BRENT BERKHEIMER sat in his small office and peered out the window. He sighed and craned his head, looking for Scott, then groaned softly. He needed to stop doing that. He’d already done it a dozen times today, and dammit, he needed to get his mind where it should be. The bay where the young mechanic worked was the closest one to his office, and Brent liked to watch him in action. Brent was the boss, though, so getting involved wasn’t a good idea.

However, he had just talked it over with Trevor Michaelson, the owner and his boss, who told him that as long as he kept things professional at work and didn’t allow any drama or tension to creep into the workplace, he wasn’t going to tell him no.

“Just be careful,” Trevor said, sitting across from Brent in his office. “I’ve seen the way the two of you look at each other, and I know we’ve talked about things.”

Brent nodded. He agreed—which was why he’d stayed away for almost two years. Scott Spearman had just turned twenty when Brent had taken over for the previous guy, who had stolen a great deal of money and nearly gotten Trevor into irreversible financial difficulty. So for the last two years, Brent had just watched, hoping his infatuation would die away.

It hadn’t.

Brent wandered out to the shop floor as Scott grunted and humphed from under the hood of the Firebird. He walked to the other side, sticking his head underneath to take a look. Cars weren’t his forte. Brent wasn’t a mechanic by trade. Rather, he was a manager and kept the business humming and everyone working at their best.

“What’s the trouble?” He leaned forward a little more.

Scott raised his gaze, and Brent swallowed hard as warmth flowed into Scott’s wide eyes. Brent watched his throat work before turning away. This was such a bad idea. “This nut won’t loosen.” Scott lowered his gaze and went back to work, but his hands didn’t seem to be moving and he glanced upward again.

Heat built inside Brent, and he nodded without breaking eye contact, wondering what those eyes and incredible lips would look like in the height of passion. Shit, he needed to keep thoughts like that at bay. They were working, dammit. “Have you tried backing the seal? Tap it on the side with the wrench.” It was a trick he’d seen some of the other guys try.

Scott released the wrench and gave the bolt a couple taps. He seemed skeptical, but when he turned it this time, the dang thing moved a little and then more. “Awesome.”

“How much longer before you’ll be done?” Brent asked, but Scott kept his head down until he got the bolt off. This time when he raised his gaze, his cheeks were flushed and red.

“A few minutes now.” Scott nearly dropped the bolt, and Brent pulled back from under the hood of the car, still watching Scott as he walked back around to the office and went inside, tugging a few times at the collar of his shirt to let some air in and cool the sweat that had formed under it.

He met Trevor’s gaze for a second and snatched some papers off his desk to have something to take his mind off the sweet drink of walking temptation on the other side of the glass.

His heart still beat faster twenty minutes later while he was discussing the state of business with Trevor and doing his best not to look out the window. It was best to leave things as they were.

“I’m heading out,” Scott said as he stuck his head in the office door, his shaggy black hair falling almost to his eyes. He was a little on the lanky side, but with deep brown eyes that reminded Brent of hot chocolate on a cold winter night. He had pouty lips that burst into a bright smile at the drop of a hat. “I finished everything, and I called all the owners for them to pick up.”

“Do you have something fun planned?” Trevor asked.

“I need to get home and stuff. Lee and I are both off tomorrow, and we’re going swimming. It’s been so hot and the water is great, so I’m going to take him. His mom is going to drive us.” He was so excited, Brent grinned. Then Scott turned to him and his lips curled just a bit, his pupils growing bigger as his gaze heated slightly. Brent’s temperature rose and he smiled in return.

“You have fun.” Brent couldn’t look away. The intensity in Scott’s eyes was the world’s best candy, and he wanted a bite. Brent was already sweating, and all Scott had done was poke his head in to say goodbye. Staying away from him was getting more and more difficult.

“We will.” Scott left, and for a second, Brent pictured him in his bathing suit, one of those Speedos, dripping with water as he rose out of the waves James Bond‒style.

