The Discerning Palate

 

The Discerning Palate

Part 1


 

Thank you for reading - feel free to contact me with comments or critiques at noelblue@gmail.com; I also have a yahoo group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NBstories/ where I post all my stuff first.

Please check out my other stories if you like this one, Creative Employment and The Groupie in Adult Friends. All my writing is also on my website, www.noelblue.com.

Thank you to Reed for ze editing!

Noel Blue


 

"Look, you really don't want to do this, it's..."

Before I knew what was happening I was on the floor and he was above me, pinning me down with all of his not-unremarkable muscle. My pulse quickened and I hated myself for it.

"What the hell?" I struggled as best I could, but I was already exhausted from a crazy day and a weirder month. "If you're going to beat the crap out of me, damn you, at least make it a fair fight!"

Of course I was only talking big; there was no such thing as a fair fight at this point. There probably never was, what with his background. He knew violence. I talked big, but I usually knew when to cut and run.

His face came closer to mine and there was a strange smile on his beautiful lips, as if he was loving watching me squirm. "Are you ever quiet?" His chest pressed down on mine and I tried to ignore what that did to me; there wouldn't be much dignity in an erection at this point. My dignity wasn't putting in a very good fight, though.

I growled at him in response. "If you're going to kill me, fucking kill me. Molesting me doesn't serve much purpose, asshole."

"Oh, but it does," His lips came closer to mine and his smile was unreadable. "It makes us both pretty happy, don't you think?"

And then he kissed me, hard, violent and goddamn amazing. "I thought you hated me," I protested weakly.

"You just keep on thinking whatever makes you happy, Isaac." Before I could retort, his tongue was in my mouth.

It wasn't long after that he didn't have to bother to hold me down any longer.


 

My personal twilight zone snuck up on me slowly and unexpectedly. I was in my hometown of Marrington, the most boring town on earth; stuck there due to an ill-conceived promise that I couldn't even begin to back out of. I was dreading how long I was going to be there, but I figured the boredom would get to me before anything else. Fate proved all my figuring wrong.

It started on a bizarre Wednesday. I'd been in town for a little more than a week but I hadn't been out and about at all, due to my being conscripted while my new 'business partner' ran around trying to scare up money.

It was mid afternoon and hot as hell; high summer and lack of air conditioning does NOT make for a good mix.

And I was at the end of my rope. I was officially cracking. She'd finally pushed me too far.

"If you don't shut up and leave me alone, Kim, I'm going to beat you savagely, and you're going to be in pain, and then they're going to have to take me away forever. And we don't want me taken away forever, do we? Huh?" I was speaking through clenched teeth, using my caulking knife as an extension of my violent gesticulations. She watched the tool's weaving path with wide eyes, stunned silent. "Why don't we want that, Kim?"

"I, I... don't know. Why?" She asked weakly. People were passing outside in front of the plate glass window and I could see from the corner of my eye some were stopping to stare at us. I didn't give a fuck. Let 'em get a show.

"BECAUSE." I jabbed the knife in the direction of her chest. She twitched backwards. "Then you wouldn't have anyone to do your slave labor for you anymore, would you? For only the price of a guilt trip. And. AND! If this goddamn cafe were ever to open you know what you'd be selling without me? Do you?" I narrowed my eyes menacingly. "Come on, you know, don't you?"

She shook her head mutely.

"FUCKING SYSCO COOKIES." I hissed and leaned in even closer. "GODDAMN TWINKIES AND REESES PEANUT BUTTER CUPS. Because no one, NO ONE else is going to accept the terms you're offering for this job. No. One. And you can't afford to contract it out. You're stuck with ME. Do you understand me?"

She nodded, biting her lip.

"And you're going to stop picking on me?"

"Yes!" She answered vehemently. She was lying, of course, but at least I could remind her of the oath as a distraction when she got too bitchy.

"Good, because IF YOU EVER TREAT ME LIKE THAT AGAIN -" I was pounding the knife down on an invisible surface for emphasis when the front door burst open - was it locked? I hoped to god it wasn't, because if it was now broken I'd probably be the one to have to attempt the repair - when a very large figure came flying through yelling something about 'dropping the knife'.

