seeing each other now. That wouldn’t change even if Travis stepped off the edge of the planet and fell into the sun.

Jeremy had caller ID, so the fact that he picked up was promising. Dave took care to keep his voice casual. “Hi, it’s me.” Inane. Brilliant start.

“Yeah.” The clipped syllable was less encouraging.

“There’s been a, well, a development, I guess, and I wanted to keep you in the picture.”

“You and Travis are getting married and you want me to be the best man?”

Hurt made him snap back, “Don’t. God, if you knew the day I’ve had.”

“I don’t know. It’s not my business anymore, is it?” If Jeremy’s indifference was fake, he had a career as an actor waiting for him. It became acidic a moment later. “I’ve spent it trying not to jump every time the floorboard creaks or the phone rings, and Blitz won’t come out from under the bed because he’s sick of me picking him up.”

Jeremy scared made Dave want to be with him night and day, but the best he could do was to be next door, within reach. It would have to be enough. “I’m sorry. I tracked him down. Confronted him. Punched him, actually.”

“You did what?” He heard Jeremy suck in a breath. “Why would you do that? I’m the one he’s attacked. Me. I’m not some kid who needs protecting. I can handle this myself.”

“No one can handle Travis in this mood. Believe me, I’d know.”

“Yeah? You’re the man who put up with his bullshit for years when any sane person would’ve walked away. What makes a victim the expert on his abuser?”

That hurt much worse than the accusation that he’d gotten back together with Travis, in part because it was true. “I know. You’re right. I know you’re mad. Furious. With me, and that’s completely understandable, but listen to this. Okay? Would you do that, please?”

He held his breath until Jeremy answered, voice softer than it had been. “Okay. I’m listening.”

“He says he’s in recovery, but I’m sure it’s a lie. I punched him—”

“You said that,” Jeremy interrupted.

“And you said you’d listen,” Dave said, then immediately felt guilty for it. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

After a dragged-out silence, Jeremy replied, “It’s okay. Go ahead.”

“I hit him.” Dave felt breathless and shaky. “And he accused me of having a gun. So a couple of guys tackled me, and someone called the police, and the next thing, I was in handcuffs, being taken to the police station for questioning.”

“Shit.” Jeremy sounded horrified, which wasn’t helping Dave keep a grip on his emotions. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? Did they arrest you? Is this your one phone call?”

Okay, that helped, hearing Jeremy’s familiar barrage of questions. “The one phone call is just a Hollywood thing. And no, I called work first.”

“I see,” Jeremy said in a small voice.

“Not like that. You were the only person on my mind through the whole thing.” Great, there he went speaking before he thought again.

“Even when we’re not—”

“You said you didn’t want any more to do with me. Your choice, but if you think that meant everything I felt for you disappeared like flipping a switch, you’re wrong. It’s still there, and knowing you’re in danger because of me makes it stronger.”

“I’m in danger?”

Oh God. The way Jeremy’s voice cracked on the final word. “He threatened you, but when I tell him it’s over between you and me and make him believe it, which won’t be hard since he’ll see it for himself if he’s watching us, he’ll back off.”

“Until the next time.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

He heard an impatient huff. “The next time you date someone. The next time someone else wants to play with his toy. He’ll throw another fucking tantrum, and you’ll cave. Well, I’m not a parent, but I was a brat at times growing up, and when I acted out that way, my parents didn’t give in. They had more goddamn sense.”

“I’m not giving in. It’s over between us anyway. And I’m not interested in replacing you, so that won’t be a problem.”

“You permanently alone to please a psycho is a huge problem, thank you very much, and I’m canceling the breakup. He doesn’t get to win. We’re an item. Find a tree and carve our names in it with a gigantic heart around them and text that asshole a picture. But first get over here, right the hell now.”

Jeremy made him dizzy. In a good way, but it took some getting used to. Unable to accept the change of heart, he cleared his throat. “Why?”

A click of the tongue. More impatience. “I want to have sex with you. Like right now. Wasn’t that obvious? Oh, I guess not because you can’t see me getting naked. It’s difficult one-handed, but my jeans are around my ankles, which is a good start.”

He was in a sandwich shop miles from his car. He’d have to find a cab, get his car, and drive across town. Depending on how hard it was to locate the cab, it could well be an hour before he arrived at Jeremy’s condo.

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” he said. “And make sure your doors and windows are locked. Don’t let anyone in.”

“Only you,” Jeremy promised.

Chapter Eleven

“You said fifteen minutes, and it’s been an hour.” Jeremy bolted the door behind Dave, then kissed him. God, it felt like forever since they’d kissed. Dave tasted of— “Is that mustard?”

“Yeah. Sorry.” Dave took Jeremy’s face between his hands and pulled back, studying him. “Are you okay?”

“I’d be better if you were kissing me.” Jeremy was wearing his robe, because sitting around naked waiting for Dave had gotten strange after half an hour, plus he never trusted Blitz not to scratch him in delicate places. Sometimes cats decided random dangling bits were prey. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry it took me so long. I had to go back and— Never mind, long story, doesn’t matter.” Dave led him over to the couch. “Nothing’s happened? No weird phone calls or anything?”

“Nothing new.” Jeremy turned his hand in Dave’s, lifting it so he could examine Dave’s knuckles. They seemed okay. “You actually punched him? Like, in the face?”

“Not as hard as I wanted to.”

He raised Dave’s hand to his lips and kissed the knuckles. They were unmarked, but warm against his lips. “I’m still pissed about that.”

“I’m sorry.”

He licked the middle knuckle, feeling the slightest roughening of skin, and heard Dave inhale sharply, fingers tightening. “I’m not a damsel in need of rescuing.”

“I see that.” Dave’s voice was stifled, as if he was trying to talk and not breathe at the same time.

Jeremy licked some more. Strong fingers. Strong hand. He liked to picture it punching Travis, punching the bastard hard. And it was all kinds of wrong to be simultaneously angry, scared, and so turned on he couldn’t think past what was to come.

Which would be him. With Dave.

He drew the tip of Dave’s middle finger into his mouth, lapping at it without self-consciousness, sucking on it, then nipping at it. Dave gave a shuddering breath. “Jeremy.”

“If you’d gotten here fast, I’d have fucked you against the nearest wall,” Jeremy told him, letting the wet finger slip out. “I’ve calmed down some now, but all that emotion is simmering under the surface. Like when I thought Blitz was dead, and when I saw him, I couldn’t hug him tight enough. I wanted to get deep inside you and stay there. And I’m still angry, but you do everything wrong and everything right at the same time, and I can’t—”

Too many words. He shook his head, clearing it of doubts and worries. They could wait. Sex couldn’t. His cock was rigid, sticking out of the parting of his robe. He shrugged off the robe and let it fall, then pulled Dave to him for a rough kiss, pouring everything into it. Let Dave know he was turned on, aroused by him, let him feel the cock that would be inside him soon. Jeremy reached down, cupping the bulge of Dave’s erection with a possessive growl.

“Didn’t think I’d have this again.” Dave gasped. “I thought—”

Jeremy shut him up by biting his lower lip hard enough to hurt—not hard enough to draw blood, though. That wasn’t the point. “Stop thinking,” he suggested. “For a little while, at least. Focus on this.” He’d managed to get the front of Dave’s pants opened and his hand inside, but he wanted Dave’s cock in his mouth. Bending down, he tried to shove fabric out of the way, without much success. “Okay, think a little bit. I could use some help here.”

“Could we move to the bedroom?” Dave asked. “I’m too— Um. We’d be more comfortable there.”

Hearing what Dave hadn’t said—that he was “too old for sex on the couch” or some other variation on the same stupid theme—Jeremy rewarded him with another kiss. “Sure. But only if you’ll agree to getting naked before we lie down.”

“I can agree to that.”

Blitz was on the bed when they went in, but gave them a wide-eyed look of horror and bolted out of the room. “Good cat,” Jeremy said, as if he’d planned it that way, and shut the door to give them privacy. He sat on the edge of the mattress and watched Dave undress, not moving to help because he wanted to drink it all in.

For all Dave’s complaining about how he hadn’t been able to work out, he hadn’t gained an ounce.

“Come here.” Jeremy gestured, and Dave stepped closer, but still out of reach. “No, right here.”

“Why?” Dave stroked his cock as if he couldn’t bear for it not to be touched by someone. “So you can suck me?”

Jeremy lunged forward and knocked Dave’s hand away. “To start with, yeah.” He sank back on the bed, bringing Dave with him by the simple method of wrapping his hand around the jutting erection so Dave had no choice but to follow.

Hands on Dave’s hips to pin him in place, he rubbed his cheek against hot, musky skin, knowing his stubble was rasping sensitive flesh and not caring because the sound Dave made wasn’t a protest. He held off tasting for an agonizing few seconds, tormenting himself, then engulfed the waiting cock in a single, greedy surge, glutting himself on the taste and the way it stretched his lips, pressing his tongue down. The head bumped the back of his throat, and he rode out the convulsive ripple of muscle and relaxed, accepting the sensation, not fighting it.

He didn’t move, didn’t lick or suck, but stayed still, the wiry tickle of hair against his upper lip telling him how deeply he’d taken Dave in.

Dave tried to rock his hips, groaning, but Jeremy clamped down, forcing Dave to stop. He withdrew inch by inch, dragging lips and teeth over wet skin until he held the flared head between his pursed lips. He used his tongue then, a fierce assault, exploring the slit until the salt-bitter taste it yielded filled his senses, then concentrating on the tiny knot at the base of the head.

“Jesus,” Dave muttered. “Don’t know how you got so good at that.”

There were half a dozen things Jeremy could have said in response, but any of them would have required him to pull his mouth away and he didn’t want to do that. In fact, he would have been pretty happy doing exactly what he was doing forever. It was mesmerizing, like being in a dream. He traced each tiny crinkle of skin with the tip of his tongue, took Dave in deep all the way again. He liked pulling back slowly so he could focus on the harsh sound of Dave breathing.

His cock was hard, and slick at the head, no doubt leaving damp spots on everything it touched, including Dave’s knee. God, he wanted to fuck Dave. He wished he could suck him and fuck him at the same time. That thought was enough to make him moan around the dick in his mouth, which made Dave groan again.

It took an effort to back off so he could talk. “I want to fuck you,” he murmured against the base of Dave’s cock, stroking a fingertip back behind Dave’s balls. “Is that okay?”

Yes.”

“Do you want to come first? Come in my mouth?”

Dave shuddered. His hand settled at the back of Jeremy’s neck and squeezed. “Tempting. You have no idea how much. But no. I’d rather come while you’re inside me.”

Jeremy kissed the crease of Dave’s thigh, breathing in more of the heady smell of arousal. Man or woman, that didn’t change much. It was a raw, direct aroma, designed by nature to heighten desire, and it did its job perfectly as far as he was concerned.

While he’d waited for Dave, he’d prepared everything. Condoms, lube, a box of tissues for cleanup. Unromantic but practical. He moved back, kneeling on the bed, then drew Dave down beside him. The racing beat of his heart had quietened, but not his desire. He’d been furious, felt betrayed, when he’d sent Dave away, but that didn’t mean he’d been happy to see him go. Even in the short time they’d been together, Dave had become part of his life, slotting into all the empty spaces. Losing him had left Jeremy in a stunned daze of misery.

Dave wrapped his arms around him, and Jeremy kissed him, using his tongue again, wondering if Dave would mind, given where that tongue had been. The answer was no. Dave sucked on it, deepening the kiss, making it avid, hungry.

Jeremy skimmed his palms down Dave’s back to his ass, relishing the play of muscles when Dave moved and adjusted his position. It was easy to slide a finger down the length of the cleft, not quite brushing Dave’s hole, and get an impatient groan.

“You like teasing me, huh?” Dave nipped at Jeremy’s neck. “Seeing how far you can push me before I beg?”

“Don’t want you begging. I want you wild. No holding back.”

The sex had been great so far, but he’d sensed Dave’s reluctance to push him and it was touching, sure, but exasperating too. He wasn’t a kid, shy, virginal. He could take it rougher, and deal it out if it was what Dave liked. So far, Dave had been accommodating, never asking for anything for himself, and Jeremy didn’t like that. This was something both of them should enjoy, and he hated the idea of Dave behaving around him the way he had with Travis, his needs subordinate, always.

“You’re sure about me fucking you?” Guilt took the edge off his lust. He’d flat-out ordered Dave to bend over and spread. How was that different from Travis? “Tell me if it’s not what you want. Always tell me. Promise.”

It would have been easy for Dave to dismiss his words with a lighthearted comment, but he seemed to understand that they’d moved into serious territory. “I promise.” Their faces were still close together, noses almost touching. “I get it. I hear you.”

This time it was relief that made Jeremy kiss him. “I hate the thought of doing anything to hurt you.”

“I hate the thought of anyone hurting you.”

“Good,” Jeremy said. “But can we talk about that later? I mean, we should. We need to. We need to have half a dozen conversations. And we will. But right now, what I need is to be with you like this. If that’s okay.”

Dave kissed him. It wasn’t a quick kiss; it went on for a long time. Dave was such a great kisser that it was as if time stopped, or at least ceased to have any meaning. He made Jeremy wonder if he was gay and not bi, since kissing women had never been so completely overwhelming. But maybe he’d never met the right woman. Women. The way Dave’s tongue moved against his made him crazy. He was so hard that the head of his cock was slick with arousal, his balls aching.

Pulling back an inch, Dave whispered, “I’d like it if you’d fuck me. What do you say?”

“Yes.” Jeremy reached for the lube, grabbing it in his eagerness. “Yes, definitely. Yes.”

That left him torn between what position to use. Before, it’d been a matter of moving from one to another—say, the woman he was with on top for a while, then changing to him kneeling behind her, sometimes even a third change if the timing was right, though often his plans for that had been derailed, his climax rushing through him, unstoppable, powerful.

This was trickier. He’d managed anal once before, drunk after a Halloween party, his partner confiding in him that she’d always wanted to and curiosity making him agree to try. It hadn’t been a complete disaster, but she’d asked him to stop after a few tentative thrusts and passed out when he fumbled on a fresh condom. Nonevent, and not a memory he wanted in his head at this particular moment.

After a quizzical glance, Dave got on his knees, leaning forward, arms folded beneath him, ass up. “I can lube myself if you want me to.”

Jeremy hesitated, about to drizzle lube onto his fingers. Was Dave worried he didn’t know what he was doing? “I’ll take it slowly.”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what— Oh. You think I’ll freak out at the idea of my fingers in your ass? Not going to happen.”

Dave reached out and took the bottle of lube from him. “It’s not that either.” He bit his lip. “If you touch me there, I’m going to come, okay? I’m pretty sensitive. I can handle it if it’s a cock, but not fingers.”

“Hey, that’s fine,” Jeremy said. “I mean, if you come. Come now; then we’ll fool around for a while until you get hard again, and you can come a second time with me inside you. Okay? How does that sound?”

Dave looked flushed with more than arousal, but he nodded. “Okay. That sounds good.”

“Lie back and get comfortable so I can see you.” Jeremy let his desire show on his face and slid a hand up Dave’s thigh. “Let me look at you.”

Knowing it was unlikely he’d have much time once his finger was inside Dave’s ass, Jeremy took his time getting set up. He positioned Dave how he wanted him—on his back, half propped up on pillows, thighs spread so the shadow below Dave’s balls was a fantastic tease—and slicked up his hand. He trailed fingers through Dave’s thigh hair, painting shining lines of clear lube, watching Dave’s scrotum pull up even tighter at the sensation. He tugged at Dave’s balls with his lube-wet fingers and saw Dave’s eyes darken, pupils dilating wide.

“I’m gonna push my finger inside you.”

“Yeah?” Dave asked huskily.

“Yeah. I’m gonna do it real slow so you can feel it. Every inch of me, all wet. And so I can feel every bit of you, hot and smooth around my finger.” Jeremy wouldn’t have guessed talking about it would turn him on so much, but it definitely was.

Dave closed his eyes, jaw tightening as if holding back a sound that would reveal too much.

“No. Open your eyes. Please? Don’t hide it. Any of it. Share it with me.”

“Not easy,” Dave murmured, but he fixed his gaze on Jeremy.

“It is easy. It’s me. And I’m safe.”

“That’s the last thing you are.” Dave moved his head restlessly. “You matter to me. So much.”

“Show me.” Jeremy couldn’t wait a moment longer. He pressed firmly enough against the whorled skin to breach the strong muscle, knowing from doing it to himself what was required, then made good on his promise not to rush. Dave didn’t tense up, but his muscles flexed, inviting a deeper touch.

“Love being inside you.” Jeremy ran a finger over Dave’s cock, tracing a vein and watching the thick column rise a fraction, straining to get more than a light caress. “Stay still. Let me make this last. I don’t want it to be over yet.”

Dave panted harshly, hands at his sides, scrabbling at the sheets, but he held still, body tensing so that Jeremy’s next dip into the tight heat was a struggle.

“Stay still and relax,” Jeremy amended.

That got him an eye roll and a swift grin, but Dave did as he was told. “I thought I could come if I wanted? Your games have too many rules. Want me to sing the national anthem too?”

“It’s not a game.” Jeremy tapped the head of Dave’s cock reprovingly. “And if you want to come, I can make it happen.”

“Yeah.” Dave’s voice was thick with desire. “Do it. Two fingers. Three. Open me up.”

Jeremy withdrew his finger and added more lube, teasing Dave’s entrance where he knew from personal experience how sensitive the skin was. Dave shivered, and his hand nearest Jeremy clenched into a fist.

“Gonna come.”

“Not yet,” Jeremy told him. “Soon, but not yet.”

Dave grabbed on to Jeremy’s forearm. “So close.”

“I know.” Jeremy loved watching him poised on the edge of release, trembling and gasping. He eased one fingertip inside the smallest bit, not even to the first knuckle. Dave was hot and soft and tight, his body begging Jeremy for more with a wordless tilt of his hips. “Not yet.”

“Please.”

“Soon,” Jeremy repeated. He licked Dave’s nipple, flicking it with the tip of his tongue until Dave groaned. Then he pushed two fingers inside.

Dave hadn’t been exaggerating about how quickly he’d come. He cried out, and his ass clenched down around Jeremy’s fingers in waves as he shot fluid onto his stomach.

Jeremy watched, not as an onlooker but a participant, as caught up in the release as Dave, his body urging him to follow suit. Keeping his fingers inside Dave, he bent to lick at the nearest streak of white, the taste close to triggering his climax.

Dave moaned and eased up the bed, disengaging himself, leaving Jeremy to curl his warm, slippery fingers into his palm. “Too sensitive now,” he said by way of explanation.

Jeremy reached for the tissues. He cleaned Dave’s stomach, making it a series of caresses, not a matter-of-fact swipe or two, drawing the thin, soft crumple of paper across skin and kissing the bare flesh afterward.

“It’s always good with you,” he said. “Anything we do.”

“Yeah?” Dave motioned him closer, and Jeremy lay beside him, pressed against a body lax with pleasure, his nerves strung tight with need. He could’ve brought himself off with a touch, or gotten Dave to provide the necessary hand, but being this turned on was a high in itself, an ongoing pleasure. “It can get better. Ever been rimmed?”

Jesus. He squirmed, imagining the wet flicker of a tongue in his ass, heat sizzling through him. If Dave did that, he’d melt. Explode. “No. It’s not exactly something you ask for on the first date.”

“Depends on who you’re dating. And we’re past counting by now. Anything goes.” Dave turned to him. “Anything you want to try, ask. Can’t promise I’ll do it all, but I can’t see you asking for anything too out-there.”

“Yeah. I’m not all that kinky.” They’d discussed this before, so it wouldn’t come as a surprise. “But I’m sure I’ll come up with something new to try eventually.” Honestly, he couldn’t imagine what that might be. All of this was still pretty new to him.

“What do you want to do now?” Dave shifted and kissed him, and Jeremy went from turned on to desperate with the touch of his lips.

He rubbed his erection against Dave’s hip. “I want to fuck you. I really, really want to. Is that still okay?”

“Of course. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll be good to go.” After running a hand down along Jeremy’s spine, Dave settled it on his ass and squeezed. “I could suck you first.” His hand skirted around to the front of Jeremy’s thigh and found Jeremy’s cock, his touch light.

Despite his efforts to hold them up, Jeremy’s eyelids fluttered closed. “Not sure I’d last long enough if you did that.” Maybe he was the one who should have planned on coming twice.

“Okay. Let’s do this, then.” Dave kissed as if he never intended to stop, one deep kiss leading into the next. Jeremy was melting, except for his dick; that was hard as rock. Being kissed by Dave, who was strong and knew how to lead, was more intense and overwhelming than any kiss Jeremy had ever imagined.

He reached behind him blindly, fingers closing over the foil packet he’d torn open earlier. Breaking away from the kiss to put it on was a wrench, but it was that or lose it right there, spilling against Dave’s stomach and postponing an experience he craved.

Dave took the condom from him when he fumbled with it. “Let me do it.” Having the thin latex smoothed over him with a deft touch made it foreplay, not that he needed it. Dave teased at his balls, rolling them, then sliding his hand between Jeremy’s legs.

Jeremy spread his legs instinctively, allowing Dave full access, but what had been a whisper of need became a full-bodied yell and he sat up. “Now.”

“Now,” Dave agreed. “Want to try it from behind? You’ll go deeper.”

“Is that good for you?”

“It’s all good,” Dave assured him. “Probably easier on my back this way, if you’re planning on a long fuck, but maybe that’s not an issue?”

Jeremy shook his head. “This is like being a teenager again. I’d worry about it if I didn’t know I’ve usually got plenty of staying power.”

“It’s new, that’s why.”

“No.” Jeremy had a clear view of that. “It’s you. If I did this with another guy, it’d be hot, sure, but I’d have some control. You flip every switch on me. And I love it, but I hope it wears off a bit so sex with me is less like fast food and more of a three-course meal.”

Instead of arguing, Dave said, “Tell me how you want me. Don’t think about next time, because there’ll be plenty of next-times. What do you want right now?”

Jeremy tried not to frame his answer too carefully. He understood what Dave was doing—getting him to respond by instinct instead of intellect, which was something he’d benefit from. He spent way too much time inside his head. “Turn around.” He was breathless, hands shaking with the sudden immediacy of what they were about to do.

Presented with the sight of Dave’s bare back and ass, his wide shoulders, it was hard to focus. Jeremy lined the head of his cock up and leaned in, kissing the curve of Dave’s spine, then easing into the tight clench of Dave’s body. “Oh my God.”

“Take it slowly.” Dave wrapped his right hand around a strut of the brass headboard. Naked, the line of his body resembled a sexy statue or an ad in GQ, all cream perfection. “It’s good. Just take it easy.”

Slow was good. Slow was better, because it meant it wouldn’t be over in three-point-four seconds. Jeremy dropped his chin to his chest, breathed, and pressed forward a little more. Only the head of his cock was inside. The condom wasn’t doing much to blunt the sensation of slick heat, and he found himself moving deeper without having made a conscious decision to do so. “I’m sorry. I can’t—”

“It’s okay. Don’t stop.” Dave reached back, trying ineffectually to grab on to Jeremy’s hip. “Keep going. Jesus, that’s good.”

Jeremy had forgotten how to breathe, but apparently he could continue without oxygen. His heart slammed against his rib cage. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

Inch by inch, he gained ground, hands sweating, balls drawn up high. Dave threw back his head, the sound of his drawn-in breath loud in the quiet room. The headboard creaked as he gripped it tighter, and key to a lock, hand in a glove, Jeremy was sheathed. He was aware of his cock, nothing else, as if the rest of his body had thinned to fog.

