“HOW’S THE new job?” Casey asked as Reggie Barnett, the newly appointed sheriff of Sierra Pines, California, approached his friends at Barney’s.

Reggie rolled his eyes and lowered himself into the only available seat in the place with a sigh of relief. “Can’t I at least get a beer before you start the Spanish Inquisition?” he asked, wiping his eyes to get the dust out, trying to take a second to let some of the huge list of issues with the department fall away for just a few hours.

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” his friends parroted back in full Monty Python style.

Reggie chuckled, releasing some of the tension. He should have known seeing the guys would be good for him. They had gone to college together. Casey was now a lawyer and building a solid reputation. Vick was a hospital pharmacist. And Bobby, the smartest of them, who had graduated top of the class at Davis, was now at Berkeley finishing a master’s and planning on a PhD in mathematics. Numbers simply sang to him. All four of them had roomed together junior and senior years. Reggie smiled, remembering the action that small two-bedroom apartment had seen during that time.

Bobby placed a beer in front of him, and Reggie took a long drink, then sighed.

“That bad?” Casey commented over the din of dozens of overlapping conversations and pickups in progress, as well as music that tried to give the place atmosphere—and failed. This was a bar, not a dance club, thank you very much. Eventually someone seemed to get a clue and turned off the music.

“Worse,” Reggie answered. “So much worse.”

“That’s why you were appointed,” Bobby—a beanpole-tall man with geeky glasses and a smile that would stop traffic—said, gently patting him on the back. “You’re the best, and that’s where they needed you.”

They all teased each other, but there was no hint of that in Bobby’s eyes.

“What’s so bad?” Casey asked, playing with his vodka and soda, twirling the glass in his fingers. He always had more energy than any of them, and it seemed to leak out in small movements all the time.

Reggie took another drink. “For starters, I have three deputies.” He held up his fingers, ticking them off as he went. “One is a drunk. I haven’t caught him drunk on duty, but that’s just a matter of time. I have seen him staggering home after he spent all evening at a bar. The second is so new, he asks a million questions all day long. At least he might be savable. My predecessor didn’t train him for anything other than to give out speeding tickets. And the third….” Reggie rolled his eyes dramatically. “He thinks he’s God’s gift to the department and doesn’t see why he wasn’t given the job of sheriff. I have a feeling he’s as dirty as a pile of dog shit. No proof, just a feeling.” He drained the beer, and Bobby got him another one.

“I take it you aren’t driving?” Vick said over his glass of Diet Coke. He was the quietest of all of the gang and never drank. He hated the taste of alcohol, said it tasted like battery acid to him. The group paid for his drinks, and he made sure they all got home safely at the end of the evening.

“Nope. The car is in the lot and I can pick it up later. I don’t need to be back until eight on Monday, so I can drive back tomorrow afternoon.” Reggie took another drink. Life was good for a few hours at least.

“Awesome.” Bobby swung his arm around Reggie’s neck. “I’m crashing with Casey.”

“You’re at my place,” Vick offered with a smile. “I even have a proper guest bed now so you don’t have to crash on the sofa.”

“My back and ass thank you,” Reggie tossed back. “Sometimes I think I’m getting old.”

The others groaned in unison. “Please,” Bobby said in his queeniest accent. “None of us is over thirty yet, so we aren’t getting old. Personally I want to enjoy my last years of twinkdom.”

Reggie snorted loudly. “You are not and have never been a twink.” He turned toward the door as a man in his very early twenties came in. “Now, that’s a twink,” he said, motioning as the guy took a few more steps, looking at everything, back practically plastered to the wall as though he were afraid someone was going to come up behind him and take his virginity any second.

“No, that’s a scared little rabbit,” Casey said with a grin. “Remember the first time we came to a gay bar? I think we all looked like that, only it was the four of us, so we huddled together, whispering, looking for all the world like fresh meat for the wolves. Course, we had each other, and tongues as sharp as whips.”

“Still have that,” Vick interjected, making a whipping motion with his hand and nearly falling off his chair. He didn’t need to drink to be a klutz.

Bobby picked up Vick’s glass and smelled it, wrinkling his nose. Then he tasted it and set the glass back down. “Just soda.” They laughed at Vick as Reggie looked back to where the kid stood near the wall, eyes as big as saucers.

God, he remembered how that felt. The freedom of taking those first steps out into a world that might let you be who you were, but scared someone was going to see you—or worse, no one was going to say anything. Then, after a little while, the jitters gave way to more basic instincts as you hoped against hope that someone cute would stop and talk to you, because the real reason you screwed up your courage and came was to get laid.