The glaring sunlight was behind him, so I squinted to help my eyes adjust and see who was randomly bellowing at me. "Is that a gun?" I said, furrowing my brow.

"I said DROP IT." He snarled.

"Okay, okay. Damn." I let it clang to the floor and lifted my hands. You know, because that's what you're supposed to do. I figured. How the hell should I know?

"Kim, are you okay?" He asked quietly. Yet his voice was thick with palatable intensity and authority. I could see him a bit better now. I think I was expecting a uniform, but he wasn't in one. Dark blond hair, blue shirt, slacks. Wide shoulders. Gun. Huh.

"Jason?" Kim tilted her head at him, puzzled. "What's wrong?"

"This man was threatening you!" He was right, I was, I suppose. "I was down the street in the drug store and Mrs. Wei came running in and said you were in trouble." This Jason turned to me, glaring, while continuing to address her. His gun didn't move. "Is he a contractor who's giving you a hard time?"

"It would be nice to be a contractor. That would suggest I was getting paid," I noted, crossing my arms and leaning on the incomplete counter at my back.

"Be quiet!" he snarled, with a quick, angry once over. I rolled my eyes but complied. Of course, I couldn't completely blame him for being suspicious. Who knew what I looked like at this point? Beat-up old jeans, no shirt because of the heat, covered in dust and paint and who the hell knows what else. Obviously it added an aura of charming criminality. My eyebrow piercing, earrings, and the tattoos were probably not helpful in dispelling that misconception.

"No, no!" Kim rushed to say, shaking her head vigorously. "No, he wasn't really threatening me, he was... um?" She looked at me for help.

"Telling you to stop harping at me or I was going to kill you," I prompted dryly.

"Yes! Exactly!" She turned to Jason with a wide smile. "He's just like that; he can get a bit overly emphatic. But he'd never actually hurt me. I think. Would you, Isaac?" She turned to me with a devilish look in her eye. "Or should I have Jason haul you away to jail?"

"Does that mean I can get some sleep?" I turned to him. He just blinked at me, facial expression reflecting complete confusion. Our little back and forth was obviously not what he expected from this situation when he threw himself into the middle of it. "If jail means sleep, I'm all for it." I held out my wrists. "Snap 'um on me, copper."

Jason dropped his gun to his side, and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. "So you weren't in danger, Kim?"

She laughed lightly and tossed her hair back. I knew that move. It was very flirtatious. "No no no, Jason! This is my cousin, Isaac. He's helping me out here, and he was just... venting a bit."

"You deserved it," I pointed out. "You'd just said you might as well have your dog do it, my handiwork was so shitty," I lifted an eyebrow at Jason, "And that's only the latest bit of abuse I had to put up with. She's been merciless."

"I'm sorry, sweetie." She seemed to mean it. "I've been pretty bad lately, haven't I?" She sighed. "I've just been so stressed. But see?" Kim gave Jason another gleaming smile. "Nothing to worry about!"

"Oookay. So just to confirm, this is a completely normal exchange between the two of you?" His voice was tight, like he was unimpressed that he ran all the way over here for this.

"We're just fine; we're both simply a bit tired."

And you, sir, I thought suddenly, are incredibly tasty. Now that my view was no longer blocked by a rather distracting firearm, I saw how handsome he was. Strong, Nordic features, lean lips and piercing grey eyes. Looked pretty darn built. My age, which meant 30, maybe a touch older. Looked kinda familiar, but hell, coulda been because he looked like he should be in Colt.

I'd like to flirt with you too, darlin', I thought with bemusement, but it might get me shot. Jason caught my look, and tightened his lips. Obviously, I wasn't in his good books yet. I smiled, but I've been told it often comes across as sarcastic, so perhaps I shouldn't have.

He looked even more pissed off and turned to my cousin.

"Look, Ms. Colby..."

"Yes, Officer Michaels?" Kim's voice was light expectancy, staring up at him with wide, sweet eyes. She always knew when to turn on the cute. The tension finally left his body and he shook his head and muttered something; I'm sure about crazy families and wackos with caulking knifes. Or maybe just life in general and the wasting of his time.

