He had the look, Jay thought, eyeing the stranger framed in the doorway of Bryan’s Bar. Only two types of people gave unfamiliar settings that kind of attention: the military and the police. So this guy had to be either a soldier or a cop, and given the messy length of his light hair, Jay’d put his money on cop. He wasn’t packing. No place to hide a gun—not in that T-shirt, not in those jeans. But he held himself with the alertness of a man who understood someone could always come up from behind. Still just a shape in the doorway, his shoulders filling most of the opening, the stranger paused, rocking forward on the balls of his feet. Jay watched him take in the place with one stringent, sweeping glance around the dimly lit room and over the band in the corner, where he paused momentarily on Kenny, the lead guitarist. Then he moved on to peruse the customers gathered in groups, and past Jay holding court behind the bar, before returning to hold his gaze.
At the measured regard, Jay’s stomach clenched. He wondered if that visceral, instinctive reaction would ever fade. He didn’t need it to disappear completely, but it would be nice, just once, not to tense at a siren… or when a cop walked in the room. Christ, what a night for Bryan to be gone. Between some unruly yahoos over in one corner and now this guy, Jay wished he’d thought twice before telling Bryan he could handle the shift on his own. Bryan trusted him, and damn it, he’d step up if he had to—even if he didn’t quite have Bryan’s knack for defusing tension with a joke or a quick word in an inebriated ear—but his upbringing had tended more toward “fight or flight” than peaceable conflict resolution.
“It’s a weeknight,” he remembered telling his boss as they’d sat in the office working out the schedule a few days earlier. “We’ll be lucky if we make back what we pay the musicians.”
So much for a slow night. He could handle the rednecks, but this guy? He wasn’t as confident about that, not when just a look from him made the hair on the back of Jay’s neck stand on end.
“You okay there, Jay?”
A hand waved in front of his face, breaking the spell, and he turned to find Leah leaning on the bar, looking at him. Leah was one of two waitresses on shift, though Bryan detested the term, which he deemed misogynistic and misguided, and called them “drink-slingers” instead. Like Chloe, the other ’slinger that night, Leah could be counted among Bryan’s lost lambs, a good kid who’d done some criminally dumb stuff, just like Jay had back in the day. She’d told Jay once that she didn’t give a shit what anybody called her, as long as she got paid for something she could do standing up.
Jay nodded. “I’m good.”
His eyes tracked compulsively back to the stranger, and Leah twisted around to see where he was looking. Her gasp tugged his attention back, and he saw her hands tremble on the glasses of beer she’d put on her tray.
“Oh shit,” she whispered.
“Relax,” Jay said, keeping his voice low, trying to reassure her. “It’ll be fine.”
Leah scoffed. “How the hell do you know?”
Jay reached over and steadied the tray, then squeezed Leah’s cold fingers gently.
“I just do,” he said. He didn’t, not really, but regardless, adding Leah’s upset to the mix wouldn’t help. “Go on. You’ve got customers waiting.”
He’d been keeping an eye on those particular customers since they’d lumbered in earlier, a small horde of rowdy tourists who seemed to have gotten lost on their way to Underground Atlanta. They’d been acting like they were raised in a barn, and until he walked in the door, Jay had figured they’d be the worst he’d have to deal with tonight. Now he wasn’t so sure.
As Leah stepped away, the stranger’s eyes followed her momentarily, then zeroed right back in on Jay.
They didn’t get a lot of this guy’s type at Bryan’s. The bar sat close enough to Georgia State to lure a few students, but Bryan’s hammer-down policy on underage drinking meant the crowd trended a little older and a little wiser. But not pushing forty, like this guy had to be, not rough and tough like this guy was. The rotating bands drifted more toward old-school southern-fried rock than punk or techno, and if the décor wasn’t exactly uptown, the bathrooms were clean and the floor wasn’t sticky, which was more than Jay could say for some places in the nearby Underground. They had a bunch of regulars and got a steady supply of tourists, but every now and then a stray showed up, like tonight. They’d all been strays once, so he probably shouldn’t hold that against the guy, but as much as he tried to live by Bryan’s example of tolerance and acceptance, he found it hard to tamp down years of ingrained assumptions about the law, and the men who enforced it. Leah’s reaction told him he wasn’t the only one who struggled with that.