“What’s the plan to turn around the department?” Casey asked, and Reggie grunted, watching the kid. He had sandy blond hair, and even from across the room, Reggie could tell his eyes were blue, like Lake Tahoe on a sunny day. He was, in a word, magnificent, with an air of innocence around him that made him even more appealing.

“I don’t think Reggie came here to talk about work,” Bobby said. “Give him a chance to unwind, relax, and eye-fuck the hell out of the guy over there.”

“I was not,” Reggie growled as he turned back to the group.

“He is really super cute,” Casey said, making to get up from his chair.

“Leave him alone. He doesn’t need any of your bad lines and lawyerly smarminess sliming all over him.” Reggie sent “back off” vibes to everyone at the table, and they all suddenly found their drinks very interesting. Not that he was going to do anything. That guy was too young, and Reggie wasn’t looking to spend half the night taking a guy to school.

Reggie had a strict zero-tolerance, don’t-shit-where-you-eat rule, so he never dated anyone in towns where he worked. No dating, no fucking, no drama, no intrigue. He’d always worked in smaller towns and had gone to either Sacramento or San Francisco when he needed some company and wanted to fuck a hot guy through the mattress. He didn’t get many chances and probably wasn’t going to in the future, so he wanted to make the most of the evening.

Reggie turned back to the blond, who had moved farther into the club and was sitting at one of the small drink tables. He was adorable. His chair was pressed to the wall, and he had the table positioned in front of him like a shield.

Oh, to be that young and innocent again.

“Stop looking. I don’t think chicken is on your menu tonight,” Casey teased.

“Definitely not.” Reggie scanned the room, catching the eye of a guy his own age two tables over. He smiled, and Reggie smiled back. Nice chest, thick arms, strong—a real man.

One of the servers circulating through the room stopped at the table. The room quieted for a few seconds, just enough to hear the guy talking.

Fantasies were like bubbles, and it was so easy to see a guy and immediately build an image of what he was like. Reggie pictured this guy as a lumberjack kind of dude. He had the plaid shirt that he damn near busted out of, and the deep tan of someone who worked outdoors. But that bubble popped as soon as he opened his mouth and asked for a martini in a near-falsetto voice. Instantly the attraction was gone. “See Tarzan, hear Jane” was a sure sign that the guy spent his days at the gym and his evenings trying to figure out which steroids to take to get bigger calves. No thank you.

Reggie turned away, took another drink of beer, and snagged a sausage pretzel snack-bite thing that a server had just delivered to the table. Food was a good idea, and he popped one into his mouth and grabbed another just as Vick excused himself and headed to the bathroom.

“Don’t be gone too long or we’ll know what you’ve been doing,” Casey teased. It was an old joke, and Vick flashed Casey the bird before continuing back.

“Uh-oh,” Bobby said, and Reggie looked at him. He tilted his head toward the wall, and Reggie turned. The kid still sat at his table, but now there were two other guys there, one on either side of him. They were big, tough, and had the kid hemmed in. It was a classic intimidation tactic, and the kid’s eyes were like a deer caught in headlights. He stood, probably trying to get away, and one of the men put a hand on his shoulder. Another tactic. The kid sat down, eyes now filling with fear.

“The evil trolls are out tonight,” Casey commented. “Why can’t assholes like that leave everyone alone? For Christ’s sake. All they’re going to do is end up scaring the kid right back into his closet, and it’ll take years before he has the courage to take another step.”

Reggie understood that. He slid off his chair. He hated bullies and wasn’t going to let the kid get hurt.

“Reggie, is that a good idea?” Bobby asked, placing a hand gently on his arm.

“Remember Asshole Art?” Reggie asked.

Bobby pulled his hand away, his eyes growing storm-cloud dark, and he nodded. “Go get ’em.”

Reggie drew himself to his full height and strode over to the table as though he owned the place. “Is there a problem here?” He addressed his question to the scared rabbit kid, who was holding the edge of the table like it was a life preserver. “Are they bothering you?”

“We were having a drink with him.” One of the big guys stood slowly, trying to intimidate, but Reggie knew that game. “Go away if you know what’s good for you.” The words came out of Rat Number One’s yellow-toothed mouth, breath smelling like he’d just eaten dinner out of a dumpster. Reggie inhaled. Neither guy smelled like they’d had a bath in a while.

“How about you let him answer for himself?” Reggie said.

“I… they… I…,” the kid stammered, gripping the table until his knuckles were white, fear ramping up even more.

“I see.” Reggie turned to Rat One and Rat Two. “I suggest you two get lost… now!” He reached into his pocket and flashed his badge quickly, not giving them a chance to really see it. “You have ten seconds to get up and get out, or I’ll call some friends and we’ll check out your cars. See what you’re hiding. Scum like you are always hiding something.” He smiled, and the rats stared at each other, then practically tripped over themselves to get the hell away.