"...You two keep it civilized, alright? Or at the very least cover up your window so concerned citizens don't see something and suspect we're gong to have a murder on our hands."

"But what if they're right?" I couldn't resist - I often couldn't, and didn't, something of a serious failing of mine - and Kim giggled. Jason looked like he was seriously considering shooting me, assurances that I was harmless be damned.

"Have a nice day, Kim." His voice was tight and he turned sharply on his heels to head out the door, but not before giving me one more icy once over. I grinned, and he flushed.

"You stay out of trouble, Isaac," He said my name hard and short, and it was kind of sexy. "Or I'm going to run you out of town." Not usually my type, someone so chaulk full of blonde sexiness, but there were always exceptions to every attraction rule.

"Is that a promise?" I tried to keep my tone in the realm of neutral sarcasm, not flirtatious sarcasm, but I don't think I succeeded. He narrowed his eyes at me as if weighing whether to respond, and obviously made his decision, stomping out the front entrance.

"Bye, Officer Michaels!" I called sweetly, admiring his ass as the door slammed.

"Oh, god, Isaac." Kim was still laughing. "Why do you insist on pissing people off like that? He's actually the sweetest, most easy going man I've ever met... at least, that looked like that. You sure got his back up in a hurry, though."

"I've gotten better! You yourself told me my attitude's improved!" I protested, hurt. "I now save being an asshole for people who come flying at me waving guns and acting like I'm a menace to society. Also family members who ask me for the moon and treat me like dirt."

"Sorry, love." She ran a hand through her hair, and looked around at the half-formed cafe, brow furrowed. "But ever since the contractors walked out I've not had a wink of sleep, and I know you're doing your best, but..."

"I'm a pastry chef, not a tile guy," I finished. "Trust me, no one knows that better than me. But I'm trying my best with the tiles, and I can't really take the driveby abuse." I reached out and gave her shoulder a squeeze, and she appeared as if she was going to give me a hug before reconsidering; I was pretty dingy. She settled on simply nodding.

"You should go home, faux-tile guy, and get some sleep, or get out and about.... I really have been driving you too hard at this. And tomorrow!" She gave me a wide smile, but something was wrong with it. She looked upset around her eyes. "I'll be able to pay the contractors again and get them back in here so you can go back to planning the menu and we can get this show on the road."

"Was that what your meeting was about?" I tilted my head at her. "Which bank agreed to give you a loan?"

"Um... The one down the street," She said vaguely; there were 4 or 5 on this street. But she cut me off before I could ask a follow-up question. "Isaac, sweetie, you look exhausted! I've really been pushing you far too hard." She picked up my shirt and handed it to me with that strained smile again. "Go out, relax, or just sleep. You haven't had a chance since you got here."

"Uh..." I put the shirt on and looked at her even closer with great suspicion. "Sure. But... Kim, I'm your best friend. What's wrong? Is it the stress of getting another loan?"

"Nothing! I mean, yeah, that's probably it!" She laughed in a way that was a bit over-the-top, like an evil soap opera character. I wondered if she was finally cracking. She hurriedly started to hustle me towards the street. "I'm just oh so tired, and just so happy we finally have financing again. But go!" And then she was literally pushing me out the door; I was too surprised to stop her.

"Kimberly..."

"Have a wonderful rest of your day, Isaac!" She trilled the second my feet hit the pavement. "I'm so sorry for being such a bitch, it won't happen again, especially with how grateful I am for everything you're doing! Byyyyye!"

Kim then slammed the door, locked it, and ran into the back of the shop where the office was eventually going to be and where I couldn't see her anymore.

"Ooooookay, then." I stared at the closed door, trying to get it to offer some answers, but it wouldn't give. "That was weird." I decided I would give her the benefit of the doubt; she really hadn't been sleeping or doing anything other than constantly worrying about the state of her business venture. It was too bad Tom-of-Finland-Cop had interrupted my rant, I may have made her crack and let it out, and she wouldn't have gone into super-fake-perky Kim mode. She'd flip out eventually; she was carrying too much stress, and more financing had obviously not lessoned that. No one knew her better than I did.

