TOMMY NEWSOME regarded the exterior of Jungle, his stomach clenched. “I’m not so sure ’bout this, Ben.” The place looked huge, and judging by the number of guys going in there, it was going to be packed. He could already hear the steady pulse of disco music, and that was enough to make his heart beat out a military tattoo in his chest. Dancing… gay guys…. Hell, this was way out of his comfort zone.

His roommate laughed. “Don’t tell me you wanna chicken out already? I swear, you must’ve spent your entire first year sitting in your room every night.” He peered intently at Tommy. “Geez. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Tommy knew his cheeks were burning. His throat tightened, and the words wouldn’t come.

Ben’s laughter died, and he moved closer. “Look, it’s just a club, okay?” He patted Tommy’s arm. “And don’t think for a moment that I don’t know what’s going on in that head of yours. You’re thinking ’bout what your momma would say.”

Shit. Tommy’s stomach did a slow roll. “No,” he protested weakly, but he knew it was a lie. Momma’s voice was sounding off in his head, all right. Loud and clear.

Ben’s expression grew serious. “Well, your momma isn’t here, and all we’re talking ’bout is spending a night dancing.” His eyes sparkled, and there was a hint of a grin. “Loud disco music and cute boys—what’s not to like about that?”

Tommy shook his head. He’d known Benson Cardiff Wellington III since that day back in October of last year when Ben had struck up a conversation in their dorm. There was no way Tommy would’ve had the nerve to make the first move. Ben was everything he wasn’t. Ben’s upper-class upbringing was evident in his clothes and his manner, so far removed from Tommy’s humble origins that they might as well have been born on different planets. Once he’d gotten to know Ben a little, it was clear there were other things about him that were outside of Tommy’s sphere of experience. When Ben had revealed he was bisexual, Tommy had been stunned into silence. As far as he knew, no one in Americus was bi. They wouldn’t dare.

“Are we going in or what?”

Tommy sighed. Ben had no idea how difficult this was for him. Places like the Jungle were “the Devil’s playground” according to his parents. It wasn’t easy to go against everything he’d been taught his whole life. His momma had always lectured him on the evils of dancing and alcohol. Heaven knew what she’d say about a gay club—his ears would probably bleed after her pontificating.

“I promise you, God is not gonna send down a bolt of lightning to smite you the minute you set foot inside, okay?”

Ben’s words were laced with humor, but Tommy knew his roommate well enough to know they were uttered with kindness.

Enough procrastinating. “Okay.” Tommy took a deep breath and stepped through the door into the lion’s den, Ben leading the way.

It wasn’t quite what he’d imagined—it was much, much worse.

Music thrummed through the floor, and Tommy hated it. The lighting was low, with colored lights that played over the club’s occupants. Oh yeah—add to that the sight of all those guys, some half dressed, for God’s sake, pressed together on the dance floor. And there were so freakin’ many of them! The place was the size of a warehouse inside, and everywhere he looked, there were bodies: tight T-shirts, bare chests, so much skin on display.

“Isn’t this great?” Ben beamed at him.

“Yeah,” Tommy lied. It was so far from great it was unreal, but he didn’t want to let Ben down. It had been Ben’s idea to come to the Jungle, and Tommy hadn’t been able to say no. Part of him had been dying of curiosity of course, but now that he was there? Yeah, he’d had enough already.

Ben waved to a group of guys on the dance floor who waved back immediately, beckoning him to join them with wide smiles. Ben turned to Tommy. “How ’bout you get us a drink from the bar? I’ll have a bottle of water, okay?” And with that he thrust a rolled up magazine into Tommy’s hand and plunged into the crowd, which swallowed him up in a sea of flesh.

Tommy stared at him in astonishment, left standing at the edge of the dancing and feeling more out of place than ever. He didn’t give the small magazine in his hand a second glance but looked around, located the bar, and joined the throng of clubbers who stood waiting to be served. Damn, this place was loud. Tommy had never even heard such music ’til he’d come to college. There’d been nothing like that played on the radio at home, that was for sure. He hadn’t stayed in his room that first year because he’d been feeling antisocial—he just couldn’t cope with the culture shock.

Finally he got their drinks and retreated to a corner as far away from the bar and the dance floor as he could get. His senses were overloaded. He sipped his Cherry Coke and tried to relax, but it so wasn’t happening. This just wasn’t him. He watched as Ben cavorted on the dance floor, surrounded by beautiful boys—lean, smooth, and flexible. In spite of his heightened nervous state, Tommy smiled to himself. Ben was in his element.

