Something came up. Not gonna make it. Sorry. :(
“My ass.” I rolled my eyes and slammed the phone facedown on the bar next to my nearly finished Coke.
A few chairs down, a bearded dude in a flannel shirt gave me a look. It was a look I knew well. The kind that telegraphed in no uncertain terms that he wanted to enjoy his beer and his baseball game without being afraid I might shower him with glitter or something. Most nights, I’d give a sassy hair toss, cross my legs, and shoot him a flirty grin. I mean seriously—Bluewater Bay was knee-deep in queers thanks to Wolf’s Landing, and even dive bars like the Olympic Sports & Alehouse weren’t safe from the likes of me. If he couldn’t cope with a queen at his bar, he was in the wrong town.
But I wasn’t in the mood to fuck with him. Not after Charlie’s text message. I twisted on the barstool, angling myself away from Beardy McHomophobe, and stabbed an ice cube with my straw. I glared at my phone. Even though I couldn’t see the screen, Charlie’s text was seared into my brain.
Something came up. Not gonna make it. Sorry. :(
I sighed, shoulders drooping along with my mood. The routine of Jesse meets boy, boy likes Jesse, boy finds out Jesse is HIV-positive, boy loses interest in Jesse was one I’d been familiar with for a long time. It didn’t always happen—I’d had plenty of hookups, friends with benefits, and boyfriends who were well aware of my status—but it happened enough to still make me dread the inevitable “Before we take this further . . .” conversation. I just hadn’t expected Charlie to be like this.
“Refill?” The seriously sexy voice pulled me out of my thoughts, and I looked up to see a bartender watching me. And . . . I had to stare. I’d been coming to this bar sporadically for ages, but I hadn’t seen him before, and that was a face I would have remembered. A face, a pair of dark eyes, a set of shoulders—
I cleared my throat and nudged my glass toward him. “Sure. Thanks.”
“What’re you drinking?” God. That voice. Low and rumbly and hot.
“Um.” What was I drinking? Crap. “Just a . . .” Alcohol? Nah. That would only make me more depressed because oh, right, I was in the process of being stood the fuck up by someone who thought I was a leper. “Coke.”
He nodded and took my glass. As he put some ice in a fresh one, I stole the opportunity to take him in. He was easily in his forties, if not a little older. There were some lines on his face that even the bar’s low lights didn’t smooth over. The gray hair seemed oddly out of place. He wasn’t young, but he seemed grayer than he should’ve been. No, not gray—white. He still had plenty of his natural dark hair, but he had streaks and sparkles of snow white, especially at the temples and along his part.
It didn’t look bad on him, though. Quite the opposite. Striking was the word that came to mind.
So that’s why people dig silver foxes. Holy shit.
Right then, his eyes flicked up to meet mine, and he handed me the Coke.
“Thanks.” I took the glass, mildly disappointed he let it go before I could “accidentally” let our fingers brush.
He didn’t walk away. The place wasn’t exactly crowded. The bearded dude was still glowering nearby, and there were a few guys watching a baseball game down at the other end of the long bar with another bartender keeping an eye on their drinks. Most of the tables and booths were empty. Not surprising—it was the middle of the week and it was still early yet. So the bartender probably didn’t have a lot to do except hang out and wait for me to need another refill. Fine by me, as long as he didn’t mind me checking him out.
I took a drink and tried not to notice the way he was trying not to watch me suck on the straw. Our eyes locked. He colored a bit in the dim light and turned his head, clearing his throat but not exactly hurrying away from me.
“Just you tonight?” He winced, like he’d been trying to say something to break the ice and now felt like an idiot for blurting out the question. Not that it was a terrible question, but he seemed to regret throwing it out there.
And that . . . actually put me at ease. In fact, his subtle awkwardness was kind of endearing. Maybe because I thought a fortysomething bartender who looked so smooth would be that smooth, and the fact that he wasn’t . . . I decided I liked it.
I played with the straw in my Coke. “I’m being stood up, actually.”
His eyebrows climbed. “Seriously?” I might’ve been imagining it, but I could’ve sworn he gave me a not-so-subtle down-up. When our eyes locked again, he blushed—nope, hadn’t imagined it. Clearing his throat, he focused intently on wiping a phantom smudge off the bar between us. “I, uh . . . I’m sorry to hear it. Can’t imagine why someone would . . .” The blush deepened, and damn—shy looked almost as good on him as gray hair and lines.
