“WHERE TO now?” Justin asked as the trio stepped out of the tube exit onto Oxford Street. They were headed for Soho, with Tam leading the way.
“Follow me, my dears.” Tam waved a hand as he strolled off. Tara and Justin kept pace behind him, Tara’s high heels clacking along the pavement. “This place is excellent.”
The first cocktail bar they tried to enter ID’d Justin, even though he was the same age as his friends. Justin suspected it had more to do with the fact that he was in artfully ripped jeans and a t-shirt that stated Hit That. His wardrobe wasn’t known for being refined.
Tara and Tam’s clothes were a little more presentable, with Tam in his designer jeans and a crisp shirt, and Tara in her floral summer dress and clean denim jacket.
Justin elected to use charm and tried to convince the bouncers he was actually a celebrity incognito, which was why he didn’t have any ID on him.
They asked for his birthdate, while Tara calmly assured the doormen that Justin was well over age. “He’s a few weeks older than me,” she said, allowing them to see her passport. “He always forgets to bring his ID out.”
“And I’m a barman,” Justin insisted. “I have to ID people all the time.” He flashed them a grin and added, “When you’re blessed with a youthful complexion like mine….”
The doormen shared a glance and then nodded toward the door.
“I’m in!” Justin was triumphant. “This was officially the best decision you made tonight.”
“Please stop talking,” Tam hissed as he dragged Justin away from the unamused doormen and into the club. Tara hurried behind them. The atmosphere wasn’t much warmer inside the venue; after waiting for ages to be served, when they finally got a bartender and Tara tried to order cocktails, the girl behind the bar said she didn’t know how to make any and would have to get her colleague to do them.
“This isn’t what I was expecting,” Tara said. Their purpose for coming here had been for “cocktail research,” namely because Justin didn’t know how to make any yet and his boss at his own bar was getting annoyed about that.
Justin pulled Tara back from the crowded bar. “Look, this is ridiculous. Let’s go somewhere else. I’ll be collecting my pension by the time these guys give me any alcohol.”
“We’re not just drinking, Justin,” Tara told him. “We’re researching.”
“Yeah, I know.” Justin laughed. “But that still means I want to get served, like, this century. Come on, let’s go.”
Tam huffed. “So demanding,” he grumbled, leading the way for a hasty retreat. “There’s another place nearby.”
“They’re all nearby,” Tara said. “This is Soho.”
“All the better to keep Mr. Impatience satisfied,” Tam quipped, shooting Justin a look.
Justin waved his annoyance away. “Whatever, mate. ’Cause patience is your middle name.”
“Tam Patience O’Flaherty,” Tam retorted, his Irish accent rising a little.
Back on the street, they bickered their way to the next venue, a tiki-themed cocktail bar and restaurant. There was no doorman, just a front of house receptionist who grinned at them like a fifty-watt bulb and asked if they’d booked a table.
“No, sweetheart,” Tam informed her, eyeing the bar beyond. “We don’t need food, we only want to drink.”
“Yeah,” Justin added. “I’ve already lined my stomach with some crackers earlier. We’re ready to roll.”
The receptionist looked at them warily and said, “Well, the bar is this way.” She gestured behind her, past the plastic jungle ferns and wooden decking to the bar. “You can order snacks there if you wish.”
“Thank you,” Tara said, dragging Justin with her.
“Love the foliage!” Justin gazed around at the décor as they waited at the bar.
Tam didn’t look as impressed. “It’s like waiting in line for Jungle River at Centre Parcs.”
“It does look a bit”—Tara pulled a face—“tacky.”
“I like tacky,” Justin declared. “Anyway, who cares, as long as they do cocktails.” He pinched a couple of menus from a nearby table and handed them out. “Let’s get sloshed.”
“This is supposed to be educational,” Tara reminded him once again, perusing her menu. “Order a cocktail you want to watch being made, Justin, and pay attention to how it’s done.”
Tam opened his eyes more with each name he read from the list. “There’s a lot. Are we trying them all? We’ll be here all night.”
“Or until you’re under the table, mate,” Justin teased. He ducked behind Tara to dodge Tam’s backhander.
“Justin, a fiver says you’ll be smashed first.”
“Make it ten,” Justin challenged. “Get ready to lose your money, Tam. First round’s on me!”
