CASEY JORDEN clearly understood the invitation twinkling in the man’s eyes.
I want you.
They sparkled, reminding Casey of early mornings on Lake Michigan and summer skies peeking between the Chicago skyscrapers, and seemed brighter than the laser flickering off the shot glasses and mirror polish of the bar. The man was inebriated, but his mischievous grin captured Casey’s imagination.
Draped in Southern charm, blue jeans, and ironic tee, the man sat down at the bar, overwhelming the plastic designer stool. Even seated, he was taller than Casey, with broad shoulders, rounded with plush layers of fleshy padding from rich Southern food and a lifetime without a gym. Among the modern, industrial pulsing vibe of the RedPurple club, he stuck out, a checker piece in an electronic Simon game.
When the man at the bar looked down, checking the label of the opened, frosted beer, he gained an extra chin. Lifting the bottle, the man saluted Casey with a casual confidence that sent a wonderful shiver down his spine. How long had it been since someone looked at him like that? Then the man grinned with white teeth that contrasted with several days’ worth of dark stubble and made Casey melt. He wondered wildly what dark delights someone so substantial could deliver.
Casey had only intimately known men smaller than him. What would it feel like to be beneath such a thick, round lover? Casey’s mouth went dry with anticipation, but he managed a weak smile at his new customer.
Butterflies swarming in his stomach, he pressed his fingertips against the edge of the bar to steady his shaking hands. He knew taking a drink order should not make him nervous, but his ex-boyfriend’s words sliced into Casey’s subconscious.
You’re too serious for me, Casey. I was expecting you to be more fun.
Popularity cultivated pretentiousness in RedPurple, one of the most popular nightclubs in Chicago. As RedPurple’s lead bartender, Casey adapted to his job by frosting the ends of his hair and pulling the strands into a stylishly messy mini-Mohawk—daring enough to be hip, safe enough to be accessible. Gratuity required accessibility. He worked out regularly, defining his muscles into etched carvings and accenting them with tight black button-up shirts. Casey was sexy, had to be sexy. He perfected his emerald, smoldering gaze and his perfectly crafted “spontaneous” smile. He advertised a fun bartender image because it paid $300 a night in tips.
Was this stranger smiling at him or the mirror-polished veneer of RedPurple?
Contrasting with every other person in the club, the man with his simple beer did not order to impress his friends or pretend to know the song playing or flirt with anyone else in the room. He seemed real to Casey, solid and steady, and Casey gravitated toward him.
Casey accepted the stranger’s invitation with well-practiced small talk.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” Casey yelled over the music.
“That’s because I’m usually in Tennessee,” the man replied, showcasing his roguish grin and rich, warm voice. He ran a thick-fingered hand over his cropped dark hair. “I’m just visiting for the weekend.”
“How do you like it?” Casey asked. “Chicago, I mean.”
“Ah, well, it’s pretty big. I’m here on business, so all I’ve seen is how busy everyone is,” the man said, his Southern drawl giving his speech an unhurried and methodical quality that Casey found soothing.
“You know,” he continued, “I’ve been watching you. You’re pretty good at all this.” He waved a hand to indicate the bar in its entirety.
Yes, I’ve been watching you too, Casey thought.
He leaned forward on one elbow so he didn’t have to shout so loud to be heard. “Been doing it for years now,” he said, smiling, flirting. It felt good to flirt again. “It’s not too hard once you get used to it. So, how long are you going to be in town?”
The man finished his beer and slipped a couple of bills under the empty bottle.
“Just tonight. I’m heading home in the morning. Not too early in the morning, though,” he said with another grin. “More like early afternoon.”
One-night stand floated unsaid between them.
Casey debated logistics in his head. “I get off work in a half hour.”
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t mind some company.” The man moved his hand across the polished wood of the bar, so his wide fingers brushed the back of Casey’s hand.
Feeling the man’s rough fingertips on his skin, Casey felt his groin stir as he stared into those intense blue eyes. A slow burning blush crept into his cheeks and ears.
Between the man’s grin and his hypnotic eyes, he radiated confidence. Could he tell that Casey had never hooked up with anyone before? Several men tempted Casey over the years, but he had a rule. He never dated anyone he met or worked with at a bar.
This was not a date, though. Something about this man made Casey think his rules about propriety were arbitrary. What did it matter where they met? As much as Casey wanted a passionate, enduring relationship, it was not going to happen with this man. Were his charming grin, warm eyes, and large hands worth breaking his own rules?
Entwining his long, thin fingers between the man’s wide, rough ones, Casey shouted in the man’s ear to be heard over the thumping bass. “Where are you staying?”
“The Hyatt on the corner. Room 1512. It’s a nice view, and they’ve got good room service.” The man paused before reaching out and tracing Casey’s angled jaw with his fingertips. “Let me buy you dinner.”
