New Hand (A Bluewater Bay novel)

New Hand by L.A. Witt
 
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-694-1
eBook release: 
Dec 18, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-695-8
Print release: 
Dec 18, 2017
Word count: 
108,800
Page count: 
399
Type: 
Cover by: 
 

This title is part of the Bluewater Bay universe.

Ebook $6.99
Print $18.99   $15.19 (20% off!)
Print and Ebook $25.98   $18.19 (30% off!)

Months after his husband’s death, Garrett Blaine desperately needs a fresh start. He sells his house in Seattle, leaves his accounting job, and starts bartending in Bluewater Bay. There he meets a man who wakes up his nearly forgotten libido.

Jesse Connelly’s friend with benefits bolted after Jesse disclosed his HIV status. Stood up and stinging, Jesse tries to drown his sorrows . . . and finds an unexpected connection with a lonely bartender.

Jesse and Garrett quickly bond over a shared love of comics and card games, and they can’t get enough of each other between the sheets. Not even a bumpy start and a fifteen-year age gap can derail them as they go from strangers to lovers, then friends, then much more.

But as Garrett’s feelings for Jesse deepen, so does his grief for the man he lost—especially as he sees hints of his late husband in his new boyfriend. Now Garrett has to figure out if Jesse is his second chance at true love, or if Jesse’s just filling in for the man he’s never fully grieved. And he needs to figure it out soon, because Jesse’s starting to wonder the same thing.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Jesse

Something came up. Not gonna make it. Sorry. :(

“My ass.” I rolled my eyes and slammed the phone facedown on the bar next to my nearly finished Coke.

A few chairs down, a bearded dude in a flannel shirt gave me a look. It was a look I knew well. The kind that telegraphed in no uncertain terms that he wanted to enjoy his beer and his baseball game without being afraid I might shower him with glitter or something. Most nights, I’d give a sassy hair toss, cross my legs, and shoot him a flirty grin. I mean seriously—Bluewater Bay was knee-deep in queers thanks to Wolf’s Landing, and even dive bars like the Olympic Sports & Alehouse weren’t safe from the likes of me. If he couldn’t cope with a queen at his bar, he was in the wrong town.

But I wasn’t in the mood to fuck with him. Not after Charlie’s text message. I twisted on the barstool, angling myself away from Beardy McHomophobe, and stabbed an ice cube with my straw. I glared at my phone. Even though I couldn’t see the screen, Charlie’s text was seared into my brain.

Something came up. Not gonna make it. Sorry. :(

I sighed, shoulders drooping along with my mood. The routine of Jesse meets boy, boy likes Jesse, boy finds out Jesse is HIV-positive, boy loses interest in Jesse was one I’d been familiar with for a long time. It didn’t always happen—I’d had plenty of hookups, friends with benefits, and boyfriends who were well aware of my status—but it happened enough to still make me dread the inevitable “Before we take this further . . .” conversation. I just hadn’t expected Charlie to be like this.

“Refill?” The seriously sexy voice pulled me out of my thoughts, and I looked up to see a bartender watching me. And . . . I had to stare. I’d been coming to this bar sporadically for ages, but I hadn’t seen him before, and that was a face I would have remembered. A face, a pair of dark eyes, a set of shoulders—

I cleared my throat and nudged my glass toward him. “Sure. Thanks.”

“What’re you drinking?” God. That voice. Low and rumbly and hot.

“Um.” What was I drinking? Crap. “Just a . . .” Alcohol? Nah. That would only make me more depressed because oh, right, I was in the process of being stood the fuck up by someone who thought I was a leper. “Coke.”

He nodded and took my glass. As he put some ice in a fresh one, I stole the opportunity to take him in. He was easily in his forties, if not a little older. There were some lines on his face that even the bar’s low lights didn’t smooth over. The gray hair seemed oddly out of place. He wasn’t young, but he seemed grayer than he should’ve been. No, not gray—white. He still had plenty of his natural dark hair, but he had streaks and sparkles of snow white, especially at the temples and along his part.

It didn’t look bad on him, though. Quite the opposite. Striking was the word that came to mind.

So that’s why people dig silver foxes. Holy shit.

Right then, his eyes flicked up to meet mine, and he handed me the Coke.

“Thanks.” I took the glass, mildly disappointed he let it go before I could “accidentally” let our fingers brush.

He didn’t walk away. The place wasn’t exactly crowded. The bearded dude was still glowering nearby, and there were a few guys watching a baseball game down at the other end of the long bar with another bartender keeping an eye on their drinks. Most of the tables and booths were empty. Not surprising—it was the middle of the week and it was still early yet. So the bartender probably didn’t have a lot to do except hang out and wait for me to need another refill. Fine by me, as long as he didn’t mind me checking him out.

I took a drink and tried not to notice the way he was trying not to watch me suck on the straw. Our eyes locked. He colored a bit in the dim light and turned his head, clearing his throat but not exactly hurrying away from me.

“Just you tonight?” He winced, like he’d been trying to say something to break the ice and now felt like an idiot for blurting out the question. Not that it was a terrible question, but he seemed to regret throwing it out there.

And that . . . actually put me at ease. In fact, his subtle awkwardness was kind of endearing. Maybe because I thought a fortysomething bartender who looked so smooth would be that smooth, and the fact that he wasn’t . . . I decided I liked it.

I played with the straw in my Coke. “I’m being stood up, actually.”

His eyebrows climbed. “Seriously?” I might’ve been imagining it, but I could’ve sworn he gave me a not-so-subtle down-up. When our eyes locked again, he blushed—nope, hadn’t imagined it. Clearing his throat, he focused intently on wiping a phantom smudge off the bar between us. “I, uh . . . I’m sorry to hear it. Can’t imagine why someone would . . .” The blush deepened, and damn—shy looked almost as good on him as gray hair and lines.

