“You were totally right! I needed this!” I half-shouted at Lance against the pumping house music inside the club.
“I’m too polite to say I-told-you-so,” he replied with a grin, sipping his pink cosmo.
“No, you’re not!”
He laughed. “You’re right! I told you so!”
It had been the perfect thing to do tonight. After dealing with Will the evening before, I needed to let loose, and Lance—always open and always himself—was the perfect person to be around. With him, there weren’t any hidden emotions or motivations or skeletons in his closet. Hell, no. Once he was out of the closet he never looked back and never held anything in.
Maybe that made him sound a bit crazy—maybe he was. But he was genuine, always himself, and he was a damn loyal friend. And he could dance like a motherfucker! I laughed and watched him sway his hips and throw his arms up, totally absorbed by the music and the epitome of ‘dance like no one’s watching’.
Damn, how I needed this! I plucked my drink from a side table to take a sip, then chased it with water (I knew if I didn’t rehydrate I was going to regret it, the drinks at Ross’ were strong). I grabbed his hips playfully to move against him, and he grinned. We danced a few songs together, luring others on the dance floor between us, before pulling away to take a breather.
Without asking, we both headed for the back door to the porch to douse ourselves in the cool air.
“Whew!” I sighed, wiping the sweat off my face. “It’s been too long! I forgot how damn hot it gets in there.”
“You can always take your shirt off,” he said with a wink, before fishing his cigarettes from his pocket.
“I can’t believe you still smoke!”
“I can’t believe you haven’t brought Will up even once yet,” he smirked as he lit the cig and puffed out a cloud. “Aren’t you guys living together?”
He knew damn well we weren’t. “Ha. Ha. You’re so funny.”
Chuckling, he shrugged. “Trouble in paradise?”
“We’re not even dating.”
“So says the guy who waits around to kiss his honey welcome home.”
I rolled my eyes. I never should’ve told Lance that Will had given me his key. Or that I went over there more often than I should. Or that we’d kiss occasionally.
Folding my arms, I leaned against the cold brick of the building behind me. “Still doesn’t mean we’re dating. Do I have to go through the whole thing about him still being hung up on his ex?”
“No! You gave me more than enough details on the drive here.” He softened his words with a smile. “But I know when you are gone on someone. Why else would his ex matter to you?”
“Because even as just his friend, I’m concerned that he’s carrying too much baggage about the past.”
“Not your job to fix him, though.”
“I can worry. I can want to help.”
Lance just shrugged and inhaled more smoke. “What do you really want to happen with him, Cass?”
I knew that tone, he wasn’t going to let this go. Even here, at the back of a Boys Town club where most of the other patrons were in dark corners making out or openly groping each other.
“I don’t know.”
I sighed. “I can’t have what I want. He’s not ready and I don’t know if he ever will be.”
“Does that mean you’ve laid your cards out on the table and he told you to fold? Or are you still keeping them against your chest?”
I smirked. “Your poker metaphors suck.”
“You know what I mean, smartass!”
“I haven’t been that direct…but he knows.”
“Be direct and then tell me what he does.”
“Lance,” I said, shaking my head.
“Cass.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “Come on, more dancing!”
That sounded fine to me—much preferred over talking about Will. A Lady Gaga song came on and Lance lit up like a Christmas tree. “Gotta dance on a platform for my Lady!”
I snorted, which was lost in the pumping bass of the music, and let Lance tug me up onto the packed platform. We gripped each other and laughed as we played up our ridiculous sexy dancing. Someone tried to get up onto the platform near us and I accidentally tipped him back.
“Ah! Sorry, man! Let me help you.” I took his hand and helped pull him onto the already crowded platform. My eyes glanced out over the gyrating bodies below and guys at the bar. Then my jaw dropped.
“Holy shit. I don’t believe it.”
“What?” Lance asked.
“Who? Heath Ledger? ‘Cause otherwise don’t stop dancing!”
“No way!” Lance started turning his head like a lifeguard scanning a beach. “Where? I want to see this prince of yours.”
“I’m mad at him, remember?”
“Uh-huh. So which one is he?”
“At the bar. Plaid shirt.”
Lance looked like he’d eaten something rotten. “Plaid? Seriously? In Boys Town?”
“He doesn’t wear it a lot, ok? And what does that matter?” I retorted.
Lance knew better. “Means he didn’t come to dance, which sucks.” Then his eyes lit up, as he grabbed me by the waist. “Let’s see if we can lure him out!”
“You have to tell him.”
“I know.” TJ wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t already screamed at myself a hundred times. “He ran out the door, I didn’t have a chance.”
I didn’t mention that I had handled it all wrong. Yesterday had, quite literally, been a shit day, and then I’d had to add to it to make it truly craptacular.
“I don’t know why you waited so long. I told you it was only going to get harder.”
“TJ, you are not helping,” I said in an act of iron-willed restraint, when I really wanted to tell him to take his obvious advice and shove it up his--
“I’m sorry. I don’t like to see you, or Cass, hurting.” He patted my shoulder. “And I just get pissed when everyone doesn’t realize I’m right in the first place.”
He was teasing now, knowing it would make me smile, which I reluctantly did.
“I think I scared him too.” I spread my hands. “Telling him about the Society offer, and about how I used to live my life—basically saying if I take this opportunity then he has to come in second. I wanted to discuss it with him, dammit. I just…”
“It was a bad day. It happens.”
I expelled a long breath. “Yeah. What do I do now?”
“Tell him. Everything.”
“I will, tonight.”
But it hadn’t worked out that way. For starters, I couldn’t get a hold of Cass. The kid didn’t answer his phone and it wasn’t as if I could stop by where he lived to see if he was home. So I made my own plans.
I was restless and tired of thinking, so I drove into the city. I needed a night off, a night out of the region. Thankfully a buddy of mine was free, so we were able to meet up for drinks—even if it was in a loud, overcrowded club filled with twinks.
