“For crying out loud, Miguel, pull yourself together.”
The bedroom door banged shut, vibrating in its frame for a few seconds. Joey’s angry tread faded away as he stomped back downstairs. Not good. Miguel didn’t think he’d ever seen Joey angry before. Whimpering, he rolled over, misjudged where he was on Joey’s bed, and ended up in a painful pile on the hardwood floor. He landed on something hard and pointy that dug painfully into his lower back. He grunted and pulled it out from under him. A shiny black dress shoe. He glared at it.
Right. Wedding. Drinking and dancing. Sex.
Miguel groaned again, louder and longer this time. His head throbbed painfully in time with his heartbeat. He struggled against gravity until he was mostly upright—on hands and knees anyway, nowhere to go but up. Finally he stood, still naked, but upright. He kicked spitefully at the shoe, and it skittered across the hardwood before thunking against the wall under the windowsill.
Yeah, it hadn’t been the wisest choice to hook up with the hot boy from the east side of the mountains. Even then, it wouldn’t have been so bad if Owen had stuck around for a little bit of post-hookup snuggling. Miguel liked his skin time, and he could take the heat from Joey over the indiscretion. Waking up in an empty bed with only shame for company? That was different.
The bedroom was dim; late-evening shadows stretched across the hardwood floor, creating monsters out of stacks of laundry and making the open closet door especially menacing. Miguel squinted around, trying to locate all of his clothing before making his body move in the general direction of his crumpled dress shirt and rented tuxedo. Only for Buck, Joey’s new husband, had he donned one of those monkey suits. If he ever tied the knot—he snorted at the random thought, because no way in hell was he ever getting married—it would be on a beach wearing board shorts and a T-shirt, or maybe a swanky Hawaiian print shirt, with the sunset behind him. Fuck, his head hurt.
For him to be anywhere close to considering marriage he’d have to date, meet someone who’d evolved past crawling up onto the hot desert sand—at least he assumed the sand would be hot; why would a creature crawl out into the cold? And why was he thinking about marriage when the evidence of a very recent poor choice surrounded him? The strewn clothing and lingering smell of sex were damning.
In fairness, Miguel mused as he struggled to make himself fit for public, Sara Schultz was absolutely decent. They just weren’t quite right together—and that was okay; they’d managed to get back to being friends. They’d danced, hadn’t they? He was pretty sure he remembered dancing and Sara laughing while he demonstrated his moves to an Arctic Monkeys song. Or maybe it had been Maroon 5. Or not Sara? No, it had been Sara. He was sure.
Checking the full-length mirror hanging on the back of the bedroom door, he grimaced. His unruly black hair stood up in random tufts, making him look like an unsexy version of that actor from Shakespeare in Love. There were bags under his eyes the size of carry-on luggage, and his skin had a sort of ghostly pallor. Also, he’d missed a button on his dress shirt, so it was bunched up awkwardly. He stared down at it for a minute trying to decipher which button to undo and rebutton before deciding it was never going to happen. He shoved his arms into the uncomfortable suit jacket and gingerly made his escape.
Joey was right: it was time for him to get his shit together. The wedding debacle was another in a long string of poor choices. All those choices started with wanting something that just wasn’t possible, but he’d allowed himself to keep trying anyway… with the same results. Wasn’t that the definition of insanity?
Miguel shut Joey’s door behind him and negotiated the stairs one careful step at a time. He needed to focus, decide what he was going to do with his life. Between the top stair and stepping out into the hallway two floors below, Miguel swore off men. And women too. Done. For a while, anyway.
He’d been in Maureen James’s house enough times by now to know there was a side door leading out to the almost-wraparound porch. The murmur of wedding guests lingering in the living room and kitchen reached his ears. Probably some were still out in the backyard as well. It was late, but in the Pacific Northwest this time of year it was barely dusk, and the cleverly placed mason jars with solar-powered lights inserted into them were beginning to wink on.
Miguel tiptoed along the hall toward the side door, his best and only hope. The voices behind him rose in laughter. Joey was probably telling a work story. Or Kon, Maureen’s foster kid, was entertaining. Miguel twisted the crystal doorknob, pushing the door open just enough so he could slide out sideways and pull it shut behind him. Turning as quickly as his hangover would let him, he ran smack into someone. Someone with a hard chest. They were the same height, and their foreheads cracked together, leaving Miguel with black spots dancing in his vision and a stomach threatening to empty itself. “Jesus fucking Christ, watch where you’re going!”
