LUKE JORDAN opened the door to his apartment and walked in, slinging his keys on the counter. The door slammed shut behind him, echoing in the empty silence. He hung up his heavy winter jacket and ditched his work boots in the rubber tray by the entrance.
As he did every day, he stripped off his dirty, sweaty clothes and popped them in the washing machine. His apartment might be small and shoddy and located in an area of questionable safety, but it had a washer and dryer that he loved. His affection for his washing machine and the way it allowed him to avoid the Laundromat possibly bordered on unnatural, but then again, his social life was sorely lacking, aside from weekly visits from his son. His relationship with his washer and dryer was an unholy trinity that might be the best relationship he’d had since his divorce.
A quick peek into the machine told him he could wait another day or two before it was full enough to run. Naked, he strode into the bathroom and turned on the shower.
With a groan, he stepped under the steaming spray and stood there for a few minutes, letting the heat and the pattering of the water ease the muscles bunched and knotted under his skin. Every day, it seemed, the weight on his shoulders got heavier, and he didn’t know if the tension would ever go away.
He slicked soap over his skin by rote. His soapy hands slid down to his groin, but after a few halfhearted tugs, he sighed. He was only forty-three. Life shouldn’t make him so weary he couldn’t even be bothered to masturbate. Should it?
Without any other detours, he cleaned up quick, got out of the shower, and walked the short distance to his bedroom. The drawer on his dresser stuck, and he rattled the handle to get it to slide free. The thing was a piece of shit, bought on clearance from Walmart… or Target…. Sears? He didn’t recall. Furnishing his apartment after the divorce had been a necessity, but not a memorable one. He should have spent more. It wouldn’t have put too big a dent in his bank account, but at the time he hadn’t seen the point. And now, it seemed a waste to replace his almost serviceable furniture for something better. No amount of fancy furniture would turn his apartment into anything other than a squat concrete bunker. No decor could disguise the bleakness of his life.
He pulled on a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and a T-shirt before slouching back into the kitchen. He opened the freezer door and eyed his selection of cardboard boxes masquerading as meals. Once upon a time he’d cooked regularly for his tiny family of three. But the effort of cooking was too much for just himself.
After selecting Salisbury steak—again—he slung it in the microwave and grabbed a beer from the fridge. One a day was all he allowed himself. At least while he was alone. Bleak was one thing. Drinking himself into a weeknight stupor was a whole different story.
A few minutes later, his “gourmet” dinner was ready, and he placed it on the coffee table in front of the couch. With a practiced hand, he flipped on the television. NCIS reruns first, then at eight there were other things on. Nothing new, unfortunately. This close to Christmas, everything was on hiatus.
He didn’t even have to check the guide to know when to change to which channel. Was this what he had to look forward to for the next forty years, or however long he had left? Appetite gone, he shoved his half-eaten meal away and laid his head back on the couch. Was this all there was for him? Could he put up with this… monotony for the tiny weekly bright spot of Zach’s visits?
The divorce had seemed like such a good idea. He and Kelly had been growing apart for years. Hell, they probably should never have gotten married in the first place, but with Zach on the way, and both he and Kelly still teenagers, it seemed the thing to do. He and Kelly were still friendly, but she’d been the social one of the pair of them. Once they’d split, Luke discovered most of their friends were her friends, but since their separation had been completely amicable, he hadn’t noticed the loss. Not until Kelly married and got pregnant in short order. Her new husband had been a widower with two kids under ten, and Kelly’s whole life changed. Suddenly, Luke’s entire social network, however peripheral he’d been in it, was gone. And he didn’t know how to build a new one.
Luke’s entire social interaction was watching various crime solving teams on TV do their stuff. Kelly and Zach knew why Luke had divorced Kelly, but he hadn’t told anyone at work the real reason. He didn’t dare. None of those guys were his friends. They respected him as their boss, but if they knew the truth, he wouldn’t even have their respect. So Luke never accepted any invitations to bars or parties or dinners, not even when he’d been married. After all, he’d been grappling with the truth for so long, and he was afraid if he got too close to anyone, they’d figure it out. The truth would likely be career suicide.
And what did he have to show for his carefully kept secret? A miserable lonely apartment and a miserable lonely life. He was too young for this, but he was too set in his ways to change now.
