“Vin, can you give these to Shelly?” Dave held out a basket of fries as Vin walked by the kitchen door, and Vin took them automatically.
“Yeah, sure. Just this?” French fries on their own weren’t an uncommon request—people who came to the Square Peg were usually more interested in a snack to go along with a few drinks than an actual meal—but Vin didn’t want to deliver half an order.
“Uh-huh. Thanks. Busy night!” Dave stepped back into the kitchen, humming tunelessly the way he did when he was happy.
The smell of fried food was making Vin hungry. He was used to his new work schedule, but his meal schedule was another story. Some nights he didn’t have dinner until after last orders, his blood sugar so low that his hands would shake as he lifted the first bite to his mouth. That was an indication of the bar’s success since it’d reopened six weeks before, with Vin moving into Shane’s apartment above the bar to keep an eye on things. The renovations following the fire had gone as smoothly as anyone could’ve asked, but the months when it’d been closed had been hard on everyone. It was good to be back to normal.
A quick glance at his watch as he handed Shelly the fries to deliver told him it was later than he’d realized—Helen and Patrick were both due in anytime for the late shift.
“Hey, Vin!” One of the regulars lifted a hand as Vin walked by his table. “You see that game last night?”
“Sure.” It was a lie Vin told easily, but only because it was a running joke between them. Weird how he could have a joke with someone whose name he couldn’t remember. It definitely started with a C, but after that it could have been anyone’s guess. Cody? Colin?
“And that play near the end there? That was amazing.”
“Good thing our favorite sports team is so talented.”
Vin raised a hand in greeting to Helen as she came in. He saw a few empty glasses that needed collecting at the far end of the room, but the guy was talking again. “Hey, my friend last week was asking about you.”
Now the friend Vin did remember. Tall, strong jaw, dark hair, and tight little nipples visible through the thin fabric of his shirt. “Was he?”
“Yeah. He was hoping I’d have some suave way of finding out if you’re seeing anyone, but I couldn’t figure out how except just asking.”
Vin shook his head. There’d been a time when the subject made him uncomfortable, but he was over it now. “Sorry. I don’t date.”
“What, guys?” Possibly-Colin’s eyes widened. “You aren’t straight. My gaydar is not that rusty.”
“Your gaydar’s fine,” Vin assured him. “I’m gay, and I don’t have a boyfriend or a husband, but I’m single and not interested in changing that.”
“Is it one of those taking-back-your-virginity things?” The man was curious; he wasn’t being an asshole about it, so Vin was okay with the conversation continuing, at least a little longer.
“Nowhere to take it back from,” Vin said. Telling the truth had always been simple for him; he was built for honesty, not deception. Living his life as an open book meant no complications, and that was how he liked it. “Patrick here, on the other hand…”
Patrick had arrived for his shift less than a minute after Helen had, and he stopped when Vin reached out to snag his sleeve. “That’s what I like, proof that I’m wanted,” Patrick said. His cropped blond hair was spiked with gel, tinted contacts turning his eyes a startling shade of blue tonight. “Good to see you, Cal. How’s everyone?”
While Patrick and Cal—he’d known it started with C—chatted, Vin let his gaze move slowly across the room, taking it all in—the crowd, the mood, and the way money was changing hands. He liked to think he could sense when something was off.
With a nod to Cal, he went to collect the glasses, putting them behind the bar in a plastic bowl, ready to be carried through to the kitchen for washing. After dumping his jacket in the break room, Patrick joined him, nibbling at a fry he must’ve snagged from Dave.
The front door opened again, and a young man about Vin’s age and height entered. Blond hair like Patrick’s, nervous the way so many guys were the first time they came in, unsure of what to expect from gay bars in general or the Square Peg in particular. The guy’s chin rose as he looked around, and when his eyes met Vin’s, all the air seemed to go out of the room.
“Vin?” The note of uncertainty in Patrick’s voice would’ve captured Vin’s attention any other time, but with Riley standing a few yards away, it barely registered.
The tattoo on his arm, with Riley’s initials worked into the dragon’s tail and inked into Vin’s skin, was a reminder of the young man he’d fallen in love with during high school, but Vin had never needed it.
Riley was impossible to forget.
Five years wasn’t long looked at one way, but the gulf between eighteen, when Vin had last seen Riley, and twenty-three, their current age, was huge. He knew exactly how old Riley was because they’d been born on the same day, and Vin had celebrated his birthday a few weeks earlier with a day off and a cake Patrick had persuaded the ever-talented Helen to bake. High school Vin had seen their shared birth dates as a sign from the universe rather than a coincidence.
He should move now. Say something. Smile. Solve world hunger as an encore, because that was equally impossible, frozen with shock as he was.
Riley Wells. In his bar. Staring at him with eyes Vin remembered as blue gray, which darkened when Riley was worked up about something, clear as water the rest of the time.
Riley dug his teeth into a lip Vin had dreamed of kissing, and stepped forward, the scrape of his boots on the wooden floor loud because the bar had fallen silent.