Leah had been a prostitute who tried blackmailing one of her johns; he’d lost his job with the school district and she’d gone to minimum security. Kenny and Chloe were addicts (“Are addicts,” they’d say, “just not today”) who’d dealt to keep up with their habits. And Jay? Well, he might not have beat that “unauthorized use of a motor-propelled conveyance” rap, but he still considered himself the luckiest dumb shit Graham County, North Carolina had ever produced. Most of the lessons he’d learned had actually stuck, and one of them was that he should trust his instincts when they poked him with a sharp stick and said, “Watch this guy, he could be trouble,” so he continued to dry the glass in his hand with a casualness he didn’t feel, all the while covertly watching the big man now making his way toward the bar.
As he neared the bar, light revealed details the dark had only hinted at. Tall and hard, with a bearing that spoke of boot camp sometime in his history, his face like a piece of carved granite, the stranger radiated intensity—an almost sexual surge of it. Within the hard planes of his face lived a pair of bright blue eyes. Eyes without a shred of warmth, at least at the moment. Small lines bracketing them indicated that he did smile on occasion.
Jay wondered how his face changed when that happened, whether his smile would be kind or dangerous. He clamped down on the thought. His tension increased with each step the stranger took toward the bar, the pressure slipping from his stomach to a destination disconcertingly farther south. It felt like one of those confrontations in a Western—the sheriff sauntering through a saloon’s swinging doors to confront the man in the black hat. Jay shook his head to dispel the image. He couldn’t argue the connection between the rush of adrenaline and arousal, but Jesus, he’d never had a double-threat just walk in the door like he owned the place.
He couldn’t point to one thing about the man that set his radar off—he was dressed plainly enough, in a gray T-shirt and worn black jeans. Were it not for the eyes, and the almost too-calm regard, Jay might not have given him a second thought. But seeing that the man’s body was as carefully tended as his own sent another erotic jolt through Jay. Uninvited, unexpected, but there nonetheless. The man’s combination of confidence and caution struck an answering chord inside him, and Jay’s body responded. Was the guy sexy because he was dangerous? Or was he dangerous because he was sexy? Jay leaned forward and put his forearms on the bar, shielding the erection he felt certain this man’s eyes could pick out, thrown completely off balance by the push and pull between his instincts and the burgeoning, startling attraction he felt.
The stranger slid onto a barstool with casual grace, seating himself directly in front of Jay. Jay looked around, but nobody paid them the slightest mind. None of the other patrons seemed to pick up on the tension between them. He took special care to school his features and breathe evenly as he asked, “What can I get you?”
The man looked up at him then, and beneath the armor of cool control, Jay could see dark emotion, tightly leashed. Jay didn’t want to be the thing that set him off, not on a night when Bryan wasn’t around to help him pick up the pieces. The stranger broke eye contact, but before Jay could breathe a sigh of relief, the gaze moved over him, starting at his hair and then moving over his face and down his chest, spending an inordinate amount of time staring at the place where his midriff met the wooden bar.
Jay stood up straight, still shielding his lower body, wondering if the guy knew the effect he was having on him. He already needed a little distance. The intensity he had felt when the man stood thirty feet away only intensified this close. Sounds faded, the muted ebb and flow of conversation and music swirling around him. The world narrowed to the hard-eyed man before him and the little space that remained between them.
How much did that kind of control cost him? Up close, the edges of the stranger seemed that much sharper, his attention that much more focused. He reminded Jay of a warrior preparing to go into battle, harnessing his power, sloughing away any unnecessary emotion. How strange to find that kind of intensity sitting on a barstool on a Thursday night. Strange and more than a little unsettling.
“Can I get you something?” Jay repeated, pleased when the question came out with an appropriate degree of indifference. Maybe he was only fooling himself, but even feigned indifference beat salivating openly any day.
“Beer,” the man said shortly, his voice low and raspy. He pointed behind Jay to the bottles on the bar. “Heineken.”
Of course he couldn’t have ordered a draft, Jay thought sourly, taking the inevitable steps away from the bar to pull a bottle from the cooler. The man’s eyes immediately slipped lower, taking in the rest of him, erection and all. His face changed then, while Jay watched. The skin over his cheekbones stretched, as if he’d smiled inside but wouldn’t let it out. He raised his chin a little, as if sniffing the air, a dog on point with Jay cast in the role of sitting duck, and then he settled his hands on his thighs, taking up even more room than he had before.
