THE DISCERNING PALATE

Part 8

Hello hello and thank you so much for reading my story! Next part coming very soon. Please check out my website www.noelblue.com for my other stories, and drop me a line at noelblue @ g   mail  to give me any feedback or just chat. Also don’t forget to support Nifty!

I took a deep breath outside the restaurant, finding the calm I would access before the crazy nights at work, or when about to execute an especially complex Tae Kwon Do combination  in class. It was another hot, humid summer day, overcast and stifling, but I was ready for whatever was next. First I’d worked out, and then I’d hit the grocery store to re-stock up - had to be ready to whip something up at any time, now that I had someone to cook for - and had spent an hour and a half quickly looking up what a lot of chefs I admired were up to, and had started to get some inspiration about my own menu.

I felt a bit weird even as I scribbled down my ideas, because now that I was officially on team Take-the-Channings-Down I didn’t believe this restaurant was actually going to happen. And yet I was creatively more excited than I’d been maybe in years, and I had to successfully convince Alex I was serious about all this. He was crazy smart, he used to know me really well, and he’d know if I phoned it in. But at the same time, I kept reminding myself it was nothing more than an exercise that would never come to fruition, and was just practice for my next job. Hell, I’d use the recipes to find that next step. And now I wouldn’t care what that Greek fuck did or said, nope, because I had Jason to keep both my ego and my id well and distracted.

I felt this was a fantastic personal compromise and headed to work prepared, fortifying mermaid ice coffee in hand. God, being in the suburbs was making me such a basic bitch. But I was a strong basic-ass bitch, goddamnit.

This was my thought as I walked in, and I honestly believed it for about two seconds, until Alex turned around from where he was at the bar to watch me come in and I was struck by how disgustingly perfect he was. Today it was fawn pants and a spearmint-y green shirt with the sleeves rolled up that was perfect for summer and generally very attractive, the light colors setting off the plans and sharpness of his face and eyes. Just looking at him made me want a gin and tonic. I was wearing a tight black metal shirt and jeans, my nails painted a sparkly purple I’d found in the apt after noting they either needed cutting or decoration, and wondered not for the first time how the fuck we were ever friends.

“Yo,” I said, lifting my coffee at him, and approached the bar several feet down from him, leaning against it to take off my sunglasses. I noted that the tables and chairs had been delivered, and had to admit they were stylish and warm looking.

His eyebrow went up. “You’re actually early.” He was so goddamn pleased with himself when he taught himself how to lift an eyebrow at nine years old. Preppy asshole.

“This may shock you, but I usually am, when I actually get sleep.”

“Your mood is improved as well, I see.”

“Had a great night. Okay, that’s not technically true. First we slept for 9 hours, and then we had a great morning.” I gave him my most obnoxious, fuck-you grin, and he narrowed his eyes.

“So your cheer has nothing to do with the conversation with your dad last night?” His voice was completely mild, like he was asking me about the weather, or how my coffee was.

My mind froze briefly, but dad had warned my that there were definitely Channing lackeys hanging out in the Head (I love being on a first name basis with places I’d prefer to never patronize again), and that I would need to be aware and ready for when they asked me what we had talked about. The easiest answer was of course the most obvious.

“Fuck, no.” I threw in an annoyed snarl for good effect. “He summoned me there to lecture me on leaving Japan, and then on being a shitty son and not calling. It made a crappy day even crappier.”

“So you didn’t talk about anything else?”

I rolled my eyes. “Like what, how much happier my mom is without him? He pretends my sister doesn’t exist, so we’re not going there. I got out of that shithole as soon as I could. Why do you care?” The secret to hiding what we really talked about to Alex was, I figured, playing dumb to the very notion that my dad was at all involved with any of this; to figure it out he’d have to bring it up himself.

I expected more pressing, but instead Alex just continued leaning there, looking at me and, from what I could tell, not blinking. Fucker was trying to make me uncomfortable, and it was working. But I of course had discomforting topics of my own.

“How’s your dad doing?” I asked, feigning innocent concern. “I heard he’s had a stroke.”

A cloud passed over Alex’s expression. “He’s doing as to be expected.” And then that slight devil’s smile was on his lips, and I felt dread as he moved forward towards me, leaning on the bar and suddenly far too close. “So you heard that from your dad, huh? Why were you talking about Christos if it was all about you and what a shitty son you are?”

Oh, fuck, this was a very good point, and as usual this bastard’s mere presence was throwing me off my game. It also reminded me of how damn competitive board gaming and D&D would get when we were younger - we used to take way too much pleasure in competing, and in seeing which of us would outwit the other, although back then it’d been fun and low stakes, neither of us taking it too hard when we lost. But things were different, and I’d be fucked if I’d let him beat me now.

“Because I mentioned I ran into you, and he brought up your dad. I didn’t mention any more than that.”

 I pushed myself away from the counter, and started to walk into the kitchen as I spoke. “I don’t want him to know I’m caught up in this bullshit, since he’d be even more disappointed in me. Let’s get to work.”

After a pause I heard his footsteps, and I reached for my calm center again as he entered the kitchen again, his expression thoughtful. This was a good reminder of how stupid smart Sandy was, and how he never seemed to miss, or forget, anything. While we’d both won a fair amount back in the day, I did better at video games and games that called for bursts of activity or improvisation and creativity, and he’d kick my ass whenever the long game and extended strategy was called for. This shitty mess was definitely the latter, and I’d need to be really careful about what I said.  

My earlier elation was definitely taking a hit, and I’d barely just arrived. But as I watched Alex approach where I was standing me at the back prep table, attempting to ignore the way he strode with a perfect, upright stance that was stupidly masculine, I remembered the things that always threw Alex off and made him lose his focus: Distraction and sharp, unexpected turns.

“I have ideas,” I said suddenly, and slammed my notebook on the table, “and I need you to take a look at them before anything else.”

“Okay, sure,” he said with a blink, and came around to where I was to stand next to me. “What am I looking at?”

“We’re doing farm-to-table very flexible Americana, and I’ve already figured out where I want to get some of our ingredients.” I spoke rapidly as I went down my list of scribbles, like I didn’t care if he was following me or not, and made every statement as if it was non-negotiable.

“That sounds incredibly expensive, Isaac,” Alex interrupted me at one point, “and I’ve heard the taste is not that much different than American radishes.” I tried not to look impressed that he knew what the hell I was talking about. “Do is have to be that exact vegetable from that exact supplier?”

“This is the point of true fine dining - it might not be much different, but it’s goddamn different enough. The experience that customers are eating something new and that it’d be a bitch for them to make at home is about 40 percent of the point of this whole restaurant party. If we’re just another very good-but-not-great restaurant we’ll be one of 20 in a 30 mile radius, and the others are chain-owned and able to run at much better margins than we can even dream of. We do this, we do this right.”

