“I HAVE to admit, this is definitely one of your better ideas, Leo,” Thomas Williams said with a sigh, leaning back into the comfortable leather armchair and surveying his surroundings.
The bar area was set slightly apart from the main floor of the restaurant, and similar chairs were found grouped in twos and threes around small tables, tiny candles flickering in red flowers sculpted from Venetian glass on each table.
“Hmm?” Leo Hart brought his attention back to his business partner, aware he’d missed something. “Did you say something?”
Thomas stared at him, his expression one of slight amusement. “What planet are you on tonight, Leo? You’ve been miles away ever since we got here. I was merely commenting you’d chosen a really nice spot to hold our weekly meeting, that’s all.”
“Oh, right.” Leo drank from his glass of iced tea. “I used to come here regularly, as a matter of fact. Severino’s is one of the most authentic Italian restaurants in Manchester. The food’s always great and the service is superb.” He glanced around the restaurant. Every table was occupied, and the air hummed with the buzz of voices speaking in low tones while soft jazz played unobtrusively in the background. The atmosphere was intimate, romantic. “They’re not usually this full, though. Normally, I can walk in and get a table right away.”
Leo hardly saw the restaurant. His attention was claimed by the tall, slim young man in black who emerged now and again from the kitchen, collecting dirty plates and disappearing with them behind the swing doors. Nothing unusual about him, certainly nothing that would draw attention, but for some inexplicable reason, Leo followed the young waiter with his eyes, unable to look away. There was an air about him, something that spoke of vulnerability. The young man flitted from table to table, moving efficiently, rarely making eye contact with the customers.
With a start, Leo snapped back into the moment. Thomas was staring at him again, smirking. Leo gave him an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I zoned out there for a moment. You were saying something?”
Thomas chuckled. “It is customary during a meeting to have an actual discussion, isn’t it?”
Leo laughed, his attention now fully on his partner. “I’m sorry, Thomas, you’re quite right.” He sipped his drink. “But I thought I’d wait until we were seated, if you don’t mind.”
Thomas nodded in agreement.
Leo glanced up to see Sev bounding across the restaurant to greet him. He smiled to himself. The restaurant owner was a bundle of nervous energy, always moving. Leo stood as Sev approached, only to be clasped in an enthusiastic hug that almost crushed his ribs. Sev was a large man who had never been aware of his own strength.
“Leo, my friend. It’s been far too long.”
Leo gave his friend a warm smile. Too long indeed. The truth was, it still pained him to come here. He had simply to gaze around the restaurant to be assaulted by memories of Gabe. He was just there, at the bar, their table…. Leo shrugged off the grief that had never entirely left him to greet his old friend.
“It’s good to see you too, Sev,” he admitted. Sev’s gaze met his, and the sympathy in those expressive brown eyes was all too easy to read. For a second, Leo tensed, bracing himself for the awkward words he felt sure would come, but to his relief, Sev said nothing and merely tightened his arms around Leo. Finally Sev released him, and Leo indicated Thomas with a brief nod. “Sev, this is Thomas Williams, my business partner. I don’t think you two have actually met.”
Sev gave Thomas a nod and a smile, before glancing around his restaurant. “You picked a bad night, my friend. It seems the world and his wife want to eat here tonight!”
Leo laughed. “That’s exactly what Vittorio said when he directed us to the bar.”
Sev beamed. “Glad to see my head waiter and I are on the same wavelength, as usual.” Quickly, he scanned the tables. “There are a couple of tables that will free up shortly, by the look of things. Do you gentlemen have any seating preference?”
Leo placed his hand on Sev’s arm. “We’re planning on discussing business,” he said in a hushed tone.
Sev nodded briskly, understanding immediately. “How about over there?” he said, indicating the corner with a flick of his hand.
Leo followed his gesture, and his chest tightened. Of all the tables….
Unfortunately, Sev caught his reaction and paled. “Oh God, Leo, I’m sorry. I… I’ll find you another….”
Leo shook his head, angry with himself. For God’s sake, he was a grown man of thirty-seven, not some angst-ridden adolescent. Grow a pair, he told himself angrily. “That’s fine, Sev. In fact it’s perfect. We can talk there without everyone overhearing.” He gave Sev a half-assed grin. “Don’t want to scare the straights, do we?”
Sev grinned back, and in that moment, Leo felt the world start to right itself again. He could do this.
