Preston could not be more grateful that the work day was finally fucking over.
The one good thing—the only good thing, if you asked him—about this whole development thing going on in his hometown was that more jobs were available. Before that, the small town had been a little sleepy, and he’d bounced from job to job as more businesses closed down.
Now, the small mom and pop shops that he’d grown up with were still closing down, but chain restaurants and grocery stores were popping up all over the place. Which led to his current and longest lasting job in one of the grocery stores, loading and unloading in the back.
Not exactly rocket science.
It was mind-numbing, back-breaking work, and definitely not what he’d pictured doing with his life when he was a kid, or even when he was in high school. But sometimes that was the way the crappy cookie crumbled.
Thank God for Joe’s.
At least there he had his friends, and he could relax—or try to.
Preston had a bad habit of getting into bar fights.
He’d promised Luke that he’d be good, that he wouldn’t let his temper get the best of him again. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that it was a problem.
It was just that sometimes, the guys were really asking for it.
Preston stepped into Joe’s, already feeling the stress of the day start to peel off of him like layers of dirt.
Joe’s had been his safe place growing up. Ironic, considering the reason he spent so much time there was because his dad was always drinking. He’d hang out with Luke in the back while Luke’s dad ran the place. At Joe’s, there was a whole wall of people who could take Dad down if he got nasty.
Joe’s had even been the place where he and Luke had their first kiss and first … well, a lot of things. They’d done a hell of a lot of fooling around in the back, although they’d never been romantic about it. Preston still liked to hold it over everyone’s heads that he was probably the only guy out of their group in high school who hadn’t had his heart broken by Luke at some point.
Even now, sometimes, when he went into the back office—not often, but sometimes—he got that feeling of safety, of home. He’d never felt that at his actual house, and his current place was just kind of a lazy mess.
Luke waved as Preston entered. Travis, Lance, and Matthew were already at the bar. They were the ones who got off work earliest. Hank was leaning up against the bar top from the other side, talking with Matthew, but he was probably about to duck into the kitchen to start working.
It was Tuesday, so not a busy night. Preston swung himself onto a bar stool. “Hey, Travis, you want to play some pool?”
“Maybe in a minute,” Travis replied.
Out of all the relationships that his friends had stumbled their way into over the years, Travis and Lance were the ones whose behavior had changed the least. Even before they started dating, Travis would have his arm around Lance’s shoulders all the time. He’d had been the only one to call Travis “Trav.” And so on.
Still, Preston couldn’t fully repress the twinge of envy that he felt when Travis had his arm around Lance, and was too busy listening to whatever story Lance was telling Luke to go and play pool.
Preston hadn’t thought of himself as a relationship kind of guy. He’d seen how well that could work out—or rather, all the ways it could crash and burn. And he knew he wasn’t exactly a catch, the kind of guy that people wrote home to their mothers about.
But as he’d watched first Jake, then Luke shortly afterwards, then Travis and Lance, and then Davis, and finally even Hank, find someone to be with, and when he saw how happy they were … Christ, even Ross had gotten together with Adam’s paralegal Tom.
Adam was Luke’s husband. They were actually all getting hitched now. Jake and Matthew had their wedding coming up. Paul—Luke’s other bartender, and Davis’s boyfriend—was finally moving in with Davis.
It was hard not to want someone of his own when he could see how happy all of his friends were. How Luke lit up when Adam came into the bar, or how Eric, Hank’s boyfriend, would sneak into the kitchen to see him, or how Davis went from high-strung and overthinking to relaxed once Paul was around.
Preston wanted that. He wanted to stop feeling like the odd man out, wanted to stop feeling lonely, wanted to have the kind of contentedness, that relaxed happiness, that the others seemed to have.
“Oh no,” Matthew grumbled.
“What?” Lance asked.
Matthew was the only one actively looking at the front door of the bar, obviously waiting for Jake to show up from the auto garage that he owned. It meant he could see when some other guys came in.