Charlie who?

And with that, my evening was suddenly looking up again. I’d been expecting—or at least hoping—to get laid tonight. The fact that there happened to be an incredibly hot man right there behind the bar—and one who wasn’t necessarily straight—was just damn good luck.

I took another sip and ran my tongue around the tip of the straw for good measure. He swallowed but didn’t look away. Instead, he looked me right in the eye, and when I grinned, he shivered. Oh yeah. Dude was queer. Fuck yes.

Absently chasing an ice cube with the straw, I said, “You just start here? I come here all the time, but I’ve never seen you.”

He nodded. “A week ago.” He glanced around, a self-conscious smirk drawing my attention to his full lips. “Still learning the ropes.”

I shrugged. “You had me fooled.”

Chuckling, he met my gaze again. “Fortunately, a Coke on the rocks is pretty simple to make.”

“‘Coke on the rocks.’” I laughed. “I like it.”

He just smiled.

I took a sip. “You new to town? Or just the bar?”

“Town.” He didn’t offer anything further. “What about you?”

“Well, ask any of your coworkers—I’m not new to this bar.”

He laughed.

“And not to town either,” I said. “Been here . . . almost six years now.”

“Yeah? Where’d you move from?”

“Seattle.”

His eyes lit up. “Really? Me too. What part?”

“Grew up in Mountlake Terrace, and I was living in Ballard, but it was too expensive to stay.”

The bartender’s lips quirked. “Yeah, that area’s not cheap. I was in Madison Park. Just outside Capitol Hill.”

“Ah, my favorite neighborhood.” I grinned.

He chuckled. “Yeah. Mine too. So, is that what made you leave Seattle? Cost of living?”

“That, and my uncle lived here and was having some problems getting around and taking care of his place after he fucked up his hip. He got it replaced and does just fine now, and he ended up moving to the Tri-Cities, but I liked Bluewater Bay. So, I stayed.” Pausing, I drummed my fingers on the counter and realized just how long my answer had been. “Sorry. You probably didn’t need the whole autobiography.”

“Nah, it’s okay.” The bartender’s smile came back to life, and I decided I liked that too. A lot.

“Well, since you’re new, you might as well get used to seeing me in here.” I offered my hand across the bar. “Jesse Connelly.”

He took my hand, shaking it firmly. “Garrett Blaine.” As he released me, he said, “So you’re a regular.” There was a sparkle in his eyes that suggested he wasn’t at all unhappy about that.

Warmth flooded my face. “Yeah. I probably come in here once or twice a week. When I’m too lazy to open my own beers.”

Garrett laughed. He started to say something, but then glanced toward the other end of the bar and frowned. “Shit. Duty calls. I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll be right here.”

He smiled, then went to help the other customers, giving me one hell of a view of that jean-clad ass. Oh fuck yeah. I could absolutely get on board with finding out how that silver fox looked in nothing but tangled sheets.

Shivering, I pulled my attention away before I gave myself a hard-on. My own jeans were a little too tight for that.

Without thinking about it, I picked up my phone to look at the time. And of course, I had another message from Charlie. More than one, actually.

Look, I’m sorry. I know it sounds awful. The timing and all. After what we talked about. But that’s not it at all!

Come on, Jesse. Let’s talk. Please?

You there?

I hated the sick feeling that coiled in my gut. Even more, I hated that it was as familiar as Charlie’s postrejection backpedaling. Sure, it wasn’t because of what we’d talked about. And he totally hadn’t kissed me on the cheek this afternoon instead of on the mouth when we’d said goodbye after lunch.

I glanced at the bartender’s back, and my heart sank into my queasy stomach. Flirting was fun, but . . . ugh. I didn’t have it in me to hook up with anyone tonight. Charlie had left me feeling gross and raw. Like the least-desirable thing on the planet. Usually, I could steel myself for the possible rejection and just be matter-of-fact about it. I was upfront, possibly to a fault: “Full disclosure—I’m HIV positive.” Then they’d either be cool with it or they wouldn’t be, and the night would go from there. There was no reason to believe Garrett would follow Charlie’s example.

But on the heels of a rejection from someone who was supposed to be a friend, I wasn’t ready to chance a second dose. Not tonight.

Sighing, I stared into my drink. The way I felt right now was exactly why I didn’t usually date friends. Not unless they knew my status before we started any kind of flirtation. I much preferred meeting someone for sex, telling them upfront I was positive, and letting the chips fall where they would. Rejection wasn’t fun, but there was no point in waiting a few dates to tell someone. I’d learned the hard way—repeatedly— that getting to know a guy first would only make his rejection more disastrous. He’d be pissed that I’d waited so long, and I’d be hurt because I’d be invested in him. I’d actually care what he thought of me.

So when I met guys online and on hookup apps, they knew I was positive before they knew my name. It was in my profiles, for God’s sake. Probably kept a lot of guys from responding to me, but that was fine. Better to nip it in the bud than deal with someone I actually liked trying to tactfully step into the friend-zone.

Charlie . . . he’d been different. My status had never come up because we’d just been buddies. We’d met at a Magic: The Gathering tournament two years ago, and we’d geeked out together over comics and gaming. I hadn’t even realized he was gay until recently. Then he’d moved from Portland to Bluewater Bay for an assistant job on the Wolf’s Landing set, and suddenly we were living near each other. And then last night’s drunken Call of Duty had happened, one thing had led to another, and we’d made out on my couch until I’d finally made some weak excuse about needing to be up early for work.