Not even the sexy DiNozzo’s antics were engaging enough—the fourth time I’ve seen this episode—to distract him. It wasn’t even eight, but maybe he’d go to bed.
His breath gusted out in a heavy sigh. He didn’t even the energy to hoist himself to his feet.
The phone rang—the landline. Luke glanced over in surprise. He’d only bothered getting a landline because it was the only way the front door buzzer would work, but once he gave his son a key, he hadn’t used it. In fact, the phone had a thin layer of dust on it.
“Uh, hi, LJ?” Despite the hesitation, Luke had no difficulty placing the voice. Only one person called him LJ. “It’s me, Ryan? Zach’s friend?”
Panic stole his breath. Why was Ryan here? Had something happened to his son?
“What’s wrong, Ryan?”
Luke took the handheld receiver to the closet and had one arm in his jacket before Ryan spoke again.
“Nothing, just Zach wanted me to meet him here, and he’s not here yet. Can you buzz me up? It’s cold out here.”
Luke paused, letting his parental concern ease away while he took a few breaths. “Uh, sure thing.” He barely remembered which key to press to activate the front door release, but he waited until he heard the familiar squeak of the hinges before he hung up.
It was Wednesday. Sure, Zach had skipped the past weekend’s visit to study for exams—it was his last year, and he was poised to get his bachelor’s degree in the spring with a great grade point average—but Luke hadn’t expected him to visit midweek.
Nor had he expected Ryan to join him. Ryan and Zach had been inseparable for years, but Luke hadn’t seen him much since the house was sold two years ago.
He hung his jacket back up and quickly cleared away the detritus of dinner. Already this was more exciting than any weeknight he’d had… pretty much since he moved into this apartment.
A few minutes later, he poked his head out the door. Ryan hadn’t come up yet, nor had he buzzed again. It didn’t take that long to get to his apartment, he didn’t think. Luke shut the door again and paced. Although he wanted more than anything to give his son the benefit of the doubt, Zach showing up midweek with Ryan as a buffer likely meant bad news. After all, when Luke admitted he was gay and that was the impetus for divorcing Zach’s mom, he’d half expected Zach to hate him. When the opposite occurred, he’d been so grateful, even though Kelly had told him it wouldn’t be a problem. Despite their youth when they had Zach, they still managed to raise a good kid between them, which was why this midweek visit was so disturbing.
Frowning, he shut the door again. Maybe he’d just fallen asleep on the couch and dreamed the whole thing. Odd for his subconscious to add in Zach’s best friend, but there was no accounting for dreams. Hell, if his brain had any sense, he’d have been dreaming about having sex with a hot guy—and not Zach’s best friend. He shuddered.
He flopped back down on the couch, wondering if he should flip over to a Law and Order rerun, just to mix things up a little.
THE CLICK of the deadbolt turning sent a spike of adrenaline through Luke, and his pulse picked up. The door swung open, and Luke leapt to his feet, fists clenching in the absence of anything that might be considered a weapon.
Luke blinked at the talking pine tree in his doorway, which then waddled its way into his apartment. Like an overly cheery Christmas special, a grinning head appeared from either side of the tree. Zach was a taller, lankier version of Luke, right down to the reddish brown hair, ruddy complexion, and hazel eyes. Kelly’s contribution to their son was to make Zach’s features and build sharper and more refined, so Zach looked a lot more elegant than Luke. Elegance would be wasted at Luke’s job on the construction site anyway.
Ryan, on the other hand, had sprouted some blue streaks in his black hair that hadn’t been there the last time Luke had seen him. He was shorter than Zach, and he’d been past the age of majority before he stopped looking like an underage kid.
“Hi, LJ! I found Zach before I came up.”
“I figured, Ryan. What are you two doing here? Aside from apparently delivering me a Christmas tree.”
The two young men propped the tree against the wall, and Zach dragged in a big cardboard box from the hallway.
Zach peered around Luke’s apartment with a frown, and Luke had a moment of satisfaction that he’d at least cleared away the remains of a dinner that positively screamed lonely and pathetic. Otherwise his place was clean.
“I knew it.” Zach’s frown hadn’t disappeared.
“Knew what?” Luke still suspected this might be some sort of weird dream.
