Alex loved the beach at sunrise, when streaks of pink stretched across the night sky spreading the hope of a new day. He walked across the sand, feeling at home because this was where he was supposed to be. The sound of the waves was the soundtrack to his life, the unique combination of sea breeze and sunscreen the cologne he planned to wear until the day he died.
For the life of him he didn’t know why it felt like the end of a long journey. He’d never left. He’d been on Mirabella Island all along. Then he lifted his gaze to the shoreline, seeing a man standing with his feet buried in the sand as the waves washed over them.
Alex’s breath caught, and for a moment he knew this couldn’t be true. Matt was gone, completely out of reach, and as far away from the seashore as one man could be. Alex had only himself to blame, and he almost felt guilty walking to him, but real or not, he’d never been able to resist him.
He came up behind Matt and wrapped his arms around the broad, muscular body that made up every wet dream Alex had had since he was twenty-two. He leaned down and buried his face in the curve of Matt’s neck, breathing him in, finding the familiar scent of expensive aftershave clinging to his skin like it belonged there.
They both wore nothing but swimming suits, and Alex savored the feel of Matt’s warm, powerful back pressed against his chest. He kissed his bare shoulder, and Matt made a low groan in the back of his throat as if he’d been waiting for Alex’s touch all this time.
It’d been so very long, and Alex’s cock swelled with painful need six years in the making. He threaded his fingers into Matt’s inky hair and tugged his head back roughly, looking for a release from the torture, the loneliness, the overwhelming regret that had become his constant companions.
He stared into Matt’s eyes, clear and honest, a strange blue-green, like the ocean on a breezeless, sunny day. That gaze never stopped being startling against the backdrop of tan skin and a face so handsome Alex felt haunted by its beauty.
Matt’s chest rose and fell with sharp, hard breaths of need. His beautiful eyes reflected the pain of loss too, and it ripped at Alex harsher than his own agony. More than anything, Alex just wanted to see Matt light up the way he used to before life stole the dreams of their youth.
Then Matt turned in his arms and kissed Alex hard, rash and impatient as his tongue pushed into Alex’s mouth. Suddenly the two of them were young and wild, invincible. They could fuck on the beach without fear. They could be in love, and no one was going to take it away from them.
Loving Matt wasn’t going to hurt him—not this time.
Alex realized then the island wasn’t his home; it never had been. Matt was his home, and Alex was still lost. Nothing about this was completely real, but it didn’t matter. He kissed Matt like a man starved. He ran his hands over warm, muscled flesh until he was gripping Matt’s tight ass, forcing their bodies close together. Their cocks brushed, hard and aching, straining against the material of their suits.
Alex wanted Matt naked. He wanted him in the sand, wet and bare and begging. He’d fuck him, and he’d do it without an ounce of remorse. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d done it on this beach, but every other time they were under the cover of darkness, hiding all manner of sins.
Now it was a new morning. A new beginning. Alex was desperate for it, and he pulled at the tie to Matt’s suit with shaking fingers. That small white string was a lifeline, but as he tugged, it fell through his grasp like sand.
He looked up, seeing Matt’s handsome face fade away and turn to dust. He reached frantically for Matt’s shoulders, once powerful and strong. Alex’s fingers slipped through the air, clutching at emptiness. Matt was nothing but a memory now, and Alex had known it. It’d been years since he’d gotten more than just a taste of love lost in these nighttime fantasies; even his subconscious was jaded and burned.
The knowing didn’t stop Alex from crying out in horror and frustration, still grasping in vain at a dream. “No! Matty! Don’t go!”
* * * *
“You’re dreaming, baby.”
Alex shot up in bed, still breathing deeply, looking for that new morning—for Matt. All he found was the shadowy darkness of his bedroom. The waves crashed in the distance, keeping him in that weird place between dreams and reality a little too long to make him anything less than miserable.
Soft arms wrapped around his waist, and a gentle kiss was placed to the curve of his side as he struggled with the collision of reality.
“You wanna talk about it?”
