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Mine, All Mine

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My loss, my lonely
My mistake, mine only
Mine all, mine all, mine (mine)
Hoah, and it's my bad, my broken
All my should haves left unspoken
Mine all, mine all, mine
 

 Mine, All Mine -- SheDaisy

 

 

Andrew stared at the Golden Cherry Motel from the seat of his rental car, hands still wrapped tight around the steering wheel. He knew he should go inside. Knew he needed to get in, get his stuff and get checked out before the reporters descended. At least some of the guests must have left by now, and no doubt many of them eagerly shared the humiliating scene of the wedding-that-never-was with the vultures masquerading as journalists hovering beyond the security perimeter.

They were probably already racing to get a quote, a picture, an exclusive interview. Andrew had spent his whole life in the spotlight thanks to his parents. He knew exactly how it worked. Knew they wouldn’t be satisfied until they drew blood. Or they caught the scent of a juicier story.

But going in there, telling some clerk with an accent he could barely understand that he no longer needed the honeymoon ‘suite’ would make it real. Would make it over. Final.

His head fell forward, resting against the cool, curved leather of the steering wheel. Andrew squeezed his eyes shut and wondered where the pain was. The anger. The betrayal. Even confusion. Or relief.

He’d been numb since Mr. Buford had announced Melanie never signed her divorce papers. He’d looked into her eyes and saw relief. Saw hope and joy and something indefinable that had never been there when she’d looked at him. So he’d done the only thing he could as ice crawled through his veins. He’d done the right thing. He’d let her go with a smile.

Andrew knew, eventually, the cold would wear off. He’d wonder what was wrong with him. Spend too much time wondering what if? What if he’d done more? What if he’d insisted on coming with her from the beginning? What if he’d fought for her in that moment in front of the altar? For now though, he’d enjoy the numbness. He’d worry about the rest later.

A truck rumbled by, the exhaust louder than a subway train. He jerked, self-preservation instincts finally kicking in and he glanced around for signs of incoming reporters.

The parking lot still looked blessedly empty. Andrew peeled his fingers from the wheel and trudged inside to sever yet another tie to the woman who should have been his wife. Once that was done, he’d have to figure out what to do with a honeymoon in the Caribbean he’d already paid for.

*

An hour later, he walked out of the Motel 6, feeling worse than he had when he’d arrived at the Golden Cherry. He’d assumed he could easily get a room somewhere else. He’d forgotten to take into account how small Pigeon Creek was. And how big of a draw his wedding had been.

He’d already been to the Day Inn and the Travel Lodge and there was not a room left anywhere in the area. Apparently many of the reporters had even been forced to double up.

Walking slowly back to his car, he wondered how far it was to the next town big enough to have a Marriott at least. He wasn’t the snob his mother was, but, after the day he’d had, he felt he deserved a little extra luxury.

Andrew reached for the door handle and the sound of quick excited whispers and footsteps he’d noticed peripherally suddenly picked up speed and determination.

“Andrew!”

“Mr. Hennings! A word. Please. Just a moment….”

A quick glance over his shoulder revealed two young men pulling notebooks and tape recorders and cell phones from their pockets. Apparently not all of the journalists had headed straight over to stake out the Golden Cherry.

“Fuck.” He muttered, trying to get his thumb on the remote to open his door.

“Mr. Hennings? What happened at the wedding?”

“Do you have any comment on your runaway bride?”

“Fuck,” he said a little louder when the key ring nearly slipped out of his grip. Andrew caught it at the last second, his thumb sliding into the indented button and heard the reassuring click of the lock disengaging.

He yanked the door open, ignoring the increasingly personal and inappropriate questions flying around him. With a burning in his chest, he started the car and peeled out of the parking lot with an urgency he’d never have shown under normal circumstances.

Only when he could no longer see the rundown motel in his rearview mirror did Andrew realize his breath was spilling out in heavy pants. His vision blurred. His throat burned. The numbness was wearing off.

The pain, the humiliation, the complete and utter bewilderment started to settle in.

Why hadn’t he known? Why hadn’t he seen it coming? Why had he stood there, taking it like a punch to the gut while he smiled benignly and wished her well?

God, he wanted a drink.

Wanted something, anything to take the edge off. Something to bring back the wonderful, welcome numbness.

Because the answers to those unvoiced questions led to places he didn’t want to go. The answers said a whole lot more about Andrew than they did about Melanie or their relationship.

*

The clouds rolled in over Pigeon Creek while he was still running from the Motel 6. By the time the downpour started, he was hopelessly lost, cursing himself for leaving his GPS in his overnight bag and unwilling to stop moving long enough to dig it out.

There was something apocalyptic about the deluge, Andrew mused as he slowed the car to a crawl. Something tickled the back of his mind about the world ending in a flood rather than fire. His world may not have ended, but he sure as hell had no idea where it was going.

When he saw the neon sign advertising a beer he hadn’t touched since college frat parties, he realized how much he really wanted a drink. With a sharp twist of the steering wheel Andrew crossed the road and pulled into the rutted parking lot already filled with cars. He bumped along to the back of the lot and finally found a growing puddle where no one had parked yet.

For a minute after he shut off the engine, he sat there, resting his head back against the headrest. The sound of the rain thundering on the roof echoed in the quiet car and he tried to let the steady staccato drive away the emotions threatening to drown him.

He stared at the bright lights spilling out of the bar, watched the shadow of people dancing, playing, drinking. Living.

Andrew wondered if he’d already met any of the revelers inside. If anyone in there had witnessed his humiliation on the day that was supposed to be the happiest of his life?

“Fuck it. I really need a drink.”

Stuffing down everything else but the need to find a little numbness in the bottom of a bottle, he put his hand on the door handle.

The flashing blue and red lights had him pulling his fingers back as if he’d been burned. Was there some kind of bust going on?

But the sheriff got out of the car and walked around to let someone out of the back seat. Two someones.

And one of them wore a familiar white dress. The two of them teased and flirted in the rain, a metallic flash of handcuffs showing when Jake scooped her up and carried her to the door. A loud cheer a minute later hurt Andrew in places he hadn’t even known could be wounded.

“Of course. Just my luck.”

He sank down as far as he could in the driver’s seat and wondered if his day could get any worse.

He’d been left at the altar. He had no place to sleep tonight, except maybe his rental car. And the only place he’d found to get a damn drink was apparently having some kind of party celebrating his ex-fiancée’s un-divorce.

“I have got to get out of this town before I lose my mind,” he muttered to himself before reaching into the backseat and grabbing his overnight bag.

Routing around for his GPS, his fingers instead curled around the cool, smooth, glass neck of a wine bottle. He pulled it out and just stared at it. 2007 Bolgheri Superiore. He’d brought two bottles along to share with Melanie in what passed for a honeymoon suite at the Golden Cherry on their wedding night.

“What the hell? If I’m going to spend the night in my car anyway, I might as well be drunk on $200 a bottle wine.”

 He reached back into the bag until he found the corkscrew and popped the wine open before he could change his mind.

He’d never gotten intoxicated in public before. Hell, he rarely had ever allowed himself to get drunk at all.

“A Hennings never loses control,” he pitched his voice a shade higher, mimicking his mother. “A Hennings never gives the journalists anything we haven’t carefully chosen for the world to see.”

He tipped the bottle back, guzzling straight from the mouth.

“Well, Mom,” he half laughed when he finally came up for air. “We sure as hell didn’t choose anything about today.”

The laugh turned a little bitter and his stomach burned. He decided to drown the bonfire in his gut with more wine.

*

Who knew how long later, one empty bottle lay on the passenger seat. Andrew sipped his way through the second bottle while trying to figure out how his life had gotten to the point where he had no close friends to commiserate with. At least none he trusted not to immediately share his pain with the tabloids. Even his best man had been his cousin Everette. Who, pathetically, had been strongly suggested to Andrew by his mother.

Night had fallen, the rain had given way and Andrew felt better than he had in a long time. He’d cranked the window open to listen to music spilling out from the bar and tapped his foot in time to a song he’d never heard before.

A song that made him wonder if he was missing out by not having any friends in low places. The ones in high places didn’t seem to ever do him any good.

The bar door opened and a group spilled out into the night. Andrew had to close one eye in order to count that there was three of them. If there were any rigidity left in his muscles, he’d have tensed a little with concern of encountering three red-necks on their home turf.

At the moment, however, he wasn’t sure he could flex anything. When the trio got closer, it became apparent the two on the outside were holding up the obviously inebriated one in the middle. The taller man steered them toward a car a couple of spaces over. Andrew squinted his one open eye and, after a couple of tries, used the steering wheel to pull himself closer to the windshield.

 Hey, he knew them. He started to lean out the window and wave, then a gust of fresh air brought enough of his senses back to remember he knew them because they were friends with Melanie.

The guy in the middle, needing as much help as Andrew would if he tried to walk, that was Frankie. Freddy? Melanie’s designer friend. And one of the people holding him up was that sort of bitchy chick who always reminded Andrew of one of his exes.

The other was Bobby Ray. Her cousin. Or, wait, was that part of the lie? God it was so hard to keep track of what was the truth in his relationship with Melanie.

Her name. Her family. Her husband. Her cousin. Who Andrew had thought was one of the hottest things he’d seen in a long time. All lanky grace, bright blue eyes, easy smile and melt in your mouth accent.

Not that he noticed, that first time on the steps of the Carmichael plantation. Of course not. Because he wasn’t the one in their relationship with deep dark secrets and cover stories to hide them. Sometimes even from himself.

So what if he’d noticed Jake was a handsome, well-built man, in that rough-around-the edges kind of way? Or that he’d preferred Bobby Ray’s charm, with his welcoming eyes and open smile? All it meant was he was secure enough to appreciate aesthetics.

Really.

He glanced back up to see Bobby Ray shift Felipé, or whoever, toward the passenger side while the woman, whose name he was sure he knew, slid into the driver’s side. Bobby Ray had to slide one arm around the smaller man, cradling him close as he reached with the other to grasp the handle.

Felix took the opportunity to wrap his own hands around Bobby Ray’s shoulders. When the taller man stooped slightly to pull the door open, the little weasel pushed up on his toes and slid his lips across Bobby Ray’s, shoving their bodies together.

Andrew’s stomach churned, the muscles at the back of his head tensed and his lips pulled down into a frown.

He glared down at the wine bottle. He was happily, numbly, drunk. The hangover stuff wasn’t supposed to hit until the morning after.

He didn’t think too much about the fact that the symptoms hadn’t started until he saw Fremont cop a feel. When he glanced up again, a pair of blue eyes looked back at him from a few feet away. And were moving closer.

He couldn’t pull his eyes away from the intensity. Some small still-functional part of his brain noted the tail-lights of the other car pulling away. Taking Ferdinand with it. And Bobby Ray was still here. Coming toward him.

Which Andrew should not be looking forward to quite so much. Especially with that reserved, confused look on the southerner’s face as he tried to peer through the darkness and into the car.

“Andrew? Is that you?”

He squatted down by the side of the car, arms folded on the open window. Bobby Ray was inches away. If Andrew still had control of his muscles, he’d lean back. Or forward.

Some direction. Anything was better than remaining frozen and pathetically mute.

“Andrew?” Some of the warmth seeped back into the lilt but wariness still danced around the edges.

Swallowing, Andrew finally found his voice. “Yeah, it’s me. Unfortunately.”

“Why are you here?”

Wasn’t that a loaded question? Andrew could tell him it was because he checked out of the hotel and there wasn’t another empty room in the county. Or because the woman he was sure he’d spend the rest of his life with turned out to be already married. Or because he had no idea who the fuck he was and had been content to let his mother steer him like a fucking ship.

However, he didn’t have enough synapses firing to get any of that out. Instead he shrugged and went with the ultimate truth. “Had nowhere else to go.”

Couldn’t go back to the bridal suite without a bride. Couldn’t go back to his life because he didn’t have one. Couldn’t go back to his mother because he finally realized her life wasn’t his.

“Are you drunk?”

With a smile, he held up the bottle. “Yup.”

“Why are you drinking alone, here of all places?”

Andrew wished Bobby Ray would stop asking him questions. It hurt to put all the words together in the right order. But he was afraid if he said that, Bobby Ray would stop talking to him altogether. And he really liked the sound of Bobby Ray’s voice.

Instead, he frowned, narrowed his eyes and focused on getting it all out.

“No hotel. Got lost. Needed a drink. Saw the signs.” He waved in the general direction of the neon blur.

“Was going to go in and get shots. Then saw…” White dress, laughing eyes, people in love. “Them. Decided to stay out here. Needed a drink even more.”

He squinted fuzzily at Bobby Ray, who gave him a beautiful, heart-stopping grin.

“Surprisingly, I understood most of that. So you’re not here to make a scene. To call out Jake. Or Melanie.”

Andrew shook his head vehemently. Then decided that was a mistake when the whole world wobbled.

“No,” he whispered over the sudden pulsing in his head. “No, I wish them well. Someone should be happy.” He frowned again and tried to focus on the bar.

“I should go in. Congratulate them. Tell them no hard feelings.” He looked around for somewhere to set the wine bottle but the cup holder didn’t look big enough.

“Oh, no. Not a good idea. Not tonight anyway. Why don’t you scoot over and I’ll drive you someplace you can sleep it off.”

Andrew shook his head again, but carefully this time. “Can’t. There’s no room at the inn. Or any of the hotels, for that matter. My wedding is an event you know. Damn reporters have every spare bed in the county.”

“Not quite,” Bobby Ray said then opened the door. “Scoot.”

He made a shooing motion with his hands and Andrew blearily complied, climbing unsteadily over the center console while maintaining a death grip on the wine bottle.

“You know some place with a room I can rent?”

“Not exactly.” Bobby Ray cranked the key and put the car in gear, slowly negotiating the ruts of the parking lot. “But I do have a spare bedroom. You’ll be safe there. From roving reporters and a drunk and disorderly charge.”

*

“Feeling better?”

Andrew’s head was still buzzing, but the worst of the tipsiness had worn off in the hour or so since Bobby Ray had led him into the small but surprisingly cozy house. The second cup of coffee warming in his hands didn’t hurt either.

“Thank you,” he said, glancing across the table over the rim of his mug to take in the knowing smirk of his host. “For this. For the coffee. And the ride. And the place to sleep tonight. Mostly, thank you for rescuing me from humiliating myself.”

An eyebrow arched and the smirk widened. “Oh, did I intervene too soon? We Southerners love a good show.”