Alex tilted his head. “Oh, yes, you did the restaurant management courses at culinary school as well, didn’t you? Silly of me to almost forget that.”

“And it’s silly of me to forget you’ve memorized my resume, you creeper. When do you think you can start getting me my ingredients?”

“Email me a specific list tonight and I’ll have it in two days, tops. I’ve already reached out to several suppliers and specialized distributors, and they’re ready to move. We’re paying cash on demand, so there’s some incentive there.”

“That’s not shady at all,” I said with a snort, “but fine. I’ll start drafting up real recipes, the things I want to try, and I can get you sample dishes. How’s finding the other personnel? I want professional testers, not just some asshole gangster tastebuds trying my food.”

“Bernadette, the sous chef I mentioned, is coming in tomorrow for an interview at 2; I expect you to be here.” My insults seemed to be rolling right off him, which I wasn’t too pleased about. “If we hire her, you two can go from there.”

“Fine. As we agreed you’re in charge of the waitstaff; I don’t have time for dealing with the front to that extent. Just make sure they’re experienced and capable of being relaxed and conversational while keeping quality high. This isn’t some fancy French joint, and their attitude needs to match the food.”

“Sure.”

God he was uncaring; it was like talking to a handsome statue. It was time to try something new.

“Thanks, Channing.” I moved my hand to his and tapped the purple nails of my forefinger and index finger on the top of his hand, and I felt a rush of pleasure as his gaze snapped to my touch. “I like that you’re making it easy for me.”

In order to make my message as confusing as possible I had a fuck-off sneer on, and my tone was sarcastic. But I let my fingers slowly climb up his forearm, enjoying the feeling of his smooth skin before I hit his sleeve and the distinct twitch I’m sure I felt. I wondered if he wanted to yank it away and stopped himself. He didn’t, and my hand found itself at his bicep, where there was a hard, curved bump of lean, beautiful muscle. Man oh man I loved a good arm. Dragging the nails up his sleeve, I enjoyed the clash between my purple and the shirt’s green. I smelled him, then, that nice cologne and the manly undercurrent of him, and something primal started to rise up in me that I’d been trying to resist noticing.

Well, fuck it, time to lean in to this urge. I’d stopped talking and we were both watching my hand reach his shoulder, squeezed gently, and started to run my fingers down his pec, noting I was just about to hit a nipple-

Isaac.” My name came out like a snap and one lean, masculine hand grabbed mine, hard, and I looked at his face and saw he appeared very, very vexed, those eyebrows drawn together, his eyes dark and glinting and lips tight despite the slight flush on his cheeks. It was sexy and a bit scary, and the part of me that was still a kid felt guilty for upsetting him, and wanted to make him laugh and relax the way I’d always done. The angry, vindictive adult was pleased and more than a little turned on.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.” I pulled my hand away and stepped back with a shrug. “You just looked so minty and refreshing I just had to have a touch.”

The weirdness of that threw him off. “What the h-”

“Alex!” A male voice came echoing from the main part of the restaurant.

“Fuck,” he swore, and it was my eyebrows that lifted this time as he strode past me, and then let out the breathe I’d metaphorically kept in since I started touching him. Maybe this line of confusion wasn’t a good idea, because that whole touching him thing was hell on my brain. I heard them talking, and then Alex’s voice became quieter but tenser.  

Nonchalantly I picked up my notebook and moved to the lean on the metal set of storage drawers near the opening of the kitchen and servant station where patrons would be able to see in, and lean so I could hear Raeburn and Alex but they wouldn’t notice that I was right there, staring innocently downward. I also started the recording app I’d downloaded on my phone, and put it on top of my notebook and made like I was playing with it.

“I’m sorry, it’s too late,” Raeburn was saying. “We’ve already paid for the product, and we haven’t been doing enough business lately for them to take it back without serious repercussions. And I’m not sure this is a bad thing, to be honest. We could use the capital, and Robbie and Matt have been pushing for it; they’re losing their guys because we’re not making them enough money. This will keep some people in our pocket that could be useful later.”

“I thought the last delivery was the end, Sam. The growers should keep us funded enough until we don’t need them anymore. You know this makes me nervous.”

“I know, I know,” Raeburn’s voice was soothing, but resigned. “But Christo’s nervous too, Alex, and made the calls himself, or that secretary did for him. There wasn’t any stopping this. The weed’s solid money, but won’t make as much as the harder stuff. You know that.”

“Yes, but the more we do the harder it is to stop.”

Raeburn sighed. “We’re the only ones who want to stop it, that’s the problem. This restaurant thing’s expensive on top of all our other expenses, and the bills need to be paid somehow.”

Alex didn’t respond, and Raeburn said. “We’ll figure it out; just a little bit longer, hopefully. I’ll keep you in the loop.”

“Please.”

I heard steps retreating, the door open and close, and I carefully moved further into the kitchen along the wall so I didn’t look too suspiciously eves-droppy.

“Where were we?” Alex said, lips tight and eyes narrowed in stress. For better or for worse his conversation with Raeburn seemed to have put my mint-inspired fondling out of his mind, and I smiled neutrally.

“Wherever you want us to be.”

He rolled his eyes and we got back to work. I was too distracted by the conversation I’d overheard to be too flirty, and time crawled by in the most boring of manners until we started to wrap up.

“I’ll do what I can on the Sommelier or close, but that might be outside our budget; an experienced wine expert might be all we can afford.  Don’t forget to be here at 2 tomorrow.”

“With  bells on.” Why did it bother me that he was upset after conversation with Raeburn, like I wanted to comfort him? I should have been feeling the opposite, and this paradox made me spiteful as I put my sunglasses on and moved towards the door. “Maybe call up your ginger doll, Channing, to blow off some steam; when you’re wound up tight like this it’s like being caged with a pissed-off cat.”

“He’s not a doll. And why do you care how uptight I am?” Suddenly he smiled, eyes narrowed. “Worried I’ll bite?” His voice was almost a purr, and he tilted his head which allowed me to admire that strong, lean, tan neck of his.

“That a threat? Because if it is, just know that if you bite I’ll scratch, and then things will get real messy, real fast.” I opened the door with a teasing lip curl. “And we wouldn’t want that, would we?”

“Heaven forbid,” he responded dryly, that smile still on his lips and his expression very arch.

The nonchalance of that unsettled me, and with a full-on snarl I slammed the door behind me and stomped into the swampy summer air. I walked back to my place in a daze, brain numb with the knowledge that yes, Alex Channing was a drug dealer, and he wasn’t happy about it. Didn’t change the fact he was one, however, and that I was deeply disappointed in him. How was it possible that he could still fall further in my esteem? Hadn’t we reached a floor to my loathing of him yet?

