Author: L.A. Witt
Any minute now, Craig would be here.
Chewing my thumbnail and fidgeting on the couch, I stared at the front door and waited. Less than an hour had passed since my ex-boyfriend had called to say he needed to talk to me, but the atmosphere in my apartment had a strange emptiness about it, as if he’d already come and gone, leaving only an echo of his presence and whatever he’d come to say. Not unlike the night he left.
I picked my water bottle up off the coffee table and took a drink, then played with the cap, spinning it one way, then the other, then back, just to give my hands something to do. Over and over I tried to tell myself there was no point in getting this wound up over a conversation that hadn’t happened yet. It could be about anything. We were still friends. We still talked and hung out.
But really, I was kidding myself. Craig could handle all but the most serious conversations by phone, yet he’d insisted on meeting in person. And it couldn’t wait.
Maybe he was having problems with his girlfriend again and needed advice. At that thought, I clenched my jaw. It shouldn’t have bothered me that my ex was with a woman now, but it did. I guess on some strange level, the fact that he had a girlfriend put him that much farther out of my reach. A new boyfriend left me a little glimmer of hope that I still had a fighting chance in the future. Craig’s relationship with her gave our split a kind of resonating permanence, an implicit “This is how far I’ve moved on from you.”
Ah, the joys of being with a bisexual man. I wondered if the girlfriend before me had felt the same way when she’d found out about us.
The sharp three-beat knock made me sit up so fast I nearly dropped my water bottle. I recovered, set the bottle on the coffee table, and went to the door, all the while trying to convince myself one last time that there was no reason to worry. He just wanted to talk. It didn’t mean it was anything bad, or that this was going to hurt.
But when I opened the door, my heart went into my throat.
The look on his face did nothing to ease my nerves. It was the same apologetic expression—eyebrows pulled together above wide eyes, lips thinned into a grimace that was almost painful, three worried lines creasing his forehead—he’d had when he’d come to tell me he was leaving.
My stomach did a somersault, but I smiled through it and waved him in. He didn’t look at or speak to me as he came in, and in fact shrank away from me slightly as he moved past. It instantly made me miss the time when he couldn’t walk by me without at least some sort of affectionate contact. I shook my head as I pushed those thoughts back and followed him into the living room.
He stopped and stood with his back to me, hands in his pockets, shifting his weight. Making no move to sit. Probably not planning to stay long. Then he turned and faced me, but scratched the back of his neck and looked at the floor.
And still the silence lingered.
Finally, I said, “You wanted to talk?”
His eyes flicked up and met mine. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.” He sank onto the sofa, the muffled squeak of leather creating a mix of relief and apprehension in my gut. He was planning to stay for a while. Whatever he came to talk about, he didn’t expect it to be over in a few short minutes.
He steepled his fingers in front of his lips and rested his elbows on his knees, brow knitting again as he focused on my coffee table.
I was too wound up to sit, so I folded my arms across my chest and leaned against the wall. He glanced up at me, then his eyes shifted slightly to my left. His cheeks darkening, he dropped his gaze again.
“I’m surprised you still have that thing on the wall,” he said quietly.
I looked at the painting that hung above the television. One of his paintings. I shrugged. “I guess I just got used to it being there. Left it up there out of habit.”
His eyes met mine and I knew he saw right through me, but he didn’t press the issue. We’d had this conversation a hundred times before, and I’d more or less convinced him that I would get over him when I got over him.
“I don’t imagine you came all the way across town to discuss my living room décor,” I said.
His chin rested on his hands, which were now folded loosely, and he lowered his eyes again. “No, I didn’t.”
I shifted my weight slightly, “So, what—”
“Rebecca and I are getting married.”
He couldn’t have knocked more air out of my lungs if he’d punched me in the chest. I recovered as quickly as I could and cleared my throat. “Wow, that’s…uh. Congratulations.”
“Thanks. I asked her the other night.” He laughed softly. “Still kind of weird to even say it. Me. Getting married.” Shaking his head, he added, “Who knew?”
Yeah. Who knew?
He wrung his hands. “Are you,” he paused. “Are you okay with this?”
“Craig, why wouldn’t I be?” Besides the fact that I would kill for even one more night with you. “I want you to be happy.” I just wish you could still be happy with me.
He eyed me. “You know what I mean, Jon.”