“Yeah, well, going in and offering my congratulations seemed like a good idea at the time. Just, you know, prove to everyone there are no hard feelings.”

“Are there?” Bobby Ray asked sharply. “Hard feelings, I mean? Would it have stopped with congratulations or would there have been a messy scene?”

Andrew thought about the emptiness clawing at him, now, and how he had believed he had finally found a way, with Melanie, to at least assuage the hunger for something he couldn’t have. The numbness had worn off along with the worst of the intoxication. Now, a hard knot of familiar pain settled in.

“I loved her,” he murmured into the coffee, so caught up in re-burying the whirlwind of pain winding up inside him that he wasn’t thinking as he spoke.

“Of course you did,” Bobby Ray said into the silent pause that followed. “You were going to marry her.”

Andrew shook his head. “I loved her. But I wasn’t in love with her.”

He sipped at his coffee, mind drifting while he tried to lock away his emotions once again. A task he was way too familiar with, way too good at. He’d been hiding from his own heartbreak and disappointment in the human race since he was ten years old and walked in on his father with his mother’s twenty year old secretary.

“You weren’t in love with her?”

Bobby Ray’s sharp tone broke him free of his familiar downward spiral. Only then did he notice the way the other man’s cup had stopped half-way to his lips, the way his eyes were wide, unblinking and boring into Andrew.

“I… No. I loved her but wasn’t in love with her. She felt the same way about me.” He stared morosely into the bitter brown of his coffee mug. “It was perfect.”

“Perfect?” The Southerner’s voice had risen an octave or two in pitch. He carefully set his mug down and leaned his arms onto the table. “I’m just a slow country boy. Maybe you could explain how that was perfect.”

“We liked each other. She’s been my best friend. Probably the only person who liked me. In spite of my position and my mother’s power. The only person I could trust not to leave boot prints on my back as she climbed over me to get to the top.” He sighed again, realizing losing his best friend upset him more than losing his fiancée. “We never actually talked about it but it was kind of obvious between us. We’d both shut off that part of life and were content to leave it behind us. At least, she was until she came back here.”

“So you were happy that she wasn’t in love with you? And that you weren’t in love with her?”

“Being in love, it’s an obsession. My father gave up his career. His life. His family. Because he fell in love. I didn’t want to be sucked into that trap.”

The usual twinge of disgust he felt when he talked about love twisted a little into surprise as he realized those words weren’t his.

They were his mother’s. Repeated over and over at him from the time he was ten years old. He’d heard it so many times, he’d internalized her fears, her bitterness, and made them his own.

“Does your father regret it? Or is he happier now?”

Andrew blinked and stared at Bobby Ray. Speechless that the question had never occurred to him. He’d spent his entire life working for his career, to live up to his family name. The possibility of risking it had always been his darkest fear.

“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him since he abandoned us.” Andrew answered, each word drawn out as a hundred new thoughts and questions flitted through his mind. A cold chill shivered through him.

His father hadn’t really abandoned them, though. His mother had used every tool she had to push him out of their lives. And she had manipulated Andrew until he rebuffed his father’s every attempt at contact.

“So, what, because your father left, you don’t believe in love?”

“I just don’t think it’s in the cards for me.” He answered by rote but, for the first time, the words rang hollow in his own ears.

How long had his mother been manipulating his life? How long had she been filling his head with her beliefs until he believed they were his own? Did she even know she was doing it?

“Now what? You go out and find another fiancée you can live with but don’t really love?”

The question made everything turn to ice inside of Andrew. He’d chosen the easy path to protect his career. His family name. The easy path that meant not having to explain anything to his mother.

“I think I’m gay.”

The words slipped out of his mouth before the fact that he was thinking them even registered.

“Or bi. Or, I don’t know, drunk and confused…” The words spilled out faster now, while he back pedaled out of habit. But did he want to do that? How long was he going to continue to deny himself? How long was he going to suppress his wants, his needs, his identity beneath the politician his mother had been grooming for decades?

He looked up, then, at Bobby Ray. The other man was frozen, eyes wide and lips slightly parted as he stared back at Andrew. As stunned as Andrew at the abrupt confession. More than anything, he wanted to lean over the small table and kiss the astonished expression off of Bobby Ray’s lips.

And, oh, wouldn’t that just put a cap on the worst day of his life? Putting the moves on the one person who’d actually seemed to care about Andrew in the whole fucked up day. Not the headlines, or the exclusive, or the damage control. Just Andrew.

“I’m sorry.” He spoke into the stretching silence, wondering if he was going to have to sleep in his car after all. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”

Bobby Ray blinked, then laughed, that wide smile tugging at Andrew again.

“Not uncomfortable. Just calculating exactly how much I should shake down the tabloids for, for that juicy piece of gossip. Wonder if I could get me a new pickup?”

Andrew felt the rock of dread slam back into his stomach. What had he done? He may not want his mother driving his life any more, but he wasn’t ready to set fire to the whole damn thing yet, either.

“Whoa, whoa.” Bobby Ray held out his hands, already out of his chair and coming around the table. One hand landed on Andrew shoulder when the southerner knelt down to look him in the eye.

“I was kidding. Just kidding.” The hand squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “I was recently outed in the deep south. Trust me, I’m not going to push anyone else out of that nice cozy closet.”

Andrew blinked into those blue eyes, only centimeters from his. Let his gaze drop to the soft, full mouth just as close. He’d been trying not to think about those lips from that first moment on the porch of the Carmichael plantation.

Earlier, kissing Bobby Ray had been a bad idea for so many reasons. Now, though, knowing the man was gay, made it seem like the best idea ever.

Or maybe it was the wine still humming in his blood.

Andrew let himself sway forward, closing the last few breaths between them until his lips were pressed against the slightly open ones.

Bobby Ray gasped and he took advantage, sliding his tongue along the sensitive inside of his lower lip. Bobby Ray gasped again, then pressed forward. Andrew could taste over-sweetened coffee covering the fain bitter hint of beer. The hand on his shoulder tightened and the mouth on his slanted slightly until the angle, the kiss, the meeting of lips and heat and passion, was perfect.

Then, suddenly, it was over. The warmth was gone. Hand left his shoulder, lips left his lips and, when he blinked his eyes open, Bobby Ray had backed up several steps, shaking his head.

“This is so not going to happen.”

Andrew’s brain stumbled several steps behind as he tried to figure out what went wrong.

“Why not?”

“It’s just not. It’s not right.”

“But you kissed me back?”

He felt his eyebrows draw together, knew the words came out in a whine but he wanted to go back several seconds and feel the searing heat coursing through him again. Wanted to feel, to not think, for a little while.

Bobby Ray sighed. “Yeah. I kissed you back. But I shouldn’t have.”

He held out a hand and pulled Andrew to his feet.

“C’mon. Let’s get you to bed.”

Andrew brightened at the prospect, sliding his arm around Bobby Ray’s waist and let the Southerner steer him down the hallway.

“Alright. Bed is good.” He punctuated his agreement by letting his hand slide lower on Bobby Ray’s hip.

Bobby Ray only laughed and wiggled away. “Alone. You are going to bed alone.”

Andrew blinked several times trying to get his eyes to adjust to the dark guestroom. In the dim light he could make out the lines of a good-sized bed and small dresser but he let Bobby Ray steer him to the bed.

He stumbled a little on the carpet then smiled to himself and allowed his bare feet to drag. When the other man got him closer to the bed he shifted his weight, keeping his arm tangled firmly around Bobby Ray’s waist.

In a matter of seconds, he managed to trip them up and the two men ended up in a sprawled tangle of limbs on the welcoming bed.

“What the hell, Andrew?”

Andrew shifted closer, letting his body press close to the rangy, loose-limbed physique next to him. Eyes closed to block out the residual dizziness, he rested his head against Bobby Ray’s shoulder.

“Don’t want to sleep alone.” He murmured and snuggled even closer.

He smiled and felt a little relief when one of Bobby Ray’s hands came up and began to gently stroke a soothing rhythm against his back.

Encouraged he lifted his head and struggled to claim the taller man’s lips once again. He missed, slipping across the corner of the Bobby Ray’s mouth. He let himself drift across the stubbled cheek, slid up to the cool ear and began to lick his way down the warm neck.

Bobby Ray inhaled sharply, his arm tightening for a second and pulling Andrew closer, before sighing and shifting out of reach.

“I told you, this isn’t going to happen.”

A sliver of ache shafted through Andrew and he flopped away on his back. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to push. Should have realized. Frederick is obviously more your type.”

“Frederick? Ah, no. Despite Melanie’s best effort at matchmaking, Frederick was not my type.”

“But I’m not either.” He mumbled, trying to keep the sound of brimming ache out of his voice. Covered his eyes with the back of his arm.

Melanie didn’t want him. Bobby Ray didn’t want him. His mother wanted a clone. His father wanted escape. Andrew wondered how long before he disappeared completely.

Apparently, wine made him maudlin.

“Hey. Look, you are the best looking man to throw himself at me in a long time. Add smart, successful, and rich and you are the catch of a decade.”

Andrew moved his arm a little and looked up at Bobby Ray, who had shifted to lean over him.

His throat tightened a little and he wondered if it was the wine or the rejection at the altar that had turned him into a fourteen year old girl. One in desperate need of reassurance.

“But you’re drunk, Andrew. And you’re seriously rebounding. Not to mention, until a couple of hours ago, you wanted to pretend that you were straight. We’re not going there tonight.”

Bobby started to push up off the bed and Andrew reacted without thinking. His arm gripped the other man by the bicep.

“Please. Don’t go. I meant it when I said I didn’t want to be alone.” He sighed and loosened his grip. “If you leave me alone, I am just going to lie here all night and think about how fucked up my life has gotten.”

 Even in the dark, this close, he could see Bobby Ray searching for something on his face. Could feel when the handsome southerner found it and let the tension leave his limbs.

“Fine, I’ll stay.”

Before he finished speaking, Andrew felt a surprising surge of joy. He lifted his head, moving slower this time but Bobby Ray did not move away.

The kiss was softer. Less desperate. An unhurried exploration. A tasting. Pleasure swamped him and he opened up and let it flow through him, easing the emotional bruises he’d been absorbing all day.

Too soon, Bobby Ray was lifting off of him again. Andrew’s stomach tightened uncomfortably and his muscles followed suit in anticipation of yet another rejection.

But Bobby Ray only moved up a few inches, his hands resting on either side of Andrew’s shoulders as their legs remained tangled on the bed.

“Okay, okay. You win. But there are going to be rules.”

“Rules?”

“Yeah. Clothes stay on. Hands stay above the waist.”

Andrew nodded and reached for Bobby Ray eagerly. Covered his mouth with frantic need before the other man could change his mind again. His hands tried to be everywhere at once, his tongued delved and dueled, trying to learn every nuance of taste and texture. Slowly, though, the heated movements turned to languid kisses and lingering caresses as the long day and alcohol took their toll.

Andrew eventually found himself sleepily snuggled into Bobby Ray’s chest. He’d never slept with a man before. Even the few years of sexual experimentation he’d risked with guys in college had been fast, furtive and goal-oriented. He’d never spent an entire night wrapped in strong arms.

It felt surprisingly good.

“Not exactly how I expected to spend the first night of my honeymoon,” he murmured sleepily into the firm muscles of Bobby Ray’s chest. “I should take you to the Caribbean with me.”

The rumble of Bobby Ray’s chuckle tickled under his cheek. “Wouldn’t that give the press a field day? And your mother palpitations.”

“Just an added bonus.”

He smiled as he drifted off to sleep.

*

Faint light threatened on the other side of Andrew’s eyelids and he squeezed them a little tighter to keep even the hint of illumination from stabbing his sensitive eyes.

The deep, thrumming drumbeat reverberating from the back of his skull hurt enough. He wasn’t going to invite more pain by opening his eyes yet.

The warm body wrapped around him from behind was soothing and cozy and gave him a pleasant sensation to sink into. Distracting him from the musty taste coating his tongue and the roiling turbulence of his stomach.

The long lean lines of the person sharing his bed began to communicate to him. Angles where there should have been curves. Strong comforting muscle where there should have been soft flesh.

The arms holding him close were long and strong and definitely not female.

Andrew’s body, relaxed and comfortable in the embrace a moment before went tight and scared. His brain tried to swiftly sort past the catalogue of wine-soaked symptoms to comb for memories of the night before.

First flashes then a steady stream of pleasant, warm, sometimes hot, memories flooded across the landscape of his mind. From being driven away from the bar, to the coffee and honest talk to the heated kisses, it all came back accompanied with a glowing sense of well-being. Even the half-joking offer to share his honeymoon left him oddly wistful rather than embarrassed. The tension drained back out of him again.

He may even have snuggled backward into the warmth surrounding him.

“Wow. I think that was the fastest morning after freak-out ever.”

Andrew jumped a little when the deep voice sounded in his ear. He hadn’t realized Bobby Ray was awake yet.

He started to tense up again, but the low chuckle and soft nuzzling at his neck reassured him. The sense of safety and well-being expanded around him, and he let himself trust his instincts. And trust the man he barely knew.

“It wasn’t a freak out, exactly. Just had to clear the hangover enough to remember I was with someone I could trust.”

“You sure you can trust me?”

For a minute, panic spiked through him, but it faded as quickly as it sliced into him.

“Yes. You could have left me to make an idiot of myself last night. You could have dropped me at a hotel full of reporters. You could have taken what I was offering last night rather than being noble.”

Andrew took a deep breath and let his lips curve a little before continuing. “Instead, you rescued me, poured coffee into me and stayed with me.”

Behind him, Bobby Ray cleared his throat with an embarrassed sound. His accent got thicker as he drawled, “Aw, shucks, ‘t’weren’t nothin’. Just a good ol’ boy protecting his friends. And his friend’s ex.” He paused then slid back into his normal patter. “I suppose it does make me kind of a hero, after all. Is there any kind of reward for that?”

“I did offer to take you on my honeymoon.” The words slipped out of his mouth before he thought about what he was saying.

Part of him was horrified. What if Bobby Ray thought he was serious? What if he wanted to come? Another part waited expectantly for an answer, hoping that Bobby Ray would say yes.

To his relief, and regret, Bobby Ray only laughed. “Tempting. Very tempting. I’ve always wanted to see a Caribbean sunset. But I don’t think I’m quite ready to go on an overnight vacation with you. You haven’t even bought me dinner yet.”

He kicked off the thin sheet and eased out of bed, leaving Andrew feeling unexpectedly bereft and lonely. “Besides. I’m afraid of your mama.”