“Anything else?” Jay set down a paper coaster and then opened the bottle before placing it deliberately in front of the man.
“Yeah, you mind changing the channel?” the man asked, pointing to the flat-screen television perched in the corner of the bar above Jay’s head. Jay looked up at the screen, where a photo of a dark-haired man in handcuffs filled the screen. The closed captioning read: “… Merriweather, arrested on Tuesday. All the news, sports, and weather, coming up at ten on FOX 5….”
Ahhh, that might help explain a few things. Topher Merriweather had been all over the news for days. After a decade of catching little fish and throwing them back as bait, it looked like the Atlanta PD had finally landed a big ’un, an honest-to-God kingpin drug lord. As a former minnow, Jay couldn’t dredge up even a sliver of sympathy for the man: drugs destroyed lives, and the money men behind them were just as bad. Huh. Maybe he and the dude with the scratchy voice and the provocation volume turned up to eleven had more in common than he’d first imagined.
He reached for the remote and switched to ESPN, where the SportsCenter anchors yammered away about less volatile subjects. Then he turned back, reminding himself to play it cool; woe betide the man who didn’t check for rocks under the surface before diving in. “That do you?” he asked. The man nodded, raising his eyes to Jay’s again before he lifted the bottle to his mouth and took a long pull.
Jay dropped his eyes to the man’s throat, watching it work as he swallowed, and had to turn away. Using the excuse of washing more glasses, he moved down the bar to the sink, tossing clean glasses into the warm soapy water and giving them their second good scrubbing of the evening. When he hazarded a glance back at the cop, his attention seemed riveted on the band, his big hand tapping out a rhythm on the bar as Kenny licked his way through something complicated and raw on his beat-up Stratocaster.
An hour passed, then two. Each time Jay caught the man’s eye, the air between them sizzled. A burning ache settled low in his belly, anticipation and caution warring in his body. He wondered again what had brought the guy in. What was he playing at? He’d nursed his beer so long it had to be warm as piss, so whatever he was doing, getting drunk didn’t seem to be part of the equation. So… what was he doing there?
Customers came and went, the band played its last set, and the bell rang for last call at quarter ’til eleven, another Bryan tradition that sent the heartiest partiers elsewhere. Bryan firmly believed that trouble started after midnight, and although any one of his employees could have pointed to messes they’d gotten into morning and noon as well as night, they respected his decision. Jay filled a flurry of last-minute orders, acknowledging the man’s tap on his beer bottle with a nod. He saved the order for last, knowing as he did so that he treaded on dangerous ground. He popped off the cap with a practiced flip and handed the bottle to the man directly, rather than placing it on the bar. How that casual gesture became suggestive, even bordering on lewd, he wasn’t sure, and he didn’t care to dwell on it.
The stranger took the beer and raised it in a silent salute, but before taking a drink, he said, “You Bryan?”
Two hours sitting within ten feet and suddenly he’d decided to talk. Could it be because the place had started emptying out? Or because the music had stopped and conversations could be heard without shouting? His voice was pitched low and a little husky; he sounded as if he’d been talking too much, as if his throat hurt.
Jay shook his head. “Nope. I just work here.”
The man nodded.
Then, because it seemed rude not to, Jay wiped his hands on the dishtowel he’d tucked in his waistband as a way of keeping his persistent arousal hidden and extended a hand to the man. It wasn’t the stranger’s fault he got off on pure male intensity, regardless of circumstance.
“Jay,” he said. And then, following another instinct, he elaborated, “Jay Hinshaw.”
“Patrick Graves,” the stranger replied, putting a big warm hand inside Jay’s and giving it a firm shake. Not a ball-breaker, Jay decided. Or at least he didn’t feel a need to establish his masculinity with a bone-crushing handshake. Another sign of self-assurance, Jay thought. Or disregard.
He looked down at their entwined hands. No, not disregard. He could practically feel currents leaping between them. He brought his eyes up to meet Patrick’s. Heat, where cold had been. Fire replacing ice. Whatever Jay felt, the guy—Patrick, his name was Patrick—felt it too.