And all damn morning, we’d melted each other’s phones with racy texts and promises. I’d felt guilty for not saying, Dude, before we continue . . . but it hadn’t seemed like something I should tell him over the phone. So while we’d had lunch today, I’d told him. Over the next few hours, the texts had cooled considerably, and our plans to meet at my place had changed to meeting here for a drink so we could talk, and now . . . this.

I glowered at my phone for a moment before typing out a message.

I don’t think there’s anything to talk about. You were gung ho until I mentioned my status. Way to make a dude feel sexy.

My throat tightened at that last line. I’d meant it as an admittedly petty swipe but ended up hitting myself in the gut instead. Being rejected by some stranger? I could chalk that up to ignorance. And it wasn’t like a guy was obligated to have sex with me if he didn’t feel safe. I was fine with that. But a friend? Man. That hurt. Like, don’t sleep with me if you don’t want to, but don’t be a dick about it.

Movement pulled my attention away from the screen, and my heart flip-flopped as Garrett reappeared in front of me.

“Sorry,” he said with a lopsided smile. “It’s like they expect me to actually work while I’m here.”

I laughed despite the heavy, sick feeling in my gut. “Jerks.”

“I know, right?”

“My bosses do the same thing. And it’s not fair because I work around comic books and shit. Let a boy read, you know?”

Garrett chuckled. “You work at a comic shop?”

I nodded, gesturing over my shoulder at the street outside, as if that somehow indicated all the shops along the road. “I’m the assistant manager at End o’ Earth.” Heat rushed into my cheeks. “Not that being an assistant manager of a comic book shop is anything to write home about.”

“Why not?” Garrett chuckled. “I’m assuming you earned it.”

“Yeah, but still. Not exactly VP of a Fortune 500 company, right?”

“Who needs that level of stress, though?”

“True.”

He held my gaze, but only for a second. Then he shook himself. “Nothing wrong with not working for a company like that. Corporate America isn’t for everyone.” As if for emphasis, he started wiping the immaculate bar with a blue towel.

I studied him. There was something odd about him. About the way he carried himself. About his expression. Like he was holding some cards I wouldn’t have noticed at all if he hadn’t been keeping them so tightly against his vest. And that made me curious about him.

The silence between us stretched on. He didn’t leave, and I wondered if he was expecting me to pay my tab and get the fuck out. Which was probably a good idea. There was no point in sticking around if my date wasn’t showing up.

At least, there hadn’t been until this good-looking bartender had dropped out of the sky.

Thumbing the condensation on my glass, I looked up at Garrett. “Is it, uh, okay if I stay here for a while?”

“Stay as long as you want.”

“Thanks. I promise I tip well.”

He gave a soft laugh and waved his hand. And there it was again—that smile. I didn’t want to be attracted to anyone right now, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to make any kind of move tonight, but I could still enjoy a gorgeous man’s gorgeous smile.

After a moment, his brow pinched and his eyes were full of sympathy. “So he really stood you up?”

I arched an eyebrow. “‘He’?”

Garrett jumped, and some color slid out of his face. “Uh. Shit. I’m sorry. I . . .”

“It’s okay.” I laughed quietly and gestured at myself—skinny jeans, meticulously styled hair, and all. “I guess I do kind of give that vibe, don’t I?”

“Uh . . .” He blinked like he had no idea how to respond to that.

“Relax. Literally no one was surprised when I came out.” I winked. “Honey, they don’t make ’em much gayer than me.”

Garrett studied me uncertainly, but then he laughed. “Still. I didn’t mean to be presumptuous.”

“It’s all right. And to answer your question, yeah, he stood me up.”

He shook his head. “Sorry to hear it.”

“Thanks. What sucks is this isn’t just some asshole I found on Grindr. He’s a friend.” I sighed, giving my phone a look. “Or, well, was a friend.”

“Damn. That’s rough.” He studied me, and the question in his eyes was so obvious he might as well have asked it out loud.

“Let me guess—you want to know what happened?”

Garrett blinked but shrugged. “You don’t have to answer.”

“That’s part of being a bartender, isn’t it? Listening to people bitch about their drama?”

He chuckled. “It does break up the monotony a bit.”

“Better than sitting at a desk all day, right?”

A subtle flinch, like I’d nudged a nerve. He shifted his weight. “Something like that, yeah. So if you feel like talking, I’m happy to listen.”

“Thanks.” I hesitated. There was no need to announce my status to Garrett. I wasn’t trying to get him into bed, so he didn’t need to know, and I still stung from the last time I’d tipped my hand. Even a nose-wrinkle from a stranger would’ve been too much right now.

So I kept that detail to myself.

I took a sip of my Coke, which was quickly getting watered down by melting ice. “The short version is that we’ve been friends for a while, and he moved to town recently. We started, you know, making noise about hooking up, and that was the plan tonight, but . . .” I shook my head, “I guess he didn’t want to after all.”

“So he just stood you up?” Garrett’s eyebrows rose. “And he’s your friend?”

Was my friend,” I muttered into my straw. “It’s . . . I mean, it’s complicated.” Bullshit. “Long, stupid story.” Also bullshit. Except the stupid part. It’s definitely stupid. “Anyway.” I looked up at him. “I really should get out of your hair. I’m just sitting here bitching at you about the dick I’m not getting.”

“You’re not in my hair.” He shrugged. “Stick around if you want to.”

I . . . I did want to. Going home and being alone and pathetic didn’t sound appealing. Hunting someone else down for a roll in the hay sounded exhausting, not to mention demoralizing in my current mood. About the only thing that sounded good was staying where I was and talking with Garrett.

Garrett, who was probably just humoring me so I’d leave a good tip.

“You’re sure?” I sounded like a little kid. Ugh. “Even if I’m not drinking?”

“You are drinking.” He gestured at my glass.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, and no one else needs to know that’s not a rum and Coke.”