With a cheeky grin, he headed out into the hall.

Chapter Text

Two hours, a long hot shower and a hearty Southern breakfast later, Andrew felt human. The shards of glass swimming through his brain had shrunk down to pebble size and he no longer felt in danger of vomiting every time he moved his head.

He stood just outside Bobby Ray’s front door, grateful there were no neighbors and no reporters to note where he had spent the drunken night before.

“You sure you’re going to be all right?” Bobby Ray asked, a little doubt creeping in.

How strange was it to have someone trying to look after him? When he’d finally checked his phone that morning, there had been dozens of messages. Half had been his mother demanding to know where he was, what he was going to do, how he intended to fix this so the family’s name wasn’t humiliated for generations. The last message had snippily informed him her plane would be leaving for New York precisely at 8 am, with or without him.

It had been 9 before he even heard the message.

Not that he wanted to be trapped in the cabin of a plane with an angry and disappointed Mayor Kate Hennings.

His friends had all left messages feigning varying degrees of concern as they not so subtly dug for tidbits of gossip to share.

No one had had that honest, fretful tone. No one but Bobby Ray, who stood silent and waiting for Andrew’s answer.

He couldn’t help the smile that ghosted across his face. “Yes. Surprisingly, I think I’m going to be fine. At least if I can avoid my mother for a few more days.”

Bobby Ray snorted. “Yeah. That sounds like the best plan. You know where you’re going?”

“Nope. For the first time in my life, I have no idea where I’m going.” Though he knew Bobby Ray meant geographically, in a much wider sense, Andrew no longer knew where his life was heading. It was a terrifying and freeing sensation.

“Well, you got my number in case you get lost, or, you know, start hearing banjo music.”

“Yes, mom, I’ve got you’re number already programmed into my phone. I’ll be fine. I will, however, stay away from rivers.”

Bobby Ray frowned, his eyes scrunching up as he glared back at Andrew. “Don’t call me mom. After spending the night making out in my guest room, that’s just weird.”

Feeling lighter than he had any right to expect to the day after he’d been dumped ten feet from the altar, Andrew chuckled. Then he stepped forward and hugged Bobby Ray as tight as he could manage, gratified when the other man didn’t seem to want to let go, either.

“Thank you. For everything. I’m pretty sure my outlook would be a lot bleaker this morning if you hadn’t rescued me from that bottle of wine and a night sleeping in a roadhouse parking lot.”

“You’d have been fine. Melanie wouldn’t have almost married a wimp.”

With nothing left to say, they hugged one last, quick squeeze and Andrew found himself behind the wheel watching the small house disappear from his rearview mirror.

This time he made sure he had the GPS set up on his dashboard and ready to go, though he had no destination programmed into it yet.

He drove aimlessly, taking the back country lanes until he found something that vaguely resembled a main road. On the seat next to him, his phone chirped and he resolutely ignored it. A few minutes later, it made the insistent noise again and Andrew realized it wasn’t the sound of an incoming text but an alarm.

An alarm he had set days ago, while he’d been going through his pre-wedding checklist. An alarm to make sure he and Melanie were up and ready to go on time. It was a reminder that they needed to be on the road within the hour to make it to the airport in time to get the plane for their honeymoon.

Not the trip to Ireland, which was still planned for Christmas. Andrew made a deflated sound under his breath and added yet another mental note to cancel all those reservations.

They’d decided on a quick, week-long trip to an all-inclusive resort on a Caribbean island. Now though, every time he thought of his honeymoon, he thought of Bobby Ray and his intimate chuckle. The hot breath tickling the back of his neck and the strong arms enveloping him in warm safety.

On impulse Andrew checked the GPS and discovered he’d, by some stroke of luck, already been heading in the direction of the airport.

As he followed the dispassionate directions of the GPS, Andrew knew, without a doubt, this was the best decision for him.

Going back to New York was impossible. There was no way he could avoid his mother, the paparazzi, and the curiosity of his friends while he tried to put his life back together.

What he really wanted to do was stay with Bobby Ray. But the man had already gone out of his way to help. He didn’t need an unexpected houseguest inviting himself for an undetermined length of time.

Instead, a beachside balcony on a sundrenched island sounded like the perfect place to lick his wounds and figure out what path the rest of his life should take.

*

Andrew sat on the second floor balcony and stared out at the soothing turquoise waves. The sun was beginning to lower in the sky and the perfect margarita was chasing away the last of his hangover. He’d never understood the ‘hair of the dog’ theory, until now.

The day had gone so smoothly, he might almost believe it was meant to be.

He’d made it to the airport in plenty of time for his flight. Surprisingly, there’d been no reporters. Of course, they’d kept their plans secret. And, if someone had somehow found out, a honeymoon for one would be the last choice anyone would have expected Andrew to make.

There had been that one, awkward moment at the resort reception desk when he’d had to explain that: no, Mrs. Hennings would not be joining him. In fact, there was no Mrs. Hennings, after all.

The well-trained desk clerk barely blinked before gracefully changing the subject.

The view was soothing. And he didn’t miss Melanie nearly as much as he would have expected. Sinking further into the ridiculously comfortable deck chair, Andrew sighed and sipped at the icy-salty tang in his glass. He settled into paradise and tried hard not to think about why he was out there, drinking alone.

Not missing Melanie, though, didn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about her. He found himself wanting to call her and tell her all about Bobby Ray.

It was weird to want to tell your ex-fiancée about your not-quite-one-night-stand with one of her closest male friends.

Except, in the past few years, she’d become more than his girlfriend. She’d been his best friend. The only person in his life he could share everything with and know she wasn’t working angles on how to make it benefit her.

He’d even told her about his confusion in college. The occasional attraction to other men and the brief, secretive sexual encounters he’d experimented with.

Of course, he’d assured her it had only been a phase. That he’d realized he was completely straight. It really hadn’t been a lie. He’d firmly believed it at the time. Mostly.

It sure as hell wasn’t anything like completely forgetting to mention the husband she’d left back in Dogpatch.

Another little flare of anger tried to burn through the emotional barricade he’d been clinging to.

This time he let it.

He let himself feel everything. The knife-edged pain of betrayal, the bewildering, aching loss, the flames of humiliation and the piercing deflation of hurt pride.

Worst of all, the throbbing, echoing, hollow loneliness.

Andrew was completely alone again. He’d been used to it, before. Making do with feigned friendships and a family life that was all about media image.

Now, though, he’d forgotten how to live that way. The void Melanie left in his life felt insurmountable.

The impressions of warm blue eyes and a heated chuckle flashed like phantoms across his consciousness. He couldn’t hold back the wide smile that emerged in its wake. Last night, Bobby Ray had filled that place. And more.

He’d been as easy to talk to as Mel. It had probably been a dangerous assumption, but Andrew trusted him. From the first moment the man had slipped behind the wheel of the rental, Andrew had let himself relax. Had let Bobby Ray lead the way.

Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was the hit after hit he’d taken that day. But he was comfortable with Bobby Ray.

The same kind of comfort level he felt with Melanie. Except when they’d kissed. That had been nothing like Melanie. Kissing her had been serene and easy. Nice.

Things had not been anything as simple as nice with Bobby Ray. Hot. Explosive. Addictive.

Now Andrew was left to face the fact that he wasn’t nearly as straight as he’d always made himself believe.

On some level, Andrew wasn’t all that surprised. It had been lurking at the edge of every relationship he’d ever had. He just didn’t know what to do with it now.

He knew what his mother would say. “You’ve lived this long without doing anything about it. Shove it back wherever it was hiding. And for God’s sake don’t tell anyone. It’ll cost you points with the conservative voters.”

Melanie would tell him to follow his heart. To be true to who he was. He snorted at the thought. Advice she hadn’t taken herself until recently.

But what about Andrew? What did he want?

He closed his eyes, letting the balmy evening air and the whoosh of the waves glide over his senses.

Right now, Andrew simply wanted to enjoy the peace, the weather and the margarita. Maybe a complete life overhaul could wait until tomorrow.

That settled, he opened his eyes and caught his breath. The sun had sunk low, hovering on the edge of the sea. It spilled a kaleidoscope of pinks and golds across the sky and the darkening turquoise water.

He fumbled for the table and his phone, snapping a perfect shot of the Caribbean beauty. Then he stared at the picture for a second, his fingers hesitating before pressing the screen and sending it on to Bobby Ray.

He didn’t bother to add a caption or a note. He figured the photo said “wish you were here” well enough, on its own.

*

Andrew missed sunrise, but he had midmorning brunch spread out before him on the balcony table. A mimosa sat to the right of his full plate. His cell phone lay on the left.

 Part of him hoped to hear it beep. The rest of him wanted to turn the damn thing off. Most likely, any sound it made would be signaling someone he did not want to deal with. On the other hand, maybe Bobby Ray would find a minute to simply say ‘hi.’

Fifteen minutes after he had impulsively sent the virtual postcard to Bobby Ray, the southerner had replied with a text.

Sure, it’s beautiful. But are there any catfish?

For the rest of the night, they’d texted back in forth in 140 character bits of conversation until Andrew’s hand had cramped and he could no longer keep his eyes open. As the night had progressed, he’d allowed himself to relax in the island’s tranquility and Bobby Ray’s easy, insightful sense of humor.

Now, a little over nine hours since he’d been forced to end the conversation in favor of the too large, too lonely bed, he couldn’t help glancing at the phone between each bite. Despite the fact that he knew Bobby Ray was at work. Despite neither of them having said they’d ever talk again.

When, exactly, had he turned into a needy adolescent? Oh, right, shortly after getting left at the altar.

He shifted his focus once again back to the eggs and perfectly cooked bacon, trying hard to ignore the hunk of plastic and circuits.

Of course, that’s when it began to vibrate, surprising him and making him jumped in his chair. He reached for it before his brain registered it was an incoming call and not a text. The image flashing up on its screen was his mother’s last campaign photo.

He yanked his hand back, cradling it against his chest like he’d been physically stung. His eyes narrowed and he frowned hard at the menacing vibration making his silverware jump and his plates rattle.

He was so not ready for this.

Kate Hennings was going to demand answers. Where was he? Did he really think a message left on her office voicemail was the way to inform her he was okay? When was he coming home? What did he intend to do about the embarrassing publicity? His career? His future?

He had no answers for her. Because he had no answers for himself.

Andrew’s head ached just thinking about it. He didn’t think the imaginary conversation going on in his head would go over that well.

 “Hi, Mom. I’m fine. I’m on my honeymoon, alone, because, hey, why not? My world is in complete chaos. I’ve been publically humiliated. My heart hurts. Oh, yeah, and I may not be as straight as I always thought. I might need a little while to figure out what to do with it. I also realized I’ve let you pretty much direct my entire life. I don’t want to be a lawyer. I hate politics.”

Andrew blinked when his phone went silent. The impact of his stream of conscious ramble leaving him immobile for several seconds.

Oh, God. It was true. His entire life, everything he’d worked so hard to achieve, had been because it was what his mother wanted for him. For her.

At first, it had been because his father had left and his mother had seemed so hurt and upset. He’d done everything he could to please her, just to see her smile.

Then, it had just been habit during his teenage years. As an adult, it was easier to give in than arguing with her.

A beep told him she’d left a voicemail. One he knew he wasn’t going to listen to anytime soon. He had a week at the resort. A week before he had to be back in New York. A week to figure out who Andrew Hennings really was.

And how he would tell his mother that he wasn’t who she wanted him to be.

*

Andrew sat in his mother’s empty office. The relaxed, sloppy manner he sprawled across her chair would probably get him a pinched lipped look when his mother showed up. Followed by a lecture on presenting proper decorum at all times.

He fiddled with the phone in his hand. An ever present habit the last three weeks. With a grin, he typed up a quick text.

Am awaiting the bear in her own den. Wish me luck.

A quick press of buttons and the off-hand thought was winging its way to Bobby Ray. Another, near constant, habit he’d acquired.

The man had been his life-line to the real world during the week he’d spent wrapped in the rum-softened fantasy world of the Caribbean island. And a life-line to his own sanity in the two weeks he’d been back in New York.

By this time of the evening, Bobby Ray was home from work so Andrew expected a quick response. Right on cue, Andrew’s phone beeped.

According to Worst Case Scenario: You should lie still and be quiet. Mother bear attacks end when a person stops fighting.

He was still chuckling at the response when the sound of the opening door made him sit up straight out of habit. As soon as he recognized the round face and curly hair of his mother’s assistant, he flopped back into his slouch.

“Hey, Barry,” Andrew half raised his hand in greeting.

“Andrew.” As usual, Barry Lowenstein’s voice was clipped and abrupt. He’d take it personally, except Barry treated everyone, except his boss, that way. “I didn’t notice you on your mother’s appointment calendar this evening.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. Only Kate Hennings felt the need to make appointments with her loved ones.

“That’s because I’m not. I just dropped in to say hi.”

Barry crossed the room, giving a significant look at the chair Andrew currently occupied. Apparently, Kate Hennings’s chair was sacrosanct as far as Barry was concerned. And Andrew was desecrating it.

“Your mother is at a meeting with Councilman Dial this evening.” The stilted phrasing and direct eye contact, followed by a glance toward the door said, with polite silence, that Barry would prefer him to leave.

“Yes. I know.” Andrew couldn’t help exaggerating his slouch, tossing an arm up over the back of the chair and leaning against the arm. He considered tossing his feet up on the desk, but decided not to press his luck that far.

“I also know she always comes back here for a belt of bourbon after talking to Jim for longer than twenty minutes.”

Barry furrowed his brow but Andrew only smiled benignly, picked up his phone and waved carelessly. “Don’t worry about me, go ahead and do what you have to do.”

The assistant huffed, picked up several files from the corner of the desk and walked out with a stiff legged gate.

Andrew curled his lip at the retreating man. It’s not like hanging out in his mother’s office was how he wanted to spend his evening, either.

In the two weeks he’d been back, he had not had a single opportunity to speak to his mother without an audience. Mayor Hennings had been determined to show the city that her son was fine. Better than fine.

She’d dragged him to every social event, charity gala and public venue she could find. Every time he’d shown up to talk to her, she’d insist he accompany her to dinner at some trendy place surrounded by photographers.

Last night, she’d suggested that three weeks was plenty of time to mourn. People would expect him to be jumping back into the dating pool soon.

She’d followed up that bit of sage advice with, “Of course, your taste in women of late has been lacking. I’ve made up a list of women you should consider.”

She’d pressed the paper into his hand and disappeared back into the car while he’d stood, stunned and speechless at her parting shot.

