“HEY, Butters, you dropped your books again!”
Lex looked up from the floor where he’d been hastily gathering his books and papers, hopefully before anyone noticed. Damn, shit, hell. Too late. It was Tallis Carrington and his dick squad.
“Aren’t you guys missing remedial math or something?” Lex knew he was getting himself in more trouble, but he’d never had much luck keeping his mouth shut.
“What’d you say, fat ass?”
He wasn’t sure what that particular goon’s name was. Bradley, maybe. He looked like an undergrown gorilla. Probably not quite that smart, though. Wouldn’t want to insult the gorilla.
“Nothing,” he muttered.
“I think our well-fed, little freshman friend called us stupid,” Carrington said, his aristocratic voice ringing out in the nearly empty hallway. “Not such a good plan, junior.”
Why did he have to be so damn beautiful? Lex looked at the floor, hating himself for even thinking it. The last thing he needed was something else for the self-proclaimed king of Rock Bay High School and his loyal sycophants to torture him for. It wasn’t like he asked to have daydreams about making out with the biggest asshole on the face of the planet.
“Just leave me the hell alone. You don’t even know me.” Lex held onto his books as hard as he could, trying not to slip on the newly waxed floor. His cheeks heated.
“Awww, is little butterball James going to cry?”
“My name’s not James.”
“How come it says that on your ID card?” Carrington brandished Lex’s brand new freshman ID. “James A. Barry,” he read in a singsong voice.
Great. His parents would kill him if they had to pay to replace that thing. “Give it back, please. My family doesn’t have a lot of money like yours does.”
Tallis Carrington laughed. “Oh, poor, Jamie. Is that why you’re wearing the same thing you had on Monday?”
Lex gritted his teeth. He hated being called Jamie. “You might want to ask yourself why you know what I was wearing on Monday.”
Lex knew that wasn’t the smartest accusation for him to make—at least not to a big jock who was a half second away from wiping the linoleum floor with his ass. It just slipped out.
The look of stunned anger on Carrington’s face was even worse than he thought it would be. He used the momentary silence to reach up and snatch his ID card from stunned fingers and was about to make his escape when he found himself slammed, cheek first, against the air grate of the closest locker with Tallis Carrington’s hot breath against his neck.
Aw, shit, shit, shit. Trouble.
The teasing laughter was gone, and in its place there was anger—seething anger—that frightened the crap out of Lex.
“Listen, you little fucker. You’re lucky my dad’s the damn mayor or I’d pound you to the ground right here. I’m not a fag, you got that?” His words came in angry heated whispers tinged with something wild and afraid, like he didn’t even want the possibility of that accusation to be… released into the atmosphere or something. What was his problem? Insinuating that a guy was gay was like, the oldest insult in the book. Practically generic.
Lex nodded against the chill of the locker, hopefully saved by the fact that Tallis didn’t want the word “fag” associated with him—oh, and because the asshole’s father was a damn public hero. Whole town loved him. He’d probably threatened his jerk of a son within an inch of his life the last time he’d caused trouble, which from what Lex heard was fairly regularly.
“Just get the fuck outta here, Butters. I don’t want to hear another word from you this year.”
Lex squirmed out from under the big jock and escaped, making it to the front entrance of the school where he turned and gave Tallis Carrington and his friends a silent salute with his free middle finger. Before they could come after him, he scrambled out the front doors and into his older sister’s car. While it had felt great at the moment, he realized that final little bit of retaliation would most likely mean he hadn’t seen the last of Carrington and his friends. He’d have to watch his back for the rest of the school year.
IT WAS raining. Again. The kind of rain that fell in large wet drops and splashed noisily on the windshield. Rain that seemed to seep all the way through the glass to drown Tallis Carrington’s skin until even his bones were cold. It had been raining like that the whole damn four-hour drive from Seattle back to the last place he ever wanted to go again. Home.