“You haven’t done anything to decorate for Christmas. Just like last year.” Zach got up in his face and squinted. “You’re not spending Christmas alone are you?”
Luke put on his most innocent face. “Of course not.” The first Christmas after the divorce was final, Kelly had graciously invited him over. She knew better than anyone how uncomfortable he’d be with anyone else. Unfortunately, he’d been even more uncomfortable than he’d ever guessed. Interacting with Kelly’s new husband and getting to know Zach’s new siblings had been awkward and just plain fucked-up. Like he’d been dropped in another dimension and everyone except for him was completely different.
Instead of going through that again, he’d told Zach he was spending last Christmas with friends, when he really spent it with a bottle of Jack Daniels, the twenty-four-hour marathon of A Christmas Story interspersed with the Die Hard movies, and more than a few tears. Not so much because he thought the divorce had been a mistake, but somehow he thought things would be better. Instead, he’d only been able to mourn the comfort of a cordial, shared parenthood and the presence of his kid, which he hadn’t realized how much he relied on.
Luke’s eyes widened. “Zach!”
“Sorry, Dad, but I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.”
Probably he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, aside from the big secret of his sexual orientation, he’d made it a practice not to lie to his son or wife. Granted, keeping the gay thing under wraps for so many years was a pretty big secret, but the weight of it made any other lies completely untenable. And since he never had sex with men while he was married to Kelly, it made his conscience mostly clear. Last Christmas was the first time he actively lied to his son, but it had been so very necessary to his sanity.
“You should. I’m perfectly capable of keeping myself occupied.”
Ryan squished himself into a corner as far away from them as he could, in an attempt to give them some privacy, but Luke didn’t really want to discuss this now or ever, whether Ryan was there or not. Ryan’s home life made him extra sensitive to tension, and Luke had spent many of Ryan’s younger years trying to make sure Ryan was comfortable.
“Oh, really? And how do you keep yourself occupied in this place? Gonna cook a turkey dinner with all the fixings?” There was a hint of something pained in Zach’s tone that Luke didn’t quite recognize. Luke was the better cook between him and Kelly, and holiday cooking duties had fallen to him as well. Since he’d waited until Zach had moved into an apartment near the university campus before he and Kelly had moved forward to dissolve their marriage, he hadn’t realized that maybe the new family dynamic wasn’t any easier on his son than it was on him. But he wasn’t given a chance to respond before Zach stalked over to his refrigerator and flung open both fridge and freezer doors.
Boxes of no-name frozen dinners glared reproachfully from the freezer while the entire contents of his fridge consisted of beer, milk, cold cuts, mustard, and some limp lettuce. No hint of any of the groceries that should be in there, although at two weeks before Christmas, the only thing he’d have bought if he was making dinner was a turkey. At least Zach hadn’t looked in the cupboards as well. He had cereal, bread, and maybe a couple old cans of soup.
Zach’s shoulders slumped, and he turned back, his eyes glittering. Even at the grand old age of twenty-four, Luke couldn’t bear it when his son hurt. And for whatever reason, Luke’s new life hurt Zach in some indefinable way. His burgeoning irritation with Zach’s intrusion disappeared in a flash, and he wrapped a hand around his son’s neck and pulled him into a hug.
Scrunching down a few inches, Zach laid his head on his shoulder and squeezed Luke with unexpected strength.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. I love you.” It had been a long time since he’d comforted Zach like this, but over the years there had been many, many occasions thanks to skinned knees, split lips, broken bones, and broken hearts. And despite the fact that it was all his fault, Luke couldn’t suppress the frisson of pride that Zach still needed his dad.
After a few minutes, Zach rubbed his eyes against Luke’s T-shirt and pulled away. Just like his dad, Zach couldn’t cry without the whole world knowing, not with those red-rimmed eyes and glowing red nose. Luke was glad that Zach’s friendship with Ryan was such that he didn’t mind showing emotion with him around.
“Dad, you can’t do this. The whole point of the divorce was so you could be happy.”
“I was happy with your mother. You have to believe that.”
Zach snorted and wiped a sleeve across his still-wet eyes. “You know, I used to believe that. You might even still believe that, but I’ve seen Mom with Mark. Neither of you were truly happy when you were together. Not the happy that comes with being in love.”
