Chapter 1—Three Months Until Takeoff

 

GRANT BANNERMAN grabbed an empty tray, hurried over to the tall table, and placed the empty glasses on it while the guys were away. This was the only table in the place that no one was going to take. It was permanently reserved—especially on a Friday night—no matter how busy Bronco’s was. Once the empties were cleared, he wiped the tabletop and was about to leave when the usual occupants returned.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Zach said as he hopped up onto his stool. “Thanks so much for clearing the table, Grant. You didn’t need to do that. I could have taken care of it.” He flashed a smile.

“It’s no problem,” Grant said over the thump of the bass that vibrated the floor under his feet. Then he hurried to the next table. “What would you like to drink?” he asked the three men who had claimed the table as he cleared the glasses, used napkins, and something he wished he’d had rubber gloves on before touching. Thankfully it turned out to be part of a balloon and not a… well, he had encountered those on occasion too.

“How about you?” one of the men asked, leaning too close to Grant. The scent of alcohol on his breath told him this guy had already been drinking a while. “I think you’d look wonderful under me, screaming my name as you come.” He slid his hands down Grant’s back, cupped his butt, and squeezed a little too hard.

Grant started forward and nearly lost control of the tray, but managed to catch it at the last minute. “Sorry, I’m not on the bar menu this evening.” Keep it light, and a little flippant, but tell the guy no, he told himself. That’s what he needed to do, no matter how tempted he was to be mean or say what he wanted—that he didn’t go anywhere with drunk idiots with obnoxious pickup lines.

“Aww, come on, sweetheart. We’ll have one hell of a time.”

“Knock it off,” one of his companions said, swatting away Mr. Handsy’s arm. “That’s enough. You need to behave.” The man shook his head as the third guy at the table put his arm around him. Dang, why were the good guys always taken, and why did the jerks always end up at one of his tables? “Bring him a beer and a cup of coffee,” he said to Grant. “He and I will both have a Grey Goose martini and a glass of water.” He flashed a warm smile.

Grant thanked him and hurried away with the tray, weaving around the edge of the throng of dancers to the bar, where he placed his order and took care of the dirty barware.

“Are you okay?” Zach asked from next to him. “I saw what that guy did, so I mentioned it to Bull when he stopped by the table.” Zach got this dreamy expression for a second as he looked over at the intense bald man standing near the bar. Bull owned the club with his business partner, and the guy was scary as hell most of the time. At least he appeared that way. Grant knew him mostly as a good boss who watched out for his people. He’d even seen him smile at least three times, though each time it had been when he was talking to Zach. The two of them had been together five or six years, but to Grant, they still looked like newlyweds sometimes.

“I’m fine. He got touchy, and the guys with him took care of it, but thanks.” Then Grant checked with Hank, the bartender who served the runners. Hank was a big guy, and sometimes, when Hank wasn’t paying attention, Grant liked to watch him and the way he filled out his tight black shirt. It was enough to make Grant forget where he was, even as guys jostled around him. Not that he held any hope that there could be anything between them… for so many reasons. Hank was mixing drinks for one of the other waiters, so Grant figured he had a few minutes. He turned back to Zach. “It happens sometimes, you know that. But tell Bull he might want to keep an eye on the guy, just in case.”

“I’ll let him know.” Zach took the tray Hank passed to him and paused before leaving. “When you get your break, stop over at the table if you like.”

Grant nodded, taking his own drinks from Hank and putting them on his tray, then nearly spilling one as his attention wandered to the sex-on-a-stick bartender for just a second. He shook his head slightly and pulled it together. Once away from the hint of intricate ink that just peeked out from the sleeve of Hank’s shirt, Grant steadied himself and headed back across the floor. He placed the drinks on the table in front of each guy, including the extra waters and coffee, as well as a cup of nuts from the bar because the one guy had been nice.

“That’s thirty dollars,” Grant said when he was set.

The guy who’d been nice to him handed him two twenties. “Keep the rest,” he said gently, then scowled at his friend, who’d already half downed the beer and grabbed a huge handful of the nuts. “Sorry about Jack. His partner of ten years decided that yesterday was the day to ask for a divorce because he’s in love with a college student.” Mr. Nice Guy lowered his voice. “The guy is a real jerk. Anyway, we’re going to take him home soon, but if you could bring him another cup of coffee, that would be great.”

Grant took the money, thanked him, and added the coffee to his sheet before making the rounds to his other tables, settling some tabs and taking more orders. He made that circle three more times, putting in orders at the bar before passing through with the last tray of drinks, then headed over to the regulars’ table, where Zach motioned to him.

“We still haven’t figured out what we’re going to do,” Kevin said as Grant approached.