I eyed him, then my drink. “Oh. True. Well, as long as you don’t mind me sitting here and feeling sorry for myself?”

Garrett gave me a smile that almost made me forget how gross Charlie had made me feel.

“You can hang around here as long as you want,” he said. “Long as you don’t mind keeping a bored bartender company.”

At that, I couldn’t help smiling back. “Deal.”

 

Chapter Two

Garrett

“Holy crap.” Jesse looked at his phone, eyes bugging out. “It’s one thirty?”

“Is it really?” I checked the ugly neon Michelob clock on the wall. Sure enough, it was one thirty. “Wow. Time flies, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, it does.” He pushed the barstool back. “How much do I owe you?”

“For a few Cokes? Not a hell of a lot.”

Jesse chuckled as he took out his wallet. “Seriously. How much?”

I was surprised at the disappointment in my gut as I rang up his modest tab. When I put the bill on the bar between us, that disappointment sank deeper. Jesse’s presence had made my shift fly by like it had been nothing, and I wasn’t ready for it to be over. But what was I supposed to do? Suggest we go grab coffee at one of the few all-night restaurants in town? Because that wouldn’t be weird or creepy.

Jesse handed back the bill with his Visa on top of it, and I went through the motions that were still somewhat awkward and clumsy. This job had a learning curve like any other, and even though I’d tended bar in my twenties, I was still getting the hang of everything at this place. Plus, the credit card machine was kind of an asshole, taking its sweet time processing, but I was okay with that tonight. Pathetic or not, I didn’t object to the sluggish machine keeping Jesse here a minute or two longer.

While it lingered on Transmitting . . ., I stole a couple of glances at him. He stood out in a place like this. Hell, he probably stood out anywhere he went, but especially in a dim sports bar. Queer-friendly town or not, I had to admire a gay man who strolled into the Alehouse like he owned the place and made absolutely no attempt to conceal how femme he was. Femme men didn’t usually turn my head, but the sheer ballsiness of unflinchingly swishing past a group of lumberjacks hunched over their beers? That was hard not to notice.

And once he’d had my attention, I couldn’t deny he was hot. He was unabashedly himself. He was funny. Damn right, I was attracted to him.

Thing was, I hadn’t felt so much as a tingle of attraction in ages. And it had been so long since I’d been attracted to someone and actually considered acting on it, the feeling was completely and utterly alien. Not bad, but not entirely good, either. While arousal zinged along my nerve endings, guilt roiled in my stomach.

Is it too soon?

My mind wasn’t sure.

My body, however, had already decided it was absolutely not too soon. Not if I had a shot with someone as hot as Jesse. Which I probably didn’t—he’d been flirty, but he seemed like the kind of guy who flirted with everyone. And what better way to distract himself from being stood up? No point in reading too much into it.

Eventually, the machine spat out the receipt, which I handed across the bar along with his card and a pen. “There you go. Just need a signature from you and we’re all set.”

He smiled as he took them from me. I always hated when people hovered while I was signing a receipt, so I cleared away his empty glass and ran the dish rag across the bar to catch a few stray drops.

Jesse finished with the receipt, laid the pen over it, and offered another smile, this one a little shy and a lot cute. “Thanks for humoring me tonight. This beat the hell out of moping around at home.”

“Don’t mention it. Passed the time for me too.”

“True.” He paused, lingering like he might say something more, but then he tucked his wallet into his pocket and took a small step back from the bar. “Okay, well. I guess I’ll see you next time I come in.”

“Looking forward to it.” And I really was. That was kind of an auto response all bartenders developed after a while, but I meant it.

“Me too.” Another smile, and he inched toward the door. “Anyway, I’ll . . . I’ll, um, I should take off.”

You don’t have to do that.

But I just nodded, and we held each other’s gazes for a few seconds before he turned to go. Heart thumping, I watched him until the door swung shut and he was gone. Then I released a long breath and got back to work as my stomach fluttered with all kinds of feelings I hadn’t had in recent memory.

When I went to close out his bill, I had to do a double take at the receipt, and I nearly jogged after him to let him know he’d made a mistake. A ten-dollar tip on a twelve-dollar bill? But before I could chase him down to correct it, I saw the note he’d scrawled underneath: Srsly—thanks. I needed this tonight.

I stared at it for a moment, then looked at the door, which had long since closed behind him. I wondered if he had any idea how much I’d needed this tonight. After a couple of hellish years and a few weeks of awkwardly adapting to a new town, I hadn’t realized how much good it could do me just to spend an evening in amiable conversation with someone. Most of my relatively recent human contact had been with people who struggled to hold eye contact or figure out what to say. Or worse—couldn’t hide their pity.

As I finished closing out Jesse’s bill, something in me relaxed, and it was something that hadn’t relaxed in way too long. Tonight had been a few hours of desperately needed normal. Of shooting the shit and enjoying the company of a friendly and possibly flirty stranger. That was oddly comforting after having resigned myself to grief; soul-crushing loneliness; and the never-ending, if well-meaning, sympathy from people I knew. One-time thing or not, this evening was the first glimmer of hope I’d had that “things will get better” was something more than an empty platitude.

Not long after Jesse left, I helped my boss, Don, close down the bar, then walked out to my truck. All the way back to my apartment, my mind was on Jesse. I liked chatting with people at the bar, and it was rare to have someone show up who wanted to talk to me for any length of time. Not unless they were drunk to the point of incoherence, anyway—and the whole smiling and nodding so they didn’t know I couldn’t understand them act got old fast.

Jesse hadn’t been drunk. Hell, he hadn’t touched a drop of anything besides Coke. He’d been quite obviously irritated and hurt over getting stood up, but instead of diving into a bottle and drinking himself stupid, he’d passed the evening with . . . me. Whenever I’d had to walk away to take care of someone else, he’d patiently waited until I’d come back, and we’d pick up our conversation right where we’d left off. Next thing I’d known, it was damn near last call.

