Stumptown Spirits (A Legend Tripping Novel)
This title is part of the Legend Tripping universe.
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What price would you pay to rescue a friend from hell?
For Logan Conner, the answer is almost anything. Guilt-ridden over trapping his college roommate in a ghost war rooted in Portland’s pioneer past, Logan has spent years searching for a solution. Then his new boyfriend, folklorist Riley Morrel, inadvertently gives him the key. Determined to pay his debt—and keep Riley safe—Logan abandons Riley and returns to Portland, prepared to give up his freedom and his future to make things right.
Crushed by Logan’s betrayal, Riley drops out of school and takes a job on a lackluster paranormal investigation show. When the crew arrives in Portland to film an episode about a local legend of feuding ghosts, he stumbles across Logan working at a local bar, and learns the truth about Logan’s plan.
Their destinies once more intertwined, the two men attempt to reforge their relationship while dodging a narcissistic TV personality, a craven ex-ghost, and a curmudgeonly bar owner with a hidden agenda. But Logan’s date with destiny is looming, and his life might not be the only one at stake.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The lobby of Portland’s Vaughn Street Hotel seethed like a skirmish between rival armies: the hotel staff versus the invading Hollywood barbarians. Judging by the glassy stares of Team Hotel, the TV production crew was winning this round.
“Sorry.” Riley Morrel dodged one of the other production assistants barreling through the doors with a giant box of cables in her arms, and glanced down at his own empty hands. Everyone knows what to do except me.
Sure, Riley wore the show uniform—a black North Face jacket with the Haunted to the Max logo blazoned across the back in jagged neon-green letters—but he secretly identified more with the beleaguered hotel employees. Ever since his best friend, Julie, the show’s unit production manager, had browbeaten him onto the crew, he’d been in a perpetual state of WTF.
Today, though, was a triple-header of F. The equivalent of Cerberus simultaneously slobbering down his neck, growling in his ear, and nipping at his ass. Because after almost five months on staff, today marked his first time on location with the show, the first time the showrunner had agreed to film one of his story treatments, and his first time back in Oregon since Julie had rescued him from his spectacular crash and burn.
At the moment, Julie was standing at the concierge’s desk, scowling at her cell phone, the thwack of her ever-present clipboard against her thigh audible from across the lobby.
She met Riley’s gaze through the shifting chaos of HttM staff jockeying overladen luggage carts, hand trucks stacked with production equipment, and armfuls of carryout Thai food, and her eyes narrowed.
Uh-oh. Cue the emergency broadcast alarms. Riley knew that look, although in the ten-plus years of their friendship, it had never been directed at him before. He ran a quick conscience check, but couldn’t come up with any reason he’d be on her shit-radar. Nevertheless, he needed a diversion, or failing that, a barricade. Empty hands won’t cut it.
He intercepted one of the grips passing with a luggage cart stacked with black nylon company duffels. “Hey, Wes. I’ve got this. Why don’t you take a break?”
Wes grinned and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his bandana. “Appreciate it, man. Pad Thai and microbrew are calling my name.”
Riley angled the cart until it blocked him from his dearest friend in the world, now charging toward him like a Valkyrie on meth.
Julie executed a neat end run around his luggage fortress and backed him into a corner between a faux-marble column and an aquarium with a single morose betta.
Riley blinked, gaping as if he belonged in the water alongside the fish. “What?” Julie never mentioned his ex-boyfriend’s name without adding at least a pair of profane epithets.
“Logan, that dickhead douche-rocket. He’s from Portland.”
“So are a lot of people. Over half a million within the city limits. Over two million if you count the surrounding counties that are part of the designated metro area and if you include—”
“Don’t try to blind me with statistics. Explain this.”
She thrust her cell phone at his face, so close that Riley had to rear back and adjust his glasses in order to focus on the screen. His heart dive-bombed the floor. Logan, behind a bar, silhouetted against shelves of liquor. In the harsh downlight, his forearms, decorated with Celtic ink, looked exactly as sculpted as Riley remembered, and his tight white T-shirt seemed to glow.
Riley swallowed against the sneaker wave of want and loss. “He’s a bartender. So?”
“I know that, doofus. But this particular bar is here.” She sliced the air with her cell phone as if it were a battle ax. “In Portland. This picture was taken last night.”
