MOST OF the time, the mixture of blaring pop music, sports commentary, and people chattering was a smooth comfort for Vahin. Almost like an enveloping blanket of sound. At the moment, though, it was all a little too much. Too frantic and inescapable. It made him wish he hadn’t given up smoking a year ago; it would be nice to have an excuse to hang out in the parking lot for a few minutes.
“I know I keep saying it, but you are so fucking hot. You really won’t take off your shirt for me?”
Actually it wasn’t the music, sports television, or crowd that was getting under his skin. It was the blond twentysomething who was too pretty for his own good and about as interesting as a golf marathon.
Vahin cut off his pour of vodka, spared a glance at the guy, and winked. Smiles and flirting equaled a welcoming environment for all the customers, not to mention good tips. “This skintight tank top isn’t revealing enough?”
The blond licked his lips. Did that honestly ever work for the guy? “It makes me want you more.”
“Well, then, sounds like you’re enjoying me clothed.” Vahin licked his own lips, just to see the reaction—a shuddering melting expression—and moved down the curved bar to deliver the drinks to Cody, who was waiting to take them to table six.
He took a second to glance past the bar area of Mary’s and take in the bright, happy room—part exposed brick wall, part vintage pink wallpaper. He loved this place. Truly. It was more of a home than anywhere else. He simply needed a moment to remember it. The flirting used to be a lot more fun. Still was, most of the time, but his tolerance for those inept with the skill was lessening. He plastered on a smile before returning to the blond. “Another Manhattan?”
The man shook his head. “Not yet. Thanks, though.” He leaned across the bar, attempting to peer over the other side, as if hoping Vahin might not be wearing pants below his tank top. “You know, I’ve always wanted to be with an Indian. Ever since watching Slumdog Millionaire. Are you from India? Did you, like, ride elephants and shit?”
Oh God. That again. Probably saw that damn film when he was fourteen and masturbated in his bedroom to the Pussycat Dolls singing “Jai Ho.”
“You know, I rode an elephant at a zoo once, close to where I grew up. In Connecticut.”
“Oh.” His expression fell, and he gave a partial shrug. “There’s only another couple of hours until the bar closes, right? You wanna come over to my place?”
Vahin almost expected him to end the invitation with an offer to pretend to be an elephant he could ride. “Actually the boss man has me staying extra late to clean up the whole restaurant… by myself. There’s several people out sick tonight.” He made a sweeping gesture. “As you can see, this place is three old houses made into one restaurant. It’ll take me quite a while.” Not waiting for a response, he turned to the guy who was seated two stools down, a regular who Vahin knew loved blonds. “Hey, Aron. Have you met—” Shit, he was normally better at this. “—Joseph? He’s a movie buff.”
Aron glanced at Joseph, his eyes brightening, and slid over a seat. “Really?”
Vahin popped open a bottle of Bud Light, Aron’s drink of choice, and set it in front of him. Aron didn’t even notice, already attempting conversation with Joseph.
Aron was of Latin descent, but Vahin figured Joseph was probably too buzzed to tell the difference. Without looking at them again, he moved down the bar, mentally patting himself on the back. He’d managed to distract the blond without offense and helped his friend get laid, even if he’d have to perform while listening to the Pussycat Dolls. Two birds, one stone.
A shoulder shoved into his back, causing him to stumble slightly. Vahin turned around. Steven. “What was that for?”
“The boss man is making me stay late, everyone is out sick?”
Vahin’s cheeks heated. “Oh, you heard that?”
Steven nodded. “Sure did.”
“Obviously not very well. I didn’t say everyone is out sick.”
Steven chuckled, but the sound didn’t carry through the noise of the bar. “Pat’s the only one out tonight, and that’s only because she got called in to the hospital.”
He looked over Vahin’s shoulder, toward Joseph and Aron. “What’s the matter? He’s pretty hot.”
Vahin rolled his eyes. “You’re the one who likes them young, Steven, not me.”
“Since when? I didn’t know there was an age above eighteen you didn’t like.”
“Shut up. I’m trying to work here, boss man. Unless you’re paying to chat me up.”
Steven gave him a confused look, seemed like he wanted to say more, then shook his head slightly. He started to turn away but paused and motioned toward the other end of the bar. “That group of women is here for a bachelorette party. They didn’t bother to call ahead, but we’re trying to get some tables cleared up for them really quick. Will you make them a round of shots on the house, please? One of the dirty-sounding ones. You know, Cowboy Cocksuckers or Orgasms, something like that.”