The man who’d run into him glared back, rubbing his forehead with a pale, freckled hand. Miguel recognized him as one of Adam Klay’s cops; couldn’t remember his name. “Excuse me? I think you’re the one trying to sneak out of the house. You need to work on your exit moves, buddy.”
What’s-his-name had fiery red hair, the kind that looked like a copper penny that had been in someone’s pocket for a while. Freckles exploded across his face and down his neck like a galaxy of stars. Miguel wondered if he had them all over. He almost smacked himself in the forehead again. He’d just been ditched by a hookup.
“Whatever, just move already.”
“Are you all right? You smell like a distillery.” The man waved a hand in front of Miguel’s face. Should he bite it? “You aren’t driving, are you?”
Miguel had come with Joey and Buck, not having a car of his own. Why would he have one, since he worked at an auto repair and could borrow the shop car anytime? Miguel cast around, thinking who he could hit up for a ride. He’d have to slink back into the celebration to find someone. He hadn’t thought he could feel any worse. Someone turned up the sound system; Dennis Edwards crooned Papa was a rolling stone… wherever he laid his hat was his home… Buck had finally wrested control of the music selection from his new husband.
What’s-his-name pulled a set of keys out of his pocket. “Let me drive you home. Even if you aren’t drunk, you look terrible. You aren’t going to be sick, are you?”
Home sounded so good.
He would have walked, truly he would have, but the thought of making the three-mile trek in rented dress shoes made him want to cry. Or throw up. Maybe he was going to be sick. Relentlessly he squashed the feeling, refusing to admit he felt less than stellar. “No, I’m not going to be sick, thank you very much.” Taking a deep breath and letting it back out, he tried to gain some control over this weird situation. Sticking his hand out, he said, “Miguel Ramirez.”
“Nate Richardson.” The man grinned, and his somewhat plain appearance went from what Miguel privately called “cop face” to a thing of beauty. He was devastating. It was a good thing Miguel had sworn off men only minutes earlier, or he might be tempted to see if Nate wanted to take a walk on the wild side.
“It’s, ah, great to meet you, Nate. Normally I’d say ‘No, thanks,’ but I need to get out of here. I could use a ride.” He’d done an inadvertent double take and now was trying not to stare… and probably not doing a very good job of it. Awareness spiked inappropriately, rolling thunder careening across his sensitive skin, reminding Miguel of what he could not have.
“Thank god; I need a reason to leave. I’m happy to give you a ride. Hopefully you’re miles out of town?” Nate asked, blue eyes sparkling with humor. Miguel wondered if he had any idea how attractive he was. “My boss made me come. I’ve never been forced to attend a wedding before. Let’s get out of here.”
Yes, let’s, Miguel thought, only barely managing to suppress the urge to flirt. Nate was slim and strong; he’d look good behind a desk or out in the field—a modern-day cowboy. And the way he looked at Miguel, thoroughly, assessing, like maybe he was really seeing him. It left Miguel breathless.
Nate led the way across the porch and down the three small steps to Maureen’s driveway. He pointed his keys and squeezed the fob. In the distance, red lights flashed.
“You don’t need to say goodbye to anyone?” Miguel asked.
Nate looked over his shoulder, giving Miguel a knowing glance. “Do you?”
“Fucking hell no. Let’s get out of here.”
Nate drove one of those shiny, black cop-style SUVs meant to intimidate other drivers and pedestrians. On the other hand, it had a decent sound system that blared a song Miguel didn’t recognize when Nate cranked the engine. “Oops,” he said sheepishly, reaching to turn it down.
Miguel stopped him with a wave of his hand. “Not on my account. I need something to wash all the sappy love song crap out of my ears.”
Nate chuckled. “It was a little over the top.”
“Dude. You have no idea. The things Joey wanted to do; he claims he settled.” Miguel settled into the passenger seat, leaning back against the headrest. “Buck would have let him do anything. I think we’re lucky we didn’t have to all sit and watch a special showing of Beauty and the Beast. His mom put her foot down, and Kon—the ring-bearer kid—claimed he would be embarrassed at school. Thank god.”
It was only a fifteen-minute drive between the two houses, with traffic lights, and this time of night traffic was almost nonexistent. Dark had fallen by the time Nate pulled up in front of Buck and Joey’s. Miguel’s stomach plummeted when he remembered something else he didn’t want to think about. Buck and Joey didn’t need a third wheel hanging around their marriage. He had to find his own place to live.