The circular was still in his hand, along with Ben’s bottle of water. Tommy placed his drink and the bottle on the ledge that ran along the wall, and unrolled the circular, glancing at the front cover in surprise at the images of Atlanta Pride. It was a free gay magazine, David Atlanta. Curious, he leafed through it. It seemed innocuous enough: articles and ads for gay businesses in Atlanta. Tommy took his time; he’d never read a gay publication before. He stared at the photos, heart pounding. Suddenly everything seemed that little bit more real. He took a moment to breathe, trying to inject a bit of calm.

I’m really in a gay club. He’d fantasized enough about stepping out of his tight little closet. Actually doing it was scary as hell. But he’d done it. He’d finally done it. The thought brought a shiver to his spine, and he quickly gulped some more Cherry Coke before going back to his perusal of the magazine. When he got to the section advertising gay bars, he scanned the page. He stared at the ad for a gay sports bar, Woofs, within spitting distance of his present location. A gay sports bar?

His heart raced. He couldn’t walk into a gay bar alone—could he? The mere thought made him break out in a cold sweat, yet that didn’t stop the tingle of anticipation that trickled up and down his back. Do it. Just do it. Don’t even think about it.

“God, you look like you’re having a heart attack. Is it that bad here?” Ben’s wry chuckle brought him swiftly into the present. “I wondered where you’d gotten to. What you doing hiding out over here?” He grabbed the bottle of water next to Tommy’s glass on the ledge and downed half of it in long swallows.

Tommy held up the magazine. “Thought I might go see what this place is like,” he said, more calmly than he felt. Inside he was a mess.

Ben arched his eyebrows. “Well, good for you, Tommy! Want me to come with, to hold your hand?” He winked.

Tommy laughed, the sound false to his ears. “Nah, I’ll be okay.” He was a big boy; he could handle it. Then he had to smile. He was a very big boy.

Ben nodded in approval. “Well, you got your ID, right?” Tommy nodded. “Then don’t get too drunk—you’ve got the truck, remember?” He glanced at Tommy’s glass and grinned. “But I guess I don’t have to worry ’bout that, huh?”

Shit. Tommy had clean forgotten about that. “How you gonna get back to your place?”

Ben waved his hand. “Hey, don’t you go worrying your head about me. I’m sure I’ll manage. And you got a key, right? Besides, who knows where my night will end—or in whose bed.” He waggled his eyebrows. “There’s this one dude over by the bar who is seriously hung.” Ben licked his lips.

Heat bloomed in Tommy’s face. He so didn’t want to go there. It was bad enough that he knew Ben went through guys—and girls—like a starving man who’d just come off a strict diet. He didn’t need any images of Ben cluttering up his head. Where was brain bleach when you needed it?

“Have a good night.” He patted Ben on the arm and made his way through the tightly packed crowd toward the main door. Once outside he breathed deeply.

C’mon, pull yourself together. He took a moment to collect himself and then headed in the direction of his truck. Woofs was only a short drive away. He drove up Piedmont Road, his heart still doing a dance behind his ribs. It had taken him his entire first year at the University of Georgia just to catch up with the rest of his classmates in terms of fitting in. Talk about a fish out of water. Tommy wasn’t sure he’d changed that much from the farm boy who’d arrived just over a year ago, so green, so innocent.

Not so innocent now, he mused as he pulled up outside the bar. He took his worn baseball cap from his jacket pocket and put it on. Inside he could hear roars and cheers. There was obviously a game on TV. He stood on the threshold, hands clenched tightly at his sides, knees feeling decidedly wobbly. How long he remained there he had no idea, but the sound of a truck pulling up beside his forced him into action. He pressed his hand against the white door, pushed, and then he was inside.

The bar was full of guys standing around little tables or at the bar, and there were several TV screens on the walls. His first thought was that he’d made a mistake. Everyone looked… ordinary, just guys hanging out, watching a football game, yelling at the screens and cheering. He edged his way through the crowded bar that was laid out in a U shape until he got to the far side where there were booths, all occupied. Miraculously, there was an empty stool at the end of the bar near the tabletop video games, and he slid onto it, pulse racing as he looked around. No one gave him a second glance, and he took the opportunity to take in his surroundings, his heartbeat returning to normal.