After procuring a spot at the bar and ordering their drinks, Justin set about trying as many cocktails as his wallet could afford. A few daiquiris, mojitos, and slippery nipples later, a mutual decision was made to order some food to soak up the alcohol. A waiter soon appeared with a giant plate of cheesy nachos with all the trimmings.
“This is cheating,” Tam said, words slightly slurred. He pulled a lump of nachos free, picking the jalapeños off first.
“Don’t you want the jalapeños?” Justin asked.
“Eurgh.” Tam deposited the hot peppers on a napkin. “No, thank you.”
“I’ll eat them!” Justin snatched up the rejects and piled them onto his own nachos.
Tam shrugged. “It’s your arse, my dear. Enjoy the shits ye’ll get tomorrow.”
“Nah, mate.” Justin grinned as he ate. “Arse of steel, innit.”
Tara put a hand over her face as she erupted into giggles. “Buns of steel! You should’ve called your act that,” she said, referring to Tam and Justin’s cabaret act.
“We still could,” Justin said.
Tam raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think so.”
Gobbling up the salt-laden food had the desired effect, and Justin declared he was ready to try somewhere else for more cocktails.
“Yes,” Tara agreed. “Somewhere with hotter waiters, maybe. Not that impressed with the talent in here.”
“Oh!” Tam grabbed her hand. “I know just the place!”
“Hot waiters?” Justin asked.
“Like you wouldn’t believe!” Tam said, accent rising with his excitement. “It’s quite close.”
“Let’s go, then.” Justin wobbled off his barstool and stood. “Take us to the totty!”
ARM IN arm, the trio weaved their way down the small, decorative alleys of Soho. When they arrived at the third venue of the evening, a smiling doorman greeted them and held open the door. The bar inside wasn’t anything like the previous tiki-themed palace. Though the interior was bathed in ambient gold and blue lighting, there were no frills about it—one large room full of tables, brimming with patrons, and interspersed by big, sturdy pillars. The bar itself was long and straight along the right-hand wall, and it was currently drowning in customers.
Justin looked around in dismay at how busy it was. “It’s busy,” he whined. “By the time we get to the bar, I’ll be fucking sober.”
“Cocktails are two for one,” Tam told him.
“Ooh, sounds good,” Tara said, striding for the bar. “Come on.”
“Yeah, but….” Justin’s words trailed off as he caught sight of a bartender—tall, blond, and gorgeous, and flashing a brilliant smile at the customers he served. “Holy fuck,” Justin whispered. “Dibs on that one.”
Tam followed his line of sight. “The blond? That’s Eric.”
“Oh?” Justin turned to Tam and eyed his friend with a smile. “How do you know?”
Tam smirked but tried to hide it. “Not the way you’re thinking, dirty boy. I happen to know someone who shagged him.”
“Apparently,” Tam hissed in his ear, “he’s bloody good.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Justin grabbed Tam’s arm and pulled him to the bar. “Onward!”
Even though the bar was packed, Justin was willing to wait. And wait. The music was loud and pop-centric, so he amused himself by singing along to the songs and trying to catch glimpses of the hot bartender over people’s heads and shoulders.
Tara’s head popped into view a little farther along the bar, and she waved a hand to them, indicating she had a good spot. Tam and Justin edged their way through, relieved to find Tara had snatched them a couple of barstools.
“I’ll stand,” Tam said, leaning in on the bar next to Tara.
Justin slid onto his barstool with a smile. “You’re afraid you’ll nod off if you sit down, you mean.”
As they waited their turn, they took advantage of their front row view of the bartenders. The space behind the bar was quite big, and currently one woman and two men were working. The tall blond that Justin had spotted earlier was the clear front runner in the looks department, but all of them could’ve easily stepped out of a high end fashion shoot. They wore dark trousers and matching fitted black shirts, open low at the collar. The bar’s name, Foxy’s, was printed in bright pink on the left breast pocket.
Eventually, realization hit Tara. “Is this a gay bar?”
Tam shrugged. “It’s not flaming, but it’s gay friendly. The bar staff are all gay.”
“You could’ve said.” She rolled her eyes. “There’s me trying to smile at the men. No wonder they don’t look at me twice.”
“Join the club,” Justin said sidelong. “I’ve been trying to get that blond’s attention for, like, half an hour now. This is ridiculous.”