Not even close, a traitorous voice in my head said, and I brushed it away like a buzzing fly. I hated him and that was that, damn it. And if I now and then took advantage of his proximity to squeeze a bicep or two, well, what was wrong with taking little wee revenges? It was just good fun and diversion. My Raison D’etre was to make his life miserable by any means possible, nothing more. My phone rang.

“We’re still on for dinner, right?” I asked, my mood improving as I remembered my dinner date that eve.

“We better be, because I’m starving and cranky. I made us a reservation at Bella’s in Arcadia; you’ll like it, it’s just the right amount of fancy and the food is great. I’ll pick you up at 7?”

“That sounds good, but could you pick me up at the Nickel?” I’d just had a great pre-gaming idea. “I’m going to pop in there around 6:30 pm, see if my old teacher is still the bartender there.”

“The Nickel?” She sounded suspicious. “What are you up to, Isaac?”

“Nothing, nothing. I just have an urge to make sure I hit up all the organized asshole shitpiles this week; seems like the thing to do in Marrington. See you soon!”

“Mmhmm. Try not to get yourself shot before dinner, okay?”

“No promises,” I said cheerfully, and with sigh she hung up.

*****

I spiffed myself up in a button up short sleeved charcoal shirt and dark jeans, and as I was finishing up got a text from Jason asking how my day was, and asking what I was doing the next night. I answered ‘you, hopefully?’ and got a ‘you’re ridiculous. How’s 8?’

8 was just great, I responded, and headed out to the Nickel with a spring in my step. How long had it been since I’d dated like a normal person - 2 years? Yeah, that was right, not since the poet. I’d had hook-ups and there was that certain married chef and several long flirtations, but I couldn’t say any of the more casual entanglements had excited me much. And the whole thing with Junichi had right fucked with my head, so nothing felt normal when or after that was going down.

And sure, Jason and I weren’t official - I recognized what he’d been telling me by saying it couldn’t be more - but I could tell he was really into me. Right then that was I enough, I told myself. Right then I just needed friends and affection, and maybe over time it would turn into more.

When I entered the Nickel I noticed that it was half-empty, the same dingy yet comforting neighborhood dive bar feeling intact. I was please to see that yes, indeed, there was Marian at the bar.

“Hey, beautiful,” I said with a smile as I sat down on a stool at the end near the door.

“Isaac!” She looked genuinely pleased to see me, the smile on her face causing her eyes to scrunch up in a delightful way that brought back more innocent times. Her hair was up in a ponytail and she was wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. She was a pretty woman, and I felt sad about the obvious stress she wore between her eyes and in the way she carried herself. Still, I pointed out the pretty part, and she snorted.

“Sure, sure. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were trying to get in my pants, but I do know better, so I’ll take it. Gin and tonic again?”

“Just a Heineken, please - I don’t want to hit the night too hard, since I hopefully have much more of it ahead. How are you?”

She shrugged as she popped the cap and set my beer down before leaning her elbows on the bar. “Same ol’ same ol’. Been pretty quiet here lately, honestly. There used to be more traffic, but some of our regulars have moved on. My tips have gone to shit.” She said that with a wry smile to take the edge off.

“That sucks - how’s the other job?”

We just chatted for a bit and I learned she was an avid flutist and painter, and she asked about the restaurant, obviously being aware of it’s connection to both the Channings and me; she was more in the know than I had even thought. I wondered who gave her the info she had. At a lull in the conversation I shifted gears.

“So. That’s unfortunate things are slow here. Anything to do with Christo’s health?”

Marian lifted an eyebrow at me. “Maybe. Where’d you hear about that?” She paused to nod at a couple that came in and walked towards the tables in the back. “Alex?”

“Yeah, he mentioned it in passing.” I worked on making my voice sound casual.

She wasn’t buying it, judging by the pursed lips. “Hmm, I’m surprised, he doesn’t tend to talk about his dad a lot, and I hear the two of you aren’t getting along too well.” She tilted her head at me. Okay, now I was really curious who she was talking to. “But yes, for all the issues in this town, there were certain professionals - cops, firemen, city workers - who liked to come here. Every since the city decided we need a change and a few more franchises, the lines have been drawn a bit more clearly and they’re not coming any longer.” She squinted at the door, her face thoughtful. “Honestly, it’s not a big deal, except the people we’re stuck with, well. They could be better.”

As if on cue the door opened, and in walked Robbie, wearing a neon yellow shirt with a screaming frog holding a gun on it over camo shorts and followed by a tall, bearded guy in a blue T-shirt and jeans an impassive face, a face I recognized from Kim’s cafe back before I knew the full extent of what Kim had gotten herself into.

“Matt,” Marian said with a nod in greeting and a clear cold-shoulder to Robbie, who snarled at her. Ah, so our construction foreman was Matt, the other guy Raeburn mentioned - so that meant he had a role as a drug dealer, or at least wrangler of drug dealers. I knew I’d not liked him and his weird, looming quiet, and now I could justify that dislike.

“Where’s my fucking beer, Marian?” Robbie said and leaning too far over the bar, with a smile and in a voice that hovered between whiney and teasing, the end effect being menacing. “You know I like my drink as soon as I walk in the door.”

You wouldn’t have known she heard him except for the fact two Millers appeared on the counter, her expression bland.

He snatched one, took a long pull, and turned to me. Fuck he was ugly, and I swear he smelled like sweat, BO, and general fug. I minutely pulled back from him. “What you doing here, homo? Alex summon you to suck his cock?”

Hmmm, did that mean they knew he was gay, or was it just a fly-by comment? I just smiled and took a drink. “Nah, got no interest in his diseased criminal cock; he ain’t my type.” I was such a liar. “I’m here to say hi to Marian, and enjoy a nice, cold beer. Nothing more, nothing less. Something wrong with that?”

“Fucking asshole.” As always, not exactly the master of witty retorts, Robbie; he just spit in my general direction and stomped off. Matt, standing casually to the side while this exchange happened, just looked at me with that weird, smug smile and followed him.

“I’m so sorry you have to put up with those two,” I said quietly to Marian. “They creep me out.”

“They should; they’re creeps.” She smiled at me. “Although Matt’s not so bad, just real quiet. Although I’ve heard some disturbing rumors about hm, so I shouldn’t talk like I know.”

“Rumors? Do tell.”

“Ha, you wish. Nope.” She shook her head and gave me that knowing look, before leaning forward and squeezing my shoulder. “I’m sorry you’re caught up in things, Isaac, and I wish I could help you. I know you’re looking for info here, but I’m not the best resource, for several reasons. I both want you to keep coming to say hi and also want to warn you again this place doesn’t have the best vibe, especially not lately.