“Yes, you’re right, I do.” I chewed the inside of my cheek. “And I’m fine with it.”
He regarded me silently for a moment. Then he stared at his hands. “There’s…” He hesitated. “There’s one more thing.”
This should be good. I raised my eyebrows. “Okay?”
“I want you to be my best man.”
I was wrong. There was still some air left for him to knock out of my lungs. “You—” I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. “Are you serious?”
“Yes.” Craig avoided my eyes. “Look, I know it’s an odd thing to ask, given—” He pursed his lips and finally looked at me. “Given our history. But Jon, you’re my closest friend. I’ll understand if you can’t, but…”
“What does Rebecca think of this?” She wasn’t particularly fond of me anyway, nor did she care for the fact that Craig and I were still close friends.
He shook his head. “I haven’t told her yet.”
“Don’t you think you should mention it to her? Given that it’s her wedding too?”
“I wanted to talk to you about it first. See if you were even willing to do it before I took the time to argue with her about it.”
I shifted my weight again. “So you don’t think she’ll be thrilled about it.”
“Probably not.” He shrugged. “Not at first, anyway. You know how she is.”
“Yes, I do,” I said. “But expecting her to be okay with your ex-boyfriend as your best man? Don’t you think that’s asking a bit much?”
Craig waved a hand. “Let me deal with her. What I want to know is if you’re okay with it. If you’re not, I’ll ask someone else, but Jon, I want you to be my best man.”
Chewing my lip, I stared at the floor. Though there was very little I wouldn’t do for Craig, I had to admit, this was pushing it. I wouldn’t miss his wedding for the world, but I wasn’t sure I could stand beside him with Rebecca’s ring in my pocket and pretend it wasn’t killing me.
I leaned one shoulder against the wall in an effort to look as casual and relaxed as I didn’t feel. “I’m flattered, but…” I licked my lips. “Do you need an answer right now?”
“No, of course not.”
“Have you set a date yet?”
“Not yet. We’re going to talk it over tonight after she gets home. Probably a few months out, at least.”
I chuckled. “Not going to rush into it, are you?”
His eyebrow lifted and the slight twist of his mouth made me wonder if I’d crossed a line. “Look, I know she and I haven’t been together long—”
“Craig.” I put my hand up. “I’m not questioning you. If you know she’s the one you want to be with…” I shrugged. “Then I’m happy for you.”
“But you think I’m moving too fast with her.” It wasn’t a question.
I swallowed. “There’s no way I can answer that without sounding like I’m either patronizing you or trying to talk you out of it for my own gain.”
He cocked his head. “Indulge me.” His flat, low tone sounded all too familiar. It held the same undercurrent of annoyance that it always did when he wanted to pick a fight.
I sighed. “Craig, I didn’t mean anything by it, it’s—”
“Just tell me.”
Are you humoring me or daring me? I let out a breath. Oh, what the hell? What are you going to do? Leave me? “Look, I’m saying this as your friend, not your ex-boyfriend.”
He said nothing, but gestured for me to continue.
My eyes fixed on the coffee table instead of him. “Are you sure you’re not rushing into this?”
He hesitated for a split second, but that fleeting silence spoke volumes. “Yes, I am.”
I looked him in the eye. “After four months?”
“Listen, I know we haven’t been together long, but I know she’s the one for me.”
“Craig, it took you two fucking years to figure out I wasn’t the one for you.” My chest tightened as the words came out before I could stop them.
He looked away, setting his jaw. “You and I both knew a long, long time ago that we weren’t right for each other.”
“Speak for yourself,” I said through my teeth.
His expression was still calm, but his fingers folded so tightly that his knuckles blanched. “So now who am I talking to? My friend, or my ex-boyfriend?”
Letting out a breath, I closed my eyes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go there, it’s—”
“I know, it’s a raw nerve,” he said, his tone soft. “Which is why I’ll understand if you don’t want—”
“It’s not that. This has nothing to do with being your best man or not.” Oh, what an ironic title for an ex-boyfriend. “My feelings are what they are. But, I’m serious. Asking as your friend, who really does want to see you happy, are you sure you’re not rushing into this?”
He rested his chin on his folded hands again. “Honestly, I’ve known from the day I met her that this was coming.” Before I could speak, Craig stood and started toward me. “Jon, I know it seems like I’m moving fast with her, but I know she’s the one for me.”
Why wasn’t I?
