“This above all: to thine own self be true.”—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
The steady bass of a popular hip-hop song reverberated in the overcrowded living room. The lights had been dimmed to evoke a club-like atmosphere. Partygoers danced on coffee tables and on the patio just outside the open sliding glass doors leading to the backyard. Others bopped to the beat and yelled to be heard above the din. Traversing the sea of inebriated twentysomethings to get to the kitchen would take time, patience, and maybe a raincoat to avoid accidental drink spillage, but it was better than listening to the same stupid stories I’d heard so often I could tell them myself. Why did I think this would be fun?
Oh, right. Because college parties were a blast, I mused sarcastically as my roommate’s ex-girlfriend swayed against my side.
I fake laughed on cue, then raised my red cup and signaled I needed more alcohol before making a not-so-stealthy escape. I didn’t check to see if I was being followed. I breathed a sigh of relief when I stepped into the kitchen and spotted Chelsea and Mitch.
Chelsea Ramirez was our hostess tonight. She was a petite Latina with a bohemian streak who loved a good time. She didn’t think twice about having a hundred people over every other weekend. I met Chelsea through my best friend, Derek, during our sophomore year of college. I’d just switched schools to play football at a small private university in nearby Orange, but I’d made lifelong friends at Long Beach State, like Derek and Chels. I had good friends at Chilton College too—but not like these guys. I didn’t mind the sometimes wicked freeway commute. It was more important to me to be close to people who felt like family.
I tapped my empty red cup to Chelsea’s, then turned to greet Mitch with a smile that probably looked a tad too enthusiastic. “Hi, there. How’s it goin’?” I asked awkwardly.
“It’s going well, thank you.” He looked amused at my sudden ineptitude. With good reason.
I was a total dweeb around Mitch Peterson.
We met through Chelsea a few years ago, but since we usually only saw each other at parties like this one with a gazillion people around us, I didn’t know him well. Truthfully, the guy kind of intimidated me. He had bright blue eyes, short dark-blond hair, and a commanding presence that made him appear taller than he was. I pegged him at five eleven, at least three inches shorter than my own six two. And he was much leaner. No joke, I could bench press him with one hand tied behind my back.
According to Chels, Mitch was a cultural and fashion trendsetter and an active member of a prominent on-campus LGBTQ group. And maybe a cheer captain too? I couldn’t remember. He was one of those uber go-getters. You know the type. A 4.0 student, president of multiple clubs…oh yeah, and a budding YouTube star too. I felt like a slacker in comparison. My grades were decent but after football, my main pastime was hanging out with my friends. No doubt he thought I was a dumb jock.
“Hiding in the kitchen at your own party? You’re slipping, Chels,” I chided playfully.
Chelsea tossed her dark hair over her shoulder, then rolled her eyes. “Don’t go starting rumors, Evan. I have a dilemma, but I’m three kamikazes and two tequila shots into the night, so I’m seeking guidance from my more sober friend ’cause I josh dunno what to do,” she slurred.
Uh oh. She was drunk. I supposed that made sense. It was sometime after midnight on a beautiful summer evening in Southern California and the last weekend before school started. A perfect occasion for a party, if one was needed. And Chelsea usually didn’t require much persuasion to let loose and have fun. Mitch seemed relatively sober, though I had spotted him dancing on the coffee table with Chelsea when Derek and I first arrived a couple of hours ago.
“What’s the problem?” I asked, setting my cup on the counter and reaching for a water bottle.
Mitch shot a guarded look my way. “Sex is happening in her roomie’s room.”
“Like right this second?” I furrowed my brow and gestured in the general direction of the bedrooms.
“Yup. Rachel doesn’t know her room is being used for a slam pad, and Chelsea is having a moment. The way I see it, she has two options.” Mitch set a hand on his hip and began a theatrical countdown on the fingers of his free hand. “Option one, she commits coitus interruptus and an embarrassing moment occurs, complete with nudity, animal sounds, and possible screaming. Two, she lets them wrap it up and then kicks their asses to the curb. Which would you choose, Evan? Door number one or door number two?”
“Uh…I need a little clarification before I answer. Animal sounds and screaming? What the fuck are they doing, and who is it? Anyone I know?”