As Sev walked away in the direction of the kitchen, Leo sat down to take a long draft of his iced tea. Fuck it—he was going to order wine with dinner, business meeting be damned. He put down his empty glass and suddenly realized Thomas had gone quiet. He looked up to find his partner watching him intently.
“I was wondering why you’ve never brought me here until now,” Thomas began, an intuitive expression on his face that caused Leo’s chest to constrict, knowing just where this was leading. “And then I realized, you used to come here with….” Thomas broke off, and Leo wasn’t surprised to see the pain in those green eyes. His partner had always been a sensitive man beneath the brash, gruff exterior the world saw.
“It’s okay, Thomas, you can say his name, you know. After all, it’s been two years now.” Thomas’s eyes widened, and Leo tried to give him a reassuring smile. “You’re right. This was the restaurant where Gabe and I used to eat frequently. In fact, we’ll be sitting at our usual table.”
Thomas appeared horrified. “Do you want us to…?”
“It’s all right,” Leo hastened to reassure him. “Honestly. And maybe it’s time you stopped pussyfooting around the subject, anyway. Gabe died. End of story.” But the words felt like a lie even as they slipped from his lips. Okay, so maybe it hadn’t ended quite yet. God knew it was about time it did, though. Life had moved on, but Leo was still struggling to catch up.
ALEX DANIELS pushed through the double doors into the kitchen and deposited his dirty plates at the sink with Freddo before going over to Pietro’s workstation to collect the next course. Fuck, he was tired tonight, but he knew it was only because he’d worked the whole week instead of his customary three or four nights. Now that the summer term had finished, Sev had agreed to give him more hours, which was a godsend because he surely needed the money. Every penny that didn’t go to his mother went straight into his savings account. Alex had no idea how long it would take him to save up enough for the deposit and initial month’s rent on a flat at this rate, but right now he didn’t care. He only knew he couldn’t stay much longer in his parents’ house. Not without going insane.
“Alex! Get over to table six and set it up, will you?” Sev called across the kitchen.
Alex nodded, grabbed fresh table linens, and exited the kitchen. The table had just been vacated, and Alex could see two men at the bar who were obviously its next occupants. Swiftly and efficiently, he set about clearing and re-dressing the table, leaving it pristine once more, before scurrying back into the kitchen.
“It’s ready, Sev,” he said just loud enough for his boss to hear. Sev nodded, beaming.
“Good lad.” Sev peered through the window in the door. “Okay, I want you to show those two gentlemen at the bar to their table.”
Alex paled. “Me?” The words came out almost as a squeak. “But I’m on clearing duty tonight!” Okay, so it was an excuse… anything to avoid having to deal with the general public.
Sev gave him a patient look. “But I’m asking you to do this,” he said purposefully. “Treat them as if they’re royalty, please. One of them is a personal friend of mine, and a very good customer.” His eyes met Alex’s, and Alex immediately lowered his gaze. “Alex, I know you’ve only been here a few months, but sooner or later, you’ve got to get used to dealing with the customers.”
Alex sighed unhappily. It had taken him long enough to cope with interacting with the staff, and there were still only a handful of people with whom he felt sufficiently comfortable to be able to carry on a conversation. But the customers? Alex knew he had a tendency to fumble and become awkward around strangers, which was bloody inconvenient when he happened to be handling dishes or, God forbid, the delicate wineglasses the restaurant used. So far, there hadn’t been any accidents, and he meant to keep it that way. Lord knew his paycheck wasn’t huge; he couldn’t afford to pay for breakages.
“Alex… today, please?”
Alex jumped as Sev’s request broke through his musings. Sev’s face bore an expression of patience and amusement. Alex gave his boss a sheepish glance and walked hurriedly to the kitchen door, pausing for a second to check that his uniform was presentable.
“You look great. Now get in there,” Sev hissed, giving him a playful shove.
Reluctantly, Alex slipped through the double doors and went toward Sev’s friend and guest, picking up two menus and the wine list as he passed by. The two men were seated in the armchairs nearest the bar, and Alex saw the younger of them look up as he approached. Alex got a momentary glimpse of blue eyes and a strong jawline before he hastily looked down.
“Gentlemen,” he began in a low voice, “if you would care to follow me to your table?” He waited, absolutely motionless, as they unfolded themselves from their seats. Christ, the younger bloke was tall! Alex was six feet, and this guy was at least three inches taller. He cast a surreptitious glance in their direction as he led the way across the floor of the restaurant to the corner booth. The older man looked to be in his fifties, with gray hair and green eyes, and there was a confident, self-assured air about him that reminded Alex strongly of the headmaster at his high school.