No more words. He knew what to do, and if he hadn’t, instinct would have taught him. With the guttural, harsh sounds Dave made to guide him, he picked up speed, a headlong dash down a hill, fighting to stay on his feet but knowing each step brought him closer to the moment when he would fly, godlike, invincible, until the inevitable crash.

He didn’t want it to end. It was like being on fire and wanting to burn. He surged forward, feeling the jar of the headboard hitting the wall, then pulled back again, careful not to withdraw too far. His hands clamped onto Dave’s hips helped with that.

“Jesus,” Dave gasped. “Jesus fucking Christ. I’m gonna come again.” He sounded shocked by the realization.

Part of Jeremy thought he should ask if he should keep going, or if Dave wanted him to stop, or if he should be doing something differently. But the rest of him, the part that was incapable of forming words, couldn’t do anything but move. There was sweat prickling on his skin, and his balls were drawn up so tight they hurt. There’d never been anything as arousing as working his cock in and out of Dave’s body, accompanied by Dave’s groans as encouragement.

“Jeremy. Fuck.

When his climax came, it stilled his body. He froze, his cock barely inside Dave, and surrendered thought and vision, both blanking out when he came. He retreated mentally, locked in personal pleasure but never losing his awareness of Dave, because the sound of him and the smell of the body so close to his were part of it all.

He snapped out of his daze when Dave reached back, grabbed his hand, and brought it around to rest on a neglected, forgotten erection.

Damn. Contrite, he closed palm and fingers around hard flesh and felt the first pulse ripple through it when Dave joined him on the other side of the finish line.

Next time, he’d do better. And the thought of it had him smiling as he murmured apologies between kisses.

Knowing they were going to have a next time meant everything in his life made sense.

Chapter Twelve

“Are they a sign of spring?” Dave asked, gesturing at the collection of robins hopping on the ground outside the apartment building.

“I hope so.” Jeremy was walking slowly toward the car, and Dave could see he was studying it in case there was anything wrong.

They were both on edge, to the point where, when Dave had gone to work last night, Jeremy had gone with him, bringing a laptop and working in a corner booth in the snug. It had been a long shift, what with all the questions from his coworkers about his trip to the police station. Unsurprisingly, Shane had been the only one who seemed to understand. He’d clapped Dave on the shoulder and said, “Good man.

“It’s fine,” Dave said now. “See? Tires inflated, no key marks, no broken glass.”

“Am I that obvious?” Jeremy sounded ashamed, which hadn’t been Dave’s intention at all.

“Hey.” He tugged Jeremy to a halt with a hand on his coat sleeve. “The reason I knew what you were doing was because I was doing the same thing. We’re being cautious. It’s a good thing.”

“It’s not a good thing,” Jeremy said shortly. “None of it’s good. But it’s temporary, right?”

“Of course.” Dave had no option but to agree with Jeremy, even though in reality he wasn’t convinced. Nothing with Travis had ever been temporary. “Are you sure you want to go see this movie? We could stay in if you’d rather.”

“No. I want us do everything we would if he didn’t exist. Normal stuff that dating people do.”

“Movie and popcorn. Right. Though I’m not sure they sell refreshments at the Delacourt. It’s been years since I went, though, so that could’ve changed.”

The Delacourt was the nearest art-film house, a refurbished single-screen cinema from the 1940s on the other side of town. It showed plenty of GLBT-themed movies, but Travis had never been interested in that genre. Porn, yes, but he preferred to watch that at home, which made sense.

“What was the last movie you went to?” Jeremy asked as they drove.

“It was months ago. I went to see the latest Marvel one with Patrick and Vin. They weren’t dating then, so I sat between them like a parent with two hyperactive kids. That cinema sold popcorn, and half a bucket ended up in my lap when they fought over it.”

“So what movies do you go for?”

“Hate horror when it involves torture and gore. I don’t mind if it’s suspenseful or plain silly, but I can’t watch anything glorifying psychopaths.”

“Fair enough. Japanese animated movies?”

“Never seen any,” Dave admitted. “I noticed you had some on your shelves, though, so I don’t mind trying one.”

“Cool.”

The conversation stayed light for a few miles, Dave enjoying the easy flow of words and the comfortable silences neither of them rushed to fill. They’d opted for the matinee showing to fit in with Dave’s shift, and they were going to arrive way too early, he realized.

A roadside sign advertising Locke’s farm caught his eye. It was a plain white board with clear black lettering, decorated with a scatter of painted bees.

Impulsively, he turned to Jeremy. “Do you mind pulling over in a mile? We’re going past a friend’s place, and I’d like you to meet him.”

“Sure. The bee guy?”

“Yeah. He’s cool.” More Dave’s age than Jeremy’s, but that wasn’t something he’d say out loud because Jeremy would roll his eyes. “It’s on the right up there.”

The driveway in turned out to be more like a road. It started out paved, then became crushed gravel at the second curve. A collection of fruit trees lined the drive, and though the branches were bare, there was a faint hint of green at the tips, as if buds and leaves were around the corner. A house came into view—big, too big for one man, and in need of a paint job—and behind it, a barn.

Locke’s truck, a shiny new Ford, was parked near the steps that led up to the porch. Dave and Jeremy got out and stood there, taking it all in for a minute.

“It’s so quiet.” Jeremy exhaled. “Love it.”

“Nice change from the Peg,” Dave said, though it wasn’t a complaint.

Jeremy scratched his head and gestured at the house. “Should we knock?”

Dave was about to say yes when they heard a rhythmic scraping sound coming from somewhere near the barn. They glanced at each other and headed in that direction, Dave calling out, “Hello?”

Locke appeared at the open double doorway of the barn, tall and wide-shouldered enough to make the space seem like a regular door. When he saw them, he smiled and raised a hand in greeting. In his faded green plaid shirt and shapeless brown pants held up with suspenders, he looked like a man from another time.

“That beard, those muscles,” Jeremy said under his voice, his admiration plain. “He’s Paul Bunyan.”

Dave saw Locke’s lips curve in a smile. Locke was in his sixties, but there was clearly nothing wrong with his hearing.

Locke strode toward them, still smiling. “Dave. Good to see you. And who is this you’ve brought to visit on this lovely spring day?”

After a handshake that left his fingers tingling from being compressed, Dave gestured at Jeremy. “This is my partner, Jeremy Reed. Jeremy, this is my friend Michael Locke.”

It struck him how ancient a custom the handshake was, watching Jeremy and Locke clasp theirs together briefly. A sign of friendship, the sealing of a business deal. Had Travis shaken hands when he’d lied his way into Jeremy’s condo? The thought of Travis touching Jeremy made him shiver, and Locke, misunderstanding, gave him a knowing look.

“Lovely, but chilly in the wind. Come into the house, and I’ll brew us some tea.”

Locke wasn’t a man who made offers he didn’t mean, so instead of protesting, Dave said, “That’d be great, thanks.”

The porch boards creaked underfoot, and the screen door squealed loudly when Locke pulled it open. “Rust builds up over the winter. I’ll have to find that can of WD-40.”

“With that and a roll of duct tape, you can fix anything,” Jeremy said.

Locke gave him an approving nod and flicked on the light switch. The bright sunshine provided more than the single bulb in the fixture hanging from the ceiling. “Come on through to the kitchen.”

As they followed him past a large room on the right, Dave was startled to see a man sitting there at the huge dining room table, working on a model airplane kit.

“All right there, Bobby?”

“Sure, Uncle Mike,” Bobby said. His voice sounded a little muffled, but his words were clear enough. His eyes were turned down at the corners, and he looked older than Jeremy. “You have friends over?”

“I do. This is Dave, and this is Jeremy. And this is my nephew Bobby. Do you want to come into the kitchen and have a cup of tea with us?”

“No, thank you. I’m working on my Lockheed Martin F-16.” Bobby blinked thoughtfully. “Can I have some hot cocoa? With marshmallows?”

“I’ll make you some,” Locke promised, and they went into the kitchen, where he turned on a gas burner under an old-fashioned teakettle. “Bobby’s my brother’s son. He has Down syndrome. It wasn’t working out for him to live with his mom and dad, so he stays with me now.”

“It’s peaceful here.” Jeremy looked around, not rudely but appreciatively. He took a seat at a huge oblong table, the wood scrubbed white in places, scarred here and there in a way no faux distressing could match. “Dave told me you keep bees?”

“I do. They’re a constant source of interest. I discover something new every season.”

Locke made Bobby’s cocoa and took it through to him while the tea brewed, leaving Dave alone with Jeremy.

“This place feels real,” Jeremy said, lowering his voice a little. “Do you know what I mean?”

“It’s old.” Dave ran his hand over the oak table, following the grain.

“If something’s been around awhile, it absorbs life,” Locke said, appearing without warning. He’d shed his boots, and in thick gray socks, he moved as silently as a woodland animal. “That table belonged to my grandparents. This was their place.” He chuckled. “Granddad said he liked a table a man could plunge a knife into when he returned from a hard day’s work. Not that he ever did. My grandmother had somewhat different views on how to treat furniture.”

Tea poured, Locke joined them, combing his fingers through his beard and dislodging some fragments of wood shavings.

“We interrupted you.” Jeremy seemed relaxed around Locke in a way he hadn’t been on his initial visit to the Square Peg, as if he sensed Locke’s complete acceptance of anyone Dave liked. “Were you building something?”

“Fixing some hive boxes I got secondhand. Saw them on the Internet. Craigslist. The guy who sold them to me didn’t know much about them—found them in the back of the garage of the house he’d bought—and they’re pretty beat-up, but he wanted a few bucks for them, so it’s worth it to me.”

“I’d like to learn more about beekeeping.”

“There’s a class at one of the local colleges.” Locke spooned sugar into his mug. “I know, you’d think I’d use honey, but I grew up with sugar in my tea and nothing else seems right. I put honey in my coffee, though.”

“You’re kidding,” Jeremy said.

Locke shook his head. “Not at all. When you’re my age, you’ll realize your life is full of things that don’t make much sense to anyone but you. In any case, if you look up the college that’s out near that new mall, you can find it on their website. They call it Bee School.”

“Cool. I’ll do that.” Jeremy sipped his tea, then twitched for no apparent reason. Peering down, he said, “Oh! Cat.”

The big gray cat was already winding its way along Dave’s leg. He reached to pet it, and it moved away before he could touch it. “He doesn’t like me.”

“It’s a girl, and she’s shy with everyone. She was a barn cat until a couple of years ago. Kept having kittens out there until someone from the animal shelter came and put out one of those humane traps. Took her away, fixed her, brought her back. After that she decided she’d move into the house, but I’ve never actually touched her. She sleeps on Bobby’s bed, though.”

“I have a rescue cat too,” Jeremy offered. “Blitz. He’s pretty friendly, though. His owner died and no one in the family could take him, but he’s used to people.” He held out his hand to the gray cat, who sniffed it, wrinkled her nose, and sneezed. When Jeremy laughed, she shot away, paws scrabbling on the tiled floor, then came to a halt and proceeded to groom herself.

“She’s timid, but she’s a cutie,” Dave said.

“Mmm.” Locke studied him. “Ankle better?”

“If I don’t do too much standing.” Locke had dropped off a jar of honey at the bar for him, and some arnica-based ointment that had helped with the bruising. “You should sell that salve you gave me. Really did the trick.”

“I’m glad it helped, but the preparation is too time-consuming for that to be practical. I make it when it’s needed, for people I care about.”

Ridiculously complimented, Dave mumbled a thank-you and covered his mild confusion with a sip of tea.

“So did you call for a reason, or were you passing by?”

“We’re going to the movies, but we saw the sign and it seemed like, well, a sign.” Dave glanced at Jeremy. “And I wanted you to meet Jeremy.”

“The man who rescued you.” Locke raised his eyebrows, darker than his beard but equally bushy. “The right man in the right place at the right time, from what Dave told me.”

“Turned out it was the right everything for me too.” Jeremy bumped his knee against Dave’s. “I mean, I wish Dave hadn’t had to get hurt for it to happen. We live right across the hall from each other. There would have been an easier way to meet. You know, one that didn’t involve broken bones.”

“It makes a great story, though,” Locke said.

“My hero.” Dave attempted to flutter his eyelashes. It looked easy when Patrick did it.

Jeremy grinned. “Idiot.”

“So are you back to work now? Everything returned to normal?”

Dave wouldn’t have put it that way, not with Travis on the loose, but he thought it was best to focus on what Locke was talking about. “It is.”

“I tried suggesting he open a restaurant—there’s a place for rent next door to the bar—but he’s not going for it,” Jeremy said.

“I can’t afford it!” Dave protested. “And I told you I’m not happy with the idea of siphoning off revenue to the bar.”

“Bar food and restaurant food are two different things altogether. You’d be attracting more business to the area. Everyone wins. I don’t know why you won’t at least consider it.”

Jeremy’s motives were good, but Dave had spent years listening to Travis’s grandiose plans of making it big with some scheme or other that a month later would be forgotten. Travis would get the idea, then demand Dave’s approval, support, and financial backing. When none of the three were forthcoming to the extent he expected, he’d lose his temper, and life would get unpleasant.

Suffocated by an onrush of memories, Dave said roughly, “Drop it, for God’s sake. I’m not interested. If you’re not happy with me as a cook in a bar, that’s tough, because it’s what I am. It’s all I am, and it suits me.”

Jeremy’s lips parted, indignation flaring to life. “I never said that! Not that there’s anything wrong with having some ambition, but if you’re happy where you are, that’s fine.”

“It didn’t sound like you thought it was fine,” Dave snapped.

“Why are they shouting?” Bobby took a hesitant step into the room, the cat in his arms, face puckered with distress.

Jeremy was quick to reassure him. “We’re not. We’re naturally loud people.”

“Okay. Indoor voices,” Bobby said severely. The cat jumped down to the floor. “Uncle Mike, can I have graham crackers?”

“Sure. You know where they are.” Locke watched his nephew find the box of crackers. “Let me know if you want a hand with the paint later.”

“I will.”

Bobby went off munching crackers, and Dave let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Shit,” he muttered. “I’m sorry.” He was apologizing to Locke, but he looked at Jeremy to gauge what thoughts might be going through his head.

“Me too.” Jeremy might have been trying to hide the emotions on his face, but he wasn’t doing a good job of it. “I didn’t know I was pushing. I thought I was being supportive. I’ll stop.”

“Thank you.” He glanced at Locke. “We’re not always like this.”

“Didn’t think you were,” Locke said.

“It’s been stressful recently.” He hesitated. This was personal business, but telling Locke felt right. Jeremy nodded, as if Dave’s question had been asked aloud. “My ex has been causing trouble. Threatening Jeremy physically and emotionally. He’s trying to get me to come back to him.”

“Which isn’t going to happen.” Jeremy sounded firm, but under the table, he brushed his hand against Dave’s as if seeking reassurance. Dave curled his fingers around Jeremy’s, linking them.

Travis didn’t have the power to split them up. Jeremy and he still had plenty to discuss, but in a brief conversation before they fell asleep the night before, Jeremy had made that clear.

I was an asshole to break up with you,” Jeremy had murmured, his breath warm against Dave’s face. “Should have trusted you, not turned you away. I won’t do that again, ever. I was scared, but that’s no excuse. Do you hate me for it?”

“Yeah. So much so I’m going to drool over you when you’re asleep. That will teach you.”

Jeremy had smacked his arm lightly. “Be serious. If there’s any part of you angry with me, tell me what I need to do to make it up to you.”

“There’s nothing. It’s not you I’m angry with. It’s Travis. Now go to sleep so I can start the drooling.”

Dragging his mind back from the memory of Jeremy’s grateful hug, Dave said, “It’s not, but Travis is unpredictable and it’s a worry.”

“I can see that.” Locke picked up a wood shaving, thin and jagged, turning it over and balancing it on the table, a fragile bridge to nowhere. “You’ve spoken to him?”

“Landed a trip to the police station in the back of a squad car.” In response to Locke’s lifted eyebrow, he explained, “He told me he would hurt Jeremy, and I hit him. In public. It’s okay—he decided not to press charges—but I guess it’s safe to say he brings out the worst in me.”

“He knew he was pushing your buttons,” Locke said. “Best avoid him.”

If it were only that simple. Dave didn’t want to get into the discussion any further. He was pretty sure he’d already crossed the line into too-much-information territory. “Definitely.” He checked the clock on the wall. “We’d better get out of your hair. Sorry about the drama.”

“Drama’s a part of life. Don’t make the mistake of believing everything’s always quiet and peaceful here. Bobby and I don’t always get along either.” Locke stood. “I’m glad you stopped by. I hope I’ll see you at the market again now that you’re on your feet.”

“You will. Thanks so much.” Dave shook Locke’s solid, calloused hand and squeezed Jeremy’s shoulder as Jeremy did the same.

They said good-bye to Bobby on the way out and didn’t speak again until they were on the road. Jeremy’s hands were tight on the steering wheel.

“I’m sorry for snapping at you,” Dave said into the silence.

“It’s okay. I guess I needed to hear it. I thought I was being supportive helpful guy, not annoying pushy guy.”

“You were. I don’t know why I reacted so strongly.” Thinking out loud, he added, “I would like to have my own restaurant, on some level. Shane and Ben give me freedom with the menu at the Peg, but it isn’t the same as having full control.”

“No. It’s why I work for myself instead of a tech company, so I get it, I do.” Jeremy rolled his shoulders in the confines of the belt across them. “None of us are ever in full control of our lives, though. This crap with Travis shows it. We’re always influenced by other people; it’s a question of to what extent. So maybe there’s a compromise between what you want and what you don’t want that could work?”

“Such as?” Dave was determined to keep this discussion civil. Jeremy wasn’t Travis, wouldn’t push and nag and create vicious barbs to fling if he didn’t get his way.

“Break it down. You want your own place, but you’re worried about the financial risks, certain you don’t have the cash to go it solo, and concerned about your current job and the effect leaving would have on them, especially if you did set up shop next door. Not that it’s the only place out there.”

“That sums it up, I guess.” Dave was intrigued now. Jeremy in an analytical mood seemed older, confident, and Dave liked seeing this side of him. “Any suggestions?”

Jeremy pursed his lips. “A few, but are you sure you want to hear them?”

“Wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.”

“Then it’s a question of how you’re going to pay my exorbitant consulting fee.” Jeremy flicked a teasing glance his way. “Which, so we’re clear, can involve that home-cooked meal you promised me months ago, and if you were to follow it up by letting me get naked for you, I’d consider it paid in full.”

Dave liked playful Jeremy even more than analytical Jeremy. “That could be arranged.”

“Give me a day or two, and I’ll let you know what I come up with.”

“It’s a deal.”

They drove for a few minutes. Then Jeremy cleared his throat. “Okay, changing the subject entirely… This isn’t a criticism exactly, but when we have sex…”

“Yeah?” Anxiety sharpened Dave’s voice. “Am I doing something you don’t like? God, did I hurt you?”

“No.” Jeremy smacked the wheel as if releasing some pent-up frustration. “You didn’t. That’s part of the problem. When we’re in bed, you’re so busy making sure I’m okay—and why wouldn’t I be?—that I don’t get to see the real you. Relax. I won’t break if things get wild.”

Unsure how to take that, Dave asked, “So next time, I throw you up against the wall and pound your ass raw? Got it.”

Jeremy sighed. “I suck at explaining this. Listen, if you’re in the mood for pounding my ass, go for it. Trust me to tell you if it gets too much, and let go.”

“Rough sex isn’t my style, but fine.” Confused, on the defensive, Dave hunched his shoulders and stared out of the window. “If you want me to do something differently, I will.”

“I want you to stop holding back. I’m not Travis.”

“Do we need to mention him when we’re talking about sex?”

“We do if habits he taught you make me feel as if he’s in bed with us.”

Dave wanted to leap out of the car to end the conversation, but it wasn’t an option. “You make it sound like I’m a monkey trained to do tricks for peanuts.”

“I think you’re a loving, generous man who does his best to make his partner happy and puts his needs at the bottom of the list. Travis liked it that way, I bet. I don’t. I want you to have a good time too.”

Dave ran his hand through his hair. “I do. Always. Do you want me to hold up scorecards after every climax?”

“You’re annoyed. Did I screw things up again?”

The concern in Jeremy’s voice was genuine enough for Dave to focus on what had been said, not his interpretation of it. Jeremy wasn’t calling him an inadequate lover, for God’s sake.

“No. I took it the wrong way. Sorry.” Did he ignore his needs to that extent? It didn’t feel that way, but he couldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. “Encouraging me to be more selfish isn’t the best idea.”

“You could never be that.” Jeremy sounded utterly convinced. “Okay, we’re here.”

After pulling the car into the parking lot of the theater, Jeremy maneuvered it into a space and took the keys out of the ignition. “If you let me eat it, I’ll buy you popcorn.”

“Flirt,” Dave said with affection. He looked over the roof of the car after they got out and caught sight of a car he thought he recognized from the other day. It was an old station wagon with fake wood on the sides. It reminded him of his childhood—a friend’s parent had driven a similar car—so it had stuck in his mind. He’d looked at it from the backseat of the police car while wishing he could have erased the previous hour of his life.

Could it be related to Travis somehow? A friend who’d given him a ride?

Not wanting to say anything and sound paranoid, Dave quickened his pace to join Jeremy, putting a hand on the small of his back as they walked and glancing around. The only other people in the parking lot were two young women, one of them with bright green hair and a long striped scarf. They were holding hands and leaning in toward each other, engrossed in conversation.

“You okay?” Jeremy asked.

“Yeah, fine. Why?” Kicking himself for being so transparent, Dave plastered a smile on his face and focused on Jeremy. “Do you think it’s officially spring? Or are we going to get more snow?”

Jeremy didn’t seem convinced, but he answered readily enough. “We could get one of those freak storms where the snow melts a few hours later, but I hope not. There are buds on some of the trees, and it might kill them off.”

Once inside, sitting in the half-full theater with a bag of healthy, low-fat, low-salt popcorn to share that tasted bland but provided opportunities for their hands to collide, Dave let himself relax. The lights were low, but not so much that he couldn’t see everyone, and Travis wasn’t there.

A group entered when the lights went down for the start of the movie, half a dozen people hurrying to find seats, projecting an air of apology for the disturbance. They settled into place, with Dave’s attention mostly on the opening credits, but he noticed one man separate himself and take a seat at the back. Craning his neck got him an odd look from the couple behind them, and when he didn’t turn back, Jeremy nudged him.

“What?”

“Nothing.” It might be Travis there with a great view of Dave and Jeremy, or it might be someone else. The odds were better for the latter, but he couldn’t shake off the unease he felt.

“Then watch the movie.”

The music had covered their whispered exchange, but they couldn’t continue it without getting glared at. Dave patted Jeremy’s hand and forced himself to stare forward, not back.

The small incident had convinced him of one thing—if he stayed this jittery, Travis had won. Travis didn’t need to shadow them when Dave’s imagination provided a stalker around every corner. That idea was profoundly depressing.

He leaned over and rested his head against Jeremy’s. The physical contact was comforting, and after a minute Jeremy interlaced their fingers so they could hold hands. Dave didn’t even care about the movie anymore. He closed his eyes and listened while focusing on the warmth of Jeremy’s hair against his temple, the gentle touch of Jeremy’s strong hand, the smell of Jeremy’s shampoo, and in that moment, it struck him that if he wasn’t in love with Jeremy, he was well on his way there.