Luke tilted his head. “Are you seeing someone?” Zach hadn’t mentioned dating anyone seriously during his entire post-secondary schooling, but despite several crushes that had come to nothing in high school, he didn’t think his son had been in love for real. He almost hoped he hadn’t, because it would kill him to realize he’d missed such a milestone in Zach’s life.
Zach slammed the fridge and freezer doors shut.
“No. Jeez, Dad, this isn’t about me. But I’m an adult, and I’m not stupid. Mom is almost a completely different person. The way she looks at Mark and the way he looks at her….” Zach couldn’t hide embarrassment any better than he could hide crying and a blotchy red flush colored his cheeks. “Well, I’ve never seen you and Mom look at each other like that. Not ever. You always looked at each other the way… the way… Ryan and I look at each other.”
Lifelong friends. Yes, Kelly was definitely that, even if she’d moved on to a new life filled with babies, while Luke was slowly turning to middle-aged dust in a barren apartment. Luke darted a glance at Ryan curled up on the couch with his legs tucked under him. Luke had almost forgotten he was there, observing. Ryan gave Luke an abashed little grin. Since Luke didn’t exactly know how to respond, he turned back to Zach.
“It’s going to take time to get used to living on my own.” Luke didn’t know what to say to make this better.
Zach rolled his eyes. “But that’s the whole point. You’re not supposed to be living on your own like a damned secluded, celibate monk. It’s not like you have to mourn your relationship. You were both more than ready to move on, and although it came as a shock to me at the time, I should have seen the signs a long time ago. You and Mom were… are… friends, but the divorce was right for both of you. But you haven’t moved on, and there’s no good reason for it.” Zach’s voice climbed louder at the end, his frustration growing and amplifying Luke’s own frustration with his pathetic new life.
“I… I….” Luke didn’t want to admit to his son that he just didn’t know how to move on to a new life. Right after the divorce, he’d hit a few gay clubs. But they made him every bit as uncomfortable as Christmas at his ex-wife’s. The flash and sparkle of the clubs didn’t suit him, and he had no idea how to go about finding dates.
“Zach, I’m a construction manager, for God’s sake. No one is particularly gay friendly at work, and even if they were… they’re not my peers. How am I supposed to find a date? I tried clubs, but I hated the music, I had nothing in common with anyone, and most of them were your age.”
Luke supposed he wasn’t like most men, who’d feel pride getting sexual attention from younger people, but it had only made him vaguely ill. Not to say he hadn’t managed a few encounters with a few guys closer to his age. They weren’t entirely satisfactory, but he still hadn’t had anything in common with them aside from a love of dick and the need for a shared orgasm; he wasn’t about to share that information with his son.
With a sad smile, Zach gripped his shoulder and a sudden burning in his own eyes caught Luke by surprise.
“I want you to be happy, like Mom is. So, we’re here to decorate for Christmas, get you into the spirit. And I want to know you won’t be alone on Christmas.”
Luke didn’t choose to be alone. Never had, never would, but the alternative was worse. Spending time with Zach’s newly reconstituted family only made him feel more alone than his solitude.
“Zach, I appreciate the tree and all. It’s a great idea, and it will definitely cheer the place up. But I will be fine on my own.” No point in claiming to be visiting friends again. Zach wouldn’t believe the lie.
Clearing his throat, Ryan stood. “I’m just going to pop out for a smoke. I’ll be back in a few.” He grabbed his coat, gave Luke a comforting pat on the arm, and left before Luke could say anything.
Luke turned a frown on Zach. “Since when did he start smoking?”
Since Zach grew up without siblings, Ryan, who was also an only child, had become as close as a brother. Or as close as Luke assumed brothers being. Ryan didn’t have a very good home life, and he’d almost been like a second son for him and Kelly. They might have made a lot of mistakes, becoming parents so young, but Zach had always come first. Unfortunately, Ryan’s parents never had that same attitude.
Zach waved a hand in the air. “You worry too much, Dad. He’s just giving us some privacy. If he was going to take up smoking, he’d have started earlier than twenty-four.”
If Ryan had been hoping to spare any of them embarrassment, he was about ten minutes too late for that “smoke.”