“Jenna and Rory. And what do you think they’re doing? They’re fucking to their own porny soundtrack…grunting, groaning, ‘Oh baby, right there.’ You name it, they’re doing it. I was about to knock on the door and usher them out, but I’m too close to the situation and once the dialogue started, I just couldn’t do it.” Mitch sighed, then cocked his head. “But you could.”
I pointed at my chest and shook my head emphatically. “No way. I’m not touching that.”
Mitch grinned mischievously. “Why not? They might ask you to join them. Isn’t that a straight guy’s fantasy? Two guys and a girl or is it one guy, two girls or—”
“Not my thing, wise guy. I’ve had my hands full trying to avoid Amanda for the past hour. She’s being very…clingy,” I griped.
Chelsea made a funny face. “She’s harmless. She’s trying to make Derek jealous.”
“That’s ridiculous. Derek’s my best friend. I would never go out with his ex,” I huffed.
“That’s ’cause you’re a good guy, Evan.” Chelsea gave me a sappy smile. “Hey, why didn’t we ever go out? I guess we still could. We’re young and free. But let’s not talk about our fushure tonight. I’m a little drunk. I might not remember. And if you and me do somethin’, I gotta ’member it.”
“Right. Let’s get you some water and fresh air,” Mitch said, handing her a water bottle.
“First, I gotta fix the happy humper situation.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Mitch gently guided her outside through the kitchen door.
“You can’t. Rory is your—”
“Don’t worry, Chels. I won’t go by myself,” Mitch turned to me with a look I couldn’t quite read. “Evan will help me. Right, Evan?”
“See? He’s brimming with enthusiasm! God, I love that in a guy,” he teased.
I snickered at his comedic expression and uncapped my bottle of water. I guzzled half of it, then looked up to find Mitch paused in the doorway, giving me an admiring double take. He did that sometimes. Maybe it was his way of testing my “straight dude” boundaries. The thought alone should have made me chuckle. Gay or straight or anywhere in between…a little flirting never hurt anyone. But when my heart did a funny flip in my chest that left me feeling dizzy, I wondered for the umpteenth time why I didn’t seem immune to him.
I followed them outdoors and sucked in a breath of balmy evening air. It was a gorgeous night, and the relative quiet was a nice change from the chaotic atmosphere of the house. I stood next to Mitch and surveyed the yard. Light spilled from the living room onto the deck, but the shadows were long and it was hard to see well. I spotted Derek sitting on the top step of the deck, chatting with a few people I didn’t recognize. I sipped my water and cast a sideways glance at Mitch and Chelsea as they greeted a few friends on the lawn.
I hung back and started to turn away just as Mitch glanced over his shoulder.
“You look lost in thought. Are you planning your getaway?” Mitch asked.
“Getaway from what?”
“No, I…uh…” I tried to think of a witty reply and came up with, “How’s school going?”
Fuck. See? What the hell was wrong with me? I couldn’t open my mouth without saying something lame around him.
Mitch’s crooked smile made his eyes light up, which was a funny thing to notice in the dark. It made him look…pretty. Or maybe that was the wrong word. Compelling fit better. And interesting. He looked like the type of person who always had twenty balls in the air and a million thoughts in his head. Yet somehow, he seemed perfectly in control.
“Well, it hasn’t started yet, but my classes look interesting this semester. You?”
“Same. We start next week.”
That was my cue. I nodded distractedly and stepped backward, mentally preparing my exit speech. Then I opened my mouth and spewed more awkwardness.
“Do you live here with Chelsea now?” I knew the answer but apparently, I was determined to up my lame game.
“Me? Here? Are you insane?” He shuddered dramatically.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, glancing around the darkened yard of our friend’s notorious party pad.
“Nothing at all…unless you like waking up with strangers on your sofa.”
“Or screwing in your bed,” I interjected with a half laugh.
A shadow crossed his face, making him look impossibly sad. Before I could ask what was wrong, he smiled and the frown faded so fast I could have convinced myself I’d imagined it.
“I love Chelsea and I’d do almost anything for her, but I need peace and quiet too. Like right now…this is nice. People are talking and you can hear the music through the open door, but it’s a welcoming background noise layered with silence.”