Alex looked down at Holly, wearing an old Jimmy Buffett tank top that stretched way too tight across her breasts and clung to her slim, curvy body like a second skin. Her long, curly brown hair fell past her shoulders in tangled disarray. Her green eyes were heavy-lidded with sleep, but she was still beautiful. Not for the first time, Alex wished he could’ve been made to love her instead. It would’ve made life so much easier—for both of them.
“No.” He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to take comfort from Holly’s soft caresses as she ran her fingers up his bare back. “It’s just the same ol’ bullshit.”
“You’re dreaming about him again,” Holly mused thoughtfully. “It’s been a while. I was hoping that meant you were starting to get over him. Six years is starting to border on pathetic.”
“You’re one to talk,” Alex snapped. Feeling lonely and exposed he searched for a way to defend himself. “You still say my brother’s name in your sleep, ’cause that’s not traumatizing or anything.”
Holly was silent for a long moment before she sighed. “Yeah, I suppose you have a point. I have those dreams too—all the time. As if a part of me is trying to cling to the past, even knowing it’s long gone. I wish I could forget. You ever feel like that? Like you almost wished it never happened just so it wouldn’t hurt so much?”
Alex considered that, the idea of never having had Matt in his life to begin with, and found the thought hurt worse than losing him. Feeling too raw to talk about it anymore, he reached over to the nightstand and turned the clock toward them to stare at the red numbers in the darkness.
“It’s past four.” He leaned closer, squinting at the top of the clock radio. “Did you forget to set it again?”
“Shit!” Holly rolled away from Alex and sprang out of bed. She tugged her tank top off, tossing it carelessly into the corner. “I get the shower first!”
Alex watched her run for the door, a flash of tan skin, curly hair, and florescent pink underwear. Holly was always slower to get ready for work, so he took his time getting out of bed, still clinging to his dream. He finally made his way to the coffeemaker, an expensive one-cup brewer system that’d been worth the money because of the time it saved. They ran late for work more often than not.
It was a good thing he was the boss.
* * * *
One would think working and living together the way they did Alex and Holly would get sick of each other, but they never did. They rarely fought and enjoyed each other’s company most days.
Alex really didn’t understand why everyone believed them to be longtime live-in lovers. They were far too companionable to be romantically involved, but as best friends they were a match made in heaven. Since grade school they’d been inseparable and due to not one, but two broken hearts, they had never stopped the trend the way most friends did when they grew up. A best buddy was supposed to be replaced by someone who was his everything, someone to share his secrets and
his bed, the someone he was supposed to grow old with.
The way things were going, Holly was going to be that person for Alex, and he couldn’t help but feel he was a little too young to consider forgoing sex for the rest of his life for the sake of companionship.
“Hey, boss. I thought HF was home fries.”
Alex blinked out of his melancholy and turned to look at the new cook Jamie. He was young and good-looking in a blond, pretty-boy-type way with a slim, angular body most tops like Alex loved. For just a second Alex tried to imagine himself with this handsome, enthusiastic new cook, burying his face in his silky blond hair and for once not craving thick black hair that smelled of expensive shampoo and sunshine. Just as quickly as he formed the thought it vaporized, leaving him feeling nothing but annoyance. It was pointless. He might as well be imagining himself with Holly.
He had to tell Holly to stop hiring gay cooks—even if the intention was good, the outcome was always uncomfortable and eventually disastrous.
Alex turned back to the flattop and plated two eggs. “HF is home fries.”
“Then why did you put hash browns on this one?”
“Shit.” Alex looked to the deck, seeing the plate did indeed have hash browns. He grabbed the ticket from Jamie, confirming his mistake. “Sorry, man. Thanks for catching that.”
“No problem.” Jamie smiled at Alex. It made him look even younger and more handsome than he already was. “I got your back.”
He saw the interest in Jamie’s blue gaze, and Alex thought he must be getting desperate, because it was tempting. If they were anywhere else but his kitchen working the morning breakfast rush, he might have acted on it, but Jamie did work for him. Alex wasn’t quite that stupid.
“Yeah.” Alex turned around and dismissed him as politely as possible. “Gimme the plate. I’ll fix it.”