“Between the clientele going to shit, Christo being gone and Alex busy and no longer stopping by that often to keep things in check this is a weird place to be lately.” She made a face. “The energy tends to sour by midnight, and some of the angrier drunks like to spoil for a target. You stand out wherever you go, Isaac, and I’d hate for you to land in those assholes’ crosshairs.”

“I wouldn’t worry about me; if I’m a target it’s because I make myself one, let’s be honest. But why do you still work here if it’s so shitty and sour?” I finished my beer and pointed it at her. “Why not pick up more wait staffing shifts, or bartend elsewhere? You’re obviously a woman of many talents.”

She just quirked her mouth. “I’ve got my reasons. Maybe I’ll tell you them some day, if you’re nice to me.”

“Would that nice include me making you dinner some time? Because that’s usually how I’m nice, and I want to know your mysteries, Marian,” I grinned. “I can tell you have so many.” Glancing at my phone I saw that Kim was close, and I should probably get outside so she could swoop me up.

She laughed. “You’re going to be so sorely disappointed if that’s what you think. But if dinner’s a real offer, than sure, I’d love to taste your food. It’d be the least you can do, after making me put up with your smart mouth for a year. I’m still scarred, 15 long years later.”

I put down a twenty as I stood up, and smiled at her. “You know you loved it, don’t lie; at least I wasn’t boring! And wonderful, it’s a date. What’s your number? We’ll make this happen real soon, and we can have a conversation less involved with whispers and secrets and more involving wine, great food, and you telling me everything you know.”

“You wish, child, you wish.” Despite her saucy attitude Marian gave me her cell number, and I texted her so she would have mine before I left.

As I waited for Kim outside I felt quite pleased with myself, as my intel gathering on the first day on the double agent beat was quite successful. Drugs and fading support for the Channings were probably things my dad would want to hear about, although I decided at the same time to keep Marian out of it as much as possible. She didn’t need the hassle.

Kim’s SUV pulled up to the curb and I leaned over to smile into the window at my cousin, who looked lovely in a long navy dress and her hair pulled up in an expert twist. “Hey, sexy lady, going my way?”

“Only if your way involves red wine, Italian food, and getting out of this goddamn town for a night.”

“Fuck yeah, it does,” I said as I climbed into the car.

As promised it was a lovely little bistro type joint that was dark and ambient, with brick walls and dark leather booths, and we were well into a bottle of wine as our mindless, comfortable chatter turned to the more serious topics. I’d been waiting for a good moment to ask how she was, as she seemed to mostly be in a good mood, but was also a bit distracted.

“So what’s got you a bit spacey, hm?” I asked as I dipped my bread in olive oil. “Just worries about the cafe and all this other bullshit?”

She laughed, her cheekbones scrunching up in a honestly relaxed way I hadn’t seen for a while. “Always. Haven’t had a good night’s sleep since. But no, it’s a couple of things.” She pushed her bread around her plate, and I suddenly had a sense one of those things was about me, but before I could ask, she cut me off. “One is that I finally said yes to that lawyer I was telling you about, on your encouragement. We’re going out on Saturday.”

“That’s great! Are you looking forward to it?”

She thought for a bit, tilting her head and letting her long, sparkly earrings dangle and catch the candlelight. “I think so? Rafael’s awfully charming and funny, and is pretty into me and doesn’t seem to mind when I talk back to him. I can tell he’s not easily intimidated, which is nice. And honestly, you were right - I could use a handsome man to keep me busy. Speaking of….” her gaze went from mine back down to her plate.

“Uh oh. What’s up?” I took a deep drink of my wine. Something told me she had news for me, and my heart started to sink in preparation.

She took a deep breath and leaned forward. “Well, this is only pertinent if you’re still seeing Jason. Are you, after last night?”

Fuck. “Yes, more importantly, after this morning. Why? What did you hear?”

“Are you some sort of item?” Kim’s expression was intense, and I squirmed.

“No, not really. But I’m pretty sure he’s into it. He’s been saying all the right things, and he’s making me dinner tomorrow night. Seriously, Kim, you’re fucking kill me. What do you know?”

She sighed, and leaned back. “I was just hoping maybe you guys were done. He’s still seeing Kristina, Isaac, and it sounds pretty serious again. She was just telling me about it today, because she thinks she can trust me to not judge her for continuing to see him after he broke her heart.” She snorted. “Which is true, she can in that sense; I don’t judge her. But I also want to stay in the loop because I’m worried about you, and I think you deserve to know.”

My brain was a little numb, moving through this new information very slowly. “Are you telling her about me, too?”

“What, do you think I’m fucking stupid? God, no, never. She’s sweet, I like her and we have fun when we hang out, but my deeper loyalty is to you, always.” She leaned forward and squeezed my hand. “I know you’ll be careful with Jason, and not let him know where you’re getting your info. And, quite honestly, she doesn’t want to know, unlike you. She likes her illusions; it’s like you and him, her seeing you together, never even happened for her. That he’s very bisexual is not even in her new reality.” Her expression shifted. “Wait, you do want to know, don’t you?”

I laughed. “I do, yes, although it’s definitely harshing my mellow.” My smile dropped and I poured both of us more wine, and I drank some before staring into it moodily. “Shit. I mean, ouch. Fuck. He warned me that we weren’t anything serious, and basically that we weren’t going to label it anything, but I think,” I took a deep breath, “I was hoping for more, you know? I can tell he’s into me. He’s very definitely into the sex.” I grinned at her eyeroll, and rallied towards positivity. “Hey, and at least he’s not lying to me, girl, he’s just keeping it open.”

I believed it, too. I just didn’t like it.

“Mm.” She did not sound convinced, slowly chewing her starter salad that had showed up as we chatted. “I guess. But I’ve got two people I care about telling me how much he’s into them, and while you both might be right, there’s no way this doesn’t end in tears, Isaac. Either yours or hers, and you know who I’m pulling for,. Still, I’m really worried it’s going to be both your hearts smashed.”

“Hey, maybe it’ll end with one of us bowing out gracefully! That could happen, right?”

“Knowing both of you? Honestly, no, not at this rate.”

I sighed, pushing a tomato around my plate. “I know. Fuck.” This whole conversation made me face something I’d been avoiding. I pitched my voice very low. “But, you know, it’s not like I can be fully honest with him anyways. He’s a cop. I’m working for a crime syndicate while spying for some sort of bureaucratic muscle group involving my dad; yeah, he’s not telling me about Kristina, but there’s a few things I’m leaving out as well.”

“Just a few,” Kim agreed, and I was touched that she looked genuinely sad for me. “I’m sorry. This is not a great foundation you have here for a strong relationship.”

“No, no it’s not. But I won’t lie - he’s very nice to be around, and it’s so much better than nothing right now.”

“I hear that,” she said wryly, and we clinked glasses.