And with that, my evening was suddenly looking up again. I’d been expecting—or at least hoping—to get laid tonight. The fact that there happened to be an incredibly hot man right there behind the bar—and one who wasn’t necessarily straight—was just damn good luck.
I took another sip and ran my tongue around the tip of the straw for good measure. He swallowed but didn’t look away. Instead, he looked me right in the eye, and when I grinned, he shivered. Oh yeah. Dude was queer. Fuck yes.
Absently chasing an ice cube with the straw, I said, “You just start here? I come here all the time, but I’ve never seen you.”
He nodded. “A week ago.” He glanced around, a self-conscious smirk drawing my attention to his full lips. “Still learning the ropes.”
I shrugged. “You had me fooled.”
Chuckling, he met my gaze again. “Fortunately, a Coke on the rocks is pretty simple to make.”
“‘Coke on the rocks.’” I laughed. “I like it.”
He just smiled.
I took a sip. “You new to town? Or just the bar?”
“Town.” He didn’t offer anything further. “What about you?”
“Well, ask any of your coworkers—I’m not new to this bar.”
“And not to town either,” I said. “Been here . . . almost six years now.”
“Yeah? Where’d you move from?”
His eyes lit up. “Really? Me too. What part?”
“Grew up in Mountlake Terrace, and I was living in Ballard, but it was too expensive to stay.”
The bartender’s lips quirked. “Yeah, that area’s not cheap. I was in Madison Park. Just outside Capitol Hill.”
“Ah, my favorite neighborhood.” I grinned.
He chuckled. “Yeah. Mine too. So, is that what made you leave Seattle? Cost of living?”
“That, and my uncle lived here and was having some problems getting around and taking care of his place after he fucked up his hip. He got it replaced and does just fine now, and he ended up moving to the Tri-Cities, but I liked Bluewater Bay. So, I stayed.” Pausing, I drummed my fingers on the counter and realized just how long my answer had been. “Sorry. You probably didn’t need the whole autobiography.”
“Nah, it’s okay.” The bartender’s smile came back to life, and I decided I liked that too. A lot.
“Well, since you’re new, you might as well get used to seeing me in here.” I offered my hand across the bar. “Jesse Connelly.”
He took my hand, shaking it firmly. “Garrett Blaine.” As he released me, he said, “So you’re a regular.” There was a sparkle in his eyes that suggested he wasn’t at all unhappy about that.
Warmth flooded my face. “Yeah. I probably come in here once or twice a week. When I’m too lazy to open my own beers.”
Garrett laughed. He started to say something, but then glanced toward the other end of the bar and frowned. “Shit. Duty calls. I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be right here.”
He smiled, then went to help the other customers, giving me one hell of a view of that jean-clad ass. Oh fuck yeah. I could absolutely get on board with finding out how that silver fox looked in nothing but tangled sheets.
Shivering, I pulled my attention away before I gave myself a hard-on. My own jeans were a little too tight for that.
Without thinking about it, I picked up my phone to look at the time. And of course, I had another message from Charlie. More than one, actually.
Look, I’m sorry. I know it sounds awful. The timing and all. After what we talked about. But that’s not it at all!
Come on, Jesse. Let’s talk. Please?
I hated the sick feeling that coiled in my gut. Even more, I hated that it was as familiar as Charlie’s postrejection backpedaling. Sure, it wasn’t because of what we’d talked about. And he totally hadn’t kissed me on the cheek this afternoon instead of on the mouth when we’d said goodbye after lunch.
I glanced at the bartender’s back, and my heart sank into my queasy stomach. Flirting was fun, but . . . ugh. I didn’t have it in me to hook up with anyone tonight. Charlie had left me feeling gross and raw. Like the least-desirable thing on the planet. Usually, I could steel myself for the possible rejection and just be matter-of-fact about it. I was upfront, possibly to a fault: “Full disclosure—I’m HIV positive.” Then they’d either be cool with it or they wouldn’t be, and the night would go from there. There was no reason to believe Garrett would follow Charlie’s example.
But on the heels of a rejection from someone who was supposed to be a friend, I wasn’t ready to chance a second dose. Not tonight.