“I don’t hear silence,” I countered as someone howled with laughter.
“Compared to inside, it’s ghostly quiet.”
“True. So where do you live? You’ve probably told me but I forgot,” I asked conversationally.
“A few blocks away in the studio apartment above my grandmother’s garage. How’s that for swanky?”
He chuckled and there it was again. That extra twinkle or spark or something. I tilted my head to get a better look at him. Mitch was a good-looking guy with sharp, angular features, chiseled cheekbones, a square jaw, and a straight nose. And he was fit and toned like a gymnast. Which made sense since he was a cheer…person.
“Are you a cheerleader still?” I blurted.
Mitch narrowed his gaze slightly. “You are all over the map tonight.”
“Sorry. That was random,” I acknowledged with a self-deprecating shrug. “Is cheerleader the right word, or is it cheer person or—”
“I suppose either works and yes, I’m on the squad this year. It’s my last hurrah, so I’ll have to enjoy every second I can ogling sexy men in uniform,” he said with a dreamy sigh. “I’m assuming football players are equally pervy about the cheer squad at your school. And vice versa. All those hunky boys in tight tights checking out the girls…and the guys.”
“I don’t know about that.”
Mitch scoffed. “I doubt everyone on your team is straight. Chances are beyond high there are at least a couple of queers. It’s the one-in-ten law of nature. Don’t bother refuting it.”
I raised a brow. “I’m not arguing, man. You’re probably right. No one is out that I know of, but it’s not my business either way. Love is love.”
Mitch fixed me with a thoughtful stare, then nodded slowly. “Yes. That’s true.”
The quiet unnerved me after a few moments. I gestured toward the house. “We aren’t really kicking anyone out of the bedroom, are we?”
“I’m doing my best to avoid it. Yes, it’s incredibly tacky to fuck on someone else’s bed during a party, but people do it all the time. The problem is, they’ve been in there for a while.”
“Why didn’t Chelsea bang on the door?”
“She did, but Rory is—it’s not that easy. It’s sort of a dual screw thing. A physical action and a personal ‘fuck you,’ ” he explained cryptically.
“Chelsea and Rory?” I asked, furrowing my brow.
“No.” He glanced over at our hostess, who’d been enveloped into a larger group of friends standing nearby. “Let’s change the subject. What were we talking about? Closeted athletes? You know, I’ve had at least three boyfriends in college who started out so deep in the closet, they were practically in Narnia. The Chronicles of Narnia and don’t tell me you’ve never read them.”
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, right?”
He beamed and nodded. “Yes, and six other books. All of them so wonderful!”
“Now I’m confused. Are we talking about closets, athletes, sex, or books?”
Mitch snorted. “If I have a choice, I’d rather talk about sex than books.”
I shot him an amused sideways glance, then chugged the last of my water and squashed the bottle in one hand like a piece of paper. His gaze shifted from my hand to my eyes and this time, I felt a corresponding tug in my groin. No joke. My dick actually twitched against the zipper of my Levi’s. This was what happened when someone brought up sex. Okay, so I was the one who brought it up—but still.
“Everything comes back to sex,” I said sagely.
He did that arched-brow trick again and gave me a shrewd once-over. “Is that so?”
“Oh, hell yes. Humans have sex on the brain all the fucking time. If we’re not doing it, we’re talking about it or watching it. There are actual studies averaging the hours we think about sex every day.”
“Hours? Come on. Are you that big of a horndog?”
I squinted as though mulling his question seriously, then nodded. “Well, yeah. I guess I am. You probably are too.”
“True. I am.”
“See? Derek Googled it once. Men think about sex every seven seconds. Boom! You just thought about it. Admit it.”
Mitch grinned. “Guilty.”
I held up my hand for a high five and chuckled. “So…what sexy thing were you thinking about?”
“This conversation has taken an interesting turn,” he commented sarcastically. “Fine. I’ll give you a hint. A blowjob, a hand job, a rim job, or just plain ol’ screwing. Take your pick.”
I narrowed my gaze and teasingly asked, “What’s rimming, again?”
“Google it,” he suggested innocently.
