“Hey! Hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“No, not at all.”
He looked like he had, though, if the half-finished basket of pita bread was anything to go by.
“Would you like something to drink?” the waiter asked, suddenly at the table. He handed us menus and I shook my head. “Water is fine.”
I took a moment to look Will over as he grabbed another piece of bread and put it between those full lips. He had a simple button-down shirt and jeans on, but they fit him so well. He’d look good in anything. Or better, nothing.
He caught my gaze and I reached for my water.
“You come here often?” I asked with a chuckle to break the moment. He laughed with me and I felt warmth curl in my belly.
“There aren’t that many good spots in the ‘burbs, but this place has the real deal.”
“Doesn’t everyone always say their favorite restaurant is ‘authentic’?” I smiled.
“True, but I can say with confidence a lot of these dishes really are authentic.”
“And you judge that by…?” I really liked giving him a hard time. He was so easy and good-natured about being teased. So many guys weren’t.
He grinned. “Because I’ve been to the dishes’ countries of origin.”
“Oh. Wow.” It was a lame reply but I was a bit taken off guard. I looked over the menu and felt my nerves give a kick. I tended to play it safe at restaurants. I was the kind of guy that ordered club sandwiches all the time or the same dish over and over because I knew it and liked it and that was enough for me. But I didn’t want to do that now—not with Will, the apparent world-traveler. I didn’t even know what a lot of the dishes were, but I couldn’t go with something as banal as the ‘hummus plate’.
“Hey,” he said. I looked back up. “Is that all the time it took for you to realize what an old guy I am?” He had a self-deprecating lopsided grin, but I was surprised to notice that his cheeks were a little pink.
“What? Not at all! Actually,” I chewed my lip then stopped myself, “I was thinking what an inexperienced kid I am.”
He gave an easy shrug. “If you want to get out and go places, that’s half the battle. Some people around here don’t even get that far.” I nodded, but still felt self-conscious.
The waiter came back to the table and a ridiculous jolt of panic shot through me. I didn’t want to sit there trying to decide for like twenty minutes what to eat, but I still had no idea what to order.
“I’ll have the veggie platter, with labneh, dolma, baba ghanouj—and, can I add the kibbeh on the side?“
“With the kibbeh, of course,” the waiter grinned. “And you?”
I opened my mouth, “Umm…”
“Do you eat meat?” Will asked.
“He’ll have the kufta kabob with rice.”
The waiter simply nodded at this and walked off.
“Hope you don’t mind,” Will said, “it’s one of the best dishes. We can always share if you don’t like yours.”
“Ok, sounds good.” I never thought it would be a relief to have another man order food for me. If anyone had asked me about it before this, I would’ve said it was a dick move. But…it didn’t feel that way with Will.
“Was that too aggressive of me?” he asked.
“Ordering for you.”
“Oh, no. I couldn't decide anyway.” I could feel myself blush. “Just another sign of what a kid I am, huh?”
He tilted his head and rested his elbows on the table, not exactly leaning in towards me, but close. “How about we make a pact: I don’t talk about being an old man, and you don’t talk about being a young kid?”
I smiled. “Agreed.”
He gave a soft smile in return and tore a piece of pita bread, dipping it in olive oil that had some sort of seeds or spices mixed in. I did the same, and found it damn tasty.
“Speaking of kids—actual kids,” he clarified, “I wanted to thank you for watching Alia at TJs.”
“Oh, that was nothing.” My grin broadened. “I love kids, and Alia is very sweet.”
“She is with you, anyway.”
I had to chuckle at that. “It’s easier for someone who’s not always around and doesn’t really have to discipline her.”
“Somehow I get the feeling you’d do just fine even if you were the disciplinarian, though.”
There was something disparaging in his voice that made me stop and really look at him.
“You have a hard time with her, don’t you?”
He gave a long sigh. “I love her, don’t get me wrong, but…” He shrugged. “It’s tough. I don’t have any experience with kids. It’s all new to me.” As he spoke he spread his hands, looking a bit lost.
That was interesting. This rugged-looking, worldly guy overwhelmed by a tiny kid. Suddenly I didn’t feel as self-conscious. No matter how confident someone appeared, we all had our weaknesses, and I had to admit I found his pretty damn cute.
“You’re good with her,” I told him. And even though I hadn’t seen him with her much, I thought I had a pretty good reading on people. “It’s never easy. She’s not even yours and from what TJ said you’re basically helping raise her, that’s pretty gusty.”
Huh. This really bothered him.
Reaching across the table, I squeezed his hand. It wasn’t a move I normally would’ve done around town, but it was early enough that not many people were in the restaurant.
Will looked up from where he’d been gazing at the table and gave a lopsided grin.
The waiter came then with some tea we hadn’t ordered and I immediately pulled back. But Will just looked at the glass and then grinned at the waiter. “Thanks,” he said. “ You always remember even when I don’t.”