All right, then, Jay said to himself. All right. Chemistry like that didn’t come along very often. He’d experienced it once or twice with women, too, but men were much more likely to generate that sensual link, and this man already had him so tied up in knots he could hardly remember the proper mix for a vodka martini.
Patrick let go of his hand, and Jay took it back, rubbing it on the side of his jeans. His hand tingled, the feeling of Patrick’s skin lingering. The attraction he felt to the taciturn man in front of him disturbed him in the best possible way. A pulse started a staccato beat in his lips. A flush crept up his chest. He tried to hide his reaction, but the predatory, seductive look on Patrick’s face told him that that he’d failed miserably.
Patrick leaned toward him as if he’d like to vault over the bar and climb right on top of him. “What do I owe you, Jay?”
Now there was a question. But Jay only answered mildly, “Seven-fifty.”
Patrick pushed the stool back and reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
Helplessly, Jay watched the T-shirt stretch taut across his chest, watched his biceps bunch as Patrick dug out his wallet and handed him a ten, waving away the change Jay offered. Glancing down, Jay saw tight quad muscles strain up against the ragged denim of his jeans. Between them, a firm bulge strained against a placket worn white in places. When he dragged his eyes back to Patrick’s, amusement glittered in them.
Jay let some of his own amusement show, revealed the appeal. With his eyes lit warm, Patrick went from ordinary good-looking to ridiculously attractive. And Jay still had yet to see the man smile.
To break the spell, Jay started the mundane closeout duties behind the bar.
“Can you tell me why that waitress looked at me like I was going to kill her kitten?” he heard Patrick ask.
“That’s Leah,” he said, looking at Patrick over his shoulder as he spooled a new roll of tape onto the credit card machine. “She’s a little skittish. Men haven’t always been kind to her.”
“Seems like she could find a better place to work than a bar, then,” Patrick said.
“Maybe,” Jay said, conceding the point. “But she’s usually all right here. Bryan doesn’t put up with a lot of malarkey from the customers, and he’s careful who he hires.”
“Sounds like he runs a tight ship,” Patrick said.
Jay shrugged as he moved on to the soda guns, his hands on autopilot as he disassembled and cleaned the heads. He debated what to say next, but he could practically hear Bryan’s voice in his head telling him to own who he was and what he’d done, so he said, “Bryan’s whole crew is made up of ex-cons of one stripe or another. We joke that he collects them.”
Patrick froze momentarily, and then he shrugged in what looked like an almost unconscious gesture. “Oh, yeah?” he asked, his tone casual.
Jay nodded. “Any one of us would pretty much do whatever Bryan asked—Leah, Chloe, Kenny,” he said, gesturing toward the guitarist. “We’ve got a couple of things in common.”
“Like what?” Patrick asked as he drained the second beer in a fraction of the time it had taken him to work through his first one.
“Prison time,” Jay said simply. “That, and Bryan helped ease all of us back into polite society.”
“By putting you to work in his bar,” Patrick said, sounding doubtful.
Jay could see how it might look from the outside, but he’d defend Bryan to his last breath, so he said, “Most of us aren’t really nine-to-five kinds of people. It’s a comfortable fit here, more than a lot of places,” he said. “For some, it’s the closest thing to a home they’ve got, the closest thing to a family.”
“How’d you hear about him?” Patrick asked.
“It usually works the other way around,” Jay said. “He was a parole officer for twenty years. He retired at forty-five and opened the bar, but he’s still got a lot of contacts. He finds people.”
Patrick seemed to ponder that for a minute, and then he said, “You said ‘all of us’. So that includes you?”
Jay turned back to face him and met his gaze head-on. “Yeah, he found me. I’d just gotten out of Foothills up in Morganton, North Carolina.”
Patrick’s eyes narrowed. “And the rest of them?” he asked, gesturing around the now almost-empty bar.
“All of the staff, yeah, even the guys in the band. We’re a motley collection of the rehabbed, the recovering, and the reformed,” Jay said. “We do better some days than others, but at least we’re trying, and Bryan’s big into acceptance.”
Patrick gave him a puzzled look. “Acceptance….”
“Taking people where they are,” Jay explained. “Acknowledging the good and the bad and finding a way to use what you’ve learned to help someone else.”