“What do you want?” the young guy asked.

Reggie shook his head. “Nothing from you. I know that type well.”

The guy reached for his drink, and Reggie stilled his hand. “Did they get that for you?” Reggie asked, and the guy nodded. “Throw it out. It’s probably laced with something.” Reggie took the glass and placed it on a tray for one of the servers to take away. “Their plan was most likely to get you under the influence, and then they’d have taken you someplace and done what they wanted and you couldn’t have stopped them.” He took a small step back to give the kid some room and let him know that one danger hadn’t been replaced with another. “I’m Reggie.”

“Willy.” He swallowed hard. “Was that badge real?”

“Yes. I’m a sheriff in a small town a few hours from here. Just wanted to scare them off.” Reggie patted the table gently. “I’m going to go join my friends, but you be careful. Is this your first time at a place like this?”

“Yeah.” That rabbit look was back.

“Most people are really nice. Not like them. Talk to people, be friendly, and they’ll talk to you, I can promise you that. Don’t accept any drinks from anyone you don’t know. That’s just a safety issue. And take it easy and have fun. Okay?” Reggie felt sorry the kid’s first experience was so frightening. He turned and went back to the table, where a plate of potato skins sat at his spot, as well as a fresh beer.

“A hero’s reward,” Bobby said with a grin. “That was a really nice thing to do.”

Sometimes Reggie thought his sense of right and wrong was something deep in his bones. He hated injustice, and he’d seen a shit-ton of it piled on top of a crap mountain. “Thanks.” He dug in and devoured the first one in three bites.

Reggie turned at a gentle tap on his shoulder. Willy stood just behind him, holding a beer glass. “Can I talk with you?”

It took Reggie a few seconds to realize what the kid meant. Then he smiled. “Sure. Pull up a stool.” Reggie made quick introductions.

“This is my first time… in a place like this… and….”

Reggie nodded. “It’s a gay bar. If you can’t say the words, then you’ll never be able to deal with the fact that you’re here and that you are, in fact, gay.” He pushed the plate a little closer, and Willy tentatively took one of the potato skins. He ate it almost as fast as Reggie had. Reggie chuckled. “Slow down. No one is going to take it away.”

“I was too nervous to eat before I came here,” Willy confessed.

“How cute,” Vick quipped.

“Knock it off. Remember the first time you came to a place like this? You puked all over your own damn shoes and nearly pissed yourself, you were so scared.” Reggie grinned.

“That was bad pizza and you know it!” Vick protested.

That had been his excuse for years, but they all had eaten the same thing and no one else had lost their cookies. Reggie let it go.

“Do you guys come here all the time?” Willy asked.

Bobby shook his head. “No, sweetheart. We all went to college together. I live in Berkeley. Casey and Vick are here in Sacramento, and Reggie is on the ass end of somewhere up in the Sierra foothills. We get together when we can to drink, shoot the shit, and talk about old times.”

“So you aren’t boyfriends?”

“No,” Reggie answered. “I dated Vick for, like, three days, and Casey for a week, but we all realized we were better off as friends and that’s what we’ve been ever since. Brothers from other mothers.” He raised his glass, and they all followed along, clinked, and then drank.

“How did you…? Do your parents know?” Willy shook, and Reggie got the idea that these were his very first steps out of the prison that the closet could be.

“We’re all out to our folks. We’ve met each other’s parents.”

“Casey’s sister, Lila, is my best friend, and I was the man of honor at her wedding,” Vick explained. “We all know everything about each other. Do you have any close friends?”

Willy nodded. “But none of them are… you know… gay.”

“Well, get yourself some gay friends,” Casey told him.

Reggie was glad Casey wasn’t driving, because he’d already had enough to drink and was getting talkative. Vick passed over some of the food, and Casey ate a few bites.

“Don’t listen to the drunk over there. You just need to take things one step at a time. It’s what we all did. But we were lucky we found each other and had each other to rely on.” Reggie motioned to the plate, took another snack, and offered one to Willy. Now that he wasn’t looking so scared, he was even cuter than before. His eyes had lightened to an amazing sky blue, and his plump lips were red and full. He had a small nose, pert and cute, with a little bump, probably from a break at some time.

“I don’t want to bother you. This is all so new.” When he smiled, his straight, perfect teeth shone and his eyes sparkled. He really was handsome and sweet as all get-out. From the way he kept glancing his way, Reggie figured he had a few stars in his eyes and was maybe a bit sweet on him. It seemed a weird way to phrase it in his mind, but he felt like maybe Willy had a crush on him.

Reggie bought a round of drinks, with Willy having a soda along with Vick. They talked for a while, time slipping away really quickly, and soon it was midnight and Reggie’s day was catching up with him in a huge way.