The evening had been fun, but driving home now, I was unsettled. Maybe unsettled wasn’t the right word. What I was feeling, it wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was weird. Not something I’d expected when I’d clocked in eight hours ago.

I was . . . Shit, was I really attracted to Jesse?

One look at him in my mind’s eye, and goose bumps prickled my arms. Oh yeah. I was attracted to him. How could I not be? He wasn’t just hot—he was magnetic. A presence that was impossible to ignore.

I’d noticed him the moment he sauntered into the Alehouse. Because that was apparently how he moved. Jesse didn’t walk—he sauntered. Maybe that was the only way to move in skinny jeans. Sean had certainly had a distinctive strut when he’d worn his. The memory of my husband stung, so I tamped it down and focused on the man who’d hung out at the bar for most of my shift.

Jesse had kept his head high when he walked—sauntered—and even when he’d been sitting at the bar. Probably to keep the long bottle-blond fringe out of his eyes. Whenever he had lowered his head—usually to scowl at his phone—he’d had to brush his hair back or at least toss it out of his face when he’d looked up again. It was such a smooth, practiced gesture, he probably hadn’t even known he was doing it. I had, though. Even now, my fingers curled on the wheel at the thought of brushing his fringe out of his eyes or just letting the long strands slide between them.

And shit—I’d just missed my turn.

In my defense, I’d only lived here for the past three weeks. Small as Bluewater Bay was, it was still new and unfamiliar. I’d missed this turn twice the day I’d moved in, so I just told myself it was lack of familiarity with the town this time too.

On autopilot, I parked beneath my apartment complex, got out, and headed upstairs, mind still full of that cute blond with the wicked sense of humor and those intense blue eyes.

Chatting the evening away with him turned out to be a double-edged sword. As I walked up the stairs, his absence was as conspicuous as his presence had been at the bar. No wonder I hadn’t objected when he’d wanted to stick around for a few hours. My boss got annoyed when people didn’t order food or alcohol, but damn, the company had been nice.

And now it was gone.

At my front door, I sighed and found the right key on the ring. I put it in the lock, turned it, and pushed the door open. Same as I did each night after work. It was becoming a habit—one of those things I could do without much thought—but I couldn’t say I was entirely used to it. Part of me wondered if I ever would be. Every time I walked into this place, a shiver went through me. Tonight was no exception. In fact, the chill was more pronounced than usual.

It wasn’t that the apartment was cold or unnerving. It just . . . It wasn’t home yet. My shit was all here, and I’d started putting a few things up on the walls to break up the sterile monotony of the place, but it didn’t feel like home. It was too busy being empty and different.

As I locked the door behind me, I wondered for the millionth time if coming to this town had been a good idea after all. If I’d jumped the gun and moved too soon. After all, everyone had warned me not to make any major decisions for at least a year. Don’t sell the house. Don’t change jobs. Don’t relocate. Don’t get rid of anything, not even that hideous foldout bed in the guest room.

Maybe that made sense to everyone, but everyone didn’t understand why I couldn’t keep living in that house. And while I was at it, why I couldn’t keep living in that town or keep working at that job. Everything had to go. None of it could wait an obligatory year to make everyone else feel better. At least I’d gone through the motions of selling the house, finding a new place, landing another job, giving my two weeks’ notice, and all that other noise, even though I’d wanted nothing more than to walk away. Everyone was lucky I hadn’t just tossed in a match and left.

Fact was, it had all reminded me too much of Sean, and not the good times I’d had with him. No, just the end. The long, agonizing months before that fucking disease had finally won. When being home had meant watching him slowly dying, and being at work had meant feeling guilty over not being with him. Plus, there’d been that crushing grief because he hadn’t been there with me so we could pass in the halls and swing into each other’s offices or have lunch together like we’d done since we’d started dating. Like we’d both figured on doing for years to come.

Nine months after Sean’s death, I’d left Seattle and hadn’t looked back.

Okay, maybe don’t wait an entire year, but don’t you think you’re rushing into this?” Fiona, my younger sister, had asked when I’d told her.

“Probably, yes. But the alternative is sitting here driving myself crazier. The sooner I get out of here, the better.”

“But what are you going to do out there?”

Scott says he knows someone who’ll hire me as a bartender.” I’d paused. “I have to go. If I stay here, I’m going to lose my mind.”

She hadn’t argued after that.

And now here I was.

Bluewater Bay wasn’t exactly the other side of the world, but it was far enough to give me the change of scenery I desperately needed. No too-familiar skyline to make me cry in traffic. No Seahawks Stadium to take me back to the night we’d gotten engaged. No Mount Rainier in the background to remind me of when he’d still been strong and healthy and we’d taken that long, miserable, but somehow satisfying hike to the peak. Maybe someday I’d go back up there. See if our names were still in the book at the top.

For now, I was hunkering down on the north end of the Olympic Peninsula for . . . I didn’t know how long. A while. Maybe a year or two. Maybe ten. However long it took to . . . Fuck, I didn’t even know. Get over him? That wasn’t going to happen.

Breathe again. That would be enough. Stay here until I could breathe again. Because I didn’t think I’d really done that since my husband’s diagnosis.

Not until . . .

Until tonight.

As I leaned against my apartment door, my head spun. Fuck, I was breathing again. I’d connected with someone, if only for a few hours, and . . . Yeah. Breathing.

I closed my eyes and exhaled slowly, taking a moment to savor this unfamiliar feeling of not being weighed down by grief. Oh, the grief was still there, and depression was still an invisible anvil on my shoulders, but the weight was lighter tonight. Still heavy, still painful, but not as immovable as it had been the past several months.