Sighing, I looked around, noted the glaring sun and put on my sunglasses. A well-coiffed middle-aged blond woman came pounding down the street while talking on her cell phone and she gave me a glance of utmost contempt before moving on.

I looked down at myself. I looked horrendous, it was true; covered in all sorts of substances. I looked like someone who spent the day doing construction related work but didn't actually know how. I ran a hand through my red-blonde hair self-consciously, but I doubt it would do any good. It felt dirty and sticky to the touch, and I shuddered.

"Fuck it," I muttered, and rushed down the street to the currently vacant apartment of a jet-setting friend of Kim's, which was where I was staying. I ignored the continued stares of the Upper Middle Class and Gentrified which now populated the town.

Marrington had once been a low-key place, solidly middle class, pleasant, not without it's issues. Okay, if you knew those issues like I did, it was fucking nuts. There were reasons I left this place.

But, outwardly? Solid, nice place. Charming, simple downtown, a wide tree-lined avenue of services and stores.

And then the big city nearby exploded, and Marrington got eaten by suburbs, it's downtown 'discovered'. And somehow and unexpectedly the Nazi-like city planning board had changed tact, allowing massive re-development. My dad had been on that committee; I wondered what had happened to change the tide so completely on such an incalcitrant bunch.

And thus gentrification, and the cafe. Kim, who'd always dreamed of owning a little cafe/bakeshop, was trying to cash in.

So she'd convinced me to leave the job of a lifetime in Tokyo to be here and get her menu off the ground. Fuck, I thought with a sigh, I could have been with Junichi right at that moment, both as his pastry chef and his ex-lover; experiencing all the crazy things he'd do to food and to my head.

Maybe I didn't miss the mind games, I concluded. That was probably a good reason I had said yes to this. DAMN, I wanted a cigarette; why had I given them up, again?

As I passed a Starbucks - no minor competition to our own venture, needless to say - and Cosi, a little store that catered to owners of small dogs and offered items overwhelmingly pink, it depressed me. I may have hated the old Marrington when I was as a disaffected, black-wearing teenager but I hated what it had become even more.

And what was most galling was it STILL didn't have any restaurants worth noting. I'd left this place for better food; I didn't know how long it could keep me without improvement in that area.

Yet at least the changes meant I was much less likely to run into my father; there were far more people now and I had no plans to go anywhere near where he might be.

Heh, I laughed at myself, you really are in a fabulous mood, aren't you? No wonder you're scaring strangers on the street. 'Home', then a shower, then a small dinner and then... Maybe a nap.


 

After emerging from the shower clean and de-grossed I found myself surprisingly refreshed; a nap now seemed unnecessary. Really, I'd rather just go to bed early(That was anything before 2 in the morning for me) than nap now. It's not like I had a rocking social life in Marrington to keep me up late in any case, and Kim had given me the distinct impression that she didn't feel like getting together later.

After my contacts were in I threw on my favorite jeans, a dark blue T-shirt, black sandals, and put my small black hoop earrings in, finishing it with a black baseball cap. I'd considered dressing yuppie to blend in more smoothly with the town aesthetic, but fuck it, I wasn't going to wear a jacket or a long sleeve shirt to cover my tattoos in this weather. With them exposed I was pre-judged by a certain percentage of the population anyways. I also appeared young for my age, a factor that didn't help public opinion.

But one of the nice things about being a chef was that, if successful, we were granted much of the freedoms usually reserved for visual artists and musicians.

After considering my options I choose The Nickel as my destination. It was a mainstay; a bar that appeared unchanged from my childhood. I mean, I figured. Not that I'd ever been badass enough in high school to actually have gone in. But the exterior looked the same, it was still old and beat up with the only things that had changed were the updated beer signs. I had faith it would live up to my low expectations. The fact I was going there was truly oddly exciting to me, as it was famous for being the place where "things went down," meaning things that used to piss off the city council, like fights and staying open later than they should and a lax policy towards alcohol consumption age limits.

And yet it stayed open, somehow, despite it's seedy history. The rumors were that the Nickel was connected with some of the seedier elements in town, the mythical "Mob of Marrington," but I never bought it. Why would a town like this have something as exciting as organized criminals? Meh. Trying to make this boring place more interesting than it was, that's how I saw it.

