THE DARKNESS of the parking lot stretched out in front of Adrian Keys, and the door to the Mexican restaurant spilled light onto the pavement every time someone opened it to exit or enter. Stupid. He regretted letting his friend talk him into going out with “the guys.” By the time he reached the door, he had almost talked himself out of going in, but no such luck. A gentle tap to his shoulder broke him out of his paralysis. When he turned, he was face-to-face with Chase, his one-time date turned friend.
Distracted by his concerns, he barely noticed Chase was dressed in a light blue button-down shirt that conformed to his lean and lithe chest. He wore low-rise black jeans that were faded on the thighs, chunky biker boots, and a platinum wrist cuff on one wrist—Adrian knew the cuff was new. When they’d met, Chase had worn a double-buckle black leather one instead. The thing that caught his attention, as it always did, was Chase’s eyes. They were one part amber, one part blue, and another part green, with the most beautiful flecks of gold in them.
Shaking off his inappropriate distraction, he tried to smile, and said and signed, “Hi.”
“Hi, Adrian. You’re not leaving already, are you?” Chase signed. Adrian loved how hard Chase worked to improve his ASL and how he always used it with him now. Even though he could read lips quite well, communicating in his native language and style was more fluid and comfortable for him.
“No.” Adrian bit his bottom lip, looking away from Chase. He glanced at the restaurant a moment, not sure his worries would make sense to anyone Hearing before returning his gaze to his friend. “I’m worried your friends will be uncomfortable with me or that I won’t be able to keep up with the conversation.”
The grin that spread across Chase’s face was both endearing and unnerving. “There’s only a few of us, and it’s really good food. Promise.” He winked. “Tonight is a night for fun!” Before Adrian realized what was happening, Chase draped his arm around Adrian’s shoulders and pulled him in for a hug.
Adrian allowed Chase to drag him inside, and before he knew it, he sat at a long, curved booth with six others, including Chase. Warmth blanketed him on all sides thanks both to the warm bodies and the heater that valiantly fought off the frigid temperatures outside. Milwaukee in the early spring was cold, icy, and just plain miserable to be out in, though he would take cold over heat any day of the week—you can always put more on, after all.
“Adrian, you know Rhys, and these guys are Dale, Simon, Jamie, and Grayson,” Chase explained, signing as he spoke, making sure to gesture to each man in turn. “We’re only missing Vaughn, but he’s still overseas doing his teacher-swap thing. Boys, this is Adrian.”
He worked hard to smile and waved. “Hello.”
They all replied with heys and his as he looked between the men.
A pretty little waitress stopped by the table but didn’t face him, so Adrian had no idea what she said. When she finally turned to him, she stared at him expectantly, but he wasn’t certain what she wanted. Chase smiled at him and signed, “Soda pop, tea, beer?”
“Coke, please,” he said, hoping she could hear him well enough. This was one of the reasons he hated going out, especially in a Hearing group. Nevertheless, he had promised Chase, and honestly, he did need to get out for something other than work or family.
Chase said something to the woman that made her blush. As he watched, she apologized repeatedly before hastily retreating. “Sorry about that.”
Waving the words away, Adrian smiled. “It’s okay, Chase. Hearing people expect everyone to be hearing, and since I don’t wear hearing aids, she had no way to know any better.” He looked around at the other men at the table, recognizing Chase’s partner, Rhys. “It’s good to finally meet you,” he said, wondering how the man would take his presence. They had never officially met, though he had seen him on his and Chase’s one and only date.
“And you,” the large, muscular man said. Adrian took a moment to look him over again; yep, Rhys made Adrian’s own six-two seem small, and the shoulder-length ginger hair reminded him of some Celtic God from the storybooks his mother gave him as a boy. “I’d say I was sorry for messing up your date with Chase, but I’m not,” Rhys added with a wide grin.
“Brat,” Chase teased as he cuddled into Rhys’s side more. “Seriously, I’m glad I took Adrian out that night, even if things didn’t work out for us. He’s a great friend,” Chase said, head tilted up but still visible.
