It’s just a theater, not a torture chamber. You’re here to consult, as a favor to a friend, nothing more.
No matter how many times Nate Albano had repeated that to himself in the last few hours, his palms were still sweaty as he entered the Bluewater Bay Theater lobby. Chill. Focus on the task at hand—or on the building itself, not what it stands for in your own pathetic life.
From his research into town history, Nate knew that the theater had started life as a vaudeville house in the early twenties, but had hosted barely six months’ worth of acts before it closed, a victim of the rise of the nickelodeon and the difficulty of luring quality performers to the Olympic Peninsula. It’d had a second life as a first-run movie house in Hollywood’s golden era, but had closed again with the rise of the multiplex and a downturn in the local economy.
Now, it was experiencing another revival—in more ways than one. The vintage movie posters lining the lobby were a little yellowed with age, but now they were encased in glass and high-end frames. The carpet, still dotted with random crimson tufts where the installers had been sloppy with the vacuum, hadn’t lost the odor of newness. No doubt about it—the playhouse had benefited from its association with Levi Pritchard.
Nate could relate. He had Levi to thank for his own presence in Bluewater Bay. In the aftermath of Jorge walking out on their six-year relationship, Nate had burned so many bridges in Hollywood that he hadn’t worked for over a year. Then he’d gotten that call out of the blue—Levi had recommended Nate for a spot on the special effects crew of Wolf’s Landing on the strength of his work on the SFX crews of Levi’s indie films. So what if setting foot in a theater again knotted his belly and sent his pulse into overdrive? Levi had asked for his help on his latest community theater production—and Levi could pretty much ask him to do anything, short of taking a flying leap off the edge of Sandy Bluff, and Nate would follow through.
When he slipped into the auditorium, Levi was standing at the edge of the stage, flanked by a woman wearing a headset and a man scribbling notes on a clipboard. Nate knew the drill all too well—he’d logged enough hours in darkened theaters to identify the defeated slump of the crew’s shoulders and the tension fairly vibrating off Levi. Welcome to tech week.
Nate started down the aisle as Levi cursed under his breath.
“The set looks great, Jack, don’t get me wrong. But the vibe for this scene—Darla, can we do something with the lights to make this look more like a luxury hotel gone to seed and less like the Transylvania Holiday Inn?”
The woman muttered into her mic, and the lights bathing the stage dimmed and took on a bluish cast.
“Yeah, that’s it. Can we get more of the moonlight effect through the window? And what about— Nate.” Levi beckoned him over. “Thank God. Come meet everyone.”
When Nate reached the front of the house, Levi clapped him on the shoulder. “Folks, this is Nate Albano, who’s on the special effects crew for Wolf’s Landing. Darla’s our lighting designer.” She nodded but turned away to continue her conversation. Levi turned to the man with the clipboard, a thirtysomething guy with sandy hair and a determined chin. “And Jack’s my technical director. He’s done miracles with our limited budgets.”
Nate shook hands, nodding at the set, with its dark wainscoting and realistic plaster walls. “I can tell. You must have a killer fly system to be able to cap the walls with the ceiling that way.”
“Yeah.” Jack shrugged. “Thanks to Levi. He ponied up half the cost for the upgrade a couple years back.”
“Don’t give me more credit than I’m due,” Levi said. “Guy Parker was the real hero there. Between his fundraising campaign and his own donations—”
Jack leaned toward Nate and spoke out of the side of his mouth. “Only because he didn’t want the scenery to fall on his wife’s head.”
Levi chuckled. “Elle Parker is one of our regular actors—she’s playing Elizabeth. Hey, Elle,” he called. “Come on out and meet the man who’s facilitating your murder.”
A willowy blonde woman poked her head out of the wings. “You bellowed, oh fearless leader?” She walked out onto the apron, her long rehearsal skirt setting the residual construction dust swirling. A thin, nervous-looking man in a business suit followed her, squinting in the lights.
“Elle, meet Nate.” Levi nodded at the man. “That’s her husband, Guy.” Guy raised a hand in greeting but didn’t come closer.
Elle leaned over to shake Nate’s hand. “Pleased to meet you. I make it a practice to be on good terms with all my killers.”
“Don’t think of me as a killer. I’m more a serial enabler.”
“That’s right,” a deep voice boomed. “Don’t encroach on my territory.” A huge guy—made even huger by boots with stacked soles and a shirt with some serious shoulder padding—stomped onstage. His face was seamed with scars and distorted by some convincing prosthetics.
Holy— Ty, the cook at Flat Earth, was intimidating enough just wielding his long-handled pizza peel. But now? “You’re playing the Creature, Ty? Wow. Talk about typecasting.”
“Watch it, Albano,” Ty growled, “or I’ll slip jalapeños under the mushrooms on your next combo pie.” Then he grinned, offering Nate a fist bump.
“Elle, Ty, can you run through the blocking for this scene for Nate? I want him to see what we’re trying not to do.”
“Sure thing, Levi.” Ty lumbered off stage right, while Guy sidled over to stand next to Nate and Levi.
Elle took her place in the middle of the set and began to pace, glancing at the camelback clock over the fireplace, peering out the window as if waiting for someone to return.
Something thumped stage right outside the door. Elle spun around as the door swung open slowly, revealing Ty looming outside, filling the doorframe. He growled low in his throat, took a step forward . . . and banged his head on the lintel.
Elle burst into giggles as Ty rubbed his forehead.
Levi sighed. “Ty, we talked about this. You need to slam the door open. Try it again, and this time, really whale on it.”
“Got it.” He exited, closing the door gingerly.
The actors started the scene again, and on cue, Ty flung the door open so hard that it bounced off the wall and creaked closed in his face. This time, even Levi laughed—although he also pinched the bridge of his nose.
“See why I called you? This is a climactic scene. If we were doing Young Frankenstein instead of just Frankenstein, that would have been golden.”
Nate’s cell phone shrilled from his jacket pocket. “Shit. Sorry, Levi. Should have silenced it before I came in.” His mother would have murdered him for disrupting a rehearsal with a cell phone call. He pulled the phone out—speak of the she-devil—and took great pleasure in turning the damn thing off when he saw his mother’s name on the caller ID.
