Ben punched the stop button on the treadmill with a vengeance and wiped the sweat from his face. The run had done little to ease his misery. Really, it had only let him stew over everything that had happened today. On the day before his birthday of all days. He replayed the conversation he’d had this morning in his head again for at least the tenth time and bit the inside of his cheek to keep from crying. Beside him, Sarah slowed to a walk before ending her work‐ out. She took a swig of water.
“I mean, I think you’re better of anyway,” Sarah said. “It’s not even like he’s that good-looking. And God was he boring.”
Ben shot her a look, eyes narrowed. “Really?”
“The worst.” Sarah nodded. She wiped down her treadmill and led the way to the locker rooms. “I was kind of dreading going out with him to celebrate your birthday.”
“You know, he never wanted to go out and said it was time I got more serious, started to grow up a little.”
Sarah giggled. “You’re still twenty-nine for a few more hours; you’re not supposed to get old and boring for another week or two at least.”
“Well, maybe that was his problem. He’s thirty-two.” He tried to smile, but it felt forced.
Ben shifted from one foot to the other. “I guess so. Doesn’t make it hurt any less though.” He should have known when Mike had started the morning by suggesting that they “talk” that his day wasn’t going to go well. He just hadn’t expected his boyfriend of six months to dump him for being too “wild” when he rarely went out more than once a week, if that. The worst part were the platitudes Mike offered, as if saying “It’s not you,” and “This doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” were going to do him any good. Or maybe the worst part was the timing. Right before his birthday. Tears welled up and threatened to spill from his eyes.
Sarah wrapped him in a sweaty hug. “Oh, honey, don’t let it bother you too much that an average-looking middle-aged man who wanted to change you decided your lives were ‘going in different directions.’ Fuck him. Actually, don’t. You know what I mean. Now,” she leaned in to peck his cheek, “go get changed so we can talk about tonight. This is going to be the best thirtieth birthday you’ll ever have.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this thing. I’m depressed enough as it is without having to be reminded that I’ll be officially middle-aged by morning.”
“Nonsense.” Sarah disappeared into the changing room.
Ben knew she’d never take “no” for an answer, so his best bet was to make this as painless as possible. If he could convince Sarah to go to their usual bar, maybe he could avoid any of her attempts to find him a rebound guy. Then again, if Mike thought he was so wild, maybe that was just what Ben needed to do to take his mind of of things. He trudged into the locker room and found an empty shower stall for a quick rinse. Even if Mike had been boring, Ben had thought they’d loved each other. He had planned to surprise Mike with a trip to the beach for his birthday in two months. He hadn’t intended to get broken up with so suddenly, without warning. Stepping out, he dried of and tried to stop the loop of “What if?” that was playing in his head.
He dressed quickly in jeans and a black T-shirt then went out to meet Sarah, still stewing over what had happened. As he stood there waiting, Sarah bustled out of the women’s locker room, grinning from ear to ear.
“I have an idea.”
“That’s never a good thing.” Ben chuckled, but it was true— Sarah’s ideas always seemed to start some kind of trouble, even if it was the fun kind.
“No, really. This one is going to be fun. Remember that strip club I told you about? The one with the all-male revue?”
Ben groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me. A strip club?”
“Yes! Come on, it’ll be so much fun.”
“A strip club isn’t exactly my idea of a fun night out.”
“But it’s all men. It’s just the thing for both of us. A perfect show.”
Ben shook his head. “Come on, Sarah. A strip club? Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack.”
He wasn’t sure he was going to win this debate at all. “I was thinking we’d just go to the bar, like we usually do. Have a few drinks, maybe flirt with someone. No craziness, just a nice, quiet night out.”
Sarah sighed. “How on earth are you going to get over Mike by going to the same bar we always go to, having the same drink you always have, and smiling at the same boring guys you always smile at? It’s time for you to find a rebound guy.”
Hearing his thoughts echoed in her words made Ben smile. “A rebound, huh?” He raised an eyebrow at her. “You’re so predictable.”
“Sure, it won’t make Mr. Dull come back, but it’ll make you feel worlds better. And maybe it’ll show you what life is like without someone telling you that you’re too crazy and immature. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life, and what better place to find a hot guy who won’t stress about how much you go out than a strip club?”
“Strip clubs like that are usually full of women.”
Sarah cleared her throat. “Not the dancers.”
Ben could hardly believe what she was suggesting. “You think I should try to go home with a stripper?”
“No!” She paused. “I think you should bring a stripper home with you.”
Ryder Sullivan pushed his way to the packed bar with feigned confidence. He forced a casual look, and managed to maneuver his lean frame, tight jeans and all, onto a high chrome and leather barstool. As he settled in, Ryder glanced around self-consciously, trying to get his bearings. Well, he thought, at least I’ll have an audience. Which Way was packed full of bodies, each one moving and bobbing to the pounding rock music blasting through the speakers to his right.