“It sounds like a twelve-step program,” Patrick said.
“I guess,” Jay said, “though Bryan’s more of a believer in self-determination than putting it all on some higher power.” He looked up again and found Patrick staring at him, looking bemused. “What?” he asked.
Before Patrick could answer, raised voices from the corner caught Jay’s attention. The yahoos hadn’t appreciated the early close, apparently, and one of them, a short stocky guy with beefy arms, had stood up and was waving money in Leah’s face, barking something about her taking his goddamn money and getting him his goddamn drinks, goddamnit.
“Crap,” Jay said, moving swiftly around the bar. Damn it, he’d forgotten about the freakin’ tourists. Truth be told, he’d let himself get distracted. With a silent apology to Bryan for the disruption of what they all considered, oddly enough, their safest space, Jay headed for the corner, only to smack up against a wall of gray T-shirt. Patrick hadn’t had to go around the bar, and therefore had made it to the table a few critical seconds faster than Jay—Patrick, who looked like he’d enjoy nothing more than tossing a drunken tourist through a plate-glass window.
Jay put his hand on Patrick’s shoulder and pressed hard enough to get his attention. “I’ve got this,” he said, his voice low.
Patrick turned toward him and breathed out sharply through his nose. Jay could practically feel the violence skating just under the surface and wondered what it took for him to back up and let Jay move in front of him. He noticed that Patrick stayed pretty close, though, close enough for him to understand that whatever might go down, Patrick had his back.
A heady feeling, that.
Jay moved forward, stepping between the irate customer and Leah. He loomed over the guy, assuming his height alone would give him, at the very least, some psychological leverage.
“We’re closing for the night,” he said in a tone that he hoped made clear he didn’t plan on hearing any argument about it, deftly taking the cash from the man’s hand. “Do you need change or does this include a tip for your server?”
The guy flushed. “What kind of pissant bar closes at eleven?”
“This one,” Jay said firmly. “Try the Underground if you’re still thirsty.”
One of the other men at the table stood up, and it looked like things might escalate, but then Jay felt Patrick step in closer behind him, his chest brushing Jay’s shoulder, close enough that he could feel heat radiating against his back. Again, the pull of him created a barely conscious urge to lean back and let Patrick take his weight, to see what it felt like when Patrick let go of some of that iron control. He’d never experienced anything quite like it, never met anyone with a presence so dominant that it made everything else pale in comparison.
What Jay felt as an almost irresistible sexual charge from Patrick seemed to elicit a very different reaction from the customers. As one, they stood, and the ringleader muttered, “Keep it,” as he motioned the others toward the door.
After the door closed behind them, Jay lifted his hands and said, loudly enough to carry, “All right, move along, folks. Nothing to see here,” drawing a good-natured laugh from the remaining customers. To Patrick, he said, more quietly, “Thanks.”
Patrick gave him a short nod. He seemed almost disappointed that no fracas had ensued. “Like you said, you had it under control,” he said. “You didn’t need my help.”
“Still,” Jay said, extending his fist for Patrick to bump. “I appreciate it.” Then he handed Leah her surprisingly generous tip with a smile, saying, “Sorry, sweetie. I should’ve been paying more attention.”
Leah took the money and tucked it in her pocket after giving Patrick a nervous glance. Then she stretched up, kissed Jay on the cheek, and said, “It’s not your fault the world’s full of assholes.”
As the rest of the patrons settled their tabs and moved to the exit, Jay called good night to a couple of regulars, split the bar jar tips between himself, Chloe, and Leah, and handed Kenny the check Bryan had left for him. Patrick went back to his barstool, his long legs braced on either side, and watched. He didn’t seem inclined to leave, either, but unlike the rednecks from the corner, Jay didn’t have any intention of evicting him. Leah gave him an anxious look over her shoulder as she pulled on her coat, but Jay waved her off with a smile.
And then they were alone. It might have been a little too soon for Jay’s peace of mind, but his body vehemently disagreed.
He removed the taps off two empty kegs and cleaned them carefully before attaching them to the new kegs lying in wait. As he did so, he said, both to fill the silence and to level the playing field of information since he felt like he’d coughed up his fair share, “I haven’t seen you in here before. Are you new to the area?”