Not that I minded a little eye candy, but I hated having to shout over loud music. Still, it felt good to be out.
“How long’s it been?” Tony asked as our beers were set in front of us. How he’d managed to score stools at the bar I didn’t know—and knew better than to ask.
“Too long!” I said with a grin, taking a long draw of the lager.
“I heard you moved back, but then I still didn’t see you around.”
“Moved back to northwest Indiana to be with my sister, who had a kid…unexpectedly.”
“Ahh.” His brows rose and he gave a nod. Tony was a good guy, but he was a partier and after his family disowned him as a teen, he never looked back. Finding a good partner probably would’ve done him good after so many years alone, but he’d had no luck. Maybe it was because he spent his time in joints like this, scoping for twinks.
“So you came back from globe trekking to play house?”
I snorted. “I have my own place and my own plans, but shit man, she needs some help.”
He nodded and drank, and I changed the subject. It became clear very quickly, however, that this wasn’t my scene—if it ever had been. I wasn’t exactly a homebody, but the lights and bass and chaos just…didn’t do it for me. And visions of where I’d rather be kept plaguing me.
When had been the last time I’d really spent time with my camera? Fuck. It used to be that I didn’t feel whole unless I took some kind of shots every damn day. With all the craziness with Katie, it just hadn’t happened. In months. No wonder I was cranky.
Then, of course, there was Cass. I’d never wanted to do portraits before, but wanted to capture him on film sometime. Since I’d met him, things had been easier. Life had flowed a little better, I’d breathed a little easier. Until I started feeling trapped. Not by him, really, but by the situation.
I took a long drag on my drink, reminding myself that I’d come out to forget about all that.
“You’re missing the show,” Tony whispered/yelled in my ear over the music.
He pointed out toward the dance floor, which was in full view from our seats. It was boxed in with bodies, half of them with their shirts off. I had to admit, it was a pretty spectacular display. There were also platforms bordering the floor that were packed with sweaty, proud dancers.
“Not bad, eh?” Tony chuckled. “I’ve got my eye on…that one.” He pointed to a flamboyant, lanky otter on one of the platforms, grinding away with a very nice looking, muscular—“Oh, hell.”
“See something you like, huh?”
My mouth opened, but I couldn’t form words. I didn’t know what blindsided me more, that Cass was out partying it up, or that some other guy was fucking partying up on his body.
The song changed and I watched as Cass hopped down and then helped the little shit with him to follow.
“I’ll be back,” I tossed to Tony, practically jumping off my stool.
So, apparently Cass was so heart-broken about our argument that he found someone the next damn night to ease his pain? I was not letting them slip off together. Fuck that.
As I wiggled through the mass of bodies, my rational mind tugged at my anger. You’re not together, remember? I unclenched my fists and tried to think as I caught sight of him. Unfortunately all thought flew from me as I took in his tight jeans, tighter shirt, and flushed face. God, I wanted to eat him alive.
Our eyes met and I was at a loss for words. I could see the my heat reflected in his eyes, but there was uncertainty too. We hadn’t left things well the night before and I knew he must have a ton of questions—and I owed him a hell of a lot of answers. But just then, away from normal life and daily demands, I knew we wanted the same thing: to be in this moment and enjoy it to the fullest, together.
Bodies bounced around us and we started getting dirty looks as we stood stalled in place and getting in the way of their grinding. Then the damn otter showed up next to us. The bastard grinned at me and slipped an arm around Cass’ waist. He closed the distance between us. “You gonna gawk at us or dance?” As he spoke, he moved behind Cass and caressed his hands over his hips as he set their bodies moving to the deep, bass beat. I could feel my blood rise at the sight of any hands other than my own touching Cass, and if I’d had a clear shot to his face I would’ve been tempted to punch his damn lights out. How dare this guy touch Cass that way! And how dare Cass just stand there and let him?
Without conscious thought I stepped into Cass’ space and pressed up against him. I couldn’t not touch him. Hell, it was all I could do not to yank him out of the club that second and find somewhere close and private to claim him in every way I hadn’t yet allowed myself before.
Cass slipped his arms about my neck and my vision narrowed down to only him. I tugged him closer by his belt loops. In seconds our bodies molded tight and perfect into one another,
Good god, it was amazing. Cass’ arms kept me close as he sucked in his breath. We’d worked so hard for so long to keep things light between us that it was only now, in this moment, that we truly acknowledged the attraction between us. And fuck if it wasn’t like opening a floodgate.
Had I been mad before? I couldn’t remember anything other than the way Cass was moving under my hands. Looking over his shoulder, I saw that the other kid had disappeared. Good.
I wasn’t holding back anymore. Screw moving slow. Screw trying to act like there wasn’t something strong and real and electric between us. Cass felt like heaven. I was through denying myself this.
He looked up at me with glassy eyes and moved to straddle one of my thighs, grinding into me. Hard. My hands found their way under his shirt, gliding up his ribs as we humped on the dance floor. I felt him groan more than heard it, and he leaned back, letting my arms take his weight as he bent his head back and practically presented himself to me. He was the hottest thing I’d ever seen.
I swayed his body, digging my fingers about his hipbones to steady him as his head nearly reached the floor. Then he righted himself and I had to briefly release him to force a few buttons open on my shirt. What had I been thinking wearing fucking flannel? Though I could hardly regret it, as Cass shoved my hands away and made quick work of the rest of the buttons, then let his hands rove. Hot fingertips brushed up my chest before his arms wrapped around my waist and he brought us flush against one another, groin to shoulder. I could feel his heavy breathing. Our eyes locked, and I knew if I didn’t taste him right then I was going to lose my mind.
With the music vibrating through me like a live wire, I leaned down, fascinated by Cass’ full, parted lips.
“Hey, Cass! You forgot your drink! Oh—Sorry!”