That was the moment he realized he couldn’t put off telling her another day.

Despite the lack of an auditory component in texting, Bobby Ray’s amusement at his predicament had come through loud and clear. Andrew occasionally wondered why they stuck to texting only, rather than phone calls or even emails.

The truth was, this was probably better. For his part, he’d been too drawn to Bobby Ray. And far too comfortable. Not to mention the heated attraction that flared between them.

Andrew was still coming to terms with who he really was. Even if Bobby Ray was interested in the same way, he had no idea how they’d make it work. They came from two completely different worlds. Worlds that were thousands of miles apart, in geography and philosophy.

Texting gave them a distance, a barrier, that kept them, kept Andrew, from falling deeper than he could afford to at the moment.

Another beep drew his attention and he opened the incoming photo of a napkin with a hastily doodled cartoon. A bear poked at an occupied sleeping bag with a long stick. The bear wore a familiar power suit and pearls.

He was still chuckling when the door opened again. Andrew looked up, expecting to meet Barry Lowenstein’s disapproving frown.

Instead his mother stood in the doorway, hands on hips, one perfectly groomed eyebrow arched in an expression Andrew had always known meant ‘this better be good.’

“Hello, Mother.”

“Andrew. This is a surprise. I didn’t expect to see you until the children’s cancer dinner thing Thursday night. Or did you come to tell me you couldn’t escort me because you have a date of your own?”

The ‘finally’ was left unsaid, yet resonated throughout the room.

“Ah, actually no.”

He stood up, wanting to be on his feet for this particular conversation. Especially when her eyes narrowed and that legendary laser focus settled on him.

“Can’t a son stop by just to say hi to his mother?”

“Andrew. I am a politician. A bullshit detector is pretty much a pre-requisite for the job.”

“I-There are some things I’ve wanted to discuss with you. We never have the opportunity to talk without at least a half-dozen people around.”

He took a deep breath and tried to remember his carefully thought out speech. What was it about her that always made him feel like an awkward little kid again?

“I had a lot of time to think while I was at the resort. I’ve been looking at my life, and I’ve figured out some changes…”

His mother held up her hands and shook her head. “No. No, no, no. If it’s going to be one of those contemplating-your-navel kind of conversations, I need a drink first.”

She stalked across the office, opening the bottom desk drawer to pull out a half-full bottle and a couple of glasses.

She poured a generous shot in each then shoved one towards him and took a healthy swallow from her own.

“So what is it? You think you should be doing something more to give back? Maybe you’ve decided you want to be a priest? Or a hippy. Whatever it is, trust me, this will pass. The best way to give back is to be part of the system.”

Andrew decided he needed a fortifying drink before choosing how to tackle the most difficult discussion of his live and took a deep swallow from his own glass.

“It’s not just one thing. I had quite a few epiphanies. Probably the most important though, is that I’m attracted to other men.”

For the first time in his life, Andrew surprised his mother. Her eyes widened until they nearly took over her face and her mouth hung slack, not a single word escaping.

Then she slammed what was left in her glass, poured another two fingers and downed that as well.

“Really, Andrew, you’re not usually this melodramatic. Simply because you got involved with one rotten apple doesn’t mean the rest of the bushel is spoiled. There is no need to give up on women completely because one was an inconsiderate bitch.”

He thought about a retort that involved the words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ considering she hadn’t been involved with anyone, except for political reason, since her divorce. A defense of Melanie, still reflexive, also fluttered along his tongue.

Tonight, though, he wasn’t willing to be sidetracked.

“Honestly, I’ve always been attracted to men, at least as much as women. But my career, your career, my plans for the future. None of that allowed me to acknowledge my… preferences.”

“Well, if your still attracted to women, nothing has to change. You’ll have to be discreet with your liaisons, of course, and have a public social life with women.”

It was Andrew’s turn to gulp down his drink as his mother continued to rattle on.

“It won’t be like you are the first politician who finds themselves in this position. I know a governor and a couple of senators who can give you some tips…”

He should have realized his mother would completely miss the point.

“Mother. Mother. Mom!” he resorted to shouting to break into her rambling plan making.

“It doesn’t matter because one of the other things I realized is that I hate politics.”

She recovered more quickly from her surprise this time, off and running with only a sharp breath slowing her down.

“It’s what you’ve been working toward your whole life. We already have your first campaign next year all mapped out.”

“I know,” he answered, feeling the grimace of distaste stretch across his face. Yet another part of his life that his mother had coordinated with little to no input from him. “But I’m not running.”

“So what? You’re just going to be a lawyer?”

“Actually…”

His mother’s eyes narrowed until he could no longer see any whites at all.

“You don’t want to be a lawyer either? You’ve wanted to be a lawyer since you were eleven years old.”

Which wasn’t precisely true. At eleven he was still trying to be a good son, doing everything in his power to make up for his father’s abandonment. She’d pushed him into the Junior Debaters club, insisting he’d need the practice for a career in law.

At the time, he’d wanted to be a fighter pilot. Since his prep school didn’t offer any clubs that could help in that field, he’d been happy to make his mother happy. If he’d known then how that single choice would shape the next twenty-odd years of his life, he might have fought harder to get out of it.

“No. I really didn’t.”

“Then what do you want to do?”

Andrew shrugged helplessly. “I honestly don’t know. I only know it’s not politics. And it’s not the law.”

His mother was silent so long, he wondered briefly if he’d broken her. Then she smiled and Andrew considered running when she stepped forward and took his hand.

“I see.”

“You do?”

“Obviously, that Shooter girl hurt you more than I realized.”

“Smooter,” he corrected automatically, still confused by the abrupt change and almost, well, maternal, manner. “But that’s not—”

She patted his hand. “I shouldn’t have been pressing you so hard. I thought getting you back in the swing of things would help. Why don’t you take a break for the next few weeks? I’ll handle all of the social obligations. You just take the time to work everything out.”

“Mom, that’s not going to change…”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Humor me.”

Before he knew it, he was in a car, headed back to his apartment and free of any obligations other than work for the next month or so.

He had no doubt his mother was up to something. At the very least, she expected him to get bored and come crawling back for something to do. Knowing her, her plan had more levels to it than that. Still, she couldn’t manipulate him anymore.

This was his time. He would forge a new life for himself. As soon as he figured out what direction to begin forging in.

His phone beeped, pulling him back into the here and now.

Are you alright? Is it over? How did she take it?

It had been well over an hour since Bobby Ray’s last text and he must have known the lack of response meant Andrew was going through the emotional ringer that was his mother.

I’m fine. For now. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

As soon as he sent the message, he began typing again. The rest of the night would no doubt consist of him sending highlights of the conversation just to get Bobby Ray’s amusing perspective on them.

Chapter Text

Six weeks of respite from his mother’s whirlwind expectations had Andrew feeling uncharacteristically loose and relaxed. He knew the time clock on his temporary parole from Kate Hennings’s expectations was quickly counting down.

But Andrew was every inch his mother’s son and could be just as stubborn and tenacious when he chose to be. He’d used the time to cement his intention to stay far away from politics.

For now, he was still with Dorovsic, Dorovsic, Hennings, and Henderson but he’d already set that and other changes in motion. He'd just come from NYU, where he’d signed up for creative writing classes. He had majored in English Literature in undergrad. Somehow, he’d forgotten how much he’d loved the flex and play of the written word in the pressure of law school and his subsequent career.

Oddly, his ongoing text conversations had brought that love back full force. The challenge of getting as much meaning in a few words was an exhilarating re-awakening of his old passion.

It would take awhile to get out of his partnership in the law firm, but he looked forward to the day he was free of it. It wasn’t like he’d end up some starving author in a lonely garret somewhere. His bank account and various trust funds were enough to keep him more than comfortable for the rest of his life even if he never worked again.

Not that he’d be able to do that. Sitting idle had never been an aspiration. Honestly, he figured he’d be bored inside a week out of the law firm if he didn’t find something else to do. Writing, though, that might be enough of a challenge to keep him focused for awhile. If it wasn’t enough, well, he had the resources to find something else.

Andrew walked from the Registration office to his favorite local café, tapping away at his phone.

It’s done. I’m a college student again. WTF did I do?:)

He settled into a comfortable chair with his coffee and waited for a reply. Sitting in his usual spot in the café it was odd how normal his life felt. And how completely alien. He’d started looking toward a new career. A whole new set of goals and priorities. A new way of looking at himself.

As far as his suddenly flexible sexuality, Andrew had kind of settled into his own version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. For the time being, at least, he wasn’t going to shout it from the rooftops. He wasn’t going to deny it, either, to himself or anyone else.

Especially since, while he had notice the attractiveness of other men more consciously, he hadn’t met a guy he’d wanted to come out of his recent self-imposed seclusion for.

Of course, he hadn’t met any women who pulled at him that way, either.

Hearing the beep of Bobby Ray’s latest text made him happier than flirting with any other members of either sex would have.

Sound from his phone pulled him back to the here and now. It took him a second to warily register it wasn’t the singular beep of a text but the repetitive tone of an incoming call. The number, however, was definitely Bobby Ray’s.

“Hello?” he answered, trying to keep the surprise from raising his voice a couple of embarrassing octaves.

“Andrew. How ya doin’?”

Hearing his name in that warm drawl sent hot shivers down Andrew’s spine and made him wish he was home alone, rather than sitting in a public café.

“Andrew?”

“Yeah. Hi. Sorry. Just surprised to actually hear you.”

“Well, you know me. Like to keep people on their toes. Now you’re officially a student again, huh? How’s it feel?”

“Strange,” he admitted. “Really strange. But good. I didn’t even realize how much I wanted to be doing this until I let myself admit how much I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing.”

“Have you told your mother yet?”

Andrew groaned at the memory.

“That bad, huh?”

“No. I mean she has been so freaky. She just patted my hand and told me she was glad I was finding something to get me out of my apartment again. I’d almost rather she was nagging me to come to some political dinner or find a date. I’d know how to deal with that, how to protect myself from her machinations.”

“Mama’s can be sneaky.”

“No kidding. I have no doubt she’s going to blindside me one of these days. I won’t even see it coming.”

“Maybe she’s realized she can’t control you life anymore. Maybe she’s finally let go.”

For several breaths, they were both silent while they contemplated the possibility.

Andrew broke the silence with a snort of disbelief followed by Bobby Ray’s laughter. The smooth chuckle in his ear immediately reminded him of waking up in the man’s arms, with his breath on Andrew’s neck and their bodies pressed close together.

Andrew closed his eyes and enjoyed the sound, let it roll through him while trying not to squirm in his seat.

“Sorry. I shouldn’t laugh. I only met your mama the once, but she’s as tenacious as Clinton with the last piece of pecan pie.”

“Tell me about it,” he muttered, thinking that if she hadn’t been so inflexible, his life may be very different now. Then again, if it was, he might not be enjoying the simple sound of Bobby Ray’s voice in his ear at the moment.

Which reminded him, why exactly was he hearing that voice? They’d stuck to texts so far.

As if reading his mind, Bobby Ray cleared his throat and his voice sounded tight and uncertain when he spoke.

“So there’s a reason I called.”

“Oh?”

Andrew tried to keep the tenor of his voice nonchalant, but his whole body tensed, and he found himself leaning forward, free hand braced on his knee.

Andrew didn’t want Bobby Ray to tell him he was dating someone. Or that he was tired of this ridiculous, juvenile thing they were doing with texts. Or that Jake and Melanie were uncomfortable with their friendship.

He didn’t want Bobby Ray to say that their… relationship, whatever its definition might be, was over.

Then Andrew’s brain caught up with what Bobby Ray was actually saying, instead of the imaginary, terrifying conversation going on in his head.

“…Jake is coming up to New York to see Melanie in a couple of week and I’m tagging along…”

Andrew pulled the phone away from his mouth and let the breath he’d been holding escape in a rush of relief. Before confusion set in.

“Wait. What? Melanie’s here, without Jake?”

Bobby Ray’s words cut off abruptly, and Andrew realized there were all kinds of wrong conclusions the southerner could jumped to about his curiosity. All wrong, of course. He’d put Melanie in his past and had no interest in going there again.

“I’m not… I don’t want… I’m just confused. I thought they were staying married. Staying together.”

“Ah.” When Bobby Ray finally responded with that single word, Andrew was happy to hear what sounded like relief. “They are still together, but her work is up there and his is down here. For now. Besides visiting with her, he is looking at opening a store up there somewhere.”

“Oh.” It was all a little too much to process. He’d figure out how he felt about his ex-fiancée and her husband living in his backyard, later. Much later. “Um, how long will you be here?”

“Only a few days, this time.”

“This time?”

“Uh, yeah.” Bobby Ray cleared his throat. “I’m, uh, sort of investing in Jake’s business. I’m going to take over running down here while he focuses on getting things up and running up there. He and I will probably be back and forth, coordinating pretty often for awhile.”

Pleasure, hope and fear twisted a weird three-way tango in his stomach. The idea of seeing Bobby Ray again, and possibly seeing him often, was exhilarating. And terrifying. It was something he’d secretly wanted for weeks. But it was something he wasn’t sure he was ready for, either.

“That’s great.” He had no idea what he wanted to say and the words kept tangling in his mouth as thought after thought continued to slam into each other.

“We should… I’d like to… I mean, would you like to get together while you’re here? Maybe dinner? Or are you going to be too busy?”

Bobby Ray stayed silent so long, Andrew began to feel his heart sink. He tensed again, and his muscles quivered from the emotional roller coaster he couldn’t seem to get off of today.

When the southern drawl finally came through his phone, Andrew nearly jumped out of his chair in surprise and relief.

“By dinner, do you mean, two friends sharing a meal? Or do you mean something akin to a date?” Before he could even open his mouth to answer Bobby Ray was speaking again. “Because either is good with me. We haven’t really… I’m talking about… It hasn’t really come up. But I’d just like to know… I just think we should be on the same page…”

Andrew smiled and his limbs loosen, allowing him to finally relax back into his chair. This time it was Bobby Ray whose words were spilling all over. Andrew wasn’t the only one confused by this strange limbo they’d placed themselves in.

“A date,” he heard himself say. “I definitely think it should be a date.”

“Good. That’s good. I’d like that.”

They talked for several more minutes, filling in details and plans before finally, reluctantly, hanging up.

Buoyed by endorphins, Andrew walked home with a spring in his step and a smile so wide spread across his face, his cheeks ached from the stretch.

Only after he closed the door and settled himself into his apartment did the first tendril of panic start to wrap themselves around his lungs.