Dave wasn’t a big fan of self-help books, but he’d heard plenty of people talking about them, and one of the concepts that had stuck with him was sitting with your feelings. Not trying to deny them, not dismissing them as unimportant, not being too afraid to consider them. On some level, it made sense, so he decided to give it a shot. How was it to be falling in love?

Terrifying was the first thing that came to mind, followed by exhilarating, then almost immediately followed, again, by fear. It wasn’t as if he had a great track record when it came to love. Travis was pretty much it, and see where that had gotten him.

Travis and Jeremy were worlds apart. They couldn’t be any more different. That was a good thing. If Travis had been a nightmare, it meant a relationship with Jeremy could be the complete opposite, and that was reassuring as hell. Dave let himself daydream about a life with Jeremy. A home, a partnership. Having Jeremy to kiss good night, every night, and wake up next to every morning.

“Hey, wake up,” Jeremy’s voice said close to his ear, and Dave did, blinking and wondering when he’d dozed off.

“Sorry. I’m awake.”

“It wasn’t the best movie ever, so you didn’t miss much. Though if you’re shallow and get off on shirtless guys getting wet—sorry, it didn’t have that either. In fact, it was pretty depressing. I hate movies where everyone’s dead or sad at the end.”

“People died?” He blinked sleep out of his eyes and yawned widely, covering his mouth to avoid showing the world any popcorn stuck in his teeth. “Did I snore?”

“Yes and no.”

Under cover of checking his seat for anything left behind, he sneaked a peek at the stream of people exiting. The guy he’d thought was Travis walked by, his profile similar but not close enough for Dave to experience even a moment of alarm.

“I’m an idiot,” he said aloud.

Jeremy gave him a one-armed hug. “For drooling on me? Nah. Though if you want to watch it again to see what you missed, you’re going to have to buy your own popcorn, mister.”

“Sure. That’s fine.” Dave barely paid attention to what Jeremy said. He was more interested in pulling him in for a real hug, one where he could get both arms around him and hang on.

Jeremy hugged him back, seeming to get that it was important for some reason. Once they were alone in the theater, Jeremy said, “Hey. Not that I’m complaining, but what’s going on?”

“I don’t know. I’m having yesterday’s freak-out a little late, I guess.” Dave squeezed Jeremy more tightly for a few seconds, then released him. “Okay. It’s over. We’d better get out of here or I’ll be late for work, and I’d better not mess around on that front.” He couldn’t count on Shane’s understanding mood from the day before carrying over.

“I’m sure they’d be cool about it,” Jeremy said, which proved he didn’t know what it was like to work at the Peg. “Before, when we were at Locke’s place, you called me your partner.”

“Did I?” It hadn’t been deliberate, but it was as good a word as any.

Unless you were Jeremy, apparently. “Is that the same as boyfriend?”

“I’d say it was.”

Jeremy glanced over at him, a hint of a smile on his lips. “So I’m your boyfriend?”

“Yes,” Dave said. “You’re my boyfriend.” He wasn’t 100 percent sure when it had happened, but it had.

“Huh.” The smile widened, a satisfied, pleased curl of lips Dave wanted to taste. “So I’ve heard the last of the You’re too young, I’m too old, this is a mistake?”

Dave shrugged. “I give in. This is me surrendering to the inevitable.”

“No, it’s you surrendering to me,” Jeremy corrected him. “And it goes both ways, so we both win.”

“There’s a flaw in that logic, but who cares. Come here.” Dave braced his leg against the upturned chair, confined in the narrow space between the rows. The kiss was a matter of holding still and letting their lips do the moving, but it left him keenly aware that his body had no reservations around Jeremy, and that had been the case since their first meeting.

Shame it’d taken his mind so long to lose its stubbornness and fall into step.

“This is when you tell me there’s no time for anything but me dropping you off at the bar, isn’t it?”

Dave sighed. “I’d give anything if that weren’t the case, but yeah. I don’t want to be late. It throws the whole prep out of whack if I am, and I spend the shift trying to catch up.”

“I’ll get you there on time,” Jeremy promised as confidently as if he could make red lights change to green and construction detours disappear.

Even despite the whole Travis situation, by the time they parked on the street in front of the Square Peg, Dave was happy with life. Until he saw the window on the space next to the bar, where the FOR RENT sign that had been there for months was missing.

“It’s gone.” Dave jumped out of the car.

“Easy there, tiger.” Jeremy joined him on the sidewalk. “What’s gone?”

“The sign. The SPACE AVAILABLE one, or whatever it said.” Dave gestured at the glass. There was a cleaner area where the sign had been. “Someone must have rented it.”

“Or the sign fell down.” Stepping in closer, Jeremy cupped his hands around his face and looked inside. “It’s too dark. I can’t see anything.”

“Without the sign, I can’t even call to find out what’s happening!” Dave was more upset than he would have imagined, even though he hadn’t had a chance to listen to Jeremy’s hypothetical plan yet.

“Don’t freak out,” Jeremy said. “It could be anything. And if you decide to open your own restaurant, this might not be the best location for it. Nothing’s set in stone.”

“Yeah. But this was the only place I’d thought about.” Dejected, Dave leaned against the window.

“Don’t fall through it.” Jeremy put his hand on Dave’s shoulder. “Maybe someone you work with remembers the name of the Realtor?”

“I can. Sevenoaks and Son.”

“There you are, then. Call them tomorrow and see what the situation is.” Jeremy checked his watch. “Okay, you’re ten minutes early, so there’s no need to panic.”

“I wasn’t.” Jeremy raised his eyebrows, and Dave smiled sheepishly. “A small amount. Being late bothers me.”

And Travis had known that and still spun out getting dressed or finding his house keys until Dave was all but dancing in the doorway with agitation. Jeremy had driven safely but quickly, projecting calmness, oil on the turbulence of Dave’s clock-watching.

“Come in for a drink?” he asked. “I can’t join you, but if you want to eat something, I’d love to make it for you.”

“Your cooking instead of something frozen and nuked? Sounds good. And don’t worry about me. There’s usually someone to chat with, and if not, there’s a book or two loaded onto my phone.”

“Great.” Having Jeremy there, where Dave could see him, know he was safe, would be one less concern. “I’ll make something good, I promise.”

“I know you will.” They shared a kiss before going inside, the brief contact warming Dave as if he’d downed a shot of whiskey, leaving his body buzzed.

The Square Peg wasn’t crowded, though a few of the regulars were settled at their favorite table. One of them raised a hand in welcome to Dave. Dave was pretty sure the guy didn’t know his name, but that was understandable considering he spent most of his time in the kitchen, not out here getting the chance to be social. “Where do you want to sit?” he asked Jeremy.

“In the back again? If that’s okay. It’s quieter back there. Um, not that it’s loud out here at the moment.”

“Trust me, that will change.” They walked back to the snug together. “What do you want to eat?”

“Surprise me.” Jeremy lifted his face for one last kiss. He grabbed on to the front of Dave’s shirt when Dave bent down to give it, and gave him a serious look. “I do, you know. Trust you.”

Dave smiled. “I know.”

In the kitchen, putting together a salad and sandwich that weren’t on the menu but he was sure Jeremy would like, Dave imagined meals he’d create if he had total freedom. Risotto with shrimp and parmesan, maybe asparagus. Handmade pasta with chicken and truffle oil. A delicate fish served over oven-baked vegetables in a browned butter sauce. With sage. Definitely sage.

Shane had probably never even heard of sage. No, wait. Didn’t the Brits have sage-and-onion stuffing with their turkeys, using dried-up yellow flakes instead of fresh leaves, thick and furry to the touch?

Knowing he was being unfair, because Shane was thinking from a business perspective, not a culinary one, he cut the sandwich in half with a decisive snick of the blade against the chopping board.

With no orders waiting, he carried it through himself and set it down with a flourish. “Ham and fresh pineapple with mozzarella and basil on rye, side order of pasta salad.”

“Wow.” Jeremy gave an appreciative sniff. “What’s that smell?”

“The fresh basil.” Chopping it had left the scent clinging to his fingers. Onions did that too, but that was less pleasant.

“Love it.”

Dave nodded, the glow from providing something tasty putting a smile on his face. When he turned to leave, he saw a man tucked away in the corner of the snug, a glass of what looked like club soda in front of him, laptop open. Nice suit and an indefinable air of a busy man.

“Did you want to see a menu?” he asked.

The man glanced up. “Excuse me? No, I’m good, thanks.”

“Okay.” Huh. Curious but too polite to ask further questions, Dave headed back to the kitchen, only to bump into Ben in the hallway. “Jeez, sorry!”

Ben was carrying a file folder with papers half-jammed into it. “No worries.”

“Hey, who’s that in the snug? New distributor?” There were always new salespeople trying to talk them into carrying whatever the newest alcoholic product was, but this guy didn’t look like the typical sales guy to Dave.

“Hmm? No, no. I’ll tell you about it later. Long story.” It was unlike Ben to be dismissive, but he didn’t seem annoyed with Dave. Curiouser and curiouser.

Dave went back to the kitchen, where Patrick had been pressed into service as sous-chef because Helen had the day off. “Are these carrots supposed to be sticks? Or cubes? I can never remember,” Patrick said.

“Matchsticks,” Dave said automatically. “Hey, do you know who that is Ben’s meeting with?”

Patrick kept his gaze on his work—always a good idea when working with sharp knives—but shook his head. “Nope. Why would I know? No one ever tells me anything.”

“No one ever tells you anything private because you’re no good at keeping secrets,” Dave corrected him.

“Hey! I resent that, true though it is.” Patrick finished the carrot and reached for another. “It’s a fatal flaw, but if I know something juicy, I squeeze it tight, and next thing you know, everyone nearby is dripping.”

“Lovely image.”

Patrick preened. How he managed it holding a root vegetable, Dave didn’t know. “Vin says I have the soul of a poet.”

“I’ll bet you ten bucks if I ask him, he’ll deny it.”

The preen became a pout. “Fine. He laughed at a limerick I made up. But that totally counts!”

Dave moved a pan an inch to the right, then pushed it back again. He wasn’t nosy, but something that affected the bar affected all of them. It was hard to fake indifference. Though maybe Ben had arranged the meeting here for his convenience and it had nothing to with Peg business?

“Do you want to hear the limerick?” Patrick was clearly ready to share no matter what the answer.

“Is it dirty?”

Patrick clicked his tongue impatiently. “Hello? I wrote it. Well, I didn’t write it; I said it, but even so, it’s mine. Yes, it’s dirty.”

Dave frowned thoughtfully. “Does one of the lines end in a word that rhymes with lock?”

Patrick smirked. “As it happens, yes.”

He shook his head. “Heard it.”

Patrick gave his best impression of an infuriated kitten and chopped the end off a carrot with unnecessary force, leaving Dave grinning. Teasing Patrick was always fun. “You didn’t hear it,” Patrick muttered. “I only just wrote it.”

“I’ll believe you and listen to your limerick if you tell me who Ben’s meeting is with.”

Flushing, Patrick looked at Dave, then away. “I already told you, I don’t know.”

“You are the worst liar in the world,” Dave told him. “You think I’m going to buy that?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you, okay?” Patrick winced after blurting out the words. He went back to cutting carrots. “Shit. Why did you have to keep on at me like that? This was a terrible idea.”

Still not knowing anything, Dave said, “What was a terrible idea?”

“Having me work in the kitchen. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut.” Patrick seemed much angrier and more miserable than the situation called for, which concerned Dave. He liked Patrick; they all did.

“It’s not that big a deal.”

“Yeah, but it—” Patrick clamped his mouth shut. “Can we please stop talking about it?”

“Sure.” Whatever it was, sooner or later Dave would find out about it.

It wasn’t until after his shift, hours after he’d convinced Jeremy to go home and get some rest. He was preparing to leave when Ben beckoned him into the office. “Do you have a minute, Dave?”

He nodded, not committing himself to words because truth be told, he was surly at being kept in the dark. When Patrick was trusted with something and he wasn’t, there was something wrong with the world.

Shane was waiting, ass propped on a corner of the huge desk, foot planted on the floor, a formidable man despite the fact that he was a full four inches shorter than Dave. Shane carried himself like a fighter, eyes watchful, poised to strike, and that readiness sent a clear message to even the drunkest customer.

“I won’t keep you long,” Ben said. “You saw I was talking to a man earlier. In the snug.”

Another nod. Dave had the reputation for being taciturn, and he indulged himself in proving it correct.

“He’s in charge of selling the place next door.” Shane scratched his ear. “Andrew Sevenoaks.”

Choosing his words, suspecting his plans had been downgraded to a fantasy, Dave said, “The sign wasn’t in the window. Does that mean he’s succeeded?”

Ben looked over at Shane before saying, “Shane and I are going to buy it.”

“You’re what?” Dave couldn’t have been more shocked if Ben had said they’d decided to find a surrogate and have a baby. In fact, sitting seemed like a good idea. He did, on one of the chairs that had, miraculously, remained clear after the Great Organizing Job of 2014. “I thought it was just for rent.”

“Anything’s for sale, for the right price,” Ben said.

That was true enough, and not really the point anyway. “I didn’t know you wanted to run a restaurant.”

“We don’t,” Shane said.

Then why? To break through the wall and expand the Peg? No way. Business was good, but it wasn’t that good, and Ben at least had enough sense to know that would be a terrible idea.

“We were hoping you might,” Ben said, and Dave had to check underneath him for the chair, curling one hand around the seat of it as proof that he was sitting.

“Me?”

Shane snorted. “Don’t pretend you don’t want to.”

“He’s not. He’s surprised. Give him a minute, would you?” As always, Ben was the one in charge behind the scenes, giving orders Shane was inclined to take the majority of the time.

“You want me to run a restaurant. Next door,” Dave repeated.

“It’d be more accurate to say we want you to run the kitchen. Manage the place. I’d still want input into some of the decisions, and final say in the monetary aspects of the business. We’d have to come to an agreement about the overall concept.” Ben sounded as if he’d given this some thought, which wasn’t surprising. At heart, Ben was still an accountant, careful, thorough.

It was a tempting offer, but Dave found himself shaking his head. “No. I don’t want to manage it. It’s a step up from what I’m doing here, but not a big enough one. I’d thought of buying it myself—well, renting it.”

Shane and Ben exchanged glances. “But you can’t afford it?” Shane wasn’t being unkind, but realistic.

Pride stung, he said, “I could. With the sale of the house, I’ve got enough for a down payment, though at my age a mortgage is trickier, but I could even do that. It’d take everything, though, and it’s too big a risk.”

“Life’s full of risks.” This time, Ben did more than glance at Shane, his expression so loving it made Dave want to leave them alone. “Dave, we don’t want to be rivals with you in a bidding war.”

“You won’t be. I told you that I couldn’t afford it solo, but I’m not interested in leaving here to still be under your control.”

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Shane said under his breath, then dodged the swat Ben aimed at the back of his head.

“We wouldn’t micromanage you,” Ben said reasonably. “We’re too busy over here.”

“Even so.” Why was he digging in his heels when they were offering him his dream with no risk attached? If the restaurant failed, he lost nothing. It was the ideal situation, but he wanted more. He was tired of settling, of shaping his desires to someone else’s. They’d meddle, make suggestions, all with good intentions, but it would be a source of annoyance no matter how tactfully done.

“You have a better idea, then?” Shane demanded. “Because if we don’t buy it, someone will, and God knows who we’ll have as neighbors.”

“I want to be a partner,” Dave said quickly, before he could talk himself out of it. “I’ll put in what I can and own whatever percentage that works out to.” He exhaled and went on. “I can’t do it any other way. Don’t get me wrong; you guys are great, and working for you is too. But I need a say in how things go, or it’ll be the same as working here.”

“You could have a say either way. You’ve had one here since we added the kitchen.” Ben was calm and reasonable, but Dave could tell he’d misunderstood.

“I know. That’s not what I mean. It has to be part mine. I need the emotional investment. Does that make sense?” He hoped it did, because he wasn’t sure how else to explain it.

“It does,” Shane said. “It’s how I felt when Benedict came in and joined me as half owner of this place.” He gestured around them. He’d been careful not to mention Craig, a fact that had to be as obvious to Ben as it was to Dave. Dave wondered if Shane would hear about that later. “It’s a different animal, isn’t it? Owner versus manager. I should have thought of that.”

It wasn’t often that Shane admitted he was less than perfect. Dave made a mental note to be impressed about it later.

“Okay. I hear what you’re saying.” Ben reached over and patted Shane’s shoulder, then gave it a squeeze. Not mad about the Craig thing, then. “Okay. Yes. We’ll have to sit down and talk about the numbers, but if that’s how you want to do it, we can work with that.”

Dave felt as if he’d been run over by a steamroller and reached the top of a mountain at the same time. It was confusing and exhilarating all at once.

“I wasn’t expecting this. It’s hard to wrap my head around.” How would Jeremy react? For all his declarations of independence, it mattered to him.

“Neither were we,” Ben said. “But we’ve known each other long enough for me to be confident it’ll work out.”

“Want to toast to it?” Shane nodded in the direction of the bar. “Seal the deal with a shot of something?”

“I want to tell Jeremy,” Dave said. “He’s been pushing me to do this. He’s going to be pleased.” I think, he added silently. He’d be hellishly busy for months, with less free time than ever, and more stress. It was a lot to throw at a new relationship and expect it to stand firm.

“Doesn’t stop you having a drink,” Shane pointed out, “but yeah, go home. Celebrate.” He slanted a glance Ben’s way. “Might do some of that ourselves. Having you in the mix takes some of the pressure off our bank account.”

Ben moved closer to Shane and slung an arm around his neck. “You know Shane doesn’t do well under pressure,” he said, mock-serious. Shane elbowed him in the ribs, and Dave beat a hasty retreat. He was pretty sure his bosses weren’t about to cross any lines, but on the off chance that they did, he didn’t want to be around for it.

Not even if soon they were going to be his business partners, not his employers.

With a spring in his step that matched the spring in the air, Dave headed for home.

Chapter Thirteen

“It’s got potential, right?”

Jeremy rubbed his nose, wondering how to answer Dave’s question. The lights were on and he was inside the restaurant, not peering through a dirty window in the dark, but did he think the place was appealing now that he could see it properly?

He’d waited too long. Dave sighed. “You hate it.”

Ben and Shane were investigating the back rooms. They’d gone around it before making the original offer, but wanted to take a second look now that it seemed definite that the three of them would be buying the place.

“No.” Jeremy made his voice firm. “It does have potential. Lots of it. Right now it’s an empty box, but what has more possibilities than that? You can fill it with anything that’ll fit, wrap it up with a bow—”

“Give up. You’ve stretched that image as far as it’ll go,” Dave said, but he smiled. “It’s in good shape structurally, and the refit won’t take long. We’re using the same team that did the renovation on the bar.”

“I take it Ben was happy with the job they did.” Jeremy had learned Ben’s expectations were the ones that needed to be met. If Ben was happy, so was everyone else.

“He was.” Dave, who’d been talking of little else but the menu for the past two weeks, was obviously making an effort to avoid that topic. “Something mellow for the walls. Maybe a pale sage? White linens, of course.”

Jeremy grinned. “Of course. God forbid you use cream.”

Catching a fold of Jeremy’s T-shirt between his finger and thumb, Dave towed him closer and kissed him. Jeremy lifted his face for the affection, as happy with it as he was with the hot sex they’d been having. “You’re the best boyfriend ever,” Dave said, which gave Jeremy a little thrill. “I’m going to make all this up to you once things settle down.”

“You don’t need to make anything up to me,” Jeremy protested. “I love this.” I love you remained unsaid, but he was pretty sure it was coming soon. “All of it. It’s great. Fun, even. You keep acting as if it’s a torture I’m sitting through, but it’s not.”

“I know it can get boring when someone gets super focused on something.” Dave’s eyes had gone a little dark, the way they did when he was thinking about his past, and that was not okay with Jeremy.

“Hey. Stop. You’re not boring. In fact, you’re the opposite of boring. The only thing boring about this is how you keep insisting it’s boring when it’s not.” Jeremy took Dave’s face between his hands to make sure he was paying attention. “Also, you’re hot as hell when you’re excited about stuff. So this is me not complaining.”

“Oh Christ, they’re being adorable,” Shane said from behind Dave. “Benedict, make them stop.”

“Adorable?” Dave gave a huff of laughter, not taking his gaze off Jeremy. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” He captured Jeremy’s hands and swung him around, one turn, two, before signaling a dip.

Breathless, laughing with him, Jeremy untangled his feet enough to follow Dave’s lead, bent backward and staring up into Dave’s face, taking deep pleasure in the happiness he saw there. This was a different side of Dave, the quietness shredding to reveal a confident, sometimes playful man. It was as if he’d worn a disguise for years, or stayed hidden behind a wall that had now been demolished.

“I’m horrified,” Shane said flatly. “Truly. We’ll be leaving now.”

“I’ll leave that paperwork in the office for you,” Ben told Dave, and after that, Jeremy heard the sound of the door to the outside opening, then closing. It wasn’t locked, but that was okay. No one would come into a space that was empty and had been that way for ages.

“Not sure I’ve ever been called horrifying before,” Dave said.

“You weren’t now. It was a joint thing. Somehow, together, we’re both adorable and horrifying.” Jeremy knew how it felt to be on the outside of the equation, gagging at friends who were in the first flush of love, but weirdly that didn’t make him any less inclined to wallow in the romance of it all. He was crazy about Dave and didn’t mind showing it.

“Could we get away with having sex in here?” Dave lifted his eyebrows suggestively.

Jeremy laughed. “No! Are you serious? Oh. You were kidding.” Sheepish, he tugged Dave closer. “Making out, though. That could be a thing.”

They were starting to put the idea into practice when the door opened and closed again. Dave turned, hand still at Jeremy’s waist, saying, “Forget something?”

Jeremy felt him go from relaxed to tense in the space of a heartbeat. Robert—Travis—stood inside the doorway.

“You’re a hard man to track down,” Travis said to Dave. “Ironic, since if I’d wanted to, I could have called the cops and told them I’d changed my mind about pressing charges. They could have found you right away, I’ll bet.”

“That ship’s sailed.” Dave stepped away from Jeremy. It wasn’t a rejection. Dave was drawing Travis’s attention, keeping it focused on him. Part of Jeremy was grateful, but he resented that Dave seemed to feel the need to protect him too. He could handle a man who looked close to breaking, old in a way Dave wasn’t, as if every hour Travis had lived had taken double the toll. Travis had indulged himself over the years, and it showed. His skin was mottled with broken veins on his cheeks and nose, and his eyes were bloodshot. Gaunt, clothes creased and grubby. The idea of Dave finding him attractive at any time was baffling. “You can’t chop and change and expect them to listen to you. I doubt it’d come to much in any case. I barely touched you.”

“Whatever.” Travis waved the words aside, already moving on to his next attack. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is you coming to your senses.” He glanced around, frowning. “What the hell are you doing in here?”

Jeremy refused to be excluded from the conversation. He might’ve given them space to sort out their issues if Travis hadn’t invaded his home, but as it was, he figured he was part of the situation with a right to speak. “Buying it to run as a restaurant. Don’t bother making a reservation for a table. I’ve got a feeling there won’t be any free.”

“Oh, this again?” Travis didn’t roll his eyes, but Jeremy suspected he wanted to. “Please. Are you all proud of yourself, encouraging his little fantasy? You didn’t seriously think you were the one who came up with the idea, did you? How adorable.”