An adorable bartender, probably a few years older than him, tall, with a soft curve to his face, chuckled. He was as far away from Ryder as possible, making it difficult to get a drink. Every grinning, half-drunk patron seemed to know the guy and laughed along with his antics. Ryder’s breath hitched a little, but he wouldn’t allow himself to think too much about this man right before a show.
The bartender turned and fixed Ryder with sparkling green eyes. Ryder nodded and lifted his slender fingers in a small wave, indicating his growing need for a drink.
“What can I get for ya?” the bartender drawled as he leaned down and eyed Ryder as if he were the only person in the room.
Ryder’s stomach fluttered, and he reminded himself that just because he slept with men did not mean this bartender did. With soft brown curls, muscles bared beneath his honesttoGod plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and perfect ass clad in actual Wrangler jeans, the bartender seemed to be flirting with everyone who crossed his path. None of that meant the bartender would be interested in him. Ryder offered a smile, the guarded one he put on for the endless publicity shoots, and swallowed hard.
“Patrón. And a glass of water, too, I guess. Can’t get too drunk if I’m going to get up there and play, can I?” Ryder’s awkward chuckle escaped before he gestured vaguely towards the stage. He grinned, showing off his straight white teeth, and rubbed a hand over the stubble along his jaw.
“No shit, buddy? You’re our entertainment for the night?” The bartender’s grin took over his face as he turned to grab a bottle. He swiftly poured Ryder a large draft of the clear topshelf liquor in a highball glass. “On the house.” He pushed the drink towards Ryder. “You all right? You look a little outta your element.”
Ryder stared into the glass and fought to keep his defenses at bay. He leaned in a bit, letting a cocky smirk slowly cover his face as he locked eyes with the bartender. If he was just a bit closer, Ryder could have kissed the southern-grown man. The palpable heat between them sent chills down Ryder’s arms, even with the shiny black bar between them. “I could say the same about you, country boy bartending in a rock and roll bar.” He took a sip of the drink before adding, “I’m Ryder.” He took another swallow of the liquor, letting its burn slide down his throat. “Sullivan.”
“Pleased t’ meetcha, Ryder Sullivan. I’m Billy.” Billy placed a glass of water in front of Ryder. “Now I suppose I gotta go do my job before one of these good people jumps the bar, but you just holler if you need anything at all, okay? Good luck up there.” He winked at Ryder before turning away.
Ryder continued to sip his drink, enjoying the warmth as it worked its magic on his nerves, and watched the other patrons collected in clusters around the bar. This was one of his favorite ways to prepare for a show; he spun on his stool and surveyed the crowd to get a read on them firsthand. He felt someone’s gaze on him, and he turned to discover a pretty blonde girl standing a few feet behind him, eying him intently. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and came to rest a hand on Ryder’s arm.
“That bartender’s pretty hot, isn’t he?”
He shrugged noncommittally. “Sure, I guess so.”
“Ah, don’t lie to me, boy. I could see you eye-fucking him from across the room.”
Ryder’s cheeks flushed; he had never been able to keep that heat from creeping across his high cheekbones when he’d been caught, and he ducked his head a little before he glanced up at her. “I’m just here for the show.”
The girl threw her head back and laughed, squeezing hard on Ryder’s arm. She had a head full of curls, cute, petite features, and eyes that showed an undercurrent of fierceness. “I’m Allison. The bartender, that’s Billy. He flirts with everything that moves, so don’t be too flattered. I’m the one he’ll be going home with though.” She flashed a smile that seemed more dangerous than friendly. She took a sip of her beer before she walked away.
Ryder was stunned, and wondered if he should regret his decision to haunt the bar before the show. Maybe he should have just had a drink in that supply closet-turned-dressing room and kept out of sight. As he finished the tequila, the familiar warmth coursed through his blood as if he had fire in his veins, leaving his head just a bit light. He downed his glass of water too, and caught Billy’s eye again to thank him for the drink.
“Anytime,” Billy offered, leaning in again and grinning in a way that made Ryder’s mouth go dry. “That’s what I’m here for, to take care of whatever you might need.”
A beat passed, heavy with meaning, and a blush flooded Ryder’s cheeks again. Billy chuckled and clapped Ryder on the bicep.
“Aw, I’m just fuckin’ with you, buddy. Shaking up the talent is one of the many things I’m good at.”
Ryder was speechless, not used to being tongue-tied. He nodded, feeling like a total idiot. He slipped off of the stool and wound his way through the mass of people. In the backstage hallway, Ryder rounded a corner and nearly crashed into Tyler, the bar’s owner, and the woman who was responsible for having him here tonight. They’d met weeks ago when she waited him out after a gig, and they’d become easy friends, though he’d never been here before tonight.
