MARSHALL DUCKED HIS HEAD as he stepped through the low doorway of the once-familiar dive bar, already scanning the room for the man he was there to meet. Todd waved from the back booth, and Marshall headed toward him. He hated this place now that he was successful; he hated it more because he’d once loved it. It was an unwelcome reminder of how low his standards had been.
As Marshall settled in opposite Todd, he reached across the beer-sticky table to slap hands and play his part in the faux secret handshake that made it look like he was still happy to be here. Marshall settled his back against the wall and extended his long legs along the seat in front of him, getting comfy since it was likely he’d be there awhile. He grinned at Todd like they had the best seats in the house. “Hey, man. Long time, no see. You’re buying, and I’m having a gin and tonic.”
“You betcha. I’ll just take it out of your commission.” Todd gave the bartender a sign indicating to add a twist. Even the scummy bartender was the same; Ray had always been both the driving force and the most unlikely factor in the dive’s success. He wasn’t particularly attractive or charming, and yet attendance at the bar never seemed to dwindle. It was always the same group of rough trade with an ever-changing parade of twinks that seemed to come to their senses and get out before they became like the battered regulars.
Speaking of “battered regulars,” it was as if nothing changed here, including Todd’s questionable business acumen.
From what Marshall understood, Todd was ready to sell out of his overpriced condo to buy an overpriced minimansion. He was nice enough for the sort of guy one knew mostly from the bar scene, but it was business, not pleasure that brought Marshall back. He wasn’t jaded or cruel enough to be a regular at Ray’s.
“We get the kind of deal for it that I’m expecting, you’re going to be so grateful you’ll name your firstborn Chihuahua after me. Cheap bastard.” Marshall’s grin never faltered, but there was a bite to his words. He and Todd had always been competitive. Despite the fact that Marshall always won, Todd never quit trying to best him. Marshall suspected that Todd had never forgiven him for the time he’d done an impromptu rap interlude during a drunken karaoke, the subject of which had been why Todd would be the one to get plowed if the two of them ever landed in bed together.
Thankfully, neither had ever been drunk enough to try that.
As Marshall took his drink from the same old pug-faced waiter, he spotted someone new walking into the bar. The guy had longish light brown hair, very geek chic, and even the harsh lights of the dive seemed to worship him, making his pale skin glow but washing out the older man beside him and a younger one whose hands covered his face like he was ashamed of something. The handsome one held a fistful of lime-green fliers and wore a defiant expression. Marshall was too far away to read the fliers, but the man looked braced for battle.
Todd quipped back belatedly, but Marshall didn’t process the words. Instead, he pointed at the lanky ringleader and asked, “Who’s he?”
Todd twisted to look. Marshall noticed that the hair on the back of his neck could use a trim. Todd never wasted money on a haircut that could be spent getting a barfly drunk.
A shout at the end of the bar drew Marshall’s eyes back to the young man, whose face was reddening as Ray pointed at the door, infamous temper in full flare.
Todd faced Marshall and rolled his eyes. “Oh, that kid? You can forget about him. He’s a nutcase.”
“Man that good-looking can get away with it.” Marshall smirked at Todd to imply that he was not in that category and returned his gaze to the man, spellbound. Maybe it was the righteous indignation or the way he was shielding the smaller man beside him, but something about the impassioned crusader wouldn’t release Marshall’s attention. When he tried to sip his drink, he realized he’d drained it.
Not even glancing at Todd, he asked, “What makes you say that? He knife somebody? Looks more frat boy than criminally insane. What’s with the fliers?”
“They’re for some monk cult he’s pushin’. I saw the word celibacy and tossed it in the trash. Usually he hangs outside the bar passing that shit out with the other culties. First time I’ve seen him come in. Looks like Ray’s not having it.”
The conflict grew louder. Todd turned to watch.
A few overweight, prudishly dressed men flooded in to flank the object of Marshall’s interest, notable for their differences not only from their friend but also from the rest of the clientele. As Ray continued to melt down, they held up their hands and gave the irate bartender apologetic looks. When Marshall used to attend the bar more regularly, there had occasionally been other young men who got into fights with Ray. It never ended well. Those young men hadn’t had friends with them, though.
Marshall made out a snippet of what the guy’s crew said: “He’s just upset. No need to call anyone.”
Ray shouted and pointed more insistently at the door. “Luke, I said get the fuck out of here! No one wants to hear your holier-than-thou shit.”
Luke–presumably the sexy one’s name–stood his ground. He didn’t shout back. Instead, he stared Ray down, clutching the fliers so hard that they crumpled.
Marshall stood and inched closer.
Ray narrowed his eyes and stalked around the end of the bar to physically confront Luke.
