“OW! WATCH it,” Alex cursed softly after running his foot into the back of Jeff’s altogether-too-large suitcase.
“Sorry. It’s dark as fuck, and I didn’t see the step. Shit, we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s a wonder we even found the place.”
“Especially since you wouldn’t stop and ask for directions. Brilliant,” muttered Mitch.
“Hey!” Jeff sounded affronted. “Alex was the one who got those stupid directions off of MapQuest. Blame him.”
“Oh, yeah, I blame him, all right, for making us go to a place so far from anywhere that our fucking cell phones don’t work,” Mitch responded.
Just barely managing to keep his temper, Alex reached around Jeff to open the door of the wilderness lodge, while Nicole scolded the others.
“Keep your voices down! You’re gonna wake up the other guests.”
“Hey, we’re the guests, man. Alex booked the whole place! This is gonna be sick.” RJ’s voice was lively, as always, and Alex could just picture him and his hair bouncing up and down.
“All right!” crowed Tanya, whose enthusiasm also never seemed to be dampened, no matter what was going on. “And listen to that river. That’s so cool!”
Smiling a bit even as he tried to ignore them all, Alex grabbed the door handle and turned. It was locked.
“Shit. It’s not open.”
“So, where’s the key? Or do we just knock? Great.”
Jeff sounded weary, with a hint of whining, and Alex winced, hoping he wasn’t going to have to put up with an unhappy Jeff. Not this week. Not when he’d finally managed to carve out some R&R time from his insanely busy life. They were in the middle of nowhere for a reason. He’d had enough of people, crowds, fans, reporters, movie executives, hangers-on—in fact, the prospect of this vacation was the only thing that had kept him from blowing sky-high in the last couple of weeks.
“Well,” Alex said, “they were expecting us a lot earlier, so they didn’t say what to do if we showed up in the middle of the night, and since we couldn’t call them….”
He rattled the doorknob and was just about to bang on the door when the porch light came on, causing them all to blink.
The door swung open to reveal a man peering out with a puzzled expression. He was short, his brown hair stuck up in several places, and his brown eyes squinted at them from behind his glasses. He wore baggy shorts and a ratty T-shirt, but despite his disheveled state, he was actually quite cute.
Not bad, Alex’s rating voice piped up automatically, as he took in the guy’s muscled biceps, but he had other things to worry about, including the fact that this guy didn’t look like he’d been expecting them at all.
“Can I help you?” The guy’s Southern twang surprised Alex. They were in Oregon, after all.
“Yeah, hi,” Alex said, giving the guy his brightest smile, the one that always caused people to get flustered. This guy, however, just looked like he was half asleep; he blinked, slowly.
Alex soldiered on. “We have a reservation? Under Errol Flynn?”
Ignoring the muffled laughter behind him, he widened his smile and concentrated on willing the sleepy cutie in front of him to wake up and check them into the lodge already. He really needed a drink, and then to have sex with Jeff, and then to sleep forever. Preferably in that order.
“Oh. Oh, let me see. Sorry. I guess—um, Mason had to go out unexpectedly overnight, and he must’ve forgot to tell me. Oh, come in, come in here to the lobby, and I’ll just…. I mean, I knew there was a group coming, but I thought it was tomorrow night.”
The guy seemed to be waking up a bit, and he opened the door wide and backed away so they could enter. He went to a cluttered, old-fashioned desk and started pawing through a pile of papers while Alex and his friends came in and stood looking around the place.
River Run Lodge was appropriately rustic, with old leather chairs, bookshelves stuffed with tattered paperbacks, dusty hardback books, and a shelf full of jigsaw puzzle boxes. A comfortable-looking sofa faced the stone fireplace in which smoldered the remains of a recent fire. Fishing rods and maps of the Deschutes River adorned the walls, and a stuffed bass was mounted prominently over the mantelpiece. A calico cat stalked through, inspecting them, then jumped onto the couch and curled up.
Alex smiled, seeing his LA friends and his NYC brother fidgeting and whispering against the backdrop of this quaint place. It was like they’d all stepped back in time. Speaking of time—Alex tapped his foot impatiently, still in LA mode. What was taking so long? The guy may be cute, but he was slow as… molasses in January, prompted some hidden “Southern phrases” part of his mind.
Jeff leaned up against him, shivering a bit. “Cold?” Alex asked, putting his arm around him and rubbing his hand up and down his sleeve.
“Freezing. It’s August! Why didn’t someone say it’d be cold as fuck in Oregon?”
The guy raised his head from his search. “Would you like me to make a fire?”