Levi cleared his throat. “Didn’t mean to invade your privacy, but Iris Bedrosian, Nate? The Iris Bedrosian?” His eyebrows snapped together. “You’re not leaving Wolf’s Landing for Broadway, are you?”
“Trust me. There’s zero chance of that.”
“Then why— I mean, sorry if I’m intruding, but it seems odd she’d call you if it wasn’t about a job.”
“Well . . .” Nate rubbed the back of his neck. “She’s my mother.”
“You’re kidding. We’ve known each other how long, and you never thought to mention it?”
“Not exactly something I advertise. I didn’t speak to her for over fourteen years.”
Levi nodded. “Mom issues. I get it. Been down that road myself.”
“Yeah? Did yours lie to you the way mine did to me?”
“Actually, it was the other way around. I lied to her and my father about being bisexual.”
“We didn’t have that issue, but—” Nate shook his head. “Hey. We’re not here to talk about motherly love or lack of it. I take it you want to beef up the impact of this scene.”
“So . . .” Nate squinted at the coffered ceiling on the hotel room set. “How would you feel about an audience-shits-their-pants moment?”
Levi grinned. “I’d kill for one. Think you can deliver?”
With this set and a competent TD? “Yeah, I can do that.”
“That’s why I love working with you. What have you got?”
Nate pointed to the ceiling. “We can take full advantage of the current design. All we have to do is—”
“Levi?” Carter Samuels called from halfway down the aisle. “Are you ready to go?”
Levi’s smile bloomed as he gazed at his husband. “Hey, babe. What—” He winced. “C.J.’s party. Damn. I forgot. But it’s tech week—”
“Yeah, and your actors and crew have other jobs.” Carter sauntered over. When he gave Levi a kiss, the expression on both their faces was one of total adoration. Just like I thought I had once. “Come on, you slave driver. Let everyone go.”
“You’re right.” He turned to the stage. “That’s it for tonight, everyone. Tomorrow night, same time.” He grabbed Nate’s elbow. “Not you, though. You can fill me in on your ideas at the party.”
“I . . . uh . . . wasn’t planning to go.”
Levi frowned. “How long have you been in this town? Six months? Seven?”
“Eight and a half, actually.”
“Eight and a half, then, and you haven’t gone out with us once.”
“I have. A couple of times.”
“Only because you were forced. This’ll be an easy one. It’s just over at Ma Cougar’s, nothing too fancy, everyone welcome.” Levi lowered his voice, let go of Nate’s elbow, and squeezed his shoulder instead. “It’s been three years since he left. Isn’t it time to get out there again?”
What was it about people who were stupid in love? Why did they think everyone else burned to be in the same state? Nate was managing just fine on his own. He had his job, his dog, his hobbies. If he was lonely from time to time, so what? Better that than a futile search for a soul mate, someone who got him. I’ve had that. Twice. Can’t expect lightning to strike a third time.
“I’m good, Levi. Really.”
“Even so, you’re coming along tonight. Have a drink or two and tell me about your ideas, because we’ve only got a week to implement them. Jack? Can you join us?”
“Sure. Soon as I lock up.”
“See you there.” Levi slung his arm across Carter’s shoulders. “Let’s get going—the sooner we make our appearance, the sooner we can leave.”
Nate sighed and followed the couple up the aisle. What the hell—it wasn’t as if he had to meet anyone’s socializing expectations. It’s just a drink. For Levi, surely he could survive one evening out.
On Sunday morning when Seth Larson went to his grandmother’s house to steal coffee, he found her lying in wait for him. “I’m absolutely certain there are squirrels in the attic,” she said in greeting after he’d let himself in the kitchen door.
“Grandma.” That was totally a whiny voice. You’re thirty, shape up. “Let me at least finish one cup first.”
Peering at him over the top of her newspaper, she nodded. He’d been his grandmother’s de facto handyman long enough—twelve years, on and off—to read her unspoken message. This was part of her plan to get the Sentinel House—the Larson family manse—in shape to sell.
He couldn’t crush her dream of getting rid of this albatross and moving into Bluewater Bay Senior Estates. So, he spent the next eight hours hunting for squirrels in all the hidey-holes and crawl spaces his great-great-grandfather had had built into the place.
It took all day, and he never found a single squirrel. He did run across a total of five mummified rodent corpses. Thank God for work gloves, because when he planted his hand right in the remains of the first one and it crunched flat under his weight, he nearly shrieked. He managed to contain it to a yelp. Yet another reason for Grandma to sell the damn place. If only they could convince the rest of the family.
Finally done, he had to rush back to his studio apartment over the garage. He had barely a half hour to clean up and make it to Ma Cougar’s to meet Lucas Wilder. Even though he was looking forward to going out tonight, Seth debated with himself about it while he was in the shower. Grandma had seemed unnaturally melancholy. Maybe leaving her alone wasn’t a good idea. But he wanted to get out, even needed it. Since his grandmother had decided to get the house sale-ready, she’d been having him do more chores than normal around the place. He’d hardly seen anyone under fifty all week other than at work.
What am I going to do when Grandma moves?
Well, there was something he hadn’t thought of.
Huh. Realizing he was doing nothing but standing in a spray of warm water, staring at droplets forming and then running down the glass door, Seth shook himself from his thoughts and finished washing up.
It only took him a few more minutes to fix his hair and trim his beard with the clippers in order to keep it just the length he liked. He was only meeting Lucas after all, this wasn’t a date in either Grandma’s sense or his own. He hadn’t gotten “social” in a while, but he had high hopes that Lucas would make a good wingman.
Maybe “high” hopes was a bit of an exaggeration.
Ma Cougar’s was less than a block away. The hip new gastropub had been built on the site of the town’s first lumber mill, which in turn had been built by none other than his own great-great-grandfather.
Interesting how his father and uncle were okay with selling off the mill land, but couldn’t bear to part with a house neither even wanted to live in. He filed that thought away for future use, when the sale of Sentinel House became a family “discussion.”