His heart leaped and dropped again. God, in his determination to put Logan out of his mind, he’d missed the obvious. Logan was a native Portlander. Most of the people he knew were here, so it was natural he’d return. But when they’d met, Logan had been heading south, away from Portland, and Riley had assumed he’d continued in the same direction after his bolt.
“How did you find him?”
“Do not doubt my superpowers. Remember I herd Max Stone for a living.” She whirled and pointed at two of the hotel’s bellmen who were unwisely approaching the abandoned luggage cart. “Don’t touch that,” she barked, and they bounded away like frightened deer.
Okay. Wrong question. “Jules, why did you bother to look?” Although Riley had been tempted, he’d never given in.
Her forehead bunched, brows drawing together. “Somebody has to watch out for you.”
“I can take care of myself.” He didn’t need Julie monitoring his emotional temperature 24-7. Edging past her, he grabbed the cart and pushed it behind a pair of couches, out of the main flow of traffic.
She dogged his heels. “Right. You were doing so well.”
He scowled at his high-tops and kicked the cart’s wheel. “You invented this job for me, didn’t you? Out of pity.”
“No, doofus.” She blocked his second kick with the toe of her Doc Martens. “I got you the job out of self-interest. Having a real folklorist on the crew, vetting the stories, is bound to jack up our credibility.”
He slanted a glance at her from under his bangs. “Not to mention the ratings.”
“Why else would we need credibility?”
“Maybe you should shanghai a real folklorist, then.”
“You’re real. You’re realer than anyone I know.”
“No official credentials though.” Riley ducked his head and pretended to steady the teetering mound of duffels, the hollow yawning in his belly as sharp and fresh as it had been five months ago when Logan had split with no explanation.
“If you hadn’t withdrawn from school—” She slapped her clipboard against her leg. “I will never forgive that shithead dick-weasel. He couldn’t wait one more week to punch his asshole card? One final. That’s all you had left.”
“Don’t forget the thesis. They kind of insist on that before they’ll give you a master’s.” He shrugged. “No degree, no authority.”
“Bullshit. Close enough for Hollywood.” Her lips firmed into a hard line, and in the draft from the open lobby doors, tendrils of blond hair that had escaped from her ponytail writhed like Medusa’s unfortunate hairdo. “Damn it. Now I’m sorry I mentioned the fuck-bucket—”
“Jules.” He caught her wrist. “Enough.”
“Oh fine.” He let go, and she took a deep breath. “Promise me you’ll stay away from him?”
Until that instant, Riley would have claimed nothing could force him to face Logan again, to set himself up for another emotional maelstrom when he hadn’t climbed out of the first one yet. But as if Julie’s words had lit a fire in his belly, he knew he had to do it. It’s your chance to find out why.
“Hey, Julie.” Scott, their showrunner, beckoned to Julie from the registration desk. “Can you sort out my reservation? They’ve got me in a single, not a suite.”
“Be right there.” She pointed one long finger at Riley’s nose. “We’re not done.” She zoomed off.
Riley sank down on the back of a sofa. He’d tricked himself into not thinking about the night before Logan disappeared by focusing on the hurt and anger he’d felt afterward. Hurt and anger were easier to handle than the memory of how ridiculously happy he’d been.
When he’d come in from teaching his last TA session, Riley had seen the DVD of Help! sitting on top of the TV, and he’d been sure this would be The Night. Not only was the movie one of his favorites, but it had a theme.
A ring. The perfect lead-in to a proposal.
He’d expected the two white-gold bands he’d spotted a couple of weeks earlier while rummaging in Logan’s T-shirt drawer to make an appearance, maybe over dessert. He’d already planned how he’d say yes—using only words with no Rs in them, because nothing derailed his years of speech therapy like overloaded emotions—before he’d drag Logan to bed and show him exactly how much he loved him. Twice.
Instead, Logan had bailed before his last bite of crème brûlée, claiming an emergency late-night bartending shift. The next day, he’d vanished in a cloud of motorcycle exhaust, along with the rings and all of Riley’s stupid happiness.
Yeah, someday Riley would get over that. Probably the same day the gates of Faerie opened in the back room of the Escondido Walmart.
Julie plowed across the lobby toward him, stopping midway to direct a gaggle of PAs who were transporting the show’s precious night-vision cameras. “Those go in the equipment suite. And be careful.”