Briefly he considered going back on his newly minted vow of chastity and seeing if Nate wanted to come inside for a while. They would probably have some fun in the sack. Chances were that the guy was open; he’d witnessed a marriage between two men, after all. But really, it was too depressing, inviting a guy back to a house that wasn’t his.
Nate fumbled around, and the door locks clicked open. Miguel opened his door. “Thanks for the ride, man. I owe you one.”
“Seriously, it’s fine. You have no idea how much I wanted to leave.”
“Weddings aren’t your thing?” Miguel chuckled, standing with his hand on the door, not ready for the empty house.
“Not really.” The engine rumbled as the SUV idled. “I hate making small talk, and I hate talking about myself, and I’m new to town so I don’t know anyone.”
“We’d make the perfect couple; I have no trouble talking about myself.” Miguel waggled his eyebrows. Then realized what he’d said. “Oh crap, I’m sorry.” He dragged a hand down his face. “Sometimes my mouth gets away from me.”
“Only sometimes?” Nate teased.
“I need to put myself to bed before I dig an even bigger hole for myself. Thanks for the ride. Look me up sometime. I work at Swanfeldt’s; maybe we can grab a coffee or something.”
Miguel shut the car door, stumbling a bit on the uneven sidewalk. Maybe he was still a little drunk. He’d made it about halfway to the front door when he stopped in his tracks, realizing he didn’t have any keys. Or his ID. Because he’d left them in his favorite pair of jeans when he’d put on the monkey suit. His jeans, which were somewhere in Maureen James’s house.
“You’re locked out, aren’t you?” Nate’s voice startled the crap out of him.
Miguel spun around and would have fallen if Nate hadn’t grabbed his arm.
“Wha-?” His vision swam, and his forehead hurt where he’d smacked into Nate.
“I’m a pretty smart guy. Also, I know how to break into places. Unless you want to head back to the wedding?”
“No! Break in all you want.” He gestured at Buck’s two-story bungalow.
Ten minutes later they were standing in Buck’s kitchen. Nate was insisting Miguel drink a gallon of water before he tumbled into bed. He wasn’t that drunk, but he could feel the residual alcohol in his system. Nate disappeared for a minute before returning with a bottle of ibuprofen.
“I rummaged through the medicine cabinet. I think you may want this.”
“Oh hell yeah. You are my knight in shining armor tonight. What did I do to deserve you?”
Nate blushed. Miguel couldn’t avert his eyes. When Nate blushed he went big; there was no hiding the tide of red that swept across his face.
“Aw, it’s okay, baby. I needed a hero.”
“I’m pretty sure you need some more water and to go to bed.”
“Yeah, probably, but you know I’m gonna try and get you to join me.” Yep. Vow of chastity out the window.
Nate blushed harder, but he grinned too. “I don’t think we play in the same league. As in I’m an amateur and you must have several gold medals under your belt. So to speak.” Even more blush. He was cute. And way too good for Miguel.
“Is this your place?” Nate asked, while refilling the water glass. He tapped two ibuprofen into Miguel’s palm and watched as he swallowed them.
“Nah.” Miguel waved a hand at the kitchen walls. “It’s Buck and Joey’s. Buck—who, before I start sounding truly ungrateful, is my best friend and possibly the nicest person in the world—got all high-handed when he found out where I was living and basically made me move in with him.”
Nate glanced around, and Miguel was struck by how much he’d miss this place. He felt sick and didn’t think it was the alcohol. The kitchen was homey and comfortable, with little touches like a goofy black cat clock with a swinging tail and a vintage tin Mobil gas sign with a red Pegasus leaping into flight taking up most of the wall behind the breakfast nook. The back door they had come through led out to a small deck with potted flowers and a two-person table-and-chairs set.
“I gotta find my own place before they get back.” Miguel tried not to let on how depressing he found that idea.
“They asked you to move out?”
“No.” He let out a heavy sigh. “But it’s time this little bird left the nest. I can’t keep letting Buck take care of me. Joey is enough of a handful.”
Miguel made his way upstairs to his bedroom, and Nate followed him.
“Are you gonna tuck me in? Isn’t that below your pay grade, Fed?” He threw himself dramatically onto his bed. The covers were a tragic mess, as usual, and Miguel didn’t care enough to try and straighten them.
