BRODY turned the glass over in his hand and held it up to the light, checking for smudges before rubbing them away with the clean bar towel. He smiled as he glanced around the empty bar—his bar. Brody had practically grown up on the stool behind the bar. Tyler’s had been his grandfather’s place and his great-grandfather’s before that, and where he’d spent most of his summers. When he was a little boy, his pappy had let him put the peanuts into the little dishes for the tables. Then, as the years passed, he was given a cloth and allowed to clean the tables, then the bar and, finally, he graduated to a summer job mixing cocktails and opening beer bottles. “Money ain’t worth nothing if you ain’t worked for it, Brody. You remember that,” Pappy said time and time again in his harsh, Texan bark. “Just because you come from money, son, doesn’t mean you don’t have to earn your own.”
Brody knew he was fortunate to have grown up in one of the wealthiest families in San Antonio, but Pappy’s words had struck a chord with him, and he’d never coasted through life on his parents’ shirttails. He’d decided against taking the easy route and stepping into a tailor-made role at the successful Tyler home-improvement chain, instead working his way through college and grad school to pursue his love of architecture.
He’d only been out of grad school for three weeks, the ink on his degree barely dry, when his grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer. Spending hours by Pappy’s bedside, they’d shared memories, Brody had read To Kill a Mockingbird to him, and more often than not, they just sat in silence, each garnering the comfort they needed from the other’s presence. During one of those long days, Pappy had told Brody he was leaving the bar to him, but that he wanted him to sell the place and use the money to set up his own firm.
Ten days later he held Pappy’s hand as he took his final breath, and after they’d buried him beside Grams, Brody had left the wake at his parents’ house. He’d had no idea where he was going—maybe his subconscious had been guiding him, maybe it was Pappy himself, he didn’t know—but he found himself standing outside Tyler’s, the key in his numb fingers.
Inside, gazing around the empty room, inhaling the familiar smells and assaulted by a myriad of memories, Brody knew he could never part with it. He’d taken off his black suit jacket, picked up a bar towel and a glass… and he was still doing the same thing six years later. Not many twenty-seven-year-olds had their own successful business, and he knew how lucky he was. He’d already had a large clientele of regulars, and after some modernization, word of mouth had made it one of the most popular bars in town. It might not have been the life he’d envisaged, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Stacking glasses on the shelf behind him, he glanced up at the mirror when he heard the bell indicating the arrival of a customer. Unable to contain the breath that escaped his lips or the sudden speeding up of his heartbeat, his gaze tracked the man’s path to the bar.
The stranger looked to be about the same age as him, and probably around six feet tall. But it wasn’t his height and age that had Brody’s cock twitching in his pants. The guy was basically the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, man or woman. Putting the last glass on the shelf, Brody picked up the towel and began to rub down the sleek wood of the bar top. He failed dismally in his effort not to stare as the man settled himself on a stool, and cursed inwardly at the press of his wayward dick against the denim of his jeans when the man ran a shaking hand through short, light-brown hair, causing his tight T-shirt to cling to the muscles of his lean chest.
For God’s sake, snap out of it, Brody! He threw the towel over his shoulder and pushed his chocolate-colored bangs out of his eyes. Could you be any more obvious? Stop drooling over the poor guy and go serve him. Brody squared his shoulders, grabbed a beer mat, and walked toward the end of the bar, hoping desperately that the butterflies flapping up a storm in his stomach weren’t about to fly out of his mouth.
“Hey,” he said brightly, slapping the beer mat down on the bar in front of Tall and Gorgeous. “What can I get you?”
Brody’s stomach hit his shoes when the stranger lifted his gaze and he looked into the prettiest green eyes. No, not green, too ordinary. They were the deep sea-green of a stormy ocean, splattered with gold flecks and rimmed with long dark lashes, and he would have been more than happy to spend the rest of his life gazing into them. Yeah, thank you, Oprah—just get him a drink!
Green-eyes scanned the array of alcohol on the shelves behind Brody and shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
Brody’s brow furrowed at the weight of those words, as if it had taken an incredible effort to voice them. When the man glanced at the rows of beer and then back at him, Brody was sure his heart actually skipped a beat at the innate sadness in his eyes. “Hey.” He reached out without thinking and placed his hand over Green-eyes’ hand where it lay on the bar. “Are you okay?” His breath caught in his throat at the well of tears in the gaze that flitted to his and then away.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled.
Brody glanced at the clock on the wall and made an executive decision. You’re the boss, dumbass, every decision you make is executive. Ignoring his inner voice, he tossed the bar towel into the basket beneath the bar, grabbed two bottles of beer from the shelf, put one down in front of the stranger, and smiled reassuringly.
“Here you go,” he said softly. “You look like you need someone to talk to. And who better than your friendly bartender? I’m a good listener, honest. You have to be or they won’t let you into bartending school.” He felt something warm unfurl in his gut when the man’s lips twitched. “Listen, I’ve got a couple of hours before this place starts filling up, so what do you say I turn over the closed sign and we chew the fat for a while?” He held up his right hand as if to swear an oath. “I promise I’m not an axe murderer, and they assure me the insanity has skipped a generation.”