They all debated what to eat and chatted for a little, Adrian mostly staying quiet and watching the others. He noticed one of the other men seemed just as out of it as he was, the one Chase had called Grayson. He was handsome, tall, and powerful like Rhys, but he had long black hair, deeply tanned skin, and light brown eyes that were almost amber. He was a little thinner than Chase’s partner, though just as intimidating a presence.
The other man who caught his attention was named Simon. Adrian knew a little more about him because Chase spoke of his closest friends often, and Adrian loved meeting Chase’s friends even if the outing was nerve-racking. Simon had light brown hair, big puppy brown eyes, and a slender body. The longer Adrian looked, the more he wondered how Simon would look when dressed in something a little less bulky.
A tap to his shoulder pulled Adrian out of his musings. He turned and realized the server was back with their dinners and blushed at how entranced he’d been. He didn’t usually stare, hating when others did that to him. “Sorry.”
“No sorrys.” Chase hugged Adrian, then dug into his bowl of chicken and dumplings.
Simon waved to get Adrian’s attention and smiled when he looked up from his country-fried steak and mashed potatoes with white gravy. “Chase said you were his teacher before and are now a friend.” Adrian nodded. “How’d he convince you to go out with his skinny butt?”
Heat infused Adrian’s face as he laughed. “Chase was very sweet and asked nicely.”
“I love your laugh, by the way. It’s deep like your voice, kind of carefree.” Simon looked slightly sad. Adrian knew he’d had a hard time lately. Chase said he’d been cheated on a year ago and had refused to date since. Adrian knew the feeling, though he pushed the thought away, hoping not to dwell on why he was alone.
He ducked his head slightly. “Thanks? I don’t know how anyone sounds, even myself, so it’s always weird to get comments like that.”
“I said the same when we went out,” Chase commented. “But don’t let him fool you. He’s an excellent teacher and speaks in all his classes. He knows his voice is good.”
“No, I know it’s clear enough for you to understand. That’s something I work hard to make true, but I have never heard my voice, so I have no idea how I sound. And well…. Chase was the first person to ever say something like that.”
He worked regularly with various computer programs to improve and maintain his speech, knowing if he didn’t it could cost him his position at the college. He had always struggled to make sure he spoke well for Hearing people, considering his family’s opinion of his Deafness. His dad knew sign language, but his mom refused to learn, insisting he learn to be “normal.” Adrian had always thought that was extremely unfair, especially as a child. Considering his hatred of being dependent on others for his communication, he was thankful he could read lips and speak as well as he did.
“Then you know the wrong people, ’cause he’s right.” Simon nodded to emphasize his point, confusing Adrian more. Why would he be so determined with his compliments?
Shrugging off his curiosity, Adrian tried to push past the topic. “What do you do?”
Simon’s eyes tightened at the edges slightly, his shoulders drooping a little more. “I’m a writer.”
“He’s a romance author, and a damn good one,” Jamie, or James as he knew the guy’s actual name was, said. Chase talked about his best friend often, though this was the first they’d met. “Don’t let him talk down about what he does.”
“James, hush. He’s not interested in what kind of writing I do.”
“Yes, I am. I love to read. Would I know any of your work?” Adrian didn’t have a large collection of romances, but he had read some. He couldn’t think of any authors named Simon, though.
“You’re an author?” Grayson asked, turning to join their conversation.
The nod seemed reluctant, but the smile on Simon’s face, while small, looked genuine. “Yeah, I write under the name Tyler Jacobs, a pseudonym, but I have a few books out. But, um, I thought we were trying to get to know Adrian and Grayson, not more about boring ol’ me.”
Adrian looked to Grayson and back, then shrugged. “I thought it was so we could all get to know each other.”
“Actually, I think Chase was trying to play matchmaker,” Rhys said, shoving Chase playfully.
“Matchmaker?” Adrian asked. Whom was he trying to set up with whom? And why?
Chase scowled and swatted Rhys. “I was hoping to introduce a few new friends and hoped everyone got on well, brat.” Chase reached out and patted Adrian’s hand, confusing him further. “I swear, I’m not trying to push you if you don’t want to date anyone right now.”
“Just who were you hoping to match up?” Dale asked, smirking as he stared at Chase.
Honestly, Adrian wanted to know that as well. It was obvious Chase meant to fix him up with one of his other friends, but he couldn’t imagine which one. James was married, Chase was happily with Rhys, and he didn’t know Simon, Dale, or Grayson beyond what he’d learned of them since he’d arrived, really.