Light met him at the double doors that opened on the restaurant side, and warmth blasted his face the second he walked in. For some reason, when he wasn’t working he preferred entering this way. Like going in the front door instead of the servants’ entrance.
“Hey, Diana.” He smiled at the assistant manager as he passed the hostess stand. She smiled back and waved before continuing what she’d been saying to the new hostess under training.
He found Lucas at a table in the narrow passage between the bar and dining room areas.
He and Lucas should have been friends in high school. They were in the same grade, were each descended from pioneer families that had settled the area and—most importantly in Seth’s mind back then—they were both gay. They hadn’t been friends though, because Lucas had been a douche.
Except Seth had an inkling that if things had been reversed and Lucas had been the accidentally outed gay boy while Seth had been the closeted one desperately trying to appear straight, he might have avoided Lucas like the plague much the same way Lucas had avoided him.
Even back then, Seth was pretty sure he’d been the more butch one of the two of them. An impression he only confirmed for himself as he watched the dude sipping a fruity drink through a straw while waiting for him. Or maybe not—Lucas jerked his head back from the glass after a sip and grimaced at it, as if it had personally offended him. His expression was still one of distaste when he caught sight of Seth and lifted a hand half-heartedly.
Did no one want to see him tonight? Buck up. Diana had been busy, and Lucas was being, well, Lucas. Not all of the dude’s douchebaggery had been left back in his teen years. The difference was now he apologized if it was pointed out to him, and he seemed truly repentant. It was the only reason Seth socialized with him.
Well, that and the need he seemed to have to make Lucas like him. There was something he wished he’d left back in twelfth grade.
“This is disgusting,” the man in question said once Seth was within hearing range. “I hope when you start tending bar you don’t force shit like this on me.”
“Someone forced you to order an orange drink with a pineapple and a little parasol?” Seth shrugged his jacket off and hung it on the little hook at the end of the booth. As he turned to sit, he found Lucas had stood and was kissing him on the cheek before plopping down again.
Seth snorted as he slid into the booth. “Sometimes you make it really hard to forget you haven’t lived here since you were eighteen.”
“No kissing friends hello, then, huh?” Lucas rolled his eyes before leaning forward to take his straw back into his mouth, biting it and shaking his head with his teeth bared. Apparently that was his opinion of social customs in Bluewater Bay.
“Kiss me if you want.” Seth shrugged. “I’m just saying people don’t see two guys greeting each other that way around here often.”
“Why did I move back again?”
“Gabe,” they both said at the same moment, and Lucas’s dissatisfied expression melted away as he went dreamy-eyed. There was no other word for it. Lucas sighed and sipped his drink, which apparently killed his mood all over again.
“Yuck. Screw this.” He shoved the glass toward the end of the table. “I can’t do it. I’ll have that beer I usually order.” Leave it to him to assume Seth would know what he meant. “The light caramel one, you know? Just a skosh bitter?”
Of course, Seth did know. Lucas ordered it every time he came in, as soon as someone reminded him what it was. “Local Logger Lager.” How hard was that to remember? “How’d you end up with—” he squinted at the pear-shaped cocktail on their table, trying to place it. Got it. “—a zombie, anyway?”
Lucas bobbed his head toward the wall next to them, and the glossy, picture-laden specialty cocktails menu that was posted there. “I couldn’t resist the name. You should come up with some classier mixed drinks.”
“I’m only a lowly bartender, I’m not in charge of that stuff,” Seth reminded him as he flagged down Zoe. “Plus, I technically don’t start the new job until tomorrow.” Ma Cougar’s seemed extra busy tonight, and Zoe looked extra flustered as she headed their way, carrying a fully laden bar tray. “Hey, hi.” He gave her his most winning smile as she lurched to a stop next to their booth.
“You guys want something else?”
“A couple of Local Loggers?” He hated asking her when the place was packed. “Or I could go get them myself.”
“Nah,” she said over her shoulder as she started off again. “Let me, it’s your last night before starting the new job.”
Lucas spent the first half hour catching Seth up on his life. It was mostly about some gallery show Lucas was making a lot of work for, and everything Gabe had been doing regarding his tree farm. To hear Lucas tell it, it sounded as if Savage Tree Farm was quickly turning into a marijuana operation. Seth didn’t need all the updates—his regular customers kept him current on just about everything and everyone in Bluewater Bay—but he took a sip every time Lucas said his boyfriend’s name. He’d finished his first beer and nodded at Zoe for another before Lucas asked, “So, what’s up with you?”
“Nothing, really.” He shrugged. “You already know about my promotion, and otherwise it’s same old, same old.” Mentally debating whether it was a good idea to tell Lucas about sprucing up Grandma’s house to sell, he busied himself with spinning a beer coaster on its side.
Until Lucas slapped it flat, killing all motion. “So no one new?” he asked pleasantly, in complete contrast to how aggressive his coaster offense had been. “Seeing anyone regularly?”
Seth raised his brow and pointedly eyed Lucas’s hand, still palm down on the table in front of him.
“Sorry,” Lucas sighed, withdrawing his arm. He grimaced apologetically and picked up his beer—still nearly full—sipping it while he watched Seth over the rim.
Ever since Lucas Wilder and Gabe Savage had gotten together, Lucas had been cajoling Seth into finding a “one true love.” In keeping with his preferred lack of making an effort, Lucas did so by asking a lot of questions about who Seth had been messing around with, and what kind of “future” they might have as a couple.
The guy was motivated by his own guilt, and his desire to get rid of it. Guilt over being a dick to Seth in high school and over “stealing” Gabe. Probably mostly over the stealing of Gabe, which was all in the dude’s head. Seth and Gabe had been fuck buddies and friends, nothing more. He still had half of that, and it wasn’t very difficult to find someone to hook up with in this town, not since Wolf’s Landing had started filming here.
Right now, talking about Grandma’s house seemed like a better topic, even if he was trying to keep gossip from getting around until after the rest of the family had agreed to the sale. Lucas wasn’t likely to tell anyone, anyway. He wasn’t likely to remember it past tonight. The guy gave new meaning to “self-absorbed.”
Maybe I still have issues with him . . . Whatever.