“Look, I’ll be fine on my own. Really.” He might feel like an old man some days, but he certainly wasn’t at the point where his son needed to look out for him. His social issues weren’t Zach’s problem.
“I worry about you, Dad, and I don’t want you to be alone. You and me, we’re going to spend Christmas together.”
“No! Your mom will miss you, and you’ll have a traditional Christmas with them.” Luke couldn’t take that away from his son. Kelly would be pissed if Zach wasn’t there.
“Dad, this is what kids from broken homes do.” Zach put a little whine in his words, like a petulant teenager, to let Luke know he was joking, but Luke didn’t quite understand the joke.
“Your mother would kill me.”
“My mother would kill me if I let you drink yourself stupid again this year.”
Shock made Luke’s eyes widen. “How did you know?”
“Dad.” This time, there was no joke in Zach’s exasperated my-parents-are-stupid tone. “Adult, remember? I came over the next day, and it wasn’t hard to see the signs. I understand why you don’t want to go to Mom’s. I do. But kids alternate homes for the holidays with divorced parents all the time, and I don’t care if it’s not totally traditional. I don’t need that. I’m not a kid. We can have a great time, you and me.”
“What about Ryan?” As soon as Ryan had been old enough to leave his own home, he hadn’t ever returned, to Luke’s knowledge, and started joining their small family celebrations. Then Luke realized how the question sounded. “I mean, obviously he’d be welcome to come, too.”
Zach smiled that genuinely happy smile that he and Kelly had strove to keep on his face without spoiling him with material goods they couldn’t always afford.
“Good. So, it’s settled. The three of us bachelors will hang out and have a man Christmas.”
Luke rolled his eyes. He’d have to have a personality transplant before he’d call it a “man Christmas.”
“Guess I’d better start making a grocery list.” Luke wanted to laugh. Spending Christmas with his son and his almost-son would be fantastic. But he couldn’t rely on Zach forever; he needed to find a life of his own that didn’t involve conversing with television detectives or waiting for whatever scraps of time Zach could afford to throw him. “Aren’t you going to text Ryan, tell him to come back in? I think it’s a little cold out there for him.”
Zach’s gaze slid away like Luke was covered in Teflon.
“What? What have you done that I’m not going to like?”
His son bit his lip and pulled a folded sheet of purple paper out of his pocket and handed it over.
Luke opened it, the sight of a rainbow flag making him cringe ever so slightly. Advertising his orientation didn’t seem like something he’d ever want to do.
Are you working in a blue collar profession? Do you find it hard to meet people? Do you feel uncomfortable being honest with your coworkers about your orientation?
If so, Rainbow Blues might be for you. Rainbow Blues offers a safe environment where you can be yourself and meet other men like you.
Yearly membership $100.
“Merry Christmas,” Zach said.
Luke sucked in a lungful of pine-scented air. The traditional scent evened out his fury a bit, but not entirely.
“You signed me up for a dating service? Zach, that is not your place. Cancel it. Immediately.”
Zach finally looked at him, chin thrust out and spots of color appearing high on his cheeks. Luke groaned. Zach was his son, through and through, and he could be stubborn as hell when he set his mind on something, and Zach was wearing his stubborn face. Which meant Luke needed to give in to whatever this was, or he and Zach were going to have a huge argument.
“No. I won’t. First off, it’s not a dating service, it’s a social group. They specify quite clearly on the website that their purpose is for blue collar workers to find other gay friends. Because, Dad, you need some fucking friends. You probably also need to get laid, but getting laid is a hell of lot easier than making friends.”
Luke’s face heated up. The truth didn’t just hurt, but it could humiliate too. He also was a little worried that Zach was too naive to recognize a sleazy hookup site masquerading as something reputable.
“I also paid for you to go to their holiday party, which is their next scheduled get-together. It’s Saturday night, so you’ve got plenty of time to find something nice to wear.”
“Zach, what the fuck?”
Luke wanted to bite back the words as soon as they escaped, doubly so when his son paled. Luke didn’t swear at his son, not ever. But right before his eyes, his son proved he was a man. Instead of caving or running away, Zach merely narrowed his eyes and pulled his shoulders back, staring Luke right in the eyes.