I held eye contact as I pulled my cell from my back pocket. “Siri, what is rimming?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand. Would you repeat that, please?”
Mitch busted up laughing. “You can’t ask Siri. You’ll be there all day.”
“Then why don’t you just tell me?”
“It’s anal oral sex, genius.”
“Oh.” I let the visual take shape in my head as I slipped my cell into my pocket and clandestinely adjusted my cock. “Got it. And that feels good?”
“Ah-mazing. You should try it sometime.” He winked, then took another sip of water.
“What makes you think I haven’t? Just ’cause I didn’t know the terminology doesn’t mean I’m not an expert.”
“I think that’s exactly what it means,” he quipped. “And even if you were an expert at giving…which I doubt, I highly recommend being on the receiving end. If your partner knows what he’s doing, it can be better than a blowjob.”
“Nothing’s better than a blowjob.” I snorted derisively.
“Anal is better. In my opinion, anyway.”
“Hmm. We should probably switch topics,” I remarked with a frown.
Mitch snickered. “Sorry. I should have warned you sex is my favorite subject. If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up hearing more than you ever wanted to know about the joys of gay sex.”
“I don’t mind. Sex is sex.”
“Ahh. Right. And love is love,” he said, throwing my earlier words back at me.
“Sure. As long as it’s respectful, consensual, and everyone leaves feeling good, what difference does it make if you’re gay, straight, or somewhere in between? Sexuality is fluid.”
“Are you bi?” he asked slowly as though mulling over the possibility.
“Maybe. I’m just me,” I said in a cavalier tone. I greeted an old acquaintance passing by with a fist bump before turning back to my befuddled looking companion. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. You just might be perfect for…”
“Um…nothing. Would you classify yourself as curious?” he asked intently.
“Classify? That sounds kinda scientific. Let’s just say I’ve gone through shit in my life that’s made me realize it’s best to be open to possibility. I might live to be a hundred, or I might die tomorrow. Choose love, choose happiness, and choose your own truth.”
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and glanced at the message from Derek. Are you ready? To leave? Now? Hell no. I hadn’t been this interested in a conversation at a party in eons. I wasn’t going anywhere. I shoved it into my back pocket without replying.
“You really feel that way?” Mitch asked.
“Oh, my God. I think this is fate. You’d be perfect for my senior project.” Mitch’s eyes lit up excitedly. He stepped back and gave me a thorough once-over, then paused abruptly. “Unless…do you have a girlfriend?”
“It wouldn’t work if you were attached,” he said, resting his elbow on one hand as he scratched his chin thoughtfully.
“Oh. Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, but that doesn’t matter.”
“I’d rather not say. I have to think about this. I haven’t had much to drink tonight, but I don’t want to make a rash party faux pas and ask you something I might regret in the morning.”
“Oh, like ‘What do you think about rim jobs?’ ”
“Ha. Ha. You brought up sex. Not me,” he insisted with a laugh before brushing a stray piece of hair behind his ear.
I observed the elegant bend of his wrist in a weird daze for a moment and snapped out of it when my phone buzzed in my pocket again. I pulled it out and read the second message from Derek asking if I was ready to go.
I glanced up and spotted my best friend sitting on the deck, nursing a bottle of water. Derek Vaughn looked like a typical California kid. He was a six-foot-two water polo player with dark blond hair, blue eyes, and a toned swimmer’s physique. In a way, it was funny we’d become good friends. We were total opposites. He was an uptight, neat freak and an overachiever. I was…not. And other than being the same height, we were nothing alike in the looks department either. I had brown hair, brown eyes, and a thicker, more muscular build. I outweighed him by at least forty pounds.
I bet he was outside killing time and trying to steer clear of Amanda. I felt a twinge of sympathy, but it wasn’t strong enough to pull me away from Mitch. Derek was a big boy. He could get himself home. I caught his eye and shook my head irritably, then put my cell away just as one of Amanda’s friends sidled up next to me and slipped her hand under my shirt.
“Hey, Evan,” she said in a breathy voice before turning to Mitch. “Chelsea says someone heard the lovebirds fighting and wondered if you’d talked to Rory yet.”
