Nick got to the hotel just as Trip was going in through the main door.
Trip turned around. “Hi, yourself. You and your buddy have a good time last night?”
“It was okay.”
“Where did you go for dinner?”
Nick belatedly recalled kind Trip’s offer. “We didn’t. Al wasn’t in the mood, so we stayed in and made do with chips and dips.”
When they came to the hotel’s twenty-four-hour coffee shop, Trip halted. “You got time to join me for a coffee? I had calls from a couple of the higher-ups last night about this afternoon’s birthday party. I’ve been told six-year-olds can be quite demanding, so I’d like to run through the details with you. Make sure we’re doing everything we can to make the event really special. Anything come to mind?”
Nick waited until they’d found a table and their coffee arrived. “I’d appreciate having a couple of extra servers. That’s if you can spare them. Bearing in mind it’s the weekend and you’re probably stretched thin.”
“Sure, no problem seeing it’s in the afternoon. I’ve already given the kitchen instructions on the cupcakes, and I’ve asked the gift shop to make up swag bags. Anything else?”
“Balloons and party favors. Everyone loves those.”
Trip nodded. “Great idea. Should have thought of that myself. I’ll have someone come do the decorations just before the children arrive.”
They continued talking for a few minutes, then Trip checked his watch. “Sorry, Nick. I need to go. Good luck with the party.”
“We still on for tonight?”
* * * *
Nick had just finished filling the glass-fronted display cabinet with a selection of that day’s special desserts and turned the sign to OPEN when Mary, one of the three waitresses currently assigned to Butterscotch Dreams, came rushing into the café.
“Sorry I’m late.” She disappeared in the back, presumably to stow her purse in the back, then returned a moment later looking a little flustered. “Cinda was supposed to be doing my early shift today, but her kid got sick last night. Then I couldn’t find a ride, and…”
Although the café officially opened at nine thirty, there was rarely much in the way of traffic until later in the morning, and Nick had never been one to crack the whip with his staff—with the exception of anyone who saw it as a sign of weakness and took advantage.
“No problem…you’re here now.” Closing his ears to the fading litany of excuses, Nick retreated to his cubbyhole of an office and closed the door.
Nick was aware he hadn’t behaved very well following Al’s unexpected appearance. Al was the man Nick had loved his entire adult life, yet he hadn’t been very welcoming or loving; but then he hadn’t felt welcoming or loving. Meeting again after all these months apart had been a shock. He’d been embarrassed by Al mouthing off in front of Trip, and he’d felt guilty about disappearing from Al’s life without a single word of explanation.
Sure, they’d made love a couple of times, but there had been none of the emotion or magic they’d once shared. It had felt as mechanical and meaningless as hooking up with a guy along the Fruit Loop—a momentary high and then nothing. He wasn’t surprised. From the moment Al stepped through the door of Butterscotch Dreams, Nick had known Al would use sex to try to rearrange Nick’s life to suit his own.
Nick also knew giving Al an ultimatum wasn’t the smartest thing he could have done. Al had always been both proud and arrogant, positive he was right and the rest of the world wrong. In the past, rather than argue, Nick had just rolled his eyes and gone along with it. Now, it was time he showed some independence, and way past time Al got it through his thick head that sex wasn’t everything. As he’d told Al earlier, love wasn’t always enough. He should have added that for a relationship to work and be strong, there also needed to be an element of give and take plus consideration on both sides.
Being Saturday, business was brisk, but in between customers, Nick still found time to reflect on his relationship with Al. He knew Al hadn’t taken his ultimatum seriously for the simple reason he’d never taken a firm stand with Al on anything before now. It had been easier to just go along with whatever Al wanted or suggested, and it wouldn’t have occurred to Al that things might have changed.
Despite what Al might think, Nick knew he’d changed quite a bit over the past few months. Although still Mr. Nice Guy with his staff—he’d long ago learned it was the only way to get genuine respect—he’d become more assertive over other aspects of his life. Since moving to Vegas, he’d become his own man rather than Al’s chattel or possession. If there were even the remotest chance of them having a future together, Al needed to understand and accept that.
Saturday was the one day Butterscotch Dreams closed at eight rather than nine, and Trip showed up just as Nick was about to lock the door.
“You ready to roll?” Trip asked. He looked as laid back and relaxed as if he’d spent the day at a spa rather than the pressure cooker job of constantly arranging and rearranging the Neapolitan’s nonstop staffing problems.
“Give me a few minutes to wash my hands and change my clothes, and I’ll be right with you.”
“How did the birthday party go this afternoon?”
“Fantastic. Kids had a great time. No one threw up and not one complaint, so I’d say it was a win-win all around.”
Knowing he wouldn’t have time to go home after work, Nick had brought with him a change of clothes in the form of hip-hugging designer jeans and a designer T-shirt. After washing his face and hands with cold water, he checked his appearance in the mirror. Too bad he’d forgotten his razor, but it was no big deal. If celebrity fashion was so in,
then to his mind that included what he decided was his own rather sexy version of five-o’clock shadow.
“Feeling lucky tonight?” Trip asked as they left the Neapolitan and walked up the street toward the Strip.
“Not particularly. In fact…” Nick hesitated. “Would you mind if we forget poker tonight and go for a drink instead?”
“Fine with me. I guess you’re feeling tired from the double shift. I did warn you it would be too much.”
“No, the double shift was fine. I’m…I guess I’m just not in the mood.”
“So, how did it go with your friend last night?” Trip asked.
Trip wasn’t normally a curious person, but whatever the reason for his interest, it both surprised and pleased Nick. “Okay, I guess. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Trip shot him a quick sideways glance. “That a polite way of telling me to mind my own business?”