He cursed and turned the windshield wipers to their highest speed. Any more of that bone chilling, godforsaken rain and he’d have to pull over. He was already nearly blinded by the downpour.
“Why didn’t I ever move to California?” he grumbled to the silence of his car. The only thing he had to talk to was a few beat up duffle bags that held every last possession he had to his name. “Why am I talking to myself is a better question. I’m already going freaking nuts, and I’m not even there yet.”
His car chose that moment to make a scary choking noise and shudder violently. It wobbled for a few minutes between life and death before finally settling itself in the world of the living… at least for the moment. He petted the steering wheel like it was the neck of some skittish prized horse.
Please don’t die, baby girl. I promise to take good care of you from now on if you just get me there.
Walking the last fifteen miles to town at midnight in the middle of a storm appealed to Tally about as much as sleeping in his car on the side of the road (and most likely getting arrested for it if his usual luck held out). Tally’s usual luck was nothing but bad, and that bad had taken a turn for complete and total shit in the past few weeks.
“HEY, Tally, I’m moving tables fifty-nine and sixty into your section starting tonight. Shelley’s having a hard time keeping up.” His manager’s voice was smug. The bastard didn’t like Tally much, and Tally knew it. He didn’t like that Tally was gay, liked it even less when Tally refused to give him head for a four-dollar-an-hour raise.
“Craig, that’s not fair. Shelley already has four less tables than me.”
His manager smirked at him. “Well, then I guess this will be an opportunity for you to make that extra money you were in my office whining about last week.”
Tally gritted his teeth together. He couldn’t afford to lose his job because his manager was a prick.
“Fine. Tables fifty-nine and sixty.”
Craig’s smirk grew more pronounced. “Table fifty-nine is a birthday party. Ten plates.”
Aw, fuck you, Craig. Tally bit his lip to keep it from coming out.
The gig at Cutter’s, a ridiculously expensive seafood place on the pier, had been his longest so far. He hated coming home every night smelling like beer batter and tartar sauce, but the tips were great. He didn’t want to lose it like he had all the rest of them.
Tally peered around the corner of the servers’ station to take a look at the party at table fifty-nine. Women. All women. He sighed. Hopefully they’d be drunk enough to leave a decent tip.
“Hey, ladies, can I get you started with some drinks tonight?”
“I’ll take a drink of him,” one of them stage whispered. Tally pretended not to hear. He took their drink orders and promised them he’d be back.
When Tally returned to pass out the drinks, the brunette in the corner with the loud whisper leaned back and looked up at him. “Hey, handsome, do you recommend the steak? I want something juicy.”
Tally gritted his teeth. “The steak is great paired with our Australian lobster tail.” He tried to ignore the hand curled around his hamstring.
“I’ll take that. I love a nice… lobster tail.” Her hand crept higher. Tally backed away quickly and moved on to the next woman at the table.
By the time he returned with their salads, the ladies had each had another round of drinks. He started on the opposite end of the table, dreading going near the groper again. At last, though, all of the other salads were served. He had no choice. As he was leaning over to place her salad on the table, he felt a hand grab onto his ass and squeeze. Hard. There was no way he could pretend he didn’t feel it. The other women twittered behind their hands, but Tally had had enough. Not okay. He’d been groped, pinched, propositioned, and just about everything else, more times than he could count. Apparently for him, it was one time too many.
The plate in his hand started tipping. He couldn’t seem to help it. Oh well, it was just too bad. The woman let out a bloodcurdling scream when her lap was all of a sudden filled with Caesar salad.
“Sorry,” Tally muttered with a small smile. It was hard to hold in the laugh. Craig was rushing toward him, face beet red. Tally could almost see the steam coming off of him.
Less than ten minutes later, he was sitting on the pier with the contents of his locker in a plastic bag.
AFTER that, he’d tried to find another job, really he had, but apparently, the market for guys with few real skills who’d spent the last fourteen years relying on their looks had finally dried up.
And then there was the eviction notice.