After that Alex kept his mind on cooking. With only Jamie for help, he couldn’t afford to get caught up in other issues. This was the reason he loved owning a restaurant. Most days he was too busy with the concerns of the day-to-day operation of it to be bothered to sulk too much over the rest of his life.
He didn’t have a lull for another hour. When he did, he dashed out of the kitchen and ran to the server station, cup in hand, in desperate need of iced tea. It was too damn hot in the kitchen to drink coffee.
“Daryl wants to know why you hired a faggot to cook for you.” Holly leaned against the open doorway leading to the dining room. Her long hair was tied up in a bun as usual, and her day dress covered by an apron. She pulled a face at Alex. “I told him to suck it.”
“You can’t tell customers to suck it,” Alex said in annoyance. “Go apologize to him.”
“Fuck you.” Holly let out an incredulous laugh. “I’m not saying sorry to that bigoted bastard.”
“If someone says something like that, you just tell them we’re an equal-opportunity employer. Do you see the difference? You’re still defending your decision to hire Jamie; just one way is less confrontational.” Alex turned around to glare at Holly. “You run the front of the house. I rely on you to be professional, even to assholes like Daryl.”
“I’d suck you
before I’d say sorry.” Holly’s eyes narrowed in determination. “If you want Daryl’s ass kissed, you better be the one to do it.”
Alex pushed past Holly and walked into the dining room of his seaside diner, Starfish and Coffee. He tried to avoid the front of the restaurant most mornings because they were always busy, and everyone knew him. Baseball glory in a small town like Mirabella Island was hard to shake. It still haunted him ten years later.
The dining room was small and cozy, decorated the way a beachfront breakfast café should be. The walls were pale blue with white trim, and the floors were all light wood. Alex wanted to create a warm, friendly atmosphere and succeeded for the most part—except on days when Holly was telling customers to suck it.
Despite feeling largely antisocial due to extreme irritation, he greeted everyone who said hello. It took him longer than he could afford to get outside to the large covered veranda that faced the beach and sported ten tables for people who wanted to brave the outdoors for a view of the ocean.
“When are you gonna cure Holly of all that liberal bullshit?”
Alex fought the urge to growl under his breath as he grabbed a chair from one of the empty tables and carried it over to where Daryl and two more of Alex’s former baseball teammates were sitting. He turned the chair backward and crossed his arms over the back of it as he sat.
He gave Daryl a bored look. “You know it pisses Holly off when you say shit like that. Why do you do it? This back-and-forth between you two is so
“She’s a communist.” Life hadn’t been that kind to Daryl. A good forty pounds heavier than he had been in high school, he still had the look of a bully, with buzzed blond hair and beady brown eyes. Dressed Florida casual in a T-shirt and shorts, he was a good ol’ hometown boy if ever there was one. He gave Alex a narrow-eyed look of someone trying his hardest to intimidate. “You should fire her.”
“He can’t fire her, asshole.” Brandon Carver rolled his eyes, making it obvious he didn’t share Daryl’s negative opinions of Holly. “He’s been fucking her since high school. They’re practically married.”
Alex just raised his eyebrows instead of verbally agreeing to that assessment.
a communist,” George Harden agreed. Daryl’s longtime drinking buddy, the two of them shared the common goal of staying single and drunk for as long as possible, neither of which was all that difficult for them. “Her car’s got all those bullshit bumper stickers on it. Recycling—”
Alex snorted. “What the fuck is wrong with recycling?”
“War sucks,” Alex argued. “No one likes war.”
“She doesn’t support our troops.”
“Yes, she does. She sends four care packages a week to our troops. What are you doing to support them, Georgie?”
“She’s got a rainbow sticker in the window.” Daryl gave him a pointed look. “That means she’s a lesbian, Alex. For all you know, she’s been living a secret life all this time. That’s why she’s all fired up over that new cook of yours—she’s protecting her own.”
“A lesbian?” Alex couldn’t help but laugh. “I hope you didn’t hurt yourself coming up with that theory.”
“All those liberal women are lesbians.”
“God, could you two be any more predictably redneck.” Alex was so tired of their bullshit. “She’s not a lesbian. She’s a champion of causes, all causes. You know that.”
“She told me to suck it. She’s a shitty manager.”