The blood drained from Luke’s face, and he took a couple of steps back, but Ray continued his advance. With only a few feet between them, Luke threw the fliers at Ray’s face. The bartender flailed to block them, which sent the papers flying in all directions.
Marshall plucked one from the air as it fluttered past his shoulder. In bold letters it read, Celibacy NOW! Before Marshall could read the rest, he caught a flurry of movement in his peripheral vision as Ray lunged at Luke.
No matter how annoying a celibacy group in a bar might be, Luke had done nothing to warrant the beat down that Ray looked eager to give. Luke’s posse and the embarrassed guy scattered like the fliers. If Luke was smart, he would’ve joined them. Instead, he stood there with an expression of resignation. Without thinking, Marshall closed the distance with a few long strides and a perfect action-flick slide over an unoccupied table before landing between Ray and Luke. He threw out both hands to catch the enraged bartender in the chest. The force of Ray’s momentum almost knocked Marshall over, but he managed to hold his own.
Once he’d gained his bearings, Marshall gave Ray a hard shove. “Whoa, hoss. What the fuck is going on?”
Marshall had broken up his fair share of macho bullshit, but this was ridiculous. Keeping one hand extended to block Ray from coming at him, he turned his head to look at Luke. He was even more attractive up close, a rare thing in Marshall’s experience. “You cool?”
Luke had his hands up in a defensive posture. In spite of his angelic appearance, his fingers had formed proper fists; Marshall doubted this was his first fight. Between that and Luke’s obvious courage in promoting celibacy inside a rough dive notorious for easy, drunken hookups, Marshall felt a somewhat unwelcome fascination take hold.
“Cool?” Luke frowned, looking around as if he wasn’t sure where he was. He seemed so disoriented that Marshall dropped his guard. Big mistake.
Luke sidestepped Marshall and lunged at Ray but came up short and stumbled. Glancing down, Marshall saw that someone’s arm had caught Luke around the waist and yanked him back. When he looked to Luke’s face, another was beside it. The man had a brown goatee and shoulder-length hair shot through with gray strands–like Jesus if he’d had a heroin addiction. The man was whispering in Luke’s ear while shooting Marshall a death glare.
Ungrateful fucker, he thought. What was the guy’s problem? Marshall had just rescued Luke. It took a bit for whatever the older man was saying to take effect; Luke struggled like he was still looking to take a piece out of Ray, but shortly gave up and slumped against Grandpa Jesus. The kid’s pretty face was still red and his breathing was rapid, but it appeared that the fight had gone out of him, at least for now.
Even so, Marshall wasn’t going to turn his back on Luke. He didn’t trust Todd farther than he could spit, but it was possible that he was right and Luke was crazy.
“Someone want to fill me in on why we’re going all UFC up in here? As far as I saw, Ray, the kid was just passing out some fliers. People mostly come here to get drunk, unless there’s some kind of illegal hustling ring I don’t know about, so it can’t be that bad for business.” Marshall studied Ray for a few more moments, drawing up to his full height and squaring his shoulders to make it plain he wasn’t tolerating this nonsense.
“Fuck off. You don’t know,” said Ray. He returned to his spot behind his bar. There was something in his expression that vibed Marshall the wrong way. He’d never liked the man, but unless Luke wanted to fill Marshall in on their bad blood, he didn’t think he’d ever get it out of Ray. Career bartenders were great at two things, in Marshall’s opinion: mixing drinks and keeping secrets.
Marshall looked back to Luke, unable to keep his eyes off him for long. “Why don’t we step outside, man? Let’s give this uptight motha here a chance to simmer down.” Marshall pointed at the door, holding Luke’s gaze, then looked Grandpa Jesus in the face. “You wanna let go so a man can move?”
If anything, it looked like Jesus-man tightened his grip, but Luke squirmed away. Seeing the way the man touched Luke made Marshall’s stomach tight with irrational jealousy.
“Eric, it’s all right. I should check on Chuck,” Luke said.
Ray couldn’t resist the opportunity to rub salt in the wound. “You go, and you don’t come back until you’re ready to have some fun again!” There was a nasty undertone to the words that Marshall couldn’t place, one that hinted at a history he couldn’t guess, but maybe Luke would fess up if Marshall followed him outside.
Luke’s shoulders twitched, hands balled into fists again, but he kept his control. “I have plenty of fun. Some of us don’t need to get naked to enjoy ourselves. In fact, I can think of nothing less enjoyable than the thought of you naked.”
“Is that so?” Ray started laughing. It came out like the harsh, knowing bray of a particularly smug jackass.
Luke looked like he was about to lose his cool again, so Marshall started to shuffle him out.