That damn otter! My only consolation at being interrupted was the death glare Cass gave the guy as he snatched his drink from him. “Thanks,” Cass said with heavy sarcasm. “You can go now.”
Rather than looking chastised, the other kid was amused. Cass must have felt the growl rumbling through my throat, as he patted my chest the way one humors an over-protective dog.
“Introduce me and I will,” the otter said, undeterred. Cass rolled his eyes and nodded at him, eyes on me. “Will this is Lance. Lance, Will.”
“Good to put a body to the face—I mean, a face to the name,” Lance said, his “mistake” anything but.
“Oh, come on,” Lance said chuckling. “I’m harmless.” He eyed us and then added, “By the way, don’t forget, you were going to drive us home.”
Us? There was an “us” with them? I growled again and Cass rubbed my back indulgently. Then he smirked, “Unlike myself, you live in the city. You can cab it.”
“And leave my car here?”
Cass shrugged, looking unrepentant. I didn’t mind their banter, as I still held Cass’ hips pressed against me. I could’ve stood there half the night. The other half I could think of a few other things to do, though…
“Or you could have someone else drive you or stay the night at their place,” Cass offered Lance with a knowing grin.
“No. That was one time.”
“And us coming here has nothing to do with the fact that it’s one of Dain’s favorite haunts.”
It was Lance’s turn to roll his eyes. “Don’t be a bitch, Cassidy.”
“Ugh, don’t call me Cassidy!”
“Fine, I’ll go,” he said, pointing a finger, “but you owe me.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Cass muttered. Lance kissed him on the cheek and a dark spike of anger shot through me.
“Now get back to your boy, er, man,” Lance quipped. “He looks about ready to bite a head off before mating.”
Before Cass could get in another word, Lance slipped away through the crowd.
“Let’s get some air,” Cass said. Taking my hand, he pulled me outside.
TJ’s party had not gone according to plan. Not at all.
Though I’m not usually big on parties, I admit I’d been looking forward to hanging out with TJ and Craig and Dave and the rest of the crew. I’d missed poker night the entire summer because Kate’s work schedule demanded I watch Alia in the evenings. I’d been hoping to catch up with everyone.
Instead all I could do was try to act like I wasn’t crushing on the one young cub in the room—a cub that happened to be my best friend’s nephew. (Ok, maybe he wasn’t a ‘cub’ in the usual gay man’s sense of the word—no beard and little body hair from what I could see—but he was so damn adorable I just the image just stuck.) And his father clearly could use more than a beer to chill the fuck out. I’d never known Doug that well, but I hadn’t thought he was that big of an asshole. My family was Italian and Serbian but most people just saw a vague ethnic mutt when they looked at me; it had been a while since I’d dealt with someone being openly bigoted.
More important to me than personal insult was that Doug’s reaction to me had made it nearly impossible to even talk to Cassidy at the party. And that was all I really wanted to do once I’d caught sight of him. Not much threw me off my feet these days, but seeing him sitting there with all the guys, bottle tipped to his mouth as his eyes met mine… Yeah, floored, that was the term.
He’d looked great, even before that little blush had crept over his cheeks when he’d looked away. I’d told myself after Sunshine Market that it was just as well I’d never gotten the guy’s number—since he was probably too young and I really wasn’t ready for that kind of complication in my life. It was fun to fantasize about might-have-beens, but of course reality was different. Nothing would’ve happened between us, I told myself. But all that flew out the window when our glances caught.
Until I’d learned he was Doug’s kid, of course. Talk about inconvenient.
Just another reason nothing could happen. But my eyes kept finding him the whole afternoon—especially when I saw him willingly, happily, playing with Alia. Watching this young, hot guy being so kind and giving with my little niece… it curled into my belly and warmed something within me that had been strained for years. Myself, I didn’t get on with kids that easily. Caring for Alia had me running up a damn steep learning curve. But Cassidy seemed right at home. And his openness with her and the way she responded to it—hugging this guy she’d only known for a few hours—had me melting.
Maybe it was because most guys had a hard time letting themselves be that vulnerable. I know I did. I didn’t want to baby-talk and sit on the floor and play house or whatever-the-hell kids did. I never wanted to be with anyone under twelve since I’d turned thirteen. It took a lot of kindness and self-possession for a guy to put a kid before himself. And a kid that wasn’t his own? Or even related?
Fuck, my heart wasn’t used to this level of sappy emotion. And this was someone I could not get involved with. I vowed to avoid him at the party after that, but the house wasn’t all that big.
And then, just when I’d thought I was in the clear because he’d left the party, he had to come back and lure me down to the basement to grin and flirt and give me his number. It opened a hell of a Pandora’s box for me.
“Alia can have milk before her nap, but try to use the sippy cup instead of the bottle. The milk should calm her so she won’t fuss as much, so if you just--Will?”
“Huh?” I looked up. “Sorry, Kate. I’m listening.” Sure I was.
I hadn’t been able to focus on anything since that damn party. And I blamed being so scatter-brained on the fact that I had no one I could talk to about Cass. I’d tried with TJ, but it hadn’t gone over well.
“I can’t believe Cassidy is your nephew,” I’d told him the day after the party. “I didn’t expect him to already be graduated.”
“He’s twenty-three. He was thirteen when Margaret left.”
I shook my head. “He looks like a kid.”
“He is a kid.”
“Twenty-three isn’t that young.”
“We’re ten years older than him.” Nine technically, but, wisely, I didn’t point that out.
TJ had paused then and looked at me. “Why are you asking about him?”
“I wasn’t. I was just making a comment.”
I shrugged and hoped I hadn’t given anything away. TJ didn’t have much luck with women and even though he wanted kids and a family, it hadn’t happened—not yet anyway. So he doted on his nieces and nephews, and he was damn protective of them. Not that the guy didn’t trust me, but trying to hit on his nephew probably wouldn’t go over well.