“Fuck,” Mitch sighed, pushing his hand through his perfectly coiffed hair. “I better deal with this. I’ll see you, Ev—”
“I’ll come with you.” Mitch and the girl, whose name I should have probably known but didn’t, both shot dumbfounded looks my way. “What? You said you needed help.”
Mitch held my gaze before gesturing for me to follow him into the house. The decibel level rose the second we crossed the threshold. We made our way through the mass of sweaty partiers in the living room and then down a long, narrow hallway covered in concert posters. He stopped in front of the last door on the right and leaned in as though listening for any telltale noises before knocking.
I set my hand on the doorjamb and assumed a badass bouncer pose. Truthfully, I had no idea what I was doing now. I had zero interest in rustling lovers out of a borrowed bedroom, but it seemed almost cowardly to let Mitch deal with Chelsea’s badly behaved guests alone. This wasn’t his fight either.
Okay, fine. The truth was I didn’t want to leave him. Not until he told me more about his mystery project. I wanted all the titillating details, I mused, glancing backward when someone bumped my shoulder.
Fuck. Not again.
“Hey, Evan. Are you sure you want to go in there? They’re a bit preoccupied.” Amanda gave me a pretty pouty look I might have found interesting under other circumstances. Like A—if she wasn’t Derek’s ex and B—if she wasn’t interfering with whatever adventure I’d embarked on with Mitch.
“So I heard. Well…I didn’t actually hear but everyone else did,” I clarified.
Mitch rolled his eyes and knocked again. “Rory? Rory, it’s me.”
The knob twisted and then the door slowly inched open. A bare-chested, tattooed muscleman I assumed was Rory stepped into the light. “What are you doing here?”
He reminded me of a military badass with his camo-print pants, super short brown hair, and copious ink. He was my height but more muscular. I didn’t think I’d ever met Rory, but Mitch obviously knew him well. There was something in the way they looked at each other that was very…familiar.
Mitch lowered his voice when he spoke. “You have to leave.”
Amanda tugged at my elbow and gave me a meaningful look and hooked her thumb. “We should go too,” she whispered.
No way. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was too fascinated by the silent conversation happening between Rory and Mitch. It was weird as fuck and very interesting. Were they lovers?
The door flung open and a wild-eyed brunette with smeared mascara and red lipstick stormed into the hallway. She wore an unbuttoned red plaid men’s shirt that exposed her lacy black bra over her short, tight jean skirt. And she held a pair of high heels in one hand like a weapon. Next to the half-dressed man, it was easy to piece together the story. There was a fight, angry sex, and now…I had no clue. But I wanted to grab a chair and some popcorn and see what happened next. And I wanted to be sure Mitch was okay. The air was tense and unfriendly.
She bared her teeth and growled menacingly. “Oh, my God, Rory! I should have known. You just wanted to make him jealous, didn’t you? I hate you. Stay away from me, asshole!”
“Jenna, stop!” Rory yelled.
My football training kicked in. I operated on instinct. Protect and shield. Of course, my job on the field was to protect the quarterback and keep the ball safe, but I supposed the same applied to an angry woman making a break from the guy who’d pissed her off. I stepped in front of Rory, barring his way, then motioned for Amanda to go after Jenna.
“Leave her alone,” I said sharply.
“Who are you?” Before I could respond, Rory turned to Mitch with a frown. “Are you fucking this guy?”
“Yes,” I growled a half beat before Mitch said, “No.”
Mitch gaped at me in surprise, then stepped between us. He spoke in a voice so low, I wouldn’t have heard if I wasn’t standing a foot away. “Why are you doing this? It’s over. You know it.”
“No,” Rory whispered. “I miss you. I…please just—”
“Stop. Just…go home. Please,” Mitch replied sadly.
The ensuing standoff was intense. Especially for an outsider desperately trying to figure out what was going on.
“I don’t have my truck,” Rory said before rounding on me. “Who is he? He’s not good enough for you. He’s not going treat you right. I can tell and I—”
“I’ll call a ride for you,” Mitch replied before turning to me. “Would you mind making sure Jenna gets home okay? I know she’s with Amanda but—”
“Are you sure?” I stepped backward when he nodded, intending to launch into action but I stopped in my tracks. “Don’t disappear. I want to talk to you…babe.”