“I would never presume to know what you’d look for in a potential boyfriend. Maybe if I’d ever seen you date, I’d know what you liked or what you didn’t. I checked out the website. I checked out reviews. I checked to see if they’d had complaints with the Better Business Bureau. This isn’t some skanky meat market because, ew, I wouldn’t send you to one of those, even though it might get you to loosen up a bit.”
The silence lengthened as a calculating look appeared on Zach’s face and a thread of panic wove its way into Luke’s belly.
“No. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but no. I’ll go to the holiday party, just forget whatever you’re thinking right now.” Luke wouldn’t put it past him to figure out a way to send Luke to an orgy or hire him a rent boy or something. The last time Luke had seen that particular look, Zach had ended up overdosed on caffeine. That particular brainwave had been a combination of a late term paper and a sleep-deprivation study with himself as the only subject, which he’d managed to get an A on. The time before that, he and Kelly had ended up with a tub full of lime Jell-O and had to explain to Ryan’s parents how both their kids ended up with matching black eyes and split lips because they’d thought the idea of a pool full of Jell-O was cool and a bathtub was the nearest they could manage.
“You promise to go to the holiday party?”
“I promise. I swear.” Besides, if it was a skanky hookup, well, maybe getting laid wouldn’t be so awful. It had been… months since he’d gotten off with a hand that wasn’t his own, and pretty much the only time he’d gotten laid since his divorce had been in seedy club hookups. He’d find a way to tell Zach he’d never be going again, without letting him know his Christmas gift was a fairly expensive cock.
Luke got another big, happy smile for his capitulation. “Good, because if you didn’t agree, I was going to tell Mom how you spent last Christmas.”
Zach pulled a phone out of his pocket and started texting while Luke tried to breathe. His breakup with Kelly might have been mutual and amicable, but he sure as shit didn’t want her to know he was a pathetic asshole. No one wanted their ex to know that. Bad enough that his son and probably Ryan were fully aware.
Moments later, Ryan bounded back in the apartment, and the three of them settled into setting up the tree. This close to Christmas, the decorating selections were limited, or so Luke had to assume based on the eclectic mix of colors and styles Zach had purchased for his tree. Or perhaps his son had suddenly become color-blind or just plain blind.
They ordered pizza in, Luke’s barely touched frozen dinner nothing more than a bad memory.
The finished product came together beautifully, and he’d have died rather than tell Zach anything different, but the cheery addition only illustrated how dismal his life had become.
LUKE STOOD outside the community center. He might have to rethink his conclusion that this was a skeevy hookup party. Surely that would be held at a club of some sort, wouldn’t it? He wedged a finger under the unfamiliar collar and pulled, trying to make the new shirt comfortable. At work and on his personal time, he was much more a T-shirt and jeans sort of person. At least he’d been able to talk Zach out of a tie. He hadn’t worn a tie since his wedding… no, wait, there’d been a couple of funerals over the years. Nevertheless, there was no way he could possibly manage socializing with complete strangers while being strangled by a fancy strip of silk.
He’d promised to give it a shot, and Zach had spent good money to give him this opportunity. Even if the purple flyer had caught his eye, it’s unlikely he would have bothered looking into it further.
Another deep breath and he walked in, trying to pretend he wasn’t completely out of his depth.
The interior was decorated like a high school Christmas dance. But the room was filled with a bunch of men. He’d half expected to be the youngest guy in a room full of dinosaurs, but there was a substantial age range; he was neither oldest nor youngest. Hovering in the doorway, he wasn’t sure what to do. Going straight for the food—or the cooler that he prayed contained bottles of beer—seemed a little rude. Surely he wasn’t supposed to just walk up to a random person and start talking, was he?
Sweat popped out on his forehead, and his breathing got shallow. The room wasn’t huge, but there probably weren’t more than thirty guys here. Not an overwhelming number and certainly no reason for his panic, except he hadn’t tried to make friends with strangers since he’d been in school. Kelly had been his social committee for so long.
“Hey man, no passing out.” A strong hand clamped down on his shoulder, and Luke suppressed a startled yelp.
Luke cleared his throat. “Uh, hey.” A slight turn to his left and a dark-haired guy, who was probably about ten years younger and carrying about thirty pounds more muscle than Luke, came into view.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?” The guy was also wearing a dress shirt, but he seemed far more comfortable in it than Luke was in his.