I brought myself back to the present to find Kate staring me with a glint in her eye I didn’t like.
“What?” I asked.
“Who is he?”
She folded her arms across her chest. “Out with it.”
“Don’t you have to get to work?”
She gave her watch a cursory glance. “I’ve got time. So tell me his name.”
“Oh, come on. I’m a bit distracted and automatically it has to be a guy, right?”
The fact she was right made me pissed and defensive. I took a breath. “Look, it’s not something I can talk about ok?”
Of course that made her eyes glow—she was one step away from rubbing her hands together with glee. “Now you have to tell me!” she said, grinning.
“I really can’t.”
“Unless he’s some kind of secret agent or war criminal, I think you can.”
“Yes, secret agent, ya got me.”
With a chuckle, she shook her head and pinched my arm.
“Hey! You know I hate that!” I rubbed my bicep and tried to look wounded.
“And you know I hate people keeping things from me. Especially you. So spill already.”
I blew out a long breath. “You’re a gossip, and I can’t have you spreading this around.” I hoped I sounded serious enough. She frowned but didn’t argue; at least she recognized the truth.
“Is it some friend of mine?”
“One of our relatives?”
“Ok, we’ve covered everyone I talk to, so you’re in the clear.”
Grabbing my hair, I tugged. This is what I get for complaining I had no one to talk to. “You still have to be careful who you might mention it to, if I tell you.”
Uh-huh. But I was going to tell her and we both knew it.
“You know I went to TJ’s party last weekend.”
“Yeah.” Her brow wrinkled. I could almost see the gears moving in her head and coming up blank. “It’s one of TJ’s friends?”
“No. Will you just listen?”
I took a moment to pause. How to put this? “Just keep in mind that nothing is going to happen with this guy. But he’s the first person I’ve really been attracted to since…”
“Ok.” One word but I could hear her curiosity loud and clear.
“Doug was there of course—“
“Oh god! Not Doug!”
“No! Jesus, can you stop interrupting?”
I paused again, making her wait. “Anyway, like I was saying, Doug was there and a bunch of other guys were hanging out around the bar. One of them was this younger guy I’d seen at Sunshine Market. And... we talked. He was cute. But young.”
I glared. “The guy is Doug’s son.”
I had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes go comically wide, before I regretted letting her know.
“Well,” she said after a moment, “you said you weren’t going to pursue it, so it’s not that big a deal, right? Doug usually doesn’t even come out to TJ’s parties and stuff so his son probably won’t either.” She looked at me.
“What?” I asked.
“Was he mean?”
“Doug’s son? Like, could he tell you found him attractive and he was pissed or something?”
“No.” Although, given Doug’s political (and religious) leanings, her concern probably wasn’t far off base. Except… “The kid’s gay.”
“Oh.” Another comic deer-in-headlights look. It would’ve been so damn amusing, if I found the situation itself amusing instead of depressing. “Christ, it’s gotta be tough for him in that household.”
That was putting it lightly. “Yeah, well,” I said, “in any case, he’s too young, and even if he wasn’t it would be too complicated.” I leaned back and ran my hands through my hair. I needed a haircut.
Kate was eying me, but I pretended not to notice. I didn’t really want her sisterly advice on this one. And much to my relief (and surprise), she didn’t give it.
“I should head to work. We can talk more tonight if you want, ‘kay?”
I nodded and went to see what disaster Alia was up to in the bedroom.
We didn’t end up talking later, of course. Both of us were too damn tired for it. I’d put Alia to bed and had time to eat dinner, so after I kissed my sis goodbye I was left to return to my own place, which just didn’t sound appealing. But, frankly, neither did going out. Especially since I’d quit smoking and somehow Indiana had managed to hold-off a smoking ban in its bars. I inhaled enough to make up for a year without a cigarette with one night in a local dive.
I pulled out my phone, hesitated, then made a call.
“Why are you calling me?”
“Hello to you too.” I smiled. TJ was such smartass. “Want to grab a drink? I just got off baby duty.”
“I thought you had sworn off bars.”
Sometimes TJ had way too good a memory. I rolled my eyes and told him, “Not entirely, and that Dugan’s place has a patio. I’d be up for it.”
“Maybe another night. I got an early start tomorrow. Not all of us live your carefree lifestyle.” I could hear the smile in his voice.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said with a snort. “That’s me, between babysitting and staring at my computer I’m totally carefree.”
“I’ll see you soon, man. And don’t forget to open that letter!”
I sighed as I ended the call and started walking. The night was nice but cool, with that autumn tang to it that promised cold weather to come, even as the summer tried in vain to hold it back. The trees rustled in the breeze and I kicked a stone in my path.
The calm of the night should’ve put me in a good mood. I loved easy late-summer nights like this—when the night breeze was so perfect it feels like water over your skin. A car went by, music blaring and bass so deep it made my chest vibrate. I glared at the retreating back window and tried to push down my annoyance.
A lot bothered me lately, more than it used to. I was definitely too young to start becoming a grumpy old man. And compared to just a couple years before, life was going well. On paper at least—but I couldn’t feel it. Maybe I was just waiting for the ax to fall. It had been one thing after another for so long, I didn’t know how to relax even when things were fine.
And the matters that weren’t fine—like my personal life or my moodiness—well, I really didn’t want to examine those. You could only self-reflect so much before you tumbled into that reflecting pool and drowned. So I’d had my heart broken. So what?
That happened to everyone at one time or another. People got over it, moved on. Sure, what I’d been through might have been more than most people had to deal with when it came to break-ups, but in the end I still just had to find a way to suck it up. It had been years already, for Christ’s sake.
What I needed was to start something new. It was easy to use Katie and Alia as an excuse to just sit around and keep the status quo, but I wasn’t really doing myself any favors.
I should plan my next trip; that would help. Even if I couldn’t leave Kate and Alia again this soon, I could book the flight now so I would get a good deal—and be gone for the worst of the winter.