A date. He had a date. With a man.

Was he ready for this?

Sure he’d been detonating his old life, piece by piece without a backward glance. Eschewing politics. Starting the process of getting out of the law firm. Looking towards new job possibilities.

That was his career, though. It didn’t change who he was, fundamentally.

And there was the question he couldn’t quite answer yet. Did dating Bobby Ray change him? Or did it finally allow him to be who he really was?

*

When the town car pulled up in front of Bobby Ray’s hotel, Andrew’s stomach didn’t have butterflies. It had birds. Big, giant, New York City pigeons fluttering around and banging against his insides.

First dates were always a little nerve wracking. But his first date, ever, with a man? Not just any man, but Bobby Ray. Who had filled the gaping void in his life Melanie had left.

Hell, if Andrew was honest with himself, Bobby Ray filled that space better than Melanie ever had.

Smart, funny, honest, good looking. That was only the beginning. The man could make Andrew’s heart race and his skin heat with as simple, well-worded text. The sound of that southern drawl over the phone made him so hard sometimes, it was embarrassing.

Seeing him, being able to smell him, to touch him….

Andrew’s breath sped up, his heart flooded his skin with heat and his veins with a pounding pulse.

Andrew had never been this on edge before a date with a woman. Probably because none of them had ever meant as much to him as Bobby Ray.

The pigeons began to riot again. His hands shook and his breath came out in short pants.

Of course, his mini-panic attack struck at the moment the driver opened the door. Before he could gather himself, Bobby Ray was there, poking his head in the door and sliding onto the seat next to Andrew.

After the initial greeting, they both seemed to be at a loss for words. Bobby Ray looked out the window at the passing lights of the city as Andrew racked his brain for something to say, but only inane pleasantries ricocheted around in his head.

The awkward silence grew, filling the space between them with a ratcheting tension.

“Nice car.” The sudden sound of Bobby Ray’s low murmur in the hush left Andrew blinking and unable to come up with a coherent reply.

Then Bobby Ray smiled, that big, infectious grin spilling across his face and a matching sparkle in his eye.

“Makes me feel kinda' like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.”

The snort of laughter tumbled out of Andrew’s mouth and, just like that, the pigeons flew away. The tension filling the car disappeared and both men relaxed.

“If you’re wearing thigh high boots under those khakis, I don’t want to know about it.”

Bobby Ray winked, then lowered his voice into a smoldering rumble. “Well, at least not until after dinner.”

With the ice broken, the rest of the ride was filled with the easy banter and comfortable camaraderie they’d built over the past few months.

Andrew had carefully chosen a casual restaurant, one with a cozy atmosphere. While Bobby Ray had looked nice dressed up the night of Andrew’s almost wedding, he knew the southerner well enough by now to know he preferred his current khakis and blue button down over a tie and a jacket.

Andrew had agonized over his own wardrobe choice, until he’d finally settled on a black turtleneck and black tailored pants. The approving once over Bobby Ray gave him when they got out of the car made his heart race and consider the hour of indecision well worth it.

Andrew arranged for an intimate, secluded table in an alcove of the restaurant. Laughter, wine and good food flowed between them. He couldn’t remember when he’d ever felt so carefree and at ease.

While they finished the main course and discussed the merits of dessert, Andrew allowed his hand to creep toward where Bobby Ray’s rested near his glass.

As their fingertips brushed, his name, called across the restaurant had him jerking back in surprise. Andrew’s heart hammered in his ears and he felt his face flush as if he’d been caught doing something much more lurid than not-quite-holding-hands. He searched the dimly lit restaurant until he caught sight of a man waving from a table of four obviously getting ready to leave.

Eric Fitzgerald.

They’d been rivals all through prep school. Competing at grades, sports and girls. They’d met again in law school and the competition had only ratcheted up. Andrew had almost always come out on top, which had left Eric only snark and sarcasm to try and downplay any of Andrew’s accomplishments.

Old, conditioned responses wrapped themselves around Andrew like a shield and he stood to meet the man. Eric’s handshake and one armed hug felt like a well-rehearsed move.

“Andrew Hennings, long time, no see. How the hell are you?” Eric paused, his face falling into a practiced look of thoughtfulness but Andrew could see the glee glinting in his eyes when he said, “I heard about the wedding. I’m so sorry.”

Andrew allowed his shoulders to stiffen, but muscle memory kept him from giving Fitzgerald the pleasure of any other show of weakness.

Instead, he shrugged and smiled his best political dinner smile. “You know how it goes. All the girls I dumped in school, I suppose it’s karma.”

It was a subtle dig, a reminder that, most of those girls he’d dumped, he’d stolen from Eric to begin with. Andrew was rewarded with a minute, split-second frown. His old rival glanced around until his eyes landed on Bobby Ray.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner.”

Andrew knew Eric was fishing, looking for something, any button to push and he kept himself completely calm on the outside. Inside though, dread began to fill him. He could feel bands of fear wrap around his chest, feel the dinner he’d just eaten become heavy and acidic in his stomach. He wasn’t ready for this. Wasn’t ready to defend or deflect or deal with outsiders.

“Eric, this is Bobby Ray a friend… of a friend. In town for business.”

He felt transparent and obvious, but Eric’s disappointed frown told him his relaxed façade had fooled his old rival. Another couple of minutes and Eric met the rest of his party and left.

Andrew sat and stared at his tightly clasped hands, too embarrassed to look at his date.

“Friend of a friend, huh?”

Andrew forced his gaze up, knowing he needed to face the consequences of his absurd overreaction. Bobby Ray’s face was stoic and unreadable other than a small frown.

“I didn’t mean… I’m sorry… I panicked. Fitzgerald’s a jerk I grew up with. It’s just habit not to give him fuel.” Even to his own ears, the excuse sounded hollow. He was a grown man.

There was no anger in Bobby Ray. Only disappointment. And a hint of hurt in the tightening of skin around his eyes and mouth.

“You’re not ready for this.”

“I am.” The words were quick, too quick and Bobby Ray only shook his head. “I want to be.”

“But you’re not. Not yet.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I get it, Andrew, I really do. I never intended to come out. Now that I have, though, it’s such a relief. I’m not going back into that closet. I’m not willing to be someone’s dirty little secret.”

A little anger finally flared in his expression as Bobby Ray spoke the last words. With a deep breath, he stood up and dropped his napkin on the table. When Andrew started to follow, Bobby Ray raised one hand and shook his head to stop him.

“Look, Andrew. This,” he gestured between them with the upraised hand. “This has been good. But it’s not enough. Not for me. And it shouldn’t be for you. You need to keep digging and figure out what you really want.”

Andrew watched, stunned and uncertain, while Bobby Ray walked out of the restaurant and out of his life.

*

His reprieve was well and truly over. Andrew stood in an out of the way corner of the glittering ballroom. His tux felt tight and foreign. The forced gaiety and constant murmur of inane small talk bouncing around the room had given him a headache almost the instant he’d walked in with his mother. The hours since had done nothing but made it worse.

In the past week, his mother had insisted he accompany her to two dinners, a brunch and this ridiculously extravagant charity gala.

At least her timing had been better than he’d expected. He’d had a couple of weeks to lick his wounds after his disastrous date before she’d begun demanding his time.

In the weeks since he’d last heard from Bobby Ray (three weeks, one day, two hours, but who’s counting) he’d discovered how empty his life really was. His relationship with his mother lacked two-way communication. His friendships were shallow at best. His colleagues were either intimidated by his name or absurdly competitive because of it. And his social life, well, pathetic didn’t begin to cover it.

He’d managed two dates, more to prove something to himself than any real interest in either of his companions.

Ben Phelps, a stockbroker who lived in his building, had been even more worried about being outed than Andrew. He’d spent the entire night looking over his shoulder and jumping at noises.

Tia Cole, a pretty receptionist from his gym, had been an attempt to see if his feelings for Bobby Ray had been a fluke after all. She’d spent the entire dinner gushing about how much she admired Andrew’s mother. When she wasn’t hinting she had the background and skills to make an excellent political wife, that was.

“Sweetheart, what are you doing over here, all by yourself in a dark corner?”

Andrew had always been conversely jealous of, and terrified by, Kate Hennings’s ability to speak without moving her lips or disturbing her perfect camera ready smile.

“Um, having a drink?” He held up the glass, like it was defense exhibit A.

“You should be out mingling. It’s a party, Andrew… Oh, Senator Cain. I’ve been looking for you….”

She disappeared as quickly as she’d materialized and he heaved a sigh of relief. He’d have to remember to thank Cain later for the unintended reprieve.

A low, feminine chuckle drifted from behind him.

“Your mother hasn’t changed a bit.”

He turned at the vaguely familiar voice. It took a minute his for brain to catch up and recognize the tall blond with vivid green eyes. Which was sad, considering how long they’d known each other.

“Erin. Wow. What a surprise. I haven’t seen you since…”

Well, it probably wouldn’t be good to mention the last time they’d spoken, he’d been breaking up with her, long-distance, in order to start dating Whitney. Who he’d then dumped two months later for Melanie. Andrew did his best to swallow back a resigned sigh. He probably deserved worse than being left at the altar.

“I didn’t know you were back from California.”

Not the smoothest conversational transition, but she laughed instead of slapping him or stomping away, so he’d consider it a win.

“I’m not. Not permanently, anyway. I just decided to take some time off. It’s been too long since I’ve visited with Aunt Gert and Uncle Wallace. And thought maybe I could catch up with old friends.”

He remembered Gertrude and Wallace Freeman with a fond smile. Erin had lived with them while going to law school in New York, so far from her parents. Andrew had spent quite of bit of time in their home, when he and Erin were in an on again phase. Since first meeting in college they had sort of drifted together and drifted apart until long distance had ended it completely between them.

“How are your aunt and uncle?”

For the rest of the night, they chatted and caught up and reminisced. It was a relief to have her as a buffer to his mother and the rest of the inanity of New York society.

Andrew felt a little guilty, using Erin as a shield, but from things she’d said about her Aunt Gert’s matchmaking attempts, he had a feeling she was doing the same thing. So he was surprised and taken a little off guard when she suggested they get together for dinner sometime soon.

His first instinct, selfishly, was to agree. To keep using her as cover to keep his mother at bay.

But Andrew had been thoughtless and careless with her once before. He owed her better than that this time around.

“I can’t… I’m not… I’m still…” Andrew stumbled, unable to find the right words to say ‘you’re not my type anymore’ without being offensive.

Erin laughed, startling him into silence.

“Relax, Andrew. I meant as friends.” She patted his arm affectionately. Then bit her lip as it curved into a frown. “The truth is, I just got over a bad break up. That’s part of why I’m taking a break here. And, don’t take this the wrong way, but I had enough of our roller coaster relationship the last time we broke up.”

He saw the whisper of old pain and a tangle of guilt twisted his insides. “God, I’m sorry Erin. I was an ass, I know.”

“Don’t.” She shook her head and squeezed his arm. “We were both careless with each other’s feelings, at one time or another. But no matter what, we were always friends. I could use an old friend right now. I’m betting you could too.”

Andrew thought about Melanie. And the complete silence from Bobby Ray. Yeah. He had a distinct lack of friends right now.

When he nodded, she hugged him and they made plans to meet for lunch the next day.

*

“What happened, exactly, with you and Melanie?”

Andrew nearly choked on the forkful of salad he’d put in his mouth.

He chewed, carefully, then took a long sip of water before looking up at her.

“Irreconcilable differences.”

“Oh, c’mon.” She rolled her eyes and waved her fork at him. “I’m not trying to be nosy. Well. I suppose I am, a little. Considering your commitment issues in our own history, I never thought you’d get close to a wedding. If I’d had to lay a bet on someone getting left at the altar on your wedding day, well, my money would not have been on you.”

She paused, and leaned back to rake him with an assessing stare. He squirmed a little and tried hard to keep his gaze steady.

“The thing is, you don’t talk about it. At all. And you get this sad, faraway look sometimes. You had it, just now. You also haven’t said a word in about five minutes. I thought, maybe, it might help to talk.”

She gave him a self-depreciating smile. “I mean you’ve been listening to me bitch about Asshole Dave and his multiple mistresses all week. Surprisingly, it’s been cathartic. I thought I’d return the favor.”

Andrew was at a complete loss as to what to say. The truth was, he hadn’t been thinking about Melanie at all. He’d been thinking about Bobby Ray. Again.

It amazed him how often something came up, something made him laugh, or pissed him off, and he’d reach for his phone. Of course, he never actually sent any texts. Bobby Ray had made it clear with his silence that whatever they hadn’t quite got started, it was over.

Andrew wasn’t ready to talk about Bobby Ray with Erin, though.

Despite knowing her for a decade, having been in an intimate relationship with her, off and on for a good chunk of that, he didn’t feel as easy with Erin. It’s not that he didn’t trust her, or that he feared her using him. He just didn’t have the same sense of connection. The urge to curl up in her, to share and to listen and to bond with her. He’d spent so long being the cardboard cut-out Andrew Hennings with her, he had no idea how to drop the mask and show the flesh and blood man. And no real desire to.

“Andrew?”

He glanced up at her. She was leaning forward on the table now, brow furrowed with concern. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll drop it. I’m sorry. I just wanted to help.”

“No. It’s okay.”

He wasn’t ready to talk about Bobby Ray. But he could talk about Melanie. That was a wound that was healing better than he’d expected the night he got drunk in the roadhouse parking lot.

Besides, Erin had opened up to him, telling him about her ex. Who she’d expected to pop the question at any moment. Instead, she’d walked in on mistress number one slapping him after finding out about mistress number two. She deserved to shift the focus for a day and to have someone to commiserate with. He figured he could bear telling her a truncated version of what he’d told Bobby Ray.

Andrew leaned back, glad he’d been nearly done with his food, because he had no appetite left.

“I loved her. But I wasn’t in love with her. We liked each other. We were comfortable.”

He ran a hand through his hair, unsatisfied with the explanation, but unwilling to say he didn’t trust anyone from his own circle.

“She was as commitment-phobic as you are, huh? Sounds like a perfect match for you.”

Andrew blinked at her in surprise. He hadn’t thought of it that way, but Erin had nailed it. It had been easy to be with Melanie, because she’d been as uncomfortable with the idea of being tied down as he was.

God, no wonder Bobby Ray hadn’t looked back. He deserved someone who didn’t shy away at the smallest hint of commitment.

“So, what happened? Her fear outpace yours?”