Trevor stood and peered outside before closing the door. “Jesus. I think I need a shower.” He sat back down and fanned himself. “Man, it’s warm in here. You need to make up your mind and do it fast. Either tell him how you feel and then the two of you figure this shit out, or walk away. The energy between you is enough to light the block for a month. If you keep this up, you’re going to sizzle the paint off the walls.”

Brent nodded. “I know. I keep hoping that things will work themselves out and that he’ll tell me what he wants or something. Scott is young and has his whole life ahead of him. He doesn’t need a washed-up guy a decade older tying him down.”

Trevor shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder if you aren’t as blind as James. At least he has an excuse. Scott just sent you a message with exactly what he wants. Hell, he couldn’t have been clearer if he’d contracted Western Union to send you a damn telegram.”

“I know. But… I’m not like you and Dean. You have enough confidence to approach anyone, and Dean is still working his way through the entire gay male population of Milwaukee. He’s got the slut thing down pat.” Brent grinned. “Sometimes I think he should give classes.”

“He’s free and making the most of it. Dumbfuck Chuck really did a number on him, and I don’t think he’s going to change his ways until he gets whatever he has going on out of his system.” Trevor paused. “Nice change of subject. Look, my dad would tell you to shit or get off the pot. And that’s my advice too. Do something instead of standing around my business, eye-fucking each other until the end of time.” Trevor fanned himself once again, then pulled his ringing phone out of his pocket. “James, I’m leaving the garage and heading home… no, we’ll eat in.” His voice grew deeper, and Brent left the office to give him some privacy. The last thing he wanted to hear was Trevor and James making plans for their certain-to-be-spectacular evening.

Last summer Trevor had decided to take James boating, and the two of them, along with Dean and Brent, had rented a cabin in Northern Wisconsin. They had a great time… until that first night when James proved to have one hell of a set of lungs on him. Brent wondered if they’d had to add some additional soundproofing to the house to comply with noise ordinances.

“Is there anything else you need from me?” Trevor asked as he came out of the office, closing the door.

“I don’t think so. We’re booked solid for the next week, with half the appointments for the week after booked as well. Things are going well and everyone is getting along, at least for now. Lee is doing really great and seems happy. So be sure to pass that on to James.”

“I know. James still sees him on an occasional basis, and apparently all Lee talks about is his time here and the fact that he has a real job doing things he loves.” Trevor grinned. “When I brought him here, I didn’t expect things to work out as well as they have.” He checked his watch. “I should be going.”

A car turned off Brown Deer Road, steam pouring from under the hood. It was clearly overheating. The driver pulled to a stop and turned off the engine. A girl of about seventeen got out, staring at the cloud, and began to shake. “Can you help me? I was on my way home and it started doing this. I didn’t know what to do and then I saw your sign, and….” She shifted from foot to foot. “It’s my dad’s car and he’s going to kill me.”

“I’m Brent, and this is Trevor.” Brent approached her slowly. “You did the right thing. We’ll let the car cool down, and then we can take a look and see what’s wrong.” He smiled, and she turned to him and then to Trevor, her eyes lighting up. Of course she’d respond to Mr. Gorgeous.

“We have some coffee and water inside.” He led her inside to the waiting area. “Just relax and have a seat. We’ll do what we can.” Trevor went inside and returned with a few tools. The cloud of steam was becoming a trickle as the heat dissipated. Trevor got the hood unlatched and lifted. More steam billowed out, and then it gradually came to a stop. “There it is, just a loose hose.”

Brent came over and nodded. He saw the issue as well. “We’ll need to let it cool some more. I’ll get a fresh clamp, and we can get this fixed in a jiffy.” He went to get the part and brought it back, along with the tools they’d need. After waiting a little longer and letting the air flow around the engine, they were able to get the clamp switched out and to add coolant. Then Brent started the engine and let it run. No more steam.

“Here you go, miss,” he said when he brought her the keys. “It’s all fixed. Your dad should have the car looked at and checked over thoroughly, but you should be okay to get home.”

“How much is it?” she asked, clearly nervous. “I mean, I think I have a ten, but….”

