Close to landing a role in a sitcom he hopes will show his father he isn’t a failure, Vane Riley loses everything when his boyfriend dumps him and his father dies. With nowhere to turn, he heads home to regroup and help his sister, Rose, keep the family diner afloat. Trying to ease his grief with a guy in a bar seems like a good idea until the guy can’t get rid of him fast enough. The last thing Vane expects is for his one-night stand to appear at his dad’s funeral with a quirky tarot reader on his arm and a romantic history with Rose.
Doug Moore is a widower who isn’t ready to move on, but he can’t seem to get the clumsy guy he met the night before out of his thoughts. After helping Vane get back into the car he somehow locked himself out of, Doug figured he’d never see him again and can’t believe his lousy luck when Rose’s loser brother turns out to be the hookup he can’t stop thinking about. Doug is determined to keep his distance, but when Rose hires him to renovate the family home Vane is now living in, there’s not much chance of that happening.
Though Doug wants nothing more than to resist him, Vane ticks all his boxes. Clumsy, needy, sexy and… Oh yeah. Paranoid. Not for a minute does Doug believe somebody is out to hurt Vane despite the strange accidents that have befallen him since returning home, but Vane is sure somebody wants him dead.
Doug is solid and steady. Vane is emotional and imaginative. Nobody’s trying to kill him. Doug is sure of it…
The interior was dark, lit mostly by the glow of the TV.
Doug was pretty sure the guy at the table beside him was sound asleep. The dreariness of the place hit him out of the blue, and he had a feeling he was just punishing himself by staying. There were other places he could be, even sitting in a movie theater with Dorcas if he’d thought about it. But that ball of energy in his chest had brought him here.
He let his chair tip down just as the entrance door swung open and somebody in jeans and a jacket with a hoodie underneath stepped in—and promptly tripped. After he righted himself, the guy fixed what had to be a glare at the raised section of weather stripping across the threshold.
Doug lifted his mug, laughing into it before he took a drink.
The newcomer headed to the bar and stood at the corner until the owner finished with another customer and turned to him. Doug couldn’t see the guy’s face in the shadows, but he heard the owner say, “Yeah?” in a surprised tone and a few words in return. “Real quick… couple miles.”
Doug doubted the owner responded to whatever the guy was talking about. A useful reply would need more than the “You gonna buy somethin’?” he came up with.
Doug finished his beer and kept his eye on them. Maybe the owner made the guy nervous because the money he dug out of his pocket flew everywhere but on the counter.
The almost curse rang loud and clear. Doug grinned as the guy chased the rolling coins, picked up a couple, turned around, and bent over again.
Nice. Cute little bottom in those worn-out jeans.
Doug watched him step back to the corner of the bar and count his coins. The owner shook his head. Doug sighed, guessing the guy didn’t have enough money and the owner wouldn’t cut him any slack. What an asshole. Doug wasn’t coming to this place anymore. It had always been sketchy, but now it was a dreary, low-class dump.
He stood and strode to the bar. “Another one. For him too.”
The guy raised his head from his pile of money, and Doug got his first good look at his face. He startled. “Jesus, are you okay?”
The guy frowned, looking cute as hell as he tried to figure out Doug’s question.
Doug pointed at his own cheek. The poor light hid a lot, but he thought the guy blushed. And then he… giggled. A real-live giggle. Doug couldn’t help but laugh. Of all the weird things. Though from the twitches running through the guy, his giggle was clearly a result of his nerves. Doug liked that. Meg had been shy too.
The words took a moment to register. Doug lifted the beer the bartender set down and motioned with his chin at the other one. The guy picked it up, nodded, and took a swallow. His sigh sounded happy.
“I didn’t think kicking people in the face was allowed,” Doug said. He didn’t for a minute believe the guy had gotten his bruises in a kickboxing match.
“Well, it was an accident. I’m kind of clumsy.”
No kidding. “Glad I have no interest in contact sports.” No, Doug was a baseball kind of guy and lazy about working out. His job was physical, and he put muscle on without even trying.