“She realized she still loved Jake. I cared enough about her to want her to be happy. She was my best friend, though, as well as my fiancée. I do miss that.”

He shrugged, not knowing what else to say. The words didn’t seem enough to cover the enormity of it. At its heart, though, it wasn’t that complicated.

“Have you talked to her since the wedding?”

He pursed his lips and shook his head. He hadn’t actually spoken to her, but, through Bobby Ray, they had exchange messages and forgiveness and hopes of future happiness. Maybe, someday, when the wounds to his ego had scabbed over, he’d be able to face her again.

Erin’s eyes were warm and sympathetic when she covered his hand with hers.

“Let me guess. It’s not helping that your mother’s trying to throw you at every eligible bachelorette in New York.”

Her words held an echo of her own frustration with her aunt’s continued attempts to get her back ‘out there’ in the social whirl.

“You’d know the feeling,” he returned the sympathetic pat.

She nodded glumly and they shared several minutes of commiserating silence.

Then Erin’s head popped up, eyes bright with almost maniacal glee.

“Let’s date.”

Andrew pulled his hand back in startled surprise. “Erin. I’m sorry. I thought you understood…”

She burst out laughing. “Relax, Andrew. I’m no threat to your virtue. Or your bachelorhood. I meant, let’s pretend to date, to keep our individual meddlers off our backs. I’m here through the holidays. If we stick together, we both get a reprieve. At least until the New Year.”

He eyed her warily, remembering, in law school, she’d always been good at talking people into giving her what she wanted by making them believe she was doing something for them. That was years ago, though, and they’d both grown up and out-grown those games since then.

He smiled back and held out his hand. “Deal.”

She smacked his hand in a hearty handshake and flashed a brilliant grin. “Deal.”

*

The holidays had been interesting. Interesting in the sense of the old Chinese curse.

Andrew fiddled with his fork in the breakfast nook of his mother’s apartment, waiting for her to finish dealing with the crisis of the moment, so they could have brunch together. Thought about the highs and lows of his life, the past few weeks.

There had been his mother’s meltdown at Thanksgiving, when she found out he was no longer a partner at Dorovsic, Dorovsic, Hennings and Henderson. Not to mention, he’d started taking courses in creative writing, of all things.

Andrew hadn’t had the courage, yet, to tell her that he’d begun corresponding with his father again. That relationship was still strained and delicate. His mother’s strident objection could destroy it before it had a chance to grow.

There had also been the arrival of the Christmas card from Melanie (and Jake, though he suspected that signature had been added grudgingly). After two days of internal debate, he’d decided to answer the olive branch. The subsequent phone call to thank her for the card had put to rest of the ghosts of unfinished business between them. She’d apologized. He’d understood, and forgiven, and admitted she had probably done them both a favor.

They were friends again. Not the same as before, of course. But friends. It filled in some of that aching wound he’d been carrying around.

He didn’t ask her about Bobby Ray and she didn’t mention him. He had no idea how much, if anything she knew about the mess he’d made.

He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about that conversation and how it had been able to fix one broken relationship. Reaching out to his father had begun to fix another. Success gave him the courage and hope to reach out again.

On Christmas Eve, he sent a text that simply said: Merry Christmas, Bobby Ray.

Surprise, elation and a small trickle of hope ran through him five minutes later, when he’d received Merry Christmas back.

Two words. But it had been enough. Whatever he’d done, he hadn’t broken things irrevocably.

New Year’s Eve found him tipsy and hiding in the bathroom to avoid the expected spectacle of him kissing Erin at midnight. It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time to send another text to the person he really wanted to be spending the holiday with.

The alcohol-fueled message had been both succinct and brutally honest.

Happy New Year, Bobby Ray. My resolution this year is to stop being such a pussy.

He still cringed a little, every time he thought about the vulgarity. But he’d gotten a response back almost immediately.

It’s about damn time. Happy New Year, Andrew.

Another step. Small, but powerful. In the two weeks since, they’d exchanged about a dozen messages. It was nothing like the fast and furious flood of conversation before, but, to Andrew, it felt like a lifeline.

Erin had returned to California shortly after the New Year and that had been a relief, as well. Their ruse had kept his mother happy about at least one part of his life. But the burden of wearing a mask that didn’t fit right, of being someone else, still, had become too much to bear. He was done, now, with all of it: the career he didn’t want, the politics he couldn’t stand, the relationships that meant nothing. The life that was never really his.

Andrew’s mother was outraged by his change in paths and focus, but she was starting to come around. She’d been civil, if not exactly warm, the last few days. And the lectures were getting shorter. She’d even stopped nagging him about letting Erin go back to California without some future plans in place.

His phone beeped the unique sound he had assigned to Bobby Ray, and he fumbled it in his eagerness for another connection to the man.

Congratulations

He frowned, trying to puzzle out what the southerner meant by the single word. The end of his career? His upcoming classes? All those were things they’d talked about before, though.

Before he could send back a question his phone beeped. And beeped again. More congratulations. A request for more details. Had they set a date?

A date? For what? His eyes were drawn to the newspaper next to his mother’s empty seat. The paper she’d carefully folded and set far away from him when he’d joined her for breakfast.

The paper she’d set down with that smile of satisfaction her political opponents had learned to fear.

He reached for it now, shaking it out.

The picture of Erin and him was old, from their last go-round. The headline said Altar-bound Again? The smaller print underneath announced New York’s most eligible bachelor was once again engaged.

Engaged? Why would the paper think they were engaged? Who would have sent them the picture?

The sound in the doorway drew his gaze and his mother was talking before he could say a word.

“I see you’ve discovered the little mistake the society editor made.”

“Mistake? This was no mistake, Mother. You planted this? Why? How could you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous Andrew. It was an accident.”

He narrowed his eyes and took a deep breath that did nothing to calm him. His voice came out steady, though, if edging into dangerous. “A minute ago you said it was a mistake. Now it’s an accident. Which is it, mother?”

“An accident, a mistake. Same thing.” Her eyebrow twitched, a tell she swore she didn’t have, but one Andrew had learned to spot whenever she was bluffing. “Look, Florence just misunderstood. That’s all.”

“Florence? Florence de Whyting the society editor?”

“Yes, we were having lunch. She mentioned how nice you and Erin looked together at the New Year’s Eve party.” Her eyes wandered away as she shrugged casually. “I may have said something like I wouldn’t be surprised to hear an announcement any day now. She obviously misunderstood.”

“And how did she get the picture?”

“An archive photo, no doubt.”

Obviously, his mother had answers for everything and Andrew knew he’d end up with nothing but frustration and indigestion from playing her games.

Instead, he carefully folded the paper, stood and silently moved around the table. His mother stood in his way at the door.

“Andrew, where are you going?”

“To inform the paper they accidentally made a mistake.

Her eyes widened. “You can’t do that Andrew. After the mess with that Smooter girl. If you have another engagement end unexpectedly, we’ll be the butt of jokes and speculation for years.” She paused and ran her hand over her hair. “Let’s sit down, have brunch, discuss this rationally.”

“I’m not feeling particularly rational right now, Mother.”

She sighed, the same sigh she used to tell him he was being unreasonable at ten, when he’d demanded a half hour extension on his bedtime. She truly did not see him as a grown up.

“Look, I know you’re feeling a little gun shy after the fiasco last summer. But this is simply moving the time-table up a little. You and Erin are perfect for each other. Sooner or later, you’re going to end up together. It might as well be sooner.”

He closed his eyes, and curled his hands tight to fight the urge to push his mother out of the way and storm out of her apartment. And her life. For good.

“No. We. Aren’t. We are not perfect together. We are not going to end up together.”

“Of course you are.”

He opened his eyes because he couldn’t believe the smug self-assurance he was hearing. But there it was. That superior, I-know-what’s-best smile. Why was he even surprised? Honestly, he’d been letting her have her way his whole life. He shouldn’t be shocked when she thought she’d get this, too.

She probably assumed once she got him all buttoned up in marriage, it would be easy to steer him right back into law and politics.

With a groan, he rubbed his now-throbbing temples. His anger had burned itself out into exasperation and exhaustion.

“Did you miss the conversation last fall where I told you I prefer men?”

“Obviously it was only an over-reaction to the wedding. You’ve been with Erin for months.”

Oh and he should have known he’d pay the price for the months of peace he’d bought with a lie.

“We’ve been pretending to date!” The shout left his throat a little sore from the raw emotion ripping through it. “You know what? I am not going to do this anymore. I am not having this conversation again.”

He stepped back towards the table and his mother followed, putting a consoling hand on his arm. “Andrew, you’re upset. Let’s eat and talk about this.”

“No. Didn’t you hear me? I’m done talking about this. You and your PR people have twenty-four hours to fix this. Otherwise, I’ll call a press conference myself. I don’t know what I’ll do yet, but, I promise you, the broken engagement will be the least embarrassing thing that will hit the papers.”

With that, Andrew brushed passed her and got the hell out before he had to listen to one more word.

He’d walked three blocks in record time before he realized he should call Erin. She deserved a heads up if she hadn’t heard and an explanation of some kind if she had.

She answered on the second ring with, “Hello, fiancé.”

“I see you’ve heard our good news.”

“Aunt Gert called first thing this morning ecstatic and angry at the same time. Congratulating us and demanding to know why I didn’t tell her in person.”

“I am so sorry. About all of this. My mother is incapable of staying out of my life.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Andrew. It’s not that bad. Really.”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if this was the second engagement you’d had to break in six months.”

“We don’t…” she paused, he voice dropping from amused to serious. “We don’t have to break the engagement.

“What? Erin, I thought we talked about this.”

“Look, I know you don’t love me, not like that. But you love me like a friend and you were willing to have that kind of marriage with Melanie. I’m just saying, neither of us is getting any younger. And neither of us is finding what we want. I’m tired of coming home to an empty apartment. I’m tired of dating loser after loser. We know each other. We’re comfortable together. We can make each other happy.”

“Erin, I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“Andrew, I’m telling you, we can make it work. You can move out here and take classes—”

“It’s not going to happen.”

“I should have listened when your mother reminded me how stubborn you can be.”

The words were muttered but they froze Andrew in his tracks. Thoughts and possibilities he didn’t want to consider clicked together in his head anyway.

“Did you know about my mother’s plan, Erin? Were you in on it with her?”

“No.” Her answer was quick. Too quick and followed by a pause that made Andrew’s head throb even harder. “I had no idea she was going to tell the paper we were engaged. I swear, Andrew. You have to believe me.”

And he did. Yet…

“What part of the plan did you know about Erin?”

Another dreadful pause. He could hear the tears when she answered. “Your mother called last fall. She said you were having a hard time. That you could use a friend. That you might need someone who cares about you in your life. So I took a leave of absence and came out to see you.”

In his head, some cynical part of Andrew’s brain translated the words. His mother had told Erin that he was vulnerable. Easy prey.

“Why, Erin?”

The laugh was bitter in his ear. “You really don’t know, do you? Our relationship has always been convenient for you. How many other women have stuck around for this kind of on again off again thing we’ve always had?”

He blinked at her question. None. He’d never had a second relationship with any other woman after they’d broken up.

“I’ve loved you since the beginning Andrew. I know you don’t love me. Not that way. I was willing to settle for what I could get with you, though. Is the idea of spending the rest of your life with me really so horrible?”

“I’m sorry, Erin. So sorry. I didn’t know.” He should have. They’d never said I love you. Not once. He realized now, way too late, it had always been there, though, in her eyes. Been there in the way she welcomed him back, time and again. In the way she offered him comfort and support. And even a pretend girlfriend.

“I’m so sorry,” he repeated, knowing it was not enough. Knowing he could never begin to apologize enough.

“Andrew, couldn’t we just try?”

He thought about telling her the whole truth. About Bobby Ray and his own hang ups. But he still wasn’t ready to share. He doubted that information would make her feel better anyway.

“I can’t Erin. I just can’t.” 

Chapter Text

Andrew glanced in the hall mirror before he wandered back to the couch from getting another beer. He barely recognized himself.

Which was a good thing, really. When he dragged himself to classes, the only time he left his apartment, no one else recognized him, either.

His eyes were puffy and raw from lack of sleep. A week’s worth of facial hair had taken over his face. The sullen pout his features had settled into, these days, was nothing like his usual, gregarious smile.

Add a ball cap, ripped jeans and ancient sweatshirts left over from his first go-round with college and Andrew Hennings disappeared. He was no longer the scion of society and political poster boy. He was just Andy from CRWRI 815.

He didn’t know whether to laugh at how easy it had been to shed his old life. Or cry that no one seemed to have ever looked past the designer suit and expensive haircut.

Either way, it didn’t matter now. It was Friday afternoon, classes were done and he didn’t have to see anyone but the pizza delivery guy until Monday.

Settling back into the comfort of his leather couch in nothing but a pair flannel pajama bottoms, Andrew used one foot to nudge old take out cartons out of his way before swinging the other foot onto the coffee table and settling in for an evening of mindless entertainment.

On TV, two women squabbled about who owed who for a bad perm and the ‘judge’ seemed more intent on delivering one-liners than actually weighing the facts or administering justice.

With a sigh, he twisted the cap of his beer bottled and took a hearty swallow. He sank down a little deeper in the cushion of the couch and let the tension in his shoulders ease, the clench of his jaw give a little. Allowed the peace and solitude of his home to wash away the constant paranoia. Every step outside was an invitation for press and paparazzi to pry further into his private life. His living room was an oasis of quiet solitude where he could finally let down his guard.

Of course, the tranquility couldn’t last for long. A sharp, insistent knock sounded on his door.

He ignored it, turning the volume up on the TV a little. He hadn’t ordered dinner yet so it could only be someone he didn’t want to talk to. An enterprising reporter who’d snuck past the doorman. A not-so-well meaning friend who’d come to feign commiseration while gathering gossip to spread. Or, worst of all, his mother.

The knock came again, sharper and louder. When he didn’t answer, a feminine drawl pierced the door and caught his attention.

“Andrew Hennings, I know you’re in there. Get your butt up and come open this door right now.”

The sound of Melanie’s voice surprised him so much, he was on his feet and halfway to the door before he thought about what he was doing. Still, a little human contact with someone he could actually stand to be around might not be so bad.

The first words out of her mouth when he opened the door, however, made him rethink that theory.

“Well, you look like shit.”

“Thanks. Nice to see you too. Won’t you come in?” He made a dramatic, sweeping gesture to highlight the sarcasm. Melanie rolled her eyes and took a couple of steps forward, then stopped abruptly, face frozen in shock.