“It’s all right. Just get home safely.” Brent smiled, and she thanked him half a dozen times before getting in her car. She started it and rolled down the window to thank them again before driving off. “You should get home,” Brent said to Trevor. “James is probably wondering where you are.”

Trevor already had his phone out and was texting madly, using a voice app.

Brent sighed and went back into the office to get things ready to close up. There wasn’t anything more he could do today, but he wasn’t interested in going home. He checked his watch again and went through his mental list to make sure everything he needed to do had been completed.

Trevor came in behind him. “Do you need my help?”

“Nope. I’ll take care of everything and drop off the deposit on my way home.” Brent walked over to the bays, lowered the doors, and started turning off the lights. By the time he got back to his office, Trevor had his things together and was ready to head out.

Car tires crunched on the drive, pulling to a stop right outside, and Brent checked his appointment files. “I don’t have anyone bringing in any cars.” He stood to look out the window. “It’s Jane, Lee’s mother.” He left Trevor in the office and quickly walked over to where she was parked. “Is there something wrong?” He leaned on the door as the window slid down. Lee sat in the passenger seat, tears leaking from his unseeing eyes.

Lee and Scott were partners and inseparable at work. Lee had been one of James’s students at the school for the blind and he loved cars, so James had suggested Lee come to the garage. He and Scott hit it off instantly. They were a great pair, both gifted with engines. And with Lee’s almost bat-like hearing, he could diagnose some problems quicker than anyone else in the shop.

“Lee, I wasn’t expecting you.”

Jane handed Lee a tissue and then turned to Brent. “We just got a call from Scott’s mother. He… he was in an accident on the way home. She said she was on her way to the hospital, and Lee asked me to take him to make sure Scott is okay.”

“Mom, he was injured. She said so,” Lee said as he wiped his eyes. “We have to get there.” Lee’s voice broke, and Brent’s knees buckled. The only reason he didn’t end up on the ground was because he used the car to prop himself up.

Trevor came up behind him. “You go do what you can, and tell Scott’s family that we’re all pulling for him and to keep us informed. Let us know if there is anything that any of us can do.”

“I will,” Lee said, and his mother turned to them, clearly worried.

“It’s bad,” she mouthed, sending a shiver through Brent’s gut. “We’ll ask his family to call. I’m sure it’s too early to know anything just yet.” She nodded and raised the window.

Brent stepped back so she could pull away, then stood in the center of the drive as she turned onto the street. He blinked and managed to stay upright.

“It’s going to be okay,” Trevor said. Brent had almost forgotten he was there.

“You don’t know that.” Brent went inside and sat at his desk once more, not caring if Trevor followed him. There was nothing he could do. He had dithered and told himself to wait, letting himself doubt and vacillate for so long that now the Fates had acted.

“Scott is young and strong, and that’s going to make all the difference.” Trevor pulled him into a hug. “Just be strong too. I know you have it in you.”

That was well and good, but Brent wasn’t sure if he had it in him. The Fates had a way of shitting all over him, and this seemed like another of those times.

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” Trevor said.

Brent nodded.

“You’re the strong one. You got me through the heartache with Chase when I didn’t think I’d ever be able to bounce back. You know, I used to hug you just because you made me feel safe.”

Brent forced a smile. He knew he had an image to uphold. In their group, Trevor was gorgeous, the one who could get anyone, but now he was off the market. Dean was impulsive and tended to be wild, at least in the last few years. Brent was the strong, reliable, sensible one of the group. But he didn’t feel very sensible right now. Yeah, he was concerned about Scott because he worked with him, but the tightening in Brent’s gut and the waves of regret that broke over him again and again reminded him he felt so much more for him. Brent knew he was being completely stupid. He’d never approached Scott, even though they had teased and being in the same room with him sent his pulse racing. To Brent, that wasn’t strength, but pure cowardice.

“Dammit,” Brent spat and returned to his closing checklist. “Go on home to James, and you two have a good night. You’ve kept him waiting long enough. I’ll call Scott’s family in a few hours, find out how he is, and let you know.” There was nothing anyone could do right now.