My phone rang and I felt a pang of hope that TJ had changed his mind. But I didn’t recognize the number. That was odd. Especially at this time of night. I almost didn’t answer, but somehow found myself saying, “Hello?”
“You didn’t call.”
I blinked, about to ask who the hell this was—then the voice registered. “Cassidy?”
A soft chuckle met my ear. “Good guess. Have you got a lot of guys calling like this?”
“Obviously not.” I smiled, irrationally pleased to hear him. “And especially not guys I never gave my number to.”
“I asked Uncle TJ for it.”
I gave a quiet ‘ahh’ in reply and wondered what TJ had thought of that little request. Then I told myself it didn’t matter. Nothing was going to happen between us, anyway. “What excuse did you give, exactly?”
“For wanting your number? So you could be my big gay mentor, what else?”
I almost snorted as I laughed. “You’re crazy, kid.”
“Call me Cass.”
I paused. There was a soft undertone in his voice, subtle, but I knew enough to notice. I really had to end this now, before it began. I had to set him straight (as is were).
“Cass it is then.”
* * *
I checked my watch for the thousandth time and once again berated myself for what a bad idea this was. I was waiting in the one Mediterranean restaurant in town for a guy who I was not meeting for a date. Anything but, actually. Although I doubted Cass realized that—and I knew that wasn’t fair, but, well, some things were just better explained in person than over the phone. Right?
Or maybe I was being a chicken shit. Or maybe I couldn’t help wondering what a date with Cass would feel like before I threw the hatchet down.
Trying not to fidget, I took a breath and sat back in my chair. The restaurant was small, located in a non-descript, old style strip mall (meaning the storefront met the sidewalk with the parking lot behind) off a busy street, and I came here enough that they knew me and I could be relaxed. Or relatively relaxed, considering why I was here. Cass seemed like a good, level-headed kid, but what if he made a scene? Better to have it happen somewhere that the wait staff already knew me enough not to think I was some weirdo or shmuck.
I checked my watch again. Five o’clock exactly. Too early to make this an official ‘date night’. Maybe Cass would think better of it and not show up. Maybe--
He walked in from the back door and my heart skipped. It fucking skipped. He was wearing a fitted flannel shirt and jeans and my reaction was still that visceral.
No, I had been right the first time. This was a bad, bad idea.
“Cass, the door!” my Dad called.
I pushed away from my desk with a sigh. Was I going to have to endure him hollering through the house until my thirties? Assuming I stayed living at home that long, which was a frightening thought. Damn, I needed to get my ass in gear.
I ran to the door and pushed aside the screen.
“Hey, you ready to shoot some hoops or what?”
I glanced down at my khakis and sighed. “Just a second.”
He chuckled and stepped back outside. I changed my clothes and told Dad, “Lunch is on the stove when you want it, ‘kay?” He grunted and I left.
Shaun and I had barely gotten a block away when he gave me a look.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes.”
“You know what, you smartass! Yes, my Dad dragged me to mass again this morning.”
He chortled and dribbled the ball in his hands. “You’re such a sucker!”
“I know, I know!” I grabbed the ball from him as we stepped onto the court. “But I’m still faster than you!” I grinned as my lay-up sank through the hoop.
“That was a dirty move!” he said, grinning.
We proceeded to spend the next hour trouncing each other on the court. A couple other guys came by and joined us towards the end, and we eventually let them have the court.
Shaun and I sat on the curb along the street outside and he handed me a water bottle from his bag.
“Thanks,” I said, still breathing heavily from the workout. “How’s your family, by the way?”
He took a swing and shrugged. “Doing ok. Baby bro is going into his senior year in high school.”
“No shit! Wow. I still always think of him as such a kid.”
Shaun didn’t offer anything more and I let it go. His dad had lost his job at the steel mill the year before and I knew things were tough for them. They were tough for everyone these days, but especially anyone working steel or construction.
“What about your dad?” he asked, as if following the same train of thought. “How’s work been lately?”
I lifted a shoulder. “Same. No big projects. One building he started on is just sitting there now, rotting. It’s such a waste.”
He nodded. “And you?”
I looked at him. “What about me?”
With a huff, he said, “Have you talked to him about moving out or finding other work yet?”
My hackles went up and I took a breath. Just mentioning this made me defensive, but that wasn’t Shaun’s fault. He was only looking out for me. In fact, he was one of few people that took the worries over my future seriously. Sure, I had a paying job as soon as I’d graduated, and I didn’t have to pay rent. I also had to set aside my identity and work a job that drained me every day. It could’ve been worse, but knowing that didn’t make it any easier.
“I’ll talk to him soon.”
“That’s what you always say, dude. You’ve got to be honest with him about the whole construction thing. Actually, there’s a lot you still have to tell him, right?”
I wiped my forehead. “Look my situation’s not easy, ok?”
He snorted. “Oh, really? I know it’s tough for you, but try being black in Indiana. Not easier.”
“Legal for you to get married though—and easier to get laid!” I smirked.
He grinned. “I’ll give you that. How long’s it been?”
“I’ll take the fifth on that one.” He snorted and I let out a long breath. “I know I’m not doing myself any favors by waiting to tell Dad the truth, but I like having a roof over my head. And a job. When I can figure out how to make enough money to move out, maybe then.”
“You really think he’d kick you out if he knew you were gay?”
“Can you not say that so loud? And you’ve met my dad, right? You really doubt it?”
He didn’t have an answer for that. I appreciated his support though, more than I think he knew. Best friends weren’t to be taken for granted, and he’d been the first straight guy who I came out to that stayed close. It meant a lot. I had the impression a lot of gay guys liked hanging with women and—don’t get me wrong—I got on with women well, but maybe it was because I’d worked for my dad on construction for so many summers, I really preferred being around guys.
“Your dad had it rough when he was a kid, didn’t he?” Shaun asked. “You’d think that would make him more understanding, not less.”