Casey’s mouth watered, but he didn’t want food. He gripped the man’s hand harder. “Room 1512. I’ll be there.”
“Well, dang, it must be my lucky night, then. My name’s Mike,” the man said, pressing his hands into the bar to lean forward. They were only inches apart. He smelled of beer and cinnamon, burning wood and fresh air. It was an intoxicating mixture of scents. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m Casey,” he yelled. Casey felt bold and suspected Mike’s confidence was contagious. He leaned in toward Mike, pulled by their undeniable attraction to each other.
Mike scraped his teeth over his bottom lip in an adorable movement of anticipation. Casey watched Mike’s gaze flicker over his lips and back up to his eyes. “Do you kiss all your customers after the first beer?” Mike asked, flashing a grin.
Casey shook his head, suddenly flabbergasted and slightly offended. “No, of course not.”
Mike leaned back away from the bar, laughing. “Pity. I bet it’d improve your tips. A half hour, Casey?”
He felt his knees go weak at the way Mike said his name, the accent drawing out the first syllable. Casey nodded again, grinning like an idiot.
Mike grinned at him and winked. “See you then,” he said, saluting with two fingers.
He lamely waved as Mike walked away. As Mike’s broad back disappeared into the writhing crowd of dancers, the chaos and noise of RedPurple assaulted Casey, flooding his senses.
The DJ pushed the dancers with a hard driving beat, drowning out all other sounds. He watched people around him mouth words into each other’s ears. The black painted walls swallowed the flashing colored lights from the stage. Lining the wall, iridescent tables lit from below cast a cool white glow onto seminude patrons as they sat in semicircle booths. Images and video cascaded down LED screens covering the pillars throughout the club, alternating between clips of music videos and porn movies. A projector displayed a blazing inferno across the entirety of the vaulted ceiling.
With a contented sigh, he took in the wanton machinations around him. In a half hour, the club would be empty and the bright lights bolted high on the pillars turned on. Tonight, instead of quietly witnessing Chicago’s mating dance and cleaning up afterward, Casey would be an active participant. Excitement coursed down his spine and settled in his stomach.
Janey, the other bartender on shift, took in Casey’s glowing face. “New friend?” she asked, keeping her voice neutral. She had limned her eyes with white, and it contrasted startlingly with her dark skin.
Casey attempted to mimic his favorite coworker’s neutrality and tried to keep the smile off his face. He failed terrifically. “Maybe.”
Casey watched the lecture form in her mind. They knew what could happen, the dangers of hooking up. What if this guy was a psycho? As he prepared to defend his decision, the lecture dissipated and Janey smiled, her teeth flashing white beneath the club’s pulsing black light.
“I’ve known you too long, Casey. You’ve already made up your mind. Do you need me to call you at a specific time?” she asked, as she pulled another beer. “You know, to give you an excuse to leave if you need to?”
“You think I’ll need an easy out?” Absently picking at a nail in his sudden unease, Casey glanced over his shoulder to where Mike had sat. He had rules about hooking up with customers for a reason. Now that arrangements were made, Casey doubted his ability to go through with it.
Janey shrugged. “I don’t know. Will you?”
The logical parts of Casey’s brain screamed at him to meet Mike in a public place, but he didn’t care. If Mike was leaving tomorrow, tonight was Casey’s only chance at getting to know him. What would be the bigger regret, being hurt or never trying?
I suppose that depends on how much I get hurt, Casey thought.
Casey knew tonight wouldn’t be meaningful. He knew there would be other men, but he didn’t want some other man. He wanted this one. He wanted Mike, even for a short time.
“No, don’t worry about it. I can handle myself,” he told her. Immediately switching gears, he made his eyes wide and bright. “Though, could you close up tonight? I would really owe you a huge favor.”
Janey eyed him speculatively as she slid her customer his beer. “Huge is bigger than big, Casey. Like, a huge favor is covering me next Saturday night.”
Casey curled his lip. He would have to cancel seeing his brother next weekend. Casey thought about the last time he saw Brandon. Last year, he helped him pack up their beat-up Ford pickup truck with the last of Brandon’s things and promised to visit his older brother very soon. Brandon called often, though, and that stemmed the empty feeling of his brother living a couple of states away. They spoke often of video games, Brandon’s girlfriends, Casey’s boyfriends, their mother, their jobs, usually while Brandon carted freight across the US and Casey made his way to RedPurple on the “L” train.
“Casey,” Brandon had said over the phone last week, “You’ve got to come down here. I know it’s a long drive and Mom’s going to freak, but I really want to show you what I’ve been doing with the house. I’m putting in a pool. I’ll be in town the weekend after next. Can you get off work?”