“Are you going to sleep in your tuxedo? Let’s at least get the jacket off.”
“Fucking tuxedo,” Miguel muttered, but he sat up so Nate could help him take the jacket off, his own fingers fumbling helplessly with the various parts that needed unbuttoning or unsnapping. How’d he managed to get the cummerbund back on—and why? Nate carefully folded it, along with the jacket, laying them across the back of a chair in the corner. Then he returned to unbutton the stupid shirt. Miguel just sat there, a dress-shop dummy, and watched while Nate took care of most of his clothes.
“What about your slacks?”
“What about my slacks? You wanna see what’s underneath? I gotta secret…” Miguel waggled his eyebrows. “I don’t like underwear.”
“I think you can sleep with the slacks on.”
“Fine.” He pouted. He’d take them off as soon as Mr. Straitlaced left the room.
“That’s enough, Romeo,” Nate chuckled after a stray hand ran down the inside of his trouser-covered leg. It was Miguel’s hand. Huh.
“I’m just being friendly.”
Nate rolled his eyes. “You have the hands of an octopus.”
“Octopus have tantacula, tentacles. Right.” Amused blue eyes stared down at him. “Wow.”
“Your face… mmm.” Miguel lifted a hand, trying to reach Nate’s cheek. His freckles fascinated Miguel. He had the most ridiculous thought that he wanted to trace them and see if the constellations he was imagining led anywhere. Exhaustion and alcohol finally overwhelmed Miguel; he shut his eyes and swirling images of galaxies and red-haired men with eyes like the night sky beckoned him toward sleep.
A hand touched his calf, startling him. Nate—right—pulled the duvet up over his shoulders. Miguel loved the weight of covers despite the early-summer heat. His pillow was cool under his cheek, and the last thing he was conscious of was the bedroom light blinking off.
“There you are, you jerk.”
A bright light shone directly into Miguel’s eyes. He rolled over, fumbling to pull his pillow over his head and eyes. The pillow was pulled ruthlessly from his head.
“You are such an asshole. Did you ever think for one minute that people were worried about you? You couldn’t have left a note or told someone you were leaving?”
Miguel tried to blink the sleep from his eyes while he processed and deciphered what was being said. “Please turn the light off?”
Buck huffed but did as Miguel asked. The dark was a blessing. Miguel wondered what time it was and how long he had been asleep. Buck came over and sat on the edge of his bed, a serious expression on his face. Oh, great, it was daddy-chat time.
Miguel rolled over onto his stomach, his head resting in the crook of his elbow. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to get home, and Nate Richardson offered me a ride. I didn’t want to barge in and interrupt anything.”
“You mean you wanted to sneak off without a lecture.”
“Yeah, that too.” He turned his head so he could see Buck. He was still wearing his wedding tux. The man looked incredibly hot. Miguel could hear noises coming from downstairs, where Buck’s new husband was probably plotting Miguel’s death. “What time is it?”
“Late. But I was worried about you.” Buck ran a hand through his thick blond hair. He sighed. “Look, are you going to be okay while we’re gone?”
Shit. He must have really messed up if Buck was this worried about him. Miguel cast around for a way to reassure his best friend that he would not careen off the tracks while Buck and Joey were off enjoying Disneyland, or World, or wherever it was they were going.
“I was blowing off some steam, all right? Please don’t worry. It’s all good. I got this, the boys and I have the shop under control, and you are going to go off and enjoy your honeymoon with your man, all right?”
He must have said the right things, because Buck looked relieved. “Okay. If you need anything, call, okay? We can come home.”
Right. Miguel was going to interrupt his best friend’s honeymoon by calling him home. No fucking way. “I’ve got this. I promise. You go keep Joey out of trouble—if that’s possible.”
An indignant “Hey!” floated up from the first floor.
Buck grinned and dragged Miguel into a huge hug, which he didn’t protest against, because who wouldn’t like a great big hug from a handsome bear of a man?
Four hours later, the airport shuttle arrived to whisk his friends off on their three-week honeymoon. Miguel said goodbye and watched as the van drove away from the little bungalow. It settled into an odd silence, like it knew Miguel was alone. He could hear the creaks and groans of the old house, the tick of the kitchen clock, the slow hiss of the toilet tank filling back up.
He wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep. Hitching up the sweats he’d dragged on, he headed to the living room. Buck had set up an old desktop computer system in the corner, and Miguel booted it up. He needed to start looking for his own place; he might as well start now.