Brody waited as Green-eyes seemed to weigh up the suggestion for a few moments and then nodded. Brody’s smile grew wider and he strode across the room to turn the sign on the door, flick up the lock, and pull down the blind. He noted the way Green-eyes nervously studied the label on the bottle of beer, and frowned in concern when the man started as Brody sat on the stool next to him.
Picking up the second beer, he took a long draw before turning on the stool to face the other man. “Hi, I’m Brody, Brody Tyler, the owner.” He held out his hand and his gaze snapped up when long fingers folded around his and he felt a sharp shock of static pass between them. Judging by the man’s intake of breath, he’d felt it too. Clearing his throat, Brody tried not to drop the hand he held as though it were a hot potato and raised an eyebrow in question. “And you are?”
“I don’t remember.”
“I said I don’t remember,” Green-eyes replied in a tired voice. “I have no idea who I am.”
HALF an hour later Brody sat opposite him in one of the booths against the wall, both of them drinking their second beer. Brody had listened, his gaze widening more and more, while the other man gave him the condensed version of his last three months. Told him how he’d been found in an alley with a knife in his side and a fractured skull. His face so badly beaten that it had taken a couple of months for the swelling to go down and the bruising to fade, and for him to even resemble a human being.
Brody sipped on his beer as the soft Texas drawl explained how he’d woken up in the hospital after surgery, scared and alone, with no idea who he was. There’d been no wallet or driver’s license in the suit jacket he’d been wearing, so the police assumed he was a victim of a brutal mugging—the wrong place at the wrong time. They were unable to find anyone fitting his description on their database, and had put his picture on the local news station, but no one came forward to claim him.
“I woke up in that hospital and I’d never been so terrified in my entire life,” he said on a smile. “Or at least I don’t think I had—how would I know? Maybe I wake up in the hospital all the time.” His lips lifted in a wry smile. “Sorry, thinking about this can kind of make you go a little crazy.”
“I can’t even begin to imagine how terrible this must have been for you,” Brody said, shaking his head in disbelief. “You don’t remember a single thing? You’ve not had any flashes, you know….” He shrugged, aware he was babbling but unable to stop himself. “Feelings of déjà vu?”
“Well there are two things I know for certain,” he replied. “I don’t like Jell-O, in any flavor, but I do like beer.” He smiled and took another sip from his bottle.
Brody laughed boisterously and chinked their bottles together before downing the remainder in his own. “What about a name?” Brody voiced one of the many thoughts racing around his brain. “Surely they had to call you something for the last three months?”
Green-eyes shrugged. “They called me Paul—one of the nurses who took care of me, Anna, came up with it—but I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel right, you know what I mean?”
“How come they let you out if you still can’t remember who you are? Did they say if you’d ever remember anything?” There was something about the man in front of him that made Brody want to wrap him up and keep him safe. He couldn’t explain it. Never had he felt such an instant connection with a guy. Sighing, he mentally shook his head. Jesus, Brody, you don’t even know if he’s gay. Hell, he probably doesn’t even know if he’s gay. He watched from beneath lowered lashes as the other man drank the rest of his beer before answering, and heat uncurled in his lower belly as those beautiful, full lips closed around the lip of the bottle.
Shit. I am so screwed.
Noting the suddenly nervous way his gaze flitted from Brody’s face to where his fingers were picking at the label on the now-empty bottle, Brody reached out and placed a hand over the scratching fingers, stilling their movement. “What? What happened?”
“They had no reason to keep me. I mean, I’m healed, just not up here.” He tapped his forehead and his lip curled up derisively. “They have no idea if I’ll ever get my memory back. They said I might wake up one morning and remember everything, or it could be gone forever. But two days ago—” he paused and looked around as if he were making sure they were still alone, “—I was in the john down the hall from my room, when I heard the doctor and two nurses talking about me. They said they couldn’t give me the prolonged care I needed and they should refer me to a ‘specialist’ rehabilitation center,” he said, using finger quotes.
“A specialist rehabilitation center?” Brody asked, suddenly realizing that he still held the man’s fingers in his own. He withdrew his hand as casually as he could and leaned back against the cushion.
“That set off alarm bells in my head. They were going to send me to some nut house and I… I couldn’t let them.” His tear-filled gaze locked with Brody’s. “I’m not crazy. I just forgot a few things, like my name, where I’m from, and anything to do with, oh, I don’t know, forever. But I’m not crazy, so….” He dropped his gaze again.
“So?” Brody prompted.
“I stole the guy in the next room’s clothes and some money out of his wallet,” Green-eyes said on a rush of breath. “I wrote down his name and address, and I’m going to pay him back, honest. Then I snuck out. That was the day before yesterday.”