Several voices piped up simultaneously.
“God, let’s just get a move on.”
Alex laughed. He noticed the guy looking at them all as if really seeing the group for the first time, and Alex couldn’t blame him for staring. They were quite the motley crew—RJ with his two-toned locks and tattoos, Tanya with her hair sticking straight up in some fierce ’do that she called her frohawk, Jeff with his hot-pink shorts and midriff-baring tee peeking out from under Alex’s unzipped jacket. No wonder he was cold, even leaning up against Alex for warmth.
Mitch and Nicole were the most “normal” looking of the bunch, and Mitch wasn’t helping matters by scowling and muttering as he eyed the books in the bookshelf.
“Ayn Rand? Tripe. Pure tripe.”
Even though Alex didn’t blame the lodge guy for standing there with his mouth open, looking befuddled, he felt a flash of impatience. He decided to take control of the situation and move things along.
“No, thanks, no fire. Right now it’d be great if we could get our rooms sorted out. And I wonder if you have any booze available. Or, you know, something to eat?” he added as an afterthought. He didn’t want this guy to think they were total lushes, even though they pretty much were.
“Oh! Right, right—umm, let me just….” The guy picked up the desk phone and pushed a button, then turned his back to the group to whisper loudly into the receiver. “Ariel? Wake up, I need your help down in the lobby. Yes, now! Ariel, don’t argue, just get your butt down to the lobby.” A pause. “Oh, yeah? So’s your mother! Lobby, please. Now!”
Turning back to hang up, he met Alex’s amused eyes with a raised eyebrow and a small smile before looking down again at the papers on the desk. Alex’s gaydar suddenly went off with a happy sound.
Not bad at all. Alex told his horny little voice to shut up. So not helpful right now, especially given that he and Jeff were back together. His astrologer, Jenna, had done his chart a few months ago, her eyes widening as she crowed, “Get ready, baby! If you’re ever going to finally find your one true love in this lifetime, it’s going to be sometime in the next six months!”
It couldn’t be a coincidence that he and Jeff had just started seeing each other again, right? Well, “seeing” meant they’d found themselves in bed together after a wild party, had a great time, and Alex had remembered what it was that had him so in love with Jeff all those years ago. So when Jeff had kept coming around, kept being available, and kept ending up in his bed, Alex figured this was the Universe’s way of giving them a second chance. He hoped so, anyway. He really didn’t want to turn thirty and still be single and playing the field. In fact, he felt like committing seppuku at the very idea.
He thought Jeff was feeling it too, although he hadn’t mentioned his astrology reading to him yet. Knowing Jeff, there was a fifty-fifty chance that instead of melting in Alex’s arms, he’d run screaming in the opposite direction. Nicole was the only one he’d confided his hopes to, because he told her everything, and she’d just looked at him, then shook her head. But all she said was, “The stars aren’t always right, you know.”
“Uh, Mr. Flynn?”
The guy was beckoning him, holding out a pen. Ignoring Mitch’s snort, Alex stepped over to the desk.
“If you can just sign right here.”
The guy was cool, Alex had to give him that, because the paperwork said “Alex Harrison” on it plain as day, but he betrayed no signs of awe. Awe? Get the fuck over yourself, Alex.
“Call me Alex,” he said, handing back the pen.
He was rewarded with a pleased look from the guy who he now categorized as not only cute, but definitely hot.
The husky-voiced exclamation snapped Alex’s attention from the desk. A red-haired girl had just run into the lobby, skidded to a stop, and was staring at him with her mouth hanging open. He automatically stuck his hand into his pocket for a Sharpie, before remembering that this wasn’t a fan asking for an autograph.
The desk guy frowned. “Ariel. Please. I need you to get the rooms ready.”
“But Ben, do you know who this is?”
Throwing an apologetic look in Alex’s direction, Ben walked over and took Ariel’s arm, steering her toward a door that led into a hallway. He murmured something to her, and Alex could hear her loud whisper.
“But it’s Alex Harrison, dude!”
Ben hushed her, whispered something else, and shut the door behind her as she craned around him to get another look. He turned back to Alex and his friends and said, “Sorry about that. I’m sure you came here hoping to get away from that sort of thing.”
Ignoring Mitch’s muttered, “As if,” Alex smiled at Ben.
“That’s okay.” He almost added, “I’m used to it,” but stopped himself, not wanting to appear conceited. Ben answered his smile with one of his own, which transformed his whole face.
Not bad? Make that gorgeous.
Jeff shifted and pulled away from Alex. “You know, it’d be really great if we could get this show on the road. I’m starving.”