“Patience, Justin,” Tam told him.
“Ugh. I’m also in danger of becoming sober.”
Tam’s attention was drawn to the end of the bar. “Hel-lo.” He craned his neck as he watched a new barman enter the scene, carrying a tall tower of stacked glasses. “I like him.”
Justin and Tara also craned around to see, eyeing the new barman. The colored lights and people sticking their heads in the way made it hard for Justin to get a good look.
Tam checked his watch. “Oh, they probably had something on upstairs, and it’s just finished. There’s a venue there. No wonder it’s so busy tonight.”
“They have a venue?” Justin glanced around, looking for any hidden entryway he clearly hadn’t noticed before. “Where?”
Tam pointed to the far end of the room. “Door down that way. Upstairs it’s a small stage with a little bar. Quite nice, though. I’ve been there for cabaret.”
“They do cabaret?”
“Well, why haven’t we danced here, Tam?”
“I don’t know, Justin.” Tam’s attention was back on the bar, watching the bartenders. “Maybe we should ask them.”
“Ooh, yes,” Tara said. “Another venue for the list.”
A bartender stopped in front of them, and Justin was thrilled to see it was Mr. Tall, Blond, and Gorgeous, who flashed them a dazzling smile. “I know you guys have been waiting ages,” he said, his voice a rich baritone. “I promise I’ll do you next.” He winked, though Justin wasn’t sure if the wink was directed at himself or at Tam, and then flitted away.
“Mmm. Hot.” Tara smiled, as Tam raised his eyebrows in agreement.
“Mm, honey,” Justin muttered. “He can do me any time.” His gaze followed the blond hottie as he worked behind the bar, watching his precise movements as he mixed drinks and chatted with his customers, making it all look effortless.
Very flirty, Justin decided. Bet he’s dynamite in bed.
Justin’s neck muscles started to protest at craning so far around to watch this prized specimen of man. Justin made a mental note to do extra stretches tomorrow, or he’d likely get a crick in his neck.
Just then, another bartender appeared in front of him, drawing his attention. “Are you waiting?” he asked in a voice so quiet Justin barely heard him above the music.
Flashing him a cursory glance, Justin’s attention went back to the blond barman further along the bar before his sozzled brain digested who stood in front of him: Brunet. Long hair.
Slowly, Justin looked back. The man standing before him was definitely cute, with a mop of dark, curly hair and even darker eyes. He also seemed vaguely familiar. Justin stared at him, trying to figure out if this was someone he knew, someone he’d already shagged or…. His brain was being slow.
Tam jumped in. “Yes, can we order cocktails?”
The bartender turned to Tam with a smile. “Sure. What do you want?”
“Three Caipirinhas, please.”
“No problem. I just need to get some crushed ice.” The bartender flitted off.
“Wait,” Justin began, “can we—” Tam stuck a boot out, aiming at Justin’s leg. “Ow.”
Tam flashed him a look. “Dibs,” he said firmly.
“Huh?” Justin wanted to argue. “But—”
“What do you mean but?” Tam chuckled. “You called dibs on the other one.”
“Boys, boys.” Tara laid a hand on their arms. “I know no one in their right mind could possibly resist either of you, but let’s be chill about it, okay?”
Tam sniffed in mock indignation, while Justin grinned. “I can feel another bet coming on.”
This time Tam snorted. “Mm-hmm. Well, you’d better hope that whoever you end up pulling doesn’t mind your spicy breath, darling.”
“What?” Justin was alarmed and raised a hand to breathe into it. The brunet bartender returned, and Justin quickly dropped his hand, forcing a smile.
Tam watched with a predatory gaze as the bartender placed three rocks glasses on the bar and started mixing their drinks. Tara leaned over the bar to watch, focused on the drinks. “May I have extra lime in mine, please?”
The bartender smiled at her. “Of course you can.”
“Thank you, hon. Sorry to be a pain. We’re bartenders too.”
“Oh, yeah? All of you?” He flicked his eyes up, and they locked with Justin’s momentarily.
Justin tasted victory already and tried for his best smile. “I am! I’m supposed to be learning new cocktails.”
“Whereas I work in fashion,” Tam added, vying for attention. “But Justin and I dance together.”
“Oh, right?” Again, the barman’s eyes locked with Justin’s.