Only two of the people at the table even interested him, truth be told, but he couldn’t figure out why anyone would try to set him up with either man. In Adrian’s experience, most Hearing people didn’t overly like dealing with having a Deaf partner. His few exes certainly hadn’t, no matter what he did to seem more “normal.”
Chase shook his head, clamping his lips closed as he glared at Rhys.
“Chase?” Adrian said and signed. “Who were you hoping to set me up with and why?”
Their eyes locked for a few moments before Chase looked away, his shoulders drooping. After a moment, Chase turned back to face Adrian and replied, “Grayson. He’s in IT, like you and I are, he’s super loyal and really cute in that quiet reserved-guy kind of way.”
“Grayson?” Well, he was handsome and seemed nice, if a little stoic. Adrian didn’t know how to feel about Chase trying to set him up with one of his friends, though. “I can get my own dates, Chase.”
“I know that. It…. Grayson is really nice, and I’d love to see Rhys’s buddy happy. And I like you, but we’re not right for each other, either. I thought of you two, though. You’d make a beautiful couple. His Native American features and your slightly Asian ones….”
He couldn’t help it, Adrian chuckled, amused at Chase’s logic. The man was sweet and a total flirt, but it seemed he was a bit of a ditz when it came to understanding his friends. Chase frowned, folding his arms across his chest as he stared at Adrian—more a glare really. “Sorry, sorry.”
“What are you two saying and why is Chase pouting?” Simon asked.
“Considering Chase pointed at me more than once, I think it’s obvious who his other intended victim is,” Grayson said, his lips almost curling into a smile—more the hint of an attempt than an actual smile.
Adrian nodded. “Said we’d look pretty together,” he explained, barely suppressing the laughter threatening again.
Simon glanced between Adrian and Grayson and frowned. “Well, I can see that, sorta, but no. Grayson needs someone outgoing and loud to compliment the whole stoic-intimidation thing he’s got going on. Adrian, though, he needs someone more… hmm… fun and playful but less, I don’t know. Less party, more cuddly.”
Chase’s pout morphed into something more confused, then curious. “Huh. You think?”
A sharp nod was all Simon gave.
“Don’t we get a say in this matchmaking game of yours?” Grayson asked, his eyes dancing with humor, though the smile still wasn’t quite there.
“Well, of course,” Chase said, then stuck his bottom lip out in an adorable fake pout. “But I like my friends happy and all. And I’d really like for you to stay, Grayson. This thing of you only visiting Rhys and me now that I’m safe bites. Not that my ex is behind bars, but that you’re hardly ever here.”
“Just ’cause you’re all domestic now doesn’t mean we all need to be,” Dale interjected. He didn’t seem as amused with the matchmaking as the others. Adrian wondered if Dale was against the idea of Grayson and him as a couple or if Dale was against couples in general for some reason.
He watched as the others ate and playfully argued back and forth. It was hard to focus on so many people talking at once, so he kept quiet. They’d been good about facing him for the most part, but even so, it was tiring trying to keep up as his focus, by necessity, bounced around the table.
As the server cleared the dinner dishes and offered dessert, Adrian continued to observe, amused with what he noticed. So that’s why Dale was annoyed…. Dale watched Grayson, interest clear in his eyes, though he seemed to work hard not to show it. That part confused Adrian, but he filed his observation away to ask Chase about later.
Grayson was handsome, and he did seem nice, but the only one who truly caught Adrian’s attention was Simon. He knew Simon wasn’t a good bet to ask out, though. Not if he was still as hurt as Chase claimed, which his body language backed up. While Simon chatted and smiled, it seemed forced at times, and he held his body tighter than someone hanging out with friends ought to. There was also an air of sadness around Simon that worried Adrian; one bad breakup shouldn’t make Simon seem so lonely while surrounded by friends, he didn’t think.
“Your order?” Simon asked, catching him watching him again.
“Just coffee, thanks.” Adrian didn’t have any room left for sweets right then, but coffee was always welcome.