“And it looks like we aren’t going to do it tonight. All we do is talk and talk, but nothing comes to mind,” Zach said from next to him. Kevin, Jeremy, Tristan, and Zach were like the four slightly aging twink musketeers. And Friday nights were when all four friends came to Bronco’s. It was their night out together, and Grant was honored to have been asked to join them. It seemed like finally getting to sit with the popular kids in high school.

“You’re right,” Tristan groaned. “Besides, Zach, this isn’t really your problem.” He paused.

“I got you a Diet Coke—that’s what Hank said you drank,” Zach said, passing a glass to Grant. He thanked Zach and turned his attention to Tristan, who barely stopped talking.

Tristan took a breath, winding down from whatever had him spun up. “Everything is booked—we have all the reservations and the rooms. If dipwad Danny decides that he doesn’t want to come, he’ll still have to pay his share. It’s not like Hank can get his money back anyway. Not this close to the departure date.” He leaned over the table. “If you ask me, Hank is so much better off without him. I mean, the guy was such a loser. He never wanted to go anywhere and he couldn’t stand that Hank worked here, because there were other guys who watched him. The big jealous prick.” Tristan straightened back up, shaking his head.

“Can I ask what’s going on?” Grant felt a little left out. Not that it was any of his business, but they had asked him over and were talking about stuff he didn’t understand.

“Sorry, Grant. First of all, you know the club is closing, right?” Zach said.

Grant’s heart beat a little faster. “Yeah. Bull and Harry said it was only for a month, though, to make some renovations.” God, he hoped the plans hadn’t changed. But Bull and his business partner, Harry, were stand-up people, and Grant forced himself to relax. “He and Harry told some of the staff, me included, that they were going to pay us for the month anyway so we’d be sure to come back.” That was the kind of people they were. And it meant a great deal to Grant, even though he didn’t have many expenses since he still lived at home. His mom and dad had built an apartment in their basement for his sister, Jeanne, and her husband, Pete, when they’d gotten married. After they moved out, Grant moved down there. Still, not having to worry about being out a paycheck for a month was one less concern.

“Yeah. The first two weeks are demo and prep. Bull and Harry have a fabulous architect, and he’s going to oversee all that, so the four of us got the idea to go on vacation. Bull never takes time away from this place, and neither do Harry and Lowell.” It took Grant a second to remember Spook’s—the club’s head of security—actual name. No one called him Lowell. “So we booked a two-week vacation in Italy. We’re all going.”

“I heard Bull say something about it once. It sounds like a lot of fun.” Then Grant checked his phone and drank a little more of his soda. He still had ten minutes before he was scheduled to go back.

“Hank and Danny the Dipstick were supposed to go with us. But things went south with them, and now Hank is looking for a roommate. Apparently Hank had booked the trip as a surprise for Danny, only now that things between them are over, Hank is kind of stuck.” Zach huffed slightly and rolled his eyes. Then an idea seemed to pop into his head and he blurted, “You could go!”

Grant shook his head. “Hank hates me most of the time.” Maybe not hated him, but they certainly weren’t friends, and Grant had no idea why. Hank was professional about work stuff, but he always seemed standoffish and never spoke to Grant if he didn’t have to. And that sucked, especially since Hank seemed to pull his attention a lot more than professionalism allowed.

Still, Grant had to admit, a trip would be really nice. He’d always wanted to go to Italy.

“You’d just be roommates, sharing a hotel room.” Some of Zach’s enthusiasm had definitely dulled. “And I don’t think Hank hates you. He’s a little messed up right now. Danny did a real number on the guy.” He made a sad-puppy face that Grant was pretty sure got Zach anything he wanted from Bull. Barely pausing to take a breath, he continued. “The tours are already paid for, as are most of the hotels. We got better rates in advance if we paid up front. Hank is looking for someone to share the expenses. And, of course, you’d have to pay for your airline tickets in and out of Europe. It’s a good deal.”

Grant finished his drink and kept himself from rolling his eyes. This sounded like a lot of fun, and at the same time, a recipe for disaster. Sure, it would be a great trip to take, but he wasn’t sure about spending a couple of weeks sharing a room with Hank. Well, that wasn’t necessarily true. Under different circumstances, he would jump at the chance to spend time with the guy who got his heart racing, but he was pretty sure Hank wasn’t going to go for the idea. They barely talked to each other, even at work. “I’d love to go. A trip would be fun and all. But I don’t know….”

Zach shrugged. “At least think about it. Maybe talk to Hank.”