Mitch narrowed his gaze at the unexpected endearment, then inclined his head and turned away.
Fuck, this was strange. They didn’t go together at all. Mitch was willowy and elegant and vaguely effeminate while Rory was a muscle-bound meathead. He looked like the kind of guy who picked fights in bars for kicks. Or a schoolyard bully. Nope. I couldn’t see it. Or maybe I just didn’t like it.
I paused at the end of the hallway and glanced back at them. And immediately wished I hadn’t. Mitch held Rory’s hands while the bigger man bent his head in what looked like regret. They appeared to be deep in conversation, and I could only imagine it was one of those painful “it’s really over” chats. I should have walked away, but something rooted me to the spot. Yes, I was stuck on the incongruity of them as a couple, but I was also drawn to the emotion between them. It felt heavy…but real. Their connection fascinated me. It allowed me to let go of the physical differences and witness an intimacy that frankly made me…jealous.
I pushed that thought aside and hurried outside. I spotted Amanda and Jenna on the street in front of the passenger side of an idling Honda Civic. Amanda gestured for the other girl to get into the car; then she shut the door before turning toward the house. I met her on the sidewalk with my hands stuffed in my pockets.
“Is she okay?” I asked.
“She’ll be fine after she gets through the mega hangover coming her way in the morning. I wonder if those two were on something. One minute they were all over each other and the next…” Amanda pursed her red lips and sighed. “Honestly, they made me glad I’m single again.”
“Hmm.” I wasn’t going to engage in any conversation about her breakup with Derek. I tried to think of a polar segue and came up blank.
“Are you seeing anyone?” she asked.
“No,” I replied.
I was relieved when I caught sight of Mitch and Rory moving down the pathway in my periphery. Mitch gave me a subtle nod of acknowledgment I clung to like a lifeline. I read it as a “Thanks for helping,” and “I’ll be there in a sec,” instead of the good-bye it might have been. I watched Rory head toward a waiting Prius and breathed a silent sigh of relief when Mitch didn’t hop in with him.
Amanda turned to see what I was looking at and shook her head in wonder. “I had no idea they were a couple until tonight. Did you?”
“No, but I just met them. I mean…I just met Rory and Jenna. I know Mitch,” I said awkwardly.
“Hmm. People aren’t always what they seem. Rory, Gabe…” She gestured toward the handsome water polo player heading down the sidewalk. “I heard he’s gay too.”
“Gabe? I don’t think so.” Of course, I didn’t know anything about the guy except that he was a new addition to Derek’s water polo team. I wasn’t sure why she’d bring that up or—
“You’re cute, Evan,” Amanda purred, running a manicured fingernail down the row of buttons on my shirt.
Fuck. This was exactly what I’d hoped to avoid. The seductive cadence in her voice freaked me out. Could this night get any stranger?
I gently removed her hand. “Look, Amanda, I’m not—”
She set a finger on my lips and shook her head. She was so close now; I could smell her perfume and see the glint of desire in her blue eyes. Amanda was a sexy woman by anyone’s standards. She had long blonde hair, a flawless sense of style, and an edginess that appealed to most guys. But I didn’t trust her or particularly like her, and I’d always thought the feeling was mutual. In June, when Derek told me they broke up, I’d been secretly relieved for his sake. Just like Mitch and Rory, Derek didn’t belong with Amanda.
“Shh. I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. I have a friend who’s been trying to meet you for a while.”
“Huh?” Okay. That was unexpected.
“Her name is Nicole,” she continued quickly when she spotted Mitch walking toward us. “She goes to Chilton with you and maybe—”
“Well, that’s a relief! Is Jenna on her way home too?” Mitch asked, bumping my elbow.
“She is,” Amanda replied before turning to me. “I’ll see you inside, Ev. I want to make sure I give you Nicole’s number.”
Mitch and I stared after Amanda as she moved toward the house, then looked at each other with matching wide-eyed expressions before cracking up.
But I still had to ask, “What the hell was that all about?”
“If you mean Rory, it’s complicated.”
“I bet. Let me see if I can put it together.” I furrowed my brow and tapped my finger on my chin thoughtfully. “Your jealous ex was trying to make you jealous?”