Seth’s thinking silence had consequences. “I haven’t seen you around much, lately,” Lucas continued as he set his beer down. “I thought maybe you and—”
“I’m helping Grandma get her house ready to sell.” He wasn’t throwing her under the bus by telling. Not really. “She wants to move into the Bluewater Bay Senior Estates.”
“Oooh!” Lucas’s eyes lit up, which seemed a pretty damned odd reaction. “Gramma—Gabe’s grandmother—would move there in half a second if she thought she could.”
Crazy. Even talk of Gabe’s family affected the dude. Or he really liked Gabe’s grandmother. Not impossible to believe—Seth really liked his grandmother. “That so? Huh.”
“I think she wants to be closer to the gossip.” Lucas squinted. “And her friends.”
“Why doesn’t she move?”
Lucas shrugged. “She feels like she needs to stay with her family. Gabe’s mom would be all alone in the house if she left. I mean, Jane tells her it would be fine, but Gramma doesn’t believe it, I guess.”
Jane was Ms. Savage’s first name? He’d never known that. Lucas must be pretty close to Gabe’s family. Of course, the couple lived in an apartment that Gabe had built years ago in the horse barn, while Gabe’s grandmother and mother lived in the “big house.” It was a lot like Seth’s own situation, minus his mother and a live-in partner. Oh, and his apartment was much smaller.
“Listen, don’t tell anyone about the house, we’re trying to keep it secret. Although she might already have a buyer—Charley Sykes and his wife want to turn it into a B&B.” They were locals, about ten years older than Seth and Lucas were, but their kids were already off to college. People started young in small towns. Some people.
He could tell by the way Lucas squinted and stared at the ceiling that he had no clue who that was. Lucas didn’t ask though. “So once your grandma sells the house, are you leaving Bluewater Bay?”
The question startled Seth so much he could only blink for a second. But Lucas didn’t jump in and continue, instead he waited with what looked like true interest. “Um, I wasn’t planning on leaving, no.” Not that he’d made a plan to stay. Or any plans at all. Why had this whole issue only occurred to him tonight?
“Really?” Lucas screwed up his brows. “If it wasn’t for Gabe, I wouldn’t stay here.”
As if Seth didn’t know Lucas was only here now because Gabe was tied to his family’s tree farm? Oh, cool it. Getting prickly with Lucas because of his own questions about what he was going to do and why he was even still here in this town was stupid.
Still, he didn’t feel like revealing any of his internal quandary to Lucas, no matter how civilized the dude had become. “Why would I want to leave? This is the farthest north you can go in the continental United States and still regularly bang TV stars.”
Lucas laughed, and Zoe came by just then, giving them a work-mode smile that Seth knew well. “So, are you guys planning on ordering any food, tonight? Because—”
“We can move to the bar, no problem.” Seth was already scooting to the edge of the booth and grabbing his jacket. When he reached back for his beer, he caught Lucas’s frown. Darn it, was the guy going to cause problems? Did he think his butt was too important to make room for a more lucrative customer’s?
“I didn’t even think of that,” was all Lucas said, though. “It is really crowded in here, huh?”
“It’s Prime Rib night,” Seth explained, then tried to decide the fastest way to get Lucas to cooperate.
Except he didn’t need to because Lucas had already stood and taken his own glass, contradicting all Seth’s assumptions about the guy’s self-centeredness.
Shit, he really was still holding a few grudges about Lucas, wasn’t he?
* * * * * * *
With the chaos of the party swirling around their corner table, Nate had to almost shout so Jack and Levi could hear him. “See what I mean? We’ll only have to deal with this little section . . .” He scribbled a few final notes under his sketch and passed the paper to Jack. “It’ll be easy to replace for each performance.”
Jack nodded, a smile finally dawning on his face after a solid hour of scowling into his beer. “Yeah. Yeah, that’ll be a snap.”
“This is outstanding.” Levi threw back his head and laughed, causing everyone in the bar to look their way—Levi wasn’t normally a gut-laugh kind of guy. “I owe you. Big time.”
“The least I could do. Besides, design is the easy part. Jack has the tough job—he’ll have to prep the new sections and rebuild the lab table in a week.”
Levi slapped Jack on the shoulder. “No fear there. This guy can work miracles. Sometimes I think he actually lives in an alternate dimension where time runs at a different pace.”
For a dour guy, Jack blushed like a teenager. “It’s nothing. Just doing my job.” He stood up. “Thanks for the drink, Levi. And Nate? These designs—well, I hope I do them justice.” He lifted a hand and threaded his way through the crowd of Wolf’s Landing cast and crew, stopping near the door to exchange a couple of words with Carter.
Levi’s gaze lingered on his husband for a moment before returning to Nate. “Seriously, I can’t thank you enough.”
“No thanks necessary, man. After you went to bat for me—”
“No hardship there—in fact, Anna practically genuflects to me every time you pull off another effect that supports her anti-CGI position. And if you keep the actors safe . . .” His gaze wandered again, to where Carter was chatting with C.J. and Ginsberg.
Yeah, it’s not “actors” in general that he’s protective of. But Nate didn’t begrudge them their happiness—much. Well, begrudge wasn’t the word precisely. Envy. Yearn. Crave. Those were words he could get behind, when he was honest with himself, because it was obvious how connected the two men were, regardless of what went on in the bedroom.
That was what he missed, what he had little hope of finding again—someone who knew him so well that they’d meet his eyes across a room and their smile would be enough to ground him at the same time it lifted him up. A promise that no matter what crap life threw at the two of them, they were in it together.
A movement beyond Carter’s shoulder caught his eye. Over at the bar, a blond guy with a neat jawline beard stood up, turning a knockout smile on the waitress.
That’s the kind of smile I wish was waiting for me at the end of every day. But how likely was that? Given how few people understood the nuances of his orientation, the odds were astronomical. He’d beaten the odds twice—for a little while at least—but he’d given up on hitting the kind of jackpot Levi had with Carter. And given how gutted he’d been when both his previous relationships had ended, he was better off not gambling on another one, not with his lousy luck.