This time Grant couldn’t keep from rolling his eyes. There was no way he was going to talk to Hank. It was none of his business. Going on a trip to Europe, rooming with the guy, would be a fiasco. Sure, people went on trips like that and ended up sharing hotel rooms with strangers on occasion. Well, maybe that happened. He really didn’t know what went on, on some of those bargain tours he’d thought about taking just to get away from home sometime.

“Or I can talk to Hank for you if you’re interested,” Zach added.

“Let me think about it,” Grant said. It was the best answer he could give right now, even facing Zach’s puppylike expression. Damn, that thing was powerful. Grant could only hope Zach usually used it for good. He slipped off the stool and returned to the bar via his tables, taking drink orders and clearing empty glasses as he went.

Grant knew he was good at his job. He made better tips than any of the other servers, and he never wasted a trip. If he was going to the bar, he brought drink orders and empties with him if he possibly could, and he left the bar with filled orders, making that same trip countless times a night. He always had his server’s apron pockets filled with napkins and other things he needed, like the occasional bottle opener for when things got really busy. Basically, he was ready for anything.

“That was my order,” Billy snapped as Grant took a drink from the rail where Hank had set it. Billy reached to snag it off his tray and ended up spilling it all over the bar, while the glass shattered on the floor. That was normal, at least lately, when he dealt with Grant. Billy always thought every drink was for him and never wanted to wait his turn.

“I’ll get you another in a minute,” Hank said to Billy as Grant grabbed one of the cloths to wipe up the spilled gin and tonic, while Hank swept up the glass. Hank didn’t thank him for the help, but put the broom away, mixed a replacement drink, and set it on Grant’s tray. “Is that your order?” Hank asked as Grant was pulling the tray away. He nodded and went back to drink delivery.

“What happened?” Zach asked when he passed by the table ten minutes later.

Grant sighed. There was no use stirring up trouble, and telling Zach how he felt about Billy and Hank at the moment was only going to poke a hornet’s nest. He was well aware that Zach would talk to Bull, and then Bull would feel he needed to take action, simply because Bull was that kind of guy. And really, it was nothing—just a little personal jealousy. Billy seemed to get along with everyone else well enough. “Nothing to worry about.” Grant smiled. “Do you need anything? I’m heading that way.”

“Four coffees. And can you put in a few orders of tots and an order of hummus for us?” Zach slipped a five into Grant’s apron. “We appreciate it.” Zach had a tab at the club… sort of. Bull took care of their drinks, and Grant supposed that, in return, the four of them kept their ears and eyes out for trouble.

Grant hurried away, put in the food order, as well as the drinks he needed at the bar, and took care of the dirty glassware while he waited for his order.

“Did you complain to Zach about me?” Billy growled from behind him.

Grant groaned, shook his head, and said nothing. When his drinks were ready, he loaded his tray and turned away to skirt the dance floor. Something appeared in front of him, his foot caught on it, and suddenly he was off-balance and about to go down. Grant took a step forward and knelt, catching himself and the tray before it went everywhere and gave the people around him a bath.

“You okay?” Spook said, appearing next to him almost out of nowhere, taking the tray with ease as Grant got his balance again.

“Yes. Thanks,” Grant said with a harried smile. Spook backed away, and Grant continued on his to the tables.

The night went on, with Billy making a minor pain of himself more than once, though Grant did his best to ignore it and go about his work. He had a job to do, and it paid his meager bills and allowed him to mostly support himself. And he knew that part of the job was to flirt with the guys in the club. It got him better tips if he flashed a bright smile and maybe dropped a wink or two here and there. Unlike a few of the other servers, including Billy, he never went as far as to get touchy-feely, and he expected to be treated similarly.

Well after midnight, he glanced over at the guys’ table and found it empty. They didn’t stay very late, at least by club standards. Their Friday nights were set aside for friendship, not getting drunk—something Grant envied. He wished he had close friends like those four, people he could confide in and trust with his secrets and fears.

“Hey, waiter,” a gruff voice called over the thump of the music, and Grant cringed inwardly, trying to keep his wariness from showing on his face. He was familiar with guys who spoke in that self-confident, entitled tone. In fact, he was intimately acquainted with it, thanks to his ex-boyfriend, and had grown to hate it.

“May I help you?” Grant asked as he turned. It wasn’t his table, but he’d long ago learned to help the customers if they asked.

“I want a Tanqueray and tonic, a double.” He had intense eyes and a handsome face with an immaculately sculpted beard, and a haircut that likely cost more than Grant’s best night of tips. The guy’s shirt shimmered and was probably silk. “I’d also like some of those bar snacks they’re serving. While you’re at it, bring yourself a drink and take a seat.” He pushed out the other chair at the table with his foot.