And all because a cute blond kid was stood up tonight. Funny how things work out.

I opened my eyes and pushed myself off the door and farther into my empty apartment.

Though I was nowhere near unpacked, I had finally finished arranging my furniture, and the place didn’t feel as claustrophobic as it had when I’d moved in. The couch and entertainment center seemed to expand the living room walls, giving me a bit more elbow room, though this apartment could only feel so big, especially after the three-bedroom house I’d lived in before . . .

Before I’d moved here.

I slung my jacket over the back of the couch, dropped my wallet and keys on the counter, and continued down the short hallway to the bedroom, all the while trying to ignore how cramped the place still felt. I hadn’t lived in an apartment since my college roommates and I had wedged ourselves into that godawful shithole twenty years ago. It would be different now, though. Once I got used to the place, it would be different. No roommates, for one thing. Plus it was a much nicer complex. A little small, but I wasn’t sure I could deal with more empty space than a two-bedroom apartment had to offer. Not until I’d fully adjusted to being on my own again. Baby steps.

While I changed out of my work clothes, my mind wandered back to Jesse. How did my evening with him fall into line with the baby steps I’d been taking? Had he strolled into my life, given me a desperately needed breakthrough, and then moved on? Most likely. And that was okay. It was what I needed. What he’d needed too, apparently—Jesse had been lonely and I’d been grateful for the company. Maybe we’d been a little flirtatious here and there, but it didn’t have to mean anything beyond two guys passing an evening together.

It was a good thing, I told myself. It meant there was hope that my libido might come back. If I could feel attraction, then maybe I could eventually work up whatever it would take—courage? strength?—to act on it. And if I still had the capacity to be attracted to someone, maybe there was a chance I could connect emotionally too. Even if it didn’t happen anytime soon, the possibility of it happening at all was a relief.

Right now, I didn’t need to do anything except enjoy the fact that tonight had happened. Let the mental image of Jesse make me grin like an idiot. Let the thought of his smile give me goose bumps. Let our evening at the bar wake something up in me that had seemed like it was dead and gone. Everything else would happen in time if it happened at all.

Baby steps, I reminded myself. Baby steps.

* * * * * * *

My best friend, Scott Fletcher, lived in Bluewater Bay—that was why I’d picked this town for my new start—and he came over the next night to see how I was settling in. He’d offered a million times to help me unpack, but I insisted on handling it myself. I was still drowning in a sea of boxes, but I’d started making some headway, and I’d finish it all eventually. The bedroom was unpacked. The kitchen was . . . not.

Fortunately, the good Lord had given us a thing called pizza delivery, and in no time, a couple of medium pepperonis were on their way. When they arrived, we ate like college kids: with paper plates and using boxes as tables. I’d also been to Your Daley Bread—the general store up the street—earlier to get the basics, and there’d been enough room in my basket for a six-pack.

I handed Scott a cold beer. “So where’s Jeremy tonight?”

“Working. Any time Anna leaves the house, he’s gotta be there.”

“That must get tiring for both of them. And you.” Jeremy was the bodyguard for one of the bigwig directors/producers at the Wolf’s Landing set in town, so he was constantly busy.

“Eh.” Scott shrugged as he took a swallow of beer. “I knew what I was signing up for. And she’s a bit of a homebody these days anyway, so he gets a lot more nights off now.”

“That’s a plus. Does he still like the job?”

“Oh yeah.” He chuckled. “I’m pretty sure he and Anna keep each other in line.”

“Somebody has to, right?”

“Exactly.”

I just laughed.

As we continued shooting the breeze, I propped one foot up on an unopened box, resisting the urge to groan as I rubbed at an ache in my knee. Go figure—I’d spent the day very carefully lifting with my legs so I didn’t fuck up my back, and now my knee was pissed off. When the hell had I gotten old? No telling, but it was going to make tomorrow’s shift loads of fun.

From the other end of the couch, Scott studied me, and I knew the question was coming before he said it. “How are you doing?” There was no point in pretending he was asking about my knee.

“I’m . . .” I stared into my beer, “I’m getting out of bed every morning. That’s something, right?”

“It is. Not a small something, either.”

From anyone but him, I might’ve taken that as an empty platitude. Except Scott understood. In fact, it hadn’t been just the job and the promise of an escape that had drawn me to Bluewater Bay. If there was anyone on the planet who could understand what I was dealing with, it was Scott. He was a counselor by trade, and he’d spent a lot of time with me in Seattle during my husband’s final months, but he also knew firsthand what it meant to lose a partner.

Though the deaths of our respective husbands couldn’t have been more different, Scott and I got each other in ways no one else seemed to. Especially since Sean and Nathan had both been much too young. I suspected that in the last year, Scott had seen a lot of his past in my present. His world had dropped out from under him in the blink of an eye, and mine had gone in a slow shatter until the splintering crash at the very end, but we’d both been to that dark, broken place. The fact that he’d made it to the other side had been the only thing to pull me through some of the worst moments.

After Nathan’s death, Scott had never been the same, but he had finally found some happiness again. First in his life on his own and in his career, then with Jeremy, the man he’d been engaged to for a while now. I just tried not to think about the fact that it had taken him a good twenty years to get there.

Not that I was in any hurry to find another partner. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. Or lessen. I’d take that.

Since last night with Jesse, it had been better. And worse. And better. I was hopeful now that there was a light at the end of this long dark tunnel, but I also felt guilty for being attracted to someone. I was ashamed of how much Jesse had been on my mind since he’d left the bar, but I was encouraged by it too. I felt better, but did I have any right to? I felt worse, but did that make any sense?

