Chapter One

 

SHIT.

When had it all gone so wrong?

Rebel had been sure it was working out. And then bloody Daron…. No, it wasn’t Daron’s fault. He hadn’t done anything he hadn’t been doing all along. Just screwing around. It didn’t matter that he was doing it because he thought that was the only way he’d find the love of his life. What mattered was that he was doing it. And he continued to do it. And Rebel just stood there and accepted it.

He slumped forward, the movement pushing his splayed fingers through his hair. He tugged on his hair as his head lowered, letting the sting help him realize that this was his reality and he had to accept it. What he wanted with Daron was never going to happen. He had to move on with his life.

Well, he’d certainly moved on. Quit his job and his best friend in one impulsive move. And where had he ended up? In another fucking coffee shop, only this time as a customer. The coffee he’d ordered landed in front of him, sloshing onto the saucer at the same time a gasp sounded above him. He looked up, way up, at the waiter who’d delivered his coffee, but the man wasn’t looking at him. His big round eyes were spilling tears down his cheeks, and his plump red lips trembled as he stared at something outside the coffee shop. Rebel turned his head to see what had upset the man so much.

Shit. It was Daron. He stood outside the jewelry shop across the way, laughing with an older man. The way they leaned into each other showed they knew each other well. Very well. Rebel had thought Daron was looking to settle down. Daron had said often enough he was looking for The One, yet here he was, playing the field with another player. Again. The bastard. Rebel’s waiter hadn’t moved. Obviously he was another of Daron’s bits on the side. Another idiot just like Rebel. Rebel huffed a cynical laugh at himself as he stood, his five feet nine inches dwarfed by the tall, thin streak beside him. He grabbed the waiter’s bony arm and turned him toward the kitchen.

“Come on. You can’t stay here like this.” Neither could Rebel. If he had to sit and watch Daron chat up yet another man, he’d end up in tears himself. He tugged the unresisting man through the swinging doors. The tall man ducked automatically to go through, although he probably wouldn’t hit his head if he didn’t. Probably. “Does this place have a back door, or do we have to go out past all the shops?” Rebel shook the waiter’s arm a little to get his full attention. The man sniffled and pulled a large handkerchief from his pants pocket to wipe his face and nose. He carried a handkerchief. Very white. And ironed. A smile tugged at Rebel’s lips before he pulled his focus back to the man, who was shaking his head.

“No back door.” His voice, even rasping through tears, was mellow. Rebel had a momentary insane urge to press closer to feel if it vibrated through that thin body. It was deep enough to rattle those skinny bones loose. Instead he focused on the task at hand.

“Okay,” he said as he moved them to a corner, as far out of the way of the other workers as he could get. He ignored all the curious or irritated glances. He’d get out of their way when this guy was sorted. “We’ll wait here a few minutes till you calm down and decide what you want to do.”

“Do?” The Bambi eyes flooded again, but he blinked them back. “What can I do? I love him.”

Rebel shrugged. “That doesn’t mean you have to let him treat you like shit. And it doesn’t mean you have to stay with him.”

The other man gasped, and his eyes flooded again. Rebel sighed. Even at his worst with Daron, he hadn’t gushed like this. Shit. This was his worst. He’d just walked out on his best friend—the man he loved. He leaned back against the wall behind him and sighed, the air feeling like it came from his knees.

“Look, I know what you’re going through.” Rebel smiled a little at the look of disbelief in the expressive brown eyes. “I’ve just walked away from my job and the man I love because he couldn’t keep it zipped.” Rebel took a deep breath. His situation probably wasn’t the same; he and Daron had never even had sex, but this guy didn’t need to know that. And he didn’t know they both had a thing for the same guy. He just needed to know he wasn’t alone.

“You don’t seem upset.”

He had a nice voice. It would be even nicer without the tears thickening it. Soothing was the word that came to mind. Not yet, but it could be. Then Rebel thought of Daron and his fuck-fest, and his stomach twisted. He clamped his jaw shut tight until the threat of tears passed.

“Look, I need to get out of here. Are you going to be okay?” Rebel didn’t know why he cared, why he couldn’t just walk away and leave the guy to his own devices, but he couldn’t. He had to make sure the poor guy was okay first.

The waiter employed his startling handkerchief again, then smiled tentatively. “Thank you for helping me.” He held his hand out for Rebel to shake. The skin was smooth and cool. “I’m Jeremy.”

“Rebel.” Rebel pulled his hand back and tucked both hands under his armpits, the crossed arms protecting him from… something. He stepped sideways to sidle around Jeremy.