Patrick swallowed the last of his beer and answered, “Just visiting. I drove down from Charlotte this morning.” He paused for a minute and then continued, his voice sounding scratchier than ever. “I’m with the police department there. We’re part of a joint investigation with Atlanta PD and the Highway Patrol, an interstate thing.”
“I knew you were a cop,” Jay said.
“Well, I thought either that or military,” Jay said, ticking off the options on his fingers.
Patrick nodded. “Marines,” he said. “Six years.”
“It sounds like you spent the whole day talking,” Jay said, indicating his throat, wondering what kind of joint investigating the two departments were doing. Given the proximity of both Atlanta and Charlotte to “Drug Alley”—I-85 ran southwest to northeast between the two cities—he probably wasn’t looking into a B&E or petty larceny.
“Interrogating,” Patrick corrected.
Images flashed through Jay’s mind. Heaven alone knew what he’d have admitted to if Patrick had been the one putting him through the interrogation paces during his misspent youth. He knew what the atmosphere was like: testosterone so thick you could smell it across the room. Posturing, threatening, cajoling, intimidating—all things he himself had faced at the hands of the Graham County Sheriff’s Department. From the vantage point of his own experience, Jay had never once considered that it might not be any easier to be the person asking the questions. But this man stood on that other side, turning into whoever he had to be to get answers.
“You here for Topher Merriweather?” he asked.
Patrick shrugged, but the way his eyes lit told Jay that the answer was yes.
He searched for something noncommittal to say, but what came out was, “So did you get your man?”
Patrick let the double entendre slide by with just a quirk of his lips. “I know good and well the son-of-a-bitch did it. Tomorrow, I’m going to break him.”
So it’s not over, Jay thought with a shiver. Patrick couldn’t let go yet. He couldn't let go of the battle-hardened part of himself, the soldier's unrelenting grit, the determination to get the job done. No wonder he’d been so eager to take on Leah’s asshole customers. His intensity, his virtual silence since walking in the bar, and the heat of his self-containment were all signs of a man trying to maintain a face for the game. For all Jay knew, the real Patrick was nothing like this hard, focused, sexual magnet. For all he knew, the real Patrick joked around with his friends, grinned at the drop of a hat, and remembered the 911 operator’s birthday. Or maybe he was looking at the real Patrick. One precious few had the privilege of meeting. A man stripped of courtesy and artifice. Stripped to his essential nature.
The last thought nudged Jay to action. Neither of them had tried to pretend coyness. Despite the complications inherent in the mix of a cop with an ex-con, the heat between them seemed simple enough, more easily acknowledged than ignored. The time had come to act on it. Jay had bucked authority for years, distrusting it in all its forms: school, home, church. But maybe he’d just been meeting the wrong kinds of authority figures. Maybe in certain situations, with a certain kind of man, he could come to appreciate what surrendering offered him.
“Want to give me a hand?” Jay asked, indicating the empty kegs on the floor.
“Sure,” Patrick said, pushing off the stool and coming around the bar. As he got closer, Jay had to consciously stand his ground. How long had it been since he’d looked up to someone? Patrick was even bigger close up—taller than Jay by an inch or so, with a bulkier build and broader through the middle, with longer legs. A soldier’s body, Jay thought again. And he let the subversive pull lead him, surrendering caution.
Patrick lifted the keg to his shoulder in an easy stroke and raised his eyebrows at Jay, as if to say, “What now?”
“Back to the office.” Jay hoisted his own keg and led the way to the tiny office he shared with Bryan. They dropped the kegs to the floor inside the office door, and Patrick pushed the door closed with his foot, shutting out the empty bar outside.
Jay turned to face him, his arms quiet at his side, waiting. His insides started to melt, already yielding.
“Do you want to do this?” Patrick asked almost in a whisper, advancing on Jay, prowling up to him, not letting Jay’s gaze leave his.
“I need to hear you say it.” Patrick stopped within arm’s reach, his voice a throaty purr in the enclosed space.
“Yes, I want to do this.” Jay responded to the implied order, his heart tripping in his chest at both the audacity of Patrick’s assumption and his own easy acquiescence. Patrick needed something; an outlet, a surface to absorb the body blow of pressure he was under. And Jay had gotten good at giving people what they needed. Especially when it coincided so beautifully with what he wanted. So he agreed, with his voice and with h