It was weird how the same word Shane had used with impatience but affection could end up sounding so completely different when falling from Travis’s lips. For the first time in his life, Jeremy felt the urge to strike another human being. He wouldn’t, not unless it was in self-defense, but the temptation was there. The fact that Travis was a little bit right made it worse. “We’ve already bought the property, so calling it a fantasy is off base.”

“People buy and sell property every day.” Dismissive of Jeremy and his involvement, Travis moved a step closer to Dave, concentrating on him. “You know you don’t want this. You’re meant for bigger and better things.”

“Yeah? Like what?” Dave was facing Travis, not Jeremy, so Jeremy couldn’t see his face.

“Taking care of me, for one.” It was such a ridiculous thing to suggest that Jeremy laughed out loud, but neither Travis nor Dave looked at him. “I need you. You know I don’t stand a chance without you.”

“That’s not true,” Dave said with more patience than Jeremy would’ve thought possible. “You’ve gotten clean since we split up. That’s huge.”

Travis shook his head, lank strands of hair flying. “I did that for you. Not for me.”

“Why not do it when we were together?”

Travis gave him an incredulous stare, as if Dave had said something stupid enough to warrant a dropped jaw. “Because I didn’t need to. You accepted it as part of me. You didn’t mind when I got drunk or high. You said I was more fun like that.”

“I did what?” Dave raised his hands, then let them fall again, a helpless, caught expression shadowing his face. “It’s no use talking to you. You twist everything until it suits you, then make it the truth, when it isn’t and never was. Go, Travis. Get on with your life without me.”

“You still love me.” Travis folded his arms across his chest and drew himself up, visibly trembling. He looked like a child confronting the monster in the closet. “You won’t be happy if I disappear. I know how depressed you were when I left. People told me.”

“When I threw you out,” Dave corrected. “And of course I was sad. Sad I’d wasted so many years on you. I’m not going back to that life. Never. I think back to who I was, and I despise myself.”

It was horrible being on the sidelines of this, listening to the bleak exchange as two men fought for what they wanted, Travis for a return to the security of a relationship with Dave, Dave for escape from the prison that relationship had been.

Except Dave had escaped. Months before he’d met Jeremy. And he might not have been happy alone for the first time, but he’d taken a huge step in trying to start over and see someone else. Jeremy hadn’t realized how huge until he’d met Travis. He’d scoffed at Dave’s hesitation and doubts and tried to fool himself into thinking the relationship was simple when it wasn’t.

“Without you, I don’t have anything.” Travis seemed miserable but confident, as if he was sure he could talk Dave into anything. Jeremy was starting to worry that he might. “And you don’t have anything without me. We’re meant for each other. Why else would we end up together again and again, over all these years?”

“Because you’re persuasive as hell, and I felt responsible for you,” Dave said. “But it’s not my job to take care of you, not anymore.”

“I’ll always be yours.” Travis stepped in closer, almost close enough to touch. “I’m not saying things were perfect—I know they weren’t, not always—but that was the drugs. Things are different now. It’ll be better.” He reached out a hand and took Dave’s, and Dave didn’t pull away. “Remember how good it can be?”

Dave backed up, breaking their contact. Jeremy could breathe again. “No. I’ll keep saying it until you hear me. No. I’m done.”

“Please.” Travis blinked away tears. His voice wobbled. “I can’t do this on my own.”

“Sure you can.” Dave sounded more sympathetic than Jeremy could have managed under the circumstances. “You already have.”

Travis shook his head. “I’ll go back to the drugs on my own.”

“That—” Dave folded his lips and swallowed, but when he continued, his voice was steady, his words hammer blows, each one finding its mark. “That’s your choice. It has nothing to do with me. You can’t lay your failures at my door any more than your successes. I was your friend; I was your lover. Was. Now I look at you, and I feel nothing. Not even angry. Not now. What you did to me was partly my fault. I let it happen. But from this point on, you can’t do anything to hurt me because you don’t matter anymore, Travis.”

“You don’t mean that.” Travis smiled, a travesty of a smile, deepening every line on his face. “You’re showing off for him. Pretending to be manly when you’re happiest licking my boots and begging me to stay.”

Dave flinched, and Jeremy stepped forward, fury filling him like dirty water, washing away compassion and leaving a greasy residue of loathing. Travis tainted the air, and Jeremy wanted him gone. “Does it sound as if he’s begging you to do anything but fuck off? Because if it does, get your ears cleaned out.”

“You shut up.” Travis turned toward Jeremy, acknowledging his presence for the first time in what felt like an hour. “You don’t matter. He doesn’t give a shit about you. You’re a convenient fuck, that’s all.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dave said. “I’m in love with him.”

It wasn’t the way Jeremy had imagined hearing Dave say that for the first time would be, not at all, but it was still thrilling.

“No, you’re not. You love me.” Travis sounded desperate on a new level.

“I don’t. I did once, I won’t deny that, but I don’t now. I don’t love you anymore.”

Travis stared at Dave for half a minute or so, emotion written all over his face. “You’re going to regret this,” he said with more certainty than anger.

“Why?” Dave asked wearily. “Why would I regret being happy? I am, with him.”

“Think it’ll last? Look at him! He’s going to move on to someone his own age when the novelty wears off. You’re a phase.”

Jeremy wanted to deny that so vehemently the words became etched in Travis’s brain, but before he spoke, Dave replied for him. “It might last; it might not. Love doesn’t come with a guarantee of forever. It doesn’t matter. Right now, he’s who I want, and we’ll take it day by day.”

“And I’m not going anywhere,” Jeremy added.

“Fine.” Travis flipped his hand, waving them off like annoying flies. “You’re happy, life’s great, I’m shit on your shoe. Message received. Don’t forget I gave you the chance to do the right thing and you turned it down. Don’t forget it.”

It was a warning, one that made Jeremy uncomfortable. “Get out of here.” He drew himself up to his full height, stepping forward so he stood beside Dave. “I’m serious. This conversation’s over.”

“Whatever you say, little boy.” This was almost funny, because Jeremy topped Travis by at least four inches. “Watch your backs.”

Travis turned to go, giving the door a hard enough kick on his way out that one of the panes of glass cracked and fell to the floor. He didn’t pause or apologize, but kept going.

“Wow.” There were a hundred other things Jeremy could have added, but none would improve the situation. He settled for asking, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Dave said. “I’m fine. I’m sorry you had to be here for that.”

“I’d rather have been here than not,” Jeremy told him. “I mean, not that I enjoyed it, because who would? But I don’t like the thought of you being alone with him.”

“I promise I have no interest in getting back together with him whether you’re here or not.” Dave gave a forced smile that meant it was a joke, even if it was a bad one.

“I know.” Jeremy moved closer. “I was worried he might pick up one of those old chairs and hit you with it, then call the police and say it happened the other way around.”

“He might,” Dave agreed. “He’s bad news. You can’t trust him no matter how sincere he seems.”

“I hate to ask, but…do you think he’s clean?”

Dave shrugged. “For a while, at least. He’s latched on to that guy he met, Blake, and he’d want to impress him. Easy to get money off him that way. But long-term? Not a chance in hell. Staying clean takes guts, and Travis doesn’t have that courage. Besides, he doesn’t want to. He loves being high or drunk. Problems lost in a mellow haze. Of course, he never achieves anything and he’s killing himself slowly, but hey, he’s happy. It’s all good.”

The bitterness was strong enough to make Jeremy’s heart ache. “He’s delusional, plain and simple. You put up with him for years. You don’t owe him your entire life. How can he believe you do?”

“Selfish to the bone. He’s one of those people who believe they’re the most important person in the world and they’re entitled to demand anything. Biggest slice of pie? Always his. Put him on the Titanic, and it would’ve been Travis, women, and children first.”

Jeremy laughed. Couldn’t help it. “Okay, that’s not funny, but it kind of is. He’s got the maturity of a toddler, and I’m seeing him stamping his foot and insisting he gets the best seat in the lifeboat.”

“Yeah, but it wouldn’t have been funny. Trust me. A thwarted Travis is a mean Travis.”

Jeremy sobered. “Fair enough. So, what’s his next move?”

“I don’t know.” Dave glanced around, frowning as if he wasn’t sure where he was or why he was there. When he spoke, though, he sounded focused. “We need something to put over that broken pane and a brush and pan for the glass. I’ll go next door.”

His elation had fizzled, Jeremy could tell. He refused to let that stay the case for long. “Before you do, tell me what it’s going to look like in here. And what’re you going to call it? Or is that something you have to decide with your partners? Sage and white and what else?”

Dave tugged him in for a half hug. “I get what you’re trying to do, and I appreciate it. But I—”

They froze at a knock at the door, then relaxed when a tentative female voice called through the broken pane, “Hello?”

“Hang on a sec. There’s glass all over the place,” Dave said. Jeremy and Dave crunched through it, pulling the door open so they could step outside onto the sidewalk, blinking in the bright sunshine. “Hi, can I help you with something?”

She appeared more like a teenage girl than a woman, though she seemed self-confident enough. Her hair was long, to her waist, and she wore glasses with forest-green plastic frames. “Hi. I’m Montana. I didn’t think anyone would be here. I was in the market for renting the place, but the Realtor says it’s been sold.”

“To me,” Dave agreed. “Well, and my partners. My friend Helen saw you the day you were here. We work next door at the bar.” He gestured toward the Peg. “Um, Helen and I do. This is Jeremy.”

“I don’t have enough money saved up,” Montana said. “I was dreaming, I guess, and wasting the Realtor’s time having him show it to me.”

“Everyone has to start somewhere.” Dave smiled at her encouragingly.

“It’s such a great space.” Montana gazed through the window with naked longing, then gave herself a shake and smiled. “I hope you do something wonderful with it. Good luck.”

She stuck out her hand, and Dave shook it.

“I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job?” he asked.

“A job? Working here, you mean?” She clasped her hands together as if they were cold. “That’s nice of you, but I’m not interested in waiting tables. Been there, done that. I want to cook.”

“We’ll need a chef. That’s me. Chef and manager. Sous-chefs. Waitstaff. Front-of-the-house manager. Plenty of positions open, though it’s going to be a month or so before we’re up and running.”

“I’m a pastry chef.”

“That’s something we’ll need. It’s not my area of expertise at all. Why don’t you come by the bar before we open one day, and we can run through your credentials.”

Jeremy had tasted Dave’s candied ginger cookies and disagreed, but he kept quiet, entranced by the glimpse of Dave with his metaphoric chef’s hat on. He wanted to kiss Montana for doing such a wonderful job of distracting Dave from the recent scene.

“Tomorrow?” Her eagerness was touching. “I can bring what I need and make you a chocolate-truffle layer cake. Or lemon cake with caramel crackle glaze. Or lime-and-lavender panna cotta. Or—”

“Wow.” Jeremy had a sweet tooth, and he was sold. “Do you need a taster? I volunteer.”

Dave gave him an amused glance. “They sound great, and yes, I’d like to see you make something. Tomorrow it is. Come by around nine.”

“Okay. Fantastic. I will. See you then.” When they shook hands, Montana clasped Dave’s between slender fingers. “Thank you.”

Jeremy grinned at Dave when she went off down the sidewalk. He slipped an arm around Dave’s waist. “I don’t know about her. She’s lacking in enthusiasm.”

“She’s young.”

“Ah, I remember when you said that about me,” Jeremy said.

That earned him a pinch on the ass that made him yelp and swat Dave’s hand away. “Let’s go find that stuff to sweep up that broken glass before I forget about it,” Dave said.

“You’re not going to forget,” Jeremy protested, though he followed Dave willingly toward the bar.

“Are you saying I’m like an elephant now?”

“Not an elephant.” Jeremy thought for a moment. Dave was a reasonably big guy, sure, but he was nothing like an elephant, no matter how good his memory was. “More like a cheetah.”

“I don’t know about that. I’m not as fast as I was.” He’d admitted he’d been walking four miles a day on the treadmill at the gym, though, so he was well on his way.

“You’d beat me at any race, sprint or marathon.” Jeremy sighed theatrically when they reached the main door of the bar. “Maybe I shouldn’t take up a second career of dessert taster after all.”

“Come to the gym with me. Or go out for a walk. You spend hours at the computer, and a break would do you good.”

Dave sounded parental, but Jeremy didn’t point that out. Their relationship dynamic was rocky in that area. “True. And the thought of watching you get sweaty, muscles rippling, has as much appeal as lemon cake. More.”

“Flattering.” Dave pushed open the door. “Though my muscles don’t ripple.”

He made his way through the crowd, with Jeremy following, his gaze on Dave’s ass. They rippled.

Chapter Fourteen

“And I’d like to propose a toast to the success of the Empty Box,” Vin said, standing on a chair, glass of sparkling apple juice in his hand. “May every meal be—”

“Delish,” Patrick put in, taking a gulp of champagne.

“And every customer a good tipper,” Vin finished. He raised his glass. “To Dave, Ben, Shane, and the Empty Box!”

Shane and Ben stood on either side of Dave, each with an arm around his shoulder when the people in the room erupted into cheers. He was grateful for it; his stomach was doing flips, and his legs were like jelly. The main room of the Empty Box—the name had stuck—was ready for customers, every surface gleaming, every item placed just so. The Square Peg was closed for two hours, and the staff had gathered in the restaurant to sample appetizers and celebrate the end of a month’s hard work.

Dave didn’t plan to drink much. Tomorrow he’d be up early, driving through the fresh spring morning to the market to get the best ingredients, shaping his menu to a certain extent around what was available. His head buzzed with ideas. It was when he stopped to think about the reality of the situation that the nerves kicked in.

And when they did, Jeremy was always at hand to distract him.

He waved the crowd silent. “And I’d like to propose a toast of my own. To all of you who stepped up when I broke my ankle, visiting me, covering my shifts, helping out. This party’s to say thank you as well as to celebrate the opening. So, well, thank you.”

“For Dave, that was eloquent.” Patrick downed his champagne and glanced around for a bottle to refill his glass. Seeing none, he shrugged and raised the empty flute. “To broken bones and friends in need!”

“No more champagne for you,” Vin said. “Was that your third glass?”

“If I say it was my second, does that mean I get a third?”

“No.”

Dave tuned them out and soaked in the atmosphere of a successful party, as intoxicating as the champagne. It was good to begin this way, with the space crowded with friends and laughter. It’d be even better when the noise level dropped and the tables were filled with customers chatting quietly, enjoying the food he’d prepared.

“Try one of these,” Montana urged Helen. She held a tray of little puff pastries of mushroom ragù and crème fraîche, and her hair, usually pulled back into a braid when she was working, was curled into an elaborate updo that Dave suspected had more to do with Helen’s presence than anything else.

Helen took one and bit into it. “Oh my God,” she said, covering her mouth as she chewed, then swallowed. “Dave, this girl’s a treasure. If you decide she isn’t the right fit for your place, I’m stealing her away.”

The expression on Montana’s face made it clear she liked the sound of that, even though she’d told Dave that the Peg’s menu held no appeal for her. “You’ve already hired someone,” she pointed out.

“I know, and I’m sure he’ll be lovely.” With Helen moving into Dave’s position in charge of the Square Peg’s kitchen, they’d had a job slot to fill. Dave and Helen had interviewed half a dozen candidates before settling on a young man named Louis. “But I doubt he can make anything as mouthwatering as this.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Montana’s eyes, outlined in brilliant green eyeliner that matched her glasses, shone. She set the tray down on the nearest table. “It’s not my specialty. Desserts are. But sometimes it’s fun to try something new. And pastry is pastry.”

“When I make it, a better term is shoe leather,” Helen said ruefully. “It’s my single consistent failure in the kitchen.”

“Give me your hand.” Smiling, Helen offered both. Montana clasped them, rubbing her thumbs over Helen’s knuckles. “Your hands are warm, that’s why. You need chilly hands to make good pastry.”

“Yours don’t seem cold to me,” Helen said.

Dave backed away, hiding a grin of pleasure. He wasn’t inclined to matchmake, or notice when it happened around him, but those two had flashing neon hearts over their heads. It was sweet.

“You need to watch where you’re going,” Jeremy said in his ear. “You nearly bumped into me. I’m falling over. Help.”

He turned and slipped his arms around Jeremy. “How’s that?”

“Better. Much, much better. Of course, if you kiss me, I might get dizzy and need to lie down, but I’m willing to take the chance.”

“Goofball.” Dave kissed him as requested, keeping it light. Wandering around talking to people with an erection would be awkward. A single kiss was harmless enough, though. He reconsidered that belief when he pulled back a moment later. A simple brush of their lips had left him aching for more, flushed with a quick, intense arousal.

“Can we duck out for a minute or two?” Jeremy begged, clearly on the same wavelength. “Go next door? It’s empty, right?”

“You have no idea how much I want to.” Dave was tempted enough that he glanced back toward the security door they’d had installed between the Peg and the new space. He shouldn’t disappear, not tonight, but the key that unlocked the door was tucked into his pocket and Jeremy was eager, bright-eyed. “Come on,” he said, deciding.

They’d reached the door, Dave slipping his hand into his pocket to get the key, when his phone vibrated against his palm. He’d silenced it so he wouldn’t be interrupted during their celebration. Now he pulled it out and checked it, but the number wasn’t familiar.

“Who is it?” Jeremy asked.

“I don’t know.” Dave hesitated, thinking that he shouldn’t answer. It was probably a telemarketer, or a wrong number, but the hair on the back of his neck was standing up and he couldn’t let it go. “Give me a second.” He handed Jeremy the key and gestured at the lock, then pushed the button to answer the call. “Yeah, hello?”

It was loud enough in the restaurant, what with Shane and Patrick arguing good-naturedly about something while pretending to be angry, with Vin and Ben playing referee, that at first Dave couldn’t hear whoever was at the other end of the line.

“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. Hang on.”

Jeremy unlocked the door and waved Dave through. Stepping around the corner into the Peg made the difference.

“Dave? It’s me.” Travis. No wonder Dave hadn’t been able to hear him; his voice was weak, and he sounded far away. “Wanted to say I’m sorry. Okay?”

“I don’t have time for this.” Harsh, but it angered him to have Travis intrude on such a special night. This was his time, his success. God knew there hadn’t been many in his life. “Stop calling me, will you? Leave me alone.”

The chuckle he heard was an echo of a sound, faint, fading to nothing. “Going to do that. Leave you. Leave everyone and everything.”

Jeremy came closer, expression anxious. He mouthed, Travis?

Dave nodded, but his attention was focused on the rasp of Travis’s breath, louder than anything he’d said. Cold fear struck him, setting his heart racing. “What have you done? Where are you?”

“Took a little something.” The vagueness in Travis’s voice seemed genuine. “A lot of little somethings. Stay with me till I go? Please? I know you’re busy, but it won’t take long.”

Dave didn’t know what to do. There was no way he was going over there, wherever there was. That would be taking a thousand steps back, and he wasn’t going to do that. No way. But what should he do? His gaze met Jeremy’s.

“Hang on a minute,” he said into the phone and pressed it to his shirtfront. “He says he took a bunch of pills. What do I do?”

Jeremy moved in closer, comforting, but shook his head. “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”

“I don’t want to go over there. It’s his way of trying to get to me. But what if it’s not?”

“There’s no way to know for sure,” Jeremy said. “Has he done this before?”

“A hundred times. Usually when he was trying to screw up something good I had going on.” Framing it in that context helped Dave decide. He put the phone to his ear again. “Listen, Travis. If you’re serious about OD’ing, hang up now and call 911. Okay? That’s what you need to do.”

“Nah. They can’t help me. Don’t need that kind of help anyway.” Travis slurred the words. He’d probably had too much to drink and needed to sleep it off. “Wanted to say sorry. Sorry, Dave. Have a good life. Don’t feel bad.”

The call went dead. After a few seconds of staring at the phone, Dave sighed and shut it off, slipping it into his pocket.

“He is such a jerk.” Jeremy paced around, mouth set. “He knows you open tomorrow and the Peg’s closed for the party. You told people it would happen a couple of weeks ago. He planned this. Timed it to ruin tonight.”

That matched Dave’s opinion. “Well, he’s killed the mood, but that’s the only victory he gets. Come on. We’ll go back and celebrate privately after the party.”

“It’s so fucking manipulative.” Jeremy shook his head. “Was he like this with you all the time? Everything some huge drama, always pushing buttons?”

“Yes, but it’s over now. Even Travis can’t keep this up forever, and that was probably his last toss of the dice.” Dave forced a smile. “Let’s get back before Patrick drinks all the champagne. He’s unpredictable when he’s drunk.”

“Dancing-on-the-table unpredictable?”

Dave rolled his eyes. “I wish. Worse. Way worse. But Vin will rein him in.”

“Okay. Let’s go have fun. This is your night, and you deserve it.”

“I only have it because of you,” Dave said truthfully. It wasn’t that Jeremy had given him the restaurant; it was that Jeremy had made it possible for him to give it to himself, somehow, in a way that Dave couldn’t make sense of no matter how much he thought about it. He paused with one hand on the door handle, looking at Jeremy. Tall, slender, handsome, not to mention kind. It was hard to believe Dave had lived a good enough life to explain how he’d ended up with Jeremy. “Whatever happens with the restaurant—”

“Which is going to be a hit,” Jeremy interrupted. He wasn’t always a glass-half-full guy—no one could be—but he seemed determined not to hear any glass-half-empty talk when it came to the restaurant.

“Right. I mean, whatever happens, it’ll be okay. Because I’ve got you.” Once Dave had said it out loud, he winced and covered his face with his hand. “Oh God. Stop me now before Shane freaks out about how disgustingly adorable I’m being.”

“I’ll stop you by doing this.” Jeremy kissed him. “Not likely to help on the Shane front, but I’ll be honest—I like how disgustingly adorable you’re being.”

The sense that they’d entered a new stage of their relationship began then and persisted into the night. They spent it together, curled around each other like quotation marks in Dave’s bed, bodies replete, every need satisfied. They’d made love for longer than was reasonable, given the early start Dave had planned, but he didn’t regret a second.

They knew each other better now. Dave had gotten Jeremy to stop knocking his foot against Dave’s anklebone when they were kissing in bed, and Jeremy had revealed a dozen hot spots Dave had committed to memory. He’d discovered after a climax, Jeremy didn’t want to talk for a while, and when he did, the more jocular the comment, the more profound the sex.

They were moving from dating to being a couple, their names joined in people’s minds like Ben’s and Shane’s were, one incomplete without the other.

He stirred around five, conscious of an ache in his ass that served to make his cock stiffen, and the need to take a piss and drink a gallon of coffee. His lip stung, and he smiled drowsily, remembering Jeremy biting it at a heated moment, eyes wild with passion, skin sweat-slicked and hot under Dave’s hand.

After easing out of bed, he padded naked to the bathroom and took care of essentials. Still naked, he wandered into the kitchen and poured a cup of inky nectar, blessing the inventor of programmable coffee machines.

One mug later, shivering in the cool air, he headed for the clothes he’d laid out on the sofa the night before, fending off Jeremy as he’d done it. At the time, Jeremy had insisted he didn’t mind being woken in the morning and he wanted Dave in bed with him right that second, now, but Dave had smiled and laid the clothes out anyway.

Judging by Jeremy’s soft snores, it’d been a good call.

He was searching for his keys when someone knocked at the door, a heavy, authoritative hammering that had him jerking upright, sweat prickling his armpits, adrenaline flooding his system. Shit. Pressing his hand against his thudding heart, he strode over to the door, yanking it open at speed to quiet the racket.