Sighing, I stared into my drink. The way I felt right now was exactly why I didn’t usually date friends. Not unless they knew my status before we started any kind of flirtation. I much preferred meeting someone for sex, telling them upfront I was positive, and letting the chips fall where they would. Rejection wasn’t fun, but there was no point in waiting a few dates to tell someone. I’d learned the hard way—repeatedly— that getting to know a guy first would only make his rejection more disastrous. He’d be pissed that I’d waited so long, and I’d be hurt because I’d be invested in him. I’d actually care what he thought of me.
So when I met guys online and on hookup apps, they knew I was positive before they knew my name. It was in my profiles, for God’s sake. Probably kept a lot of guys from responding to me, but that was fine. Better to nip it in the bud than deal with someone I actually liked trying to tactfully step into the friend-zone.
Charlie . . . he’d been different. My status had never come up because we’d just been buddies. We’d met at a Magic: The Gathering tournament two years ago, and we’d geeked out together over comics and gaming. I hadn’t even realized he was gay until recently. Then he’d moved from Portland to Bluewater Bay for an assistant job on the Wolf’s Landing set, and suddenly we were living near each other. And then last night’s drunken Call of Duty had happened, one thing had led to another, and we’d made out on my couch until I’d finally made some weak excuse about needing to be up early for work.
And all damn morning, we’d melted each other’s phones with racy texts and promises. I’d felt guilty for not saying, Dude, before we continue . . . but it hadn’t seemed like something I should tell him over the phone. So while we’d had lunch today, I’d told him. Over the next few hours, the texts had cooled considerably, and our plans to meet at my place had changed to meeting here for a drink so we could talk, and now . . . this.
I glowered at my phone for a moment before typing out a message.
I don’t think there’s anything to talk about. You were gung ho until I mentioned my status. Way to make a dude feel sexy.
My throat tightened at that last line. I’d meant it as an admittedly petty swipe but ended up hitting myself in the gut instead. Being rejected by some stranger? I could chalk that up to ignorance. And it wasn’t like a guy was obligated to have sex with me if he didn’t feel safe. I was fine with that. But a friend? Man. That hurt. Like, don’t sleep with me if you don’t want to, but don’t be a dick about it.
Movement pulled my attention away from the screen, and my heart flip-flopped as Garrett reappeared in front of me.
“Sorry,” he said with a lopsided smile. “It’s like they expect me to actually work while I’m here.”
I laughed despite the heavy, sick feeling in my gut. “Jerks.”
“I know, right?”
“My bosses do the same thing. And it’s not fair because I work around comic books and shit. Let a boy read, you know?”
Garrett chuckled. “You work at a comic shop?”
I nodded, gesturing over my shoulder at the street outside, as if that somehow indicated all the shops along the road. “I’m the assistant manager at End o’ Earth.” Heat rushed into my cheeks. “Not that being an assistant manager of a comic book shop is anything to write home about.”
“Why not?” Garrett chuckled. “I’m assuming you earned it.”
“Yeah, but still. Not exactly VP of a Fortune 500 company, right?”
“Who needs that level of stress, though?”
He held my gaze, but only for a second. Then he shook himself. “Nothing wrong with not working for a company like that. Corporate America isn’t for everyone.” As if for emphasis, he started wiping the immaculate bar with a blue towel.
I studied him. There was something odd about him. About the way he carried himself. About his expression. Like he was holding some cards I wouldn’t have noticed at all if he hadn’t been keeping them so tightly against his vest. And that made me curious about him.
The silence between us stretched on. He didn’t leave, and I wondered if he was expecting me to pay my tab and get the fuck out. Which was probably a good idea. There was no point in sticking around if my date wasn’t showing up.
At least, there hadn’t been until this good-looking bartender had dropped out of the sky.
Thumbing the condensation on my glass, I looked up at Garrett. “Is it, uh, okay if I stay here for a while?”
“Stay as long as you want.”
“Thanks. I promise I tip well.”
He gave a soft laugh and waved his hand. And there it was again—that smile. I didn’t want to be attracted to anyone right now, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to make any kind of move tonight, but I could still enjoy a gorgeous man’s gorgeous smile.
After a moment, his brow pinched and his eyes were full of sympathy. “So he really stood you up?”