With a chuckle, the man left and I fought an embarrassed flush. What had I thought? They’d bring us free drinks just to interrupt two guys holding hands? Yes, I did. I was just glad this was a case of me being paranoid rather than others being prejudice. But around here, hell, one never knew.
“You ok?” Will asked after taking a sip.
“Yeah. What did they bring you?”
Now he tilted he head and smiled at me. “Black tea prepared very strong; this kind with a little cardamom in it. Why did you jump when he brought it over?”
I gave him a look as if it was obvious why and he returned it with a soft laugh. The food came then and we tucked in, our talk turning less personal. It was still easy to talk, though, and it felt like it shouldn’t have been. More than easy: effortless. And the food was damn good.
“I gather even though you ordered the veggie plate you’re not vegetarian,” I said, nodding to his side of kibbeh, which had turned out to be some kind of football-shaped stuffed meatball.
“No, not a vegetarian,” he chuckled. “I just order my favorites.”
After Will’s prompting, I ended up trying everything on his plate. It was all good, but the thick labneh yogurt I could’ve done without.
Will ordered more tea, I ordered coffee, and then I gave him a look. Something was on his mind. “Out with it.”
I decided he looked cute when he was startled.
“You look like you want to say something but keep stopping yourself.”
He gave a shake of the head but grinned. “You’re just like my sister. I just start thinking about something and somehow you know.”
I raised my brows, “So?”
His levity faded and he sat back. “It’s been a good night. Obviously we get on.”
He looked increasingly uncomfortable. “But I think it’s best if we, umm, keep things platonic.”
“You invited me out so you could tell me we need to be friends?”
At least he had the decency to look chagrined.
“I guess so, yeah.”
“Well, that…wasn’t what I expected.”
He waved for the check and took it before I could protest. “Come on,” he said, “let’s talk for a bit outside.”
He stood, signing for the bill at the counter and saying goodbye to the staff on our way out. Once we were in the parking lot we just stood there. I really didn’t know what to say. Will was a pretty easy person to read; I knew the attraction was mutual, so I didn’t have a clue what the ‘friends’ thing was about.
He said, “Look, I’m sorry I phrased that so poorly in there.” I waited. If I said anything now it was going to come out snotty. “Your uncle is my best friend. He’s practically family.” Will finally looked at me. “And I don’t think of you as a kid, but,” he sighed, “you are young.”
“So that’s it?”
“No.” His look was serious and his eyes gave away everything his words wouldn’t allow. “I’m not going to jump into anything with you, though. I’m not ready to open up right now.” He touched my chin with his fingers, then let his hand drop. “But I do want to spend time with you. Can we just keep things light for now?”
It was odd to have someone older than me—someone who was mature, who had life experience and a career—putting it that way. It sounded like the kind of thing a guy who was young and wanted to play the field would say. I knew that wasn’t why he was saying it, and I hoped he’d give me a real reason eventually.
I took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “Ok.”
He smiled and when someone stepped out the restaurant door near us, our hands quickly broke apart. We might be only a half hour from Chicago, but northwest Indiana wasn’t the most tolerant of places. You just never knew.
“Anyway,” Will said when we were alone again, “I had a good time. If we were alone, I’d be tempted to give you a goodnight kiss.”
I rolled me eyes and gave him a shove. “Tease.”
He chuckled and we headed to our cars. His taillights had barely left the parking lot when I got a text: How’s the date with hot stuff?
I sighed and hit the call button.
“If you’re free to call me, the date can’t be going well,” said Lance.
“Nope, already over. And it wasn’t actually a date.”
“Oh, no—is he straight?”
“Worse, he gave me the friend talk.”
“On the first date?!”
“See above: not a date.”
“Oh, honey. What a weirdo.”
I laughed. “Not really.” I did enjoy Lance when I needed a pick-me-up.
“You don’t sound that crestfallen.”
“No, I guess not.”
“I know you were after him so that means you haven’t given up.”
He was right, though I felt dumb admitting it. “Maybe.”
“The good news is it’s still early—come up to the city and dance the blues away with me!”
I groaned. “Dude, I do not have your energy!”
“Aw, come on! You haven’t gone out and even dry humped anyone all summer!”
“Good night, Lance.”
“Have fun with your left hand again tonight then.”
“You can’t see me, but I’m giving you the finger.”
“I wish someone would, a finger right up my—“
After my not-a-date date with Will, it would’ve been reasonable to think we wouldn’t talk much, but somehow we started calling each other every few days after that. It was like we couldn’t help ourselves. I knew I couldn’t. And whatever Will’s reservations were, we both wanted each other’s company.
After I’d come home that night, and my Father had asked me about my evening, Will’s concerns hit home. Honestly, what had I been thinking? I couldn’t have a relationship with someone who knew my Dad. Ok, so they wouldn’t exactly being holding heart-to-hearts anytime soon, but the connection existed. Especially with Will and Uncle TJ being such good friends, if we started anything, more people would be involved in hiding it than just me. I couldn’t ask that of them. So I couldn’t be involved with Will in any way unless I was ready for some serious life changes.