“Sorry about that, honey,” she said, pushing her long, dark hair behind her shoulders and embracing him. “I’m excited you’re here! I think they’re going to really love you tonight. I’m glad your manager could fit us in your schedule before the tour started. Nervous?”
Ryder realized he was fidgeting with the hem of his shirt and stilled his hands. “About tonight?”
“Well, new bar…You worried about the crowd?”
He shrugged. “Nah, not really.” He wondered if she could tell he was…not lying exactly, but definitely overstating his calm.
“You’ve got talent, good music, you’re a good-lookin’ guy… they’re going to eat you up. And knowing you, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding someone to spend the night with once you leave the stage.”
“Hey now, you just happened to catch me on a really good night that night,” Ryder protested.
“Oh what, you don’t usually have a half dozen girls and a couple of guys waiting to ask you back to their place? Don’t even try to tell me a story, you and I both know that you don’t have any problems in that department.”
Billy stuck his head around the corner. “Hey, Ty, I need you up front. Jack isn’t here yet and it’s getting busy.” And then, in Ryder’s direction, “Good luck up there,” he said and winked.
Ryder felt his pulse quicken. This guy was not helping.
“Well, gotta get going, I guess,” Tyler said, cutting through his fog. “Seems like the help can’t function without me.”
It had been a particularly difficult night. Hell, it had been a particularly challenging week, month, year. Daniel was exhausted, so tired of it. He missed stability, he missed relationships, he missed not risking his life just getting up in the morning. He’d grown up in a family of police officers, and becoming a cop had seemed like a natural career choice. Then his father had been killed while on duty, so Daniel had easily decided to follow in his dad’s footsteps. Sometimes he wished he hadn’t. The job wore on him in ways he hadn’t anticipated, drained him, and left him feeling completely depleted. It was all he could do to show up for work some days. He never would have mentioned this to anyone though, especially not to his partner Mike. At least, he wouldn’t have until Mike confronted him while they were driving away from the scene. The backup they’d called was loading some lowlife with a death wish and a blowtorch into the cruiser, and Mike took the downtime as a chance to check on Daniel. There would be a mountain of paperwork waiting back at the station, but they were headed to the local hospital instead. The debrief could wait until tomorrow.
“You okay, Danny?” Michael’s voice cut through Daniel’s thoughts.
“Yeah. Nothing that a few drinks and a couple hours of sleep can’t fix.” Daniel rested his head against the window of the police cruiser, staring out of the glass to block out the things he knew he’d see when he closed his eyes. He ran his fingers through his short black hair and tried to forget about the world.
“No…I mean really okay. Your head isn’t in the game these days. You burning out on me?” Mike sounded almost afraid. Losing a partner was something that could really hurt a police officer, and although Daniel understood his fear, that didn’t mean he had to cater to it.
“What do you want from me, Mike? I show up, I do my job, I get things done.” He was too wiped out to have this conversation now. His lungs hurt from the smoke inhalation, and he just wanted to take a nap. Besides, Mike’s question hit closer to home than Daniel wanted to admit, and he wasn’t ready to tell Mike that maybe this career had been a mistake. Maybe he should go back to school and get a teaching degree like he’d always wanted. Maybe there was something better out there than following in his dead dad’s footsteps.
They made the rest of the trip to the hospital in silence, heading for their checkups, mandatory after any event involving a fire.
Cops were streamlined in the system, so the admissions nurse showed them back to a curtained space immediately,letting them wait in relative privacy to be triaged. They lounged in the room, Mike pacing the area while Daniel sat on the bed fiddling with his phone. He tried to ignore the tightness in his lungs, the way his breath was drawn at the cost of a little bit of effort. Finally, a nurse arrived to see them.
“My favorite officers of the law,” said the nurse as he parted the curtains.
“Oh fuck,” Mike muttered, sinking into a chair. Daniel couldn’t help but agree. The nurse was known for being a prankster and was often pulling out all the stops to keep them on guard. He did it because they were all best friends, but that didn’t make it any less annoying or troublesome.
“Well, well, good to see you too, Mikey.” The nurse tossed his head to clear the long brown strands of hair out of his eyes and walked over to the side of the bed to start checking Daniel’s vitals. “Go away, Angelo.”
“Now, Mike, I’m sure Danno here is happy to see me, aren’t you, Danny?” Angelo ran his fingers through Daniel’s hair, and Daniel jerked away, swatting at the nurse.
“Not especially,” Daniel lied. His head tingled a little from the touch. If he was honest with himself, he almost wanted more. With Angelo, he could never decide whether he craved his attention or wanted none of it.