Time to come clean. Or at least cleaner. He stood and clutched the cool metal handle of the cart. “Look. I didn’t know he was here. Honest.”
“You knew it was a possibility, though, didn’t you?” She tapped her clipboard with the edge of her phone. “Why else would you propose a location shoot here?”
“Because Portland is supposedly the most haunted city in the Pacific Northwest?” He offered up a conciliatory smile, but she squinted at him, lips pursed.
“If you didn’t trust my motives, why did you approve the shoot?”
“I didn’t approve it. Scott approved it.”
“Since when does Scott do anything other than sign off on your recommendations and call his agent to pitch another show?”
She scowled at her clipboard and tugged her ponytail with the hand that still held her cell phone, her trademark God-this-budget-is-out-of-control tell. “I knew we should have gone for that poltergeist story.”
He held up his hands. “Be reasonable, Jules. The alleged poltergeist moved a hairbrush a quarter of an inch on a slick countertop. The guy lives under a freeway overpass. His paranormal manifestation was probably nothing more than a passing beer truck.”
“Maybe. But for that shoot, we wouldn’t have had to leave LA. No travel. No hotel.” She poked him in the chest with her phone. “No sixteen hours in the equipment van with Zack’s lousy ska mix.”
He captured her hand before the phone could become embedded in his sternum. “The fact that I heard about this story from Logan first doesn’t matter. It’s different, Jules. It could be the one that keeps the show from jumping the shark.” Or haul it out of the tank of circling great whites where it had struggled almost from season one. “It’s all good. I promise.”
“It better be. Because if I can’t even manage a third-rate cable show, you think anybody else in Hollywood will hire me? God.” She shoved her phone in her jacket pocket and scrubbed a hand over her face. “Tell me the truth. Did you originally pitch this story because of jackass dick-bag Logan?”
“In a way, yeah.”
“Riley.” Julie’s voice dropped into her lowest register, the one the crew guys called the Linda Blair special.
What you can’t deny, avoid like hell. “Not because I was looking for him. Swear. But he told me this story the night we met.” Riley had been drawn to the tale of the Witch’s Castle ghost war because it had all the earmarks of a classic mythic cycle: Romeo and Juliet on the frontier, with hints of a feud that lasted beyond the grave. It hadn’t hurt that the guy telling the story had been hotter than dragon fire. “His grandfather claimed to have seen the manifestation back in the early fifties. So when you asked me to prep a story for you to pitch . . .”
He’d thought of this one, first thing. Despite months of nothing—no word, no email, no freaking text—his brain still launched every new search with a Logan-filter.
God, somehow that needed to stop. As much as he cringed at the notion of giving Logan another chance to trash his heart, maybe facing him was the answer. Riley needed to take this as serendipity. The gods throwing him a bone, or Cerberus taking firm hold of his ass with all three heads and giving a swift virtual shake. Man up or shut up.
“Shit, Riley. The look on your face,” Julie muttered. She tossed her clipboard on the cart, and morphed back into his best friend as if the special effects team had given her an instant CGI makeover. “I’m sorry. But I want you to be over him. That bastard shit-heel cheated on you.”
“Why do you have a different set of standards for him than you do for your work? You’re the king of source-material documentation. You check every tiny fact twice, yet you insist on ignoring the steaming shit-pile of evidence he left behind. I saw it.” Her voice rose above the chatter of the crew and the eighties mix wafting from the hotel’s sound system. “There was enough foil condom confetti on your bedroom floor to set off the metal detectors at the Portland airport, and we were in fricking Eugene.”
Riley winced and gestured for her to keep her voice down. “I know.” Yet he could have sworn on a stack of holy books from six different religions that Logan would never cheat on anybody, even someone as nerdy as Riley.
The man was too forthright. He’d never pulled punches. Had always said what he thought. If he’d grown tired of Riley—and who could blame him?—he’d have said so. No drama. No nonsense. No arguments. Just boom: It’s over. I’ve found someone else.
But to stage a scene like that and disappear? It was so out of character. As if Sir Galahad had suddenly turned as devious and cruel as Mordred.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Julie said. “If I didn’t hate his guts, I’d probably fall at his feet and thank him. If it weren’t for that douche bag, you’d be ass-deep in the Balkans by now and I’d be stuck excavating my career from under Max Stone all by myself.”
