Wayne Hightower has lived with a secret since he was a teenager. Debilitating to relationships, his condition stands in the way of his father's ultimate expectation: Finding a woman to marry. Of course, if he could do that, he'd have the grandchildren his mother was craving. And everyone would be happy happy happy. Or so he'd been raised to believe. If he could find her. If he could get over his problem.
Ditched by his brother for their planned night of sibling bonding, Erich Villalobos invites Wayne out instead as a simple act of friendship. One night that throws Wayne into an environment he'd never been exposed to and revealing a playfully animated side of Wayne Erich had never imagined. One that he quickly learns he's actually attracted to.
Secrets. Everyone has them. Wayne. Erich. Even Wayne's parents. If Wayne's brother Curtis were still alive, he could tell Wayne the cause of his condition and how to cure it. But dead men don't talk.
Wayne's desk phone rang. He reached out of habit more than visual direction to answer it, palming it to shove between his shoulder and ear. "Wayne Hightower."
"Hi, uh, Wayne. It's Denise."
"Oh, hey," he said warmly, surprised. His girlfriend didn't usually call him at work. He did a quick mental calendar check. Had he forgotten plans for this weekend? For tonight? It was Friday, and he honestly couldn't remember a single thing. When nothing magically appeared in his memory, he asked, "What's the occasion?"
He heard the hesitant hitch in her breathing. "Look, I'm just going to say it. Please don't be mad, and please don't call me back. I'm breaking up with you."
"No, I need to, Wayne. I'm sorry. I thought I could be with a guy as wonderful as you and not care about the...other thing. I can't."
He blinked with a slow-motion intensity. It wasn't all stuff he hadn't heard a thousand--okay, at least five--times already. He knew the drill.
"It's okay, Denise." He sagged in his office chair, staring blankly at his empty computer screen. "And I understand. Thanks for at least calling." It had happened once where a girl had mysteriously fallen out of his life, no explanation, no farewells. He knew nothing untoward had happened to her. He bumped into her at the grocery store not long ago--with her newest boyfriend.
Who wasn't Wayne.
"You've been a wonderful boyfriend," she told him. "I've never known anyone as sweet or caring as you, but I just need... Well, I need--"
"No, I know." He cut the sigh off at the pass. He rested his head to the back of his chair, gazing upward at a nondescript ceiling and one of the many patterned tiles above him. "You're a wonderful woman, and deserve more. I wish I could, to be honest." He'd made that wish for every woman he'd dated. He'd thought the more he got to know Denise, she might be the one. She wasn't.
"I know you'll find the right girl," she said optimistically. "The woman you get will be treated like a queen. I know that for a fact."
He snorted softly. Charm and manners wouldn't win him any woman's heart if he couldn't get past his current problem. "I appreciate it," he muttered.
"We had some wonderful dates," she offered, attempting for jovial.
"Don't drag it out."
She sighed, a muffled sniffle on the tail end. "Okay. I am sorry."
"No, I'm the one who's sorry." And he was. "Good-bye." The phone landed with a dull thunk in its cradle. He crossed his arms to stare at the lone picture pinned to his cubicle wall. There weren't many options for his next move. Tugging out the thumbtack, he held the photo to study her features one last time before tossing it in the trash. He pitched the tack to his desk. The one hopeful spot in his life: gone.
Not her, specifically, but what she could have represented.
Back to square one.
"Hey, Wayne," Erich said from behind him, interrupting his melancholy trip.
"Hey," he answered. He twisted to squint over his shoulder. "What's doin'?"
"I just got off the phone with my brother. Wanted to see if you'd like to go have a drink after work." He twitched a chin toward the space where the photo had been pinned. "I'm betting you need it more than I do. What happened?"
"Denise broke up with me." He rolled a shoulder. Nothing new.
"Ah, man. That sucks."
Wayne didn't elaborate. Pretty pointless. "What were you thinking?"
"Just a little something to relax to. I'll even drive. I behave if I'm doing the driving."
Wayne huffed. It didn't matter to him. He wasn't enough of a drinker to get wasted. "What happened with your brother?"