I arched an eyebrow. “‘He’?”
Garrett jumped, and some color slid out of his face. “Uh. Shit. I’m sorry. I . . .”
“It’s okay.” I laughed quietly and gestured at myself—skinny jeans, meticulously styled hair, and all. “I guess I do kind of give that vibe, don’t I?”
“Uh . . .” He blinked like he had no idea how to respond to that.
“Relax. Literally no one was surprised when I came out.” I winked. “Honey, they don’t make ’em much gayer than me.”
Garrett studied me uncertainly, but then he laughed. “Still. I didn’t mean to be presumptuous.”
“It’s all right. And to answer your question, yeah, he stood me up.”
He shook his head. “Sorry to hear it.”
“Thanks. What sucks is this isn’t just some asshole I found on Grindr. He’s a friend.” I sighed, giving my phone a look. “Or, well, was a friend.”
“Damn. That’s rough.” He studied me, and the question in his eyes was so obvious he might as well have asked it out loud.
“Let me guess—you want to know what happened?”
Garrett blinked but shrugged. “You don’t have to answer.”
“That’s part of being a bartender, isn’t it? Listening to people bitch about their drama?”
He chuckled. “It does break up the monotony a bit.”
“Better than sitting at a desk all day, right?”
A subtle flinch, like I’d nudged a nerve. He shifted his weight. “Something like that, yeah. So if you feel like talking, I’m happy to listen.”
“Thanks.” I hesitated. There was no need to announce my status to Garrett. I wasn’t trying to get him into bed, so he didn’t need to know, and I still stung from the last time I’d tipped my hand. Even a nose-wrinkle from a stranger would’ve been too much right now.
So I kept that detail to myself.
I took a sip of my Coke, which was quickly getting watered down by melting ice. “The short version is that we’ve been friends for a while, and he moved to town recently. We started, you know, making noise about hooking up, and that was the plan tonight, but . . .” I shook my head, “I guess he didn’t want to after all.”
“So he just stood you up?” Garrett’s eyebrows rose. “And he’s your friend?”
“Was my friend,” I muttered into my straw. “It’s . . . I mean, it’s complicated.” Bullshit. “Long, stupid story.” Also bullshit. Except the stupid part. It’s definitely stupid. “Anyway.” I looked up at him. “I really should get out of your hair. I’m just sitting here bitching at you about the dick I’m not getting.”
“You’re not in my hair.” He shrugged. “Stick around if you want to.”
I . . . I did want to. Going home and being alone and pathetic didn’t sound appealing. Hunting someone else down for a roll in the hay sounded exhausting, not to mention demoralizing in my current mood. About the only thing that sounded good was staying where I was and talking with Garrett.
Garrett, who was probably just humoring me so I’d leave a good tip.
“You’re sure?” I sounded like a little kid. Ugh. “Even if I’m not drinking?”
“You are drinking.” He gestured at my glass.
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, and no one else needs to know that’s not a rum and Coke.”
I eyed him, then my drink. “Oh. True. Well, as long as you don’t mind me sitting here and feeling sorry for myself?”
Garrett gave me a smile that almost made me forget how gross Charlie had made me feel.
“You can hang around here as long as you want,” he said. “Long as you don’t mind keeping a bored bartender company.”
At that, I couldn’t help smiling back. “Deal.”
Months after his husband’s death, Garrett Blaine desperately needs a fresh start. He sells his house in Seattle, leaves his accounting job, and starts bartending in Bluewater Bay. There he meets a man who wakes up his nearly forgotten libido.
Jesse Meyer’s friend with benefits bolted after Jesse disclosed his HIV status. Stood up and stinging, Jesse tries to drown his sorrows . . . and finds an unexpected connection with a lonely bartender.
Jesse and Garrett quickly bond over a shared love of comics and card games, and they can’t get enough of each other between the sheets. Not even a bumpy start and a fifteen-year age gap can derail them as they go from strangers to lovers, then friends, then much more.
But as Garrett’s feelings for Jesse deepen, so does his grief for the man he lost—especially as he sees hints of his late husband in his new boyfriend. Now Garrett has to figure out if Jesse is his second chance at true love, or if Jesse’s just filling in for the man he’s never fully grieved. And he needs to figure it out soon, because Jesse’s starting to wonder the same thing.