“If you’re sure….”

“I am.” Brent needed to be alone for a while. “I’ll see you soon.” He had to keep his mind on the task at hand. He completed prepping the money and checks for the night’s deposit, and once he was done, he locked everything up and went to his car. He dropped the bag in the night deposit drop on his way home. He’d brought the number for Scott’s emergency contact with him and dialed it through his car’s voice commands, then waited for it to connect.

“This is Brent from the garage. How is he?” he asked once the call connected.

What he got as an answer was a sniffle and then tears from Scott’s mother, he presumed. There was a shuffling sound before a male voice spoke. “This is Reggie Spearman, Scott’s dad.”

“Do you know what happened?” Brent pulled to a stop at a gas station and brushed his eyes with the back of his hand. He couldn’t drive and have this conversation. It was affecting him too damn much. As soon as he switched off the engine, his hands shook and he clamped his eyes closed.

Mr. Spearman choked up, making Brent regret asking. He should have kept his mouth shut. “He was stopped at a light and seemed to have slipped his seat belt off his shoulder. A car ran into him from behind, and he went upward and hit his head on the windshield and his chest on the steering column. He has a number of injuries, and they’re prepping him for surgery.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Not right now. He hasn’t been conscious since they brought him in.”

“How did you know he’d been in an accident?”

“The car registered that it had been in an accident, and when the service didn’t get an answer, they called authorities and then us. It’s the plan we put him on for safety. Help was there right away.” He spoke very softly, so Brent turned up the volume.

“Please let me know if there is any change. All of us are concerned and sending him our most positive thoughts.” What the hell else could he say? That he hoped Scott was going to be okay so he could get a second chance? He’d clearly missed his first, and if he were lucky, he might get another. Fuck it all. He understood what they meant about a brave man dying one death while a coward dies many. He wished now that he’d had the guts to tell Scott…. He pulled his head out of his own thoughts as Scott’s father continued.

“If he recovers, we don’t know what sort of therapy he’s going to need, and….” His voice cracked.

“One thing at a time,” Brent said. “Let’s get him through the surgery, and then we’ll all go from there.” God, he had no idea what was going to happen. “Please call me once you know anything. Any time. It doesn’t matter.” He had to know.

“Of course. I have your number in my phone now.” Scott’s father was having a hard time talking, so Brent said goodbye to let him go.

He sat in his car as it heated up in the summer sun, breathing and trying not to beat himself up over and over again. There was nothing he could do now but wait.

Brent backed out of the parking space and continued the drive home. His phone rang as he pulled into his apartment building. “Hey, Dean,” he answered, seeing his name on the in-dash display.

“What happened? You sound messed up.”

“Scott, one of the guys at the garage, was in an accident. It’s pretty serious,” he said, keeping his voice steady.

“Is that the guy you’ve had a thing for and not done anything about?” Dean asked in his “I told you so” tone. At least it was the one Brent’s mother used when that was her unspoken message. “What? You’ve been talking about him for years now, I swear. Whenever we get together, you slip something that Scott did into the conversation.”

“Yes, that’s him.” Brent gripped the steering wheel, his defenses rising.

“I’m sorry, dude. That’s pretty tough.” And just like that, Dean proved he could be human and had a heart. “What do you want me to do?”

“There’s nothing anyone can do. Not right now.” Brent opened the car door, which switched the call back to his phone. “I guess I have to hope he makes it through this.”

“Yeah. That’s tough,” Dean repeated. “I was calling to see if you want to go out, but that probably isn’t a good idea. So how about I swing by the liquor store, pick up something good, and we can tie one on? I’ll be at your place in an hour or less.”

Dean hung up before Brent could refuse. He groaned and called Dean right back.

“Don’t you dare tell me you want to be alone or some such rubbish. I know what it’s like to feel completely stupid. Remember Dumbfuck? The shithead is getting married to the guy he cheated on me with. So I’m on my way.” He hung up, and Brent knew it was no use calling him back again. Brent couldn’t argue that having some company would be a bad thing. When Dean got something in his bonnet, there was no stopping him.