Andrew supposed it was the layer of dust covering everything. Or the random laundry piled wherever he’d dropped it. Possibly it was the way the take-out containers seemed to be taking over every available surface.

“Andrew,” she whispered. “What happened to your housekeeper?”

She stared at the mess suspiciously, like she expected the answer would be that Mrs. Grayson was lost somewhere under the pizza boxes and Styrofoam containers.

“I gave her a couple of weeks off. I don’t really feel like seeing anyone right now.”

The not so subtle reminder galvanized her back into action.

“I know,” she said with quiet understanding. Then she took a few steps toward the couch and eyed the piece of furniture warily before sitting down. “You haven’t returned any calls.”

Andrew glanced guiltily toward a corner where his cell and answering machine were buried under a mound of dirty socks and empty plastic bags.

“I turned my phone of after…”

He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, unsure how to even refer to the mess.

The first day, he’d simply turned off the ringer and ignored well-wishers and gossip-mongers alike. He didn’t have the time or energy to explain to each one individually that he was not, in fact, engaged. They’d all hear about it soon enough when his mother arranged a retraction.

Despite the desperate attempts of her PR people, however, the headlines had been sensational and melodramatic.

‘New Engagement Over Faster Than Last’ and ‘Dumped Again?’ had been the kindest of them.

At that point, he turned off both phones unplugged the answering machine and dumped the whole lot in the corner.

“I get it. I do. But you can’t do… this…” Melanie waved her hand around, indicating the entire apartment. “You can’t cut yourself off from life. From your friends and people who care about you.”

He nearly choked at the storm of unexpected emotion suddenly clogging his throat. “People who care about me?

Andrew snorted and looked away, trying to hide the pain and the wistfulness clawing at his chest.

“I have an ex-fiancée who left me for a man she forgot to tell me she was still married to.”

He felt a slight stab of guilt at Melanie’s wince but not enough to stop. This had been building for weeks. A lifetime. There was no stopping it now that he was on a roll.

“I have a mother who thinks she’s in charge of every facet of my life. Up to and including trying to trick me into marrying a girl I don’t love.”

“What?”

He took a deep breath. For a moment, he forgot that particular bit of information was privileged to the three of them. A nasty little secret that tied him to his mother and Erin. He spilled the whole pathetic story to Melanie. In a way, it was cathartic. For some ridiculous reason, sharing made him feel like he’d broken a hold Erin and his mother had had over him.

Melanie was quiet during the whole thing though he could see the kaleidoscope of emotions crossing her face while she listened. Guilt. Pity. Righteous anger. Sadness.

He wasn’t ready to talk about any of it though. Instead, he kept rambling, letting words spill out before he thought it through.

“So, on top of everything else, I have an ex-girlfriend who lied to me from beginning to end.”

He let himself feel the burn of anger for the first time. Let it override the guilt he’d been carrying around since he’d realized exactly how much pain he’d caused Erin over the years. “She let me use her and hurt her without knowing, without realizing what I was doing to her. Unlike—”

He cut himself off abruptly and walked across the room to stare out the windows.

“Unlike… Bobby Ray?”

Andrew ran a shaking hand through his hair at her quiet question. He didn’t know how much she knew. Chances were good she’d already wrung the entire story out of her friend, though.

“I didn’t hurt him on purpose, either. But I knew. I had a choice. In a moment of cowardice, I panicked and made the wrong choice. I talked a good game, but, in that second, I couldn’t actually walk the walk.”

His throat was dry and tight and he moved back to the end table to grab his beer, downing half of it.

Melanie stared at him so long, he was tempted to finish the beer while he waited.

Finally, she said, “I made a lot of mistakes. I hurt so many people because I reacted in the moment. I was thoughtless and careless with other people because I couldn’t see past my own issues. But they all forgave me.” She smiled, though it was small and a little sad around the edges. “Even you.”

He smiled back and nodded.

“Would you make the same choice again, Andrew?”

He blinked at the unexpected question. “I….”

“That was rhetorical. Don’t answer. Just think about it.”

While his brain whirled around the question, she dug into her purse, coming up with a square white card she pressed into his nerveless fingers.

“We’re having a pre-opening party tonight at Jake’s new store. Come.”

He shook his head, trying to clear it as much as refuse the invitation. “I don’t think—”

“Don’t. Don’t think, Andrew. Over thinking is why you’ve exiled yourself to this cave. Trust me, the latest gossip about the senator and his intern have already made everyone forget about you.” Then a slow, wicked grin crossed her lips. “Besides, think of all the fun new gossip we’ll stir up when you show up at the shop of your ex-fiancée’s husband.”

He laughed, the first time in way too long and she hugged him, hard and tight.

“Come tonight, Andrew,” she insisted when she finally let him go and headed for the door. “You’ve gone to all the trouble of changing your life. Start living it.”

She was almost to the door when he managed to ask for the information he really wanted.

“Will Bobby Ray be there?”

She paused and the narrow-eyed, mischief-filled look she tossed him over her shoulders was one he’d learned to be wary of.

“You’ll just have to come find out for yourself.”

Then she disappeared out the door.

He glanced down at the card in his hand. Cocktails. 7:30. He only had three and half hours to drag himself back to the land of the living. If he decided to go.

He moved to the hall mirror again, and winced at what he saw. It probably wasn’t going to be enough time.

*

Andrew was late. It was nearly 8 p.m. before he found himself taking a deep breath outside the doors of Deep South Glass.

Part of it was the number of times he’d changed his clothes. The suit had been too buttoned up and stuffy. That was the Andrew Hennings he was leaving behind.

The khakis had seemed too country club casual.

Obviously the ancient sweatshirt and ripped jeans weren’t going to work. And, despite the fact it was the uniform he’d adopted recently, it wasn’t really who he was, now, either.

He’d settled for the classic New York City camouflage of black. Black tailored trousers, black button up shirt. He hesitated but left the jacket and tie hanging in the closet.

The second reason he was late, was the mini-panic attack he’d had in the car while his driver waited with discreet patience for him to get his act together. The idea of seeing Bobby Ray again was exhilarating. The reality, however, left him breathless from the terror of being told it was too late for a do-over.

All that, and he still didn’t know if Bobby Ray was even inside.

There was only one way to find out and Andrew had stalled long enough. With breath caught deep in his chest, he pulled open the door and walked in to what, hopefully, would be his future.

Inside, light glinted off of hundreds of beautiful pieces of glass and the crowd was bigger than he’d expected. A hum of laughter and conversations livened up the room.

He recognized more people than he’d expected and that froze him in place, for a moment. Finally, though, Andrew pushed the stale air back out of his lungs, forced himself to breathe and step away from the quick escape offered by the door behind him.

He’d made his choice. He knew what he wanted. He may still be afraid of facing the world, but he was more afraid of missing out on something that would make him truly happy. He’d had only the smallest taste of what life with Bobby Ray could be like and it was better than anything he could have imagined.

And he’d had a taste of how it felt to be completely bereft of the man.

Maybe things wouldn’t work out, but he couldn’t let the ties that bound him in the past hold him back from something he was sure would make him very happy in the future.

“Andrew, you made it.”

He was hit by the sound and the hug at nearly the exact same second. Melanie squeezed the life out him while, behind her, Jake scowled at him so fiercely, he was afraid he might spontaneously combust.

He hugged her back and said, “It’s not like you gave me many options. Emotional blackmail should be at the top of your resume.”

“What makes you think it isn’t?” She asked with an arch look.

When Mel stepped back, Jake’s arm instantly snaked around her waist and tugged her to his side in an obviously possessive move.

Andrew shook his head and smiled.

“I don’t think I had a chance to congratulate you on your, uh, un-divorce.” He held his hand out and added, “You’re a lucky man Jake Perry.”

The blond stared at his hand with suspicion for a minute before shaking it. With the hand not still wrapped tightly around his wife.

“I know. So you’re not here to cause trouble or make a scene?”

Andrew felt like his eyebrows lifted into his hair and then flicked his attention back to Melanie. “You didn’t tell him you invited me?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d come. Didn’t see the point in arguing about it until there was something to argue about.”

“Ah, good point.” He glanced around, but beyond the door, the crush and the displays made it hard to spot anyone in the crowd. “Is Bobby Ray here?”

“Bobby Ray? Why on earth would you be looking for Bobby Ray?” Jake asked.

Andrew cut a sharp look at Melanie, nose scrunched, lip caught between her teeth, and realized Jake didn’t know anything about what had been going on the past few months.

Then something seemed to click in Jake’s head. “He’s not… is he the reason Bobby Ray’s been acting so—oof.”

Jake’s question cut off abruptly when Melanie landed a solid elbow in his stomach. For a minute, Andrew wished he’d finished. Wanted to know how Bobby Ray was doing. Then, he thought about his own mental state the past few months and decided he never wanted to know if he’d hurt Bobby Ray as much as he’d hurt himself.

“I think he’s over there, under the stairs.” Melanie waved him off, before turning and pushing Jake back into the crowd. Andrew could hear them arguing in whispered tones as they moved away but he couldn’t make out the words.

He scanned the crowd until he caught sight of his quarry. God, he looked good. Jeans, a tailored jacket and a crisp white shirt opened at the collar. Andrew’s heart sped up and his body heated at the sight of the man he’d been dreaming about.

Then he realized Bobby Ray was bent slightly, so he could hear what his companion was saying. Frederick. Standing so close, Andrew was sure his lips must be grazing Bobby Ray’s ear as he talked.

Andrew looked away, searching for one of the circling servers and a handy flute of champagne.

He couldn’t keep his eyes away, though, and he glanced back to see Bobby Ray straightening as the southerner looked his way. A smile started to curve his lips, before his whole face darkened and his mouth slipped into a neutral line.

Andrew grabbed a glass from the waiter who was almost passed him, straightened his shoulders and started to thread his way through the crowd.

There was no turning back now.

This was what he wanted. He knew he could make Bobby Ray happy, if given the chance. And, if he had to grovel to get that chance, then he’d do it. He downed the bubbly courage and set the glass on the next tray he saw. He only hoped Bobby Ray would give him the chance to grovel.

Andrew lost sight of Bobby Ray and Frederick in the crowd when he detoured around displays and groups who refused to acknowledge a polite ‘excuse me’ as he tried to pass. By the time he reached the relatively less crowded alcove under the stairs, Frederick had disappeared and Bobby Ray was leaning casually against the wall.

The tight lines around his eyes and jaw, however, gave away that he wasn’t quite as relaxed as he pretended to be.

Now, inches from the man he had been thinking about pretty much constantly, Andrew’s mind went blank. Completely shut down.

He opened his mouth and all that came out was, “Um, hi.”

Brilliant. Fucking brilliant. He was going to fuck this up before he ever even got to the apology.

Bobby Ray actually gave him a slight smile, though, so Andrew swallowed hard and tried to shake a coherent thought free as they stared in an awkwardly stretching silence.

“I really—”

“I heard about—”

Of course they talked over each other. Andrew sighed with relief and said, “You first, please.”

Bobby Ray shifted away from the wall, but his posture was stiff and tense once again.

“I was only going to say I was sorry to hear about the abrupt end to your engagement.”

The unspoken again hung in the air between them.

“Christ, doesn’t Melanie talk to anyone?”

“Huh?”

Andrew ran an agitated hand through his hair at the honest confusion in Bobby Ray’s voice. He’d hoped at least this part of the conversation would have been taken care of for him. Apparently Melanie didn’t meddle when it might actually be useful.

“Didn’t Melanie tell you anything about our conversation this afternoon?”

“I only got in about an hour before the party and Melanie was busy with the caterers and the lighting… And she was avoiding me.”

“She didn’t even tell you she’d invited me?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

Tension began to coil around them yet again. Andrew was afraid to ask the next obvious question. Afraid it would wind the emotions too tight and break them but he had to know.

“Would you have stayed, if she did?”

It took way too long for Bobby Ray to answer, and when he finally did, his eyes were firmly on a glass sculpture behind Andrew’s head.

“I don’t know.”

He’d been expecting worse, and yet the words sliced him open all the same. Tears stung his eyes and he bit the inside of his lip to keep it from trembling. At least it wasn’t a no. He could still salvage this. He had to.

“Is there somewhere we can go? To talk? Please?”

Bobby Ray finally looked at him, but the wariness and weariness made Andrew ache even more.

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” He gestured to a man with a camera just beyond their quiet little space.

“There are a few people here covering this for the media. Someone might see us duck out together and get the wrong idea.”

“Hopefully, it would be the right idea,” Andrew muttered under his breath. Then louder, “I don’t care. I’m not scared anymore.”

That got him a raised eyebrow and a disbelieving smirk. “You’re not?”

“Okay, I am. But I’m not paralyzed by it anymore. I told you at New Year’s, I’m ready to take back my life.”

“Then you got engaged two weeks later.” Again, Bobby Ray looked away, but his voice was tight and Andrew could hear accusation and disdain ringing in his words.

“I can explain that, if we can go someplace quiet.”

“You can’t explain it here?”

“I could. And I will, if you insist. But if someone overhears, I’d be hurting someone else I promised myself I wouldn’t hurt anymore.”

He hoped Bobby Ray understood the unspoken vow. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t hurt Bobby Ray anymore, either.

“There’s an office in back. Let’s go.

As they moved through the crowd, Bobby reached back and grabbed his wrist to keep them from getting separated.

An electric tingle shot through Andrew, and, for several seconds too long, he forgot to breathe. The feel of Bobby Ray’s fingers curled around his skin made his whole body react with remembered pleasure.

If they ever got around to having sex, it might just kill him.

*

The office was small, crowded further by the desk, file cabinets, and various pieces of office equipment. Bobby Ray slid a hip onto the edge of the desk and crossed his arms.

Andrew stood with his back against the door, but, even then, only a couple of feet separated them. It wasn’t enough space. And it was way too much. Andrew felt cold, already missing the electric warmth the simple touch of Bobby Ray’s fingers on his skin had sent sparking through him.

God, he wanted to skip all of this and slide himself against Bobby Ray’s body. Pin the other man to the desk, feel his breath and his arms. Find the peace he’d only had for the one brief night that ended way too quickly, way too many months ago.

But he owed Bobby Ray so much. An apology. An explanation. Not to mention the proper amount of groveling.

“I’m sorry.” It sounded pathetic, even to his own ears. Too little, too late. He had to start somewhere, though, and he meant the word with every fiber of his being.