Much safer that way. Lonely, but safer. Although—he couldn’t help stealing another glance at the smiling blond—it would sure be nice to beat the odds for good.
The bar was unusually crowded for a Sunday—sometimes that happened for no rhyme or reason—so Seth led the way from the booth toward the barstools, which were probably their best shot at getting an actual seat. The very moment he stepped out of the dining room proper, the air grew staticky. Maybe it was because the area was so crowded—at least a third of the patrons were standing, unable to find seats. Maybe occupancy in excess of the fire marshal’s limit created electricity.
Did Lucas feel that strange atmosphere too? Seth screwed his head around to catch a glimpse of Lucas out of the corner of his eye. “What guy?”
He turned back the way he was going just in time to avoid walking into another pillar. Except this pillar was a person.
Oh, Guy. “Hey there.” Seth smiled at Guy automatically. He was good people. “Come have a drink with us?”
A sharp, shoe-sized object kicked him in the ankle from behind. Lucas doesn’t like Guy? The dude was a total geek, even in his thirties, but perfectly agreeable. Maybe a bit overly eager to be accepted, but he’d always been that way.
Be nice, it’s good for you, he thought at Lucas while nodding Guy toward the bar area. “Behave,” he hissed over his shoulder once Guy turned to lead the way to a stool that was opening up at that moment.
Guy reached it, then waved Lucas’s butt onto it as if he were landing Air Force One, ignoring the other plane lined up to land. Namely, Seth. He’d just managed to drape his jacket on the stool’s backrest before Lucas had completely claimed it.
Okay, that might be annoying. But it was Lucas’s bad luck to be one of those people that others were desperate to have like him. Seth couldn’t claim he had a lot of sympathy.
After five minutes of experiencing Guy in “schmooze” mode, he had all the sympathy. Guy was downright obsequious toward Lucas. First he insisted on buying them drinks, even though theirs were nearly full, then he peppered Lucas with inane questions about his work and his life before Lucas had moved back to Bluewater Bay, with heavy emphasis on what kind of “presence” he intended to create in the community.
Well, you had to give Guy points for caring about the town.
Regardless of Seth’s attempts to find this side of Guy tolerable, Guy didn’t ask him a damned thing. Which was sort of expected—Seth saw Guy frequently, usually as his waiter, and Elle, Guy’s wife, was the one who usually chatted with him—but he couldn’t say he liked being ignored in favor of someone deemed more important.
“So, you’re flying solo tonight?” he asked once Guy had taken a break from flinging questions at Lucas.
“Um.” Guy finally looked away from Lucas. “No.”
“I meant,” Seth said, as Guy continued to frown at him, “Is Elle with you?” Then he’d have someone to talk to.
“Oh, got it.” The parts of Guy Seth actually liked shone through at mention of his wife. He perched his elbow on the bar top and leaned his weight on it, smiling less maniacally than before but much more believably. “No, she didn’t come. She had to go home after rehearsal to finish prepping for tomorrow. She’s a teacher, you know.” He directed the last part at Lucas. “I came with some of the theater crowd. You know, from the Bluewater Bay Playhouse. Used to be the Theater Company, but we’re rebranding.” His eyes lit up as he leaned closer to Seth to stage-whisper, “Levi Pritchard invited me. Hey,” he continued in a normal voice, gaze flicking between them. “You guys want to meet him?”
“Who’s Levi Pritchard?” Lucas asked guilelessly. But the split second of side-eye he shared with Seth showed the lie—Lucas knew who the actor was.
Predictably though, Guy bought it, deflating instantly. “You don’t watch Wolf’s Landing? I thought everyone did.”
Perhaps sensing that he was about to be forced to listen to Guy’s explanation of the show and the relative importance of everyone in it, Lucas waved a careless hand. “Oh, that Levi Pritchard. I’ve met him.”
He couldn’t have disappointed Guy any more if they’d stolen his pocket abacus. But the man didn’t stay down for long. He turned eager eyes on Seth. “Have you met him?”
“Um, well, I mean, he and Carter come in to the restaurant sometimes, so I know them.” That had to qualify. “I haven’t been formally introduced, per se.”
“Oh, well, c’mon, then.” Making a looping-arm motion, Guy took a couple of steps backward, watching them expectantly.
Seth didn’t do more than shift his weight, and Lucas’s butt stayed firmly on the barstool. “Are you sure they want to be bothered?” For the first time, Seth looked around, trying to find the “theater crowd.” The only crowd he could see was from the TV show—he recognized them from serving them, and could match most of the faces with their usual orders. Then Derrick Richards moved out of the way, revealing the guy sitting next to Levi Pritchard and—
“Whoa.” How the hell did I miss him? He was one of the most gut-wrenchingly attractive men Seth had ever seen in his life, hitting everything on Seth’s checklist for hot: black hair, square jaw, perfect yet pronounced nose. Not that it mattered, because it was really about how the elements were put together, and this man’s face was the perfect balance of strength and shadows.
“Whoa, what?” Lucas’s voice rang with all the interest he hadn’t shown for the last half hour.
“Just . . .” Seth shook his head, turning back. If Lucas saw the dude, it could lead to more speculation on Seth’s love life, when all Seth wanted to speculate on was his immediate sexual future. “Dizzy spell.” He winced internally. Bad save.
“That guy?” Lucas jerked his chin toward Levi’s table. “With the curly hair and a touch of silver in his whiskers?” Just his luck that this was the one time Lucas would be paying actual attention. “We definitely go for the same type.”
Well, duh. Gabe kind of proved that. He managed to not confirm or deny anything until Guy started asking, “Which one? Are you checking someone out? I could introduce you.” He was nearly panting with eagerness, like a dog with his tongue lolling out, dying to sniff someone’s butt.
“What are the chances he’s even gay?” Seth answered without really answering.
“It’s the theater crowd—I’d guess they’re better than average.” Lucas scooted to the edge of his stool and craned his neck. “That dude?” He helpfully pointed the gorgeous one out to Guy. “Sitting with Levi?”
Squinting, Guy nodded. “Nate. Just met him tonight, but he’s single—I heard him say something earlier. His last relationship was with a ‘he,’ so that would make him gay, right?”