"He ditched me. I'm sure for a girl. What can you do? He's a college boy through and through."
Wayne glanced at his desk phone for the time. Their cell phones had to be on silent when at their desk. Too many people caught playing around had forced the company to create a very restrictive policy. "Yeah, sure." He didn't have any plans for tonight, and if he had, they'd be moot now. "Let me finish up here."
Erich nodded and strolled out of sight. Wayne shut down his computer, put away the paperwork he'd been going over when Denise called, and locked his desk. It took all of three minutes.
Gathering his lunch bag and making sure he had his phone, he rounded the cubicle wall to walk over three spaces to Erich's. "All set?"
He tapped a button and hit the power switch on his monitor. "Just now. Let's get out of here."
They left the building and walked together across the parking lot for their cars. "Let me drop this."
Erich pointed. "That's me." Lights on a black, super-cab pickup blinked.
"Never would have thought of you with a truck."
"It's not my every day ride. I cleaned it at lunch. I'll tell you why on the way to the bar."
Wayne didn't care one way or the other, but it was pretty clear Erich liked his truck. He unlocked his little car and dropped his bag on the passenger seat. Locking it up again, he joined Erich and hopped gracelessly onto the front seat. "Wow. Do you get an oxygen tank with this?"
Erich snorted. "It's not that bad."
"Uh-huh. Says the man who's six-two."
Erich stared at him. "How'd you know?"
"For real?" Wayne chortled drily. "You are tall, man. I'm only five-ten."
A kind smile was Erich's answer. "At least it's not a stick."
"I haven't driven one since I learned with Granddad, so don't expect any heroics from me." He buckled up.
The engine turned over with a rich rumble. Erich sighed. "Love that sound." He dropped it into gear. "The hard part is parking this monster, but that's why I don't usually drive it."
"So why today?"
"I'm going to go sleep under the stars tomorrow night and I always give it a good bath when I do go."
Erich tossed a thumb over his shoulder to the covered bed, watching traffic to merge. "One mattress, a canopy for bad weather, a cooler, a small tank grill, and me. It's heaven."
Wayne looked upward through the windshield. The sun was blazing brightly. "You can see stars?"
"Not around here. Have to go into the mountains a little. There's a small campsite by a creek in one of the parks up north I've been going to since I was a kid. It's regulated to the eyeteeth. They don't allow ground fires, so it's kept natural. It's pretty wild actually, and when the sun goes down..." He paused, savoring. "It's like nothing else." He frowned. "I'm pretty sure tonight was a precursor. Jeremy is going to bail on me tomorrow too. I can see the writing on the wall."
"You guys do that often? Under the stars?"
"I go at least once a month. City life gets on my nerves, but it's where the work is. It helps me decompress." He flicked off the radio when the news kicked in. "What about you?"
"Not much to tell. Moved here for the job. Love Arbor Heights to be honest."
"Yeah. I do too. It's one of the reasons I don't just find something else where I'd be more comfortable. Not sure I'd find it."
Wayne understood what he meant. He was content if not overjoyed where he was, with a better than average job, a small apartment to call his own. His car. He rolled his head on his neck to stare out the window. Looking at it from that angle depressed him more. Real winner.
At least he could say he tried when he spoke to his mother again. He'd tried. With Denise. With Rosa. And Laura. And Kaitlyn. He'd tried. He sighed.
Erich cut into his thoughts before they turned too dark and depressing. "Here we go. And a prime spot." He rolled up to the curb and halted the truck only a few dozen paces down from the doorway.
"What's this one?" He figured a small place, or even a restaurant bar. He wasn't familiar with the club scene downtown.
"Shakers can get pretty crazy but we'll be gone before the late crowd hits. The one you don't want to go to, definitely not alone, is Slick's. That place is crazy." He let out a slow wolf whistle.
"Yeah?" Wayne asked, intrigued and laughing at the same time.
"Yeah. Didn't want to expose you to so much debauchery when you aren't used to it."
"What? I've been to bars," he retorted. He released his buckle.
"Uh, Wayne." Erich pointed through the glass toward the entrance.