He’s interested. Justin picked up on the vibes and found he was interested in return. Score! He studied the barman closer as he mixed the drinks. He had a nice mouth, with full lips that were just asking to be kissed; his curly hair was cute, and he had dark brows to match. There was something about him that hinted at the exotic, if only that he wasn’t the usual short-haired, styled blond that was prevalent in gay bars.
He was… very attractive. Definitely.
“What sort of dancing?” he asked, having taken the bait Tam offered.
“Anything.” Tam winked at him. “We do it together.”
Justin smiled and nodded along, though he noted the bartender’s smile seemed more strained than flirty.
“I dance too,” Tara said, unaware of Tam’s double entendre. “I teach tap.”
Tam shot her a look of annoyance, but the bartender seemed amused. “Tap is awesome. Wow, I can’t believe you teach it. You look so young.”
Tara beamed. “Oh, I used to help my tutor with her classes, so I got used to it pretty early, y’know.”
“That’s still really amazing.” The bartender smiled at her, and Justin decided he had a very pretty smile.
A taller man materialized at the brunet’s side; the blond barman had returned. He flashed another dazzling smile with perfect white teeth. “Yena beat me to it,” he said, leaning on the bar. “Sorry I took so long, guys.”
Tam seized his chance to lean in, touching the blond’s arm. “Oh, no trouble. But thank you so much.”
“My pleasure.” The blond’s perma-smile turned knowing. “I’m Eric,” he said, offering his hand.
Tam’s hand shot out to grasp his. “I’m Tam. And this is Tara and Justin.”
Eric shook Tam’s hand, then moved along the bar, shaking Tara’s next. He nudged his colleague aside, heedless to the fact he was still trying to mix the drinks, in a bid to reach Justin.
Justin noted Eric’s pushiness, and something about it annoyed him, but he took Eric’s hand anyway. “Justin.”
Eric looked into his eyes as he groped his hand. His touch was warm and confident, sending electric pulses up Justin’s arm. From one touch, Justin knew instinctively that if he were to go to bed with Eric, they’d have a struggle for dominance.
Which could be fun.
“Great to meet you.” Eric’s blue eyes danced with intent. “Stick around,” he added, apparently to Justin. “It’ll calm down later on. I can make you a drink then.” With that, he extracted himself and flitted away, leaving his colleague to continue serving.
The brunet got on with mixing the drinks, placing three beautifully crafted cocktails in front of them. It wasn’t Justin’s round, but he produced his wallet, mostly as an excuse to command the barman’s attention. He took longer than necessary to find the correct money, instead putting all his concentration into flirting. “What was your name?” he asked with a smile. He’d heard Eric say it, but being an unusual name it hadn’t stuck in Justin’s memory.
Dark eyes fixed on his, though the playfulness in them had disappeared. “Yena,” he said quietly.
Justin still couldn’t get it. “Pardon?”
“Yena,” he said again, an edge to his voice.
“That’s a nice name,” Tara said.
Still unsure, Justin asked, “How’d you spell that?”
Yena looked at him, this time in disbelief. “Y-E-N-A,” he said flatly. “Look”—he glanced along the bar—“I’ve got to serve someone else, can you…?”
He didn’t say hurry up, but Justin heard it clearly. He felt slightly deflated at being rushed. “Oh, sure. Sorry.” He handed over a note, which Yena whipped out of his hand before he had a chance to say anything else. As he marched off to the till, Justin glanced at Tam, frowning at him in confusion.
Tam shrugged in answer. Either he didn’t know why Yena was cross, or he didn’t care.
When Yena returned with the change, Justin decided to lay on the charm. “Keep it.” He smiled warmly. “Put it towards tips.”
Yena looked surprised. “But there’s over five quid here.”
Justin waved it away. “Please.”
“All right.” Yena glanced at him, unsure. “Thanks.”
Yena turned away, and that was that.
“—come.” Justin snorted. “Well.”
Tara was already sipping her drink, oblivious to Justin’s troubles. “Mm, these are good.”
“You bet.” Tam raised his drink, catching Justin’s eye. “Cheers, dears.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Justin picked up his glass to down a large amount. Cocktails always made things better. He scanned along the bar, looking for Yena.
What’d happened? Had Eric’s interruption annoyed Yena somehow? Or was it something else? Justin couldn’t work it out.