“Seems like it,” he said tiredly before adding, “Kind of like what Amanda was doing with you and Derek.”
“She actually just told me wants to set me up with a friend of hers, who I’m pretty sure I already know. In fact, I’m missing her party to be at this one.”
“It seems so convoluted. You’d think these stupid games would get old by now. We’re all in our twenties. Why do some of us still act like such idiots?”
I had no answer for that one, so I left it alone. “How old are you?”
“Were you with that guy?” I asked, unable to keep the confusion from my voice.
“Yeah. For a year. We broke up for the last time two months ago. It looks like Jenna is my replacement,” he said matter-of-factly. “And now Rory thinks you’re his replacement. That was funny. Thanks for jumping in to defend me. I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome.” I bit my bottom lip before continuing. “What did you see in him? He just doesn’t look like your type.”
“What’s my type?” Mitch asked with a laugh.
“Someone nicer who’s…more like you.” I winced the second the words left my mouth. Awkward.
“Thanks, I think. But Rory is actually very nice. And smart too. He’s also a little tortured. A closeted hunky athlete battling self-worth and questioning his sexuality. What can I say? I have a gay fairy godmother complex. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Mitch sighed in defeat and pulled his phone from his back pocket. “Hey, give me your number. If you’re still interested, we can talk about my project next week when you’re free. No pressure. If you don’t return my text, I’ll understand.”
I recited my number, noting the graceful bend of his head as his fingers flew over the tiny keyboard on his cell.
“What’s this project about?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you when we meet. My mind is all over the place right now. I’m entering my personal witching hour.” He chuckled at my perplexed expression before explaining. “Basically, it’s that pivotal moment in every fairy tale when the clock strikes midnight and the hero or heroine is about to be left in rags with a useless glass slipper and a wild story no one will believe.”
“Hopefully you have some cool mouse friends to keep you company in your dungeon until Prince Charming comes back with your shoe,” I said with a laugh.
Mitch snorted derisively. “Disney princesses are confined to towers, Evan. Not dungeons. And if I find any rodents in my apartment, I’m not making friends. I’m calling an exterminator. Ciao!”
“Hang on. Are you ditching me?” I closed the distance between us and fixed him with a mock glare.
“Of course not but…why do you want to hang out with me? Amanda wants to introduce you to her friends and—”
“And I like being with you. Your ex thinks we’re a new couple, and he might not be here, but people talk. Why not give him a taste of his own medicine?”
“And have sex in someone’s else’s bedroom?” he deadpanned.
I grinned and shook my head. “Not my kink.”
Mitch threw his head back and laughed. The joyful sound had a pretty ring to it that made me wish I had something clever to add. “It’s not mine either. But beware, Evan. You’re tall, dark, and handsome, and I really don’t feel like being on my best behavior anymore. It’s not personal. It’s just me.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
He regarded me thoughtfully and nodded. “Okay. But if you don’t mind…I don’t want to talk about Rory or his maybe-girlfriend. And I don’t want to talk about sex. Or anything that’s fairly simple but sometimes gets complicated. So don’t ask me about my project or—”
“Wait. Is this a sex project?” I asked, widening my eyes comically.
Mitch snorted. “I wish. All I’m saying is that I really want to slip into neutral and think about stupid, shallow things like…when are they releasing the lineup for Coachella?”
“Headliner…Justin Timberlake.” I spread my hands wide and nodded like I knew what I was talking about.
“Really? Hmm. I was hoping it would be Britney, but she has Vegas,” he said in a faraway tone.
Mitch furrowed his brow and gave me a sharp look. “You have no clue, do you?”
“Hilarious,” he scoffed. “I bet it’ll be…”
I followed Mitch back into the house to hang out at a party I no longer cared about just to talk to him. I hadn’t felt this way around a guy in almost five years. I didn’t ask myself why. That wasn’t my style. I was a firm believer that if it felt good, I should do it. And hanging out on the back deck, staring up at the summer stars while dissecting our favorite bands, breakfast cereals, and cocktail recipes as the party fizzled around us was, oddly enough, exactly what I wanted to do.
All night long.