“YOU’RE SUSH a dick.” Emmett Byrd cursed for what he figured had to be the billionth time since he arrived. He ignored the increasing slur in his words as he drained the last drops of wine from the bottle into his glass. Drinking from expensive crystal stemware made getting hammered far more civilized, he told himself as he toasted the life-size black-and-white art photo of Terry’s nude, well-defined body, which dominated an entire wall of the living room. His friend—scratch that, ex-friend—glanced coquettishly over his shoulder, eyes down, a hint of smile to his lips as if teasing the viewer; the light and shadow played off the muscles in his back and ass as he flexed, highlighting the tattoo at the base of his spine. The effect was visually arresting even if it was incredibly pretentious. The photographer was talented—Terry, not so much. “Sheriously. Could you be any more conceited?” Emmett muttered, his voice booming in Terry’s empty, sterile condo.
Emmett hated this place, hated the hard stained concrete floors, the stark white walls and uncomfortable chrome and leather furniture. Fashionable but empty. Just like Terry. It so wasn’t him. His practical nature had always preferred function over form and comfort over style, no matter how much Andy had tried to steer him in the other direction. It was a good thing too, since he was back on a modest single income again and style could be damned expensive.
Two weeks ago, in a moment of loneliness, he had agreed to keep a newly brokenhearted Terry company for the holidays. Since Emmett was well into the seventh month of his own suddenly solitary life, it had seemed the perfect solution—a chance to commiserate together—and, at the time, it had beaten a cold and snowy Christmas alone in Chicago; however, at the moment the only thing that had changed for Emmett was the scenery.
He had arrived in San Diego on Friday, ready to start the pity party Terry had promised him, only to find Terry packing his Louis Vuittons for a weeklong fuck fest in Palm Springs with his on-again, off-again boyfriend, Rick. Somehow during the course of Emmett’s four-and-a-half-hour flight from Chicago, Rick had gone from “off” to “on-again.” Emmett might have been happy for them, except for the fact that Terry and Rick’s volatile relationship hit the skids every other month, and Emmett was the primary recipient of Terry’s drunken texts. Now, the one time Emmett needed a shoulder of his own to cry on, his friend went AWOL. “But it’s different this time,” insisted Terry as he dropped his keys on the counter and ran out to Rick’s idling Beemer. Sure it was. Until the next time one or both of them got restless and decided to pick up a trick in a bar and the other got jealous. Emmett grimaced. Was there any man out there who wouldn’t disappoint him?
Finishing the last of his wine, Emmett flopped down onto the black leather Barcelona chair, forgetting too late that one did not flop onto furniture that cost more than his monthly rent payment. He winced as his butt hit the rock-hard cushion. Immediately, sweat began to collect along the backs of his thighs as his shorts rode up and his bare skin stuck to the leather. Great, just another perfect turd in the toilet bowl of his life.
So here he was now, two days before Christmas—his first in twelve years without Andy (the asshole)—alone in Terry’s Mission Beach town house instead of alone in Chicago, working his way through Terry’s ample wine fridge. On the upside, Terry had enough bottles to last until next week if he was careful, or the day after Christmas if he wasn’t. The latter scenario was looking more likely. And, unlike Emmett’s of late, Terry’s wine did not come in a box.
Half the problem was that it didn’t even feel like Christmas with the palm trees outside the window and the warm breeze blowing through the patio doors. It was hard to stay angry and depressed when the sun kept shining, and dammit, he wanted to stay angry and depressed. Emmett never thought he’d miss the cold and the snow, but right now he did. Almost as much as he missed Christmas shopping on Michigan Avenue with Andy—although to be fair, they hadn’t done that in years—or preparing for the big party they always hosted on Christmas Eve for Andy’s work friends. Even the sound of the ocean, discernible over the traffic, was nothing but an irritation to his irascible senses. He was assailed with an unexpected bout of homesickness that brought tears to his eyes. Oh, well, nothing another bottle of Terry’s finest wouldn’t cure, Emmett mused. He wondered if Terry had taken his stash of weed with him. Maybe he’d search for it later.