“Oh, so I’m slave labor?”
Brandon’s loud guffaw made Casey smile. “You caught me, little bro. Yeah, I could use an extra pair of hands. But as a reward, I’ll take you fishing at this jewel of a lake I found. It’s not Lake Michigan, like we’re used to, but you never leave empty handed.”
Casey missed Brandon, and he wanted to support his brother building his own home.
Was an evening with Mike worth delaying a visit to Brandon’s again?
Their mother, who had grown overprotective since Brandon moved, would probably approve of delaying the trip. Brandon was the claustrophobic nomad, not Casey. Would she still approve if she knew Casey wanted to delay the trip and hook up with a strange man from a bar?
Screw it, he thought. I’m twenty-three. I don’t need to explain my sex life to my mother if I’m not bringing anyone home. And if anyone would understand, Brandon would.
Casey resolved to banish all thoughts of his mother, Brandon, and Janey from his mind. Tonight, he would have a romantic night with the sexiest man Casey had ever met.
“All right, done. You can have this Saturday off,” he said with a determined nod.
Janey smiled and clapped her hands. “Awesome! I wanted to take my kids to the zoo. Okay, then, I’ll stay late tonight. Just close out your tickets, and I’ll handle everything else.”
A half hour later, Casey collected the rest of his tips and clocked out.
Out on the street, the lamps burned with a steady white light while the constantly passing traffic flowed like water through the streets, even in the early morning. Casey breathed in the cool, humid spring air that smelled of exhaust, rain, and fish. Small groups of patrons with neon hair and tattoo sleeves clustered along the front wall of RedPurple beneath the steadily lit sign. At the corner of the building, a woman screamed at her boyfriend for dancing with the wrong person. Casey made sure not to make eye contact and get accidently pulled into their fight, but he could not help listening to their drama. Before he walked out of earshot, Casey determined the man was probably a dick and cheating on her.
Hands in his pockets, head bent against the constant breeze, Casey hurried a block past his usual bus stop with long, quick strides before ducking under the canvas overhang of the hotel’s entrance. He saw the lobby beyond the street lamps’ reflections in the wide, clean windows. Smooth, warm wood paneling cut in exacting modern horizontal lines created a rich, comforting atmosphere. Carpets in muted orange and burgundy layered the floors, and inviting, armless blue couches dotted the lobby. A man and woman chatted intimately in one corner, while a suited attendant busied herself behind the receptionist desk.
Nice place, Casey thought. He imagined Mike upstairs in the towering hotel, looking over the city lights from his fifteenth-floor room. As a tourist, Mike might appreciate if Casey could point out some of Chicago’s landmarks. There was so much to show him. Grinning, Casey opened the lobby door.
His phone buzzed loudly in his pocket, rattling against his knuckles. He read “Incoming Call: Mom” on the phone’s screen and his blood froze. Did she somehow know what he was about to do? Did Janey rat him out? Swallowing the lump in his throat, he answered.
“Casey,” she said, in her clipped, professional tone. “Where are you, sweetheart? I thought you’d be home by now.”
She’s using her “doctor voice,” Casey thought. Heart hammering, he wondered why she needed to emotionally detach herself from the words coming out of her mouth.
Casey looked up at the towering skyscrapers, trying to figure out how much she knew. “Hi, Mom. I’m just out right now. What’s up?”
Casey bit his lip, wondering if he sounded guilty.
“You’re not driving or anything like that right now, are you?” His mother’s tone was impatient and clipped.
Casey’s brow knit. He gripped the phone and wished the early morning traffic wasn’t so noisy. “No, no, I’m just standing on a street corner. What’s wrong, Mom?”
His mother let out a long, weary breath that broke from an escaping sob. “I don’t know how to tell you this. It’s Brandon.”
Casey’s throat closed. “Mom?”
“He was in car accident, Casey,” she whispered and fell silent for a long moment. “Casey, Brandon’s dead.”
Casey felt like he was drowning. He couldn’t breathe; his ears felt full of water. The rest of what his mother said fell away, or maybe he fell away, deep underwater, while she called to him from the surface. He suddenly felt weak and leaned against the hotel lobby’s glass window.
His brother was dead.
Memories flickered through Casey’s mind, of splashing each other in a swimming pool, of shaking Brandon’s hand when Brandon graduated from high school, and the fistfight they had during their family vacation to Wyoming. His brother, his older brother, was gone. He heard the words “instant” and “hardware store” and none of it made any sense to him. The world did not make any sense. A world without Brandon was like a world without gravity. The laws of the universe were broken.
Suddenly his mother’s voice was clear in his head. “Why don’t you come home, sweetheart?”
Casey nodded numbly. “All right,” he said. Numbly, he ended the call and stumbled back to the bus stop in a daze.