Kellan licked dry lips before tugging open the door to J.J.’s bar. Stepping into the cool darkness after a long walk under Baltimore’s late spring sun had him blinking rapidly to keep from crashing into anything. Not that there was much to crash into. The bar was almost deserted.
He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. He’d never been in a gay bar before, and from the way they looked on T.V. and in the movies, he’d expected to be tripping over guys grinding away on each other. There wasn’t anything wrong with that, but Kellan hoped he'd have time to work up to shirtless guy-on-guy grinding.
In addition to the absence of grinding, Kellan also noticed the lack of a disco ball and a thumping soundtrack. J.J.'s could have been any Baltimore bar at five thirty on a Monday afternoon, right down to ESPN playing on the set hanging over the bottles arranged behind the bartender.
The bar stools weren’t completely empty. As his eyes adjusted completely, Kellan saw what he'd come here for.
Kellan hadn’t seen Nate Gray for thirteen years, but even with Nate’s back to him, Kellan found him. Who else would sit up that straight, even on a bar stool? Nate would never change. Kellan pictured the too-serious expression Nate always wore, lips tight like he was afraid to smile too much, dark anxious eyes behind those round Harry Potter glasses—years before anyone would know who Harry Potter was.
Nate turned like he could feel Kellan's stare then quickly turned away. Had Nate recognized him? Even if Nate wasn't going to be happy to see him—and given that last year Kellan couldn't blame him—it didn't matter. The long walk had given Kellan more than dry lips and sun blindness. It had made him twice as goddamned sure that Geoffrey Brooks learned he couldn't control his son like he ran his company.
That determination had Kellan striding down to the end of the bar to jostle Nate's elbow and blurt out, "Hey Nate. So, you’re still gay, right?”
Unfortunately, Kellan’s timing sucked. Nate choked, spewing what he’d just drunk from the Corona bottle across Kellan’s left sleeve. Kellan used the excuse of slapping him on the back to wipe off his arm.
Nate shook him off, wiped his own face with the back of his hand and turned. Kellan had been right. Nate didn't look very happy to see his old friend.
Well, maybe friend was pushing it. But they’d been friends a lot longer than that one year when they weren’t. If Nate would let him, Kellan could make it up to him. The sneak attack might not have been the best idea, but it was getting late and unless Kellan wanted to spend the night on a park bench, he needed to get the ball rolling. Besides, once Nate heard the plan, Kellan knew Nate would go for it. Nate had almost as much reason to want to put the screws to old Geoffrey as Kellan did.
Nate’s eyes were half-lidded and lazy as he took his time looking Kellan up and down, gaze lingering on Kellan’s crotch long enough to make him squirm. “Kellan Brooks. My day from hell is complete. Yes. I’m still gay. And guess what?” Nate leaned in like he had a secret and then said in a loud whisper. “I think this is a gay bar. You might want to cover your ass with both hands as you run for the door. Wouldn’t want to get any queer on you.”
When this brilliant idea first hatched in Kellan’s brain, he had skipped over the explaining-it-to-Nate part to get to picturing the look on the old man’s face when he got the bad news.
Kellan could do this. Nate had always given in before. But it would be easier if Nate stopped looking at Kellan as if he were dog shit stuck to Nate's shoe.
"Okay.” Nate said, rolling his eyes after a long pause. “Now that we’ve cleared that up, I need another beer.” He pushed the dripping bottle across the bar.
Kellan slid onto the barstool next to Nate. “I need a boyfriend.”
Nate looked like he was going to start choking again, even though his beer was empty, then his face went hard and still. “Blow me.”
Kellan put a hand on Nate’s sleeve, and Nate shook him off again. “You don’t understand. I really need a boyfriend.”
“No, you don’t understand. I really need some head so if you’re not going to blow me leave me the fuck alone.” Nate shifted around on his bar stool, leaning forward and back, looking over his shoulder. “I swear if someone from the paper is punking me—”
“Can I just explain this to you?”
The bartender set a fresh beer in front of Nate.
“If you’re paying, I’ll listen.”
“I can’t.” Heat hit Kellan’s cheeks and he dropped his gaze.
“Right. You can’t afford a beer.” Nate slapped a ten on the bar and glanced around like someone would save him from having to deal with Kellan.
“I spent my last twenty on a cab to get to the paper. They said you’d be here, so I walked.”
“A whole five blocks? Alert the media.”
It had been more like fifteen. But with Nate sneering at him, showing the same kind of disgust Kellan’s dad was always quick to dish out, the words died in his throat and the flush got hotter, spreading into his neck. His cheeks felt as lit up as Rudolph’s famous nose. He’d never been able to stop it, but until now, Kellan thought he’d given up being ashamed. Funny that Nate could make him feel worse than the old man could. Even with what he’d thrown at Kellan today. He tried to catch Nate’s gaze. “Will you listen to me?”