“I quit,” the guy said.
“Better part of valor,” Doug murmured.
A slow smile lit the guy’s face. “Caution is preferable to rash bravery,” he added to the quote. “You’re a Shakespeare fan.”
Doug hid his surprise with a nod. The guy was beautiful and charming and familiar, but Doug drew a blank trying to figure out where he’d seen him before. “Are you from around here?”
That changed things. The smile flattened, and the guy pulled back.
“Just visiting. My car broke down. Well, not actually broke down. I got out and dropped my keys.” He gave a blustery-sounding laugh. “Now I’m locked out.”
“I can jimmy it.”
The guy stared at him with his mouth half open. The pink of his tongue showed. Damn. Heat built between Doug’s legs. He shifted on his stool as his lust bloomed, a sensation he’d almost forgotten about. He hooked up with willing partners to expend some energy, but to be honest, attraction wasn’t usually a big part of it.
“Are you a car thief?” the guy asked, shrugging his jacket off.
The smile came back. “Just checking.”
The guy shifted to the stool between them and his hair swung, the dark ends brushing the tops of his shoulders. He tucked it behind his ears, then pushed up the sleeves of his hoodie. He had holes in his lobes but no earrings, and a tattoo of a sun done in black ink decorated the inside of a wrist.
Doug rocked forward, feeling the pressure on his balls, and set his elbow on the counter. “Drink up. I’ll take you to your car.”
The guy nodded. “That’d be great. I was going to call someone, but my phone’s broken.”
Of course it was. This guy screamed total disaster. “What’s your name?”
A whisper of a hesitation preceded his smile. “Ethan.”
Ethan. A nice name, but it wasn’t his. Or maybe it was his middle name. Interesting. Doug wasn’t afraid of him and didn’t think he was a psycho serial killer or anything. When it came down to it though, he probably couldn’t pick a serial killer out of a crowd to save his life. But this guy looked friendly, a little nervous, and a lot needy.
The perfect storm for Doug. He stuck out his hand. “I’m Doug.”
Warm fingers gripped his, and a jolt like a zap from a live wire shot up his arm and down his spine. Ethan’s mouth opened again, a slight part, the pink of his tongue a glimmer inside. “Nice to meet you, Doug.”
He wanted to do more than meet him though. He wanted to plant himself inside him. Ethan’s eyes widened as Doug stared at him, his pupils stretching to the edges of his irises. He flicked his lip with his tongue, picked up his beer, and chugged it.
“Want another?” Doug asked.
Ethan set his mug down. “Sure.”
Doug raised two fingers. “So whadda you do?”
“Write. I’m a writer.”
“Well, wannabe. I don’t have anything out, yet.”
“You will if you keep at it. That’s impressive. I have a tough time writing a two-page proposal.”
“What kind of proposal?”
“Job proposals. I own a construction company. We do mostly renos and additions.”
“Oh, that’s cool. Like the Property Brothers.”
Without the brother. Or the money. Or the fame. Doug nodded and pressed his lips into a smile. “Exactly.”
Ethan grinned. “I love those shows. I can barely use a hammer.”
“Somehow I think your thumbs thank you for not trying.”
Ethan gaped. Then he inhaled as though to speak but laughed first instead. “Okay. Okay. That’s probably true.”
His hand rested on the counter, and Doug wanted to touch it. The fingers lay flat, long, and slender. The thumb twitched, and Ethan curled it under his palm.
He was elegant and clumsy. And interested in Doug. Heat glowed in his eyes.
Doug pointed a finger at the beer. “Finish up. Let’s get out of here.”
Ethan swallowed. “Yeah. Okay.”
After he drank the rest of his beer and tugged his coat on, Doug gestured to the back door. “This way.”
They went down a short hall to a door painted the same black as the walls. Doug opened it and looked back. A hesitant smile greeted him and a flutter of panic stirred in Doug’s belly. Too sweet.
He knew with perfect certainty he should bail and also that he wasn’t going to.
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