“More of those construction guys,” Matthew said.
Preston felt himself bristling, and saw Travis doing the same.
“Down, boys,” Luke said quietly. “They’re just doing their jobs. Everyone’s got to put food on the table.”
“They don’t have to be assholes about it,” Travis said.
Preston nodded in agreement.
Luke sighed, passing out a round of beers. Preston raised his in thanks before drinking. “Then we can just be better men and take the high road, right?” Luke asked.
Matthew snorted, like the idea of Preston and Travis taking the high road was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
Preston kept his back firmly to the door and took just a few sips of beer. Travis was right, if you asked Preston. There had been a lot of development going on in the area lately, as their once small town turned into yet another suburb of the city. It meant there were a lot of construction crews around, tearing down the stores and houses that Preston had grown up with and replacing them with fancy condos, kitschy little hipster boutiques, and chain restaurants.
Luke called it gentrification. Preston called it fucking annoying.
Some of the crews tended to be nice enough. They could sense they weren’t exactly wanted by the locals, and kept to themselves.
But others took it as a personal insult and would get brash and cocky, picking fights. Well, Preston said they picked fights. Luke said Preston wasn’t exactly an innocent bystander in all of this.
This crew—looked to be about five men—settled into one of the booths. It was slow enough that Luke just walked over to ask if there was anything they wanted, while Matthew and Lance gave Travis and Preston don’t even think about it looks.
Preston tried to ignore the whole thing. He’d promised Luke that he’d be good and wouldn’t get into any more fights. He planned on keeping his word.
It wasn’t like he tried to start fights. It was just—people were assholes, and they didn’t listen to reason, and a punch to the face tended to sort ’em out pretty quick. And it was like Preston’s blood was getting pumped full of something, like liquid rage, and his hands would tremble, and he’d just have this uncontrollable urge to reach out and hurt.
It wasn’t the alcohol, although being tipsy didn’t exactly help matters. But if he’d been an alcoholic, he knew Luke would’ve stopped letting him come to the bar a long time ago, or at least stopped letting him be served drinks while he was there. Anger was just … who Preston was. Who he always had been.
Gradually, the other regulars came in from work. Paul slipped behind the bar to start his shift, while Davis hopped up onto a barstool and started chatting away. Adam and Eric arrived, both looking dead on their feet already. Jake seemed to materialize out of nowhere, missing one moment and then standing next to Matthew the next.
Everyone was paired off, except for Preston.
It was alright, though. He’d be fine. Somehow. Maybe he could find someone to take home for the night. He’d always been good with the flirting, with picking people up and showing them a good time for a night.
It was everything that came afterwards that he wasn’t so good with.
He tried again with Travis. “Hey, you want to go hit up the pool table now?”
If they wanted to play, they needed to get there before it got too crowded and someone else took all the pool tables.
Travis nodded, finishing his beer. “Yeah, sure, let’s do it.”
Preston pushed back from the bar right as someone else moved to grab a spot, resulting in some jostling. Preston stumbled to the side.
“Watch it,” the other guy said, glaring.
It was one of the construction guys.
Preston glared right back. He was bigger than this asshole, and could loom over him a little. “Why don’t you watch it! You think I got eyes in the back of my head?”
The guy rolled his eyes, muttering “fucking hicks” under his breath as he tried to push past Preston again to order a drink.
Oh, hell no. Nobody was allowed to make fun of them or their small town like that. They weren’t ignorant, and they weren’t hicks or rednecks or whatever else somebody wanted to call them.
Preston grabbed a fistful of the guy’s shirt, wrenching him around to face him. “What the hell did you just say?”
The guy seemed to realize that he’d landed himself in some hot water, but then his eyes narrowed and he puffed up his chest. Like he wasn’t going to let anyone intimidate him. “You heard me, asshole.”
Preston kept his one hand in the guy’s shirt to hold him in place—and then punched the guy with his free hand.