“Then if you’re sure about it, I’m happy for you.”
He nodded, but didn’t smile. “What about you?”
I blinked. “I just said, I’m happy for you.”
“No, I mean, are you happy? Not about me, just, in general?”
My shoulders dropped and so did my gaze. “I’m getting there.”
“That sounds like a no.”
“Craig, I’m fine,” I said. “Honestly. I just, I take a little more time than you do to move past things.” I met his gaze and gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
He said nothing for a long moment, but then he finally spoke. “Have you gone out? Met anyone?”
“I’ve been out a little,” I lied. “Just haven’t met anyone worth mentioning.”
The slight raise of his eyebrow told me that, as always, he saw right through me. “You know, even if you’re not ready for something serious, maybe it would do you good to meet some new guys. Get laid. Something.”
I rolled my eyes. “I think I’ll manage.”
“I’m serious, Jon, I—”
“Craig.” I put my hands up. “Don’t worry about me, okay?”
His voice softened. “You know I do, though.”
“I know. I know. But you’ve got a wedding to plan and a lot of things on your plate.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that I worry about you. I want you to be happy, too.”
Then come back. “I will be. I just need more time to get there than you.”
He went quiet. I had a feeling he wasn’t convinced, that he was just trying to decide whether or not to push the issue. After a moment, he said, “I didn’t realize you were still having such a hard time with it.”
“I’m better than I was.”
He nodded, but didn’t look at me. “You know I didn’t do it to hurt—”
“Craig.” I put my hands up again. “We’ve been over this. You did what you had to do, and I’ll deal with it in my own time.”
Looking at the floor, he put his hands in his jacket pockets. “If being part of the wedding is too much, I’ll understand.”
It is. You don’t even know, Craig. But I couldn’t stomach the idea of sending him into his marriage thinking that I was still this torn up over him, even if I was. If I could stand up there at the altar with him, then he would know that I was at peace with it.
Even if I wasn’t.
“If you want me to be your best man…” I paused to wet my parched lips. “Then I will.”
He searched my eyes. I very nearly reached for his arm, just to silently reassure him, but it would be too tempting to hold on.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
I swallowed hard. “Yeah.”
His eyes repeated the question and my smile repeated my answer.
“Okay.” He gave a sharp nod and blew out a breath. “I’ll bring it up to Rebecca tonight.”
I chuckled. “Good luck with that.”
He laughed. “She’ll be fine with it.”
“Right.” He squared his shoulders, cocking his head to one side, then the other, as if loosening a kink. “I’d better go. Traffic’s going to be a bitch if I wait much longer.”
Forcing a smile, I nodded. “Congratulations again.”
“Thanks.” Craig’s smile seemed only marginally more genuine than my own. We were silent for a moment before he started toward the front door. I followed, hooking my thumbs in the belt loops of my jeans just to give my hands something to do besides reach for him.
He opened the door and started to step out, but stopped. I rested my forearm on the doorframe, watching him, wondering what was on the tip of his tongue that made his brow furrow like that.
He turned to leave and I thought he’d decided to let his thought go, but he paused again and looked over his shoulder. “Jon, promise me something.”
Meeting my eyes, he barely whispered, “You’ll at least try to make yourself happy.”
I was happy with— “I’ll try.”
He looked at me for a moment, then nodded and continued down the hall. I closed the door before he was out of sight. He’d been to my apartment plenty of times since we’d split, but I still couldn’t bring myself to watch him turn that corner at the end of the hall again.
I leaned against the door and released a long breath.
He was absolutely right. I needed to move on. In the six months since he’d left, I hadn’t met anyone at all. Hadn’t felt the need.
Tonight, though, in the wake of his announcement that he was farther than ever out of my reach, I needed to get out of the house and meet some people.
I went into the bedroom to change clothes.
Walking through the front door of Wilde’s was like stepping into another world.
Seattle was blessed with numerous gay and gay-friendly clubs, and Wilde’s was one of the somewhat higher brow places: Live music, top shelf liquor, a strict dress code, low lighting everywhere except the dance floor. It was relaxed, but swanky, with leather booths and bow-tied bartenders. The music was just loud enough to warrant getting extra close to someone to talk, but not enough to leave a person’s ears ringing after they left.