There was really only one thing I was sure of these days, and that was that grief was a roller coaster. The kind of twisting, turning, not-entirely-stable roller coaster no safety commission would ever approve, but somehow got built anyway, and once you were on it, you weren’t getting off until—

“Garrett?”

I shook myself and met my friend’s gaze again. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right.” Scott grimaced sympathetically. “Spacing out sometimes is part of the process too.”

“Great,” I muttered into my beer. “At least that’s normal.”

“It will be for a while.” He paused. “So, you got the job down at the Alehouse?”

I nodded, grateful for the subject change. “Yeah. I started last Monday. Could’ve done it sooner, but I wanted a little time to get a handle on all this shit.” I gestured at the boxes with my beer bottle.

“Makes sense. Are you absolutely sure you don’t need a hand with what’s left? I’m happy to help, and I know Jeremy would be too.”

“I think I’ve got most of it.” Gingerly kneading my knee, I added, “I’ll keep it in mind, though. Thanks.”

While we grazed on the remnants of the pizzas, Scott’s eyes kept darting toward something, and after a moment, I realized he was looking at my left hand. Probably at the third finger. Which was bare. The tan line was hardly visible anymore.

When he caught me catching him, he cleared his throat. “I’m, uh, surprised you took your ring off.” He paused, then quickly added, “A lot of people hold off. Part of the grieving process, and . . . anyway. I just noticed, that’s all.”

I thumbed the divot the gold band had left. “I stopped wearing it a couple of months before he died. It, um . . . I lost too much weight, so the ring kept sliding off.”

Scott gave a slow nod. “Yeah, I noticed you’d dropped a few pounds.” His eyebrows pulled together. “Are you doing okay? Healthwise?”

I nodded. “Better, yeah. Another couple of months of this”—I held up the half-finished pizza slice—“and I’ll probably be back to my fighting weight.”

“Good. Good.” Scott smiled faintly. It faded, though, and he quietly said, “You know if you need anything, all you have to do is call, right?”

“Yeah. Thanks.” I debated telling Scott about Jesse, but ultimately decided against it. Scott would analyze it because that was what he did, and I wasn’t sure I wanted it analyzed. It was probably nothing anyway—just a momentary connection to help me snap out of my funk. Besides, I’d enjoyed it, and I didn’t want it picked apart.

So I let it go, and we kept working on the beers and pizza.

* * * * * * *

Scott left a while later, and I was again alone in my new apartment. At least it didn’t feel quite so empty now. I’d put a few more pictures up too, which went a long way toward making the whole place seem less like a sterile void.

I let my gaze drift to a framed photo of a ferry silhouetted against a purple and orange sunset. Sean had taken it during an outing to Mukilteo Beach when we’d been dating. He’d rarely gone anywhere without his DSLR around his neck and had refused to use his phone for anything other than the odd snapshot or selfie. It hadn’t been good enough for real photography.

Maybe not, but I had some gorgeous photos on my phone that I’d taken when he wasn’t looking. More and more, I was glad I’d grabbed those stealthy candids.

There weren’t any photos of him or us on the walls yet. That would come with time. For now, the ferry and sunset were enough. It wasn’t the only picture I’d put up today, but it was like a focal point in the room. A comforting one. Enough of my past that I didn’t feel completely lost, and enough of Sean that I didn’t feel completely alone, but not so much that I cracked under the weight of it all.

Gazing at it now, I decided I was going to be okay. New place. New town. New job. Plus an old friend nearby I could lean on. The adjustment was going to take time, and there was still plenty of grieving to be done, but yeah, I’d made the right move. This was where I needed to be. It was all right that it would be a long road. I had someone here who’d been down it. Someone who could reassure me—from experience—that things would get better. He’d made it, and so would I.

And as a bonus, someone else had sauntered into my world, shocked my libido back to life, and given me a ray of hope I hadn’t known I’d needed. Moving on wasn’t just some pipe dream anymore. For the first time, it felt like something that might happen.

I took a deep swallow of beer, then toasted the photo with the bottle.

I’m gonna be okay, Sean. Just like I promised.

 

Chapter Three

Jesse

“Hey, boss lady?” I poked my head in through the open doorway of Lydia’s art room in the back of the comic book shop. “Could you please do something about your husband before I kill him?”

Lydia looked up from her electronic drawing pad. “Well, if you’re going to, I wouldn’t want to interrupt.”

I glared at her. “You want to be the one to tell Ian?”

Her lips quirked, and then she groaned as she pushed her chair back. “What’s he doing this time?”

“Just being . . .” I flailed my hands in the air and groaned.

Laughing, she walked past me and called out, “Simon, why are you upsetting the help?”

“Hey!” I huffed.

She glanced over her shoulder and winked.

“Bitch,” I muttered.

In the shop, she halted with her hands on her hips.

Simon stood in the middle of the mess he’d been making by the shelves of role-playing games. His eyes flicked from me to her, and then he rolled them before going back to turning my carefully arranged display into an unmitigated disaster. “Oh, come on. It’s not that bad.”

“Simon. Sweetheart.” She approached him carefully like she would a skittish animal. “What are you doing?”

“I’m putting the Mars III books and expansions closer to eye level. They’re damn near on the floor, so nobody is seeing them, and if we don’t start moving more, the company’s going to pull our distributor status.”

I cleared my throat. “So you’re going to drop the D&D packs down below eye level?”

“People will find D&D,” Simon said. “They come in here looking for it. Mars III?” He pointed at the packages surrounding his feet. “We need those where people can see them because otherwise they don’t even know they exist.”

Lydia turned to me. “He does have a point.”

“I know.” I sighed. “I know, and . . . Okay, look. If you want to redo a display, be my guest. But must you do it half an hour before closing time? Because we both know you’re going to fuck it up, and I’m going to have to unfuck it.”