Tally wanted to groan just thinking about it. It had been exactly one week, five hours, and twenty-three minutes since he’d gotten fired that he came home to the last in a long line of shitty apartments, only to find his stuff piled out in the hallway and a glaring final eviction notice tacked to his door. Like he had the damn money to pay his rent. That notice had landed him broke, newly homeless, and with the exception of his mother, who refused to speak to him, and one grandmother who he hadn’t seen in nearly fifteen years, he was completely and utterly alone. So he’d made an extremely humiliating call to the long-lost grandmother, the kind of call that no thirty-two-year-old man should ever have to make, and he hit the road—back to the town where he’d once been a god but was now something like the sludge that was collecting in the ditch on the side of the road. If he’d had a different choice, other than perhaps a park bench and a tarp or selling his ass for dinner, he’d never have chosen to go back to a place where his family’s name was practically a cussword.
But that’s where he was going. Back to Rock Bay, Washington, small town USA, south and west of Seattle—almost in Oregon, almost on the ocean, almost quaint and picturesque, but missing the mark every single time. Home sweet home.
He’d ruled the town once, a bit less than benevolently, but left under a cloud of shame years before, vowing to never return. Didn’t quite work out that way, did it? Well, they were going to have to put up with his presence again. At least until he got his shit together enough to leave—and this time for good.
Tally slowed when he noticed the faint lights of town gleaming wetly through the rain. He unconsciously let up on the gas a little more every time one of the distant landmarks grew clearer. And then he was there, pulling onto Old Main, the street that ran through the center of Rock Bay. The prodigal son returns. He felt like he was on the walk of shame to beat all walks of shame. Even though there was no one out, the wet streets gleamed bare in the late night storm, Tally felt people’s eyes on him, boring under his skin. He could feel them judging him for his past and the sins of his family. He wanted to turn back, run like blazing hell—he would have if he’d had any other choice. He didn’t.
Welcome back to Rock Bay—home of everyone who doesn’t have any other goddamned choice.
“YOU seriously need to get laid.”
Lex sputtered, droplets of chocolate-flavored merlot decorating his once-pale-blue polo. He’d been lounging in his best friend Amy’s living room after their usual Saturday night dinner and video game standoff. She’d lit a fire to warm the still crisp early spring evening. The flames smelled green, like new cedar and apple wood, and they gleamed off her rich burgundy leather furniture and the shiny white molding she’d installed the spring before.
The whole night had been peaceful and relaxing. Almost. Lex had wondered how much longer it would be before she started bugging him about finding a guy. Amy usually didn’t last more than a week or two. Apparently those two weeks had passed. Lex poked her in the side, causing her to flinch and nearly spill her own wine.
“Like you can talk, Ames. I can’t even remember your last girlfriend.” Amy made a bratty face at him from under her mane of sandy brown streaked waves, and he snorted into his wine again. “Better be careful. You know what your mom always said about making faces.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’ll stay like that forever. Besides, I don’t need a girlfriend. I have you.”
Lex rolled his eyes. “I am not your girlfriend.”
“Can you be my gay boyfriend?”
“I only think that works if you have a straight boyfriend too.” He grinned, anticipating her reaction.
“Exactly. Which is why I said you needed a girlfriend.”
Amy cocked her head to the side. “Wait, you didn’t say I needed a girlfriend. I said you needed to get laid. Nice attempt at misdirection, Alexis.”
“Bite me, Amelia.” The insult was tempered with a grin. Lex loved their little spats. It was the most entertainment a guy like him could hope for on a Saturday night in Rock Bay. “How ’bout this. You find me one decent gay guy within a fifty-mile radius, which I think is impossible because I’ve already met all three of them, and I will do my very best to get laid.”
She snickered. “Okay, then you find me a decent lesbian, and I’ll do my very best to make her my girlfriend.”
Lex sighed. “We need to get the hell out of here.”
“You’re never going to leave. You love this place.”
