Originally posted in my April, 2020 newsletter.
Told from Leo’s 3rd-person POV:
Chapter 1 – Meet-Cute
Leo Bailey stopped short outside the art gallery’s entrance and drew in a deep steadying breath. The snorts of his buddies—which they didn’t even attempt to suppress—grated on his already frayed nerves.
“I know, I know.” Leo ran his fingers through his short dirty-blond hair. “Just give me a minute to psych myself up.”
“What’s the worst that’ll happen?” Zack asked. “Mohawk boy will say ‘no.’ And, since he’s the featured artist at this showing, he’s not going to make a scene even if he turns out to be the kind of jerk who otherwise would have.”
“I know,” Leo repeated. “I just really…”
Leo sighed. He’d just really…been so drawn to this guy’s charisma, not to mention his adorable and smokin’ hot uniquely styled hair. And all those piercings. That sort of thing had never caught Leo’s attention before, so it was hard to pinpoint why he felt so invested in the outcome of this meetup.
“…like him.” Otis rolled his eyes as he finished Leo’s sentence. “Yeah, we got that impression when you couldn’t stop drooling every time you snuck a peek at dinner.”
Leo stiffened. “You don’t think he noticed do you?” If the sexy artist—Vincent Noland, according to the flyer hanging in the gallery’s window—had seen him gawking while they’d been wolfing down burgers at District 42…hell, would that be a good thing or a bad thing? Leo felt like a damned stalker, coming here to facilitate a supposedly casual, chance meetup with the guy and ask him out.
As if anyone wouldn’t take one look at the four of them with their military buzz cuts, jeans and camo T-shirts and not know they were out of place in the art gallery.
“Doesn’t matter.” Danny hitched his head at the door then yanked it open. “Come on.”
Leo straightened his shoulders and followed Danny through the entryway, with Otis and Zack on his heels.
“At our ten o’clock,” Danny said before showing the good sense to not make a beeline to the left where Vincent Noland stood chirpily chatting with a group of people who clearly belonged in this setting far better than he. Danny led them to a corner in the opposite direction.
“Let him approach us,” Danny said. “He’s probably making the rounds and at least saying ‘hi’ to everyone.”
Leo blew out a shaky breath. “Good idea.” Because a cold approach was beyond his capabilities tonight. He was never good at social niceties or asking people out, but tonight was twenty times worse than typical.
Why was he even bothering, anyway? Leo’s breath caught as his gaze traveled over a series of illustrations hanging beside them. Someone with the charm and grace, not to mention talent of Vincent Noland wasn’t likely to be interested in a tongue-tied discomfited man like Leo.
Otis cuffed Leo’s arm. “Stop it. He’ll take one look at you and say, ‘Hell yes, I want me some of that.’”
Leo’s face warmed as Zack piled on. “You won’t even have to ask him out. He’ll beat you to it.”
“In my dreams,” Leo muttered.
Leo sighed, and they meandered leisurely down the wall, checking out the artwork.
“This stuff is pretty good,” Danny said as they stood in front of a set of watercolors. “I mean, it’s cool, not like the same old paintings hanging in every museum.”
Their heads all bobbed in agreement. The drawings and paintings were brilliant. Minimalist, yet with so much expression and personality shining through in those seemingly casual strokes of the brush, pen, or pencil.
Leo glanced in the artist’s direction. Vincent was speaking to the young woman he’d been with at District 42. Hell, maybe she was his girlfriend, and he was straight. Just because he presented in a way that pinged Leo’s gaydar, didn’t make his gayness a foregone conclusion.
And Vincent didn’t look overly pleased as he shot a few derisive looks in Leo and company’s direction. Leo managed to keep his back straight, but on the inside, everything slumped. He turned and stared at the watercolors as if he were just another random person enjoying that evening’s art walk. As if he had the slightest clue what was or wasn’t considered quality art beyond his own personal preferences.
When Otis cuffed his biceps, Leo turned, and his eyes widened. The artist was walking toward them with a hardened glint shining in his eyes. All Leo’s hope—what little of it he’d had—flittered away. Vincent had probably recognized them from the restaurant, had noticed Leo’s interest, and was going to call him out for being a creepy stalker.
Vincent’s gaze zeroed in on Leo, then his step faltered, and the glint in his eyes softened briefly. He stopped a few feet away. “Good evening, gentlemen.” His chin raised. “I’m Vincent Noland, the artist featured here tonight. Can I answer any questions for you?”
Danny nudged Leo. Couldn’t the guys see what was happening here? Why throw him under the bus? Leo cleared his throat. “Oh. Hi. I love your work.” He cast a jittery glance toward the watercolors. “Um…” Leo blinked as the glint altogether drained from Vincent’s now questioning eyes. “I…uh…don’t really know enough about art to come up with—”
Danny elbowed Leo. Again. Leo narrowed his gaze at him then turned back to Vincent. “Uh…do you have a favorite piece here?”
Vincent blinked and tilted his head as if Leo were some kind of puzzle to be solved.
Zack sighed and shook his head. “For fuck’s sake, Leo.” Then he turned pointedly to their group’s leader. “Danny?”
Danny rolled his eyes and looked at Vincent. “Leo here thinks you’re cute.” Leo froze. They really were going to throw him under the bus. Danny continued. “No. You’re—” he made air quotes “‘—oh-my-fucking-god-gorgeous-but-so-out-of-my-league.’” He shrugged. “Anyway, he needed three wingmen to come with him to get up the nerve to ask you out.” He rolled his eyes. Again. More of a deliberate than a reflexive expression. “And still failed.”
Vincent’s jaw dropped, and Leo’s hope rose. Because Vincent had obviously not seen that coming. He wasn’t pissed at them for tracking him to his art showing. He wasn’t pissed at all.
Still, Leo’s face heated. “Some fucking wingmen. Christ.” Leo made shooing motions with one hand, and Danny, Otis, and Zack slunk off toward another exhibit amid snorts of semi-suppressed laughter before detouring toward the young woman Vincent had been standing with, and who couldn’t have been any more obvious about the come-hither look she was leveling at Danny.
Leo’s face was probably flaming red, but he held Vincent’s direct gaze. Vincent grinned. An honest to goodness grin that reached his eyes, which no longer held the merest hint of the hard glint from earlier. Leo’s smile tweaked up.
“Sorry about that.” Leo shuffled his feet but pushed down his nerves and maintained that eye contact. He might as well go for broke… “I imagine you’re in a relationship anyway, and even if you weren’t…” Which was hardly going for broke. Leo needed to kick himself in the ass and show a little backbone.
Vincent shivered and cocked his head to the side. “I’m not in a relationship.” He paused briefly before melting Leo’s heart. “And I am—” he raked his gaze up and down Leo’s body, pausing pointedly at his groin, before meeting Leo’s gaze again “—Very. Very. Interested.”