“Yeah, I think I knew what you meant by dirty-sounding.” Vahin glanced at the women. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed their entrance. Each one of them was wearing a veil and squealing like middle schoolers. He glared back at Steven. “You’re trying to kill me.”
Steven grinned wickedly. “What? You’re turning down hot blond guys all of a sudden. Thought maybe you switched teams.”
He leveled a glare at Steven. “I’m stealing a bottle of top-shelf bourbon tonight for this, just so you know.”
Steven waggled his eyebrows and headed toward the end of the bar without comment. Vahin watched for a few moments as Steven made his way past the sports nooks and through the tables, stopping to greet the customers. It had been so many years since the two of them had hooked up—before they’d become friends or employer and employee—that he sometimes forgot how attractive the man was. Hot, really, in the stereotypical Colorado way. Rugged and bearded, Steven looked more like he should own a ranch than one of the gayest restaurant and bar franchises to ever exist.
Maybe if they’d met now, things would be different. They could have something more. No, not more. Steven was family, and in many ways, he had made Vahin’s world bright for the first time. Not more, just…. He shook the thought away.
Steven was right, though. Vahin was changing. Had changed, actually. Though none of the others had realized it. He hadn’t taken a random guy home in months. It showed what a stellar job he did with the flirting that none of them had picked up on the gradual shift. Even Vahin hadn’t been aware of it at the beginning. Two weeks without getting laid had gone by before he noticed. It had all gotten… boring.
He realized he was staring at Steven again, picturing what sex would be like with him now, after all the years. Oh, dear Lord, he had to stop that. That wasn’t going to lead anywhere good. And it didn’t feel real. Steven was more of a brother at this point than anything. Vahin was feeling… desperate. Oh holy shit. He was feeling desperate. For what, though? A relationship?
Someone shoot him.
Vahin nearly launched himself at the bachelorette party, their overarching squeals suddenly exactly what he needed to cut through his thoughts.
He puffed up his chest, flashed his brilliant smile that he knew caused hearts to melt, and leaned across the bar, invading the women’s space. “Orgasms, anyone?”
IT TOOK nearly half an hour for the women to get their tables, and by the time they left the bar area, Joseph and Aron were MIA and the raucousness of Mary’s had begun to feel comforting again. The women had ended up being a hoot. He was still going to take a bottle of bourbon, just to be a bitch, but maybe not from the top shelf.
He fell back into his routine—smiling, flirting, and making a show of mixing the drinks. The blond might have gotten stuck in his development after watching Slumdog Millionaire, but for Vahin, it had been Cocktail. His parents would’ve killed him had they known he’d watched it at a friend’s house, both for the R rating and the topic of alcohol, but it had been worth the guilt he later felt. Tom Cruise twirling around bottles and shakers. He’d clung to that fantasy to escape the lonelier moments of his childhood. He’d watched the film later and had to admit it was terrible, but he still loved it.
Vahin noticed the man the second he walked through the front doors. The guy glanced around nervously, as if expecting to be attacked, stepped in farther, then hesitated, staring at the huge plaster statue of Mary holding up a cheeseburger. He looked like he was about to leave when John, who was taking Pat’s spot at the door, greeted him.
The man was gorgeous—tall, deep black skin, short hair, strong jaw, and solid muscle. A thrill shot through Vahin when the man shook his head at John and moved to take one of the seats recently vacated by the bachelorette party.
What had Vahin been thinking before? That those random hookups had gotten boring? He already knew he’d be telling Steven he’d leave the bottle of bourbon if Steven would let him out of cleaning up after closing.
The man still seemed wary as he settled into his spot at the bar, looking around like he’d stepped into another world. He flinched when he noticed the neon yellow-and-green platform high-heeled shoe on the bar. He reached over and picked up the bachelorette party’s receipt from inside and studied it before rolling his eyes and placing it back.
If Vahin managed to scare the guy by not removing the high heels quick enough, he was going to kick himself. Whatever the man’s deal, he was obviously ready to bolt. Maybe a straight guy, not realizing the kind of place he’d entered. Not that nearly half of Mary’s clientele weren’t straight people and families, but it still wasn’t a place a guy on the prowl for women would typically look. Maybe he was on the down low and afraid of running into someone he knew.