“Can you give me one single fucking reason why I should?”
With a desperate hope that Nate’s memories went back a lot farther than that last year, Kellan shoved up his sleeve to show the scar on his forearm, knowing Nate had one to match, a gift from a spike on a cemetery fence to two seven-year-old friends who had snuck off late one night because Kellan had wanted to introduce his brother to his new friend. When they fell bleeding into onto the ground outside the cemetery, Nate had suggested that they become brothers the way some kids had done in a book he read. Nate understanding how much Kellan missed having a big brother had been worth his mother’s freak out and the terrifying tetanus shot when their adventure became public knowledge.
“That still count for anything?” Kellan pulled his sleeve back down.
“Didn’t count for much as I remember.” Nate’s eyes narrowed, but there was nothing lazy about the look this time. “Cash, grass or ass, man.”
“Nothing’s free. You won’t blow me, you won’t buy me a beer, and for damn sure I don’t owe you any favors.”
Kellan shrugged, trying for an ease he didn’t feel. “Maybe you’ve got me confused with my dad, man, because I never did anything to you or your family.”
"So that wasn’t you laughing while your asshole friends showed the little faggot what a swirly was on the first day of high school?”
There wasn’t anything Kellan could say to fix that. Couldn't explain why instead of sticking up for Nate the way he'd always done, this time Kellan had gone along, promising himself he was there to make sure things didn’t get too carried away and that Nate didn’t get hurt. Kellan knew that didn't count for much.
Nate slammed his beer onto the bar and stepped off the stool. “Well, this has been a fucked-up end to a long day. Good luck with that boyfriend thing. Play safe and remember to use lots of lube.”
Dude, man, Nate was sure there was a bro waiting somewhere behind lips that were a shade too full to go with the rest of Kellan's sharp features. Maybe the asshole really thought he could dump the blame on his dad then pretend it was just like the old days. Nate kept right on walking, out of the bar.
He pulled his scooter off the sidewalk, strapped on his helmet and turned the key. Kellan grabbed the handlebars.
Nate probably could have managed to take off without dragging seventy-five inches of Kellan Brooks across the sidewalk, but he snapped, "What?"
"I don't have anywhere to go."
What Nate meant to say was Why the fuck is that my problem? but what came out was "What do you mean?"
"My dad threw me out—cut me off—and..."
"What about your friends? Your fiancée?" Nate wanted to bite the words back and ended up biting his tongue. Now Kellan would know Nate had bothered reading up on the dickhead's life on the gossip sites. In Nate's defense, he worked for a newspaper. There might have been a reason other than that he still gave a shit about the big idiot.
"We broke up," Kellan said flatly.
"Again? What was she, fiancée number five?" Shit, like that wasn't obviously bitter.
"Three." Kellan licked his lips.
Nate knew damned well Kellan wasn't flirting, sudden inexplicable quest for a boyfriend or not. But Nate didn't have a boyfriend, hadn't even had a hookup in over a month and his eyes moved from the pink tongue on Kellan's lips to his hazel eyes and sun-streaked dirty-blond hair before Nate could remind himself that was a bad idea.
With a mental shake of his head, Nate said, "You've got to have some other friends. Because whatever I am, I'm not that anymore."
"I owe most of them money."
"Well, if you came looking for cash, you came to the wrong place."
The scooter between Nate's legs had suffered greatly in its previous existence as a vehicle of Chinese takeout. Despite the amount of non-wok oil and grease Nate had used to get it running again, the smell still hovered, unpleasant enough to cure him of a life-long craving for Kung-Pao Chicken.
Kellan still clung to the handlebars.
"Why did your dad throw you out?"
If Kellan said it was because he really had come out, Nate supposed he could find some sympathy in the midst of a big pile of serves-you-fucking-right. But the spark of sympathy drowned in a sudden stream of porn featuring Kellan's wide mouth panting and bruised from hard kisses sliding down Nate's cock, making him shift uncomfortably on the thin seat.
"Can I—can we go someplace so I can explain it to you?"
Kellan didn't have the kind of big round eyes that should be necessary to pull off that wounded puppy look. But it wouldn't be the first time that appeal had suckered Nate in. And his tendency to take in strays had convinced his parents Nate was destined to be a veterinarian.
Kellan let go of the handlebars.
"Are you going to hop on or jog alongside?" That sounded a lot more confident that the situation warranted. Nate wasn't exactly sure the scooter would make it ten blocks with Kellan's added weight.
Kellan swung a leg over from the back, the careful way he arranged himself a clear indication he was trying not to touch anything made of Nate and not scooter. That lasted until they lurched away from the curb and into rush-hour traffic. Kellan's hands landed first on Nate's shoulders, then on his hips.
As they stopped for a light on O'Donnell, Kellan leaned close, breath tickling Nate's ear. "What's that smell?"