Brent climbed the stairs to his second-floor, two-bedroom unit and went inside. It was serviceable but nothing special. He got out the munchies he had in the cupboards, ran the vacuum, and got the dishwasher running after he got the dishes out of the sink. He didn’t worry about the furniture, which was relatively plain. Dean had been here before, so there was no need to try to put his best foot forward or to keep up appearances.

The doorbell rang. Brent answered it and ushered Dean and his bags inside.

“Let’s get started.” Dean hurried right into the kitchen, grabbed two glasses, added some ice, and returned to the living room with a bottle of Jack, which he plopped down on the table. He unscrewed the cap, poured the glasses half full, and handed one to Brent. “Now that we have what we need….” Dean gulped from his glass, and Brent did the same.

“Does Scott?” He stared at the amber liquid in the glass. “He may not survive at all, and God, if he does….” He coughed and swallowed around the lump in his throat. “He’s going to be in so much pain and….” The liquor sloshed in the glass from his shaking hand. The thought of Scott hurting made it hard to breathe for a few seconds.

“Brent….” Dean leaned forward.

“What do you want me to tell you? I was such a fucking coward….” Brent drank, the whiskey burning as it went down his throat. Then the warmth spread out inside and he drank again, needing that feeling desperately. “A gutless wonder, okay? I worked with him for two years, saw him all the time, watching him like some perverted old fart.” He emptied the last of his whiskey and poured another. Now that he was getting into this, he might as well get really shit-faced and see if it helped.

“Is that what you did?” Dean ruffled his hair like Brent was a kid. “Come on. He worked for you, so you wanted to keep things professional.”

“Fuck that. I thought… think about him all the damn time. I was too afraid to say something in case he turned me down. I’m ten years older than him, and I figured, what the hell would he want me for anyway?” Brent set his glass aside. Suddenly getting drunk and trying to forget everything didn’t hold any appeal. “I’m mooning over a guy who was out of my league. We flirted and had fun with each other, but that was all it was. I was… am Scott’s boss, and that’s the end of it.” He huffed. “The rest is me being an idiot.”

Dean downed his whiskey and poured some more. “If you’re so sure about that, you wouldn’t be acting this way.” He could be so observant every now and then. “You like him, and somehow you developed feelings for him.”

Brent jumped to his feet, waving a hand. “Okay, I did. But none of that matters, and I need to get over this… infatuation. He’s in surgery right now, and he isn’t going to want me when… if he gets better.” He began pacing the room. “I’m acting like a teenager. I need to stop.” His head was going in a million directions, and he desperately needed it to settle on something, anything.

Dean set his glass on the coffee table. “Fuck it all. You know I was pissed and a bit depressed because Dumbfuck was getting married and the asshole is happy. But dammit, I’m more depressed now than I was when I walked through your door.” He snatched his glass and drained it. “I hate shit like that.” Dean leaned back on the sofa, cradling his glass.

“Let’s eat until we puke.” Brent opened the bag of Cheetos and passed them to Dean because he knew they were his favorite. Then he opened the chips and went to the refrigerator to grab a couple of beers before flopping on the sofa. He’d had enough whiskey, so he popped a beer open and drank. Brent sighed. “Sometimes I think I’m the stupidest man on earth.”

“Why?” Dean’s speech was a little slurred, or maybe it was the mouth full of Cheetos. It was hard to tell.

“Because I wasn’t gutsy enough just to tell him what I wanted. I know it won’t make a difference, not now.” Brent drank another sip of beer and then picked up the bag of chips. “I suppose we always regret the things we don’t do.”

Dean shook his head. “Yeah, I know that. I should have left Chuck long before I did.”

“You know, maybe it’s time you stop trying to screw every guy in town and find someone special.” Brent set his beer on the coffee table, turning toward Dean. “Every time I go to Trevor’s and see him and James together, I get so fucking jealous that I want to scream. They have what I want, and I can’t ever seem to find it for myself.” He crunched another chip. God, now he was sharing his feelings and shit. It must be the whiskey. “Forget I said anything. Okay? It’s not that important. Let it go.” He turned on the television and found a RuPaul marathon. It gave them something to talk about other than his feelings.