Something about the way he made his demands clicked inside Grant’s head, and he hurried away. He knew he should just bring the guy his drink and a bowl of snacks and leave it there. But training—of a sort—was difficult to overcome. He placed his order at the bar and turned back to the guy, watching him as he surveyed the room, paying no attention to Grant. The guy was so confident that he’d be back, he’d even pulled the empty stool right up close next to him.

“Something wrong?” Hank asked from behind him. It was the first time Hank had shown any interest in him as a person, and not just a waiter.

Grant took a deep breath. “Nothing I can’t handle.” The temptation was almost too great. Something about this guy called deeply to Grant, but he pushed back against it when he realized it was leftover training from his ex. Images of them together flashed in Grant’s mind, and he felt himself blush from head to toe in mortification, while waves of humiliation raced through him. He stood still, fighting the urge to run, to get away. That would only draw attention, which he didn’t want to do. The last thing he wanted was for his friends at the club to know his shame, to learn what he’d been willing to do for scraps of attention. Still, Grant had found the strength to leave and was finally rebuilding his life. There was no way in hell he was going back to that kind of relationship. He’d never put himself in that situation again.

He breathed in and out, doing his best to pull himself together and telling himself he was likely overreacting. His heart rate soon returned closer to normal, and he got himself back into work mode. Besides, he’d seen more than one guy in here who acted the way this stranger did. Grant knew it was mostly for show.

Grant delivered the drinks, stopping at the confident man’s table last. He placed the drink on the table, as well as the mixed snacks, and stepped back to leave.

“Where are you going?” the guy asked, cocking his eyebrow. “You don’t have to worry about your job, sweetheart. I know the owner, and he isn’t going to mind.” He lifted his drink and took a sip without so much as looking at him.

“You do?” Grant asked, trying to add a misleading sense of awe to his voice. He glanced around the room but didn’t see Spook or even Bull. The bouncers were in the back of the club handling a disruptive patron. “Then… well….” Grant’s heart sped up, and he caught Hank’s gaze from behind the bar, not knowing who else to try to signal for help. He was determined to handle this without making a fool of himself. Hank nodded, and Grant hoped to hell he’d gotten his message across.

“It’s all right.” The guy patted the seat.

Grant broke out in a cold sweat. He took another step back, intending to get out of the situation, as his flight instincts started to kick in, and walked right into a brick wall. He turned and nearly sighed with relief. “Hi, Bull. This guy says he knows you?”

“It’s okay, Grant. Go on back to your tables. It’s last call, so you’re bound to be busy.” Bull didn’t smile, but Grant knew it was all right. He nodded and hurried away, turning as Bull stepped closer to the guy.

While he filled his last drink orders of the night, Grant kept an eye on them. Bull and the man talked, with Bull not looking too happy, his arms crossed over his ample chest. Finally, the man stood, and Bull grabbed him by the arm, nearly lifting him off his feet, and propelled him to the door. Grant half expected Bull to swipe his hands together when he came back inside. But instead, he walked across the emptying club to where Grant was finishing up.

“If you see him again, I want you to let me or Spook know immediately. Don’t talk to him or serve him. That guy is trouble with a capital T, and I don’t want him in here.” Bull was gruff, and Grant’s gaze followed his to the door.

“Okay.”

“Did he hurt you or say anything to you?” Bull asked after a minute.

Grant shook his head. “All he said was that he knew you and that it was okay if I joined him.” He let out a deep breath in relief. It had been an eventful night, and he just wanted to go home.

“Good. He isn’t someone who plays nice with others. Like I said, I don’t want him anywhere near the club or the people who work here. If you see him again, call me right away.” Bull gave him a smile and then wove through the thinning crowd toward the door.

Grant went back to work, clearing tables as more and more patrons left the club.

“I saw that guy bothering you and got Bull,” Hank said as Grant brought up a tray of glasses.

He was a little wrung out and grateful for a few seconds to calm himself. “Thanks. He was getting pretty demanding.” Grant figured if Bull had wanted Hank to know about the guy, he’d have told him.

Billy brought up a tray of glasses as well, smiling at Hank while bumping Grant’s arm, nearly upending his tray. Grant huffed and turned away, leaving the two of them to make goo-goo eyes at each other. This petty shit wasn’t cool, and he was getting tired of it.

His phone vibrated in his pocket, and Grant pulled it out. There was a message from Zach. Think about the trip.

Grant shook his head and typed his response. He should go with Billy. The two of them seem pretty tight. Gag me with a sausage. He added LOL and sent the message, dropped his phone back into his pocket, and cleared the last of his tables as the music died and the lights came up.

Instantly the magic was gone. In the dark, the club was all lights, lasers, flash, beat, and energy. Guys loved it. But it was all an illusion, and as soon as the light came on, the stark black walls and industrial ceiling with beams and metal racks that held the lighting—even fog and bubble machines—came into sharp relief. In a way, the club was the emperor, and it was clear he had no clothes.