“What the hell?” he began, but anything else he had to say dried up and withered.

Cops. Two of them. Uniformed, broadly imposing, the guns on their belts a visible reminder of their power.

It took Dave several seconds to recognize the police officers as the same ones who had been at the scene when he’d punched Travis. That couldn’t be a good sign. Did it mean Travis had a change of heart and decided to press charges after all? Had Dave’s refusal to go to Travis last night caused this?

He swallowed and tried to sound normal. “Hi. Can I help you?”

“David Adams?”

“Yes.” They knew who he was, so this had to be a formality, which was also a bad sign.

“I’m Ellis. This is Denton. We met before.”

“I remember.” Waiting to be told he was going to be arrested was awful. He felt shaky and sick and wished they’d get it over with. “Am I in trouble?” The answer had to be yes.

“And you’re familiar with Travis Endicott?”

“Yes.” Dave could hear the strain in his voice.

“Are you alone, Mr. Adams?”

The question threw him for a loop. Dave had to think for a minute. “Um, no. My, um, my partner is here. He’s still in bed. Would you please tell me what’s going on?”

Ellis glanced over at Denton for the first time. “I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but Mr. Endicott’s body was found early this morning.”

Dave blinked. He’d heard the words, and he knew what they meant, but it was so far from what he’d been expecting that they weren’t sinking in. “What do you mean, his body? Is he hurt?”

“It’s too soon to confirm the cause of death, but it seems to have been an—”

“Cause of death? Travis is dead?” Dave shook his head, denying the truth of it. “No. It’s a trick. He’s pretending. Trying to guilt me into going over there. He’s not dead.”

“There’s no doubt about it,” Ellis said. “Can we come in?”

Without touching Dave, Ellis somehow managed to get the two of them inside and the door closed behind them, though Dave wasn’t aware of stepping back. Wasn’t aware of anything but a vast confusion set against emptiness of thought.

“He made a phone call to a friend. A Mr. Blake. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Blake called 911, but by the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. Apparent suicide. His body’s been taken to the morgue, and Mr. Blake made the formal identification.”

“It should’ve been me.” Numb. Numb was good. Because on the other side of it lay a tearing grief and guilt strong enough to rip his shiny new contentment to shreds.

“The identification needed to be done as soon as possible, and Mr. Blake was—” Denton began.

Dave interrupted him. “No. Not that. The call to 911. I should’ve made it. He called me earlier. Said he’d taken some pills. Oh God, I thought he was lying!”

He sank into the nearest chair, the coffee he’d drunk surging back into his mouth, sour and bitter. He leaned over, retching, watching the liquid pool on the floor, strands of saliva hanging from his lips, gross, disgusting. He spat, clearing his mouth, hot and cold at the same time, his skin clammy.

His hearing had gone funny; everything was muffled. Someone was talking, and someone pressed a damp paper towel into his hand. He wiped his mouth with a hand that shook. Then an arm was wrapped around his shoulders, and Jeremy was there, holding him, smelling the way Jeremy always smelled, sharp and alive.

“Can’t it wait? I could bring him down to make a statement later,” Jeremy said. It took Dave longer than it should have to realize half a conversation had gone on without him hearing it.

“It’s better to do it now.” The older cop—Dave had forgotten his name somehow—sounded like he was speaking through a tube.

“It’s fine.” Total lie. It was the furthest thing from fine he could imagine.

No, that wasn’t true. He could imagine worse things than this, like Jeremy being the one who was dead, but that idea was so terrifying he labeled it impossible.

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“You said you’d spoken with Mr. Endicott recently? When was that?”

“Last night.” Dave leaned in closer to Jeremy. “He called me on my cell phone, but I was at work. Distracted. I didn’t believe him.”

“He was causing trouble.” Jeremy’s voice was edged with what seemed to be remembered anger but could well be distress. He was pale, faint freckles Dave had never noticed visible across his nose and cheekbones. “Calling to disrupt the party, expecting Dave to drop everything and come running.”

“Party?” Ellis asked. “You said you were at work.”

“It’s both.” Dave sorted through the confusion, picking his words to get the truth across concisely. They had to understand what’d happened. It was important that they knew. “I’m opening a restaurant tomorrow— No, today. It’s now.”

“I’d heard about that,” Ellis said.

“Yeah, well, last night we closed the bar for a few hours, and everyone met in the restaurant for toasts, wishing us well. Travis called in the middle.”

“And the party was more important than helping a man in the process of killing himself?”

The condemnation Dave heard flicked like a whip, making him rise, fighting dizziness, to confront Ellis. “No! I could’ve been watching TV or doing the fucking dishes, and I still wouldn’t have gone! He did this kind of thing. I came running because he said he was going to kill himself, God, I don’t know how many times! And I’d get home and find him with a knife against his wrist and maybe the faintest mark from it, or a bottle of pills open and him pretending to be unconscious. He cried wolf, and this time, this time…”

The tears hurt his throat, but it was cry or have his head explode from the pain building inside it. Dead. No chance to make it right between them, see Travis happy with someone else, clean, sharing Dave’s contentment. Dave had reached the point where he didn’t like Travis, but Travis was right—had been right—when he’d said there was a connection between them. There was, stretching back years, to their childhood, and now it’d been snapped and Dave was adrift.

Travis was dead, and the finality of it was striking him over and over, the knowledge never sticking, so each time the revelation was as fresh a wound as before.

“He wasn’t only an addict,” Jeremy said. “He was a narcissist, a manipulative, messed-up son of a bitch.”

“They told me to call his bluff.” Dave stared at a piece of fluff on the carpet. Shifting his gaze felt like too much work. “At Al-Anon. Years ago. I went for a while, when he was trying to get sober.” Or claiming he’d been trying to get sober. Dave was pretty sure it was the latter, yet another ruse to convince Dave to stay after Travis had been caught cheating. Again. “They said I had to do what was right for me, not change my actions to try to get a certain result from him. Codependent, they called it.” He’d read a book the group had recommended but given up partway through when Travis had gone back to drinking and staying out half the night.

“It’s possible he didn’t mean for things to go as far as they did,” Denton said. “We have everything we need for now. We’ll call you if we have any more questions.”

Dave stayed where he was while Jeremy walked them to the door. He didn’t look up until he heard the latch catch. He felt like he was in a dream. Seeing Jeremy with nothing but the bedsheet wrapped around his waist didn’t do anything to change that. “You’re not dressed.”

Jeremy stared down at himself, bare chest, hand fisted in the sheet to hold it in place. “No. I heard voices and came out to see what was going on.”

“Travis is dead.” He might need to keep saying it out loud to convince himself that it was true.

“Yeah.” Jeremy dragged his hand over his mouth. “It’s horrible. But it’s not your fault, and he was headed that way with or without you.”

The bluntness was shocking. “How can you say that?”

“Because it’s true.” Jeremy wrinkled his nose. “I’ve never understood why dying makes someone better than they were when they were alive. If he’d gotten you to race over, get him to the hospital to have his stomach pumped, whatever, you’d be livid with him today.”

“He’s dead. That changes everything.”

Except for Travis, nothing would change ever again.

“He didn’t mean to kill himself. Not a chance.” Jeremy sliced the air with his hand, underlining his words. “When he realized you weren’t coming, he called someone else. Yeah, I heard them tell you. He meant to survive and make you suffer. But he screwed up. Took too many pills, waited too long, whatever. I don’t know. His choice, all of it. You feel like shit and I get that, but I’m not enabling you to wallow in guilt and let him have that final victory.”

“Fuck you! He’s dead, and I’m not wallowing. I’m—”

“Crying over him. And that’s the shock, and it’s good for you, but don’t slip into getting maudlin, because he’s not worth it, dead or alive.”

“You’re making me hate you. Stop saying this. Please.”

“Tell me you’re going to the market. That the Empty Box is opening tonight.”

“What? No, of course it isn’t. I have to arrange the funeral and go over to where he was living to deal with the paperwork.”

He’d done that for his parents, and he remembered being overwhelmed by complex forms, then obscurely lost when the work was completed and there was nothing to do but grieve.

“Why you?”

Dave had to think for a minute. He leaned back, swallowed. His mouth tasted terrible. “Because there isn’t anyone else.” He winced at how empty and pointless it sounded.

Jeremy didn’t respond, but stood there looking at him with what seemed like an endless amount of love and patience.

“I’m going to go brush my teeth.”

“Okay.”

The mundane task grounded him, so he took his time about it. When he came back out, Jeremy had cleaned up the vomit—if that wasn’t a sign of love, what was?—and was putting some slices of bread in the toaster. “I’m making tea. It’ll be easier on your stomach.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Dave admitted, leaning against the counter.

“I know. That’s normal under the circumstances. And I wish I could say take some time and think about what you want to do.” Jeremy put a tea bag in a mug and turned to him. “Do you trust me?”

Dave nodded. “Of course I do.”

“Then listen, okay?” Moving closer, Jeremy took hold of Dave’s hands. “I know this is an impossible situation, but for today you should do what you had planned before you got up this morning. The farmer’s market, the restaurant opening, the whole deal. Tonight, we’ll figure out the rest of it. It can wait that long, I promise.” He tilted his head, studying Dave’s face. “He stole years of your life. Please, please don’t let him take today away from you.”

“That’s taking the easy way out.”

“It’s not, but if it was, so what? Learn to be selfish, Dave. Not as a regular thing, no, but as an emergency save. You’re overwhelmed and stressed with the restaurant, in a good way mostly, but still. That’s enough for anyone to deal with. Anything else can wait. And if it helps, have a thought for the people you’d be letting down if you bailed. Your staff. The people with reservations who’re going to wake up soon and be excited they’re going to an opening. They matter. You can’t do a damn thing for Travis, but you can do plenty for yourself and the people you care about.”

The babble Dave normally found charming was like a rattle of hail on a window, impossible to ignore but failing to penetrate. He freed his hands. “Maybe you’re right, but there’s no reason I can’t do both. Do me a favor and find Blake’s number. I want to talk to him.”

“I’m not sure that’s—”

“Do it! Stop ordering me around and do it.”

“I was going to say his number’s most likely unlisted, but I’ll do my best.”

“Sorry.” Dave closed his eyes, then opened them again hurriedly. Memories of Travis were lurking there, ready to swamp his head, and he couldn’t allow that. “I know you’re being great.”

“No, I’m being a bully, but my motives are good, I swear.”

Jeremy went across the hall for clean clothes. While he was gone, Dave managed one piece of toast and a cup of tea, but it was a struggle. They didn’t taste like anything. He forced himself to get out the list of things he wanted from the farmer’s market and read it over. By the time Jeremy came back with a piece of paper and a grim expression, Dave was prepared for the day.

“Here’s Blake’s number. And I found Travis’s brother online. He lives a couple of hours north of here, but his phone number’s on there too. Unless it’s been disconnected or something.” Jeremy looked as if he didn’t know what to do with his hands after he gave Dave the paper, and settled for putting them into his pockets. “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it. Tell me.”

“I don’t have the faintest clue,” Dave said honestly. “I need to make these calls. After that, I’m going to the market. Do you want to come with me?”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“I won’t be good company. You might be better off here, working. I’ll be distracted and short-tempered and impatient.” He looked at Jeremy properly for what felt like the first time all morning. “None of it’s your fault.”

Jeremy nodded. “It isn’t. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s not our fault. If I didn’t believe that deep down, I’d be in a worse state than you, because I can get guilty over a light changing to red when I drive up to it.”

It was too ridiculous not to smile at, though Dave didn’t laugh. The smile felt odd, as if it were using muscles he hadn’t exercised in months. His cheeks were stiff with dried tears.

“Remind me to wash my face before we go.”

“We? Are you sure?”

Dave gave in to the need to touch someone alive, loving, solid and hugged Jeremy to him as tightly as possible. “Please. Ignore me if I growl, but don’t leave me alone.”

“Not a chance,” Jeremy said, the words spoken against Dave’s hair. “Today, I’m your shadow and your right hand. You have something that needs to be done, I’m here.”

“Thank you.” It was too tempting to stay like that, wrapped around Jeremy, so Dave let himself do it for only a minute before letting go. “Okay. Phone calls, face, market.”

“You always have a running list in your head, don’t you?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

Dialing Blake’s number was easy, but listening to him on the other end of the line was hard. The man sounded stiff, distant. Underneath, though, Dave could tell he was upset. That meant he’d been close to Travis and cared about him.

“I wish I’d gone over there,” Dave told him. “If I could do things over again—”

“You couldn’t have known,” Blake said. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking he had me wrapped around his little finger. I had a younger cousin who reminded me of Travis. Her name was Cynthia. Watching her go through what she did taught me about how to deal with addicts. She died of an overdose when she was twenty-one.”

“At least Travis had more years than that.” Dave hesitated before asking, “Was it deliberate?”

Blake sighed. “I don’t know. I’d like to think it was an accident.”

Dave thought of the Travis he knew, so convinced the world revolved around him. “I see him risking a close call but never meaning to step over the line. He wouldn’t want life going on without him.”

“He’d probably think the world would end when he did,” Blake said drily, echoing Dave’s thoughts. “I liked him—hard not to—but I wasn’t blind to his faults. Just hopeful that he’d turned a corner.”

They were talking in clichés, exchanging platitudes. The language of grief.

“The funeral arrangements.” Dave paused. “His mom’s in a nursing home. If she’s even still alive. And he has a brother, but they were estranged.”

“The police told me they’d contacted him and he was driving down to take care of everything.”

Dave struggled with a flicker of resentment at that news. He should’ve been grateful, but Anson had been such a fucking asshole when Travis had come out. The thought of him poking through Travis’s stuff and arranging the bare minimum needed when it came to a burial and service grated.

Yet he was blood, and Dave was nobody. Not even the current boyfriend. He’d made it plain that Travis was—oh God—dead to him, and now that that had come true, he couldn’t pose as the bereaved lover.

Even though it wouldn’t have been entirely a pose.

“I’ll call him. See if he wants help. Make sure he tells me when the service is, at least. I can get the word out to Travis’s friends.”

“Those he has left. He’d alienated most of them, I’m afraid, with demands for money or favors.”

Yeah, that sounded like Travis. It was sad that his life had turned out like this, and ended so soon. “I’m not sure what else to say.”

“I get that. If there’s anything I can do to help, call me. Or if you ever want to talk.” Now that he’d warmed up, Blake seemed like a nice person. The kind of person Travis would latch on to.

“Thanks. I appreciate that.” Dave didn’t have any intention of calling Blake again unless he had to, and he couldn’t picture that. It would be easier to move on without imagining Blake finding Travis’s body crumpled on the floor. Had his eyes been open? This wasn’t a road Dave ought to be walking, so he said his good-byes and hung up. He dropped onto the bed among the tangle of covers he and Jeremy had created when they’d gotten up. When he’d thought today would be a completely different day from the one he was getting.

“You okay?” Jeremy asked from the doorway, and Dave, not trusting his voice to remain steady, shrugged. A moment later Jeremy sat beside him, chin pressed to Dave’s shoulder. “I love you.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d said it, but that didn’t mean Dave appreciated hearing it any less. “Yeah.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Short of turning back time, no.”

The glance he got for that held a tinge of disappointment. Did his comment count as self-pitying? He wanted to make an effort and match up to the standard Jeremy had set, but wasn’t that replacing Travis with another person to shape his actions?

“Listen,” he said, voice calm as he could make it. “I’m going to be sad over the next few weeks. I’m going to get drunk and vent and remember the good times I had with him when we were kids. I won’t skip over it as fast as you’d like. If that’s a problem, keep your distance for a while. I don’t want to lose you, but I owe it to myself to mourn him.”

There was a pause that had him tensing, waiting for angry words or a scene, but eventually Jeremy nodded. “Tell me to back off when I push too hard.”

“I just did.”

“You sure did.” Jeremy inhaled, releasing his breath in a huff. “Hell of a day.”

“It’s going to get crazier.”

It did. By nightfall, Dave had blistered his thumb on a pot and cut his finger slicing shallots—rookie errors, both of them. A server had bailed, three tables had canceled, and they’d lost a batch of soup when three different people had added salt without checking with him or tasting it first. He’d run out of patience, and he had to keep smiling, smoothing over the rough spots, making the rounds of the tables, urging his team to excel.

Exhaustion made his hands tremble when he plated the final dish of the night, but he forced them steady, piping sweet-potato puree in an elegant swoop around porchetta stuffed with a medley of mushrooms, picked fresh that morning, according to the seller.

On the other side of the kitchen, in the area they’d set aside for the dessert station, Montana was plating miniature flourless chocolate cakes and the strawberry-vanilla cheesecake she’d created that morning in honor of the opening. She glanced up and caught Dave’s eye. “Almost there,” she said encouragingly, and he nodded, too weary for anything more.

“That’s mine. Thank you.” One of the waitresses, Rachel, picked up the plate Dave had finished and the one sitting next to it and went off to deliver them to her table.

There was a stool tucked under the work service. Dave hadn’t had many opportunities to sit on it, but now he hooked it out with one foot and perched, grateful to get his weight off his ankle. It rarely ached these days, but he’d been on his feet for eight hours or more.

“I only have two tables left,” the aptly named Ginger, a stunning redhead, announced, coming in with plates that looked as if they’d been licked clean. “And one of them’s on a first date, so I haven’t had the heart to hurry them along.” She glanced at Dave. “Um, not that I would, but you know.”

“I know.”

Their work wouldn’t end when the door was locked behind the last customer. The kitchen had to be left spotless, every dish put away, every surface wiped. Same went for the eating area. Dave had learned that lesson early on. Push your tasks ahead of you; don’t drag them behind. Tomorrow would contain plenty to do, and there was no need to add to it.

But it was a different type of work. Left alone, with no customers to please, the team could relax.

And it’d gone well. The minor glitches and stumbles were fading in his mind, better memories rising. Like the table who’d begged for a recipe because they’d loved the dish so much, and the single diner who’d read all the way through her meal, then left a tip that equaled its cost. The buzz of people enjoying themselves had soared like music, providing a counterpoint to the controlled chaos of the kitchen.

Jeremy had left around eight, realizing that once Dave hit his stride, nothing was needed from him, and he was more in the way than a help. He’d gone next door, prepared to wait as long as needed, then go home with Dave. It was something to anticipate, seeing him again, rounding off the night with Jeremy close by, but Dave dreaded the moment when Jeremy fell asleep and left him with his thoughts.

Travis would appear then, and everything he’d held at bay would crash down on him, suffocating him, burying him.

Only if you let it, he told himself and stood. Keeping busy helped.

Chapter Fifteen

Sitting in the back of the Peg with a beer he’d barely touched, Jeremy sighed and finished placing the order for computer parts he’d been working on for the past couple of hours. The work was more about distracting himself and passing the time than any actual need for the parts, though he’d use them sooner or later. He kept telling himself that things would settle down and he’d go back to putting in his usual hours, but it hadn’t happened yet. Being in a relationship with Dave was still too new, too all-encompassing.

Patrick stopped by his table. “I’m checking to see if you need anything. Not much of a drinker, are you?”

It wasn’t a question, because Jeremy had spent enough time at the Square Peg for the employees to get to know him. “Not so much,” he agreed.

“I’d say you got involved with someone in the wrong business, but I guess that’s not true anymore anyway,” Patrick said. “Any word on how it’s going over there?” He tilted his head toward the new restaurant.

“No.” Jeremy checked his phone again for the time. “They should be winding down at this point. I’d bet all the customers have left, at least.”

“Okay, well, you know, grab one of us if you change your mind. Or want a different drink or whatever.” Patrick glanced doubtfully at Jeremy’s beer before leaving.

It was almost midnight, which meant early morning in England. Isla shut off her phone while she slept, so texting her was safe enough.

Hey, he typed. You up?

The reply came quickly. Haven’t gone to bed yet. Pulling an all-nighter. So if it’s five for me, it’s midnight for you. Don’t hear from you this late since you met Mr. Perfect. Why aren’t you cuddled up with him?

Wish I was, but tonight was the opening of his restaurant. He’s finishing up, and I’m in the bar waiting to go home with him.

Oh yes. Forgot. But he’ll be too tired to do more than snuggle? Sucks to be you. Me, I’ve found a new honey, and I’m wearing him out one depraved act at a time.

Despite the stresses of the day, that made him chuckle aloud. Deets, Isla, deets.

You’re too sweet and innocent to hear them.

He was in two minds about sharing the news of Travis’s death, but she knew the background and she’d seemed worried about the stalking. Knowing that had ended was a relief, though this wasn’t how he’d wanted it to happen.

Been a weird day. Horrible start. Woken up by cops at door.

What? Why?!!!

Not good. Travis. Killed himself.

The ex? Shit. How’s the new beau taking it?

How do you think? Jeremy sent it before realizing it would probably come off snappy. He added, Sorry. He’s in shock, I guess.

No worries. Understandable. Hard to talk like this. Want me to ring you?

Thanks, but no. Loud here, and no privacy. And I refuse to talk on the phone in the bathroom; that’s just wrong.

Jeremy could imagine Isla’s grin even though they hadn’t used Face Talk in a while. Agreed, she replied. You must be relieved, in a way.

In a way. Worried about Dave, though. Want to help but I’m not sure how.

Be there for him. If he needs to talk. Cry. Is he a crier?

More the kind of guy who puts his head down and keeps working.

I know the type.

He’s determined to blame himself. T called, said he’d OD’d and wanted Dave to rush over, but he wouldn’t play T’s games.

Double ouch. That’s a lot of what-ifs to live with.

The trouble with a conversation like this was that Isla was distanced from events. She could be objective, but she didn’t have all the facts. These were strangers to her, and any emotion she felt was muted, her sympathy casual.

Without dwelling on it any further, he changed the topic to a TV show they watched, asking what she thought of a recent addition to the cast. They talked for a few minutes more; then Dave appeared, pale, forehead creased as if he had a headache.

Got to go.

I can guess why. Talk soon. Take care of yourself.

Will do.

Shoving his phone away, he went to Dave’s side. “How did it go?”

“Good overall. No one walked out refusing to pay.” Dave focused on him. “You didn’t need to wait this long for me.”

“Need, no. Want, yes. I’m a night bird, remember. This is my early evening.” It was past midnight, and Dave had to get up at dawn again. How long could he sustain that level of involvement? The restaurant was supposed to close at ten, but people lingered, taking one more coffee, another liqueur. Maybe Dave could bow out once all the food was served and let his team handle the cleanup. Jeremy didn’t suggest it. Dave looked as if adding two plus two was beyond him right then. “Let’s get you home so you can get some sleep.”

“That sounds good.”

Dave seemed grateful that they’d taken Jeremy’s car. He leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes when they pulled out, so Jeremy didn’t try to make small talk, just stayed quiet and focused on the road. He thought he’d have to wake Dave up when they arrived home, but when he turned off the car, Dave opened his eyes and unclipped his seat belt.

“Thanks for the ride. I appreciate it.”

That sounded uncomfortably like a dismissal. Jeremy tried to think about how to ask if it had been as they crossed the sidewalk and headed up the stairs. It had been weeks since they’d slept individually, and the thought of going back to that was depressing, but if it was what Dave needed, he wouldn’t complain.

Not out loud, at least.

Pausing in the hallway and rubbing the back of his neck, Dave said, “Your place or mine?”

Jeremy felt relief flood him. “I don’t care. Whichever sounds better to you.”

“Would it be okay if we stayed at your place?” Dave sounded as if he hated to ask, which was stupid. It wasn’t as if Jeremy would refuse.