Vin had seen men come into the bar, all bravado and swagger or jittery with nerves, and yeah, some of them hadn’t stayed long enough to cross the floor and order a drink. Gay or straight, they hit a wall and turned back instead of climbing over it. Riley wasn’t running. He was going to keep walking over to Vin, back into his life.
Riley glanced around, meeting one curious stare after another. Heat colored his fair skin, and the broad shoulders that always made his shirts look tight on him curved forward in a defensive hunch.
Stop fucking staring!
Vin wanted to yell at everyone in the bar, including his bosses. Ben and Shane were a few feet to his right, as engrossed in the drama as the customers, Ben’s hand resting on Shane’s shoulder, a possessive, unthinking caress that Shane was leaning into like a petted cat. Before Vin could say it aloud, Riley spun around, jerking the door open and letting it slam behind him as he left.
“Fuck, no. No fucking way are you running,” Vin said into the expectant hush. He tossed aside the damp cloth he’d been using to wipe down the bar, feeling the air meet his palm in a cool kiss. Taking his gaze off the door for a moment, he turned to Ben and Shane. “Boss? Both of you? I’ll be back in a minute.”
Without waiting for permission—he knew them well enough to be sure of it—Vin followed Riley out into the November night.
It was mild, but even if it had been freezing cold, Vin didn’t think he’d have felt it. There wasn’t room inside him—he was too filled up with shock, confusion, anticipation, and most of all, the overwhelming need to touch Riley, to reassure himself this wasn’t a dream. “Hey!”
Riley was facing away from him, walking toward the small city lot where most of the bar’s patrons parked. He kept walking and didn’t respond to Vin’s call. Whether he hadn’t heard or was assuming Vin wasn’t talking to him, Vin didn’t know, so he tried again.
Riley paused and turned toward him, and Vin moved closer cautiously, part of him worried that Riley might bolt. He looked skittish as hell.
“I thought it was you,” Vin said. “It’s been a while, but you look about the same. A little taller, maybe.”
“You…you look the same too.” Riley wasn’t just taller; he’d filled out in the shoulders.
They stood there. A car drove past them, the engine noise disturbing the silence between them. “So,” Vin said.
Riley didn’t say anything. His gaze flickered from Vin’s face down to somewhere near his waist and back again.
“First time in a gay bar?” Vin asked, and Riley blinked, startled.
“Uh, no.” Riley swallowed. “First time in yours.”
“You were looking for me?” Vin could be reading too much into it, but he didn’t think so.
“Yeah.” Riley rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been. You’ve got this whole life here, and I came strolling into it like it was given you’d be glad to see me.”
“How could I—when would I ever not be glad to see you?” The words revealed everything Vin had kept hidden during high school, less with their content than the emotion behind them. He’d never told Riley how he felt. What was the point? Straight, popular, destined for college and a bright future, Riley ticked the boxes for unavailable, out of your league, not interested,
and half a dozen more.
A few of those boxes had gotten unchecked. Not Riley’s first gay bar? The implications of that were huge. Vin had always assumed wishful thinking lay at the root of his dreams that Riley might one day lean in and kiss him with slow, sweet intensity. He’d seen Riley kiss girls that way and envied them. If the connection he’d felt with Riley from time to time was something more than an echo bouncing off a wall, it changed everything.
“Yeah?” Riley wrinkled his nose, a habit of his when he was uncertain that connected past to present with a click for Vin. He’d seen Riley do that a hundred times. “At school you never said, but I saw you…the way you looked at me. We were friends, I guess, but then you dropped out, and I never saw you again.”
“School wasn’t where I needed to be. I went to classes and got my diploma a few years later, to get my parents off my back, but…” Vin shook his head, impatient with himself. They could play catch-up anytime. What they’d done after school wasn’t important. What mattered was why Riley had been in the bar. “Why were you looking for me? You need something? It’s yours. Anything, man. I mean it.”
Riley didn’t seem convinced. “Really?”
“For sure. We were friends; we still are, as far as I’m concerned. Is something— I mean, are you okay?” A hundred thoughts were flying through Vin’s head of a hundred possible things that could be wrong, but all led back to why him. Why not one of the dozens of friends a guy like Riley probably had?
“I don’t know.” Riley looked lost, and Vin decided it was time to do what he did best.
“Well, we’re not going to figure it out standing here. My shift will be over in about an hour. Do you want to come in and have a drink, hang out for a while until I’m off? It won’t be long. Or you could come back later.” He’d promised Diane, one of the newer employees, that he’d take the first hour of her shift tonight, and wow, was he regretting it now.
Riley’s body language screamed indecision, his weight shifting from one foot to the other, his hands dug deep into the pockets of his leather jacket, but he nodded. “I can wait around. I don’t have anywhere else to be.”
“Okay. Come on, then.” Vin held out his hand, and after a few seconds—long enough that Vin was ready to take back the unspoken offer—Riley reached out and took it. His fingers were cold where they threaded between Vin’s, and his grip was tighter than Vin would have anticipated.