“Me too, man! I could eat, like, an entire horse,” said RJ. “That girl was cute.”
Tanya hit RJ on the shoulder. “Shut up. She’s way too young.”
Mitch and Nicole had collapsed on the sofa, where the cat now sat in Mitch’s lap, purring as he petted her. Mitch’s eyes were closed, while Nicole’s head lolled on his shoulder. It sounded like she was snoring a little. It was a cute picture to Alex except for the part where his bestie was cozying up to his annoying younger brother, who was about as cozy as a pit bull most of the time. He decided to think about that later.
Ben said, “Yeah. I apologize again for the screw-up. Our chef is sleeping, but I’d be happy to make you some sandwiches, or I can do omelets, or maybe heat up some of the leftovers from dinner. The food is really great here. It’s all locally grown, fish caught from right out of the river, all really fresh.” He seemed to be babbling now, and Alex had this strange urge to soothe him.
“Well, whatever’s easiest. Does everyone want something to eat?” Alex looked around. RJ and Tanya were nodding enthusiastically while Jeff just looked at him with a “duh!” expression.
“I think those two”—indicating Mitch and Nicole—”are more interested in sleeping than eating,” Alex continued. “But, yeah, maybe leftovers from dinner? I’ve heard the chef here is fantastic. That’s one of the reasons we chose you. Not that I’m doubting your own culinary ability, I mean.”
Shit, he was really laying it on thick for this guy. He glanced over at Jeff, but he was showing RJ his fingernail polish while Tanya looked on.
Ben laughed a little, and Alex thought the way he scrunched up his face was adorable.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Listen, I’m just going to check on Ariel to make sure the rooms are ready, so your friends who want to go right to sleep can do that. Oh, I guess I should ask how many? Or who…?” He looked around and looked back at Alex.
“Who? Oh! Yeah. Well, as I recall you have four rooms, right?”
“Yep. We have three bedrooms with two queen beds in each and one with a king bed here in the lodge. We also have a few cabins that are a lot more rustic, and they have double beds.”
“So, we have six people, so that works out, because Jeff and I will share.” Alex didn’t know why he felt slightly apologetic telling Ben this. Jesus. Get it together.
“Um, guys?” He waited until Tanya, RJ, and Jeff turned to him. “So, what did we decide? Girls with girls and boys with boys, right? And that leaves one extra room for Pablo and Lisa when they come tomorrow afternoon.”
“Yeah!” RJ piped up. “But I think Jerome’s coming too, man!”
“Oh? When did this happen? I don’t recall inviting him, but, oh well, that’s cool. There’s those cabins, so there’ll be room for any extra people that come up.”
“I think he’s coming later, though,” said Tanya. “And maybe Brianne and Toby too.”
“The more, the merrier,” Alex said automatically, while tamping down a weary feeling at the prospect of more people. What was wrong with him? He usually thrived on having lots of people around, but right now he craved privacy. Simplicity, offered his mind, and he gave the word a silent nod. Well, if he couldn’t get any of that yet, at least he could get a buzz on.
He turned back to Ben, who was about to walk out the door to the hallway. “Hey, but one emergency request. What do you have in the way of booze for, like, right now?”
Ben thought for a moment. “Um. Wine. Beer. Whiskey. Vodka. Gin. Pretty much whatever.”
“Could you possibly bring out a bottle of whiskey and some glasses? And a glass for yourself too.”
“Oh. Sure, sure, I’ll get it now.”
Ben vanished, and Jeff echoed, “Could you possibly? Oh lah di dah, Alex. Be more obvious.”
Alex felt a bit guilty. What was he doing, shamelessly flirting with some guy when he was back together with Jeff? He pulled Jeff into a hug, then ran his fingers through Jeff’s hair and pulled his head back, looking down into his face—and such a beautiful face it was.
“Jealous, baby?” He brought his face close to Jeff’s until their lips were almost touching.
Jeff whispered, “You wish.” Alex brought his lips down on Jeff’s, hard, and they kissed, tongues teasing. Someone (probably Tanya, Alex thought) made a gagging noise, but Alex ignored it. Jeff was a great kisser.
They finally broke for air when the door opened again and Ben emerged with a tray, on which he’d placed several glasses, a bottle of whiskey, and some cheese and crackers. He walked to the table in front of the sofa and set the tray down.
He was headed back out when Alex said, “Hey, have a drink. On us. To apologize for getting you out of bed in the middle of the night.”
Ben shook his head but smiled. “Nah. I’m gonna check on the rooms, then get some leftovers heated up. But thanks.”