“I think…,” he began, standing, “I’ll be right back.” Reggie headed to the restroom and did his business, paying little attention to what was going on in the stalls. If this had been his beat, he would have broken them up and told them to move on, but it wasn’t his problem or his establishment. When he returned, the guys were getting ready to go, and Willy had stood as well.

Willy seemed to be waiting for him and followed him outside. “Umm…. Reggie?” Willy said, and Reggie stopped, taking a step back to where Willy stood next to the door, shifting his weight from foot to foot, nervous energy washing off him. “Do you maybe want to go somewhere?”

Reggie closed his eyes for a second, thinking back to when he’d been that young—scared, horny, and inexperienced. There had been times when he’d thought he’d die if he didn’t get laid. When he opened them again, Willy raised his gaze, eyes a swirl of desire and nerves. The guy was as cute as a button, and it would be so easy to tell Vick to go on. He could take Willy to a hotel room and see what he had under those ill-fitting clothes. He could easily imagine a lithe, tight body, smooth and sleek, pretty. He needed to stop those thoughts or he was going to be showing Willy just what he was asking for, as his pants drew tighter.

“I’d love to,” Reggie said, and Willy smiled. “But is that what you really want? This is your first time, right?”

Willy bit his lower lip and nodded. “I mean, I… once.” He made a gesture with his hand.

“You don’t want your first time to be with someone you just met a few hours ago at a bar, and it certainly shouldn’t take place in a cheap hotel.” Reggie wished someone had talked to him this way when he was young and stupid. “Go out, find some friends, and meet some people. Date, get to know guys, and then decide who you want to be your first. Someone who will take the time to make sure it’s as special and caring as it can possibly be. You only get one first time, so don’t waste it with a guy who’s had too much to drink or someone you hardly know.” He patted Willy’s shoulder. “I know you may think I’m being preachy and stuff, but I speak from experience. You’ve taken a huge step out of the closet and toward finding out who you are. Now find someone who can help you take the next step on that journey… and help make it happy. Someone you care about and who cares about you. Okay?”

Reggie wouldn’t have been surprised if Willy had told him to fuck off. Yeah, he’d probably come across as self-righteous as hell, but his mouth had lost some of its censorship ability.

Willy kicked at the ground, slightly slouched, refusing to look up. “Okay, I guess. But there is no one….” He seemed so lost.

“There will be. Don’t make the same mistakes I did and rush into it. I got hurt pretty bad.” Why Reggie was going into this with someone he barely knew was more than he could understand. The guys knew the truth about what had happened to him and that was all. Not even his parents knew all the details. “Not that I would hurt you, but you don’t know me at all. You deserve more than that.” With what he hoped was an encouraging smile, Reggie turned away and headed to Vick’s car. The other two were in the back seat, so he folded his large frame into the front of the small car, buckled up, and closed his eyes.

“Struck out?” Casey teased.

“No. He wanted to. But… I backed away.”

Casey groaned and Bobby snickered. Vick was the only one who said nothing, backing out of the space and getting on the road to the freeway.

“Why not? You would have been good to him. Right?”

“Of course I would have,” Reggie growled. “But he was so scared, and this was his first time venturing out anywhere. I told him to wait and make his first time special with someone he cared about.” He turned to the back seat, where the other two sat, looking at each other. “Do you remember your first time?” he asked both of them. “Was it special or something fumbling and ridiculous?” He already knew the answer because they’d shared their first-time stories years ago.

“But you would have made it special for him, and now some other guy is going to come along and probably be a dick to him, big-time,” Bobby piped up.

“Shut up,” Vick said. “You’re being an ass, and Reggie was being nice and did the right thing. Half the people in that bar kept looking at that kid like he was a piece of meat.” Vick patted Reggie’s leg gently. “I’m proud of you. Yeah, you could have gotten laid, but you took the gentlemanly way and not only helped the kid, but maybe gave him something to think about. That was pretty cool.”

“Yeah. Reggie was nice. The perfect hero. So as a reward, he’s going home with his right hand instead of that tight, hot little body that could be wrapped around him like a pretzel right about now. Oww!” Casey groused when Bobby smacked him on the shoulder. “What are you hitting me for?”

“You’re being an ass,” Bobby told him. “Now stop it.” He patted Reggie’s shoulder. “You’re right. You were nice to him. It would have been nice to have had someone older to help us when we were trying to figure shit out. Because, man, did we manage to fuck things up bad so many times. It’s a miracle we didn’t all die of broken hearts and end up with permanent appointments at the clap clinic.”

Yeah, Reggie knew he’d done the right thing, but still, Casey was right, and it bugged him that his mind flashed images of just what he might have missed.