After making myself a sandwich - I wasn't stupid enough to drink on an empty stomach - and then surfing the net for a bit I headed out. It was twilight and the temperature had abated a touch. The air was cool and fragrant and even I had to admit that visually, at least, Marrington had benefited from the influx of yuppies. Flowers, landscaping and nice lawns abounded; fuck, was that a little zen rock garden? Huh.

But there was no nice lawn around the Nickel. It was located between two old strip malls, both of which had several new, if not upscale, at least a-tad-higher-than-middle-class retail tenants.

And the bar sat between them like a hulking gorilla, a gorilla made of ancient bricks, a joke of a wooden fence separating it from the other parking lots, a roof in need of some upkeep and that unique smell so distinct to the seedy joints of the world.

I loved me a seedy joint. Nothing reflected the true heart and soul of a town or city more, in my opinion.

I pushed open the swinging door, one of the kind with a round portal in the middle, and was gratified to find it active but not oppressively busy. The bar was right inside the door; that was probably kind of a bitch in Winter. There were two pool tables with several people around them and approximately half the tables were occupied. I sat in an empty seat in the middle of the bar and nodded at the bartender, a curvy woman of about 50 with dyed blonde hair, an unnecessarily low-cut shirt and a no-nonsense expression. There was something familiar to her that I couldn't place. I nodded at her, and she nodded back, coming towards me.

"What would you like?"

"Gin and Tonic, please. Something to help me sleep." I smiled, and she returned it before turning to mix. I watched, that sense of knowing her getting stronger, as if I had WATCHED her before. Huh. I wondered if it would be rude to ask. Nah, I decided, not worth the effort tonight.

She put down my drink, and I swear she narrowed her eyes thoughtfully as I took it. "Thank you," I paused, giving her a spot to provide her name.

"Marian." She turned away with a final quirky smile. "No problem."

Marian. Nope. Didn't mean anything. Probably used to waitress at a restaurant or something like that.

I looked around, checking out the other patrons. A young couple was down the bar from me, bickering about something. At the end that wrapped around and had the rest of the place at it's back was a middle-aged guy with a mustache in a sweater - didn't make sense in Summer. Old man next to him, they weren't talking. The tables were mostly younger; a couple of groups of people still enjoying their happy hour, some blue-collar types. The pool players had to be in their early 20s. A shadowy table in the corner with several men whose faces I couldn't see seemed to be discussing something serious; a couple were in suits. TVs were on and tuned to ESPN, but the sound was really low and was mostly drowned out by the rock music coming from the speakers in the corners.

After giving the young couple another small glance when their arguement rose in pitch I turned to concentrate on my drink, and think about the days ahead now that I appeared to have been relieved of my duties as de facto construction worker. That meant I could finally sit down and work on a menu, and do some research on cafes and popular fare, and -

"Hey." There was a hand on my shoulder, and I turned to look at it, and then at it's owner in surprise. It was the young man from down the bar, noticably not a small guy, and he was looming over me and snarling.

I could smell the testosterone. The bartender and the other people at the bar were looking at us in a certain knowing way, expectant, like we were in a familar TV show. Uh oh.

"Yes?" My voice was genial and mild.

He withdrew his hand in order to use it to stab a finger into my chest. "I saw how you were looking at my girlfriend, asshole!" His breath, full of whiskey and stale cigarette smoke, washed over me, and I tried not to wince. His features were rough and, well, ugly as all get out, and while big he didn't appear to be in that good a shape. His shoulders would have been wide if it hadn't been for the balancing act done by his stomach. "You think you can get away with that? Do you? Huh?"

I peered down the bar again at his lady light, and had to fight another wince. Whether she was attractive or not was impossible to tell, but her jeans were too tight, her hair badly dyed and her makeup copious. Her look of feigned affront briefly changed to one of flirtatious interest when I met her gaze, and I tried not to roll my eyes.

"Um. No. I wasn't." As this was what I was expected to say, it's what I said.

"So you sayin' she's not WORTH looking at, you shit?"

"Robbie..." Marian interrupted, but she didn't look surprised when he ignored her, and she didn't put any further effort into placating him. She'd seen this episode before, obviously.