Grant blinked a few times and hurried to finish up. His tables were cleared and wiped and all the dishes brought to the bar within ten minutes. He settled up with all his tabs and received his tips, pleased with what he got from credit cards. Adding in what he already had in cash, he’d done well tonight.

“Grant,” Bull called after he secured the front door. “This is for you, from our problem customer. I told him he owed you an apology, and the best way to say it was with cash.” He pressed a bill into his hand, and Grant put it right into his pocket.

“Thanks, Bull.”

“You have a good night. You did good.” Bull clapped him once on the shoulder and then let him out the front door. “Stay where there’s light, and text when you get to your car.” He waited and then closed the door behind him.

Grant took a deep breath and turned, heading the half block to his car. Billy came out after him and hurried down the walk, brushing his shoulder out of the way as he passed, the little shit. Billy turned the corner before he did, and when Grant made the turn, he saw Billy with the guy Bull had thrown out of the club. The bigger man’s arm was around his shoulders, and the two of them seemed close. Both of them stopped, then walked over to the passenger side of a dark Corvette, and Billy got in. The other guy walked around the car and slid in behind the wheel. The engine revved, and Grant snickered. The slick guy had just blown his entire image, driving the world’s most impressive compensation car. Not that it was any of his business who Billy decided to go home with, but maybe Billy was in for a little disappointment. Grant smiled to himself and continued on.

Once at his car, he unlocked it and climbed inside as a message came through.

No way in hell do we want Billy with us, Zach sent. He’s okay, but he’d ruin the trip. Too much drama. He’d be a disruption, and I already told Hank not to even think of bringing him.

So, I’m a stopgap measure to keep weasels away?

No. We all like you and think you’d fit in. Think about it. I doubt that Hank would want to bring him, really. And Billy isn’t long for the club anyway. When we reopen, he isn’t coming back. Zach sent Grant a smiley face. There was definitely no love lost between him and the other waiter. And now Grant had an idea why Billy was giving him a hard time. Just think about it, Zach continued. Hank really wants to go, but he can’t afford to cover everything, and it would be a lot of fun to have you with us.

It would be almost worth it just to be part of the popular group for once in his life, and to have the chance at having friends like the four guys, who genuinely seemed to like him for him.

I will. He had the money saved to go, and God knew he could use a vacation.

Grant locked the car door and started the engine, sitting back as heat pushed away the early-spring chill in the air. He texted Bull as he waited for the engine to warm up, then started for home, speeding along lonely country roads.

His parents lived on ten acres in the country. He parked the car in his usual spot, the goats in their pens calling as he got out, and hurried around to the back of the house, unlocked the door to the lower level, and went inside. He had a small living room, a kitchen, bath, and two bedrooms, one of which he used as a game and computer room. Grant set his bag on the chair and went to the refrigerator to pull out a Caffeine Free Diet Coke. He drank it and ate a few crackers while he relaxed on the sofa, turning on late-night television to watch for a little while before going to bed.

In the dark, with only the flicker of the TV, he sat back to watch and ended up falling asleep. He woke as first light shone in the sliding doors. With a groan, he got up, stripped out of his clothes, and collapsed into bed without a second thought.

 

 

HANK FINISHED stocking the coolers behind the bar and closed the stainless-steel doors tightly. He tried not to let the fatigue of the day catch up with him. It might have been after two in the morning, but there was still work to do. He peered up over the edge of the bar, glancing around the now-quiet space. Hank’s head still pounded with the remnants of hours of ear-rattlingly loud music, and it always took some time for his hearing to return to normal.

“Are you nearly done?” Bull asked as he leaned over the bar.

“Not too long.” Hank stood and grabbed a rag from his bucket of bleach solution. He used it to start wiping down the bar, as well as the drink prep spaces, making sure they were properly clean. “The fridges are stocked, and all the glassware is washed and put away. I just need to finish washing everything down and we’ll be good to go.”

“Excellent.” Bull patted the bar with his hand and moved on.

Hank picked up speed, trying to get things done so he wasn’t holding up closing. Others mopped the floor and wiped down tables and chairs. Someone put on some slow, calming music, and almost instantly Hank started to sway slightly to it as he worked.

The chirp of his phone pulled him out of his little bubble of calm. He set it on the bar, glancing at the screen as he worked. There were only a few people he wanted to speak to at this hour, and the name on the screen was the least welcome one of those. Still he’d better answer it or there would be hell to pay… or at least, a hissy fit of epic proportions.