Gulping back my nerves, I paid the cover and checked my coat. The atmosphere here was just subdued enough to keep me from shying away. This whole thing was intimidating enough without blasting music and wild lighting to assault the senses. Walking through the crowd, I couldn’t recall ever feeling quite so out of place. So lost.
A few times, I considered backing out and heading home, but since staying here meant not spending the evening at home pining over Craig, I convinced myself to face an intimidating night out on the prowl.
On the prowl. Christ, I don’t even know what I’m looking for.
A knot twisted in my gut as I headed for the bar for a little courage on the rocks. It was entirely too soon to even think about a relationship, so if I met anyone tonight, it was either casual sex or friendship. Glancing around at the guys getting close on the dance floor and even closer in booths, friendship was pretty much off the menu in a place like this.
I had never been particularly promiscuous. I wasn’t against casual sex on principle, it had just never been my thing. Craig had often ribbed me about being a serial monogamist, and maybe he was right.
But tonight, I told myself as I took one of the available bar stools, I would just see what happened.
A bartender materialized in front of me. “What can I get you?”
I gave the top shelf selections a glance to see if anything sounded good, then went for my usual. “Jack and Coke.”
He nodded and went about mixing it as I pulled my wallet out. I took my drink and he took the cash, and then I turned my bar stool enough to give me a wide view of the club and its patrons.
The place was crawling with attractive men, some of whom caught my eye and exchanged smiles—even suggestive grins—with me. But I didn’t know where to start.
Hi, I’m Jon, care for a fuck?
My name’s Jon. I’m emotionally fucked in the head right now but wouldn’t mind a roll in the hay.
I shuddered. This was just not me. What the hell was I doing? What was I thinking?
Maybe this was a bad idea. Oh well. At least I’m out of the house for once.
Sighing, I turned back around to face the bar, and my breath caught in my throat.
Leaning casually against the counter below the top shelf bottles was a different bartender. Even the club’s dim light didn’t detract from his striking, pale green eyes, and I couldn’t look away from him if I wanted to. He didn’t seem to mind the fact that I was staring, though. After all, he was looking right at me.
When I could finally look somewhere other than his eyes, I wasn’t disappointed.
The tux shirt perfectly emphasized his broad chest and shoulders, while the black cummerbund subtly drew my attention to his narrow hips. It seemed that everyone else on staff in this club was clean-shaven, but stubble heavily shadowed his angular jaw. Still, he didn’t seem out of place. He had a kind of classy, dignified air about him that let him get away with not shaving, even with a tux shirt and bowtie. As he wiped down a rocks glass with a white towel, I noticed then that his sleeves were unbuttoned and pushed partway up his toned forearms. He must have had some seniority if he could show up unshaven and with his sleeves rolled up so casually.
“Refill?” He nodded toward my empty glass.
“Uh, yeah, how about—” I looked down at my glass, trying to remember what the hell I’d been drinking.
“Jack and Coke?”
“How did you know?”
He smiled as he set the rocks glass down and dropped some ice into it. “I saw Zach pouring the first one. Figured you were a creature of habit.”
“Perceptive.” I folded my arms on the bar and leaned on them. “Anything else you figured out about me while I wasn’t looking?”
“Well,” he said, pouring what looked like more than a single shot of Jack Daniels into the glass, “I’m guessing you’re either new in town or newly single.”
My eyebrows jumped. The corners of his eyes crinkled with amusement and he finished making my drink. When he set it on the bar, I started to pull a five out of my wallet, but he held up his hand.
“On the house.”
“Is the psychic reading free, too?”
He laughed. “The drink’s on me. As for the psychic reading, the only charge for that is that you might have to put up with my lack of conversation skills for a few more minutes.”
“I haven’t noticed anything lacking so far.” I lifted my glass.
“Likewise,” he said with a wink.
My cheeks burned and a second later, so did my throat. I was right, he definitely put more than a single shot of Jack into the drink. Just the way I liked it.
“So, what makes you think I’m either new in town or newly single?” I asked.
He rested his hands on the bar, his shoulders lifting slightly as he shifted his weight. Nodding toward the door, he said, “The ‘fish out of water’ look on your face when you came in.”
I shrugged. “Could just be that I’ve never been to this particular club.”
He shook his head. “I see a lot of new people come through that door who have obviously been around clubs, just not this one.” His smile turned into a cocky grin that suddenly made my drink taste like water. “But then there’s the people who come in looking like they’ve just arrived from another planet. And over the years, I’ve found that most of those have either just moved here or are trying to move on after a relationship.”