I shrugged. “I guess you go one way or the other.” In my Dad’s case, I would have to say it was less about my grandfather and more about my mom that affected who he was now. He’d grown more rigid, more conservative and stubborn, and more protective of me, since she’d left. And I had to admit I’d become protective of him too. We’d only had each other for so long. Going away to school had been hard enough for him, but he’d let me. That was no small leap of faith on his part. Taking the step of me permanently leaving our little household unit… it was going to be tougher than I’d ever admit to Shaun. Or anyone. It wasn’t the kind of thing guys talked about.
“You guys up for another round?”
I grinned at the invite and Shaun and I joined guys on the court to go another couple rounds. Thank heaven for small favors! It felt way better to shoot more hoops instead of talking about my life. Much easier and way more fun.
Shaun and I didn’t talk as we walked back, which was fine by me; it was a companionable quiet. But as soon as we parted, my mind began to drift again.
It had been doing that a lot lately. Usually my thoughts went straight to my Dad. I needed to get out on my own. Eventually. And the problem wasn’t so much having to come out and tell my dad I wasn’t taking over the family business—though that was going to suck, no doubt. It was figuring out what I was going to do with my life.
Most of my friends were in the same boat. The lovely post-college phase of what-the-fuck-do-I-do-now? Some went to grad school. I’d considered it. But that would just be putting things off, and possibly investing more money into a direction I wouldn’t even end up going.
I didn’t hate construction. I liked physical work and I liked being able to see the tangible results of my hard labor. Building did give me that satisfaction. But working in any and all kinds of weather and having to commute sometimes two hours each way depending on where the worksite was? I could do without that.
If I was honest with myself (and that was becoming more of a challenge every day), I did have some ideas of alternative career paths. I looked down at my hands as I walked and flexed my sore thumb. I’d just have to wait and see.
All too soon I was back at my front door. Since it was the weekend, I should’ve had plans with Shaun or other friends to go out later, but everyone was busy with their own thing. Mainly meaning their significant others. I grimaced inwardly thinking of my dating prospects—or lack thereof. I could maybe call Josh to go clubbing, but I honestly didn’t have the energy to be out that late .
“Hey Dad, I’m back!” I called as I stepped inside.
“Oh good, I just got a call from your Uncle TJ reminding us about tonight. Can you run out and pick up some beer for us to bring over?”
“Uh, sure.” I’d totally forgotten there was a family thing today: Uncle TJ’s birthday actually. I changed my clothes again and headed back out.
“There they are! Thought you guys had forgotten about me!” Uncle TJ joked as my Dad and I came down the back stairs into TJ’s basement.
“We brought beer,” was all my Dad said in reply, though he did smile. It wasn’t that Dad disliked Uncle TJ, but they had very different views on a lot of things and I don’t think they’d ever really been close. Dad had been the eldest and TJ the baby, with Aunt Judy in the middle. Somehow they both got on with Judy, though. I didn’t pretend to understand their sibling dynamics. I was an only child, maybe that’s why it seemed complicated to me?
“Good to see you, Uncle TJ,” I said, crossing to the little bar he’d recently put along the back wall of the basement.
“Good to see you too, kid.” We gave a tight hug and he asked, “Are you still growing? You’re gonna be taller than me soon!”
I chuckled at that. “Maybe you’re just shrinking in your old age! How old are you now?”
“What? I’m twenty-nine this year, just like last year!” he scoffed reaching behind the bar.
I laughed and took the beer he offered. It was damn nice to finally be able to drink at family functions. Not that Uncle TJ hadn’t slipped me a beer or two before, but we’d always had to be careful that my Dad and my Aunt didn’t see. Now I could drink in the open, and sitting there at the bar with all the ‘guys’, it made me feel like I was finally an adult. Or close to one, anyway. It was hard to feel like a ‘man’ when you had to move straight back home after college. Of course, moving back in with parents was sort of the modus operandi of my generation. And, well, at least I was able to keep an eye on Dad, get him out of the hermit mode he’d settled into while I was gone. Make sure he went somewhere out of the house other than church. Honestly, the guy needed someone around. It was a shame he’d never consider granting divorce. Not something to think about right now, though.
“So,” TJ asked, spreading his arms out over the bar in a very Price Is Right kind of way, “what do you think?”
I glanced over the new bar, with its hardwood surface and lights glowing from underneath the front edge. “It’s awesome.” It really was, too. The entire basement was pretty damn impressive. Not that it had nice furniture or expensive paintings or paneling on the walls. What it did have were two old school slot machines and a stand-up arcade game of Ms. Packman, plus a very nice, felt-topped poker table in the corner opposite the bar. TJ was a very avid poker player and though I preferred something more straight-forward like blackjack, I'd never tell him that.
“I’m not sure what you can do to top this, though,” I teased—because every year he added some new addition to his playground of a basement.
“Dancing girls?” one of TJ’s friends quipped. I laughed along with the crew there, but I was picturing muscle-chested go-go boys in hot pants.
Someone got up and I took the vacated barstool. Aunt Judy and Uncle Dave were late, as usual. Four kids does slow you down. I was looking forward to playing with every single one of them, but it was nice to have a little ‘grown-up’ time beforehand, too.
I sat back and mostly just listened to Uncle TJ and his friends chat. I liked his friends but I didn’t know them that well. Dad watched whatever game was on the large-screen TV on the wall to the right of the bar.
Across the room the back stairs squeaked as new guests arrived. From the boots that entered my view it wasn’t Aunt Judy. Probably some friend of TJ’s.
I was about to turn away when I caught sight of the guy’s face. Why did he look familiar? Then he lifted a little girl into his arms and my mouth almost dropped open. The guy from the grocery? What the-?
“What is it Cass?” Dad asked nearby.