Andrew took a deep breath and started again. “I’m sorry for being a coward. For being so blinded by panic and reputation that I didn’t even introduce you as my friend. And you were. Are, I hope. If nothing else, I would like the chance to earn that back. But, you were more than that. So much more. I was stupid and I was scared and I threw it away and I’m sorry.

The last of the words came out in a rush, barely any breath between them. Somewhere in the middle, the fire of shame burning in his gut had made him drop his eyes to his hands. He was still afraid. This time he feared seeing Bobby Ray’s disdain. Feared seeing that the man had given up on him.

“Is that what you want?” Bobby Ray’s drawl, usually warm and fluid, was cool and stilted. “To just be friends again?”

“No.” The word exploded out of his mouth, his head shooting up, but all he could see was an impenetrable, unreadable mask. “I mean, yes I want to be friends, if that’s all you… but I’d hoped, maybe someday, I could prove I’m ready for more. If you still wanted…”

The arms crossed in front of Bobby Ray tightened and the man’s voice moved from chill to deep freeze.

“Are you? Because it didn’t take you long to go from a date with me to dating your ex. Or from telling me you were done being your mama’s bitch to being engaged. When, exactly did you decide you were ready? When she dumped you?”

Fury filled him. Anger at his own stupidity. At Erin’s subtle schemes and his mother’s outrageous ones. He hurt, for himself and all the time he’d lost to the futility of trying to be someone else. Even more, he ached for the pain he’d caused Bobby Ray.

“She did not dump me.” He ground the words through clenched teeth. “We were never engaged. We were never even dating.”

Silence filled the room so thickly, Andrew was surprised the sheer pressure of it didn’t push him through the door.

Finally, Bobby Ray said. “You should sue the papers, then, because they really got it wrong.”

Andrew latched onto that. “You’ve been reading about me?”

His hope soared at the thought. Did it mean that, even in the months of silence between them, Bobby Ray had still been thinking about him? That he still cared?

“Spent a lot of time traveling back and forth. Not much else to do in the airport but read gossip.”

Bobby Ray’s eyes had shifted somewhere over Andrew’s left shoulder and he was pretty sure the man was lying. It didn’t dampen his hope at all.

He took a deep breath, knowing it was time to lay all the cards on the table.

Andrew held nothing back. He told Bobby Ray how much he’d missed him, how he’d used Erin as a poor substitute for their friendship and how he’d gone along with her idea to pretend to date to keep matchmaking family members at bay. He told him how happy he’d been to reconnect with Bobby Ray at Christmas and after. How, he’d intended to make a fresh start with Erin back in California and his classes starting.

Most importantly, how his mother had destroyed all that during a single lunch conversation with a society columnist. He talked about the conversation with Erin and the realization of how oblivious he’d been to other people’s feelings in his efforts at self-preservation.

Finally, he told Bobby Ray about the depression, the desperation of the past few weeks. How Melanie’s whirlwind visit had kicked him out of it and given him hope.

When he ran out of words, he looked at Bobby Ray. There was surprise in his face, and confusion. Compassion and something else Andrew couldn’t define.

“No one can give a well deserved kick in the ass quite like our Mel, can they?” When he finally spoke, Bobby Ray had a hint of humor in his voice that made Andrew’s knee’s go a little weak with relief.

He allowed his lips to curve with hope and relief. “No, I’m pretty sure she’s the best at it.”

“’Course, she’s been trying to kick my ass into gear for months, but I’ve known her longer. A have a little built up immunity.”

Andrew blinked in surprise. “So you, uh, told her?”

“Everything, from her wedding night to the date. She got me drunk and dragged it out of me. Apparently she and Jake were worried that I wasn’t my usual gregarious self after that trip up here. She read me the riot act for not giving you a break. Reminded me what I’d felt for years before she finally outed me.”

“You didn’t want to give me a break?” Andrew’s heart hitched a little. Had all of this been for nothing? Was this the beginning of a thanks but no thanks conversation?

“Oh, I wanted to, but I didn’t know how. I’d made such a stand. Been so self-righteous, I couldn’t figure out how to back off and still keep my dignity.”

“But you weren’t…”

“I was. I spent most of my life not getting serious because I was afraid of what people would say. And I judged you for it, because I was ready to break out of that box.”

“Not that I wasn’t hurt by the ‘friend of a friend’ line, because that really stung. The truth is, though, I understood it. If I’d thought about it rather than reacting, I would have been more patient. The pressures of your high-profile life and your mother, and everything you went through with Melanie were more than enough mitigating circumstances. You deserved a second chance.”

Andrew could hear a familiar pain echoing in Bobby Ray’s words and decided enough was enough. They’d both hurt. Themselves and each other. They both deserved a break.

Feeling braver and more confident than he had since he’d stepped inside the gallery, Andrew moved forward so he was only inches away from Bobby Ray.

“How about we give ourselves that second chance now? We forget the mistakes and we move forward, start over again.”

Heavy hands landed on his hips and tugged him closer until they were lined up from shoulder to toes.

“I like that idea. I think we should seal the pact with a kiss.”

Andrew let his hands snake around Bobby Ray’s waist and leaned forward until their lips met.

It started out gentle and tentative, a light brushing of mouths. The warmth and the tingle gathered momentum until it was a hungry and thorough exploration of lips.

The kiss turned fierce, fast. Tongue and teeth and lips battling to learn every taste and texture and pleasure spot. Andrew crowded into Bobby Ray, settling in between his thighs, unable to get close enough, wanting to crawl inside and never leave.

Bobby Ray’s hands were everywhere. They’d found their way inside Andrew’s shirt and strong, calloused fingers blazed trails of sensation along his skin.

Andrew had to, finally, reluctantly, break for air when his lungs began to scream for oxygen. Unwilling to give up contact completely, he trailed his mouth along the stubbled chin until he could drag his teeth over the throat’s delicate skin. Bobby Ray’s breath hitched, his entire body froze for half a second. When he finally exhaled, it was a stuttering moan that sounded a bit like a prayer.

Andrew let his lips curve in pleasure while he set his teeth and tongue loose on the sensitive flesh. He delighted in pulling those low, visceral sounds out of Bobby Ray.

He reveled in the feel of the other man’s hands on his body. Frantic, clutching and possessive, Bobby Ray’s hands seemed able to touch everywhere at once and sent Andrew into a spiral of pleasure and need.

He lost himself in the sounds, the sensations, the pure bliss of every second until he felt the roll of Bobby Ray’s hips beneath his. Felt himself desperately trying to match the rhythm.

It felt so good. He didn’t want to stop… But it wasn’t… This first time… He wanted…

Bobby Ray made a pained, questioning sound when Andrew pulled away slightly, his haze covered eyes trying to focus.

Andrew only smiled, leaned in for a quick chaste kiss, then slowly slid down Bobby Ray’s body. Hot blue eyes widened, kiss-swollen lips parted in a surprised ‘O’ and slim hips rocked one last time before his body went completely still.

“Andrew.”

His name was a hoarse whisper hovering between them. It sounded like an endearment, a question and encouragement all wrapped up in one.

He paused with his hands on Bobby Ray’s waist, licked his lips and looked up through his lashes.

“It’s, uh, been a while. Since I’ve done this,” he admitted, apologetically.

Bobby Ray choked out a laugh. “Pretty sure you couldn’t do it wrong if you tried, right now.”

Andrew figured he was probably right. They were both so close to the edge, it wasn’t going to take much to push either of them over. He freed Bobby Ray from his pants, wrapping one hand around the straining cock. The other hand, Andrew curled around his lover’s waist to keep it away from his own aching need.

He gave a couple of slow, tentative strokes. Hot and thick, already glistening and slick and ready for Andrew, it felt perfect. His mouth watered, eager to taste, to feel, to take it in and share the pleasure.

He teased them both for a minute, with slow strokes and light brushes of lips across sensitive nerve endings. He let his tongue flick out for small delicate tastes until Bobby Ray was groaning and panting above him.

“Andrew.”

This time his name was a harsh breath. A plea and demand for more as Bobby Ray’s head tipped backward, his body arching and his hand groping the air until it found Andrew’s head.

Fingers slid into his hair and tightened. A slight pulling pressure just this side of pain that sent sensation streaking straight to Andrew’s gut and left him breathless with need. And, just like that, Andrew had a new kink.

Unable to tease either of them anymore, he let his mouth wrap more firmly around Bobby Ray, taking in as much as he could. He loved the feel of his mouth stretching, making room for Bobby Ray. His strokes sped up and his tongued danced with urgency along the sweet-salty flesh.

“Soon.”

Andrew didn’t need the whispered warning. He could feel the shudders jolting through the body beneath his hands. He didn’t even think of pulling away like he always had in the past.

He wanted this, all of this. When Bobby Ray froze, then jerked, Andrew did his best to take it all in.

Of course, he choked a little and felt it dribble from the corner of his mouth. Still, he held Bobby Ray through it, swallowing around the softening cock until it slipped from his mouth.

Andrew sat back on his heels in satisfaction while he watched Bobby Ray struggle to regain his breath and his composure. For the moment, his own need temporarily lessened as he enjoyed the sight of Bobby Ray’s pleasure.

“Andrew. That was…”

Bleary eyes stared down at him, then focused sharply on his mouth.

“Fuck.” Bobby Ray exhaled the word sharply and reached down to slide his thumb along the side of Andrew’s lips, slicking away the lingering cum from his face. Without thought, Andrew leaned forward and sucked the thumb into his mouth, capturing the escaping flavor.

“Fuck.” Bobby Ray said the word with renewed fervor.

Before he knew it, Andrew was being hauled back to his feet, a fierce tongue invading his mouth, searching every nook and cranny.

The double hit of Bobby Ray’s flavor left him stunned and wanting. Belatedly, he realized he was pinned to the office door, his hands grasping the southerner’s shoulders like a lifeline.

“God, you taste so fucking good,” Bobby Ray murmured and then he was on his knees, releasing Andrew with a speed that would have been surprising if he’d had any brain cells still firing. “Wanna' taste all of you.”

Andrew closed his eyes, gripped Bobby Ray’s shoulders even tighter and whispered a warning. “Not gonna last.”

Bobby Ray smirked up at him. “That’s okay, we’ll do slow next time.”

The promise of next time made him shudder even before Bobby Ray swallowed him down and Andrew lost all remnants of coherent thought. The sight of Bobby Ray on his knees, eyes closed in bliss, cheeks hollowed around him, gave Andrew nearly as much pleasure as the feel of liquid heat surrounding his dick.

When Bobby Ray opened his eyes, pupils blown, love and lust and need all mingled in the blue depths, Andrew lost it completely.

Currents of sensation raced down his spine, fluid ecstasy moved through his heart and his body as unnamed emotion combined with passion and sent him over the deep end.

Some chattering part of his brain noted that Bobby Ray was much better at swallowing than he’d been, while the rest of him struggled with the realization that his legs could no longer hold him up. With little grace or finesse, he sank to the ground next to the grinning Bobby Ray.

They wrapped themselves around each other, breath and heart rate slowly returning to normal as they cuddled on the office floor.

Too soon, Bobby Ray was shifting around, though still holding Andrew close while managing to get them both tucked in and cleaned up with the tissues they’d knocked off the desk at some point. Andrew knew they had to go back to the real world eventually. But not yet. He wasn’t nearly ready yet.

Instead of protesting, though, he blurted out the question rattling around in his brain.

“How long are you going to be in New York?”

Bobby Ray blinked in surprise, but answered quickly. “A little over a week. We have the soft opening tomorrow, then the grand opening next Friday. I fly south again on Monday.”

“Will you have time… I mean, I know you’ll be busy… but, do you think we could get dinner? Or something.”

God, the uncertainty jangled through every word and he hated it. He was still wrapped up in Bobby Ray’s arms, but he didn’t know how long he’d get to stay. Or when he’d get to be there again.

“Yeah,” Bobby Ray whispered against his temple, tightening his arms and pulling Andrew even closer. “Yeah, I’ll have plenty of time this week.”

Andrew eased back, more confident and comfortable than he’d been in a long, long time. There were still a lot of challenges for them to face. Now, though, he was willing to fight to keep this. Every day of the rest of his life, if necessary.

He finally knew who he was, what he wanted, and where he belonged.

 The sounds from the gallery penetrated the door and burst their little bubble of solitude.

“I have to go back out there, soon, you know.”

Andrew sighed and sat up a little straighter. “Yeah, I’ve kept you long enough.”

“There’s a back way out, if you want me to show you.” Bobby Ray didn’t quite meet his eyes when he made the offer.

Andrew frowned and stepped closer. “What, are you suddenly afraid to be seen with me?”

Bobby Ray immediately met his eyes and shook his head vehemently. “Of course not. Just because you’re ready to come out, it doesn’t mean it has to be all at once. I told you, there’s a lot of media-types out there tonight.”

“Yup.” Andrew ignored the flutter of nerves and gave his best reassuring smile. Bobby Ray didn’t seem fooled, however.

“They all started whispering as soon as you walked in the door, trying to figure out how the angle with you and Melanie and Jake was going to work out.”

“I know.”

“At least some of them are going to have seen us come in here together.”

“Yup.” Suddenly the flutter of nerves became a twist of hunger. Thinking about the two of them walking out hand in hand, obviously together, made him want in a way he’d never expected.

“What I’m trying to say, is if we go out there, right now, looking like this, they are going to know what we’ve been doing in here.”

Andrew looked them both over. “Yeah, I’d say it’s pretty obvious.”

“Andrew.” Frustration laced his growl, and Andrew couldn’t help thinking Bobby Ray looked adorable when he was irritated. He decided it was better not to say that out loud, however.

“Look, I told you, I’m over that. Mostly. Not promising I won’t have moments of panic from time to time. But I want this, I want you. I want us. And I’d much rather share it with the world on my own terms than live in fear that some sneaky photographer is going to blindside me with it. I’m not ashamed of how I feel about you. I never was, just scared of everything it meant. I’m ready to show the world, now, that you mean more to me than all that other stuff.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Not sure I’m ready to be in those gossip rags.” Bobby Ray muttered trying to straighten his shirt a little more, but it was hopelessly wrinkled.

“Too bad,” Andrew laughed and took his hand, sliding their fingers together. “You’re just going to suck it up and be brave with me.”

With his free hand, he unlocked the door and twisted the handle slightly.

“Ready to start the rest of our lives?”

“Together?”

“Together. Definitely together.”

“Yeah. I’m ready.”

Andrew opened the door and they walked back into the party, ready to take on whatever he needed to in order to keep Bobby Ray by his side like this for a very, very long time.