“Yeah, of course. Come on.” He pushed Blitz back away from the door with a careful swipe of his leg perfected over the years and ushered Dave inside. “Can I get you anything? Are you hungry?” Stupid question. Dave had spent the day surrounded by food and was probably sick of the sight of it by now.

Dave shook his head. “Just tired. Is it okay if I take a quick shower?”

They’d tried shower sex once and decided they needed a bigger shower, so they didn’t bathe together as a rule. Tonight, though, Jeremy wanted to do everything possible for Dave.

“Can I join you? Not for sex,” he added, seeing refusal in Dave’s slight frown. “Let me take care of you. Wash you, dry you, then rub your back until you fall asleep.”

“The falling-asleep bit could happen in the shower.” Dave tilted his head. “Will you hate me if I say no?”

“Nothing could make me do that.”

Dave nodded slowly, as if raising his head was an effort. “Rain check, then, because it sounded nice.”

From the faint surprise in his voice, he wasn’t used to being pampered. Jeremy planned to change that.

He waited until he heard the water running—Dave hadn’t shut the door properly, just swung it half-closed—then went into the bedroom and turned down the bed. He’d done laundry a few days before, and now he was glad of it; the sheets were fresh, and if there was ever a night Dave would appreciate clean sheets, whether consciously or not, it was tonight. The towels he’d washed at the same time were folded in a basket in the corner. He grabbed them and took them to the bathroom, pausing outside the door.

“Hey, I’ve got some fresh towels here. Can I come in?”

Dave didn’t answer. Maybe he was washing his hair and couldn’t hear.

Jeremy pushed the door farther open and tried again. “Dave? I’m going to leave these towels here for you.”

There was a choked sound, and after a few moments Jeremy realized Dave was crying on the other side of the opaque shower curtain. Shit. Did he go, give the man some privacy? What was the right thing to do? If he was that upset, he wouldn’t want to be alone with it, not if someone who loved him was right there wanting to help.

Decided, Jeremy said, “I’m coming in, okay? If you don’t want me to, give me a thumbs-down or something.” He held his breath until Dave’s hand appeared from behind the shower curtain, palm up, gesturing at him to come closer.

He stripped off his clothes faster than he ever had in his life and stepped into the tub, wincing as the damp shower curtain clung to his bare skin.

Dave faced the wall, head down, hands beside him, letting the water pound the back of his neck. It was a defenseless pose, utterly defeated. Jeremy made an inarticulate sound of protest, wrapping his arms around Dave from behind, sheltering him from the beat of the water.

Steam rose, giving the small space the dim vagueness of a dream, pearling on the gunmetal tiles, making them shimmer. He kissed Dave’s shoulder, crooning reassurances to him, and Dave swayed back, leaning on him.

“I never thought I’d miss him this much.” Barely audible over the rush of water, the words struck like a blow.

He didn’t want Dave to miss Travis, but he supposed that was unreasonable. The man couldn’t be erased from life as cleanly as a line of pencil on a page. Hell, even that left an indentation. And though Travis had been a selfish, scary waste of space, he’d been someone, and his death, so pointless an act because there was no way he’d meant to do it, was tragic.

Jeremy found tears welling in his eyes and let them fall, grieving the waste, not the man, hurting because Dave was. His earlier pragmatism seemed callous, though he refused to see Travis as misunderstood or innocent. He wasn’t.

But Jeremy wished Travis wasn’t dead.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he said, because he needed to say something, and finding words had never been a challenge for him. “I don’t know how, or when, but it will. I’m here.”

Dave clutched Jeremy’s arm where it was wrapped around his waist. He didn’t say anything. His breathing was uneven, hitching as he either cried or tried to stop.

“I don’t know if you want me to talk or shut up.” Jeremy desperately wanted to be good at this—not the talking, the comforting—but he’d never had to deal with a situation like this one, and his relationship with Dave was still new enough that he wasn’t sure how Dave wanted to be comforted.

“Talking’s good,” Dave managed to say, though his voice sounded like shit.

“Okay. Good. Good. I’ll do whatever you need me to, you know. Whatever will help. I can call his brother and find out about the funeral and stuff.” He shouldn’t be that specific. Maybe Dave wanted to be distracted. “I could help at the restaurant.” More than he already had been, not that he could afford to do that forever. “Though we’ve already established teaching me to cook is a lost cause.”

Dave snorted.

“I know, you keep telling me anyone can learn. But remember the pancakes? They were like hockey pucks. There’s a reason frozen waffles were invented, and I’m pretty sure it was because of people like me.”

With an effort Jeremy sensed as if he were the one making it, Dave said lightly, “I’m going to start you off small. Egg boiling.”

“Sounds cruel. I’m a friend of the egg.”

“You ate the three-cheese omelet I made.”

“I didn’t recognize my friends. You covered them with green stuff.”

“Fines herbes.”

“It’s sexy when you talk French at me. Say something else.”

“Beurre noisette. Mirepoix. Papillote.”

“Are any of those edible?”

Dave began to answer but yawned instead, face contorted by it.

Jeremy turned off the water. “Out. Bed.”

Drying Dave wasn’t sensual, but Jeremy took pleasure in it of a different sort, quelling Dave’s shivers with a brisk, not rough, rubdown and refusing to let Dave do anything. He even dropped to his knees to dry Dave’s lower legs and feet, admiring the strong body in a detached way. If he allowed himself to dwell on that body, his reaction would be automatic. Sex could be a way of dealing with a tragedy, but not yet. Too soon. He dried Dave’s cock with a casual pass of the towel, then led him into the bedroom. Dave sank onto his side of the bed without a word, facedown, sprawled out with a complete lack of self-consciousness, legs spread, arms tucked in close.

Jeremy hesitated with his hand at the light switch. “Is there anything you need? Other than sleep, I mean? Something I can get you?”

“No,” Dave murmured. “Come to bed.”

Flicking the switch meant the only light was from Jeremy’s bedside reading lamp. He crossed to the bed and climbed in, pulling up the covers over both of them and settling himself close but not touching. He put his hand on Dave’s shoulder. “Is this okay?”

“Yeah. Come here.” Dave rolled over onto his side, facing Jeremy, then shifted onto his back, offering his shoulder as a pillow. “No, come on. I want to hold you.”

Jeremy had thought it would be the other way around, but he was happy to do whatever Dave wanted. With Dave’s arm around him, it was almost possible to imagine that nothing had changed. “Are you sure I can’t get you anything?”

“Stay here. And make me get up in the morning even if I don’t want to.”

Dave never asked him to do enough. Jeremy couldn’t always be the hero, rescuing him from freezing to death, but he wanted to give Dave so much. Enough to make up for everything Travis hadn’t given him, in fact.

The only consolation was that he had all the time in the world to do that.

Chapter Sixteen

Rachel walked in. “Two more risottos. One of them wants hers vegetarian. That’s okay, right?” She sounded anxious, and Dave was quick to reassure her even though the request annoyed him.

“Yeah, it’s fine. The stock is vegetarian anyway.” It was easy enough to leave off the shrimp, but Dave’s frustration with people who had to alter carefully designed dishes wasn’t always rational.

Still. There were half a dozen vegetarian dishes on the menu, and another two vegetarian specials tonight. Why couldn’t people select one of those, instead of asking for a modification of some other dish?

He caught Montana watching him. “I know it’s irrational,” he grumbled. “It isn’t hard to leave off an ingredient, especially in this case. Sometimes I wish they’d try things the way they were designed to be eaten.”

She nodded. “I know. It’s the same with pastry. I’ve had a woman ask me to take out the filling in an éclair and replace it with diced fruit. She was worried about the calories in the pastry cream.”

Hearing about other people’s annoying stories lessened his irritation, and he needed the distraction if he was going to get through the night. He was on the edge of losing his shit, but he could soldier on until closing. He had to focus. “Never thought about the dessert world being the same way,” he admitted. “What’s the worst thing you ever came across?”

Montana bit her lip and glanced up at him, grinning. “The worst thing isn’t a tale for polite company,” she said. “But I could tell you some stories, that’s for sure. I worked for a woman who made wedding cakes, and one of the brides freaked out the morning of the wedding when she saw the cake and said she hated it and wanted a new one. In four hours.”

“How long does it take to make a wedding cake?”

“Days. I mean, you could make a simple one in a few hours if you had the cakes already baked and in the freezer, but we’re talking a six-tier monstrosity made to serve two hundred and fifty guests. We had drawings and contracts proving that what we made was what she’d asked for.” Montana looked around as if she wanted to be sure they were alone, then added, “She was a bitch. I know I’m not supposed to say that about other women—it’s misogynistic or something—but she was. She threw things and screamed. I know weddings are stressful, but there’s no excuse for that behavior.”

“Stress can do weird things to people.” Dave was trying to avoid that line of thought, but recently he couldn’t have a conversation without something reminding him of Travis and the aftermath of his death.

“True. When you’re under stress, you do your best to keep it together. You know, do what you have to and let anything that isn’t vital fall to the wayside. For me, it’s usually laundry.” Montana was clearly resigned about whether she had clean clothes available.

“Hey, I’ve got a guy saying this steak is overcooked,” Ginger announced without fanfare, sauntering into the kitchen. She sounded bored; combined with the complaint, it took Dave’s level of annoyance up a notch.

He held out his hand for the plate. “Let me see it.” A quick slice through the center of the steak with a knife told him all he needed to know. “He wanted it medium rare. It’s medium rare. Not my problem if he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. You can’t tell how done it is by slicing off a sliver three millimeters thick.”

“I’m not a steak expert,” Ginger told him. “I don’t even eat red meat. I’m just repeating what he said.”

Dave showed her the steak. “Look.” He pointed at the half he’d lifted with the fork. “Seared on the outside, fifty-percent red center. Medium rare. This is exactly what a medium-rare steak is supposed to be like. It could be on an illustrated poster.”

Ginger shrugged. “So he wanted it rare.”

“You said medium rare.”

“I know. That’s what he said, but maybe he didn’t know what he wanted.”

“Obviously.” Dave was taking this more seriously than he ought to. It was a steak. He could cook another one. Or he could go out there and get an exact description of what the customer thought defined a medium-rare steak.

Tempting. But when he pictured the conversation, running through a few variants in his head, it always ended with him hurling the steak across the room to splat against a freshly painted wall.

His sudden anger shocked him. He was in the business of making customers happy. Some of them would be assholes. This was not news.

With teeth clenched, he took out another steak and fired the grill. When the steak was cooked rare, he slid the spatula under it and transferred it to the waiting plate, adding the vegetables and an artistically arranged curve of tiny fried potato disks, dusted with a seasoning he’d developed over the years, enough salt to tease the palate, and a faint whiff of rosemary and garlic.

“There.”

Ginger wasn’t around, so Dave broke with tradition and took the plate out himself, identifying the customer easily because he sat across from a woman tucking into duck confit while he glared at the tablecloth.

“Here’s your steak, sir.” Dave smiled at him. “This time it’s rare. Bon appétit.”

“Rare?” The man shoved the plate away, his petulance making his companion roll her eyes. “Are you people incapable of taking an order as well as executing it? I asked for medium rare.” Spacing out the syllables, he repeated, “Me-di-um. Got it?”

People at the surrounding tables were whispering, staring openly, or making an effort to be discreet. Ginger took a step forward, water pitcher in her hand, then stepped back, expression panicked. She wouldn’t last long in this job unless she developed some inner calm. Dave summoned a second smile, knowing it resembled baring his teeth more than good humor. “Medium rare is what you had the first time. You said it was overcooked. This is the next stage down. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, only that you like it. Why don’t you see if it’s what you wanted?”

The man shook his head and pushed his plate an additional half inch away, knocking it into his water glass. “It isn’t. Take it back. And be sure to take it off the bill too. If I can’t eat it, I’m not paying for it.”

Maintaining his smile, Dave picked up the plate and said, “Of course,” from between clenched teeth. He returned to the kitchen, where he considered throwing the plate onto the floor. No, he couldn’t do that. He wouldn’t. He’d worked in kitchens where the atmosphere created by the head chef made everyone miserable, and he wasn’t going to do it here.

With that acknowledged, he knew he couldn’t stay. “Montana?”

“Uh-huh.” She was crouched in front of her workstation, reaching for some dessert plates, but she must’ve heard something in his voice, because she turned quickly. “What? Are you okay?”

“No. I need to get out of here for a while.” It was a ridiculous thing to request. This was their second night open, and he was walking out the door, but if he didn’t, something bad would happen.

Montana nodded as if it were reasonable for the chef to disappear. “Okay, sure. I can take over.”

“Thanks.” None of this made any sense, but he was on some bizarre version of autopilot. He heard his voice without having any control over it whatsoever.

He needed fresh air. A change of scenery. Something. He grabbed his jacket and walked out into a spring evening whose beauty was less of a balm than an irritant. He wanted thunder, lowering clouds, a harsh, spiteful wind whipping his face. Instead he had planters overflowing with blooms lining the sidewalk and a sky tinted like a moth’s wing, darkening from clear green at the horizon through a deep navy to a rich purple.

He got into his car and drove, letting instinct navigate. A left turn, a couple of rights. He was headed back to the neighborhood on the south side of town, where he and Travis had grown up. There was the park where they’d spent so many hours, first as kids, throwing around a football and riding the swings until their palms were stained orange from the rusty chains, then as teenagers, passing a bottle of vodka Travis had stolen from his dad back and forth.

Dave had always given up after the first sip. It was easy enough to pretend he was drinking when he lifted the bottle to his lips, especially once Travis had a good buzz going on.

He parked the car and crossed the street. The park was empty, which seemed strange since it wasn’t that late, but it suited his purposes so he wouldn’t complain. There was a new climbing structure; the one he and Travis had huddled at the top of as they drank had been wooden, guaranteed to leave splinters and make holes in sweatshirts. This one was mostly plastic in primary colors, imprinted with warning signs about the dangers of falling. It even had a bridge made of recycled tires.

Climbing to the top wasn’t difficult, even though Dave was taller than the kids it was intended for. He curled himself into a sitting position, hidden from anyone who might be walking by, and leaned back against the wall.

He’d thought this would be reassuring, returning to a place where he and Travis had been happy, back before everything fell apart. Though even as a teenager, Travis had been slipping away from him, finding his way into a world along a path Dave hadn’t been willing to follow.

The sound of voices caught his attention, and he shifted position, looking through the hole that led to the spiral slide until he could see two boys. One wore a baseball cap backward, and the other had dark hair long enough that it hung in his eyes. Both had baseball gloves, and they were tossing a ball back and forth in a casual way while they talked.

“I mean, seriously. I forgot to hand in one homework assignment! It’s not that big a deal.” The kid in the baseball cap threw the ball to his friend with enough force that the other kid dropped it.

“Ow! Cole, you suck!” The dark-haired boy bent to retrieve the ball. “Parents are so weird. My dad keeps saying I have to get good grades or I won’t be able to get into college. I’m twelve years old!”

“They probably go to meetings after we’re in bed,” Cole said. “How to Torture Your Children in Six Easy Steps.”

“Mine have more than six. It’s always ‘Hunter, did you study for that quiz in history?’ ‘Hunter, did you practice your trumpet?’ I’m so sick of that fucking trumpet.” Hunter threw the ball back to Cole in a high arch.

Cole caught it. “Then quit.”

“They won’t let me! They say I made a commitment, and it’s not fair to the band if I quit in the middle of the year.”

It was miles away from the conversations Dave and Travis had shared at that age. Sure, they’d complained about their parents, but it had been more about chores they were expected to do and their tendency to take off without saying where they were going. Travis’s parents had never needed to be concerned about his grades; even in college, he’d gotten straight As without much effort. Well, there’d been some speed bumps along the way, but Travis had smoothed them over with apologetic smiles and promises that things would change.

Dave’s legs were starting to cramp up, but standing and revealing himself now would be super sketchy. The last thing he needed was to be accused of being a pervert.

“What time is it?” Hunter asked.

Cole checked his watch. “Six forty.”

“Shit, we’re going to be late! Come on.”

Dave listened until their footsteps had faded into the distance, then unfolded himself and climbed down. He looked both ways before crossing the street and getting back into the car. Again, he drove without thinking about where he was headed.

Drawing up outside the house he’d shared with Travis wasn’t intentional, but it made sense. He got out. It was dark, no cars in the driveway. A neighbor shuffled by, her yappy fluff ball of a dog levitating when he caught Dave’s scent.

“Hello, Mrs. Cooper.”

She peered up at him, hand in her pocket. She usually carried a canister of pepper spray, and he hoped she recognized him as quickly as her dog did.

“Why, it’s David.” She glanced around as if checking her location. “You don’t live here anymore.”

“No, I don’t,” he agreed.

“The Taverners do. Nice couple. No children, not yet, but they’re trying for one.”

“Good for them.”

“They’re in Florida.”

Her abrupt delivery of facts was something he’d gotten used to over the years. She didn’t do details, but she got the message across.

Had she heard about Travis? He decided not to mention it. She hadn’t liked him. Travis wouldn’t be cruel to an animal, but he’d laughed at her dog, and apparently that was unforgivable. Seeing her satisfied smile when he told her would bug him.

She hesitated as if she knew something about the situation wasn’t right but couldn’t put her finger on why. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Huge lie. “You know, taking a trip down memory lane.”

Mrs. Cooper, who had probably never taken a trip down memory lane in her life, nodded. “Of course. Have a nice evening, dear.”

He leaned against his car until she’d disappeared into the growing gloom, then sighed and went closer to the house. Being there was confusing. It felt familiar and comforting, but deeply wrong at the same time. He wasn’t even sure it was legal. If someone saw him there and called the police, would he be arrested?

It was possible he didn’t care.

Numb, he walked up the steps and sat on the front porch. The new owners had updated it, taking it from the old-fashioned style he’d thought he liked to something much more modern with recessed lighting and a gorgeous stained-wood ceiling. A hanging porch swing completed the transformation. Travis would have liked it for the ten seconds he’d paid it any attention, then ignored it.

Dave imagined what it would be like to still live here with Travis, if things had been different. They could have had an evening glass of wine sitting right here, talked about their days. There might have been dinner parties with gourmet appetizers set out on gleaming silver platters.

Instead there’d been long hours of checking the clock every two minutes while a casserole dried out in the oven, culminating in Dave phoning local hospitals to see if Travis had been admitted. Mornings waking up on the couch, bleary-eyed when Travis stumbled in from a night of drugs and booze.

He’d been cheated, and he was angry.

With Travis dead, his anger had no target other than boomeranging back to its source. Why had he put up with Travis’s behavior? Friendship had become resentment, and the love he’d persuaded himself was epic had been no more than ongoing infatuation, a parasitical growth feeding off his conviction that without Travis, he was nothing.

Travis had been the charmer, the confident one. Quiet, diffident, Dave had stayed by his side, smiling, always smiling, lit by reflected light. And when he’d stepped aside, he’d stepped into shadows, drifting around the Peg like a ghost, overlooked, boring. Dependable Dave, older, unwanted, dull, dull, dull.

He’d tried to make Jeremy see that and failed. Was Jeremy like him? Latching on to an object to adore and not seeing clearly? He didn’t want to believe so, but he couldn’t for the life of him see anything he had to offer. Sex? Jeremy could get that anywhere, and if his tastes ran to older men, there were plenty available.

Bleak thoughts chased themselves around his head. Why not do what he’d always done and follow Travis into death? He contemplated the method for a moment or two, rejecting anything that would leave a gruesome mess to clean up or involve someone else. Stepping in front of a train was out. The theme tune from M.A.S.H. provided background music for his musings until the wry sense of humor that had kept him sane punctured the bubble of self-pity.

Yeah. Suicide? Not going to happen. That he’d gone there even for a moment was disgusting. He was healthy, with a new love interest, a new job, and no money worries. He was fine. Better than fine.

And yet even as he rallied himself, searching for the energy to leave, the depression crept back, subtle, insidious.

He was aware of the passage of time. Hours had gone by, and it was getting cold. People had come home from work up and down the street, turning on lights. It had to be after eight o’clock. His phone, tucked into his pocket, had buzzed a few times, but he hadn’t taken it out.

A familiar car drove up the street and stopped behind his. Jeremy. Dave knew he should be stunned, or at least surprised, but somehow he wasn’t. He’d learned when Jeremy got an idea in his head, he didn’t let it go easily.

Jeremy walked up the stone pathway—that was new too—and onto the porch. “I realize this is a stupid question, but are you okay?”

“Probably not.” There were questions Dave should ask, but they all seemed like too much effort.

“I called and texted half a dozen times.”

“My phone’s in my pocket.”

“And it was too much effort to take it out of your pocket?” A hint of frustration edged into Jeremy’s voice. “I was worried.”

“I didn’t hear it.” That wasn’t technically a lie. “Maybe it’s dead. Like Travis.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Didn’t say it was.” Dave sniffed, unclogging his nose, getting a whiff of Jeremy’s cologne. “Do you see me laughing?”

Jeremy leaned against the porch, arms loose by his sides, open, exposed. “I don’t know what you’re feeling right now. Why don’t you tell me? Let me help?”

“So you raise the dead now?”

Staring up at the porch roof, Jeremy said, “If you want Travis back, it’s not going to happen, but you know that. I don’t get why you do. I didn’t wish him dead, but I didn’t like him much. If he’d moved to the other side of the world, I’d have been relieved. Wouldn’t you?”

“That was before—”

“Were you hoping one day you’d reconcile?” Jeremy asked.

“No. I walked away. I—”

“Hoping he’d change so you could go back to him without thinking you’d let yourself down?”

“Travis wasn’t capable of change. Whatever you’re trying to do—”

“Make you see—”

Besides interrupting me.”

Jeremy rolled his eyes, not looking close to apologetic. “It’s as if I was your rebound. Temporary stress relief until you got your true love back. I get that you’re upset, I do, but he’d been out of your life for a few years, and when he did surface, he stalked me. Threatened me.” Sarcasm sharpening each word, he continued, “That’s forgotten now, I guess. He’s a saint. Misunderstood. I’m surprised you’re not wearing black from head to toe and petitioning the city to declare a day of mourning in his honor.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Then explain it to me. I won’t interrupt, I promise.” Jeremy crossed his arms in front of his chest and waited.

Dave tried to summon the words, but Jeremy didn’t want to hear them. Jeremy didn’t want to be reminded Dave was old and boring or any of the other dozen things that would be neither news nor convincing. “I can’t.”

“Let me take you home so you can get some sleep,” Jeremy said gently. “When you aren’t so exhausted—”

“No.” Dave’s voice was as hard as Jeremy’s had been gentle. Apparently it was his turn to interrupt. “I don’t need you to take care of me. God, can’t you get that through your head?” It was the same as being in a relationship with Travis but from the other side, and he refused to be the person in the equation who couldn’t deal with daily life.

Jeremy shook his head. “There’s a difference between taking care of someone and helping them when they’re going through a rough time.” It was a counter to the words Dave hadn’t spoken out loud.

“I thought your point was that this shouldn’t be a rough time. I should be popping the champagne. The man I let dictate my life for decades has gone. I’m alone. Free.”

“They aren’t the same thing, and if you see yourself as alone, I don’t know what to say. You’ve got me, but I’m new. What about the people you work with? They’re friends, not colleagues.”

“They don’t know me.” Exhausted by immobility, he stood. “If they did, they wouldn’t want to know me. How much do I have in common with them beyond the fact we’re all gay? Nothing.”