 

 

DEAN CONTINUED drinking well into the evening. Brent watched television, and after nursing his second beer, switched to water. He’d had enough, but Dean seemed intent on getting drunk. When he could barely keep his head up, Brent helped him to the spare bedroom, got him some water and aspirin, and put him to bed. Then he went to his bathroom, where he got rid of the beer he’d rented, drank water himself, and then climbed between the sheets.

He’d had enough alcohol to easily fall to sleep but woke, with his legs twisted in the bedding, from a disturbing dream where everyone in his life was just out of reach. A vibration on the nightstand drew his attention. He snatched at it. “This is Brent.” His mouth felt like cotton and tasted terrible.

“This is Reggie Spearman, Scott’s father. You said I should call.”

“Of course,” Brent said gently. “I’m glad you did. How is he?” His insides clenched, fearing the worst.

Reggie groaned, and Brent expected that he and Scott’s mother were beyond exhausted. “He’s come through the surgery and they’re sending us home. They said there will be nothing more to learn tonight. They had to pin some bones in his chest, but it was his head that they’re most concerned with. They relieved pressure on his brain and stitched up some bad cuts, but they won’t know for a while if there is any brain damage. They’re hopeful, but the accident was pretty bad.”

“Has he woken up at all?”

Reggie sniffed. “No. They’re hopeful that when they reduce the drugs in the morning, he’ll come around, but they aren’t sure. They said…. They…. He could slip into a coma. All they keep telling us is that it will take time and they’ll have to see.” His emotions seemed so close to the surface, Brent found his rising as well.

“Thank you for calling me. I appreciate it. If there’s anything I can do, just say so.” Brent swallowed as he tried not to picture Scott lying motionless in a hospital bed.

“Not now.”

“I’d like to see him.” The thought flashed in his head, and at the late hour, he didn’t have his mental filters working to stop it.

“I don’t know if they’ll allow it, but I’ll give your name to the desk. It’s only family at this point, but I think I can get an exception. Scott always spoke so highly of you. He loved coming into work every day, and a lot of that was because of you.” Reggie sighed once more. “I need to take my wife home so she can get some rest.”

“Thank you for calling.” Brent ended the call and put his phone back on the nightstand. He closed his eyes, saying for Scott a silent prayer that he remembered from Catholic school. Brent didn’t know where it had come from—he hadn’t thought about any of that for years—but it came unbidden to his mind, and he recited it as he fell back to sleep.

He woke to the first rays of sun coming through his window. Working at the garage, the days often started early, and he had gotten used to the hours. Brent got up, checked on Dean, who was snoring like a lumberjack, and headed to the kitchen to make some coffee. After that, he called Trevor and explained what Scott’s family had told him.

“I want to go up to the hospital to see him, but I don’t know if they’ll let me in.” In the middle of the night, he had made up his mind to at least try to visit Scott.

“Of course. I’ll open this morning for you. Do what you have to do,” Trevor said, proving once again that he was a great boss and the best friend Brent had ever had.

“Thanks. I need to get Dean out of my guest room before I go.”

Trevor chuckled. “What the heck did he do?”

“He came over to keep me company, I guess, and got really drunk. He’s been doing that a lot lately.” As Brent thought about it, he realized Dean had been drinking excessively for months. “He was drinking Jack like it was nothing.”

“Well, take away what he brought and get him up. I’ll have a talk with him, and if that doesn’t do any good, I’ll sic James on him. No one can turn him down for anything.” Trevor chuckled. James had a way of getting under everyone’s defenses. Part of it was probably the blind thing, but it was also probably that fact that James had a way about him that made everyone want to talk to him. “Did he say why he was drinking so much?”