“That is so.” Marshall glowered at Ray in equal parts perplexity and irritation as he took Luke’s elbow to steer him toward the door. “Nobody wants to see that half as bad as you think, or you’d make a hell of a lot more in tips.” Under his breath, Marshall added to Luke, “That fool saw that Tom Cruise bartender movie one time too many and got ideas. Don’t let it sweat you, baby.”
Up close, Marshall could smell the clean, innocent scent of Luke’s soap. Marshall had a moment’s wild thought that this was the kind of boy it was his duty to dirty up. But Marshall was trying to handle his business like a real professional; he didn’t have time for crazy tricks anymore.
Still, there was something quietly wounded about Luke that drew Marshall on a deeper level. His mama used to say Marshall wanted to be everybody’s guardian angel. It wasn’t true, though. At least, it wasn’t anymore. Marshall had fallen from heaven, and it was a longer trek back than he figured he’d ever make. On the bright side, everybody told him the company was better in hell.
Someone tapped Marshall on the shoulder. Todd’s voice asked from right behind him, “What are you doing?”
Marshall released Luke as if he’d been caught midcrime. Grandpa Jesus–Eric–shot Marshall another glare as he herded Luke beyond the last few tables and past the bouncer. Marshall had to suppress a groan of regret as he saw Luke’s lean frame silhouetted for a moment in the doorway before it disappeared from sight.
“You’d better not be thinking about following that hot mess out of here.”
Marshall grunted in frustration and narrowed his eyes at his client. “I can handle my own business.”
“That’s not your business, Marshmallow. You can’t handle that.”
A low whistle from someone at a nearby table made Marshall’s ears burn and his pride smart. He prodded Todd’s chest with two fingers and got in his face. “You bet your fuckin’ ass I can handle that, and I’m about to make it my business.”
“Fine. You want to play Holy Roller, I’ll take you up on that bet. You get Pretty Boy to roll over like a nice doggie, you’ll get ten percent extra on top of the commission for selling my place. I win, and you sell it for free.” Todd’s pointy face was smug. Marshall wanted to break it.
Instead, he headed for the door, shouting back at Todd, “You can suck my big black cock if you think I’d ever work for free, bitch.”
As Marshall stepped outside, he realized he wasn’t sure what he was doing or why he was doing it. Todd had goaded him, but he didn’t trust Todd or want in on that bet. At one time, Marshall would’ve been all over that, but it wasn’t who he was anymore. Still, he kept going once his feet hit pavement. What he did want was Luke, and if he got some extra money for it, so be it.
“Hey, Luke!” he called, trying to get Luke’s attention before he could take off with that slimy Eric guy.
Ignoring Marshall, Luke stared intently at, presumably, Chuck’s face. Chuck looked anxious, but his expression was starting to melt into something grateful. He barely looked old enough to have legally entered Ray’s bar. Judging by Luke’s manner and Chuck’s gestures, something had happened to Chuck here in the past. He wouldn’t be the first young man taken advantage of by one of Ray’s patrons. “Too drunk to consent” wasn’t a thing to those skeezebuckets.
Maybe that was what had made Ray so angry. Marshall didn’t figure Ray appreciated anyone holding him accountable for what his patrons did. Hell, Luke just standing outside a dive like Ray’s was reminder enough for any hotties hitting the bar for the first time that they had better options than the wannabe Casanovas inside. That was probably what pissed Ray off the most.
When Luke finally turned toward Marshall, Chuck took the opportunity to slip away.
Luke looked dazed. Eric tried to pull Luke away, but the younger man shrugged out of his grasp. He stared at Marshall but didn’t walk toward him.
Normally, Marshall would make whomever he was speaking with be the one to close the distance, but the worried look Luke cast at the dive made Marshall realize that Luke wasn’t holding out to establish dominance; he was unwilling to go near the door again.
Marshall jogged the few yards between them.
Eric stood behind Luke with his arms folded like a bodyguard. He leaned in closer to Luke and stage-whispered, “He’s one of them, Luke.”
Marshall wasn’t sure what this “them” business was, but he hated it on principle. Any old white man who said “them” like it was a dirty word was trouble with a capital T in Marshall’s book, and he felt an overwhelming urge to get Luke away from Eric. Marshall might have picked a fight with the man, but Luke looked weary enough already. Marshall’s shoulders tensed with the desire to pummel Eric’s teeth.
Luke frowned and looked at the ground as he answered his friend. “This guy helped me, Eric. He deserves my thanks.” Then he lifted his gaze to Marshall’s. “Thank you for stepping in. That probably would’ve ended in… Well, it wouldn’t have been good. But you can tell your friends I’m not done with them.”