The bar was back to normal when Vin pushed the door open, voices talking and the clink of glasses creating such a din that the best part of going upstairs to his apartment at the end of the night was the quiet. Even with their entry not making the noise level dip, he was aware of eyes on them as he led Riley to an unoccupied booth and gestured for him to sit. “I’ll get you a drink. What do you want?”
“Beer,” Riley answered, an upward inflection making it enough of a question that Vin considered suggesting a soft drink. A clear head beat a beer-clouded one when it came to making decisions. He didn’t drink himself, never had, and his job had given him a front-row seat to some shocking lapses of judgment.
Like mixing cherry brandy with cider because it was your birthday and you were picking drinks that matched your T-shirt. And if the pink cocktail had, the puke that Vin mopped up an hour later when Patrick threw up in the men’s room most definitely hadn’t. It’d been two weeks before Patrick had worn something pink, which for him was unheard of.
“Elephant’s Ear if you’ve got it on draft,” Riley added with a return to confidence that Vin put down to the fact that no one was staring now that Riley was settled at a table.
“Yeah, we’ve got it. Shane’s big on supporting the local breweries.”
“Shane? Is he your boss?”
“One of them,” Vin said. He was hesitant to leave Riley even long enough to get his drink in case he came back to an empty table, but he added, “Be right back,” and forced himself to turn and walk away.
Patrick, sporting shiny blue nail polish tonight and a painted-on pair of silver jeans that made Vin’s balls ache in sympathy, fell on him like a starving wolf as soon as he neared the bar. “Who’s that? Do you know him?”
“No, I always run out after complete strangers.” Vin rolled his eyes and pushed past Patrick. “Yeah, I know him. I’ll tell you about it later, okay?” That was the magical phrase most likely to get Patrick off his back, and as expected, it seemed to work.
He drew the pint into a glass without a single smudge marring its surface. With Shane in sole charge, the occasional lapse in standards had been tolerated when the bar was busy. Those days were long gone. Ben’s uptight attitude had mellowed considerably since he’d left his accountancy job and settled into running the bar with Shane, but his standards were unrelentingly exacting. Vin had ruined half a dozen lemons one night cutting them to the thickness Ben required and making sure no pips remained.
The relationship between his employers intrigued Vin. He let Patrick’s excited babble about his latest pickup flow past him for the most part, his attention only caught if Patrick was describing something outrageous he’d done—or said he’d done. Patrick went for big guys with porn-star dicks and no brains who fucked him hard and often. The better they were at making him scream, the longer they stuck around. Patrick was a self-proclaimed slut, but, like Ben, he had standards.
“No glove, no love,
” Patrick had told him one night after hours, darting around the bar like a hummingbird as he collected glasses. “I mean, who doesn’t do that? Really? No smokers, no one who thinks soap operas are lame—but no one who watches them either, because, please, get a life.
” He struck a pose, the light catching the rainbow on his shirt, picked out in glittering stones. “And absolutely no one under eight inches. Bare minimum.”
“Do you take their word for it, or do you carry a tape measure around with you?
Patrick’s smile was evil in a cute way. “With my dates? I don’t take their word for anything, sweetie. But it’s amazing how being measured can add an inch. Me down there, my hands in all the right places, taking a lick to see if it tastes good. If it doesn’t, that’s another—
“Enough! God. After talking to you, I feel like I’ve been in a threesome.
Patrick had pouted, then mimed zipping his lip. Because he was Patrick, he’d unzipped it long enough to add, “Anytime you want that, just say the word.
Patrick was a known quantity. Ben and Shane, not so much. Shane was talking to Ben now, up in his face, his finger stabbing Ben’s chest, but with no real anger there. As Vin left the bar to deliver Riley’s drink, he saw Ben say something to Shane, saw Shane’s bravado change to a waiting expectancy, his head sink down for a moment.
Then Shane was on the move, briskly wiping down the top of the bar, a small, private smile tugging at his lips.
At least when Vin took the pint over to the table, Riley was still there. “Here you go,” he said, setting it down. “On me.”
“Thanks,” Riley said.
“No problem.” The occasional free drink for a friend was one of the benefits of the job, and one Vin almost never took advantage of, so he figured he was more than entitled. He leaned against the wall, the throbbing in his feet too much a part of his life to be a distraction. “You gonna be okay here?”
Riley smiled. It wasn’t much of a smile, but it beat a frown. “I think so. Unless there’s something about this place I don’t know? I read the article in the paper about you reopening.”
Which, Vin remembered, had included his name. “That’s how you found me? That was weeks ago!”
“Yeah.” He got an abashed look from Riley. “It took a while for me to get the nerve up to come and see you. After the fire there was a lot of talk about this place. I might have ended up here not knowing it was where you worked. That would have been a surprise.” Riley smiled again, and this time it seemed more genuine.
“It was a surprise for me this way. Like time travel.” When Riley gave him a confused look, Vin explained, “I felt like I was back in high school, seeing you standing over there.”
Jane Davitt & Alexa Snow