Chapter One

 

THE MUSICAL sound of another life terminated pulled Justin from the distraction across the mall, but he kept looking back. They were holding hands, laughing, mooning over each other. It would have been disgusting if it didn’t hurt so much. Paul, Jake, Ralph—whatever his name—had never done that with Justin. The most disturbing part of the whole situation was Justin’s lack of surprise. He’d known it was nothing more than hooking up, scratching an itch, a way to kill time.

Sighing, he turned his attention back to the game. He glanced at Shane, who gave him a concerned look. Justin shook his head and wrapped his hand around the joystick. “Let’s just play.”

“This is your last life,” Shane said. “I have tokens in my jacket. Help yourself so you don’t have to start over.”

“Thanks,” Justin said, smiling his gratitude. Every time they played, Shane kicked his ass at Street Fighter until Justin ran out of tokens. He stuck his hand in Shane’s pocket and pulled out more tokens.

Justin and Shane sometimes hung out at the same arcade, one of a half dozen on the east side of Chicago. Situated inside the mall, this one was by far the nicest. Nine times out of ten, they ended up playing against each other. Once in a while, their group of mutual friends would meet up and go to a movie or out for burgers. Over the last few months, however, the size of the group had dwindled to a lonely few as the others found their other halves. Justin glanced across the food court again. He might not be surprised by the way Randy—that was his name—acted, but he was a little surprised by the sex of his companion. What a wonderful way to start the new year.

 

 

ONE FRIDAY night toward the end of March, Justin’s shift was ending at Jerry’s Burgers when Shane came for a sandwich.

“Did ya stop to see me?” Justin asked.

“No. I was hungry.”

“Uh-huh. Sure.” Justin had no clue what made him flirt. For the fun of it, he guessed. And possibly too much caffeine. He gave Shane an exaggerated wink. “I think you want to buy me dinner to make up for making me play against the computer at the arcade.”

“What? No one else will share their tokens with you?” Shane tried to look sympathetic, but he wasn’t pulling it off. “I’ve been busy at the garage.”

“Work is a rotten excuse for not being there to bail me out.” Justin pouted.

“I have to work or I won’t have money to buy tokens… or gas… or you dinner.”

Was Shane flirting back? No…. He liked girls. Shane always had girls hanging around him. Besides, even if Shane liked guys, he was way out of Justin’s league. The thought made Justin falter, and his smile felt a bit more forced than it had been the moment before. “That is true. I suppose I can forgive you.”

“Something wrong?” Shane asked.

“No, just tired. I’m good.” Justin smiled.

“Ah, okay.” Shane grabbed the bag with his burger inside and turned toward the door. “See you later, Justin.”

After Justin clocked out, he walked to his car. The rules stated he had to park across the lot so the customers could be near the door. The problem with working at night meant his car was mostly in the dark. Justin noticed a vehicle next to his, but it didn’t freak him out. Other employees parked in that area. But then he saw the dark head above his driver’s door. He couldn’t see the guy’s face, only the hairless scalp.

Who is that, and why are they leaning against my car? He kept moving but more cautiously.

After Justin rounded the back of his car, the man turned toward him, the corner of his mouth lifted in a half smile. Relieved and a little curious, Justin returned his smile. “What are you doing?” Justin asked.

“Waiting for you,” Shane smirked.

“Um, I noticed that part. Why are you waiting for me?” It wouldn’t be the first time Justin flirted with the wrong man and ended up being taught a lesson.

Shane shrugged. “Because I wanted to. Do you have somewhere you need to be?”

“Not really. I was going to grab something to eat, but it can wait.”

“You didn’t eat while you were here?” Shane asked.

Shane cocked his head to the side, and Justin’s heart did this funny jumpy thing. “Nah. I’m kinda tired of the food here. I was heading uptown to see whose line was the shortest.”

“Denny’s is around the corner. I could follow you over there, if you want,” Shane offered. “It’s getting late, but they’re open for the drinking crowd.”

“I could go for some eggs….” Justin nodded and then opened the door of his ’69 Mustang. It was white and primer gray, and the door creaked when it opened and closed. Justin turned his face away, embarrassed by his ride for the first time. He was working on the car, restoring it bit by bit, but lack of time and money delayed its completion. He only allocated so much of his check to car maintenance.

I bet his door doesn’t make noise when it opens.

“I’ll meet you over there,” Shane said. Justin watched Shane look over his car as he left.

Justin got into his car, and on the first hit of the key, the engine fired brilliantly with a healthy rumble. He had finished the motor; since it wouldn’t do him much good to have a nice-looking car if it didn’t run, that had been his first priority.

The witching hour was approaching. Traffic was light on the outskirts of town, and luck had him catching both green lights. Justin pulled into the parking spot beside Shane and cut his engine. He checked his hair in the rearview mirror, then prayed he hadn’t been seen checking. He climbed out and moved to the back of his car. Shane waited against the bumper of his ’69 Dodge Challenger.