I told her how things were going with the restaurant, my feelings about it all, about what I’d heard about the drugs as well. She winced. “Goddamn. So they’re using drug money to build my cafe? Wonderful. And I was starting to get excited about it again, too. Although, it’s not likely I’m going to be able to keep it anyways, am I? Just like the restaurant, it’s probably forfeit. I’m such a moron.”

“Aren’t we done with this self-pitying shit?”

She snarled at me, and then laughed. “Mostly, but I still have some left.”

 “Understandably, but I’d let it go; it’s bad for digestion and leads to alcoholism. Seriously, girl, in the end this could be really good - we could be the catalyst that takes these assholes down. I’d rather not be here in this situation, true, but we’re here, and so we might as well be in it to win it.”

“Yeah, but this involves taking down Alex, too.” She peered at me closely. “You sure that doesn’t matter to you? Not at all? I can tell you’re disappointed about the drugs, although it does sound like he’s trying to get out, and I know you don’t give many shits about weed.”

“Legal weed,” I protested, “or small growers. That’s not the same as drug dealing cartel weed. There is a difference, at least to me.”

“Okay, okay, but my point is, he’s not all villain here. Maybe he’s trying to clean up the Channing business. It could be the point to everything he’s doing.”

I shook my head stubbornly. “Doesn’t matter, he’s still a scumbag. Think of all the drugs he had to sell, deals that he’s been involved in at some level, over the last ten years. He’s in deep, and he’s a criminal. You can’t tell me that his family has enough reach to go after him if he had decided to leave the family business, they’re such small fry. But he decided to stay, and that’s on him.”

“Yeah, but you know his mom died last year, right? I got the sense they were really tight. Maybe he didn’t want to leave her.”

I didn’t say anything, because she was right on how tight Alex and his mom were. It’d been true when he was young and never went away; my mom had casually kept me in the loop, as their status as best friends had not really changed, and had told me when she’d died. I’d felt genuine sadness at the news because Claudia Channing had been a sweet if unstable woman, and I had good memories of her. I’d also wondered how Alex felt about it, and then felt angry that’d even come up.

No, fuck him and fuck his sob stories. I had no patience for his bullshit.

We changed subjects, and it was a really enjoyable, relaxed night of shrimp pesto, amazing tortellini, and a more than solid tiramisu.

We headed out, having fallen into a stuffed and companionable silence. When she got to my place I could tell she wasn’t tired, and offered to make her some coffee. She demurred, and we got out of the car, bitching about how hot it was despite being 10 at night.

I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye, and suddenly Kim let out a scream that was cut short and I felt the violent pain of someone slamming into me and pushing me to the ground; my head luckily hit the grass in front of the condos as opposed to the pavement.

Fuck!” I said, and then felt an explosion around my ribs where someone kicked me.

“Isaac! Let me the fuck go, you mother--!” Kim voice was muffled again, and I heard an asshole laugh from the same direction - okay, we were dealing with at least two fuckwads - and in the same moment I managed to roll away from the car to dodge the next kick aimed my way.

I sprung up and jumped back as the masked guy near me rushed me, swearing. “Get back here, asshole!” On top of the ski mask he was also wearing a black T-shirt and camo cargo pants. Skinny little prick, I thought. “We’ve got a few things to tell you!” I was somewhat amused this same dickhead had the balls to threaten me, seeing as he wasn’t exactly in control at the moment.

It was also worth noting, I thought, that he sounded very young, teenage young. Concentrating on his location and bouncing on my heels, I easily lifted my forearm to block and dodge him as he lunged at me, and burst forward to punch him in the chest.

“Umpf! What the fuck -” Before he could finish that thought I spun around to kick him in the head, my body reminding me that it’d been way too long since I’d practiced my Tae Kwon Do, and that my technique was sloppy. Luckily, he was in no shape to criticize my form. “Oh, god,” he moaned, on his hands and knees in the grass and holding his head.

“What’s going on over there?” The other guy holding Kim said, then exclaimed “Shit!” As I rounded the SUV. This guy was bigger, both width and height wise, and I noted shiney white sneaks he was wearing, which clashed pretty seriously with all that black. Seemed amateurish. “Stay back, I have a gun!” He said, and pulled one out of his pocket to aim it at me.

This meant he had to take an arm off of Kim, however, and she threw back an elbow, hitting him square in the jaw and causing him to shriek and drop aforementioned firearm. I lunged for it as the other guy hobbled around the corner and Kim punched him in the stomach. He jumped back from her next assault, a roundhouse kick that she must have learned in kickboxing. “Crazy bitch!”  

“Fuck this, man, let’s get out of here!” Skinny said, jerking his head towards the street.

“This was your idea!” The big guy looked at me, holding his gun, and despite his protest took his buddy’s advice and turned.

“Fuck you!” said my young assailant over his shoulder, as they ran away. “This is a warning to remember we’re watching you!”

“Brave little assholes, aren’t they, to threaten a man holding a gun?” I looked down at it, and shuddered. “God, I hate guns.” I turned to Kim and put an arm around her shoulder with my other hand. “You okay?” She looked a little shaken up and a lot angry.

“What the hell just happened?! Did we just get jumped?”

“Yes, yes we did. Did he hurt you at all?”

“No! He copped a boob feel, which I didn’t appreciate, but he didn’t hurt me. Little shit. How are you?! I heard you swear and the sound of you hitting the ground, and I was so worried!”

I winced, feeling the kick he’d landed, but noted as I took a couple of deep breathes that nothing seemed broken. “I think I’ll live - It’ll be a hell of a bruise, but I’ll survive.” I looked around at the night, and noted the lack of sirens. There was a wide expanse of yard between us and the buildings on this side of the condo complex and we were across from a small public park. “I don’t think anyone noticed that little dance, shockingly. If a punk asshat jumps you in the forest and no else hears or sees it, does it make a sound?”

Kim snorted, and then sat down on the sidewalk with a plunk. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “So do we call the police?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, throwing up my hands, then noted the gun in one of them again. I needed to put the goddamn thing away. The fact I thought that meant I did already have an opinion on her question, even if I wasn’t admitting it. “I can’t even think anymore, this is so stupid. Technically I’m working for both sides, but not everyone knows that, so I have no idea who that particular thread about ‘who you’re working for’ comes from. And who just sends a pair of clueless teenagers to attack two adults? It doesn’t seem the smartest thing to do.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Because I’m hoping you’ll answer it yourself, because my inclination is ‘no’, I have no desire to get the rank and file Marrington police involved in all this, as I am somewhat convinced they couldn’t help us in any way, shape, or form.”

“And also not flag a certain Officer Michaels, hmm?” She asked, her mouth quirking.