“Jesus.” Brody drew out the word, feeling that the moment warranted it. “Wait.” He frowned as his brain caught up. “The day before yesterday? Where did you sleep last night?”
Green-eyes blushed and muttered, “In an alley. I didn’t have a choice.” He groaned at the incredulous look on Brody’s face. “I didn’t have enough money for a motel. I washed up in the bus station bathroom this morning. What’s so funny?”
“I was just thinking. You’re not a very good thief. Couldn’t you have stolen a wallet with a credit card in it?” Brody chuckled softly as Green-eyes’s lips twitched in response to the tease.
“He only had fifteen dollars, so I left him five. I think it’s safe to say that whoever I was, it wasn’t a criminal mastermind.” Green-eyes smiled and put his hands flat on the table as if to push himself to standing. “Well, thanks for the beer, Brody, and the shoulder. But I think I’ve taken up enough of your time. I guess I should be going.”
“Where?” Brody asked, his eyebrows rising so high they disappeared beneath his bangs. “To another alley? Or a shelter where they’ll take what’s left of your ten dollars?”
“What else am I supposed to do?”
Brody checked the clock; he was going to have to unlock the door soon. Willow and Kristie, his cocktail waitresses, would be arriving any minute. Thoughts bounced around his head like a pinball as he stared at the man opposite him. He had no idea what the hell he was doing, but one thing kept flashing in his head like a neon sign: Don’t let him leave! The thought of this lonely, scared man going out alone into a world he no longer knew had anxiety sending a shot of acid up Brody’s gullet. He wanted to help him—no, needed to help him. In his mind’s eye, Brody suddenly saw him huddled against a wall, desperately trying to fight off degenerates who were trying to steal his clothes, or worse—his virtue. His virtue, Tyler? He didn’t have time to reply to his subconscious as he reached out and grabbed the other man’s arm, pulling to make him sit back down.
“Wait! This is totally crazy, but….” Brody took a deep breath. “I’m guessing you need a job, and a place to stay, right?” He waited for Green-eyes’ nod before continuing. “Well, I need another bartender. I had to kick our last one to the curb a few weeks ago and I’m struggling up there by myself. You won’t get rich, but your meals are included, and—” he swallowed hard, knowing he was going to get an earful from Wyatt for what he was going to say next, “—I live above the bar and I have a spare room. It’s yours if you want it.”
Green-eyes stared at him in disbelief. “Brody, you don’t know me. Good God, I don’t even know me. How do you know I’m not an axe murderer? I can’t, it’s too much—”
Keeping his voice soft and low, Brody gazed into the other man’s eyes. “I know it sounds nuts, and you’re right. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. But I tend to go with my gut, and I think you’re a good guy who’s had an awful thing happen to him. Besides.” He tilted his head and unleashed his dimples. “My Momma would kill me if I didn’t help you out.”
Brody watched a whole gamut of emotions cross Green-eyes’ face as he deliberated the offer. He understood his apprehension, how could he not? The guy had no idea who he was, where he belonged, whether there was anybody missing him. Then a complete stranger offers him a job and a place to stay as if it’s no big deal. Everything for this man was a big deal right now, he surmised. Everything must be so confusing in a world he suddenly didn’t belong in. Jesus, he was wondering what in the hell he was doing himself; he could only wonder at what must be going through the other man’s head. Keeping his face as impassive as he could, Brody sat back and let the other man think it through in silence.
“Okay,” he eventually said, his lips curving into a smile. “We must both be nuts, but okay, yes.”
“Great.” Brody smiled, fighting the urge to fist-pump the air and do the Snoopy dance on one of the tabletops. “But before we do anything else, we have to find you a name you actually like.” When Green-eyes raised his eyebrows in answer, for the first time Brody noticed the smattering of freckles across his nose that were, quite frankly, fucking adorable. Pushing himself out of the booth, he strode across the room and grabbed the newspaper out of the rack on the wall. “Here, find yourself a new name,” he said, tossing it to him with a grin. His grin widened as the other man opened the newspaper, and he walked across the room to pull up the blind, turn back the sign, and unlock the door.
“That’s it! That’s the one!”
Brody tried to catch the glass he was holding as it slipped from his fingers at Green-eyes’ shout. Stepping back to avoid the shards of glass flying across the floor, he looked up as the other man waved the newspaper at him as he crossed the room. “I take it you’ve found one,” he said on a chuckle, grabbing the dustpan.
“Oh, shit, sorry.”
“It’s a bar, glasses get broken all the time, don’t worry about it,” Brody reassured, quickly sweeping up the glass and throwing it in the trash can. He looked into eyes that, for the first time, glowed with something other than fear and despair—excitement and hope. As he had done when Green-eyes had walked into the bar, Brody grinned. “Hi, I’m Brody.”
Strong fingers clasped Brody’s tightly and pumped his hand up and down, a huge smile lighting up the beautiful face. “Hi, Brody. Good to meet you, I’m Nash.”