“That’s bullshit. They like you. They care. But fine, leave them out of it. I’m going to say it again. You have me. To the end of the line. You can’t push me away.”

“Yes, I can.” He proved it, planting his hands on Jeremy’s chest and shoving, hard, so Jeremy smacked against the railing and had to grab at it to steady himself. “See? You’re out of my way.”

Jeremy’s expression was one of pure shock, but he rallied, straightening and reaching for Dave’s hand. “Not even close. Dave—”

“No.” Dave stepped aside, took the porch steps in a jump, and began to run, not back to his car, but away from Jeremy. The house had been altered to the point where he couldn’t remember it. Even the past wasn’t safe, and he had nothing to look forward to.

That left the here and now, and he was miserable and lost. He didn’t see that changing anytime soon.

Chapter Seventeen

Jeremy knocked on the frame of the farmhouse’s screen door. He’d tried pushing the doorbell, but with the main door open, he could tell it didn’t work, and that didn’t leave much to rap his knuckles against but the wooden frame. “Hello?” he called after a minute.

“Hello?” It didn’t sound like Locke. There was the sound of shuffling feet—slippers, maybe. Then Locke’s nephew Bobby appeared in the entryway. “Oh, hello. I remember you.”

“I’m Jeremy. My friend Dave is friends with your uncle.”

“I remember.” Bobby stared at him for a good thirty seconds, then asked, “Do you want to come in?”

“I was hoping to talk to your uncle.” At a loss for how to deal with Dave’s grief, Jeremy had latched on to the idea that Locke might have some helpful advice. Plus he hadn’t known what else to do. “Is he here?”

“He’s in the barn.” Bobby frowned. “Do you want me to show you?”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll see if I can find him,” Jeremy said.

“It’s pretty easy.” Bobby grinned. “He’s making a lot of noise.”

He was. When Jeremy got closer to the barn, he heard a screech of metal on metal, grating enough to make him wince and cover his ears. Not wanting to surprise Locke—he hated it when people came up behind him while he was absorbed in a task—he waited for a lull, then called Locke’s name.

As on their last visit, Locke appeared in the barn doorway, tall, imposing, his hair standing up as if he’d run his hands through it. “Jeremy! Good to see you.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt.”

“I’m not.” Locke gestured behind him. “I’m dismantling some rusty old farm machinery into small enough pieces to get hauled away for scrap. Filthy job. I like working with the earth, not metal.” He scratched his chin, leaving a smear of oil. “Though I suppose metal comes from the earth too. Hmm. I never thought of it that way before.”

Distracted from his purpose, Jeremy asked, “Does it make the job seem easier now?”

Locke chuckled. “Not one tiny little bit.”

“I could help,” Jeremy offered.

“You’re not dressed for it.” Locke gestured at Jeremy’s clothes.

It was true that while he wasn’t particularly dressed up—he was wearing khakis and a button-down shirt—he wasn’t dressed down enough for a job like taking apart rusted metal covered in grease. “I guess not.”

“Well.” Locke stared at him for a minute. “What can I do for you?”

“I don’t want to interrupt your work.” This had been a bad idea. “I should—”

“Come in and keep me company,” Locke finished for him. “Even a solitary old man like me gets lonely at times.”

It seemed rude to refuse, though to be honest, Jeremy had no idea what he’d do if and when he did leave. “Okay.”

Perched on an ancient, rickety stool that Locke had dusted off before offering it to him, Jeremy watched Locke spray some WD-40 on a rusted screw that had to be a hundred years old if it was a day.

“So how are things?” Locke asked, crouching down to examine the twisted hulk of metal from a different angle.

“Fine.” Jeremy responded automatically, but he could hear how ridiculous it sounded. He sighed. “Um. Not so good.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s Dave. He’s had some bad news.”

Sadness shadowed Locke’s eyes. “The death of a friend is the worst of news.”

“You heard about Travis?”

Locke nodded.

“How?” If Locke said the bees had told him, Jeremy wasn’t sure he could keep his disbelief off his face. It might be part of bee lore to tell them all the news and, in some mysterious fashion, receive it, but he wasn’t buying it.

“He texted me.”

And now he felt like a fool. Of course Dave would’ve told Locke about something this huge.

“He’s depressed. He’s at work now, but he walked out last night, and I’m not sure how stable he is. I found him at their old house, and he was…” Jeremy rolled his shoulders, unable to put his reaction into words. Dave had looked lost sitting there, blank-faced, then hostile in a way Jeremy hadn’t expected. “He’s taking it hard.”

“And you’re surprised by that? Hurt, maybe?”

“I expected him to be sad, but they’d split up! Travis was a nasty son of a bitch, and he threatened me, and Dave’s acting as if they were still together when Travis died and he’s chief mourner.” He felt annoyed all over again about the tricks Travis had played. “I don’t get it.”

“I’m not a therapist,” Locke said matter-of-factly. “I don’t have any textbook answers. But it seems to me you’re angry at Dave and Travis. If you want to help Dave, you have to lose that emotion, for a start. It’s not helpful, and it’s draining your energy. Hating a dead man is stupid; being unforgiving toward a lover is destructive. Accept his guilt’s making him react in a way you didn’t expect and deal with the situation as it is, not how you wish it were.”

“I’m not doing that,” he stammered, feeling targeted. He’d come here for help, but not for himself. “I know he feels guilty—that’s normal under the circumstances—but…”

Locke brushed his hands over his thighs. “That will teach me to speak without thinking,” he murmured. “I’ve upset you. I’m sorry.”

Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Jeremy shook his head. “It’s not that. I mean, it is, because I wasn’t expecting it, but you’re right.” He was glad he was sitting; the conversation made him unsteady. Part of the shakiness was due to an excess of coffee and no food. “I’ve been focused on him not mourning the way I expected him to. Putting my expectations on him when I shouldn’t have been.”

“It’s a difficult situation,” Locke said. “If you two had been together for years, you might have been able to anticipate his response to losing someone who’s been such an important part of his life.”

“Or maybe not.” Jeremy did his best to think about the situation objectively, but it was difficult. He cared too much about Dave. “I want him to be okay.”

“That doesn’t often happen on someone else’s timeline,” Locke observed. He fit a wrench around a nut and put his weight onto it experimentally, testing. It didn’t give, and he glanced up at Jeremy with a wry grin. “Some things require patience.”

Working with technology the way he did, Jeremy suspected patience was something he hadn’t learned. “I guess grief is one of them.”

“It appears that dismantling elderly machinery is another.” Locke straightened up and looked down at the tangle of metal with his hands on his hips.

“I’d like to help.”

Locke shot him a shrewd look. “You want to hit it.”

Acknowledging the truth of that with a grin, Jeremy nodded. “I want to do something destructive that’s also productive.”

“I could hand you a sledgehammer, or I could point you at something better to fix.”

“Dave doesn’t need fixing.” The idea had him bristling. Dave wasn’t perfect, but who on this planet was? He came close enough to ideal that Jeremy was willing to overlook a few flaws and hope Dave did the same when it came to him.

“I wasn’t talking about him. Or you.”

“What, then?” Why did Locke have to be so damn cryptic?

“What’s damaged?”

Jeremy opened his mouth, closed it again, then said reluctantly, “Our relationship. Because I’m jealous of a dead man, and he’s mourning him.”

“He’ll get over being sad.” Locke turned the wedding ring on his finger. “You know my wife died?”

“Yes. I’m sorry for—”

“I didn’t lose her, so don’t say it. She’s with me constantly. I’ll never forget her. Never want to. But Dave had already put Travis in the past. He’s going to remember that soon.”

“He’s got it in his head if he’d gone to Travis, he could’ve saved him.”

“And the next time? And the one after that?”

“I know.” Jeremy thought for a minute, then added, “He does too. Or he will. I mean, he knows now, intellectually, but emotionally he can’t see it.”

“He will. He’ll need more time. Probably more than you think he ought to, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Locke shrugged. “So the question is, can you give him what he needs? Let go of your own feelings on the matter and focus on his? Because I suspect that’s the only way the two of you are going to come out the other side of this whole.”

Jeremy offered the man a twisted smile. “You’re too smart for your own good.”

“No, just old. Had plenty of years to figure things out. And I’m not a professional, you know. I’m as likely to be wrong as right.”

“I find that hard to believe.” He stood. “Okay, point me at something I can do. I’m serious. I don’t care if my clothes get ruined. I need to work off some of this energy, or I won’t be able to focus on being patient or anything else.”

It took a few more minutes to convince Locke that he meant what he said, but after that, they worked together companionably for almost two hours. In the end, Jeremy’s clothes were stained with grease and dirt, grime ground into his knuckles, and dried blood smeared along the side of his right hand where he’d slipped and gouged himself.

“Come in and wash that out, and I’ll find you a bandage.” Locke brushed his hands off on his jeans. “You’re welcome to have dinner with me and Bobby. It’ll be spaghetti and meatballs; we keep a weekly meal schedule. Bobby’s not a fan of surprises.”

“Dave owes me a meal,” Jeremy said. “I mean, he’s cooked for me plenty, but he promised me a special meal to say thank you for saving him when we met.”

“It’s not like Dave to forget a promise.”

That’d puzzled Jeremy too, but the answer came to him after eluding him for weeks. “He thinks if he does, that’s it. No more debts to pay and nothing holding us together. I know, I know. It’s a meal. But I bet that’s it. He’s convinced this between us is temporary, and if he keeps on saying it, it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because hearing him say he’s old and I can do better, well, it gets old.”

“I can imagine.”

Locke’s tone was dry as sand. His meaning didn’t take long to sink in, and Jeremy flushed. “Sorry. I’m being boring. I appreciate the invitation, and I promise not to say a word about anything connected to my love life.”

“You’re welcome,” Locke repeated and sounded sincere.

It shouldn’t have surprised Jeremy that Bobby was an excellent dinner companion. The man had a hundred questions and seemed genuinely interested in every answer, including ones that Jeremy would have labeled small talk rather than real conversation. Talking to Bobby gave him a whole new perspective.

“How old is your cat?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know exactly,” Jeremy admitted. He was full, but spaghetti was a meal he could pretend to keep eating. Twisting the long strands around the fork was time-consuming. “Four or five.”

“When’s his birthday?”

“I’m not sure cats do birthdays.”

“People do,” Bobby said. “Cats can have birthdays if you want them to.”

Jeremy nodded. “I never considered that, but I guess you’re right. When is your cat’s birthday?”

“Valentine’s Day.”

“First night she slept in the house,” Locke explained. He leaned back in his chair, listening with a pleased expression on his face.

“Good a day as any.” Jeremy twirled some more spaghetti. “I saw some videos online about people throwing birthday parties for their dogs.”

Bobby smiled. “Do they have cake?”

“Made out of dog food,” Jeremy said. “With candles and everything. Party hats, even.”

“I want to see them.” Bobby turned to Locke. “Can I use the computer?”

Locke frowned, and Jeremy thought he could guess why. Searching online could be a minefield with some wildly inappropriate content sneaking past the most stringent filter.

“If you give me an e-mail I can use, I could send you a link to my favorite one,” he offered. “Some of them are pretty boring, and it’s a waste of your time sitting through them. This one’s hilarious.”

“That’s very thoughtful.” Locke turned to Bobby. “What cake would your cat like? Fish-flavored?”

“Yes!” Bobby punched the air. “Fish cakes. Real ones. Then we could eat her birthday cake too. It doesn’t even have to be a Friday. It’d be good if it was, though.”

“Fish cakes are for Fridays?” Jeremy asked.

Bobby nodded. “I like them. Do you?”

“Done right, they’re tasty. Dave puts some horseradish in his.”

“Do we do that?” Bobby seemed anxious. “I don’t remember it. Potatoes, fish, parsley. No horseradish. Are we doing it wrong?”

“It’s not a must-do,” Jeremy explained. “That’s the great thing about fish cakes. You can put extra bits in and leave other bits out until you’ve got what works for you.”

That seemed to satisfy Bobby, who went back to clearing his plate, all his attention on capturing the final, slippery strands.

“Let me take that for you if you’re done.” Locke stood, reaching for Jeremy’s plate.

“I can help,” Jeremy protested. Since Locke had already taken the plates, he took their glasses instead, following Locke into the kitchen.

“Computer’s on its last legs.” Locke nodded at the counter next to the sink. “You can put those there, thanks. Ten years old at least. I’ve considered getting a new one, but it’s hard to know where to start. Not my field of expertise.”

Jeremy stepped back to give the man room, leaning against the countertop. “I could help you with that.”

“I’d forgotten you do something with computers. What is it again?” Locke rolled up the sleeves of the clean shirt he’d changed into. It had left Jeremy feeling like the poorly dressed one in the room, which wasn’t something he was used to, but he’d gotten over it because Locke and Bobby were so welcoming.

“I build them. Usually for people who want a computer with certain specifications—heavy-duty gamers, for example, or people who work in specific fields. Scientists, stuff like that. But I could put something together for you.” He’d give them a hell of a discount too. “If you tell me what you’ll be using it for, that would help.”

“You’d have to talk to Bobby on that front. He’d be better with it than I would.”

“Works for me.”

When he left, he was struck by how much being around the two of them had helped. They weren’t part of the tangled mess his life had become, and by stepping inside their world for a few hours, he’d gained some objectivity.

He’d assumed only Dave had felt guilt and shock, but that wasn’t true. Unacknowledged but insidious was the memory of telling Dave to ignore Travis, urging him to walk away. Following on that came waking to hear the news, his sleepy brain unable to erect defenses so the stark facts had buried themselves deep, leaching poison.

He wasn’t coping with it any better than Dave, and that should bring them closer, not create a wall.

When Dave came home from the restaurant, Jeremy darted out of his condo before Dave could do more than put his key in the lock.

“Hey. How’s it going?”

Dave glanced back over his shoulder, his weariness evident. His features were slack, as if every muscle was lax. “How do you think?”

Sidestepping that question, Jeremy said, “I don’t want to talk about anything major when you’re tired, but I want to be with you. Can I come in?” Before Dave could refuse, he added, “I can’t sleep. I see Travis and I can’t sleep. I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

Sighing, Dave lifted his hand to rub his eyes. “Okay. Fine. But I don’t want to talk.”

Not talking wasn’t part of Jeremy’s plan, but for now he’d settle for the two of them spending some time in the same room. Talking could come later. “Right. Whatever you say.”

By the time he’d locked his door and crossed the hallway again, Dave had disappeared into the bedroom, shoes kicked off onto the mat near the front door. Jeremy stood there, wondering what he was supposed to do now. Had Dave gone to bed? But a moment later Dave reappeared, having changed into sweatpants and a T-shirt. “Want some tea?” Dave asked.

“Sure. Do you want me to make it? Why don’t you sit down and take it easy?”

Dave shook his head and went into the kitchen. “Better if I keep moving.”

“I’d assume you’d be so tired after the past couple of days that moving would be the last thing you’d need.” While Dave filled the teakettle, Jeremy took a box of herbal tea bags out of the cabinet and put two in mugs.

“It’s good to be busy,” Dave said. “Makes it harder to waste time on regrets.”

Oh. “Yeah. I guess that makes sense.”

“Well, I’m glad you approve.” Dave’s voice was flat, not angry. Jeremy wished he could wrap him up in a hug and hold him until things felt less out of control. “I’m a jerk when stuff goes wrong, remember? You’d be better off staying away from me.”

“Tried that,” Jeremy said. “It didn’t help.”

“If you’re thinking it’d be an asshole move to break up with me, it wouldn’t. I’d understand.”

“Really? Because I sure as hell wouldn’t. And there’s no if, and, or maybe about it. It’d be shitty to the max. Luckily, it’s so far down the list of things I have planned for the next ten years that it doesn’t make the top thousand.”

“I see it rising higher.”

Jeremy wanted to shake him, hug him, kiss him, all at once. “For the love of God, would you stop it? Please? We’ve had something horrible thrown at us from day one, but we’re here, we’re together. And it’s good that we are, because we can help each other get through it and start enjoying being together. It’s allowed, you know. Being happy. In fact, it’s a perk of being in love.”

“I don’t deserve to be—”

Shut up.” Jeremy breathed out hard, hands forming fists. He didn’t want to punch Dave, but he wished he was in front of some rusty machinery right now. He’d reduce it to scrap and enjoy every swing of the hammer. “You’re driving me crazy. Yes, you do. You do. And so do I.”

“This is why I didn’t want to talk!” Dave threw up his hands. “You promised I wouldn’t have to! You promised.”

Jeremy was pretty sure he hadn’t, not in so many words, but he wouldn’t argue because the intent/ had been there. “Okay. But if we’re going to not-talk, can you please at least try to stop believing you don’t deserve to be happy? Because that’s stupid, and it breaks my heart.” His voice cracked at the end. There were tears in his eyes. This sucked. If he had to, he could learn to live without Dave, but he couldn’t bear the thought of Dave suffering from the conviction that he didn’t deserve love or happiness.

Leaning against the counter as if all the strength had gone out of him, Dave licked his lips and swallowed. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. Finally, he said, “Again. This is why I didn’t want to talk.”

“Let’s not, then.” Jeremy was exhausted. He wished they could curl up on Dave’s crazy velvet sofa and fall asleep like that, taking comfort in each other’s presence, but he was reasonably sure that wouldn’t happen. “How was the restaurant?”

It was still talking, but Dave didn’t seem to mind. “Fine. Busy. Better than last night. At least I made it to closing.” He grinned without humor. “How did you find out I was gone, anyway?”

“Ben popped his head in to see how things were going, and Vin overheard him telling Shane.”

“And Vin called you?”

Jeremy shook his head. “Patrick texted me.”

“Patrick.” He made it sound like a swear word, but there was a glimmer of amusement in his eyes now even if it soon faded. “I’ve seen him give advice to customers when he eavesdropped on their conversation. He’s a born meddler.”

“He likes you. He’s worried.”

“And we’re back to talking.”

“So gag me,” Jeremy said. “But don’t tell me to go.”

“Patrick has a drawer full of sex toys, but I don’t.”

“Use a scarf. Not a sock.”

“Or I could do this.” Dave drew his finger across Jeremy’s lips. Jeremy fought not to purse them in a kiss. Sex would complicate matters. “Let’s pretend they’re zipped shut. Because one more word, just one, and your ass will be on the other side of the door. I’m in an awful mood, and I don’t want you to suffer because of it. I don’t, okay? So if you won’t do the sensible thing and give me space, you stay on my terms.”

Jeremy nodded. What else could he do?

“I’m going to get ready for bed. I’ll see you in the bedroom.”

Another nod, but a pointless one because Dave had turned away. He felt suffocated within a few minutes, as if the words he couldn’t say were building up inside him, filling all the spaces air should be.

His toothbrush was still in the bathroom, so he could brush his teeth, at least. Standing there at the mirror, he didn’t like how his reflection looked. Weary, strained, stressed-out, and that was nothing compared to how Dave must be feeling. He should have insisted they sleep at his place so Dave didn’t have to go to bed and wake up in the same place he’d learned Travis was dead.

On the other hand, this would always be the place where he’d learned that.

Jeremy crawled between the sheets without a word, unsure if contact would be welcome.

After a minute, Dave sighed and murmured, “Come here. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that means it’s okay to talk.”

Touching, though. That was okay. Better than. Jeremy was so relieved to be able to wrap his arms around Dave, and to be held in return. He wanted to say so many things, but he bit his lip and closed his eyes and concentrated on the sound of Dave’s breathing, and eventually he drifted off, lulled by the slow in and out.

He woke to find Dave’s cock, erect and urgent, pressed against his ass. Dave’s lips were on the back of his neck, a hand between Jeremy’s legs, stroking him to hardness. “Tell me if this isn’t okay,” Dave whispered. His voice was rough and more than a little bit desperate. “I mean it. That’s when you can talk. To say no. Say it.”

Jeremy wouldn’t. He shook his head so Dave could feel it and know he was saying yes.

“I want this to be good for you,” Dave said. Sleep-caught as he was, Jeremy didn’t need the words. He didn’t want to wake fully, back in a world with a barrier between them and sadness tainting every moment. Only his body needed to rouse. He twisted around and put his hand over Dave’s mouth, silencing him, then turned away again.

He didn’t lose sight of whose hands were on him, whose breath warmed his skin, but it was easy to slip into a dreamy lassitude. He caressed Dave’s thigh, shifted to let Dave’s cock slide between his legs, and pushed into the tunnel of a hand and fingers, tightly curled.

They found a rhythm, the pace never taking them close to a climax, but the friction and contact enough to make arousal a constant.

Between one breath and the next, something changed. Dave’s grip became demanding, as it had been when he woke Jeremy, the head of his cock rubbing against Jeremy’s hole, sending shivers of sensation through him. Dave wouldn’t fuck him dry and bare, but the tease of it was a huge turn-on. He whined—not a word, a sound, not breaking the rules—and arched his back, shamelessly seeking more of that intimate touch.

He was blind. Eyes open, eyes closed, it made no difference. It was the middle of the night, and Dave couldn’t see him or hear more than the gasp and pant of his breath. He was free to do anything in this encompassing secret darkness.

Free to do, and free to be done to.

Jeremy had never understood the appeal of being the submissive partner in a relationship. He wouldn’t have said that he understood it now, not truly, but in that moment the thought of being used as a tool for someone else’s pleasure—no, for Dave’s pleasure—flushed him with warmth and made him want to break his silence in favor of begging. He knew instinctively that whatever made Dave feel good would work for him too, and he wanted more. If Dave had wanted to fuck him without a condom, he would have consented immediately.

Dave’s hand wrapped around his cock drove him crazy, but not as crazy as the hope that Dave would push inside him.

“Like this.” Dave pulled away, then guided him up onto his knees. The loss of contact made Jeremy whimper in desperation. His arms trembled while he waited, eyes closed because there was no reason for them to be open. He felt Dave moving, heard him open the drawer, followed by the crinkle of the condom packet.

Squeezing his eyes more tightly shut, Jeremy refused to let himself moan in relief when the slick, condom-covered head of Dave’s cock pressed wetly against his hole. He was shaking, eager to push back and be stretched wide, but he wanted the first thrust to be Dave’s.

He offered his immobility as he’d offered his silence—willingly, receiving a strange peace in return. It was important that Dave take charge in this. His life was being shaped by events he couldn’t control or handle, but this, oh God, this was easy. Dave knew what to do, and if that experience had been gained with Travis, Jeremy didn’t care.

With a guttural sound, Dave gave him what he was begging for, breaching him with a smooth, slow push forward, less gentle than Jeremy was used to, but the discomfort was lost in the delight of being taken.

Two thrusts, three, and Jeremy’s control cracked like an egg. He dropped his head and moved, meeting each of Dave’s quick, almost violent strokes with a fierce pleasure in the stretch and burn. There was nothing tender about their coupling; it had shifted into harsh desperation. The consequences of this wild, rough fuck didn’t bother him. He’d be sore tomorrow, but stopping or losing the intensity would hurt more.

The slap of flesh on flesh, the deep, animalistic grunts they made, drove his desire to a new level. If Dave had paused even for a moment, it would’ve been unendurable, but there didn’t seem much chance of that.

The skin sheathing his cock felt drum-tight, thin to the point where the brush of a finger would make him come.

“Jesus, you feel so good.” The sound of Dave’s voice should have spoiled the effect, but it didn’t. It made him shudder with a new jolt of arousal. Dave tightened his hands on Jeremy’s hips and bent to kiss, then nip with teeth at the back of Jeremy’s shoulder.

