Finn peeked out at the stage with his stomach in knots, suddenly aware of just how many people had come to this thing. The place was packed wall-to-wall with women wearing dresses that would have cost him a month’s pay, a few men scattered between them, all of them here with their checkbooks ready.
That was good—the sanctuary needed all the donations it could get—but it was also terrifying.
Especially since they were all about to bid on a date with him.
Well, probably not all of them.
Crap, what if no one did?
What if he stood up there and the bidding started and no one even stuck up their hand? What if he had to walk off the stage, humiliated, because not even one rich old lady wanted to hang out with him for a few hours?
“And now, our most anticipated lot for the evening,” May said, in her gorgeous sparkling gown with her big, kind voice, gesturing toward where Finn had been peeking out. “A date with the sanctuary’s very own veterinarian, Finn!”
That was his cue.
He swallowed thickly, took a deep breath that wasn’t nearly as calming as he would have liked, and stepped out onto the stage to…
Cheering. And wolf-whistles.
The roar of the crowd was deafening, matched by the way his heart was suddenly pounding in his chest. His whole body vibrated as he came to stand beside May, on full display for everyone to see.
Finn wasn’t entirely sure this was better than not being bid on at all, but he’d take it. The rush of blood in his ears was distracting him from how much he wanted to throw up right now.
He should have worn a shirt. Everyone was looking at him, and it was a little cold up here.
At least he’d kept his pants on.
Even after Oscar had suggested they’d get more bids if he went out in his underwear.
“Shall we start at an extremely reasonable five hundred dollars?” May asked.
A dozen placards went up. Finn’s eyes widened.
“Now now, ladies, let’s not all bid at once.”
Finn stared out at the crowd as the bidding reached the thousands in what felt like a matter of seconds, his vision starting to blur as he heard things like last call for three thousand ringing in his ears.
At least he didn’t have to worry about not being bid on.
Three thousand dollars for an afternoon with him. Wow.
“Five,” came a male voice from the back of the room.
“Five thousand to Mr. Matthews in the back,” May said. “Any advances on that?”
Five thousand dollars?
Finn peered into the back of the audience, but between the bright lights and the shadow of the balcony of the auditorium they were using, he couldn’t see the man—Mr. Matthews—who’d bid on him.
He really hadn’t expected to be bid on by a man.
Not that he minded, exactly. He’d expected to end up being bought by a rich old lady who wanted to play pretend for an afternoon, not… someone who might actually be attracted to him.
Or maybe not. Maybe this was just philanthropy from someone who really liked animals and happened to be a guy.
A guy about Finn’s age, from the sound of his voice. Not that two words was really enough to judge by.
That wasn’t totally impossible, was it?
Ryan would have known. He’d know exactly who Mr. Matthews was and what his history with the sanctuary had been right down to the last penny, but Ryan wasn’t here.
Or, well, he was here somewhere, but it looked like Finn was going to have to deal with this guy before he had a chance to ask him any of the thousand questions he suddenly had.
“Going three times,” May said as Finn tuned back in, his mind still reeling from the shock that he’d been bid on by anyone at all, and at five thousand dollars, and by a man whose face he couldn’t see but suddenly desperately wanted to.
“Sold to Mr. Matthews, come around and we’ll figure out the details,” May said. “That’s it for the auction, folks! Stick around for dessert and a presentation by Doctor Reyes on all the babies we’ve raised this year thanks to your generous support.”
On second thought, Finn was glad he’d been auctioned off. Having to get up on stage and actually talk to all these people would have been much worse. At least this way, he could only make an idiot of himself in front of one of them.
May smiled broadly at him as she waved him off the stage, so at least someone was happy. Five thousand dollars was a lot of money—it wasn’t the biggest donation they’d ever gotten or anything, but it’d make a difference.
One awkward afternoon was worth it, right?
Finn took a minute to catch his breath and run his fingers through his hair, wanting to make a good impression. This guy could have been an important donor, after all, and he didn’t want to seem uninterested.
He really wished he was wearing a shirt.
Oscar would have been better at this, too. Ezra would have been incredible, but he hadn’t gotten back yet.
None of which mattered, because Finn had volunteered, and it was up to him now.
He could be charming.
It’d only been two years since he’d been on a date. It was probably like riding a bicycle.
Not that he knew how to ride a bicycle, either.
“There you are!” May enthused, leading two men around Finn’s age directly toward him.
One of them, Finn assumed, was Mr. Matthews. Probably the taller, smiling one with May’s hand on his arm. She knew how to handle a donor.
“I’ll leave you boys to settle on the particulars,” she said with a broad smile.
Finn’s stomach sank. May clearly had a lot more faith in his ability to handle people than he did.
“Pleasure to meet you,” the man Finn assumed was Mr. Matthews offered his hand.
He didn’t even seem to notice Finn wasn’t wearing a shirt, and Finn wasn’t sure if that was comforting or insulting.
“Uh, pleasure’s mutual,” Finn said. That sounded like the kind of thing to say.
It made the guy laugh, anyway, so that worked.
“Thank you for not calling me Mr. Matthews,” he said. “I’m Gavin, and this is Nolan.”