The man went down like a sack of bricks. Preston had always been on the large side, and he spent all day hefting boxes. And this wasn’t his first rodeo.
His hand still stung, though, so he shook it out as he released the guy, letting him fall onto the bar top. Then he felt someone grab his shoulder, and he felt the breeze and ducked instinctively. The blow the guy’s friend had aimed at him went over Preston’s head, and he sucker punched the guy right in the stomach.
The guy stumbled backwards, spat out, “Fuck you, asshole,” and then launched himself at Preston again.
Everyone was staring now. The three other construction workers from that group were up and yelling, and Travis was getting up from his seat reluctantly, like he didn’t really want to get into it, but he’d bash a few heads in if he had to teach a lesson.
The guy swung at Preston again, and Preston swung back, anger coursing through him. He’d just been trying to enjoy a fucking drink at the bar, and then that first asshole had to be a dick about it, and now his friends were coming in hot like Preston had started it, and he hadn’t, he didn’t just start things for no reason like his goddamn dad—
He felt someone grabbing his left arm while another person grabbed his right, both of them holding him back as Luke stepped in between. Preston growled.
“I think that’s enough, son.” It was Bill, the former sheriff. Preston, Luke, and Travis had all ridden in the back of his squad car as teenagers more times than Preston could count.
“Cool it,” said Hank, apparently the one holding Preston’s other arm.
Luke was glaring at the construction workers. “If you guys can’t play nicely, then get out of my damn bar.”
The men didn’t look like they liked that idea all that much, but Luke was pretty damn big himself. He folded his arms.
“Here’s how it’s going to go. You’re going to sit down nicely, and not bother anybody anymore, or you can leave. Or you can keep causing a fuss, and I’ll kick your asses, and then my husband will sue those same asses for everything you’ve got. Understood?”
Adam was standing at the bar, and gave them all a cheerful wave that was somehow more terrifying than a glare. The guys grumbled but backed off, helping their friend up from the floor and getting him back to their booth.
Then Luke turned and faced Preston.
Preston wrenched himself away from Bill and Hank. Hank went back into the kitchen, but Bill stood by with Luke, arms folded.
Preston could feel his face heating up from shame. “I didn’t start it,” he said. And he hadn’t, dammit, but Luke wasn’t going to care about that. All he was going to care about was the fact that Preston had gotten into a fight again.
And a pretty bad one—the first guy had a bloody, possibly broken, nose, and the other one was slumped in his seat, still a bit winded. Everyone had seen it, and was staring or whispering or both.
It could’ve gotten worse, if Luke and the others hadn’t intervened. Preston wasn’t sure if he was glad that they had or not. On the one hand, he was still angry, still had that restless, violent energy rattling around inside of him. But on the other hand … he knew he’d regret whatever he did when he let that feeling take over.
“Preston,” Luke said quietly. “You promised.”
Preston swallowed hard. “That guy shoved me, and then blamed me—”
Luke folded his arms. “You still got involved. You could have chosen to let it go. Who threw the first punch?”
Preston could feel his hands balling up into fists and struggled to control the temper that rose up in his throat. “He called me a hick.”
“And you punched him. Guess you kind of proved his point.” Luke raised an eyebrow.
“So, what, I’m just supposed to stand there and do nothing when someone insults me?”
Luke sighed, grabbing Preston by the arm and dragging him outside. The cool night air helped to cool Preston down a little—and also reminded him just how screwed he was.
“You’re supposed to not punch the guy,” Luke said, his voice louder now that they were outside and away from everyone. “You can talk to me if someone’s being rude, and I’ll handle it; it’s my job as the owner. You’re not supposed to escalate the situation. Couldn’t you at least try verbally going after him before you start with the fists?”
Preston made some kind of frustrated noise—he didn’t even know what to call it, his body full of restless energy, and he just sort of flung his hand into the air. “How else are they supposed to actually take it seriously? And what if he throws a punch then?”