With a sip of my drink I swiveled my seat around and stood up. He was startled at my proactive movement, and not pleased I was not that much shorter than him. "Well, to be honest with you, Robbie, I'm gay, so I wouldn't know." I added a languid once over to that, ending in an expression that showed I was definitely unimpressed. "So if I WOULD have been looking over there, it would have been at you. But I wasn't. So to answer a modified question: I am saying you are completely not worth looking at. Actually, you're one truly ugly motherfucker." I said 'truly ugly motherfucker' carefully and deliberately, punctuating each word.

"You fuckin', stupid, goddamn....," Robbie spit and sputtered and came diving at me. I stepped out of the way, but not quite fast enough. Bugger was speedier than he looked. My back slammed into the bar, and I swore and brought a knee up, connecting solidly in the middle of his chest. With a roar he wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me towards the door, trying to swing me around.

This was not going well, I thought wryly. Robbie's chick shrieked dramatically. I was a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, also fast and wiry, but I was exhausted, and I wasn't feeling quite up to a bar fight. I was usually smart enough to wait until I was far out of reach before taunting violent pricks, but today my smarts had failed me.

Letting me go he pulled back to take another swing, and I saw my opportunity, getting in a quick right to the stomach. I lifted my leg, ready to give him a very painful rendezvous with my foot when someone suddenly appeared behind my foe and pulled him backwards.

"Robbie. What do you think you're doing?"

That voice. Deep, languid, sorta sly. Sorta familiar. It clicked the second I looked up at him.

"Oh, uh, well, did you hear what he said, Alex?" Robbie looked at the man holding his arm with a mix of anger and respect.

I stepped back, and pulled my hat a little further down so it covered more of my face.

"Yes."

"He called me an ugly motherfucker!"

"You are an ugly motherfucker." He said it like they were discussing the weather.

Robbie swore some more and Alex let his arm go.

Alex. Wow, this was freaky. It was also exactly the sort of shit I was trying to avoid when I made the decision in the past to avoid Marrington.

The last time we had met his beautiful lips had been around two of my fingers, teasing and licking the chocolate frosting off of them with a devil's grin. He'd been drunk, and possibly on something. It was 10 years ago. Several years before that we had been best friends.

And, of course, the asshole managed to look even better now than he did back then, which was a feat. All jet black, perfectly cut hair, piercing eyes, strong nose, and those beautiful full lips of his. He was still lean but impressively muscled, his body a perfect V. Ears still sort of big, and I wondered if the smile was still crooked.

Luckily I looked COMPLETELY different, down to a different body shape and my hair hidden beneath my cap completely, so I hoped that meant I could slip out without him recognizing me. Judging by the expensive grey button up shirt and pricy suit pants, we were still traveling in completely different circles. It wasn't really a reunion I felt was necessary.

Unfortunately, at that moment, he and Robbie were blocking the door.

"Get out of here, take Melissa with you. It's too early for you to be picking fights." Melissa, obviously taking the hint, scrambled off her seat and went straight towards the door, head down. Huh. I wondered what authority Alex had over them. Employees? Or were they just overawed by his charisma? He was that kind of guy.

"But, fuck! I -" Robbie looked at Alex face, snapped his mouth shut, and with a parting snarl for me slammed out the door.

I reached for my wallet in my pocket and started to head back to the bar, planning to pay, finish my drink, and leave. I figured it was over.

"You." Damn.

I turned to him, impressed with myself for not checking him out. Wow. His face had firmed up, was less rounded. He looked like a greek statue. Who was giving me a hard time.

"Yeah?"

"Maybe you should get out of here, too."

"What the hell did I do?" I asked indignantly, and then took in a deep breath. "Okay, whatever, let me finish my drink, pay, and I'm out."

"Now." He took a step forward. His face was stone. Shit, what a weird 12 hours I was having; it seemed to be Isaac's get treated like crap by gorgeous men day. If I wanted that, I'd find one of my own to kick me around. I narrowed my eyes at him, not caring who the hell he was anymore. And he'd made it clear he stopped giving a real shit about me before high school even started.

Maybe I was also somewhere very disappointed he had no idea who I was, even when standing only inches away.