“Hey, Danny,” Hank said, trying to sound as tired as possible, hoping his ex would make the call brief. “What’s going on?” Their breakup was still new enough that it was tough for Hank to talk to him, but he was trying to be mature about it. They had been together for quite a while.

“I figured you would still be working,” Danny said, sniping a little. He hated Hank’s job, and always had.

“It’s what I do. Nothing has changed.” What else was he supposed to say?

“Yeah… well… you always did love that place too much.” A few of Danny’s words drew out a little too long. Hank could tell he’d been drinking, and that wasn’t good. Danny got mean and demanding when he had too much to drink. “The scenery there was just too good for you to pass up, no matter how many times I tried to help you get a better job.”

Yeah, the jobs Danny pushed him toward would have made Danny happy, not Hank.

“Did you call to pick on me for where I work?”

“I called because I think it’s time you start paying me back for helping you.” Danny paused, and from the gurgle through the line, Hank knew Danny was still drinking. “I can’t keep floating you, now that we aren’t together.”

“When we split, we agreed to go our separate ways—no harm no foul, you said.” Hank bit back that he hadn’t been the one who had cheated. There was no use patronizing Danny. It would only make him angry, and in his current state of mind, that wouldn’t be good.

Danny cleared his throat. “Don’t think for a minute that I don’t know what was going on long before you and I were over. For nearly two years, I saw you checking out the guys at the club, especially that kid, Grant. I’m not blind, and no matter what you say, you can’t tell me you never took advantage of all the flash and opportunity the club offers.”

Hank paused a second. “I never cheated on you. I’m not perfect and I may have my problems….” Okay, so he had plenty of those, but he was working on them and getting help. He switched tacks. “I’ve been going to meetings, just like I promised you I would eighteen months ago, and I haven’t set foot in a casino. I’ve even had gambling sites blocked by my internet provider. All the things I said I’d do, I’ve done.” He wanted this call to end. “Danny, I kept my word and I never cheated. The one who couldn’t move past my problem was you. You said you could, but you never did.” Hank cleared his throat as a jab of hurt and betrayal that he’d thought he should have been over roared back to life.

Danny groaned, and Hank figured whatever he’d been drinking was really kicking in. “Well, I better not hear about you and that kid. I don’t care what we agreed, I don’t—” He hiccupped.

“I’m not seeing anyone, and I never fooled around with Grant or anyone else from work, and you know it. But you and I are over. We have been for a while.” It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Danny to head back on over to the guy Hank had caught him with, but he stopped himself. His wounded pride wanted to lash out, but adding hurt to hurt wasn’t going to help either of them. “Just let me get on with my life and you do the same. We’ll both be happier.”

Danny cleared his throat again. “Just don’t get involved with anyone, or I won’t be as nice as I am now. You owe me, and I will make you pay. So behave.”

Hank blew air out as the line remained quiet. He wasn’t sure if Danny was still there, but the line was still open. “I need to finish up here at work. You should get some rest and drink plenty of water.”

“I will.”

“Take care of yourself,” Hank said before ending the call and placing the phone back on the bar. His stomach still roiled as he forced himself to finish up for the night. He held his head, warding off a pending headache. Hank had never cheated on Danny—ever. In fact, it had never occurred to him to hurt his partner that way. Danny, on the other hand, had never liked Hank working at the club and seemed jealous of the situation. More than once they had argued over the slightest thing, and often it was over Grant.

Hank smiled and then wiped it away. He watched Grant sometimes, and Danny had nearly come unglued in the club when he’d noticed. The young server was graceful and beyond cute. But just because he watched a guy didn’t mean Hank was going to jump in the sack with him. There had certainly never been any reason for Danny to be jealous. But then again, a cheater saw a cheater in everyone else.

“Let’s get finished up so we can all go home,” Bull announced, and Hank pulled his head back where it belonged and got back to work. Thankfully, he didn’t have much left to do, and by the time the others were done, he was finished as well. Then they all left the club, heading out into the wee hours of the morning.

He made it home in one piece, pulled into his parking spot, and locked his car. He trudged up the stairs to his apartment and let himself into the tiny space, locking the door behind him.

It was nothing special at all, just a place to live. When he and Danny split up, Hank had needed to move out fast, and he’d basically taken the first apartment he could afford—not that he’d had a whole lot of choices in his price range. There had been no way he was going to ask his mom or dad for help. He had made this mess on his own, and he needed to move on, living within his means.

Hank went to the refrigerator, pulled out a quart of milk, and poured himself a glass. When he finished, he walked into the bathroom, showered, and then collapsed into bed, falling almost directly to sleep.