There were three bartenders, one of whom was circulating, taking and delivering orders, and chatting with other customers. One bartender in particular made Tommy’s heart pound a bit harder. He was maybe in his late thirties or early forties, about five nine, and wide across the chest, his upper arms thick with muscle. His hair was cut short, almost a buzz cut, and he had a beard, a little gray showing there. Glasses didn’t hide a pair of blue eyes that were intense, even at a distance. Just looking at him made Tommy’s dick hard.

“Hey, you gonna order or what?”

With a start, Tommy pulled himself back from his reverie and looked up at the bartender standing in front of him. He was tall, with a Mohawk and tattoos everywhere, a bruiser of a guy with rainbow-colored ear gauges.

The bartender smirked. “You back with us?”

Tommy’s cheeks were on fire. “A Cherry Coke, please.”

One eyebrow lifted. “A Cherry Coke.” He peered at Tommy. “You got ID, honey?” He gave him a flirtatious wink.

Nodding, Tommy reached into his pocket for his wallet and handed over the fake ID Ben had procured for him. He tried to keep calm. This was the first time he’d had occasion to use it. He held himself still and kept his eyes on the TV screen, ignoring the bartender while he inspected the card with a smile. When it was handed back to him, Tommy had to fight hard to hide his relief, even though it was plain the bartender’s perusal had been more playful than serious.

“Sorry, hon, but you know how fierce they are in this town about underage drinking. I have to ask everyone,” he said with an exaggerated sigh. “I’m sure you’re used to it by now.”

“Sure,” Tommy lied, nodding, like this really wasn’t his first time in a bar.

“One Cherry Coke, coming up.” The bartender gave him a nod and grabbed a glass. Tommy sagged onto the stool and breathed more evenly. He could deal with this.

Until he watched the gorgeous bartender lean across the bar and kiss the customer in front of him squarely on the mouth, then go back to his task of pouring out a beer, grinning, like kissing a guy was nothing out of the ordinary.

Shit shit shit…. Just like that, Tommy’s heart was doing its little dance all over again.

Then he began to notice things. The guy near the bar who had his arm around another guy’s waist. The third bartender, shorter than the other two and nowhere near as muscular, whose manner was a good deal more effeminate. More guys with their arms around each other. Kisses, just pecks on the cheeks or lips, but yeah, there was definitely kissing going on. He’d been too out of it at the club to notice if there’d been any of that going on, but at such close quarters, it was hard to miss.

That was when it really hit home. Tommy was in a gay bar.

“Here you go.” The Mohawk guy was back, placing a paper napkin and a tall glass of Cherry Coke in front of him. “You wanna pay for it or set up a tab?”

Tommy fumbled clumsily with his wallet, all thumbs, taking out three dollars and handing them over. Mohawk guy nodded and went over to the till. Tommy sipped at the drink, loaded with ice, letting its coolness take away some of the heat from his face. He pulled the cap bill over his eyes and leaned on the bar, observing his fellow customers. More than once his gaze drifted back to the bespectacled bartender, who was laughing and joking with his customers. Now and again he’d raise his eyes to watch the game, joining in the roars and groans of those around him.

Who was he trying to kid? Tommy couldn’t take his eyes off him. The man was sex on legs: those muscles, those eyes, that sexy beard…. Then he caught Tommy looking and flashed him a quick grin and a wink.

The hair stood up on the back of Tommy’s neck, and his breathing quickened. He felt light-headed, shivery, and hot, all at the same time. What made it worse? The bartender noticed. That grin widened and those intense eyes sparkled.

“Hey, Mike, can you check the pump for Blue Moon?” Mohawk guy said to Mr. Sex on Legs. Glugging noises issued from the tap as beer spattered into the glass he was trying to fill.

“Sure thing.” Mike gave Tommy a last glance before disappearing behind the bar. Tommy breathed in deeply and took a long swig of Cherry Coke. His physical reaction to Mike had been… powerful, not something he’d ever experienced before. He was still trembling, for God’s sake.

Well, if I’d had any doubts about me bein’ gay, that sure blew them all to hell. There’d been no mistaking the lump of stone behind his jeans zipper or the tingle in his balls. Not that he was gonna do anything: Tommy was more than content to sit in the bar ’til they closed, sipping Cherry Coke and enjoying the view.

Yeah, acknowledging he was gay was one thing—doing anything with that knowledge was something else entirely. And Tommy wasn’t ready to go down that road just yet. In fact, not for a long while yet.