“Or open-minded,” Lucas offered, nudging him.
“This is ridiculous,” Seth muttered. But if Guy was so desperate to make himself useful . . . He sighed and set his empty glass on the bar. “Lead on.” He pointed at Lucas. “You stay here.”
To Seth’s surprise, Lucas did, but the set of his mouth was very smug. He’d be able to watch Seth get shot down just fine from this vantage point. Excellent.
When approaching a man, Seth’s usual method was to assume success until he’d been given reason to think otherwise, but tonight his characteristic confidence failed him as he followed Guy across Ma Cougar’s. He knew he was attractive enough to score more often than not, but he wasn’t in this Nate person’s league. Nate could have just stepped out of the pages of GQ—the Italian edition, judging by his swarthiness.
Another thing, did Seth really trust Guy to know if Nate was actually some shade of gay? And what did it say about him that he was being introduced by the town’s nerdiest actuary?
Don’t be an asshole. And you’ve been with guys who were way out of your league before. He’d long ago found that attitude and persistence counted for much more than general attractiveness or social status. It was the only thing that had gotten him through high school.
In the nick of time—Guy was already lifting his hand in an attention-getting wave—Seth’s normal demeanor reasserted itself, dispelling (or maybe quashing) his uncharacteristic nervousness.
“Hey, Nate,” Guy began. “Got someone here who you should meet.”
Not that he didn’t have some residual nerves as he stepped out from behind Guy and got his first up-close look at this evening’s potential “date.” Nate was more drool-inducing here than he’d been across the room. Not model-perfect, as Seth had thought, but better because he looked like a real person, not an airbrushed icon. A guy with acres of sun-darkened skin that Seth would love to inspect for tiny freckles.
“This is Seth,” Guy was saying as Nate pushed back in his chair, turning just enough to face their direction.
Nate stood up, turning a pair of beautiful gray eyes on Seth. He stepped away from the table and held out his hand. “Hi. Nate Albano.”
Seth was sure his smile was lighting up the bar, he put so much enthusiasm into it. “Hello there.”
Nate had sculpted hands, warm and rough to the touch, that gave the overall impression of being square. Square fingers and knuckles just knotty enough. Even his grip was secure and well-built, if that made any sense. “Seth Larson.” He didn’t need to repeat his name, but it gave him another second to feel Nate’s hand wrapped around his.
Nate didn’t let go after that. He held on, lips parting as he stared. “Larson? You’re not related to Finn Larson, are you?”
That bastard. “Oh, no.” Seth waved him off with the back of his free hand and then extended his pinky in the most posh manner, knowing he was overdoing it but unable to stop himself from hamming it up for this guy. “I’m from the Bluewater Bay Larsons, don’t you know. We practically built this town.”
The sarcasm was clearly lost on Nate, because his very attractive brow wrinkled up while Guy chortled. “But they did, didn’t they? It was Fennimore Larson who established the old town around the mill. I mean, this bar—it’s standing on the original mill site, right?” Slowly, as if he, too, were reluctant to lose physical contact, Nate loosened his grip and let his hand slip away. Was it Seth’s imagination that he took a few too many moments to let go? His palm had pressed against Seth’s in an explicitly intimate way, hadn’t it?
Seth chose to believe that was all intentional. But then Nate’s questions sunk in.
Shit. “Why the hell would you know that?” That didn’t sound as rude aloud as it had in his head, did it? “I mean, it’s kind of obscure.” Although his uncle Kirk would be thrilled to know his efforts to make the local historical society a major attraction were apparently working on this one person. Of course, that depended on how much and what exactly Nate knew about Fennimore Larson.
Nate broke into a small, somewhat sheepish smile, flashing his straight, white teeth. Everything about this guy was stellar, wasn’t it? “I’m . . . ah . . . kind of a history and genealogy buff.”
That abashed little grin was darling. With that and the genealogy line, he’d have all the self-centered boys eating out of his hand. Of course, where Nate was concerned, nearly anything would work.
“It just so happens I’m well-versed on the founding of the town.” Or certain parts of it anyway.
“Wait—Seth Larson? Holy shit, I’ve got you on the Larson family tree. Fennimore was your great-great-grandfather, right? It’s so great to meet you. I’ve checked out the land grants at the state level, but I’ve been dying to talk with someone in the family about the founding of the town.”
He’s got me on a family tree? Seth wasn’t sure if that was really flattering or really creepy. “I’ve never met a nonlocal who’s interested in hearing about it, actually.” Seth knew enough about it to keep them here a few hours.
But land grant and deed records were one of the exact things his family most wanted people to forget—how to suppress them was the main topic of conversation during family holiday mealtimes. Besides, he didn’t want to bore the dude, he wanted to keep him talking about himself, or at least his interests. “What led you to digging up my ancestor?” So to speak.
“Whenever I move to a new place, I always research the town. It’s a hobby—although Morgan—” he pointed to a tall black woman who was smiling at Derrick “—calls it an obsession, especially when I get involved in chasing down something interesting and forget I’m supposed to meet her for dinner.” He grinned sheepishly. “Fennimore cuts a pretty wide swath in Bluewater Bay history. He’s pretty major.”
Seth laughed shortly, unable to help himself. “Well, my father and uncle would like to think so.” He stepped a little closer, near enough for the conversation to seem private. “My family has some excess pride in their ancestry. If you’re really into it, I’d be happy to tell you all about my history.” Seth just stopped himself from winking. Nate brought out the cheese in him, clearly. He’d have to watch it, because he didn’t want to overplay this.
“That’d be great.” Nate glanced back at the three-top. Levi and Jack had vacated at the same time as Nate, but it had already been claimed by someone else. He shrugged. “I guess we stand, if that’s okay.”
Perfect for my purposes. Seth took a small, unobtrusive breath through his nose in an attempt to clear his head. Make sure what he was about to say wasn’t too much too soon.
Nope, sounds fine to me, his libido offered. “Maybe we should go someplace a little”—more intimate—“less busy to talk. I mean, if you want to know all about the Larsons.”