I raised my glass. “Very observant.”
“So, if it’s not too forward of me…” His eyes narrowed a bit as if he was trying to read between the lines of what I thought was a neutral expression. “Should I be welcoming you to the Emerald City, or buying you another drink to commiserate?”
I drained the last of my drink and rolled it around in my mouth as I set the glass in front of him.
“Sorry to hear it.” The amusement faded from his face as he pulled another glass out from under the bar and filled it with ice.
“Just make it a Coke this time.” My head was already light, but I couldn’t tell if it was Jack or… whatever his name was.
He nodded and topped the glass off with Coke.
“So if you’re commiserating,” I said. “I’m guessing you’re recently out of one too?”
“Ooh, yeah.” He grimaced. “Three years, and he picks up and walks away like nothing ever happened.”
“Ouch.” I sipped my drink. “I’ve actually been single for a while, just didn’t feel like meeting anyone right away.”
“Understandable,” he said. “It’s only been a couple of weeks for me. S.O.B. hasn’t even gotten all of his shit out of my apartment yet.”
“You haven’t done the ‘come and get it or I throw it out the window’ ultimatum yet?”
He laughed, but some of the humor disappeared from his expression. “I have. I think he just wants to make it as miserable as possible. Anything to draw it out, even if he initiated it.” He dropped his gaze for a second.
“I’ll bet I can beat that.”
“Try me,” he said.
“My ex came by tonight to tell me he’s getting married.”
His eyes widened. “How long did ago did you say you split up?”
He whistled. “He doesn’t wait around, does he? Er, sorry, no offense.”
“None taken.” I put my finger on the end of my straw. “But it gets better.” Keeping my finger on the straw, I lifted it out of my glass and put the other end on my tongue. As I let my finger go so the Coke would come out of the straw, I noticed his eyes were following. When I ran my tongue around the end of the straw, his lips parted and he looked away, clearing his throat.
His cheeks colored. “So, um, what happened?”
“He wants me to be his best man.”
The bartender blinked. “You’re kidding.”
“Maybe we should introduce our exes.” I paused. “Well, if they were both still single, anyway.”
He opened his mouth to speak, then glanced down the bar. “Shit, I need to take care of some other customers.” He looked at me again. “You going to be here a while?”
I am now. I smiled. “Not going anywhere.”
With a wink that made my head spin, he stepped away to see to his other customers. It was only when he was gone that I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. Ever since I’d turned around, since I’d first laid eyes on him, I hadn’t drawn a proper breath.
I thought of the way he’d watched me with the straw and shivered. The way he’d looked at me when I first turned around. I wasn’t imagining it, was I?
As he tended to customers a few feet away, smiling and laughing politely with them, he cast me a quick look and his smile faded. It didn’t fade in the sense that he was suddenly embarrassed or annoyed by my presence or the fact that I was looking at him. Quite the contrary.
His eyes said nothing if not, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
My heart pounded. I knew nothing about him beyond his job and the fact that he was recently single. I didn’t even know his name, but I suddenly wanted to hear him growling mine in my ear.
We continued that way for a while, shooting the breeze while he was between customers. Every time he was sure that every glass and bottle on the bar had been filled, he came right back to me.
At one point, while he filled drinks, several more bartenders appeared and a few others left. Shift change, I guessed. When he caught sight of one of the newcomers, his expression changed. This time, it was annoyance. As the other bartender approached him, they exchanged a few brief and, by the looks of it, terse words. Then they disappeared into the back.
It was almost fifteen minutes before he came back into view, his jaw set and his eyebrows knitted together over narrowed eyes. He kept his eyes down as he approached me. Before I’d even said a word, he went about filling another glass with Coke. Glancing back the way he came, he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket.
“My boss is here, and he’s on the warpath today, so I can’t chat.” He put the drink I hadn’t ordered on a napkin, slid it toward me, and tucked the piece of paper under it. Then he met my eyes. “I’m off in an hour.” Tapping the bar beside my drink, he said, “If you want to talk someplace quieter, I can meet you there.”
With that, he turned to go.
“Wait,” I said.
He paused and came back, glancing over his shoulder and swallowing nervously.
“Do I have to wait until then to find out your name?”
He smiled. “Liam Sable. Yours?”
“I’ll see you in an hour.”