Immediately I schooled my features and looked away. “Nothing, I thought I saw a spider dropping from the ceiling.” Dear lord, was that the best I could come up with? Dad turned back to the game and I grabbed another beer, subtly sneaking another glance at ‘grocery guy’. He’d looked very sweet and helpless at the time, but I hadn’t remembered him being amazingly good-looking. But the was. As if he had radar, he turned my way as I popped open the beer and I couldn’t help my instinctive grin. He did a double take. Like, a proper straight-out-of-the-movies double take.
Then he looked away.
I hid my smile behind the beer and tried to focus on the conversation around me. And calm my heart, which was thumping against my ribs like it wanted to break through them.
I hadn’t really thought of the guy much since the other day. He’d been nice, and there had been some sort of spark there, but I’d assumed he was straight. Or at least not out. I’m not sure how I knew in the space of the few seconds we’d just made eye contact that he definitely was out and proud, but I did. And I was torn between elation and terror.
It took all my willpower to not stare. He was damn handsome. Wide shoulders, gorgeous dark hair and eyes, perfectly lickable olive skin… and apparently somehow connected to my family.
Without looking, I heard Judy and Dave and the kids all descend into the basement, and TJ moved out from behind the bar to greet them. I turned my back. I needed a moment to calm my blood—and other things—before I faced the rest of the room.
“You ok, Cassidy? You look a little flushed,” Craig, one of TJ’s poker buddies, said, raising his brow. “Two beers already getting you red in the face?”
I chuckled and decided a visit to the bathroom upstairs was in order. I didn’t panic easily—at least I didn’t used to. But hiding a huge part of who I was since moving back in with Dad had been having a bad affect on my nerves.
Stepping off the stool, I turned around to escape—and bumped right into a broad chest.
“Ooff! Sorry,” a deep voice said. A hand steadied my shoulder.
I knew without looking up who it was. And how I knew, when I’d barely met the man, I couldn’t tell you.
“S-sorry,” I sputtered. I took a step back, or as much of one as I could with the bar right behind me.
“Hey, Will! Long time, no see!” Craig said to my mystery man.
“I thought Katie was coming with you?” TJ said, coming around from the bar, “Every time I see you lately you’ve got Alia.” He was smiling down at where Alia was playing, but his eyes looked concerned when he glanced back at Will.
“Someone called in sick at the shop so Katie had to fill in at work.”
Will gave a nod. “Anyway, at least there’s a ton of other kids for Alia to play with here. So I can still hang out,” he said, taking the beer TJ offered.
“Hey, Doug, how long’s it been?” Will asked, turning to my Dad, who was up to grab a new beer.
“Have we met?”
Will laughed that off. “I was still a rugrat when you went off to school so I don’t blame you for not remembering me.”
Dad just nodded, then put a hand to my shoulder. “You met my son before?” he asked. I felt Will hesitate at the question, just a fraction of a second. “No, what’s your name?” he asked, putting out his hand.
The fact he lied kind of threw me. I was relieved on the one hand; on the other I realized that there was already something to hide between us. My nerves danced at what that implied.
I took his hand. “Cass. Cassidy.”
“You really are bad with names, huh? Or has TJ never even mentioned my boy?” my Dad gave Uncle TJ a smirk, and TJ spread his hands. “Hey, I probably have!” he said.
Dad patted me on the back and said proudly, “He just graduated last spring.”
“Oh,” Will looked at me and I could read something in his eyes that I was certain no one else did as he asked, “High school?”
There was a ripple of laughter around us and I tried not to blush. I knew why he was asking, but it was still embarrassing. “College,” I corrected, when no one else did. “Major in economics.” I cleared my throat. “I know I have a baby face.”
Will chuckled and fuck if it didn’t ripple right through me.
He gave me a smile and I gave him one back. There was a lot we couldn’t say in the midst of this crowd, but we could read it in one another’s faces all the same. I can’t really explain it, but everyone knows that feeling. The sudden hard pumping of your heart, the fizz in your blood that tells you the person you’ve just locked eyes with feels that connection too.
“So, Will. What’s your background, son?”
Turning back to my Dad, I switched gears so fast I swear I had whiplash. “Dad?” The way he eyed Will wasn’t exactly antagonistic, but it wasn’t friendly—challenging might be the word. What had changed in the last two seconds to make him look like that? He ignored me, of course.
“You heard me. I know you don’t come from Irish stock like me or TJ.”
“Dad!” Jesus. I knew my father had old school notions about certain things, but I hadn’t expected this. I mean, he’d met my friends and Shaun sure as hell wasn’t of ‘Irish stock’. He’d never made an issue about it—so what the hell was this?
“My background, my business. Sir.” Will finished off his beer and laid it, none too gently, on the bar before waling to another group across the room.
All the men around us had turned quiet. Everyone waiting for someone else to break the moment’s awkwardness.
“I’m gonna find the bathroom,” I said, keeping my eyes from my Dad. As I walked away I saw TJ glare and heard his hushed but angry voice asking my father what the hell was wrong with him.
I was happy to have a few minutes alone with a door between me and the rest of the party as I used the bathroom. I couldn’t imagine my Dad having any kind of ‘gaydar’, but what if he sensed that little thread of awareness between Will and me? Or just sensed that Will was gay? Could that have set him off? It would almost be a relief to assume he was just being racist, given those alternatives. And that was just really fucking sad on my part.
It was one thing for me to hide out in the closet, another all together to hope that others would just to make things easier for myself.
I rinsed my hands and headed to the kitchen for water. It was blissfully empty.
“So, you’re TJ’s nephew?”
I almost dropped the glass in my hand. Christ, I hadn’t even heard Will come up the stairs.
“Uh, yeah. Sorry about my Dad.” I wanted to be able to give an excuse for his words and behavior, but what could I honestly say? He wasn’t a bad person, but he was prejudiced. It was a contradiction I lived with every day.
Will shrugged those big shoulders. “I’m half Italian, half Serbian. I’ve heard worse.” He smiled and my unease melted beneath it.