“She’s an awesome manager,” Alex argued, forcing a smile. “But she shouldn’t have told you to suck it, and I apologize. You’ve been pissing her off since kindergarten, Daryl. I think you do it on purpose because you secretly enjoy her scratching your eyes out.”
“He does.” Brandon laughed and reached over, punching Alex’s arm. “When you gonna bust out of this restaurant and come fishing with us for a day or two?”
“Probably never.” Alex rested his chin in his hand as he sighed longingly, craving several days of deep-sea fishing. He missed the days of feeling the sun shining on his bare back for hours and having nothing to do but fish and drink beer. “Customers don’t respond well to GONE FISHING signs around here.”
“Sure they do.” George scowled at Alex. “You never hang out anymore. You close at four. At least stop by the bar for a drink. You’d be surprised who you run into when you actually do something besides fuck Holly. I saw your ol’ buddy Matt last night.”
Alex couldn’t hide the wide-eyed look of shock he gave George. “Matt’s in town?”
“Yeah, man. You didn’t know that?” Brandon glanced to everyone at the table before looking at Alex in confusion. “He was asking about you. Come out tonight, you’ll probably run into him.”
Alex wanted to question them, to ask for every detail of what exactly Matt wanted to know about him, and more so, what they’d told him. He also wanted to know what he looked like. If six years later he was still Adonis beautiful or if life had beaten him up a little. Alex found he really didn’t care if Matt’s broad, muscular body had gotten thick the way Daryl’s had. Once upon a time Alex’s favorite daydream was the two of them growing old, bald, and doughy together.
He swallowed hard, forcing the stiffness out of his shoulders as he shrugged. “Got inventory for the next few days. How long’s he in town?”
“He said he’d be here for a few weeks visiting his mama. Can’t blame him. How long’s it been since he’s been home?”
“Six years,” Alex responded without thinking. “Maybe I’ll make it out,” he lied, knowing his eyes had to be haunted. He stood and rubbed at the back of his neck. “I gotta get back to work. I’ll have Darleen bring out a basket of starfish—on the house.”
“Thanks, Alex!” Brandon beamed. “We gotta have Daryl piss your girl off more often.”
Alex shrugged, uncaring about Daryl and Holly’s battle of wills that had gotten old around the third grade. He tried to focus on the kitchen that was probably swamped with orders. Instead he thought of Matt and hated himself for secretly hoping to see him again.
He turned around and headed back inside. His mind was off to a place when youth and enthusiasm reigned supreme. Days when he thought with his dick and heart instead of his brain, never realizing how badly he would spend the rest of his life suffering for it.
Holly ran up and met him at the door while he was still lost in his memories. “Give ’em some starfish, Holly.”
“Alex.” Holly’s eyes were wide and stunned as she pulled him to the side of the dining room. To others it would look like she was hugging him, playing the affectionate girlfriend as she wrapped her arms around his back. Her touch comforted as she whispered in his ear, “Matt’s here.”
He stiffened in her arms, too stunned to appreciate that he had been at least a little prepared for this. He looked over Holly’s shoulder, finding Matt easily in the crowd of people standing at the counter. Alex sucked in a sharp gasp, feeling a shiver of white-hot desire roll down his spine. Fate was officially a cruel bitch, because Matt didn’t look as good as Alex remembered: he looked better.
“You’re strong.” Holly gripped his shoulder, squeezing tightly, making it apparent he was suddenly being obvious.
“Sure,” he mumbled, still staring at Matt hungrily.
He stepped back from Holly and looked away from Matt while searching for the strength Holly seemed convinced he possessed. He rubbed at the back of his neck and tried to steel himself against the emotions washing over him. Weaker than he thought, Alex looked back after only a quick, shaky breath to calm his nerves. Matt’s black hair was shorter than he remembered, cut in an expensive, very metro-type hairstyle. He wore a polo shirt and khaki shorts, pulling off that casual, but still successful and wealthy look common in Florida.
He could see Matt was still built as the linebacker he was in his youth, broad shoulders and thick muscles. It was hard to tell the way his shirt was tucked in, but Alex had an eye for these things, and he was certain Matt still had a firm six-pack.