Jeremy wanted to beg for Dave to touch him, to wrap one of those big hands around his dick and make him come, but the rule about not talking was too good. Dave had cast a spell over him.

Closing his eyes, Jeremy let his head drop again and concentrated on the sensation of Dave’s cock driving into him. The long, slow strokes were speeding up now, his heart pounding. The places where their skin touched were damp with sweat, and the sharp smell of salt in the room was intoxicating.

Dave groaned, and for a moment his rhythm faltered. With no other warning, Jeremy felt the pulse of Dave’s cock inside his ass when he came. For one crazy instant, he wished the condom wasn’t there, that Dave’s spunk would be left inside him. Dave shuddered and reached around, seeking Jeremy’s cock even as he bit Jeremy’s shoulder.

It was too much. Jeremy howled out Dave’s name, breaking his promise to be silent, the word torn from him. It had to be Dave’s name. Dave was the single point of light in this darkness, the source of the ecstasy ripping through him.

He said it again, a groan, a plea, and the bite became a kiss.

He didn’t speak again. Not until the cursory cleanup ended and he was pressed close against Dave, their damp skin cooling, covers thrown off.

“Even if you throw me out for saying it, I love you.”

Dave smiled against his throat. “Not going to throw you out,” he said. “And yeah. I love you too.” For the first time in days, he sounded happy.

That was good enough for now.

Chapter Eighteen

Funerals were a form of frozen hell, Dave decided, sitting on a wooden chair and staring at a coffin, mercifully closed, a few yards away. Travis hadn’t left instructions on his burial, so his brother had opted for cremation, with Travis’s ashes to be put under a tree in a memorial garden.

It was a practical, if distanced way of dealing with the situation. Cremation was cheaper than burial and no one wanted the ashes, so they would return to the earth.

Would Travis have liked that gentle assimilation? No. But he wasn’t making the decisions now, and neither was Dave. Anson hadn’t visited Dave in person, communicating with a single terse call when the service had been arranged. Maybe he was looking forward to seeing his brother burn, if not in hell, as he’d predicted, then here on earth.

Anson was in the front row too but on the opposite side of the aisle. He’d shaken hands without meeting Dave’s gaze, and given the impression that his next action would be to find a washroom and scrub his palm raw.

Jerk.

Beside Dave, Jeremy shifted, knee pressing against his for a moment. Dave wasn’t sure if it had been deliberate or an accident, but he didn’t care. It reminded him that he wasn’t alone. What would this whole experience have been like without Jeremy? Dave could imagine it, if he tried, and the thought of it made the pit of his stomach hurt.

The minister paused the reading and turned the page. He didn’t seem invested in anything about this process. Dave doubted he’d even known Travis.

Apparently there was nothing Dave could think about that wasn’t profoundly depressing. Which made sense. It was a funeral. Funerals were supposed to be depressing. Especially when the person who’d died was young. Well. Not young, but not old.

Travis and Anson’s father had died a decade before. Their mother was in a nursing home, too frail to attend. Dave didn’t know how or even if Anson had told her about Travis, and there was no way to ask. He remembered the woman fondly, but the thought of seeing her now was distressing. Depressing. Like everything else.

Everyone around him stood, and he realized he’d lost the thread. He rose when people started singing a hymn that was somewhat familiar. He stared at the page of the hymnal Jeremy held, but couldn’t focus on the words enough to understand them. That was okay. He was on his feet. No one would notice or care if he sung or not.

When the call came for people to share their memories, there was a perceptible tension to the silence. The room held around twenty people, including a small group with Blake that Dave guessed were from the support group. He recognized friends from the past and found himself wondering how many of the men here had slept with Travis. The thought jarred him, and a sense of shame went over him. This wasn’t the time for bitterness, but forgiveness.

And it wasn’t the time for truth.

Blake stood and made his way to the front.

“I met Travis at a time in his life when he was trying to turn things around,” he began, relaxed, clearly confident about speaking in public. “He impressed me with his strength of character and charmed me with his personality.”

Anson shifted in his chair, the scrape of his shoe against the wooden floor acting as an expression of his views on Travis’s charm in Dave’s mind.

“It’s tragic that events conspired to rob Travis of that chance to change, but I’m sure it’s a small comfort to his family and friends that he’d taken a few steps on the path to a less…” Blake hesitated, then continued, “A less destructive lifestyle.”

That captured Anson’s attention. He raised his head and stared directly at Blake, nodding eagerly. Fuck, he thought Blake meant Travis had decided to go straight. Disgusted, Dave glanced away from the smug smile. It’d been the drinking and drugs Travis was trying to quit—if he had been—nothing more.

It made Dave sick that Anson still cared that much about his brother having been gay. Travis and Anson had never been close, and Anson had been more than a little homophobic when they were growing up, but Dave had assumed Anson had gotten over it.

Apparently he’d been wrong.

Dave never should have let Anson be the one to make the arrangements for Travis’s funeral. It had been a terrible mistake to allow it. Travis would have hated this, would have rolled his eyes and spoken in a lisp and in an octave higher than his usual voice to make Anson crazy.

“Hey,” Jeremy whispered near his ear. “You okay?”

Dave’s hand, resting on his thigh, clenched into a fist. He needed fresh air, but a sudden departure in the middle of things was impossible, seated in the front row where they were. He nodded to reassure Jeremy, who almost certainly knew it was a lie and who worked his fingers into the knot of Dave’s fist, loosening it and relieving the pressure that had made Dave’s nails dig into his palm.

Blake was still talking, but it was easier to ignore the words and think about how the man must have wanted to help Travis. Unfortunately, that led to Dave picturing what it must have been like to find Travis, dead or nearly dead. It was a dangerous road to walk, imagining that. There was a lump in Dave’s throat, and a sick sensation in the pit of his stomach that wasn’t helped by the fact that he’d been unable to eat breakfast.

There was a stir around him when Blake finished his speech, and people allowed themselves to move. Blake walked back to his seat, head high, not hiding the glisten of tears in his eyes.

“Would anyone else care to speak?” The minister’s gaze rested on Anson, who shook his head, then seemed to reconsider, shifting his weight forward.

Dave hadn’t planned on being more than present in body, but he’d known Travis most of his life. There was no way Anson was using the occasion to voice his bigoted, hateful views.

He stood, striding forward, conscious of a ripple of surprise from the assembled people and a stifled protest from Jeremy.

“No!” Anson rose, dark red flushing his cheeks. “This isn’t appropriate.”

The minister glanced at Dave, a question in his eyes. “I was his partner for fifteen years,” Dave said, low enough that only the minister heard him. Sympathy blossomed in faded gray eyes, and the man stepped aside for him, waving Anson back to his seat.

Once facing his audience, he suffered a moment when shyness rendered him dumb, but a derisive snort from Anson loosened his tongue.

He repeated his words to rest of the room. “I was Travis’s partner for fifteen years. His friend for another thirty. No one knew him the way I did, no one loved him as much, and that was a blessing and a curse for us both.”

Steadying his voice, he went on. “He was a complex man. Charming, selfish, unpredictable, hedonistic, and lost. Travis was looking for something from life, and he tried his damnedest to get at it though alcohol, sex, and drugs.

“It’s no surprise to anyone here that he failed. And I failed him too. I forgave him his trespasses, like the prayer says, and I should’ve gone a step further and stopped him from making the same mistakes over and over, but he was a hard man to change. It had to come from him, and for those of you here today who met him at a group, I’m sure you know at the end he was trying.

“I left him a year ago. I made the same choice he did. I turned my back on an addiction. I don’t regret it, but I regret his death. I wished he’d never been born some nights. Wished we’d never met. But we did, and he gave my life color, excitement. For all the sour notes we hit, he played one hell of a tune, and if there’s a heaven, he’s there right now, teaching some unsuspecting angel the words.”

He stared at Anson, daring the man to look away. “Because he was gay, there’re people who’ll think right now he’s dancing with the devil. I know he isn’t. Travis was always picky about the company he kept.”

A wave of muted laughter had him smiling, directing it at the coffin. “Wherever you are, Travis, I hope you found what you were searching for.” He turned his head, meeting Jeremy’s loving, supportive gaze. “I have.”

Dave glanced at Anson, who seemed uncomfortable more than anything else, and felt a twinge of guilt for having made an already hard day even harder. Still, what he’d said was the truth. It was what he would have told Travis if Travis had been there to hear it, and there had been a time when Travis would have understood.

That was the man he mourned—the real Travis, the one underneath the drugs and the mental illness and whatever else had been creating the whirlpool of chaos on the surface.

Returning to his seat, Dave reached for Jeremy’s hand and held it. Everything that came after that was a blur of voices and occasional movement. He couldn’t focus on it, and he told himself that was okay. He was doing the best he could to get through this.

After the service, everyone filed out and down onto the walkway in front of the church. He’d said his good-byes.

It was over.

“What do you want to do?” Jeremy asked. People were milling about, talking in low voices.

Dave shrugged with one shoulder. “I don’t know.”

“Yeah.” Jeremy scratched his nose. “Do they need you at the Box?”

“I’m covered.”

“The Peg?”

“I don’t work there anymore. Dropping in to check up on Helen would be a terrible idea.”

“I was thinking more the other side of the bar. We’ve been to a funeral. I don’t know what you do in your family, but what comes next in mine is drinking. By which I mean a lot of alcohol is consumed, people get teary, there’s laughing, some shouting, then Cousin Kate tells the world she got the Welsh dresser in Gran’s will, and all hell breaks loose.”

“That’s oddly specific.”

Jeremy shuddered. “Scarred for life. It wasn’t even a nice dresser.”

A drink. Two drinks. Or a bottle. Shane would be enthusiastic, Ben dubious but amenable. Dave would be surrounded by noise and life and people he loved.

As ideas went, it didn’t suck.

“To the Peg, it is.”

He didn’t take one last glance at the coffin. Wherever Travis was, it wasn’t there.

Dave hadn’t spent any time imagining what it would be like to sit and drink in the Peg after a funeral—in the snug, which had a handful of regulars who liked the quiet—even though there were times people had done it. It generally seemed to involve heavy drinking and thumping one another on the backs and shoulders. In his experience, the Peg’s clientele became surprisingly stiff-upper-lipped when dealing with tragedy.

Still, he wouldn’t have thought it would be like this.

He had no intention of getting heavily drunk. That wouldn’t help. He wasn’t sure he wanted to feel better, which didn’t mean he wanted to suffer. More that he was okay.

He hadn’t expected that.

Part of it was the speech he’d given at the funeral. Talking about Travis had been easy, felt natural even though he hadn’t planned it, but maybe that was why people did it. It was cathartic on some level.

“Can I get you another one?” Shane asked, and Dave looked up at him, then at his almost empty glass.

“In a little while.”

“He didn’t eat much breakfast.” Jeremy slid his hand along Dave’s forearm. His fingers were cold from having had them wrapped around his glass of beer.

Dave grimaced. “And I’m still not hungry.” The calories in the beer would tide him over. He was a cheap drunk.

“You sure I can’t bring you some lunch? A sandwich? A salad?” Ben, sitting in the booth across from them, was having a social drink that Dave suspected was actually nonalcoholic.

“No, thanks,” Dave said. “Maybe later.”

“Jeremy?”

“I’d love a sandwich,” Jeremy said. “With some fries?”

“Coming right up,” Shane said and went off to put in the order. Dave made it a game to guess what sandwich Shane would choose on Jeremy’s behalf without a more specific request. Not ham—Shane wasn’t a fan of the American version, but when he’d insisted on switching to imported English ham, the customers had complained so loudly he’d had no choice but to go back to the regular kind within a few days. Maybe chicken salad, which Shane had a fondness for despite preferring it prepared the English way, with curry powder, mango chutney, and raisins.

Dave realized his thoughts were rambling in a way that reminded him of Jeremy’s sometimes puzzling, often endearing babble. Jeremy’s quirks were rubbing off on him, and it didn’t bother him one bit. “This isn’t what I was expecting,” he said.

Jeremy patted his hand in a way that was undoubtedly meant to be comforting. “What did you think it would be like?”

“I don’t know. More crying.” Dave grinned wryly, knowing how stupid that sounded. “You know, weeping into my beer.”

“I could try to summon up a few tears into my drink if that’ll help,” Ben offered. He was hesitant about it, as if he was walking a fine line between encouraging Dave’s humor and being offensive, so Dave was quick to reassure him, because the man’s heart was in the right place.

“That’d be great, thanks. Poor guy.” Aware that Jeremy was watching him, Dave explained, “I’m sure at least part of him would have liked his life to have been different. There were times he knew things sucked. Times he wished he could give up the drugs. He tried.” It was sad to think about it, but Dave realized he’d spent too much time being sad over Travis. In his right mind, Travis wouldn’t have wanted him to be sad.

Jeremy sighed and slung an arm around Dave, resting his chin on Dave’s shoulder. “Addiction sucks.”

“Yeah.”

Patrick came into the snug carrying two plates. He put both of them in front of Jeremy, crowded together.

“Um, I only ordered one sandwich,” Jeremy said, clearly puzzled.

“Shane wasn’t sure what you’d like. This one’s chicken salad, and that one’s roast beef with chive cream cheese and sliced tomato.” The plate with the roast beef sandwich on it had a side of onion rings instead of fries. Onion rings were Dave’s favorite, his guilty pleasure because they were greasy, salty, and unhealthy, and he hardly ever allowed himself to have them.

The roast beef sandwich was one of his favorites too.

Jeremy pushed that plate toward him. “There’s no way I can eat both of these. Do me a favor and help me out here.”

Hiding his smile, Dave nodded. “Sure.” It was clear that the whole thing had been orchestrated deliberately without words, getting him to eat when he’d thought he didn’t want to. Now that the food was in front of him, he found that he was hungry. And thirsty, though not for beer.

Shane came back in with a glass of water. He set it at Dave’s elbow without a word.

“What is this, a mind reader’s convention?” Dave grumbled, but he couldn’t hide his smile now.

Jeremy was right. These people weren’t his friends. They were his family.

Chapter Nineteen

“You really don’t have to go to all this trouble,” Jeremy said, lounging on Dave’s velvet sofa and feeling guilty about it.

“If you say that one more time, I’m going to put you over my knee and spank you.” Dave sounded severe, but Jeremy knew he was kidding on pretty much every level. Someday there might be a birthday spanking as a joke, but it was unlikely to go further than that.

“If you’re going to threaten me, it should be with something you’re going to follow through with.” Jeremy frowned and tried again. “Something with which you’re going to follow through?” That didn’t seem right either.

“It wasn’t a threat,” Dave told him. “And it’s no trouble, so just stop already.”

Dave disappeared into the kitchen area to check on the appetizer. As discreetly as possible, Jeremy sniffed, inhaling a variety of smells, not all of which were enticing. The promised thank-you meal had been a long time coming. Maybe too long. He’d rescued Dave in an ice storm, and now summer heat lay heavy on the city, a layer of syrup over every building, every sidewalk.

Inside, the condo was cool, a fan stirring the air, but Jeremy was sweating. Too soon to propose in the traditional sense, but tonight he planned to broach the subject of moving in together. It would mean leaving the condos, but the hell of packing less than a year after unpacking didn’t matter set against the paradise of living with Dave. Should he wait until dessert or bring it up over the first course?

And if that first course was chilled yellow-tomato-and-corn soup, what was burning?

“Shit!” Dave cursed under his breath, pulling a tray of something from the oven with nothing but a dish towel to protect his hands. He dropped the tray onto the stove top as soon as possible, then moved to the sink and ran cold water over his fingertips.

Jeremy hurried into the kitchen. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Can’t say the same for the herb-and-Gruyère cheese puffs.” Jeremy took Dave’s hand in his and turned it so he could examine the burned fingers. “Don’t worry about it. Hmm, I think you caught it soon enough.”

“Again, the cheese puffs weren’t so lucky.”

Jeremy kissed Dave’s damp fingertips. “I care about you, not the cheese puffs.”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you knew what they tasted like.” Dave went back over to the stove and poked at one of the charred puffs with a spatula. “Before this happened, I mean. And I don’t know what happened. I set the oven to the right temperature, and the timer isn’t supposed to go off for twelve minutes.” He checked the clock. “Okay, eleven. But still.”

“The soup will be great. And the salmon.”

“Yeah.” Dave gave a pan of creamy sauce a dubious glance. “Let’s hope so.”

The soup was cool—which took some getting used to, Jeremy’s taste buds insistent that soup was supposed to be piping hot—but velvety smooth against his tongue. He swallowed, opened his mouth to deliver a compliment, then choked.

“Are you okay?”

“Hot,” Jeremy croaked, reaching for his water glass. It wouldn’t do much, but he had to clear the taste away somehow.

Dave blinked. “It’s been in the fridge for two hours. How can it be hot?”

“Spicy,” Jeremy clarified between gulps. “What’re the red bits?”

“Pepper flakes, but I didn’t add more than a spoon.”

“Taste it.” Jeremy dabbed at his tingling lips with his napkin, then dipped his spoon into the soup again when he saw the disappointment on Dave’s face. “I must have gotten a bit with more flakes than average.”

The second mouthful was even hotter. Dave took one taste, then reached across the table and removed Jeremy’s bowl before he could take a third. “It’s inedible. Leave it. I must’ve added the flakes twice without realizing. The phone rang when I was in the middle of the prep and distracted me.”

“It happens. And underneath it all, the soup was delicious. Really tasty.”

“The vegetables were freshly picked this morning.” Dave stood. “I’ll get the salmon. It’s ready to go; all I have to do is put it under the broiler.” He did a few things in the kitchen, then came back to the dining area and sat. “It won’t be long.”

Jeremy could see the tension Dave tried to hide. He’d wanted this meal to be perfect, and so far it wasn’t turning out that way. Hitching his chair closer, Jeremy reached out and took Dave’s hand. “I’m glad we have a minute,” he said. “I was hoping we could talk.”

Dave frowned but didn’t pull his hand away. “That sounds dire.”

“It’s not,” Jeremy hastened to assure him. “Not about anything bad. About something good. Well, I hope you’ll think it’s good. I think it’s good. Although now I’m starting to get nervous, and you know what that means.”

“That you can’t stop talking and yet somehow seem incapable of getting to the point?” Dave seemed a tiny bit more relaxed now, which was a relief. “Breathe.”

“I am. If I weren’t, I’d be dizzy. And probably passing out.” Still, Jeremy did as he’d been told, one long, slow breath in and out. “I wondered if you’d be interested in moving. In with me. Together, I mean.”

Dave blinked. Once. Twice. It wasn’t an action Jeremy would’ve noticed under normal circumstances. People blinked all the time. And breathed and swallowed and stayed quiet as if they’d been asked to solve a complex equation in their heads when they should be saying yes.

“I think—” The smoke alarm went off, its repetitive beeping shattering the tension but replacing it with panic. Dave ran to the stove, Jeremy to silence the alarm, then open a window.

“Ruined,” Dave said bleakly some minutes later. The maple-ginger glaze was black, and under it, the salmon had dried up. “Well, there’s salad. Even I can’t screw that up.”

Jeremy tried a joke, uneasily aware that the topic of moving in had been dropped. “Did we swap bodies this morning without realizing? Because you’re cooking like me.”

“Pretty sure I’m me. And who does that insult more?”

“I don’t know.” Jeremy stole a slice of radish from the salad bowl, the white flesh cool and peppery. “I don’t care. If it’s too soon, I get it. And we’d have to buy a house, which is major. Though we could rent, I guess. See how we got along. Because living together is different from sleeping over most nights, and we might hate each other after a month. Except I never could. Hate you, I mean. And I want more than we have but not if it ruins what we do have, and why can’t you say something?”

“Because you’re talking so much I can’t get a word in edgewise,” Dave said, which was fair enough.

“Okay,” Jeremy said. “I’ll stop. I won’t say anything else.” He was so worked up that he had to put a hand over his mouth to shut himself up. It was embarrassing.

“Sit down.” Dave pointed at the chair, and Jeremy sat. “I get what you’re saying. And yes.”

Jeremy felt his eyes go wide. He wanted to ask yes what, but he was supposed to not talk.

“Yes, I’d be up for moving in together. And yes, renting would be the way to go, just to be sure. The last time I moved into a place I owned with someone, it didn’t work out so well.” Dave used tongs to put salad into each of their salad bowls, which were more like plates as far as Jeremy was concerned, but what did he know? Dave brought the plates over to the table and sat down. “It isn’t because I don’t trust you. You know that, right?”

Jeremy nodded, hand still over his mouth.

“Good. Because I do. And I don’t think our relationship is anything like the one I had with Travis.”

He couldn’t keep quiet for that. “It’s nothing like it.”

“We agree on that, so why are you glaring at me?”

“I wasn’t glaring at you. More at the idea that there’s any comparison.”

“And there isn’t.”

The conversation had drifted so far from where it should be. Jeremy regrouped. “So we’re doing this? Handing in our notice on the lease, house hunting, arguing over color schemes and what couch we keep, except I vote for yours because I love it.”

“I guess we are.” Dave stabbed a tiny lettuce leaf with his fork and chewed it. “Hey. The salad’s edible. Go, me.”

“You’re amazing.” Loyalty stopped him from asking how a salad could be ruined. Even he could open a bag and pour over the sachet of dressing. Not that Dave had done that. The salad was a handpicked mix of leaves, with blackberries and asparagus tips scattered through it, the light dressing tangy with balsamic vinegar.

“I’m doing this meal again sometime. When I’m not nervous as hell.”

“Why would you be nervous? It’s not our first date. You didn’t need to impress me.”

Dave took a sip of wine. More of a gulp. “I know. But this meal mattered. I built it up and piled on the pressure until screwing it up was inevitable. And I’m scared.”

“A meal isn’t a relationship.” Jeremy reached across the table and took Dave’s hand. “We’ll clear it away, pig out on dessert, and have sex.”

“That’s your plan?”

“It’s a good one.” Jeremy amended that. “Dessert and sex? It’s a great one. I’m a genius.”

“Hmm,” Dave said, looking doubtful. “Not disagreeing that you can be a genius at times, but I think there’s a fatal flaw in your plan.”

“Really.” Jeremy raised one eyebrow, or at least tried to. The last time he’d practiced in the mirror, he hadn’t been all that impressed with the results. “And what’s that?”

Still holding Jeremy’s hand, Dave shifted his chair—it scraped loudly enough against the floor that they both winced—around the table until their knees bumped. “The order of events. The sex will be more fun if we save the dessert for last.”

Ahhh. Jeremy leaned in toward him. “I’m pretty sure you’re just making up excuses to get to the sex sooner.”

Dave grinned and put his free hand on his chest, fingers splayed. “Me?”

“No, I’m talking about my other boyfriend,” Jeremy said, rolling his eyes.

He expected another joking reply, but Dave leaned in and kissed him, a yearning sweetness to the press of his lips. “Thank you.”

Ridiculously moved by the kiss, aroused as always by Dave’s touch, Jeremy asked, “For what?”

“You saved me,” Dave said simply. “From day one, you saved me, and I struggled so hard not to be helped that no one could’ve blamed you for walking away. And the meal’s ruined, but I’m going to find new ways, better ways, to thank you.”

“Don’t.” Jeremy shook his head. “It’s not like that. You’re not going to make it unequal between us or ignore the way you turned your life around. You’re a strong, sexy man, and I’m blown away that I’m part of your new life.”

Dave seemed prepared to argue, but Jeremy silenced him with a kiss.

He didn’t mind how often he had to do that.

~ * ~ The End ~ * ~