“So how do you know my Uncle TJ?”
Will leaned his back against the kitchen counter across from me and said, “We lived on the same block growing up and went to elementary school together. My family moved to Munster when I was in junior high, but we stayed friends.” He shrugged.
“But I’ve never met you before.”
He tilted his head just so, looking amused, which would’ve annoyed me with most people but for some reason I felt like I was in on the joke and smiled.
“You’re young,” he said. I groaned. “I don’t mean it that way. I haven’t lived in Indiana for a long while and when I’ve been in town before I wasn’t going to TJ’s family gatherings.”
“But you do now.”
Another little shrug from those wide shoulders, which somehow made him look cute.
“I’m living here now.”
My eyebrows rose. I couldn’t imagine anyone returning to the region after they’d gotten out—I sure as hell wouldn’t. He read my face way too easily and laughed.
“My sister had Alia. She needs help with her.”
“Sure.” I nodded and was tempted to ask more—there was definitely a story there—but I didn’t want to be pushy. And it wasn’t my business, really. “So, are you always busy with work and watching Alia or…” I spread my hands and grinned. He gave something that was half-smirk, half-smile and knew exactly what I was getting at.
Footsteps came up the stairs and I turned to the sink to fill my glass.
“I think the kids want to play the Wii,” Aunt Judy said, looking at me. “Will you set it up for them?”
“Yeah, no problem.” I didn’t want to end the conversation but I didn’t have much choice. I was just relieved it hadn’t been my Dad who’d interrupted.
Will wandered back down to the basement and I played a few rounds of WiiSports with my cousins to keep myself occupied. The youngest kids lost interest in the videogames (or, rather, their older siblings got tired of dealing with them) and I chased them through the house or around the yard. All the while trying to keep an eye on the front door, which happened to adjoin the living room and was the main way out of the house. Sure enough, Will came upstairs just as dusk was coming on. Along with my Dad and a few others.
The TV was turned off—with much protest and whining from the kids, until the cake appeared. TJ wouldn’t tolerate singing, but he wouldn’t turn down cake either. I tried not to look at Will over rows of paper plates and frosting. Alia helped me by clinging to my pant leg and giving me puppy-dog eyes until I shared my cake.
“You ready son?’ Dad asked the second it was considered polite to leave.
We waved our farewells—among much grumbling from my little cousins—and I gave TJ a quick hug before leaving. I wasn’t sure what to feel as we went down the short concrete steps. Usually, I was relaxed and happy after hours of playing with the kids, but my mind had been distracted and my chest was roiling with giddiness and fear just thinking about Will. Which was ridiculous and frustrating because we’d barely shared one conversation.
“Oh, wait. I forgot my wallet,” I said just as Dad and I walked up to the car.
“How’d you do that?”
“Justin or someone wanted to look at my driver’s license. I must’ve left it on the sofa or something.”
That earned me a huff, but Dad waved me off.
The moment I was back inside, I started searching. But not for my wallet, which was still tucked in my jeans. Will glanced my way and I held his eyes for a moment longer than was normal.
“You forget something again?” TJ asked.
“Actually I was hoping I could grab one of those chocolate stouts,” I said in a conspiratory voice. “Mind if I snag one for home?”
TJ gave a laugh, and thankfully the kids were rowdy enough after the sugar rush that no one else noticed or followed me back down to the basement. Not even Will.
I opened the paper bag I’d grabbed in the kitchen, slipped the stout inside, and tried not to feel deflated. Then almost ran into Will as I rushed up the stairs.
“Jesus! I didn’t hear you. Again.”
“Sorry.” He didn’t look it.
Glancing over his shoulder, I made sure no one was there, then took his arm and began writing.
“You always carry a pen in your pocket?” he asked.
“Comes in handy, doesn’t it?”
He chuckled and it was such a warm sound, with him so close, I had to bite down on my lip to stop myself from leaning into him or slipping my hand from his wrist to his hip…or other places.
Christ. Get a hold of yourself, an inner voice yelled.
“Call me,” I said in a low voice. Fuck if I didn’t want to seal the words with my lips over his, but I wasn’t that stupid. I fled up the stairs before my willpower and intelligence fell to my libido.
I couldn’t help smiling as I stepped into the car.
“Got it?” Dad asked.
Even through my giddiness, I could feel Dad’s tension as we pulled away.
“That Will guy didn’t try to talk to you again, did he?” he asked.
Somehow I kept from flinching. I held in a frustrated exhalation; couldn’t I get a few minutes to just enjoy the moment before he had to rain on my gay parade?
“Why? And what was all that about ‘Irish stock’? You never say anything like that when Shaun or Jack comes over. And you know they aren’t white.”
“That guy was different.” He said, griping the steering wheel a bit too tight.
He gave a short sigh. “Let me watch the road.”
“Tell me why you said that to Will.”
“Oh, on a first name basis now, are you?”
“I just wanted him to know it wasn’t his place to be there.”
“Why? He’s Uncle Doug’s friend.”
Dad shot me a look that said without words exactly what he thought of my Uncle.
Dad glared at that, but I was a man now, not a boy, and I knew he took me more seriously these days.
“Look, I had my reasons.”
“You’re acting like a right bastard. You really want to get into this?”
“It’s not just that he’s not like us, son. He’s a fag.”
My stomach dropped. “How on earth would you know that?”
“He looked at you, son. You need to be more aware of these things before you end up in trouble.”
It was damn hard to hide my reaction to that; it was a good thing Dad had his eyes on the road. I wanted to yell and rile against him. Instead, I said nothing.
I told myself I was just being smart. I had to choose my battles, and it didn’t make sense to get into it with him right then and there. Why upset him when he was in the middle of driving? And I had a lot of preparations to make before I dealt with his inevitable disappointment. That’s what my rational brain was telling me. My heart was calling me a coward.