“I know.” Lex looked at his watch. “Hey, I’d better go. Gotta be up to get the shop open for the before church caffeine injection.”
“Yeah,” Amy mocked with a grin. “Wouldn’t want them to have to gossip without their fix.” It was well-known that the main purpose of church for most of the townspeople was rampant and unapologetic rumormongering. “Tiki, come say goodnight to your uncle.”
An adorable and over-loved little French bulldog came waddling around the corner from her bed, nails clicking on the pale birch floor. She grunted and nudged at Lex’s hand, ready for attention.
“Goodnight, princess,” Lex crooned, pulling her into his lap and nuzzling kisses into her furry neck before sending her back off to bed with a pat on her rump. Then he stood and gave Amy a hug before heading for the door.
TALLY pulled up to his grandmother’s house, surprised that his memory of it was so clear after fourteen years of trying to forget. The miniature gingerbread Victorian was everything he’d remembered. Painted in shades of mint green, white, and dusky rose, it was delicate and dainty, exactly what his survivor of a grandma was not. The yard was surrounded by a meandering white picket fence, and, even in the dark, Tally saw a riot of early spring flowers popping around the white boards.
As soon as he turned the car off, the front door of the house was opened, and his grandmother, still standing tall and straight, waited ready to greet him.
“Come inside, Tallis, my boy. It’s raining horses!”
Tally hid his first smile in weeks and reached into the back seat to grab his few bags.
His grandmother settled him in her sunny yellow kitchen with a mug of tea and a chicken salad sandwich, muttering about how skinny and pale he was. It was true. He had gotten skinny, and his skin hadn’t had the glow of pampered youth in years—but his dark brown hair was cut as expensively as he could afford, and he’d tried to keep his few well-made and carefully chosen clothes from falling apart for as long as possible.
His grandma had gotten noticeably older. Her hair, once tied constantly in a thick salt and pepper ponytail, had grown mostly white and been cut into a practical shag. The weirdest part was seeing that she’d gotten smaller—and he knew she had since he was the same height he’d been at eighteen. Tally realized that it was a fact of life, people grew up, got old, changed, but it was still a bit of a shock to see someone who’d remained unaltered in his memories for so many years showing the wear and tear of time.
“Eat your sandwich, boy, then I’ll take you to your old room, and you can get some sleep.”
“Grandma, I’m not a boy.”
She rolled her eyes, looking for a second like the sassy rebellious teenager he knew she’d once been. “This is my house, Tallis Carrington. I’m glad you’re here, but while you are, I’ll call you anything I damn well please. Now finish your sandwich so I can put you to bed. You look like the ass end of a horse. You need sleep.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Tally forced out, nearly choking on his sandwich.
He’d nearly forgotten about his grandmother’s mouth, even if he had inherited it. Honestly, most people around Rock Bay would probably be surprised to hear Tally call anyone ma’am, but he’d never be able to manage the level of disrespect with his grandmother that he’d shown most everyone else. He took another bite of his sandwich and a long, appreciative swallow of his tea, which she always mixed with honey and a generous dollop of whole milk.
It felt good to sit in that old kitchen, full of warmth and cheer even on a cold, wet night. And, as much as Tally might protest, it felt even better to be tutted over and treated like a boy for five minutes. He’d been in charge of every miserable little part of his life for so long that it was nice to be taken care of for a change.
He finished his tea and sandwich, then placed the cup on a plate that only contained crumbs. It was hard to stand, warmed inside and full, but there was no way he was spending the night on one of his grandmother’s spindly wooden kitchen chairs, so Tally rinsed his dishes and put them in the sink. Then he followed his grandma, dragging his bags lethargically, up to the room he’d slept over in as a kid. He kissed her on the cheek and shut the door before sinking gratefully onto the twin bed that had been in the room since the dawn of time. He stared unseeingly at his bags for a minute or two, then, fully dressed, fell backward on the bed and passed out.