Above the door was a fluttering rainbow flag.
Wayne watched it for a few seconds. "It's colorful."
Erich glanced down. "Shit. I thought you knew," he muttered to his knees.
Wayne shifted on the seat to look his way. Beyond Erich's shoulder, he spotted two men walking up the sidewalk, hand in hand, laughing as they approached the bar's door.
His throat went dry as it clicked. "You're gay?" he choked out.
Erich nodded. "If you don't want to...can't..." He rubbed a hand over his face.
It took him a few seconds, but not too long. "Erich." He reached and lightly touched his arm. Erich lifted his head enough to meet his gaze. "I'm thirsty. Let's go have a drink."
The gush of relief was unmistakable in the confines of the truck. "I am sorry. I thought you knew."
"Probably in the back of my head. Never thought about it though."
"And that's exactly how I want it. A nonissue."
Wayne smiled kindly. "Come on." He twisted on the seat to open the door. "Do I get a parachute?" The ground did look pretty far down there.
A rough laugh filled the cab as Erich slid from the other side. It made Wayne grin, glad he'd been able to dispel the uneasiness in his coworker's attitude.
"I will admit this is new to me, so don't let anything I do or say be taken wrong."
Erich paid the cover with a nod to the bouncer. "You'll be fine. If there's more going on than you can stomach, just stare at the bottles on the bar."
"More than I can stomach?" What exactly happens in gay bars?
"Ever seen two men kiss?" He opened the door, letting Wayne go through first.
Wayne's mouth opened to pop close. "Uh, no. Can't say I have."
Erich slowed his step before they'd gone more than a few feet inside. "We should go somewhere else."
Wayne guessed this was where Erich had come as a first choice because it was what he was familiar with, where he was comfortable. From what he could see right then, right there, it wasn't any worse than any other club he'd been to. Men dressed to impress, a different style and atmosphere than he was used to, but nothing he'd consider shocking. He couldn't begin to dissect the differences a gay man would have to face, but in this, he could be the better friend.
"Hey, I'm the one who just got dumped. You owe me a beer, or something," he stated.
Erich's expression slowly morphed into a relieved grin. "You got it." They turned and walked up to the bar, claiming two stools. He waved at the bartender. "Anything you like?" He rested an elbow on the edge, getting comfortable.
"No idea. I hear flavored vodkas are supposed to be good."
Erich's eyebrow rose sharply. "Starting with vodka, huh?"
"Sure, you're driving, right?" he teased.
Erich's laughter was rich and flowing, causing more than a few heads to turn in their direction.
"Had no idea you were like this," Erich managed a moment or two later.
Wayne blinked, dragging up every last ounce of innocence he could claim at the ripe age of twenty-eight. "So very few do."
Erich stared at him until Wayne thought his face would split with his smile. "This is a side of you I know I've never seen at work."
"I could say the same. You never laugh like that at work."
He snickered. "What is there to laugh at at work?"
It took a while for the bartender to finally reach their end. "Evening guys." He braced his hands on the wood, waiting expectantly.
Wayne was trying not to stare, but it wasn't like the tanned man behind the bar could be missed. The shirt he wore--if it could be called a shirt--was a cutoff, which stopped a hair above defined abs, exposing a lot of skin. He'd tried to not be obvious when he glanced downward, but he swore he was also wearing shorts. Tight shorts. Not the kind of attire Wayne had seen on any other bartender.
Okay, maybe there are differences. He twisted enough to look like he was nonchalantly waiting for Erich rather than caught in the act of staring. It was the anomaly of skin and location, that was all. Most bartenders he'd run across wore clothes--jeans, T-shirts--not bits and pieces.
Erich rubbed his chin. "Something vodka," he mused. "Got it!" He snapped his fingers. "Get him a Creamy Sunset. He wants to try something new."
"And for you?"
He nodded and started by gathering clean glasses.
"What did you order me?"
"Something with whipped cream vodka and pineapple juice. You'll enjoy it."
Wayne didn't doubt it. What concerned him was the touch of evil he'd caught in Erich's eyes when he'd made the order.