“Then he’ll have started the fight, and you’ll have been defending yourself,” Luke replied. “But he didn’t throw a punch. You did. You made it physical.”
Preston had grown up with the guy. He knew that tone of voice. “Luke, c’mon, please—”
“How many times are we going to go through this?” Luke asked. “You promise you’ll stop, and that you’ll do better, and then you don’t.”
It sounded far too much like the conversations he’d overheard as a kid. His mother telling his father what Luke was telling Preston.
Preston forced himself to fold his arms and not give into the urge to punch the wall. “I’m trying, Luke, really. You can’t tell me that you don’t see that.”
Luke sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I do think that you’re trying. But obviously, whatever you’re trying to do isn’t working. I think that you need to talk to someone about your anger issues, because this is out of control.”
Preston stared at him. “You—what? Are you saying I should go into therapy?”
“I can’t let you back into my bar, Preston.”
It wasn’t like the words came out of the blue, but Preston still felt like he’d been slapped. There was something about a slap as opposed to a punch, something unexpected and demeaning about it. His stomach sank. Joe’s had been his home base since he was a kid.
“Luke, c’mon, please.”
Luke looked unhappy about it, but he stood firm. “I know how much it sucks, okay? I don’t like it either. But I can’t give you special treatment over anyone else who starts problems. This isn’t some dive bar, where the furniture gets broken every night. I have to protect the bar, and I can’t let you keep starting things.
“People are going to start complaining—even more than they already do. It’s only a matter of time before some bystander gets caught in the middle, and there’s only so much legal tap-dancing Adam can do to protect you if someone sues you for that.”
“Luke, you know what that place means to me.” Preston hadn’t ever really talked about it with Luke, but that had been the great thing—he’d never had to. Luke had been there. Luke had understood.
“Of course I do.” Luke sighed again. “Okay, look. I can’t let you back into the bar. Not while you still have your shit to sort out. But Hank’s old roommate runs an anger management class. He’s really good at it, according to Hank. Some of his family has used him.”
Hank’s family could definitely use it, if you asked Preston. The Cahills were crazy.
“If you complete an anger management course,” Luke went on, “you can come back. But only once you complete the course.”
Preston tried hard not to sound as pathetic as he felt. “Can I still come to poker nights and the football games?”
“Of course you can,” Luke replied immediately. “You don’t lose your shit at the poker nights and football games. But you can’t come to Joe’s, not until you finish that course. I’ll sign you up and everything.”
Preston thought about it. Not getting to hang out with his friends every night sucked. Coming to the bar and hanging out with them was the only good part of his day. Football games and poker nights once a week were fun, but they weren’t the same thing as getting to see everyone all the time.
He couldn’t make do on just those two nights. And he would miss the bar, miss the feeling of safety that he got when he was there.
Taking a goddamn anger management course, though … seriously? Did he have to?
“Those are the conditions,” Luke said. “You can refuse to let me sign you up if you want. But you won’t be allowed back in. I’ll make Travis and Hank kick you out.”
Preston knew that if Travis and Hank—and Paul, because God knew that guy couldn’t keep himself from meddling—teamed up, they’d be able to drag him out in the end. And Preston didn’t want to get into a fight with his friends, of all people, or get humiliated by being literally kicked out.
“Do we have a deal?” Luke asked.
“Fine,” Preston said. “Deal. You can sign me up.”
“You sound like Seth when he was a kid and I told him to eat his vegetables,” Luke replied. He held out his hand for Preston to shake. “Remember.”
Preston knew what that meant. Luke’s dad had always said, Remember, if you shake on it, that’s your honor, and honor’s all a man has.
He’d liked Luke’s dad. Better than he’d liked his own dad, honestly.
Preston shook Luke’s hand firmly. He didn’t like it, but he figured he could suffer through some classes on slow breathing and counting to ten. He was going to get back into that bar and back with his friends.
No matter what it took.