“Yeah. It seems Dumbfuck Chuck is getting married to the guy he cheated on Dean with. I think it’s hit him pretty hard. He needs someone who will care about him, but they’re going to have to bring a bazooka to blast through this fuck-everyone-he-can persona Dean’s developed.” Brent pulled open the refrigerator door and grabbed the orange juice. “Not that I don’t care, but it’s been two years. He needs to move on.”

Trevor scoffed loudly. “That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”

Brent groaned, knowing Trevor had a point.

“I’m just giving you a hard time. Go see Scott and call me when you find out anything. I’m going to see about taking up a collection of some sort at each garage location. There’s certain to be bills that Scott’s family isn’t going to be able to afford.” And that was another reason why Brent and Trevor were good friends. “Call me when you know something.”

“I will.” Brent hung up, drank his glass of juice, and went to wake Dean, then took a shower and brushed his teeth to get the taste of death out of his mouth.

“Dean, you need to get moving.” Brent poured himself a mug of coffee, sipped it, and then poured a second. He figured he could use the aroma as a lure.

“Why did you let me drink so dang much?” Dean shuffled into the room in his wrinkled T-shirt and boxers. The shirt was looser than last summer, and the boxers hung lower on his hips. Dean was incredibly skinny.

Brent handed Dean his coffee. “Have you been eating?”

“Of course I have. Lots and lots of salad.” Dean sat down and hung his head. “I need to stop this shit.”

Brent rolled his eyes. “Yes, you do. You also need to eat… really eat. And something other than just salad and Cheetos. And drink some water—anything that isn’t whiskey or other alcohol.” He went into his bedroom and brought back the stand mirror from the top of his dresser. It had been his mother’s. Brent plopped it on the counter in front of Dean.

“Oh God.” Dean turned away. “Don’t show me that this early in the morning.”

Brent stepped behind Dean and turned him to face his reflection. “Morning has little to do with it. You look like this most of the time. Your face is always drawn, and the bags are taking up permanent residence under your eyes. Your clothes hang on you.”

“But if I’m going to attract hot guys, I need to be able to fit into skinny jeans.”

Brent groaned. “That isn’t you. This whole thing with Dumbfuck needs to end. So he’s getting married… big deal. You could be getting on with your life if you weren’t determined to fuck it all away, literally. Instead of the bars, go somewhere else, meet someone, say hello, stop fucking around, and maybe you’ll be the next one to get hitched.” Brent leaned closer but jumped back away from Dean’s toxic breath. “God, man.” He waved his hand in front of his face.

Dean turned away from the mirror. “Would you stop lecturing me? I get that shit from everyone. My parents call me all the damn time to ask why the fuck I’m throwing my life away, and work is crap right now. I thought I’d get some sympathy and understanding from my friends.” He set the mug on the counter and pushed back the stool. “Jesus!” Dean stood and stormed into the other room.

Brent groaned softly. He’d tried, but there was no use attempting to explain to Dean that it was because he was his friend that he had to say something. Dean wouldn’t hear of it. Shit. Now Dean was mad at him. Not like that was anything new. Dean’s temper had a hair trigger lately.

Brent finished getting ready, and Dean slumped out of the bedroom. He downed the last of his coffee and groaned. “You don’t need to take your anger out on me,” Brent told him as levelly as he could. “I was only trying to help.” He waited for Dean to lift his gaze and then met it with one as steely as he possibly could.

“Thank God it’s Saturday and I don’t have to go to work,” Dean growled.

“Are you okay to drive? You don’t look very well.” Brent wasn’t going to let Dean take off and then have his friend joining Scott in the hospital. “I can take you home on my way out.”

“I’m fine. Really.” Dean smiled, though Brent knew it was forced, especially with the lack of energy in his eyes. Brent hated seeing his friend like this and wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do as long as Dean wasn’t willing to help himself. “Don’t worry. I’m fine. I slept well and drank lots of water. I really am okay.” Dean’s smile got brighter. “Thanks for looking out for me.” He hugged him and Brent felt much better about him driving. Dean said goodbye before he left the apartment, and Brent got his stuff for work.