She smothered a laugh and shifted her gaze to her husband. “And he has a point too.”

Simon shot her a good-natured glare. “I’m not that bad.”

“Of course you’re not, sweetheart.” She patted his arm. “But maybe now isn’t a good time. I mean, Jesse’s right—it’s almost closing time, and we’re going to be a madhouse tomorrow, so we can’t afford to have a display all . . .” She gestured at it.

“Tomorrow?” Simon furrowed his brow. “What’s tomorrow?”

Lydia and I both groaned. She face-palmed.

Before I could tell him, he grimaced. “Oh shit. The Space Villager expansion.”

“Uh-huh,” Lydia said.

Simon sighed, and when he turned to me, his cheeks colored a little. “Okay. Okay.” He showed his palms. “You were right.”

“I know.” I scowled at the mess. “But what about all of this?”

Lydia glanced back and forth between us. “Tell you what.” She faced me, eyes full of Please don’t be mad. “You go ahead and take off for the night, but we’ll still pay you for the full shift. Then tomorrow morning we can both set up the Space Villager display before the hordes show up for the launch.”

I pursed my lips. “So you want me to come in early?”

Her brow pinched. “Could you? I’ll buy coffee.”

I shot her my best petulant look. “Good coffee? From Stomping Grounds?”

“Of course.” She gave a long-suffering sigh. “I’ll even get you one of those blended abominations you like.”

A grin tried to come to life, but I fought it hard, the corners of my mouth probably visibly twitching. “With whipped cream?”

“Yes. And chocolate sprinkles.” Her forehead creased. “So, I’ll see you at seven?”

Seven? God. Even chocolate goddamned sprinkles couldn’t get me out of bed before nine. But Lydia’s pretty please? face could, so with a melodramatic sigh, I nodded. “Fine. Seven.” I wagged a finger at her. “But if they skimp on the sprinkles this time—”

She laughed. “I’ll make sure they don’t.” Turning a bit more serious, she added, “Thanks, hon. Now get out of here.” She gestured at the display she and Simon would be putting back together tonight. “I don’t want any witnesses.”

Simon’s eyes widened.

I just laughed and went in the back to get my jacket and keys. It was a relief, not having to stick around tonight. Coming in tomorrow morning would suck donkey dick, but it was better than me and Simon butting heads after a long shift, especially over something like displays.

And the fact was, I was a sucker for Lydia. I adored her. All she had to do was bat her eyes and say Pretty please, and . . . fuck my life, but I’d come in at three in the morning if she asked me to. She was like the big sister I’d never had and could never say no to.

For that matter, I’d pretty much bend over backward for Simon too. As much as we could drive each other crazy, he was a damn good guy, and he generally did have his shit together at the shop. When it came to things like finances, he was always on point. He’d even helped me with my taxes a few times, and when I’d bought my car last year, he’d come with me and strong-armed the dealership into giving me a way better deal. I loved the guy. I really did.

His wife and boyfriend were the creative ones, but Simon had the occasional moments of . . . well, attempted creativity. He’d get a hair up his butt and decide to “improve” something, which meant I’d be getting overtime that week while I unfucked it.

There were days when I’d get a headache from rolling my eyes at him, but I wouldn’t trade this job for the world. He and Lydia were great people and solid bosses. I just wouldn’t be me if I didn’t butt heads with my boss once in a while. Or if I didn’t do my level best to drive Simon insane.

So tomorrow morning, I’d be here at ass thirty to help make sure the displays were pristine and perfect in time for the Space Villager fans to show up and trash the place. Okay, that wasn’t entirely fair. The gamers weren’t destructive or anything, but when a new game or expansion released—especially that game—they’d crash through the front door as soon as we turned on the Open sign, and they’d descend on End o’ Earth like a hurricane of enthusiasm. A few casualties were inevitable.

I smiled to myself as I walked out of the store. Never a dull moment in that place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On my way to my car, I hesitated, then looked back over my shoulder. Not at the comic book store—at the Alehouse.

It was a Friday night. Garrett was undoubtedly working—they usually had all the bartenders working on Friday and Saturday nights. Would it be weird if I wandered in for a beer? Wasn’t like I could stay late tonight, but . . . one beer? Maybe two?

I chewed the inside of my cheek. I was a regular. No one would look twice if I walked in. Well, aside from some of the other regulars who didn’t particularly like me prancing all over the place’s masculine vibe, but fuck them. I just didn’t want Garrett to think I was stalking him.

Oh what the hell? If showing up twice in the same week made me a stalker, then half their clientele qualified, because the same people were in there pretty much every time I came in. I wasn’t convinced they ever left. Granted, they weren’t there to ogle one of the bartenders, but still. The alternative was going home and depressing myself on hookup apps, because Charlie’s bullshit still stung.

Just the thought turned my stomach to lead. I hadn’t even been able to look at the apps the last couple of days because I couldn’t get the other night out of my head. From experience, I knew it would be a week or two at least before my skin stopped crawling.

My gaze drifted to the Alehouse again, and I gnawed my lip. Hanging out with Garrett that night had staved off that feeling. I’d still been hurt and angry, still wanted to choke Charlie for making me feel gross, but talking to the hot bartender had tempered all that shit. Garrett had been exactly what I’d needed, and I’d been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to find him. Was I an idiot for thinking Garrett would want another round of talking while I drank?

I swallowed, suddenly nervous. Suddenly shy. Suddenly full of reasons why I was pathetic and stupid and needy and—

And really, really curious about the man who’d salvaged my fucked-up evening with a sexy smile and endless conversation.

Fuck it. Wasn’t like I had anything to lose.

So I took a deep breath and headed for the Alehouse.