The doorbell rang just as Emmett detached himself from the leather chair with a loud ripping sound. He checked to make sure that he hadn’t left a pound of flesh behind and then had to clutch the backrest as the room spun. What a lightweight. He’d never really been able to hold his liquor, although he definitely made for a cheap drunk. Emmett shuffled to the door and peered through the spy hole, but his view was blocked by a field of blue-and-white plaid. With a grumble he yanked open the door and was nearly squashed when the big blond man leaning against it tumbled into the foyer. He had a quick thought that it wouldn’t have been so bad to be squashed beneath that hard plaid-covered chest. Even in his pleasantly inebriated state, Emmett felt a jolt of surprise; it had been a long time since he noticed things like that.
“Oh, hey, sorry,” rumbled the man, who, although taller than Emmett, wasn’t as big as he first seemed. At Emmett’s height, everyone seemed big. “I nearly squashed you there.” He cocked his shaggy blond head and gazed at Emmett with the darkest blue eyes Emmett had ever seen. “You’re not Terry.”
Since Terry was six feet tall, slender, and platinum blond, and Emmett barely made five foot seven, was perpetually rumpled, with a dark buzz cut and black-rimmed glasses, the comment was ridiculous. Bitchy, drunk Emmett came out to play. “Really? How could you tell? Maybe we’re twins.”
“Nah, you don’t look anything alike,” the man said with true sincerity. Emmett blinked in surprise, wondering just how drunk he was. “Is Terry here?” the blond asked with a smile that could melt the polar ice caps. A set of delicious dimples peaked through a day’s worth of golden peach fuzz.
Oh, Christ, not another one. Emmett rolled his eyes, immune by now to the charms of Terry’s parade of towheaded boy toys. This made three in the past two days, and he was getting tired of being the bearer of bad news, although this one seemed a bit older than the barely legal twinks who had shown up earlier. The least Terry could do was dump his own one-night stands. “No,” sighed Emmett, eager to get back to drowning his sorrows. “The asshole is in Palm Springs with his boyfriend. Yes, they’re back together. And no, he’s not ever going to call you, so you should just move on.” He moved to shut the door, but the stranger was in his way and didn’t budge.
Blondie didn’t look crushed, just confused. “I beg your pardon.”
“Whatever promises he made you aren’t worth shit. Terry eats boys like you for breakfast and then moves on.” Emmett knew he was probably being heartless right now, but damn, it felt good to not be nice for once. Misery loved company and all that.
“Um. So Terry’s not here?” The interloper’s brow wrinkled in confusion. Wow, this one was simple. Why on earth had Terry hooked up with him? Just then, Blondie crossed his arms over his chest, showing off nicely muscled biceps beneath his short-sleeved shirt, and Emmett knew exactly what Terry had seen in him. The man was definitely built, not all lumpy and pumped like a gym bunny, but lean and hard, with honest-to-goodness muscles from real work. “This is the twenty-third, and he told me to stop by on the twenty-third. Are you sure he didn’t mention me? My name’s Sky.”
Emmett forced his attention away from those ropy arms. He felt a wave of pity for the younger man. Way to go, Terry, he thought. Teach another kid that gay men are incapable of anything more than meaningless sex. “Look, you seem like a nice kid, but the truth is, you were nothing more than a quick hookup for Terry. He does it all the time. You’re not going to cry, are you?” Emmett asked.
The blond gave a faint smile. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Good, because the last one cried.”
“I mean, really, are you shur-surprised? He has a tramp stamp, for God’s sake,” Emmett spat. “That spells S-E-X.” Emmett leaned against the door because the room seemed to be tilting, and he needed something to hold on to. “Did you really think you were going to find true love on some dance club floor with a man you just met? Let me give you some advice, big fella. Men are dogs—they only want one thing. And then they just throw you away.”
“Wow, cynical much?”
Emmett tried to focus on Terry’s trick, but the guy kept moving around. “Look, kid—”
“I’m twenty-eight—not a kid.”
“Oh. Terry must be slipping. He usually likes them younger.” Emmett peered more closely at the stranger. He was only ten years younger than Emmett, but he still had that boyish look, mostly because of that lopsided grin and big blue eyes. When he smiled, deep dimples popped in his cheeks, giving off the impression of childlike innocence. Emmett doubted he had ever been so guileless even in his younger days—not when he had been born cynical. Life so far had only proved him right. “Stand still, will you? You’re making me dizzy.”
Blondie’s handsome lips quirked. “I am standing still. You’re the one who seems to be swaying.”