“Oh, fucking probably.” I walked to her and held out my free hand to help her up. “If we’re not calling the police, let’s go inside; this thing is making me really stupidly nervous.”

“Understandably. I wish I didn’t agree with you on this, but I do.” She teetered to her feet, we stumbled upstairs, and she went into the bathroom as I hid the gun in the bottom of my closet and told myself we were making the right decision by not calling the cops. I didn’t trust anyone anymore, and I had a feeling I’d get yelled at by both my shadowy masters if I did so. And, yes, not letting Jason begin to know what was happening in my life was a huge part of it as well.

 I stumbled into the living room. The bright, inviting lights of the condo seemed weirdly blinding after everything that had happened, I felt I had to tell someone, or do something. Taking out my phone I started a text.

Kim and I got attacked tonight. Two punk kids, with a gun, outside the condo building where I’m staying. They mentioned they’re watching us. Those your little goons? Or Robbie’s?

Are you both okay? came back.

Yeah, no real harm done. Answer the question.

They’re not mine. Alex responded. I doubt Robbie’s, but I’ll check. Want me to come over?

Fuck off. I threw my phone on the bed and stomped into the kitchen to start that coffee, wondering if I believed him. I think I did, but I’m not sure I believed he knew everything Robbie was up to.

Kim stayed over that night and crashed in my bed, and we talked in the dark, the hallway light on, until we finally fell asleep at some point.

****************************

The next day I was in only okay shape. I’d called my mother, not telling her anything about anything but having a pleasant, lovely conversation, her complaining about being in Florida in summer in order to be with my grandma and me giving her a positive-spin version of my new job and relationship with Jason. I than dragged my exhausted self to the gym in a possibly fear-fueled desire to keep myself in shape in case getting physically assaulted was going to be a normal part of my future. When showered and ready to go, I locked up the condo at about 1:40 and was striding down the sidewalk towards downtown when a black Lexus pulled up next to me.

There was a jolt of panic and I thought of bolting across the grass, until the tinted window came down and there was Alex, looking at me through black Ray Bans. “Hey.”

“Hey?” I said, confused. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to pick you up. Get in.”

I thought about telling him to fuck the fuck off, but even as it was on the tip of my tongue the 98 degree weather and the fact I felt like death made that luxury leather interior look like AC heaven. With a put-upon grunt I did as he told. “Thanks,” I said, voice curt.

“You’re welcome. What did they look like, and what happened?” His voice was dry and to the point.

I told him the story, first in rough sketch and then in more detail as he dug deeper as we entered the restaurant.

“So you kicked the skinny one in the head? After punching him?” Alex sounded surprised, which offended me, until the next thing he said. “So you kept up the Tae Kwon Do, huh?”

I was taken aback that he knew that. Yeah, I’d started it my junior year of high school, but it’s not like I talked about it tons at school. It was something I started when Kim and her friends graduated and most of my buddies started to obsess about college and extracurricular activities that looked good on their applications. I’d also been looking for a distraction that helped me lose weight and feel better about myself while keeping me from concentrating on the fact I had no idea what I was going to do after graduating. I wonder who’d told him.

“Yeah, yeah I did.”

“What’d you reach?”

“I’m a black belt. Still have a few forms to learn, but there’s no dojang in town anymore, so that’s on hold.”

He nodded. “I remember when your old place closed down.”

This was a weird conversation, and I shut it down by not responding, looking in the fridge and freezer at my ingredients, sniffing and smelling.

“I’ll look into what happened last night,” I heard him say at one point from where he was on the other side of the kitchen. “But it wasn’t anyone involved with us. Why don’t you ask your father?”

“Why would I do that?” I said blandly, my head conveniently bowed over a pile of rutabagas. “And are you absolutely sure about that? Robbie doesn’t seem like the most tame of rabid animals.”

Alex pinched his nose. Today he was wearing an off white shirt that showed the honey glow of his skin to perfection, and I flashed on touching that lean, muscular wrist and arm yesterday. Thank fucking god I was seeing Jason later, because obviously I needed some. “He’s been pretty loyal so far. And your-”

The door chime that had been installed very recently - perhaps after I had snuck in without him knowing two days before - went off, and a female voice drifted back to us from the front. “Hello?”

We came out, and a compact yet curvy woman with honey curls and tan skin stood there, wearing slacks, a button up shirt, and with a knife case slung over her shoulder. She had a broad face and light brown eyes, her watchful expression screaming competence.

“You must be Bernadette,” Alex said, and gave her his best, most charming devil’s smile as he came forward with his hand extended. She took it, and I was pleased to note she appeared utterly unmoved by his beauty.

“I am. This is an interesting space you have here.” She looked around, up at the ceiling, and back to the kitchen before looking at him. “How many weeks capital do you have secured?”

“Enough for several months. Bernadette, this is Isaac, our chef. Isaac, Bernadette is the sous chef we discussed.”

“Hey, Bernadette.” I gave her an honest smile as we shook hands. “It’s nice to meet you. Shall we go in the kitchen?” I figured, just like me, that’s the first thing she’d like to see, and she nodded, giving me a nod.

The interview went surprisingly well, as I found I liked Bernadette and her up front, direct style and tendency to answer the question and nothing more. Half Mexican and half Swedish, she’d lived and cooked in both countries before moving to the states for a relationship that didn’t work out. Alex had recruited her out one of the best restaurants in the city just as she’d been deciding what to do with herself next. She was extremely knowledgeable about food and was well-versed in a dizzying array of cuisines, and mentioned that until she knew where she wanted to live for a few years starting her own restaurant wasn’t in the cards; she thus didn’t mind being second-in-command. What impressed me most about her was that she seemed strong in the areas where I could be weak, like kitchen discipline and best practices. I could also tell she’d be brutally honest when critiquing foods, which I wanted. Alex had asked her a few standard interview questions, but had fallen quiet once her and I’d gotten into the nitty gritty of food.

Honestly, I’d decided very quickly I wanted her; here was only one thing I had to make sure of.

”So, Bernadette,” I said, right after we’d finished a discussion about what type of fish to use for a sauce I was thinking of making, “just a warning about me - if you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of an asshole, one who likes to say stupid shit all the time and thinks he’s funny. I can get on a lot of people’s nerves, and quickly. We’ve been talking for about an hour now, so you’ve probably gotten a sense of my communication style. Do you think you can work for me?”

She tilted her head, her chin length curls bouncing, and gave a small smile. “Do you sexually harass your employees?”

I shook my head. “Nope, never.”

“Do you do drugs before or during work, or get really drunk?”

“No hard drugs, and never high or drunk at work. Nor do let anything I did the night before affect my output or demeanor.”

“Do you have a problem with women in your kitchen?”

I smiled. “Prefer ‘em, actually.”

Does your stupid shit involve verbal abuse?”

