Sunlight flashed off the ocean on Cliff Garcia’s right as he drove along the two-lane road toward Sandy Bottom Bay. Salty air rushed into the car as he opened the window, and he drew in a deep breath, the scent making his homecoming seem more real than it had until now. He’d lived in Los Angeles for the past eight years, and despite frequent trips to the beach with friends, for some reason the Pacific just wasn’t the same as the Gulf Coast of Florida, where he’d grown up. Maybe it was because he couldn’t shake the stink of smog out of his nostrils, even at the beach. Maybe it was the aridity of California. Most people didn’t enjoy the thick, muggy humidity of a soggy Florida summer afternoon. Cliff didn’t much either, not when he was enduring it, but strangely, he found he’d missed even that while he’d been in California.
Not that he’d been perpetually homesick. The big city had taken some getting used to, for sure, but he’d made great friends and enjoyed the nightlife LA had to offer, when he wasn’t working. He’d left Sandy Bottom Bay as soon as he could after high school graduation and hadn’t ever expected to return, despite the fact that being a cop in LA hadn’t been what he’d expected.
Florida had a different vibe, a different scent, a different way of life. One that wasn’t always congruent with being gay, at least not in his tiny hometown. But then, he hadn’t been out on the LAPD either. The cynicism and nonstop threat of violence had worn him down in four short years on the job and turned him into a jaded, world-weary man at the tender age of twenty-six. It hadn’t taken long before he’d begun to wonder if he’d made a mistake living in LA. Cliff wasn’t entirely sure small-town life suited him, but here he was, back again, for the foreseeable future. Maybe there was nowhere he truly belonged. Nowhere he could be himself. Nowhere he could be happy.
Statistically, there had to have been other gay people in Sandy Bottom Bay, but Cliff had never known any of them. Instead, as one of his high school’s best athletes, he’d pretended to be straight, counting the days until he left for university.
California had seemed ideal, for a while. He’d been close enough to visit his dad in Pasadena; he’d had boyfriends, one-night stands, a job he both loved and hated, and his best friend, Pete. When the boyfriend cheated, the job became less satisfying, and Pete died in an accident, the allure of California vanished. A shiver ran through Cliff. Maybe he was only running away. Again. Maybe he didn’t have the strength of character to suck it up and stick it out when things got tough. His stomach churned. Was he a coward? Weak?
He wasn’t going to hide, though. Not this time. He was tired of hiding. If Sandy Bottom Bay didn’t like him as he was, he’d soon be on his way again. Hell, he’d flown in three days ago and found a long-term rental motel about ten minutes out of town, then spent the intervening time stocking up on supplies and relaxing in front of the television. He hadn’t set foot in Sandy Bottom Bay yet, nor had he told his mother he was returning. There would be plenty of time for that, for finding an apartment, getting his stuff shipped from California, and changing his driver’s license. Despite taking a job with the SBBPD, he still had one foot ready to run from this place.
A rueful chuckle escaped, the sound rusty since Cliff hadn’t spoken to anyone outside of requesting the room at the motel and ordering food for delivery. He couldn’t quite escape the knowledge that, as much as he hadn’t ever intended to return to Sandy Bottom Bay, events in LA had sent him running just as surely as when he’d run to LA in the first place. Where would he run to next? Would he even recognize a place he could make his home?
A billboard framed by palm trees caught his eye. White sandy beach, glistening blue water, and the words Visit Sandy Bottom Bay! Voted Best Beach in Florida.*
Cliff slowed his car, since there was no one on the road with him, to read the asterisked disclaimer, written in small enough font that most people wouldn’t be able to read it as they tore down the road at sixty-five miles an hour—or more, depending on whether they were defying the posted speed limit.
The disclaimer made him cringe. It represented everything he despised about his hometown, which wasn’t their probable lack of acceptance of his sexuality. This was the reason his parents had broken up. This was what his mother loved more than his father, more than him, more than anything in the world, as far as Cliff could tell. His mother’s delusions were not only accepted in Sandy Bottom Bay, they were actively encouraged. If it weren’t for the crackpots, con men, and charlatans who lived in and flocked to Sandy Bottom Bay, maybe his mother would be able to accept that she needed professional help. That she was only driving away people who cared about her and welcoming people who only wanted to exploit her wealth, status, and position.
Visit Sandy Bottom Bay! Voted Best Beach in Florida.*
*By readers of Paranormal Broadcast Weekly
A lengthy honk pulled Cliff’s attention from the billboard, and he realized he’d come to a full stop right there in the middle of the road. He quickly got back up to speed, but he couldn’t deny that the billboard, which looked brand-new, had soured his mood even more than having to venture into the town where he’d accepted a job. Where he’d have to find an apartment if he was going to stay for any length of time.