Bad call! his higher brain was screaming in alarm before Seth even finished. What about the woman Nate “forgets” to meet for dinner? The one he was exchanging speaking glances with right this minute in the kind of communication that only long-established friends would use.
Or a couple. Could he be bi?
It doesn’t matter what his preferences are if he’s with someone else.
Fucking Guy. Why had he believed what a straight man said about another man’s sexual preferences? Stupid mistake. Seth’s chest began to tighten up—with his luck, he’d not only made a very obvious overture to a straight guy but he’d done it very publicly.
Run away! Run away! He swallowed, straightened his shoulders, and prepared to salvage some pride, damn it, by not waiting to be shot down in front of an audience that included half the town and his coworkers. His extensive experience with public humiliation had taught him that a dignified exit was the best way to escape complete disgrace.
Before he could babble out anything about needing to go find his friend, Nate glowered in the direction of the front door. “I’d be happy to get out of here. Stomping Grounds okay with you?”
Wait, what? Seth’s libido had already switched gears and said, “Great, let me get my jacket,” turned him around, and marched him off toward Lucas before the rest of him caught up to the unexpected situation change. Thank God for his libido’s quick thinking, though, because he wasn’t halfway to the bar before he realized he’d nearly fucked up the best thing that had happened to him in months. Well, from a sex point of view.
“I’m outta here,” he said as soon as he was close enough to speak to Lucas without shouting. Knuckling the guy’s back, he nudged him to move so he could get his jacket off the back of the barstool.
“Nice work.” Lucas smiled smugly, then glanced down at his phone, where he’d clearly been texting someone. Probably his boyfriend. “I’m outta here in a second too, as soon as Gabe shows up.”
So definitely texting Gabe.
It wasn’t a sure thing, by any means, but Seth threw caution to the wind, potentially jinxing his evening. Grinning at Lucas as he took a couple steps backward, about to turn, he saluted the guy. “Looks like we’re both gonna get some tonight.”
With Seth off grabbing his coat, Nate edged toward a gaggle of Wolf’s Landing grips, pretending to be part of their conversation. It never paid to be obviously unoccupied when Finn was on the prowl, and the last thing Nate wanted right now was to get sucked into one of Finn’s never-ending budget rants—not tonight, when he had something so much better to look forward to.
Seth had been . . . unexpected. The look on his face when Nate had been telling him about his embarrassingly unhip hobby—blue eyes wide, blond eyebrows lifted, smile just curving his lips. Hell, even his trendy haircut looked interested in Nate’s story. Curiosity. Most guys Seth’s age—he had to be at least ten years younger than Nate’s thirty-seven—based their image on knowing everything already. Blasé post-college pseudo-expertise on everything from movies to technology to sports. If they ran into something they didn’t know about, they either pretended knowledge, dismissed it as stupid, or changed the subject.
Nate peered through the crowd to track Seth’s progress—he had stopped and was exchanging a few words with a dark-haired guy sitting at the bar. Both of them looked over at Nate, and Seth flashed that killer smile.
Then Nate’s view was blocked by six feet of zaftig badass. Morgan—his coworker and best friend—tucked a stray dark curl under her African-print headband as she glanced over her shoulder in Seth’s direction. “Careful, Nate. Your rep as an ice-cold mofo is skating on the edge with the way you’re checking that boy out.”
“I’m not ‘checking him out.’” Nate widened his stance and crossed his arms. “For your information, we were chatting about town history—he’s descended from the founder—and he was totally into it. Now that the Prince of Darkness has joined this party, we’re heading over to Stomping Grounds to grab a cup of coffee. To talk. I know you find it hard to believe, but other people think history and genealogy are cool too.”
“Other old, boring people.” She took a sip of her beer and watched Seth disappear through the door behind the bar. “Trust me, that boy is not thinking about ancestors and descendants—unless it’s how to get your pants to descend to the floor.”
Nate scowled. “Cut it out. You know I’m not into that.”
“At the moment, sure. But you have been—more than once—and maybe you will be again. Besides, just because you’re not into it, doesn’t mean he’s not.”
“Just sayin’. You haven’t exactly circulated the Nate-is-grace memo.”
“It’s nobody’s business but mine.”
“I know. Sorry, baby. Have a good time talking about ancestors.”
She planted a kiss on his cheek before wandering over to talk to a cluster of stunt performers. They greeted her with grins and hugs—but so did everyone. Morgan might be fierce, no-nonsense, and straight-talking, but as long as you weren’t an asshole, she was totally approachable and gave the best hugs on the planet. Nate had reason to know—Morgan’s hugs were all that kept him sane some days, when his need for a little human touch outweighed his sense of self-preservation.
Seth reappeared next to Nate with a tan canvas jacket slung over one shoulder. He squinted at Morgan’s back for a minute before he turned to Nate. “You . . . uh . . . still want to take off?”
Since Finn was still at large somewhere in the pub, that was an easy answer. “Hell yeah.” He grabbed his own coat, scanning the crowd for Levi.
Shit! Finn was threading his way through the crowd, angling to get past Mount Derrick, Ginsberg’s giant boyfriend. Levi would just have to forgive him for not saying good-bye. He took Seth’s elbow to steer him away from the danger zone, but released him once they’d gotten safely out the door.
“Sorry for the, you know, manhandling. But, God, I hate that guy.”
“Finn? Yeah, you and everyone else in town, whether they work on the show or not. I mean, all the waitresses hate him. They have regular support groups—I think it involves a drinking game. One shot for every time Finn called one of them ‘honey,’ ‘sweetheart,’ or ‘darling’—in the last three days. Extra points if he hollered for coffee as soon as he walked in the door.”
“Sounds like Finn.” Nate stuffed his hands in his pockets as they walked down the street. The breeze held the scent of the ocean and a hint of coming rain. Yeah, summer was definitely over.
“Does your girlfriend,” Seth jerked his thumb back toward Ma Cougar’s, “feel the same way?”
“Girlfriend? Who—” Nate barked a laugh. “You mean Morgan? God, she’d bust a gut if she heard you say that.”
“Really? You seemed . . . friendly.” Seth’s tone was a little on the chilly side.