“Other than lots of cursing, not really, no. I’m actually nicer at work than in life.”

She nodded and put her hands on the table, as if that was decided. “Okay. Then we should be fine. If any of the above happens, just a warning about me - that night will be my last.”

Loved her. “Deal.”

Alex offered Bernadette the job and an apartment in his building then and there, and she accepted, saying she needed a few days to close up shop in the city and get her things together before she was comfortable starting.

After she left, Alex turned to me with a quirked mouth. “You seemed to like her.”

“I did. She’s the real deal.” I wanted to say more than that, such as to go into what I liked about her and what I thought she’d bring to the situation, but I reminded myself that was a friendly conversation, and he was not my friend. Also, as I watched her leave and the rush of finding such a great sous chef faded, the reminder in my brain that we were unlikely to actually work together in an active kitchen kicked in, and I felt guilty for roping her in and mad again at Alex for adding another patsy to his list. “I’m going back in the kitchen.”

I stomped through the swinging door and went back to my ingredients. I’d hoped Alex was going to go back into the office, but he didn’t, sitting at the other end of the table with his laptop.

At one point my phone vibrated, and I looked at it and laughed; my mom had written me something my always-sarcastic grandma had said about her very nice nursing home, and both it and my mom’s framing were familiar and comforting.

“Who’s that?” Alex asked, not looking up from his computer.

As if he had a right to ask. “My mom.”

“How’s she doing?”

“She’s fine. In Florida with grandma, and hating the humidity.”

“Understandably. Why did she go south for the summer?”

“Because grandma believes that if she suffers, everyone suffers. She’s fair like that.”

He snorted, and what came out of my mouth next wasn’t planned - it just happened. “I’m sorry about your mom.”

Sandy’s head snapped up, and his expression was briefly stricken, something hurt and familiar on his brow.

Embarrassed and wondering what the hell I was doing, I stumbled on. “My mom told me about it when it happened. She was really sad. She loved Claudia.”

“I know. She was at the funeral.” He paused and looked at me, his eyes now puzzled, and his voice painfully soft. “Thanks.”

I then felt a completely unreasonable sense of guilt that I hadn’t also been at the funeral, and then reminded myself I’d been in Japan at the time, and, oh yeah, I hated him.

“Sure,” I mumbled. God I hated being at a loss for words. To cut the tension I got up, dived into the refrigerator, and threw myself into cooking and actually making things. Luckily he did finally get up and go into the office, and I tried not to watch his back as he disappeared.

I got a text from Jason about meeting him at his place, and was shocked to see it was already 7:00 pm. I started to pack everything up and Alex reappeared silently, probably summoned by the sound of me flinging things in the sink.

“There’s some lamb in the fridge with a sauce, if you want it, and some root veggies,” I said shortly as I watched my hand. “It all might suck.” It didn’t suck at all, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “I’ll throw it away tomorrow if you don’t eat it. I don’t do dishes, so you’re going to have to.”

He looked faintly amused at that. “I have Brendan coming over at 8 to do them.”

“Nice, your fucktoys double as scullery maids. Good deal.”

His eyes narrowed, and he stepped forward to where I was packing my things up at the table. “I wish you’d stop talking about him like that. He’s done nothing to you.”

“I know. I don’t actually hate him, or know him. I do it because it pisses you off.” I looked up at him with a sweet smile, and noted his face was cloudy, a slight scowl in his lips. “And I do love to piss you off.”

“Think you’ll ever get tired of that?” He asked, his voice tight. And as he stood there, his light shirt following the sharp curves of his body, that devil’s lust came up and stroked at the worst part of my brain.

“Nope, never.”  I stepped closer to him, and my hand came forward, landing on his stomach. His eyes widened, but he didn’t step away, and I let my hands flex, biting the inside of my lip as I felt the distinct curves of his abs and the slight movement of his breathing. “Anything to throw you off balance.” I said with great cheer, my fingers starting to knead into his skin.

“Isaac,” he practically growled, and his nostrils flared; he reached up his hand to grab my wrist but not pulling it away, just squeezing, and for a moment I had the tantalizing impression was what he wanted to do was move my hand downward. Something that was akin to rage was on his features; his eyes were bright and there was a snarl on his lips. Man I wanted to lick that snarl.

“Oops, sorry, hand slipped!” I pulled it quickly away, heard his indrawn breath and swept up my stuff. “See you tomorrow!”

Alex didn’t say anything, and I didn’t look at him. Excellent; unlike yesterday I actually felt in control here. Okay, in control other than the fact I’d just managed to turn myself on again, and had honestly really wanted to slip my hand to his cock. Thank god I was seeing Jason, or I’d be pretty mad at myself for fucking with myself like that.

A little voice in my head, that smart one, pointed out that I was playing with fire; Alex had been genuinely mad right then, and protracted games of sexual baiting did not tend to end well. But I dismissed that voice, because, let’s be honest, I was enjoying feeling powerful. All the rest of it - why I needed power, why he was responding to me, and the aforementioned possible consequences of the games I was playing - were so stressful to ponder that I skirted that shit like it was a toxic lake and I was blithely dancing on its shores.

It was inevitable that I’d eventually fall in.

*******************************************

“Hey,” blond perfection said to me as he opened the door, a small smile on his face.

“Hey yourself.” I stepped into Jason’s house, and leaned forward to kiss him, pulling him down to me with a hand around his neck. He pushed the door quickly , and wrapped his arms around me and pulled me forward and growling as I nipped at his invading tongue. Somehow we ended up against the wall next to his door, me leaning against him and one of his legs wrapped around me.

“Goddamnit, Isaac,” He said as we came up for air, his eyes closed and his breathing shallow. Finally he opened them, and ran a hand down my face. “Don’t waste any time, do you?”

I kissed his broad neck and then nuzzled it with my nose. My whole body felt warm, and that calm I got when I was with him came over me. “Time is meant to be wasted.” Oh man, his smell, his muscles, and his presence was solid and what I needed needed right then and there. It was like falling into a much needed bed, if that bed was 6’3, rock solid and smelled like old spice and garlic from whatever he’d been cooking. It was so nice to have this.

Ah, but you don’t have this, I thought unbidden, at least not wholly. You’re in a timeshare situation at best, squatting at worst.

That made me pull back from him a bit, and look up at him with a real smile, although I suddenly felt a bit muted. “Apologies, I totally am getting ahead of myself. How have you been since I last saw you?”

Was I crazy or did his face flush a bit at that, and his eyes dart away for a moment? “Okay, haven’t been up to much,” He said, a hand leaving my body to go to the back of his head, and that scandinavian mouth screwing up a bit. “Just been working and hanging out, hit the gym. How about you?”