"You own this place?" I was pretty sure he didn't.

He looked surprised at the question.

"No."

"You a cop?" Of course he wasn't a cop; anyone could see that.

That made him quirk a smile, and, yeah, it was the same wildly crooked, weird, beautiful thing. His little imperfections had always been what made him perfect. "No."

"Then leave me the fuck alone, man. I'll be out of your face in 5 minutes." I turned back to the bar, but I was putting my money down. If he said anything else, I'd leave; I really didn't want another fight. Not with him.

"Listen." His arm was next to me on the bar then, and he suddenly was very, very close to me, his lips next to my ear. His expression was menacing, but his words, surprisingly, were not; he was very close to whispering, but his tone was almost friendly. I hated the fact my heart beat just a touch faster. Fucker'd always had that effect on me; I'd hoped time would have gotten rid of that. Time had let me down. "You just announced to the whole bar you're gay. This place is not populated by the most progressive people in town, especially that bunch in the back." I turned my head only slightly and looked to where the pool tables were, at the group of young men and women who were now staring at me. Yeah, he was right, that wasn't respect for my cajones in their expressions, it was a desire to remove them. "You might be tough, but you're not as tough as they are. Get out of here. I'll walk you out to make sure Robbie's not waiting for you."

"I don't need an escort," I said stiffly.

"Don't care; you're getting one. Finish your drink."

"Fuck." I muttered, but did as he ordered, slapping down a 10 and then standing up. "Thanks, Marian." I said with a little smile in her direction. "Sorry to leave so soon."

"No problem, darling. Sorry to see you go", she answered with a nod and an almost sly smile, and it didn't sound like she was being sarcastic. I liked her. Where DID I know her from? Damn it, it would drive me crazy. This TOWN would drive me crazy.

My back was stiff as we headed out the door; being with him was making me uncomfortable. We hit the air, and I took a deep breath. Wow. Wanted a cigarette. Wanted to just get out of there.

But I had to admit that Alex probably just did me a favor and saved me from a REAL beating, so I should least acknowledge that much. "Thanks," I said, turning. I started when I saw how close he was standing. Fucking hell, in the night air I could tell he smelled the same as he used to. There was a cologne, but that wasn't it, it was him. "Uh... yeah. For getting me out of there." I ducked my head so he couldn't see my eyes under my hat brim. This put my gaze around his mouth and those lips. If I reached up just a fraction I could touch his chest.

There was a beat, a pause, and a frisson. He confused my head as always, fucker, and he didn't even know me.

"What's your name?" He asked, voice neutral, but low, a step away from intimate.

I laughed at that while stepping back, breaking the spell I'd allow to cloud my brain. What was my name, Alex? Maybe you'd forgotten it all together.

I walked backwards for a beat and gave him a jaunty little wave. "Doesn't matter. Have a good one, Sandy. Thanks again for getting Robbie off my ass." Before I turned I saw his eyes widen.

"How do you -"

"Alex! You gonna be out here forever? We need to finish this!" A rough voice boomed; I figured it came from the door of the Nickel. There was a pause.

"Yeah. I'm coming."

I silently thanked whomever just saved me from an uncomfortable confrontation and unwanted reunion. Why I had decided to throw out his childhood name at the last moment was a mystery even to me, but I hadn't been able to resist, per usual.

Fucking Alessandro Channing. Who the hell was he to still be in Marrington? It was surprising; he'd always had the earmarks of being meant for bigger and better things. And what right did he have to still be so crazy hot?

I suppose that wasn't much of a shocker; he had the earmarks of someone who would improve with age. I just didn't like being so keenly aware of his attractiveness.

What WAS new was how grim he was. When we were younger that devil's smile had always been on his face; now he was so serious. Maybe that was just how he was when throwing punks out of bars. And what did I care? He had nothing to do with me.

I figured it was unlikely I'd see him again; if I did, it would be something casual and brief. I was sure I wouldn't be confronted with all the crazy emotions I thought I'd escaped more than a decade ago. My biggest worry at the moment was what to put on the cafe menu.

My worries, unfortunately, were about to become much more serious.


 

To Be Continued!