The next billboard, right at the city limits, made him let loose a growl.
Sandy Bottom Bay—Come for the Haunts, Stay for the Beaches!
This was going to be harder than he’d thought. He might resent his mother for what she’d done to his family with her belief in the supernatural, but he still loved the woman. This town and its delusions of ghosts only bilked the unsuspecting or gullible into parting with their hard-earned cash, in ways that seemed innocuous. His mother was the matriarch of the town, her family having lived in and supported it since the area had been settled. However much she bought into the occult crap, he wasn’t going to let her get taken advantage of by the townspeople. He didn’t give a shit about the money, except that he didn’t want his mother to give it away to people who pretended to buy into her delusions, in the hopes of financial gain.
Quaint buildings in faded corals and yellows came into view as the thick foliage on either side of the road thinned out. His hometown made him want to run away again. Leave his new job, leave his boss in the lurch, and drive as far away as he could. Cliff had never felt more divided in his life, not even when he pretended to be straight, dating one of the hottest girls at SBB High. A heavy sensation weighed down his stomach. He had an uncomfortable hunch that he was going to be a resident for a long while.
A glance at the clock confirmed he was going to be very early for his first shift. He wasn’t ready to start working yet, so he pulled into the parking lot of the Publix. Might as well grab something for lunch at the grocery store’s sandwich counter while he had the time. There were far more cars in the parking lot than he would have expected for that time of day.
Before he got out of the car, a flash of bright red hair, gleaming in the early morning sunlight, had him staring.
A simply gorgeous man, a few years younger than his own twenty-six, walked out of the store, clutching a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter. Tall and lanky, he moved swiftly through the parking lot. Cliff didn’t know who the hell the red-haired man was, but he was going to find out…and also find out if by chance Sandy Bottom Bay had another gay resident. Because not even the frown that pulled fair eyebrows together could change the fact that Cliff had spied one of the best-looking men he’d seen in a long time. Cliff had never been with a ginger before, but he loved how they looked, this one more than any.
From the number of people waving at him, and the fucking gorgeous smile he returned to them, the guy was undoubtedly a Sandy Bottom Bay resident, although he must have moved to town sometime after Cliff left. The smile made him hotter and sexier, with a hint of innocence Cliff hadn’t seen on any of the men in California.
With another big smile, the ginger stopped by an old Chevy, where an elderly woman was attempting to put her groceries in the trunk. After placing his peanut butter and bread on the roof of the car, he made short work of loading the groceries for her, then stood for a moment chatting. Cliff wasn’t parked close enough to get a hint of what the guy’s voice sounded like, but the sweetness of watching him do a good deed was a turn-on even while it warmed something inside that had become dark and cold in LA.
After a few minutes, the guy nodded and strode away to return the cart. When he continued to walk in the opposite direction of the elderly woman, Cliff unsnapped his seat belt, intending to call out, let him know he’d forgotten his own groceries, but was too late. The woman called to him, but not loud enough for Cliff to catch the guy’s name, and he rushed back, cheeks reddened in embarrassment. A few more words were exchanged before he grabbed his stuff and headed for the sidewalk.
The almost shoulder-length hair was practically aflame, and as the guy walked through the parking lot toward the sidewalk, heading for the main strip in town, Cliff continued to stare. Between the hair, the adorable blush, and the round, peachy ass enclosed in thin, faded jeans, Cliff might actually weep if the man wasn’t gay.
Unlike many of his friends, Cliff had never been interested in straight men. There was no magic to “gay for you,” no cachet to turning a straight man. In his opinion, a straight man who got seriously involved with a gay man had only been lying to himself until then and either wanted to keep his orientation a secret or had a mess of baggage Cliff didn’t have the time or patience to deal with. Not that Cliff hadn’t had more than a few guys call him a hypocrite for not being openly out at work, but he just hadn’t been comfortable putting his life on the line and trusting his fellow officers would do what was right when the chips came down.
If this man were bi-curious or straight, though, he might change Cliff’s mind about GFY, although the more Cliff watched, the more the guy pinged Cliff’s gaydar. Or maybe that was just Cliff’s wishful thinking.
The slow, steady throb of his cock, filling to full hardness in his uniform pants, surprised him. He was beyond—or so he’d thought—the unruly, unwanted erections that had plagued his younger years. The gorgeous ginger had gotten him all hot and bothered with nothing more than peanut butter and a good deed. For a few minutes, Cliff let himself picture stripping the red-haired hottie down to nothing, kissing skin that was amazingly pale for anyone who’d spent time in Florida.
But Cliff’s mental vignettes were only making his cock more eager for relief, and he wasn’t about to spend his first few minutes as an SBB police officer jacking off in the station bathroom, fantasizing about some guy who could be straight or taken.