Finn turned his attention to the man standing a half-step behind Gavin Matthews, taking in a ruffled head of chocolate-brown hair and the biggest puppy dog eyes he’d ever seen in his life.
Puppy dog eyes that were flicking between his face and his chest, mouth hanging open a little way.
Finn felt heat creeping up the back of his neck, and really hoped neither of them would be able to tell he was blushing in the low backstage lighting.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’m handing this date off to him,” Gavin added.
Nolan’s already huge eyes widened. Clearly, he hadn’t been expecting to hear that any more than Finn had.
“Oh, uh… yeah, sure, I don’t really… mind one way or another,” Finn responded. He offered what he hoped was a reassuring smile to Nolan, who suddenly looked nervous. “I don’t bite.”
“That’s a shame,” Gavin said. “Mr. Twenty-seven-year-old virgin here could probably use someone who does.”
Finn had no idea how to respond to that, especially since Nolan had gone bright red. Gavin probably thought it was a joke, but his… friend? Brother? Obviously didn’t feel the same way.
Which made the whole situation even more awkward than Finn had been afraid it’d be.
“Not without consent, anyway,” Finn said, not entirely sure that was helpful.
Maybe it was years of working with trapped and frightened animals, but he had a sudden urge to rescue Nolan. The guy looked like he could use it.
“So, uh,” he continued. “If you’re handing me over to him, I guess your work here is done? Oscar’s about to start showing off pictures.”
Gavin grinned broadly, slapping Nolan on the shoulder. “Go get ‘em, tiger,” he said, chuckling to himself as he turned and walked away.
Finn watched him grab a glass of champagne from a tray—probably not his first for the evening—and disappear into the crowd.
Now that he was alone with Nolan, Finn wasn’t entirely sure what to say. Other than maybe wow, that guy’s an asshole—but without knowing what their relationship to each other was, that seemed risky.
Which didn’t mean he was about to stop thinking it. He and Oscar gave each other crap about their love lives all the time, but not in front of strangers, and neither of them cared about being teased. That exchange had made him uncomfortable, and he wasn’t even the focus of it.
“I’m sorry about him,” Nolan said. “He’s… he’s not a bad guy, he’s just like that when he drinks.”
“Brother?” Finn asked, figuring that’d explain it.
“Cousin, but we kinda grew up like brothers.” Nolan shrugged. “He’s okay. I think you’d like him if you got to know him.”
Finn opened his mouth to say that Nolan didn’t need to defend him, but thought better of it. He was here to go on one date for charity. Not explain to the guy all the ways in which one of his closest relationships looked like a mess from the outside.
Hell, maybe Nolan actually did like Gavin’s company.
“Maybe,” he responded instead, since that seemed like a safer, non-committal option. Finn got the impression he really wouldn’t have liked the guy. A person who was an asshole when they’d been drinking was just a person who was an asshole all the time, but self-aware enough not to get busted being one when they were sober.
He’d learned that lesson the hard way.
“We don’t actually have to do this if you don’t want to,” Nolan said. “I’ll just… tell him we did.”
Finn looked at Nolan carefully, unsure if this was a subtle way of getting out of something he didn’t want to do, or if he was trying to give Finn a way out because he thought Finn wouldn’t want to do it.
Probably the latter. Nolan seemed shy.
Also, being practically forced into a date with a total stranger who was standing in front of you half-naked had to be uncomfortable. Especially if Nolan was attracted to men, which Finn was starting to think he was.
“Dude, I haven’t been on a date in two years,” he said, knowing that Nolan had already been embarrassed about the state of his love life and wanting to even the playing field a little. “I’m begging you. At least let me pretend someone wants to hang out with me.”
Nolan met his eyes, his features going through a dozen different expressions before settling on disbelief. “But you’re…” he gestured vaguely up and down at Finn. “You’re… you.”
“Have been all my life,” Finn agreed, grinning.
“I’m not normally this hopeless.” Nolan sighed. “I mean… that’s a lie, but I’m usually better at hiding how hopeless I am. I don’t do well with crowds.”
“Gotcha,” Finn nodded. “And don’t worry about it. I had to auction myself off shirtless to get anyone to even consider going on a date with me. Embarrassing, or what?”
That wasn’t strictly true—the problem wasn’t convincing people to want to date him in the first place. The problem was that people were people, and Finn was sick of them turning out to be awful a few dates in, and he’d just… stopped dating.
If Oscar hadn’t been on his back about it since he’d found Ryan, he probably wouldn’t have done this, either.
Nolan finally laughed, and it felt like a victory. Finn wanted to make him laugh some more.
“Come on,” he said. “Come see the sanctuary. Enjoy my best attempt at putting together a passable meal. Meet the python.”
Nolan’s eyes widened, and Finn realized how that sounded in context with Gavin’s earlier remarks.
“The uh. The actual python. Her name’s Buttercup. We have a tiger, too. It’s… I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s a weird place, but it’s kinda magical.”
“Sounds like it.” Nolan wet his lips. “I always wanted to meet a python.”