Alex heard newcomers greeting him, but didn’t acknowledge them as he walked around the counter toward the register. He thought he was acting like his normal easygoing self.
It was a lie. His knees were shaking, and his stomach jittery. Just breathing was taking effort as he leaned casually against the counter and faced Matt, praying for strength to protect both of them and keep his cool. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Matt said, his voice smooth, but there was a haunted look in his light gaze as he studied Alex.
Matt wasn’t even being subtle as he studied him. It made Alex wish he were wearing something besides beaten-up jeans and a T-shirt he used for work. The black apron he had tied on over his clothes had flour smeared on it. His baseball hat was on backward like he hadn’t grown up since the last time they’d shared the same air.
Matt took a deep breath, as if also looking for the strength to breathe. “You look handsome—h-healthy. Um, you look good, Alex.”
That caused Alex to look past him, seeing if Matt’s stuttering compliments had been heard. Matt had never been subtle. He hadn’t honed the fine art of being a gay man in public, perhaps because he was straight—most days.
Nonetheless, Alex was flattered. Matt was going to do away with Alex’s own cool exterior and make them both obvious.
He grinned and rubbed his sweaty palm against his apron before he held it out to Matt, shaking his hand across the counter in an effort to remind both of them that to the world, they had only ever been friends. “You too, buddy. You’re looking pretty healthy yourself.”
“You’re doing good.” Matt gave him a beaming smile that lit up his entire face. “I’m really happy about that.”
“Thanks.” Alex pulled his grip out of Matt’s and looked around when he felt his eyes sting. “You want something?”
“Absolutely.” Matt nodded, making it obvious he was genuinely excited about being there. “My mama never told me you actually bought this place. I found out from the guys last night.”
Alex wanted to yell and scream, to point out that Matt’s mama came in every morning for breakfast to torment him with her presence and the reminder that she was always watching.
“Anything you want,” Alex said instead of berating Matt for having a mama Alex loathed more than anyone in this world. “On the house.”
“Bullshit, I’m paying for it.” Matt’s grin was still wide and full of happiness about Alex’s success as he grabbed a menu off the counter next to the register and looked at it. “What are starfish doughnuts? I’ve been hearing about them everywhere.”
“House specialty, starfish-shaped doughnuts, got cinnamon and sugar on them. Really fattening, really good.” Alex grinned.
“So it’s not just a catchy name?”
“Nope, there was thought put into it.” Alex found himself mindlessly straightening the counter, a blush burning his cheeks because despite his lousy attire, he was pleased Matt was seeing he’d made something of himself. “You should try ’em.”
“I usually don’t eat fried food.” Matt gave Alex a guilty wince. “But sure, yeah, I’d love to try them.”
Alex laughed. “Well, sit down. We’ll give you the five-star treatment. Coffee and napkins and everything. I got a hot server—you’ll love her.”
“Owner’s pretty hot too.” Matt’s gaze met his. “He must set the standard.”
“Whatever,” Alex said dismissively, though the butterflies in his stomach were going crazy, and he was thankful for his apron because his cock was rock hard. He turned around, making sure no one had heard Matt before he searched for an escape. “I gotta go back to work. Got a new guy on. I’m leaving him in the weeds.”
“I’d like to talk to you, Alex.” Matt was as honest as ever. He had never beaten around the bush. “I’ll wait around till you close.”
“We’re open till four.” Alex looked at his watch and raised his eyebrows. “That’s five hours from now.”
“I’ve got time.”
Alex wanted to tell him to fuck off and stop tormenting him. But he just nodded and swallowed hard, trying to keep his voice even. “Then find a booth and make yourself comfortable.”
He turned to walk back to the kitchen, hardly seeing Holly who had been lingering in the corner, eavesdropping the whole time. Her eyes were wide, silently communicating her shock. Alex’s legs were shaky, and his thoughts about anything but Matt scattered in a million different directions. It’d be a small miracle if he managed to make it through the rest of the day without screwing up every order that came into the kitchen.
Alex still wanted him. He ached in a way he thought he never would again, and his eyes stung because more than anything he had forgotten how deeply he loved Matt and how profoundly he had missed him.