The idea of being associated with the jerks in the bar turned Marshall’s stomach. Before he’d known better, when he was freshly out and just acclimating to gay life, Marshall had gone to Ray’s for pickups like anybody, but unlike most of the patrons, he’d relied on his charm. Now Marshall wanted to put as much distance between himself and that bar as possible, and not just to get into Luke’s pants.
“You’re welcome, but those aren’t my friends. I was there to discuss a business deal.” Marshall’s gaze flicked from Luke to Eric with a pointed glare. “I’m a Realtor, not some scrub.” The implied “like you” hung in the air between him and Eric. Aside from the passing resemblance to Christ, Eric looked far more likely to be a Ray’s regular than a cult leader.
Marshall ran one hand over his head, rubbing his close-cropped scalp to soothe himself. He studied Luke’s face, aware again of his scent and noticing how soft his skin looked. It begged him to touch, and Marshall offered a handshake that didn’t last nearly long enough. Luke’s skin sliding against his only made Marshall want more.
He kept talking, hoping to stretch out the moment. “You deserved better than whatever bullshit Ray was trying to bring. I don’t know what that was about, but I do know that a man who smells as good as you do should be appreciated wherever he’s found.”
“I wasn’t aware that I smelled like anything.” Luke blushed as his forehead wrinkled. Then he looked away, seeming flustered. “You’re dressed so well I was afraid you were Ray’s lawyer or something. He keeps threatening to sue. But we’re well within our legal rights to pass out fliers in a public area. I guess going inside was pushing it, but I think it helped Chuck.”
Having his suspicions confirmed just increased Marshall’s interest. It was a bold move to start with, but knowing that Luke thought he might get sued gave the situation another dimension. The kid was fearless. Or crazy.
No, Luke wasn’t crazy. Reckless, maybe, but who in their mid-twenties wasn’t? There weren’t that many guys willing to go to court to stick up for a friend, and, reckless or not, Marshall kind of wished Luke was his friend too.
Eric placed an arm around Luke’s shoulder. “You were very brave. And it’s not like you were protesting the bar. He’d have a heck of a time proving you were damaging his business. You did very well, Luke.” The older man kissed Luke’s hair and then grinned wolfishly at Marshall.
Marshall’s dislike of Eric was growing by the second. How such a beautiful boy had ended up hanging around with such a chicken hawk was beyond him. Ignoring Eric, Marshall reached into his wallet and pulled out a business card. Then he gave Luke his best smile and held out the card to him. “You ever want to explain to me what all this was about, that’s my number. I don’t go to bars like that much anymore, so maybe meeting you was fate.”
Marshall shrugged, not sure himself whether he was trying to pick up the Celibacy NOW activist because Todd’s goading had hit its mark or because Luke’s unwitting charisma affected him that much. The former was an easier concept to cope with.
Shaking off the introspection, Marshall turned up the wattage on his grin. “I don’t want to waste this chance, but it’s your call. Maybe I’ll hear from you sometime?”
Luke’s eyes widened as he took the card. He cast a quick glance at Eric and then looked back at Marshall. “I don’t really want to talk about that. But if you’d like to learn more about Celibacy NOW, I’d be more than happy to talk to you about it. I know it probably sounds a little crazy, but I swear we’re not just some monks trying to be holier-than-thou or anything. It’s a really great group of guys looking for forever partners, which is something bars like Ray’s are unlikely to support.”
Luke bit his lip and then jammed the card in his pocket as if he were afraid that Marshall might take it back–a wise instinct on his part. “The group normally meets Saturday nights at the Y, but we could have coffee or lunch, if you’re busy.”
“‘Forever partner,’ huh?” Marshall raised a brow, but he wasn’t mocking. Luke was too earnest and sweet-voiced for that. While part of him wanted to say fuck this shit and walk, there was another part of him that wondered just how someone like Luke even happened. In Marshall’s experience, handsome guys like that with those pillowy lips and big eyes didn’t hold out for forever partners; they lived it up, played all the sad, sorry men who’d do anything for a taste of them, and developed serious egos. Marshall had known too many guys like that, and if he’d ever been willing to play that messed-up game, he wasn’t now that he was pushing thirty and his business was taking off.
Whatever batshit mess Celibacy NOW was, Luke was intriguing. Marshall realized with a modicum of surprise that he wanted to know him better. “The Y is not my scene. But lunch… My Tuesday noon’s free. You don’t call, well, I’ll grab a sammie, but I’m holding out for you, killer.”
“Great!” Apparently deciding that the danger of having the card taken away was over, Luke pulled it out along with a smartphone. He flipped the phone over, and it made a camera-shutter sound. “Scans it in and OCRs the data so it can automagically update my contacts list.”
Then Luke clicked a button on the phone and said, “Tuesday, noon.”
Copyright © Clancy Nacht & Thursday Euclid