A few minutes later, cream and sugar added, Adrian sipped his warm drink between chuckles as he watched the others tease and pick on each other. It wasn’t unusual for him to people watch, he did that all the time, but it was more fun observing his new friends than he had expected.
“Hey,” Chase signed. “Are we too much for you? You’re being so quiet, even quieter than James.”
“No, I’m having fun. Hard to follow everything, but glad I came.”
Chase grinned, that wide, open smile that had won Adrian over when he’d asked him out to dinner the first time. “Cool!” Chase fidgeted, not meeting Adrian’s eyes for a moment, then asked, “You mad about me wanting to set you up?”
Adrian thought about that for a moment, but the fact Chase wanted him happy warmed him more than he expected. He rarely dated, and no one had tried to set him up in ages. Well, ignoring his mother and her insistence he should settle down with a wife and make little baby Keys. Kids… maybe. A wife…. No! Women were lovely creatures, great for friends, but never once in his thirty-three years had one ever enticed him even a little. Not that she listened.
Shaking off the morose thoughts, he turned back to Chase. “No. It’s cute. Thank you for caring, but I think you need to pay better attention to your friends. Watch Dale.”
Chase’s brows scrunched together as he blinked repeatedly. “Dale?”
He nodded, then laughed at Chase’s confused look. Before he could add more, Dale stood and grinned. “Who wants to hit the clubs with me? Come on, Si, I know you do.”
Simon shook his head. “No, I’m going to call it a night when everyone’s done.”
“Spoilsport. Fine.” Dale turned to Chase and Rhys next. “You two will come out with me, right? You love to dance, Chase.”
Chase and Rhys talked, but Adrian couldn’t make out what they said, though Chase clearly wanted to go and Rhys didn’t.
“I need to get home to Seth and Danni,” James said while Chase and Rhys were still debating. “I’ll catch you all later, and Adrian?”
At his name and the direct gaze, Adrian started. “Yes?”
“It was really nice meeting you. I hope you’ll come around more often. Maybe I can introduce my husband and our daughter to you soon.”
Adrian nodded and smiled. “I would like that.”
Hugs and handshakes were passed around as everyone said their good-byes. Adrian noticed Dale sidled up beside Grayson, flashing a killer grin up at him as he spoke. Adrian didn’t need to hear to know what Dale was up to, or rather, who he would be with later, if Grayson said yes.
After Adrian paid his bill, he gave one last wave to the group, then stepped to the front of the restaurant before he pulled out his cell and started typing.
He hit Send just as someone tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned, he found Simon standing there, a shy smile on his lips—and what lips they were. Pink, plump on the bottom, and just made for nibbling. Pulling his gaze away from temptation, he met Simon’s eyes and asked, “Yes?”
“I. Um.” Simon looked down, shifting from one foot to the other, though he kept his head up enough Adrian could still make out his words. “I wondered if I could catch a ride with you? I rode with Dale, but he, Chase, Rhys, and Grayson are going to the club, and I don’t really feel up to it. I don’t want to delay James getting home, either.” His eyes went wide as he suddenly looked up. “Do you even drive? I’m sorry if not.”
Unable to restrain his amusement, he laughed, the sound seeming to cause more embarrassment and confusion for Simon. “I do drive. My TA texted me just a moment ago that he has some tests ready, so I need to stop and pick them up. If you don’t mind riding with a Deaf guy and a short delay, I don’t mind driving you.”
Adrian waited, wondering if Simon would still want the ride after reminding him of his lack of hearing. He was a good driver; never a speeding ticket or any form of citation, but he also knew many Hearing people didn’t understand that hearing was not required to be a good driver.
“I’m not worried,” Simon replied, that shy smile back on his handsome, if too thin, face.
“Great. Then let’s go. I will stop at Kelley’s and then drop you off at home.” They walked out together, and he turned toward his little graphite blue Nissan Rogue SL.
Once inside, he turned and showed Simon his GPS. “After I stop at Kelley’s, punch in your address, okay? I can’t read lips and drive at the same time, so you can’t give me directions after I pull out.”
Simon agreed, and they buckled up. Moments later Adrian pulled out into traffic, both confused and a touch excited to have the cute guy he’d been admiring all night alone with him, even though he knew nothing would come of it. He still liked having Simon near for a little longer.