Vahin forced himself to get two more drinks for other customers before he waited on the man. He grabbed a drink menu that had worked its way down the bar and slid it toward the guy he was going to get naked with before the night was over. “Hey, welcome to Mile High Hamburger Mary’s. Here’s a drink menu, in case you’re not sure what you’d like.”
The man looked up at Vahin, and his eyes widened slightly. His expression was back in place in less than a heartbeat, but it was enough for Vahin to know he’d liked what he’d seen. So, not a straight guy in a wrong place. Maybe still on the down low, though. Whatever. Vahin could work with that. At least for the night.
“Nah, just beer, please.”
Vahin wasn’t sure if he’d kept his own expression under control or not, but if he hadn’t already wanted to take the man home, the guy’s voice would’ve sealed the deal. Low and warm. So deep, it was almost hard to hear.
“Easy enough. What kind?” There, see that? He managed to speak without panting or drooling.
The man shrugged. “You got Heineken or Guinness?”
“Cool. I’ll do a Heineken.” He held up a hand abruptly. “Actually, know what? Let’s start with one of each. In bottles. Don’t bother with a glass.”
This time Vahin didn’t control his reaction. “Double fisting, huh? Rough day?”
The man let out a snort. “You have no idea.”
“Well, I won’t waste time, then.” He managed not to look over his shoulder as he retrieved the beers. Staring at the guy wouldn’t help get in his pants. Though, if he was starting with two beers, a little staring probably wouldn’t be a deal breaker for too long.
As he popped the caps, Vahin motioned toward Alex with his chin.
The other bartender finished pouring his drink, slid it to the woman at the bar, and came. “What’s up?”
“You mind covering me for a few minutes?”
“Sure, you gotta go out?”
“No. Just might talk with someone for a bit.”
Alex’s gaze darted past Vahin. “Seriously, him? You’re calling dibs on him? I doubted I had a chance, but now I know I don’t have a shot.”
“Dude, quit staring.” Vahin grinned at Alex. “And yeah, sorry, newbie. I’m calling this one.”
Walking back toward the man, Vahin realized he was nervous. He didn’t remember the last time a man made him feel remotely close to that. He slid the bottles across the bar. “I popped the caps but placed them back on. Wasn’t sure which you’d want to drink first.”
“Doesn’t matter.” He grabbed the Guinness and glanced around again.
“First time here?” Like Vahin wouldn’t have noticed a man like this one if he’d come within a block radius of the place.
“Maybe a bit.” Vahin hesitated, not sure how far to push. “There’s always a good mix of gays and straights here, if that makes you feel better.”
The man lowered the beer and swallowed before replying. “Oh, no, it’s not that. It’s just different than my normal. I expected a bunch of drag queens or something.”
“No, not tonight.” Maybe he wouldn’t be taking Mr. Adonis home, after all. Down low he could do; too good for fem-gays, he couldn’t. “Though, it’s too bad. We have the best drag queens anywhere.”
The man shrugged.
“Don’t like drag queens?”
He shook his head. “I don’t dislike them. Just not my thing.”
“You ever see a drag show?”
Another head shake.
“Well, you’ll need to come by on a different night. I don’t care what kind of bad day you’ve had. Five minutes with ManDonna and you’ll be laughing your ass off. Trust me.”
The man gave a partial smile. “I for sure could’ve used that tonight. I’ll have to remember to come back and see… ManDonna the next shitty day I have. So probably tomorrow.” He laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound.
Okay, maybe not a judgmental douche bag—just virgin territory. “Work sucks, huh?” Vahin leaned forward, both to indicate interest and to highlight his shoulders.
“Yeah. It’s my new—” The man halted abruptly. “Actually the last thing I want to think about right now is work.” He took another swig of beer, his longest yet, and leveled his brown eyes on Vahin’s. He lowered the bottle and stuck out his hand. “I’m Marlon.”
Vahin accepted the shake, loving that Marlon’s hand was as massive as his own. “Nice to meet you. I’m Vahin.”
Marlon held his grip a split second too long. That brief moment told Vahin all he needed to know.
Marlon drew his hand back. “Glad I came in here this evening, Vahin.” He took a long swig of beer and finished the first bottle, his gaze never breaking contact and making it perfectly clear Vahin wasn’t the only one who had plans for them that night.