“Must be our lucky night,” Justin said.

“What makes you say that?” He grinned.

“We made both green lights, and this parking lot is mostly empty. We should be able to get a table fast.”

“Ah. Okay. Well, let’s get inside and get you fed. I’d hate to see you waste away.” Shane laughed.

Justin’s hand automatically went to his stomach. It was threatening to rumble, one of the hazards of working fast food and smelling greasy hamburgers all night. He was either starving when he got off work or not interested in food at all. Tonight he was starving.

He followed Shane into Denny’s, and the hostess seated them right away. They turned down the coffee she offered and ordered sodas instead.

“Your car sounds tough. Who did the motor?” Shane asked.

“I did. It took me a few weeks to scrape together enough cash, but I wanted top of the line under the hood.” Justin was proud of his car, when it wasn’t making embarrassing noises in front of good-looking men.

Shane looked impressed. “I can tell. She was purring. How’s the outside coming?”

“Uh, well, slow. Making the outside look good takes more time than I’ve had lately,” Justin told him.

“If you ever want some help, give me a yell. I like doing body work,” Shane said.

Justin’s mind went straight into the gutter. He forced the thought away, though. “Thanks. I’ll keep you in mind.”

The waitress came over and took their order, then disappeared around the wall dividing the dining room from the kitchen. He watched her go just so he didn’t keep staring at Shane. When Justin couldn’t see her anymore, he turned his head to find Shane studying him. “What?” Justin asked.

“You surprise me.”

“How’s that?”

“I never would have taken you for a gearhead.” Shane smiled. “And you just ordered enough food to feed us both. Do you always eat like that?”

Justin felt his cheeks heat, and he shifted in his seat. Dropping his chin, he looked down at his napkin-wrapped silverware on the table. He picked at the corner of his silverware, peeling the layers apart so he wouldn’t have to look at Shane. “Depends on the night, I guess.”

“Hey. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Why?” Justin said, head still down.

“Maybe because you’re staring at your silverware like it’s got a story to tell.”

He raised his head and looked at Shane. His cheeks had cooled, and he gave Shane a half smile. “Maybe it did.”

Shane’s eyes moved over Justin’s face for a minute. He apparently decided Justin was cool because he returned the smile. “How long you been slinging burgers around the corner?”

“Since I was sixteen. I’m a shift supervisor now.” Justin didn’t want to brag, but he’d worked his ass off to move up.

“That’s cool.”

“Yeah. It pays the bills and then some. I’d like to pick up something else part-time, but I don’t have enough free time as it is.”

“You could come work for me when you do have time,” Shane offered.

“You don’t know what I can do and you’re offering me a job?” Justin was stunned. Why would he do that?

“I’ve heard what you did with the motor under your hood. A novice couldn’t do that. Anything you don’t know how to do, I’ll teach you.”

“I’ll think about it. Thanks.” A genuine smile curved Justin’s lips this time. “So business at your garage is good, then?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty steady lately. Spring and summer is when I’m usually busiest. People get their vehicles ready for vacations about this time of year.”

The waitress brought Justin’s food, and he saw what Shane had been teasing him about. He had ordered enough food for both of them. Justin pushed the plate into the middle of the table and nodded toward it. “Dig in. I can’t eat all this myself. Well, I probably could, but then I’d have to walk home so I don’t lose my girlish figure.” Justin winked at him and dug into the fries.

Shane laughed and picked up the ketchup. “You crack me up.”

“Why, thank you.”

They talked long after the last fry disappeared. Shane told Justin about his family. His mother, who was half-black, had raised him alone after his Hispanic father left them. Shane had been too young to understand at the time. His love for the woman who raised him showed on his face and sounded in his voice while he talked about her. She wouldn’t speak ill of the man who’d abandoned them and wouldn’t allow Shane to either. It was obvious he’d made peace with the choice his father made a long time ago, since there wasn’t any bitterness in his demeanor.

Justin told a very different story of his schoolteacher parents. His father still substituted at the high school since his retirement, while his mother was in her last year of teaching before she retired also.

The clock read the wee hours of the morning by the time they paid and made their way out to the parking lot and their rides. Somehow during the course of the meal, while talking and laughing, he’d gotten Shane’s phone number added to his contacts list in his cell.

Justin turned to face him when they reached the back of his car and froze. What do I do now? Shake his hand, punch his arm, pat his shoulder? Man, he was no good at this stuff.

He needn’t have worried, though, because Shane walked around to the driver’s side door and glanced his way. “You mind?”

“No. Go ahead.”

Shane opened the door and ducked his head inside. He didn’t look around long; there wasn’t much to see. “You’re getting there, slow but sure.”

“Yeah. It’ll be great when it’s done.”

Shane shoved his hand out, and Justin took it. Then Shane pulled him into one of those guy hugs and slapped him on the back. Justin got a nose full of his cologne, and there was instant wood in his jeans. Ah hell. He was destined to fuck up another friendship by being attracted to the friend. Shit.