“Awesome.” Finn beamed, pleased that he’d found something to offer Nolan. “I promise it’ll be no-pressure. Come in jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers, we’ll eat something terrible for us and I’ll tell you everything I know about animals.”
“Aren’t you a vet?” Nolan asked.
“Yeah. I guess telling you everything I know might be overkill, huh?” Finn rubbed the back of his neck, offering Nolan a sheepish smile.
He was shy, too.
Especially when the person he was talking to had big, sad eyes and was built like someone he could pin against the wall with their legs wrapped around his waist.
Not that he was thinking that.
But it’d been a long time since he’d talked to someone who might have been remotely interested in him. He missed being close to people.
He missed sex. Almost enough to let Oscar make him a hookup app profile, but not quite enough to get past the discomfort of having sex with a total stranger.
It’d been a very long two years.
Nolan shrugged. “I’d listen,” he said. “You have a nice voice.”
That was the first time Finn had been complimented on his voice, but he was willing to take it. The ice between them was starting to crack, and he wanted to keep that going.
Partly because it’d make the whole date thing less awkward, partly because the impulse to rescue Nolan still hadn’t faded.
He was cute, in an adorable nerd kind of way.
“So… days, times? What works for you?”
“Would a weekend be okay?” Nolan asked sheepishly. “It’s just… I work a lot during the week and I don’t have a ton of spare time.”
“I can totally do a weekend,” Finn said. He’d been expecting to be asked that, anyway. “Or an evening, if that’s better for you?”
Nolan glanced in the direction Gavin had disappeared in, obviously considering something.
“Maybe… maybe Friday afternoon?” he asked. “I think if Gavin got me into this he has to give me the afternoon off to do it.”
Finn beamed at him. “Now you’re thinking,” he said. “So you work for him?”
“I’m his CTO. That’s, uh…”
“Chief technology officer, I know,” Finn nodded. “Big job. And you’re only twenty-seven?”
Nolan shrugged. “Nepotism,” he said. “Gavin also believes people over thirty are stupid. I’m not… sure what he’s gonna do in two years when he turns thirty.”
Laughter escaped Finn before he could stop himself, but Nolan didn’t look all that offended on Gavin’s behalf. Obviously, their relationship was a little on the complicated side.
“Update it to thirty-five,” Finn said.
“Probably,” Nolan agreed. “So this Friday? I could get away around three, I’m not sure how far the sanctuary is from town…”
“A solid forty-five minutes if you don’t get lost. So allow like an hour and a half.”
Nolan chuckled, and Finn was quickly getting to the point where he wanted to figure out how to make him keep doing that, whatever it took. His eyes lit up when he laughed, and the worry was starting to melt away from his features.
He really was cute when he wasn’t freaking out. Finn had a good six inches on him, and he had narrower shoulders, too.
Finn’s type. He liked a man who could sit in his lap.
Nolan would have fit perfectly.
He looked out-of-place in a suit, but it was easy enough to imagine him being a lot of fun when he was more comfortable.
“So we should probably round it off to five? I know that’s not really the afternoon, but…”
“No, that’s perfect. Gives me time to make sure I’ve finished everything up for the day.”
“If you’re sure?” Nolan shifted his weight uncertainly.
“I’m positive. Here, gimme your number,” Finn said, pulling his phone out, unlocking it, and passing it over.
It wasn’t as though Nolan was going to find nudes on there or anything. Finn hadn’t had anyone to send them to.
Hell, he’d never taken one.
“And then text yourself so you’ve got mine,” he added. “So if anything changes or… whatever, you can get in touch. And it’s way better to text me than call, because you never know when I’m up to my elbows in something. Not that you can’t call, just… expect to leave a message. I don’t really believe in answering phones.”
“That’s okay, me neither,” Nolan said, finishing up with Finn’s phone and passing it back. “And I’ll put this in my calendar right now,” he added. “So I can’t forget.”
“You’re saying I’m not completely unforgettable?” Finn teased.
“I’d have a hard time forgetting you,” Nolan responded, and Finn could just feel him opening up. That felt good.
“It’s dates and times and where I’m supposed to be during them that I struggle with. I’d probably forget to go home from work if I didn’t set an alarm.”
“I’ll send you a reminder at three on Friday,” Finn promised. “You’ve agreed to hang out with me now, and I’m planning on holding you to it.”
“I’ll be there,” Nolan said earnestly, glancing over in the direction Gavin had disappeared in again. “I should, uh…”
“Go tell Gavin how hot your date is and that he’s making you take Friday afternoon off to hang out with him?” Finn offered.
He’d nearly said babysit your cousin, which he was starting to think was Nolan’s actual purpose here. But that was none of his business.
“Something like that,” Nolan said, a tiny smile playing around his lips.
Yeah, okay, Finn was willing to admit he was cute. Definitely his type, too. Finn had a thing for nerds and it didn’t do anyone any favors to pretend otherwise.
“See you later,” he said, backing away and heading toward the crowd.
Finn smiled after him, maybe a little excited that his date was going to be with someone he’d enjoy spending some time with.
He turned to the crowd as well, deciding it was his duty to ask Oscar questions about his presentation when he was done in case no one else did.
Right after he found his shirt.