That didn’t mean we couldn’t hang out though. As friends.
Which was easier when we didn’t see each other face-to-face. After that dinner, we didn’t make any other plans to see one another. We talked at length some nights, but never about what we were doing with friends or outings we were planning. Our circles, thankfully, didn’t crossover much. I kept myself busy hanging with Shaun, he even convinced me to go camping with a few other guys one weekend. Something I probably never would’ve done if I hadn’t been looking for things to keep me distracted. Plus, you can’t really jerk off when you’re stuck in a tent with your buddy. At least you shouldn’t. So I was able to skip my almost daily masturbation session—when I inevitably ended up fantasizing about a certain tall, dark, and handsome man.
I thought I was doing well. Playing it safe. But Fate can be a tricky little bitch when she wants to be.
“Cass! Get your skinny butt over here!”
I laughed at Dave as I reached TJ’s basement and headed over to the poker table. I almost stumbled—but saved myself at the last moment.
“Hi, Will,” I said weakly, trying for nonchalance. “Hey, Dave. Craig.”
TJ pushed out a chair for me with his foot. “Just in time. My hand sucks. Let’s reshuffle guys!” He spoke around a cigar in his mouth, the one he always had and never lit. He loved getting decked out in the cheesiest, most cliché poker player gear: plastic green visor, button-down shirt, and that gross cigar. I loved it.
“You started without me?”
Uncle TJ replied, “Just a practice hand.”
“Says you,” Dave grumbled, tossing his cards to TJ. “You want a beer, kid?”
I smirked. Dave groaned. “You owe me a buck already!” I chuckled, rubbing my hands together.
Will looked between us blankly. I’d been trying to ignore him, because I instinctively wanted to look at him and no one else, but now I told him, “It got old fast always being called ‘kid’, so I managed to get all these old farts to agree that they owed a dollar every time they said it.”
“We should get money whenever you call us old,” Dave shot back.
“But I remember not to say it most of the time. Aloud at least.”
That earned me a snort and Dave tossed chips my way, then handed me a beer.
Once the game got started I managed to relax. Ok, I’m sure the beer helped too. And the fact I won the first couple rounds.
“Lucky bastard,” Craig said with a shake of his head and a rueful smile as he watched me collect the heap of chips. He turned to Will, “I thought you were always the lucky one. Kid’s givin’ you a run for your money!”
Oh, Will could definitely get lucky if he wanted to.
I shoved that thought back. Focus. I glanced at Will. On poker.
“Another dollar,” I told Craig, smirking.
The next round of cards didn’t favor me so well. Truthfully, I wasn’t that great at cards, but then again neither was anyone else. I found myself looking them over to see if they were giving anything away.
Will lifted his brows. Had I been staring? “Do I have something on my face?” he chuckled, and I hoped desperately I wasn’t blushing.
“I’m figuring out your tells.”
There were collective snorts and laughter. “Keep forgetting that you and Will haven’t ever been here on the same night,” TJ said. “Bastard doesn’t have any tells.”
I insisted, “Everyone has a tell.”
“Well, if you find it, let us know.”
“Like hell I will.”
Another round of laughs. Another round of beer. The guys started to talk about work or sports—or women. Oh, yeah, this was the part that always gave me second thoughts about joining poker night. TJ knew about me, but no one else did, because I’d asked him not to mention it. Not yet. Not until I was ready.
But they must’ve all known about Will; he hadn’t made a secret of it at the party. I stood as the round finished, my winnings shrinking.
“Anyone else need another beer? Or water?” I went to TJ’s bar and grabbed the drinks from the mini-fridge—and admitted that, even though it sucked I couldn’t totally be myself, it was still great to hang out with the TJ and his friends—and Will. Even when I was wound-up, being near him eased something deep inside my chest.
He had his back to me as I walked back from the bar, and I wondered how the nape of someone’s neck could manage to be so damn sexy.
I handed out the drinks as TJ shuffled. I happened to be standing next to Will and saw him rub his shoulder.
“Got a kink?” I asked.
“Something like that.”
“Here, let me see if I can help.” Then I shoved a hand down the back of his shirt. He yelped.
“Your hands are like ice!”
I laughed as he tried to push me away. “Aww, big tough man afraid of my little cold fingers?” He had his elbows on the table and I grinned. I pushed my hands up the side of his loose shirt and squeezed his side.
“Ahhh!” he collapsed in a fit of laughter and a bright flash of joy spread through me at the sound. He was squirming now and I tickled harder.
Damn it felt good to touch his skin, and it wasn’t even sexual. Not much anyway. It was just nice to feel that unspoken connection between us even more acutely when the warmth of his skin was beneath my hand.
“Ahh, stop!” he roared as he fell off his chair trying to get out of reach. I wanted to topple down over him and make him beg for mercy, but I suddenly felt eyes on me and righted myself.
TJ was looking between me and Will with raised brows and a frown—a tough combination but he managed it.
I shrugged and Will crawled back to his chair, slapping my arm. “Jackass,” he said with a grin.