Part of me so very much wanted to be an asshole then, and to confront him about his date with Kristina and maybe spark a fight that would have us working out our expectations of this thing, or even ending it. But then I’d feel very guilty of all I wasn’t telling him, like, oh, how Kim and I just got jumped, and all the other bullshit. And, most importantly, I didn’t want to end it, because it felt like my only safe harbor. So I said nothing, and accepted this honesty gulf between us as the price of admission.

With a lingering touch of his chest I let him go, and stepped back. “Oh, the usual, just working on my menu, starting to get our staff squared away, and went out to dinner with Kim last night. It was a good time. What you making?” I sniffed the air. “I smell chicken!”

“Yeah,” he flushed a bit, and looked embarrassed but please, “roast chicken, some garlic rice pilaf and broccoli - nothing too complicated, you’ll probably find it really boring. But it’s something I make all the time, so I know I won’t embarrass myself too much.”

I gave his arm a comforting squeeze. “It’ll be fantastic, I’m sure. I can’t wait.”

There was that flush again, and an honest, pleased smile. Fuck he was adorable. I watched his ass in his jeans as he walked back into the kitchen, and I followed him.

“Tell me more about work,” I prompted Jason once I settled at the small kitchen table and had taken a sip of the craft beer he’d put in front of me. In order to keep him off my life, I’d keep asking about his.

“Hmm,” he pondered as he stirred the pilaf, “well, have you ever heard about Ron, Marrington’s infamous homeless bandit?”

“No!” I said. “He sounds delightful.”

“I’m not so sure about ‘delightful’, but he was on a roll yesterday.” He then proceeded to tell me about this scandalous old hippy with a taste for breaking and entering and showing up in the most unexpected places with very little clothes on, and I laughed all the way through.

Dinner was tasty and I told him so multiple times, and the beer flowed as we chatted about movies, and his work some more, and Japan. It was so easy and simple, and as we finished up I found myself feeling that relaxed haze I”d felt the morning before. Better than drugs, that. I slipped off my sandals under the table and lifted my feet up to his lap, running it against his groin slowly and noting it’s quick response with pleasure.

“Mmm,” he said, and his eyes closed briefly as a hand rested on my foot. “That feels good.” He ran that hand up my leg, helpfully bare since I was wearing my black cargo shorts. “You’re not going to let me finish dishes tonight, are you?”

“No, most likely not, although I”ll help you put the food away first.”

“Appreciated,” Jason smiled and then groaned as my foot moved again. “God, why are you so good at that?”

“I do my daily foot exercises, of course. They keep me limber.” I moved my toes in time with my words, and he snorted and made himself get up; I could tell it wasn’t easy. I followed him, and we quickly packed things away as quickly as possible.

“Want to move to the couch?” Jason asked as we left the kitchen.

I smiled. “Gladly.”

We settled in with our beers, and I leaned against him as he turned on the TV, settling on on his chest as he slung an arm around me. I took a deep, satisfied breath, smelling garlic and cleanliness and that smell of his that somehow reminded me of an ocean.

“Sports? A movie?” he asked, and I shrugged.

“No preference - I can watch either. Honestly, there’s a good chance my eyes will be closed through most if it regardless.”

He laughed. “Got it, let's just settle on sports, then.” I felt his hand move on my arm. “You do seem pretty tired again. Everything okay?”

I tried not to tense up noticeably, talking myself down and reminding myself this was a perfectly reasonable question. “It’s been a really long time since I’ve done general cooking, and created my own menu. And last time I did it I wasn’t the head chef, either, so I was just part of a machine. It’s a lot of pressure, and I think it’s getting to me.”

“Makes sense. I’m sure you’ll do great.”

“Thanks,” I said, and meant it while feeling so guilty for how much I was leaving out. I sighed and said something honest to bridge the gap only I perceived between us. “It’ll all settle the fuck down eventually, I suppose. I think I’m just impatient for that day, when everything seems normal again, and I can just live and do my job, you know?”

“Yeah.” A man of few words was awfully useful when you were lying by admission, I had to say. I felt Jason shift, and open my eyes as his lips approached mine, and I closed them again as he kissed me softly. His kisses were straightforward, and strong, and they always made me feel so wanted in that moment. Our lips played against each other in a gentle, sexy way, and my impatience won out and my tongue snuck forward, parting his lips and going forward to spar with his.

I moved my hand up his chest as we kissed, slipping it under his shirt and feeling that smooth skin and those incredible muscles, the ‘bump’ of them as I dragged my palm up and then down, landing on his jeans fly. Jason breathed out in a long, unsteady breath as my hand hit his kock, and he smiled, kissed me gently, and put a hand around my neck.

“Want to go upstairs?” He asked, that odd shyness back that was belied by the confident hand had landed on my thigh just below my groin, teasing me by its mere presence.

“Fuck yes and please, sir,” I said, enjoying the smile that raised out of him. With a smooth motion he stood and pulled me up with him. I laughed as we tripped up the stairs, and we tumbled onto the bed in a tangle, clothes coming off and flying every which way, me pulling his pants off and worshiping at the altar of his cock for a good five minutes as he groaned my name and we rid the room of the drunk fuck connotations of our last time together in this room.

As we made love - and yeah, something about the immediacy of the way Jason looked in my eyes as he rode me, that intensity on his face, and the connection I felt with him then and there made me definitely think this was more than just fucking - I focused on my rising affection for him and tried my damndest to not think about angry, snarling brunettes and the rising unease in my stomach.

 This worked well through orgasm and a brief chuckling cuddle session, and his fingers gently on my skin as he fell asleep. It wasn’t until a bit later, when he had moved to his side of the bed in a deep, uncomplicated sleep that I found myself laying there, both feeling tenderly for Jason and yet deeply sad for reasons I couldn’t name and had nothing to do with sex. With a deep breath I made myself let it go. Concentrating on the pleasure and comfort I curled myself at Jason’s broad back, briefly letting myself see it as a shield against the rest of the world.

The next morning we left together, him after a shower that made him smell wonderful and so fuckable. Before we opened the front door I had leaned into him, suddenly, and buried my face in his neck.

“Isaac!” He said, laughing, and wrapped his arms around me.

“What?” I said, trying to sound innocent as I snuggled into his arms. “You smell fucking amazing.” I put my nose to his clavicle and licked.

“God,” he said in a sort of moan, “please, please don’t do that right when I have to leave.” He lifted my head up by my chin, and kissed me, slowly, and it was sensuous, and tender, and I could feel between us that he’d really have liked to roll around again. As I buried myself deeper into his embrace he pulled back, sighed, and kissed me one last time. “You’re really bad.”

“I just want you to think fondly of me until next time,” I teased, squeezing his waist and finally letting him go fully.

“Always, babe,” he said softly, and I goddamn near melted right then and there.  

To Be Continued!