 

 

WHEN GRANT woke again, it was to the sound of muffled voices through the floor. He groaned and pulled his covers over his head to drown out the noise of his parents’ bickering. It wasn’t that they didn’t love each other; they just didn’t agree on a lot of things. And it always involved a clash of wills before they decided what to do. As a kid, it had driven him crazy sometimes. It had taken him a long time to realize that it was part of how they loved each other.

“No, you do not get to be on top,” he heard his dad say, through his ceiling.

“Can you keep it down? I’m still trying to sleep,” he called upstairs, and the noise instantly stopped. “Yes, thank you. I cannot unhear that now. I’m going to be scarred for life.” He rolled over, snickering for a second. But then he realized he wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep, no matter how comfy he was under these warm covers.

As soon as his feet hit the Pergo flooring, he regretted his decision to get up. He groped around the edge of the bed for his slippers, pushed his feet into them, and shuffled across to the bathroom, where he shaved, showered, and brushed his teeth before returning to his room, bundled in a thick robe, and got dressed.

“Crap,” Grant grumbled, fishing in the dirty clothes for the pants he’d worn last night and going through them. He’d tucked his tips in his pocket, but he’d learned early on that his mom would claim whatever money she found when she did the laundry. So he made it a point to be careful.

When he straightened out the bills, he found a hundred. That must have been what Bull had given him. He put the cash in his wooden lockbox, then placed it under his boxers in the dresser. He got an hourly wage as well, but if at all possible, he lived off his tips so he could save the rest. He didn’t want to reside in his parents’ basement forever.

Footsteps on the stairs outside caught his attention, and he started the coffeepot before sticking a slice of bread in the toaster. The sliding door opened, and his mom stepped inside.

“How late did you work?” she asked as she came over.

Grant offered her a stool as he stood, waiting for the coffee and toast. “I got home about three.” He blinked at the clock that read eleven in the morning. At least he’d gotten some sleep. When the toast popped, he buttered it and munched on a corner.

“You should find a real job. One with a future,” she said. It was an old argument, and Grant didn’t want to get into it today.

“Sure, Mom. I made $250 in tips last night. One tip alone was a hundred dollars. It’s the biggest I ever got.” He smiled as she nodded. The coffee maker beeped, and he poured them each a mug. His mom loved her coffee. “It should really help with the auto insurance.” He took a sip of his coffee. “I have to work tonight as well.” God, he was not looking forward to that. Saturdays were always a madhouse, but he could do well with tips.

“I wish you’d go out with some friends. You work, you come back here, sleep, and then go out to work again.” She, too, sipped from her mug. “I worry about you. It’s like you have your life on hold or something.”

Grant tried to swallow his bite of toast, but it got caught in his throat for a second. “Mom, I’m fine,” he countered, once he swallowed a mouthful of coffee. “I know you and Dad are disappointed I didn’t go to college, but that wasn’t in the cards. I have a job that pays me pretty well, and I’ll get a place of my own—”

“We’re not worried about that.” She waved her hand as though it weren’t an issue. “You have your own place and we have ours. And I like seeing you most days.” She set her mug down, lightly drumming her nails on the counter. “Your father and I are worried. You spend so much time alone and work weird hours. How are you supposed to meet nice people? I know what those clubs are like.”

He put his elbows on the counter, his hands under his chin. “Oh, you do?” He had to give her the smartass treatment, and she lightly swatted at him. “You’ve never been there.”

“Bars are bars and clubs are clubs. Things haven’t changed all that much since I was your age. I turned plenty of heads and didn’t spend all my time sitting around waiting for Mr. Right to show up. I was young once too, you know.” The hint of prissiness in her voice told him something was up.

“Does your leg hurt?” he asked. She’d been in a car accident five years ago that left her with limited movement in one hip and on-and-off pain.

“Don’t change the subject. Getting old isn’t what it’s cracked up to be sometimes, so you have to make the best of things when you’re young.” She finished her coffee and pushed the mug toward him a little. Grant grabbed the pot and poured her a refill. It was her usual routine, and he knew it well. “Whatever happened to that nice man you were seeing? Timothy. He was seemed like he was good for you. A little older, maybe, but he was nice, polite….”

Grant used his coffee to try to cover his discomfort. “He wasn’t very good for me.”

“Did he hurt you?” She stood up, her eyes blazing. “If he did, I’ll—”

“Mom, it’s okay. I didn’t mean that. He wasn’t a good fit for me. Timothy was…. Mom, he was controlling. It’s part of his nature, and… that isn’t what I want.” He didn’t want to go into his sex life with his parents, any more than he wanted to hear about theirs.

“Oh, he was a Dom,” his mother said, and Grant nearly spewed his coffee. She leaned over the counter. “Are you into that sort of thing?”

“Mom, I…,” Grant gasped.