Once he was set, he drove to the hospital, went up to the desk, and explained that he was there to see Scott Spearman. He was given a wristband, then followed directions to the ICU. Brent told the nurse at the desk who he was there to see, and she took him back.

Scott was in a small room, the bed surrounded by monitors with a number of tubes and cords hooked to him. His usually robust cheeks were sallow, his normally intense eyes closed, his pouty lips pale.

“Please remain quiet.”

“Of course,” Brent said as he pulled forward the small chair and sat next to the bed. He didn’t ask her a bunch of questions about how he was doing because Brent knew she couldn’t really tell him anything without specific written permission.

The nurse checked Scott over and left the room.

“Hey, Scott. It’s Brent. I wanted to stop by and see you.” He blinked as Scott’s chest slowly rose and fell. “I read somewhere that people can sometimes hear things when they’re out like this. So I hope you get better.” He turned to make sure no one was around to hear him, then leaned closer. “I should have told you how I felt.” He sniffed and took one of the tissues from the box on the tray table. He reached for Scott’s hand and slid their fingers together. Brent probably didn’t have a right to do that, but he wanted Scott to know he was there.

To his surprise, Scott’s fingers squeezed his just a little. At first, he wasn’t sure it was real, but Scott did it again. Brent gently rubbed the back of his hand but received no further movement in response.

“Are you Brent?” a man who had to be Scott’s dad asked. He looked so much like him, only an older, more weathered, and very worried version, with touches of gray in his hair.

“Yes,” Brent whispered, setting Scott’s hand back on the blankets, his cheeks heating. “I was just trying to make a connection with him. I think he might have squeezed my hand a little.” He wondered what Scott’s dad—and then his mom as she followed him inside—must be thinking with him holding Scott’s hand.

“He did that last night before we left. It’s the only indication that we’ve had that he’s there and knows we’re here.” Scott’s mother approached, and Brent stood to give her the chair. She sat, gently stroking Scott’s hand. “Is there something between you and my son?” She lifted her gaze, and it was like she was looking deep into his soul. It was immediately evident where Scott got his amazing eyes, even if hers were red and definitely filled with concern. “I heard what you were saying to him before we came in.”

“Don’t mind Carolyn. She has bat-like hearing sometimes.” Reggie stepped to the other side of the bed, looking at Scott. If Brent were to hazard a guess, Reggie was willing his son to wake up. The worry and sheer willpower were written on the lines of his furrowed brow.

“Reggie,” she said gently, then turned to Brent. “Scott talked about you all the time. I think he may have a crush on you.” She looked him over. “I can see why, but aren’t you a little old for him?”

Brent nodded. “That’s why nothing ever happened.” He turned back to Scott, not believing he was having this conversation. “I’m his manager and….” There were so many reasons why he’d never said anything to Scott, though all of them seemed too stupid now. Scott lay on the bed, largely unmoving, and none of Brent’s reasons mattered. All that did matter was that Scott would recover and get better again.

“I see,” she said, as though there were some great meaning behind Brent’s words. “He told me about the time the oil gun sprang a leak and he got sprayed. You got the oil shut off and him out of there and cleaned off so fast, before it could get in his eyes.”

“He told you that?” Brent closed his eyes, stifling a groan, as his cheeks had to be turning beet red. He’d cleaned Scott off and had damn near kissed him just because he was relieved Scott was all right. Just as he’d gotten close, Scott had opened his eyes and their gazes had met, but Brent had backed away. His cowardice had taken over the way it usually did.

Carolyn nodded. “He said you were gentle and made sure he was okay before everything else. Then you apparently took apart the equipment, fixed it, and made sure that didn’t happen again.” She smiled. “Scott tells us stories about work all the time, and many of them featured you.”

What was he supposed to say to that? Brent wanted to hide and lick his wounds somewhere. It seemed that the teasing and flirting Scott had done was more than just playing. Brent had never been sure, but now he knew. Scott had cared and might have been truly interested, but now it might be too late.

“That’s so nice to know.” Brent couldn’t help looking at Scott and wondering what might have been if he had just had the guts.