A pair of strong hands caught Emmett by the shoulders before he toppled forward. “Maybe you should sit down.”
“Yeah, that might be a good idea. Just until the room stops moving. Maybe there’s an earthquake or something.”
“Or something,” agreed the younger man with a chuckle. He locked an arm around Emmett’s waist and led him to the living room.
“Not the chair,” Emmett instructed. “It’s like sitting on concrete.”
Blondie’s deep laugh rumbled against his side, and Emmett was lowered to the chrome and leather sofa, which was only marginally more comfortable than the chair. “So, if Terry’s with his boyfriend, who are you?”
“Friend,” Emmett mumbled, flinging an arm across his eyes to block out the afternoon sun that poured through the large windows and kept stabbing his retinas no matter how he turned his head. “No! Fuck that—ex-friend.”
The stranger’s smile was as blinding as the sun’s rays. “Look,” he began. “I think I left something in Terry’s bedroom the other day—”
“Like your dignity?” Emmett snorted. He giggled at his little joke.
“Mind if I check?” continued Terry’s hot hookup. “I’d stop by later, but I’m going to be leaving town the day after tomorrow.”
Emmett raised a limp arm and flapped his hand. “Go ahead. Be my guest. It’s not like Terry’s bedroom isn’t open to the public anyway.” With his eyes closed, he couldn’t tell if his invitation had been obeyed, but the room grew quiet, so he supposed it had. Emmett suddenly felt very sleepy. Now if only the sofa would stop rocking like that.
“Found it,” sang a deep and cheery voice, rousing Emmett from the edge of sleep. He grunted as a large shadow fell across his face, blocking out the sun. He wanted to tell the shadow not to move, but it kept talking. “Hey, are you going to be okay here by yourself?”
Emmett managed to lift his arm and curl his fingers into a thumbs-up sign. “Superduper. I vant to be alone,” he drawled in his best Greta Garbo impersonation.
When the shadow still didn’t move, Emmett squeezed open one eye and found the blond man was biting his lip indecisively. “It doesn’t feel right, leaving you like this.”
Emmett laughed bitterly at the irony of having a complete stranger care about him when neither his best friend nor ex-lover did. “Hey, let me ask you something since you’re here. What is it about guys like Terry that do it for you? You have to know it’s just a one-night stand. Is it just because he’s a slut? I mean you seem like a decent guy—not like the other two.”
Blondie scrunched up his face in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
Geez, dumb as a doorknob. The good-looking ones always were. “It’s when someone hooks up with you after being dumped so that they still feel wanted,” Emmett explained.
“Oh, I’m not—”
“Of course you’re not. You’re special. You’re ‘the one.’” Emmett couldn’t keep the disdain out of his voice. He closed his eyes because looking up at the man made the sofa sway harder. “Puh-lease. Terry and Rick break up all the time. I swear they do it just so that they can go out and fuck around with a clear conscience. Can’t anybody keep it in their pants anymore?” Emmett knew he was ranting now, but he had a good drunken outrage going and didn’t want to stop.
“You know, you sound an awful lot like a bitter rebound yourself.”
Emmett laughed so hard he started to choke. “Please. I wouldn’t go near that ass with a hazmat suit on. Which reminds me—you really oughta get yourself checked out. Terry’s ass has seen more action than a Las Vegas slot machine.” God, he was so much funnier when he was drunk. Maybe he would just stay that way.
Blondie heaved a big sigh. He seemed disappointed. “Will you give Terry a message for me, then? Tell him I’m sorry things didn’t work out, but I’ve got to go home.”
“Home. Right…,” Emmett mumbled. He snapped his fingers, or at least he tried to, as he focused on recalling the kid’s name.
“Well, Cy, before you go, would you mind grabbing me another one of these?” Emmett reached under the sofa where the empty wine bottle had rolled. He squinted at the label, but the letters kept dancing in front of his eyes. “What was this one? Red? Are you supposed to mix red and white, or is that wine and liquor? Oh, well, surprise me.”
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
“I’m still standing, aren’t I? That means not nearly enough.”
“Actually, you’re lying down.” Amusement laced the younger man’s voice. Even in his sorry state, Emmett heard it.
“If I’m lying down, why is the room spinning?” Emmett raised his head, and a shaft of sunlight blinded him. He fell back against the cushions groaning. “And why is this town so goddamn sunny?”
Then he passed out.