“Hey,” Jeremy called as Rebel moved away. He turned back to see the skinny waiter shifting from one foot to the other, like a sapling swaying in the breeze. “I’m sorry I spoiled your coffee. Next time you come in, I’ll make you one for free.”

Next time. There probably wouldn’t be a next time, especially if Rebel didn’t find work again soon, but he nodded and thanked Jeremy anyway. He made his way through the kitchen and back into the café, but before he hit the bustle of shopping center customers, Rebel heard a voice call his name. He turned to see Jeremy twist and lean his lanky body between the close-set tables as he made his way toward Rebel. He held a small white rectangle in one hand, waving it around. As he got close, he stretched his hand out and shoved the card he held toward Rebel.

“Here. My number’s on it.” He shifted awkwardly on his feet, perhaps realizing what it seemed like, him giving another man his number. “Um, so you can call to make sure I’m on shift when you come in.” His feet shuffled again. “For the free coffee.”

Rebel took the proffered card and shoved it into his pocket. He flicked a look at the jewelry shop, but Daron was gone. “Thanks.” His sigh was part disappointment and part relief. He wasn’t ready to speak to Daron yet. Right then, he wondered if he ever would be. The logical part of him said that ten years of friendship was too much to just throw away, but the rest of him realized that the last few months had been spent pining for Daron. He couldn’t keep doing that. He looked back at Jeremy and his Bambi eyes. His expression seemed to swing between a hopeful smile and expected rejection. Rebel didn’t have the heart to promise something he couldn’t follow through on. “I don’t know when that might be. I just quit my job, so I have to find another one.” He patted his pocket. “I’ll keep this, though, and will definitely call you if I have time for that coffee.” That should be clear enough; not promising anything but still being friendly and open.

It didn’t help, though. Jeremy’s big brown eyes filled with tears, and his mouth trembled when he smiled. “Sure, okay. I understand.” He stepped back and flapped his hand in a halfhearted wave. “Good luck with the job hunting.” He poked a thumb back over his shoulder. “I’d better get back to it.” A couple of stumbling steps backward. “Um, bye, Rebel. Thanks again.” Then he turned and fled.

Rebel watched him go, long legs striding along, then his upper body twisting and turning when he reached the crowded tables. Sighing, Rebel turned and made his way to his car, the long evening stretching in front of him.

He sat in the car, fingers gripping the key. He didn’t want to go home. His apartment was small, but it would still be empty. And Daron might call or come around. Rebel really didn’t want to see him. Not until he’d had time to work out what he wanted from their friendship. If it even existed anymore. He jumped out of the car and shoved his hands into his pockets, pacing away and then back again. One hand curled around the card, the other his keys.

On impulse, he tugged the card from his pocket and stared at it. Then he looked at his watch: 5:15 p.m. He took a deep breath, pulled his phone off his belt, and dialed before he could second-think himself. It rang so many times Rebel was sure he’d end up being shunted to voice mail, but eventually it was answered.

“Oh, hey. Jeremy? This is Rebel.” He sucked in a breath. “We just met a little while ago at the café?”

The response was hesitant, and Rebel was suddenly sure he’d made a huge mistake. “Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have rung. Sorry to bother you. I’ll just go now.”

“Wait.”

Rebel waited.

“Why did you ring?”

“Oh, nothing, really. I just thought if you were finishing your shift, you might be hungry. And I thought maybe we could eat together. Nothing special, you know. Just dinner.”

“But why?”

Rebel sighed. “Look. You’re in love with a guy who’s fucking around. So am I.” He ran his hand through his hair, tugging before releasing it and continuing. “I just thought…. I don’t want to be alone right now. I want some company, and I thought you might too.” The last came out in a rush, all one breath, quickly before he lost his nerve. He could feel his skin heating with embarrassment as he revealed his weakness.

The phone stayed quiet for long moments. Rebel was just about to tell Jeremy to forget it when the other man answered.

“You’re right. I am hungry. And company would be good. Where did you want to meet? I take public transport, so close to here would be better.”

“I thought Toscanini’s on Murkot would be good. I have my car here if you’d like to come with me. I can drop you at your station after.”

There was another long pause before Jeremy replied. “Okay. I’m nearly finished here. I’ll let my boss know I’m going and come down. Where are you parked?”

Rebel heard the caution and the message in Jeremy's words. Jeremy would probably give his boss Rebel’s phone number and text him the license plate from his car as well. He couldn’t blame the younger man. They were strangers, and Jeremy would be getting into his car.