His mother quirked her eyebrows and took another sip from her mug. “Do you think you and your generation invented sex? I’ve been around, and I know more than you want to think I do.” She reached for his hand. “You know you can tell me anything and I’ll listen and keep it to myself.” She patted his hand and sat straighter, as though she were bracing herself for the worst.

Grant sighed, and it was on the tip of his tongue to tell his mother he didn’t want to talk about this with her. But then he figured, what the hell? He needed to talk to someone, and his mother had always been the best listener he knew. “I thought it was what I needed, you know? In school, I could never be still and I always had trouble. It was hard for me. I’m not smart like everyone else. I know that. When I met Timothy, he liked me and we seemed so good together… and I thought he was what I needed. He took care of most things for me, and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. I could concentrate on the things I was able to do. My confidence grew, but when I wanted to take things back and try to handle more, he wouldn’t let me. He needed control, and I wanted some of it back. That was more than he was willing to give.” Grant swallowed hard. “Don’t get me wrong, Mom. Timothy was good to me. But I don’t think that’s the kind of relationship I want to have again.”

She sat quietly, nodding slowly. “Okay. I guess I can understand. He was nice, though.”

“He has someone else, and I see them sometimes. Timothy seems happy, and so is the guy he’s with, so we’re both better off.” Grant’s heart pounded in his chest. He felt exposed and knew his cheeks were blazing red with heat. “I’m still getting over things and trying to figure stuff out.” His throat went dry as he thought about the guy from last night. He’d somehow picked up on the fact that Grant had been a sub. Maybe he put out those vibes into the world, but it wasn’t what he needed any longer.

“I see.” She finished the last of her coffee and slipped off the stool.

“I bet you never figured we’d be having this conversation,” Grant quipped. Lord knew he had never expected to have it, at least not with her.

“Probably not.” She came around, leaned down, and hugged him tightly. “I’m glad you told me.” She patted his back gently. “There is nothing you can’t talk to me about. Sometimes I don’t understand, but I’m not going to judge you or stop loving you.” She held him for a little longer—and it felt good to be held. “I worry. I’m your mother.”

“I’m going to be fine.”

“I still worry. You need to get out and see more than just this basement and that club.” She wasn’t going to let this go.

“I told you, the club is closing in June for a month. The owners and their partners are going on a trip to Italy for the first two weeks. One of the bartenders is going too, and he needs a roommate. Zach asked me to think about going with them.” He held his breath as his mother straightened up.

“Do we know any of these people?” she asked, leaning against the counter.

“I don’t think you’ve met them. There are four couples… well, there will be ten total, with me and Hank, the guy I’d share with. Every one of them is a real stand-up kind of guy. I’ve known most of them as long as I’ve worked at the club.” Grant almost couldn’t believe that he was considering this. “I have to find out a lot more about the trip, but these are good people and I trust them. They look out for me.”

“I suppose. With the club closed, you’d do nothing but sit around here. Still, you could always try to get something temporary or find another job during that time.”

“Mom,” Grant whined slightly. “They’re paying me during that month because they want me to come back. Bull and Harry already told me that. They said it was part of the cost of the remodel. I have a job and I like it.” He stepped away. “Yeah, I know I’ll probably have to start looking for something else eventually, but for now, this works for me.”

“You could always work for your father in his office,” she offered.

Grant groaned. “I love animals and all, but I don’t want to sit behind the desk at the clinic and ask people to fill out paperwork on their pets. Can you really see me doing that? I’d go stir-crazy. Dad and I get along fine, but if I worked with him, we’d probably drive each other nuts.” His dad was obsessive about things at work, which was why Grant was never going to end up there.

“Okay, honey. I won’t push you, I promise.” She walked toward the door, closing her jacket around her for the trip upstairs. She paused with her hand on the handle. “I like the idea of you going on a trip. It might do you some good to get away for a while. See some things and make some friends.” She pulled open the door and hurried outside, closing it against the cool air.

The draft of cold air reached him, racing around him until the door closed, and then dissipated. He took care of the dishes and cleaned up the mugs and a few toast crumbs. The place was clean already because he picked up after himself most of the time. He had some things to do before work and figured he should get them done. But first he found his phone. He paused with his fingers over the keys as he contemplated the message he wanted to send Zach. The smart thing to do would be to say no. But maybe his mom was right. He needed a break, and he could get along with anyone for a couple of weeks.

If Hank wants me as a roommate, I’d like to go on the trip, he wrote, then pressed Send and set his phone aside.

Within seconds, a responding text arrived. Great. Before we open, we can talk to Hank and see what he says.

With the decision made, Grant could get excited about something for once. Still, he had to remind himself that it wasn’t a done deal yet.