“We are. She’s probably my best friend in town.” Not that he had many. “She’s on the effects crew with me. She does handhelds—you know, knives, guns, china that can shatter without slicing the cast to ribbons—while I do the bigger set pieces, like windows and furniture.”
“So you’re into big things? Intriguing.”
Nate chuckled. “What can I say? If Hunter Easton didn’t have poor Gabriel getting the shit beat out of him every third scene, my job would be a lot more boring. Not that it’s all that thrilling for someone who isn’t into SFX. No one wants to hear about how tricky it is to build something that looks real enough to be a threat but won’t maim the actors and stunt performers. Do you know how many stuntmen were killed in the early days of silent films? There were no safety protocols, no—” He ran a hand through his hair. “Ah, shit. Sorry. I get a little carried away when I talk about history.”
“Hey, no complaints here. I could listen to you all night long.”
“Not all night, maybe, but long enough, right?” They walked past Stomping Grounds’ plate-glass window, and Nate opened the door to let Seth enter. Warm air, heavy with the aroma of coffee and cinnamon, surrounded them. “Whew. Now suddenly I’m hot.”
“I’ll say,” Seth murmured.
Nate stripped off his jacket and slung it over his arm. “What’ll it be? It’s a little late for coffee, eh? Maybe something else warm?”
“What do you like?”
“Mmm. I prefer mine tall, dark, and sweet, with a hint of spice.”
Nate grinned. “I know just the thing. Grab a table and I’ll come as soon as I collect our supplies.”
Seth opened his mouth as if he was about to say something, but then he shook his head and headed for a table in the far corner.
Nate walked up to the counter. “Hey, Buck. How you doing? Can you give me two tall spice tea lattes?”
The big barista grinned. “You got it, Nate. Want a couple of pastries too? We need to move them before closing.”
“Sure. Give me two of those pecan twists for here and toss another four in a bag to go.”
Buck raised his eyebrows. “Expecting company for breakfast?”
“Me? Nah. But it never hurts to show up at work with extra, you know what I mean? Besides, I wouldn’t want you to be forced to take them all home to Ari. We need him to keep that svelte figure, or else the costume shop’ll have to rebuild all his breakaway shirts.”
“I think his metabolism runs on carbs,” Buck said over the hiss of the milk steamer. “You should see how many doughnuts he can put away at one sitting.”
“Some guys just win the genetic lottery, I guess. Now me—I’ll pay for these with an extra half hour out running with Tarkus.”
He chuckled. “You’ll be lucky to get away with half an hour. Your dog has more stamina than any three guys.”
“Tell me about it. I don’t need a personal trainer when I’ve got him.”
Buck arranged the order on a tray. “That’ll be twenty-three fifty. By the way, I see you’re here with Seth Larson.” His voice rose slightly at the end of the sentence, making it almost a question.
“Yeah.” Nate handed over his debit card. “Just met him tonight. I’ll bet you know him though, since you’re both townies.”
He didn’t meet Nate’s eyes as he ran the card through the reader. “He’s a few years older, so we never ran in the same crowd.”
Nate keyed in his pin number. “I guess it’s stupid to assume everyone in Bluewater Bay knows everyone else, eh?”
“Oh I know him all right.” He handed back the card and muttered something under his breath that sounded like “Everyone does.”
What? Nate was about to ask for clarification, but Buck had already turned to the next customer. He shrugged and picked up the tray, wending his way through the maze of tables to where Seth was waiting.
Nate set down the tray. After he tossed his jacket over the back of the chair, he unloaded the drinks and plunked the plate with the pastries in the middle of the table. “You like nuts?”
There was that smile again. “You have no idea.”
“Me too.” He settled into the chair across from Seth. “These are my favorites. Have one.” Nate picked up the pastry and took a bite.
Seth poked at the other one with a finger. “Pecans? Not exactly the nuts I had in mind,” he muttered.
“So tell me more about the Bluewater Bay Larsons. Are you all related?”
“Unfortunately.” Seth took a vicious bite of his pecan twist. “Although not all of them are a waste of space. My aunts are okay. So’s my cousin Laura: she’s a large animal vet. She’s pretty cool. And my grandma, of course.”
“Old Mrs. Larson?”
Seth looked down his nose. “‘Old’ is not a word we use, thank you. We prefer ‘seasoned to perfection.’”
Nate chuckled and finished his pastry, licking a smear of caramelized sugar off his finger. “I’ll remember that. You must be familiar with that house, then? The one Fennimore built?”
“Ridiculous, isn’t it? Clearly the dude liked to show off his bling. It’s got a widow’s walk, for God’s sakes—a fucking tower with a balcony overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”
“But that’s what I mean. It’s the history.” Nate leaned forward, and his knee accidentally bumped Seth’s. “You can just feel it. The house encapsulates your family, its—its synergy with the town. There must be some incredible artifacts in there.”
“Well I can tell you about some of those artifacts, although I wouldn’t call them incredible. I mean, some of them are impressive, but . . .” He took a sip of his latte, wrinkled his nose, and set it back on the table. “I spent most of this afternoon becoming way too familiar with mummified rodent corpses in the dustier parts of the attic because my grandma is convinced it’s infested with squirrels. Plus I live over the garage.”
“No kidding? Do you think I could take a tour sometime?”
“I could arrange that.” Seth leaned forward, and Nate suddenly felt fingers running along his thigh. “We can start with my bed.”
Nate jerked his leg away, heart pounding, mortification sending heat crawling up his throat. “I’m not into that.” Shit, not again. He’d been so sure Seth understood he wanted to talk, not screw.
Seth swallowed audibly. “So you aren’t into guys?”
“I mean I don’t do sex.”
His jaw sagged. “You mean at all?”
“Yeah. For the most part.”
“‘For the most part.’ What does that even mean?”
“Just—” Nate sighed. “Sorry. Let’s call it a day, okay?” He retrieved his jacket. “Keep the pastries.”
He hurried across the room, catching a glimpse of Buck’s wry smile as he pushed through the doors. The damp, chilly air outside was a shock against his flushed face. Why don’t I ever learn? Next time, I’ll stay home where I belong.