The younger man, he could see now, wasn’t much older than himself—maybe in his early thirties. Beneath the casual brown leather jacket and silk shirt in warm brown tones, Alex could see he was well built, with a muscular chest and well-defined torso. His dark brown hair was short and neat, swept back at the temples where the merest glint of silver gleamed.
Suddenly those blue eyes were on him, and Alex caught his breath. He dropped his gaze immediately, his heart hammering wildly. He stood back, almost stumbling in the process, to let the two men gain access to the corner table, and then waited until they had seated themselves comfortably. Placing the menus in their hands, Alex gave a tight, polite smile before attempting to flee to the relative safety of the kitchen. This guy unnerved him, and he didn’t have a fucking clue why.
The man extended a slim hand as if to touch him, and Alex pulled away, although he halted in his tracks. “I’d like to order a bottle of wine, please.”
The voice was firm, confident, and deep. Alex nodded, looking at the wine list, watching a slim finger move slowly down the page.
“A bottle of the Pinot Grigio, thank you.” Those blue eyes, almost glacial in mood, were on him once more, and Alex felt the weight of that careful scrutiny. He flashed the same tight smile before escaping to the kitchen. Once inside, he leaned for a moment, his back to the door. What the fuck? He couldn’t account for his reaction to the man, but he knew one thing for sure: someone else could take them their order. No way was he going out there again, not while those blue eyes were waiting for him. Alex had never felt so naked in another human being’s presence, and he didn’t like it. Not one bit.
LEO sipped his coffee, relishing the aroma as he closed the folder and placed it on the table next to him. “These look like a good batch,” he said, tapping the folder with his index finger. “Have you seen references for all of them?”
Thomas nodded. “Though it’s been a slow process. It seems we’re getting quite the reputation.” He grinned at Leo. “Didn’t I tell you?”
Leo laughed. “Okay, okay, so you were right. Happy now?” Leo certainly was. It didn’t seem like ten years had passed since the two of them had made the decision to open their own BDSM club, but it was a decision Leo had never regretted. Nowadays there was a constant stream of applications from Doms and subs wanting to swell their ranks, and all were vetted by Thomas, who made it his mission to make sure every man who walked through their doors had passed his rigorous admissions procedure with flying colors.
Leo leaned back into his seat, his eyes alighting once more on the young man who’d brought them to their table as he circulated through the restaurant, picking up dishes, clearing away glasses, and all without so much as a glance in their direction. If anything, the young man seemed to be making a concerted effort not to look over at them. Interesting. Leo’s gaze took in the lean frame, the brown hair with its thin streaks of blond spiked on top of his head. Catching sight of those clear blue eyes framed with thick dark lashes had been a hard task, since their owner seemed bound and determined not to reveal them, but Leo had always been tenacious, and he loved a challenge.
“Well, fuck me!”
The unexpected expletive, delivered in a low, drawn-out breath, had Leo looking up in surprise. Thomas was staring at him, his lips parted in an expression of shock.
“What?” Leo demanded, genuinely puzzled by his friend’s demeanor.
Thomas’s apparent shock gave way to a smile that spread with ease across his face.
“I’d given up all hope, I really had,” exclaimed Thomas, and it suddenly occurred to Leo that his partner seemed almost… joyful.
“What on earth are you talking about?” Leo didn’t mean to sound so exasperated, but he didn’t have a clue what was going on in Thomas’s mind.
Thomas smiled, a gentle, caring smile that transformed his entire face. “Do you have any idea when the last time was that you looked at a man the way you’re looking at that waiter?” Leo’s brow knitted. “Oh, come on, Leo. You haven’t taken your eyes off him!”
Leo opened his mouth to deny the allegation, but the retort died on his tongue. Thomas was right. He sat very still, his mind whirling. Had he been so long without desire he’d grown accustomed to its absence, hadn’t even noticed as it slipped quietly back into his life? And of course it was true. He’d hardly been able to keep his gaze from the young waiter all night, although Leo was at a loss to explain why. Those clear blue eyes, briefly glimpsed, maybe? Leo was surprised by his reaction to the nervous young man. What surprised him most, however, was the lack of self-recrimination. It didn’t feel as if he was betraying Gabe’s memory. His heart beat a little faster. Was it finally time to let Gabe go?