“The only reason I asked was because I got the impression his visit was something of a surprise.”
“You’re right. It was a surprise. Big and completely unexpected. ”
“So he’s not just a casual friend from back home?”
Nick hesitated. While he wasn’t in the habit of sharing his personal business with all and sundry, Trip was the closest thing he had to a friend. Trip was also straight. He’d been married and had a kid. Although what difference that made, Nick wasn’t sure. Bitching about Al wasn’t likely to give Trip the impression he was being hit on. “Al and I lived together until ambition got the better of him, and I felt excess to requirements. That’s why I left and came down here.”
Trip frowned. “And I suppose now he wants you back?”
“That’s what he says. On his terms, naturally. Anyway, you don’t want to know. It’s one big, complicated, screwed-up mess that sounds more like something out of a soap opera than real life. He started off by making demands, and I countered with an ultimatum of my own. Where we are now is anyone’s guess.”
“I’m a good listener if you want to unload.”
At Trip’s suggestion, they decided to have a drink in one of the smaller casinos. A place where the customers were few and the noise level low enough for normal conversation.
They found seats at the bar, and after the bartender brought their drinks, Trip nudged Nick’s arm. “We both know you’re going to keep chewing on whatever it is that’s bothering you until you come up with a solution, so why not just spit it out?”
“It’s okay. I’ll…” Nick sighed and shook his head. “No. Maybe you’re right. This is one time I could use an outside, unbiased opinion, and since you’ve been married, maybe you can—”
Trip held up a hand. “Hey, stop right there. Where did you get the idea I was married?”
“No. Not even once.”
“But I…” Nick tried covering his embarrassment by grabbing his glass and taking a sip of beer. “Guess I misunderstood. That’ll teach me to listen in on other people’s gossip?”
“You overheard someone say I was married? Who was it?”
“A couple of my waitresses. I overheard them chatting while they were on break. I thought it was you they were talking about.”
“What did they say?”
“That your wife had died and left you with a young son, and that the two of you were now living with your mom so she can take care of the child.”
Trip smiled and held up his right hand. “Not guilty, Your Honor. That was my assistant, Jim, they were talking about, not me. His wife died in a car accident. I’ve never been married, and I live alone. Anyway, you were saying.”
“Really? That’s too bad. About your assistant’s wife, that is.”
“Yeah, I know. I really feel for the poor guy. It happened a little over a year ago, and the good news is Jim is finally getting himself back on track. Now, you were starting to tell me about your friend. What happened?”
Nick gave Trip a short, bare-bones version of what had transpired between himself and Al, and finished by saying, “It’s hard to believe a lawyer, someone who’s trained to check all the facts, would close his eyes and jump into something so potentially tricky, but that’s exactly what he did.”
Trip took a sip of his drink and put the glass down on the bar. “That’s always the problem with seemingly simple plans. You figure nothing can possibly go wrong, but there’s usually a catch somewhere.”
“In this case, the catch was Missy herself.” Nick sighed. “She presented the plan as a quid pro quo arrangement: since we’ll both be winners, how can it possibly fail? Al went for it without even blinking. He’s even convinced himself she knew nothing about her family’s attitude on divorce, or the ‘no gays’ thing at her father’s law firm. I don’t believe it and, if Al’s honest, neither does he. She knew exactly what she was doing.”
“You sure about that?”
“How could she not know? The way I hear it, her dad’s very vocal about his likes and dislikes, and she’s far from stupid. She’s smart, well-educated, and well over twenty-one. You bet she knew. She found out about Al’s burning ambition to get into Hilldale and used it to her own advantage. It’s worked out perfectly for her. She gets to live her life any which way she pleases with her girlfriend, while Al’s stuck in what I gather is a semihostile environment.”
“He could always tell her to stuff it and leave.”
“Tell him that. He won’t listen to me. He’s too enamored with the idea of a partnership at Hilldale, which he’s quite sure he’ll get, and I’m just as sure he won’t. The old man had him thoroughly checked out, so he has to know for sure that Al’s gay. He even confronted Al about it. Told him to get over it or get out. He couldn’t have made it plainer.”
“So what’s Al doing down here?”
As Nick finished his beer, he noticed Trip was almost done with his and signaled the bartender for a refill. “Some friend of his is getting married tonight over at Caesars, and Al’s best man. I guess he saw the trip as a golden opportunity to try to talk me into going back home.”
“That’s the dilemma I’m in. Do I stay, or do I go? We were together a long time. Since we were teenagers. Do I go back to a life of sneaking around and hope something happens to put an end to Al’s ridiculous double life? Or do I stand by what I told him this morning?”
Trip drank a little of his fresh beer. “What did you tell him?”
“Basically, to cut his losses and move down here with me.”
“Think there’s a chance he’ll do it?”
Nick shrugged. “I doubt it. Not while he continues to let ambition be his master. He refuses to admit that while Missy’s dad is stuck with him as a son-in-law because of his strong stand on divorce, he’ll never permit a gay man to become a partner in his precious law firm. Ain’t never gonna happen, I guarantee. But Al can’t or won’t get the message.”
“Does Missy’s family know about her?”
“If they do, they’ll never admit it. People like the Hilldales don’t deal well with what they don’t understand. Either they pretend it doesn’t exist, or they tell themselves it’s nothing a couple of pain pills and a good night’s sleep won’t fix. Anyway, it’s Al who I care about, not her. I just wish I knew what to do.”
“Are you asking my opinion? Or just using me as a sounding board for what you’ve already decided?”