Chapter One

 

 

BRENT GRANGER walked out of the Dupont Circle Metro station, strolled down the block, and entered his favorite coffee shop, taking a seat at the counter.

“The usual, Kentucky?” asked Sally, his regular waitress, already pouring him a cup of joe.

“Yep.” Brent opened his Washington Post and took a contemplative sip of coffee. Ahhh, caffeine, nectar of the gods. After scanning the front page, he got out the Weekend section and checked the music happenings. Sally set down a plate with his “usual”—two eggs over easy, wheat toast, and hash browns. “Thanks, Sally.”

“Any time, Kentucky.” She leaned against the counter, snapping a towel between her hands. “So, how’d your date go?”

Brent made a face. “Don’t ask.”

“That bad, eh?”

“Let’s just say neither of us will be looking for a second one.”

“Aw, Brent, that’s a shame. A cute boy like you? And so nice. Those gals don’t know what they’re missing. You got any others lined up?—oops, got a customer.”

She bustled away and Brent heaved a grateful sigh. He liked Sally, but his love life was a depressing topic. He buried himself in the newspaper and his breakfast for the next fifteen minutes. Once he’d sopped up his last bit of egg with his last bite of toast and congratulated himself on having his food come out even, Brent dropped a generous tip on the counter, waved good-bye to Sally, and left the coffee shop for his walk to work. The June sun shone brightly and Brent walked briskly, enjoying the summer day.

As he neared the office, his steps slowed. Just ahead, a tall, dark-haired man was stepping out of the passenger side of a Mercedes. Graham Stoneford, Brent’s boss. Graham leaned through the open window to kiss the man inside, who had scooted over from the driver’s seat, then straightened up with a laugh and turned Brent’s way. When he caught sight of Brent, he showed no embarrassment about his public kiss, but then, Brent wouldn’t have expected him to. He hoped he wouldn’t be stuck in the elevator with him, but Graham stood on the sidewalk and waited for him to catch up.

“Morning, Brent,” he said, bright and chipper. “How are you?”

“Uh, okay.” Brent trudged along beside Graham, hating how tongue-tied and awkward he became in his presence.

Graham Stoneford, editor-in-chief of Washington/Arts magazine, was considered something of a wunderkind at age thirty to be running a successful magazine and website devoted to the arts in the nation’s capital. He dressed to kill, was photographed at parties of the young Washington elite, and was openly, unabashedly gay. He also happened to be stunningly handsome, charming, and articulate, and Brent felt about as exciting as a lump of blah next to him.

“Well, off to the salt mines.” Graham clapped a hand on Brent’s shoulder, then seemed to think better of it, and let go. They headed for the elevators in silence, Brent trying and failing to come up with something to say.

Graham smiled at Brent, all dazzling white teeth, and rescued the situation, as usual. “I liked your piece on the Birchmere.” The doors opened, and Graham put out his arm to hold them, waiting for Brent to get on first. “How did you get the idea to research the history of the whole neighborhood?” He fixed Brent with those light gray eyes, unnerving in their intensity.

Brent shrugged, thinking about the Birchmere, a local music venue, and the great little neighborhood it was in. Del Ray, it was called, part of Alexandria, Virginia. He thought it might be cool to live there someday. “I don’t know. It just came to me. I guess I like putting stuff in context.”

Graham continued to stare straight at him, looking thoughtful. “And context for art, in this case, music, can and does include place. Brilliant.”

Feeling his cheeks warm, Brent cursed his unfortunate tendency to blush as the doors opened for their floor. “Uh, thanks,” he mumbled, and escaped to his cubicle.

Brent was turning on his computer when Ari Cohen, his closest friend at work, popped his head over the divider. “Well? How was the hot date?” Ari grinned at him, waggling his eyebrows.

“Don’t ask. The less said, the better.”

“That bad, huh? Well, bummer. When are we going to get you laid, Granger?”

“Don’t know. Don’t you have some work to do?” Brent asked pointedly.

He liked Ari, but wanted to leave at a decent hour today so he could get back to the short story he was writing. He didn’t begrudge his job—having landed a position at Washington/Arts right after graduating from the University of Kentucky with a BA in English was awesome—but it left little time for his own writing.

Brent had been assigned to the music beat, so many of his evenings involved going to concerts. That was actually pretty awesome too. It had forced him to branch out beyond the classical and electronica music he’d mainlined in his geeky high school and college years. You’d think coming from Kentucky Brent would be up on bluegrass, but he’d barely listened to it before doing the story on the Birchmere, which featured bluegrass, folk, and jazz.

“Lunch?” Ari asked, and popped down behind the divider when Brent agreed.

 

 

LATER, AT a table in their usual sandwich shop, Ari opened his laptop. “Okay, let’s regroup here. You’re burning through these prospects left and right.” He pulled up Match.com, the dating website he’d talked Brent into joining a few months ago, and started clicking.

Brent stared out the window, recalling all the boring, awkward, and downright bad dates he’d been on recently. He didn’t blame the women; most of them were okay. But Brent couldn’t seem to connect with them. He sighed. He was getting too old for this crap at age twenty-four. Finding someone to love shouldn’t be this hard.

Ari snapped his fingers. “Hey, pay attention. Look at these. There’s a few new ones.”

Brent gave the screen a listless once-over. Ari was lucky; he’d met his fun and lively girlfriend, Lexie, a few weeks after moving to DC, and they’d been together ever since.

“So, what d’you think? See anyone interesting?”

Shaking his head, Brent returned to staring out the window, watching the cars crawl around Dupont Circle. He sharpened his gaze; Graham was walking on the other side of the street, talking animatedly with another man, who threw back his head and laughed as they disappeared into a restaurant.

“Brent.” He swung back around to find Ari regarding him with frustration. “Something tells me you’re not really into this right now.”

“You’re right, man. I appreciate it, but I guess I’m gonna take a break.”

“Oh, all right.” Ari resumed wolfing down his sandwich. Chewing, he said, “I can ask Lexie if she knows anyone else. She keeps going on about how ‘cute’ you are, blah blah, you remind her of a young Martin Freeman, whatever the fuck.”

Brent snorted then shuddered, both at the sight of Ari talking with his mouth full and at the memory of the last woman Lexie had fixed him up with. “Yeah, let’s just leave it for now.”