“Speaking of our star,” Riley muttered, “he’s arrived.”
“Fabulous.” Julie retrieved her clipboard and hugged it to her chest like an acrylic breastplate. “I’d planned on at least two stiff drinks before I had to face him.”
“It’s your own fault. Never say his name. It conjures him. He’s like a malevolent djinn.”
She shifted to face Riley, her back to the entrance and the approaching show host. “Listen, Rile, I know he’s a total asshat, but please—”
“I know, I know. The star is always right.” He patted her arm. “Don’t worry, Jules. I won’t blow your gig.”
Max Stone sauntered to the center of the hotel lobby, directly in the path of the grips wheeling crates full of equipment, and struck a pose, the same one he used before the first commercial break in every Haunted to the Max episode.
None of the crew paid any attention; they just navigated around him.
Totally business as usual.
Without the attention of an adoring audience, though, Max had an unfortunate habit of zeroing in on the nearest flunky to torment. Too often, Riley was the flunky du jour—his title might be runner/researcher, but he might as well have Production Bitch tattooed on his butt.
“Well, if it isn’t Wiley.” Max always made a point of mocking Riley’s R-W lisp. He held a finger in front of his lips. “Sssshhh. Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. We’w hunting wabbits.”
Yeah, like that never gets old. Riley felt the telltale heat in his cheeks. He drew a breath to retort—with words containing no Rs whatsoever—when he caught Julie’s pleading look. Right. Placate the star. He settled for a teeth-gritted smile instead. “Hello, Max.”
Julie mouthed, Thank you, then pasted on a giant fake grin and faced Max. “Welcome to Portland. Is there something you need?”
“Yeah. I need you to book an episode in someplace less goddamn boring. What about Vegas? Miami? New York? Do ghosts only haunt the sticks?”
“Portland isn’t exactly the sticks.” Julie’s knuckles whitened on the edges of her clipboard. “It’s got a population of over half a million in the city alone.”
“It doesn’t matter how big the population is,” Max boomed, “if they’re all losers.”
Mr. Tact, that was Max. The woman behind the concierge desk glowered at them, and the bellmen stationed by the front door gave them the side-eye. Riley caught Julie’s gaze and jerked his head at the PR disaster in the making.
“It’s a natural for you, Max,” she said, with a subtle jab in Riley’s ribs. “The most haunted city in the Pacific Northwest.”
“Yeah? Next time, book us a gig in the most haunted city in Monaco. Because this place sucks.” Max heaved his own duffel—leather, with his name and HttM monogrammed on both sides in gold—onto the overfull cart, triggering an avalanche of luggage onto Riley’s high-tops, then swaggered off to the elevators.
Julie sighed and pretended to tick something off the list on her clipboard with a flourish. “Max’s first tantrum. Check.”
“Does this happen at every shoot?”
“Of course it does. I think it might be in his contract.”
Riley heaved the bags back onto the cart. “In that case, I’m glad I’ve never rated a location assignment before.”
“Never mind Max. You’ve got to admit this is more interesting than being stuck in the office on phone duty.”
“If you say so.”
“I know so.” She squeezed his arm. “And I’ve got a surprise for you.
He eyed her warily. “You know I hate those.”
“Don’t be like that. This is a good thing. Scott wants you to do the briefing at the production meeting tomorrow morning.”
Suddenly Cerberus grew a fourth head and chomped down hard on Riley’s middle. “This can’t be Scott’s idea. He doesn’t even know my name.”
“Exactly. And he never will if you don’t speak up. This is the perfect opportunity to show him what an asset you are to the show.”
Riley hugged the last duffel to his chest. Once upon a time, he could face anyone. He’d had the regard of his advisor, the offhand respect of the students in his TA sessions, and against all odds, the hottest boyfriend in the Western hemisphere. But getting dumped by Logan had stolen Riley’s self-confidence as surely as if Logan had packed it on the back of his motorcycle.
Riley had no desire to alter the HttM status quo. Production Bitch might not be a glamorous gig, but at least it was low-profile.
“There’s no point, Jules.”
“There is too. It’s your story, doofus. You deserve the kudos.”
Riley fumbled the bag and knocked two others off the cart.
She stared at him, and he saw the instant when the penny dropped. “Shit, Riley. Are you afraid of them?”
He shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket and stared down at the toes of his black high-tops. “I’m not exactly Hollywood material, Jules.”
“Bullshit. Besides, you used to lecture to an auditorium full of freshmen three times a week. This should be a piece of cake.”
Not the same thing. Not even close. In the lecture hall, he’d been secure in the knowledge that no matter how the students felt about the class, they needed it—and needed him to get through it, because the professor was freaking scary.
It was his turf, and he’d ruled it. The classroom. The library. The internet.
The insanity of a Hollywood production company? Not so much. These guys valued sensationalism, not scholarship. Ratings, not research. Riley’s ability to remember their arcane coffee preferences was more valuable to them than his folklore chops.
“I’d really rather not.”
“Too bad.” She whacked him on the arm with her clipboard. “It’s time. I refuse to let you hide your brilliance anymore. Now let’s grab some dinner. I have a meeting with Scott at seven, but we’ve got a couple of hours.”
“Are you kidding?” His voice squeaked on the last word. “If I’ve got to prep a presentation, I need to crack the laptop and assemble my notes.” And he would—eventually. But he’d never be able to concentrate with the Logan elephant lurking in the room, shorting out his brain. It was like his thesis implosion all over again.
So before he got started—and despite Julie’s undoubted disapproval—he intended to finally force a closure conversation with Logan. And if getting the man to talk required a nail gun applied to his damn motorcycle boots? Riley was totally on board with that.
“I’ll pick up a sandwich and eat in my room.” He avoided her gaze and replaced the fallen luggage, expecting her to activate her best-friend ESP and scream Liar! at any minute. But when he dared a glance, she was staring at her clipboard, chewing on the end of her ponytail.
Guilt wormed its way into his belly. Wake up, you jerk. You’re not the only one with a stake here. This job was important to her, and whatever happened with Logan, she was still his best friend. He needed to hold it together, for her sake as well as his own.
“Jules.” He put an arm across her shoulder. “What’s wrong? What’s got you so stressed?”
“Oh, you know. The usual suspects.” She shrugged, but the worry wrinkle between her brows didn’t disappear. “The budget. Max. The lack of any on-camera proof of paranormal activity in any of our episodes ever.”
“Trust me. This is a good story.” He grinned at her, feigning confidence, and gave her a squeeze. “Look at it this way. If nothing manifests, it won’t be any different than any other HttM episode, and if you’re lucky, that haunted hairbrush will be just as lively when we get back to LA.”
Logan Conner wheeled another stack of Widmer IPA cases through the back door of Stumptown Spirits. Of all the shit jobs in the bar, inventory control—schlepping booze around the dank stockroom, checking deliveries against the shipping manifest—was in his bottom five.
Which was why he always volunteered to do it, along with every weeknight bartending shift, when the patrons drank for vocation not recreation, and the tips were lousy.
He didn’t need tips. In little more than a week, he’d never need money again.
He tossed the packing list on the shelf next to the stacks of snowy bar towels, ready to spend one of his last nights on earth working for his old neighbor and childhood nemesis, who was more than happy to employ Logan—for half what he paid the other bartenders.
Heather, one of the servers, stopped in the doorway, tying the strings of her black apron around her waist. “Hey, Logan. Good thing you’re on tonight.”
“Why’s that?” Unfortunately, he liked Heather, so he always tried to dodge her, but she was remarkably persistent. He picked up a bundle of towels. “The boss in a mood?”
She snorted and tucked a pencil behind her ear. “When is Bert not in a mood? No, there’s the cutest guy sitting at the end of the bar. You should check him out.” She singsonged the last word, waggling her eyebrows.
“Stop trying to set me up, woman.” He shooed her through the door. “You know nothing about what I look for in a man.”
She fell into step beside him in the narrow hallway. “That’s what you think. I notice who you notice, and this guy is totally your type.”
“I don’t have a type.”
Shit. Guess he didn’t have as good a poker face as he’d hoped. He couldn’t deny it—as his personal Judgment Day approached, he definitely had Riley Morrel on the brain. Anyone who bore the slightest resemblance to his ex-lover caught his attention with a stomach-churning swirl of desperate hope and complete terror. Didn’t mean he had to admit it.
“You’re hallucinating, Heather. Have you been breathing the fumes from that leaky keg?”
She grabbed his arm, and he fumbled the bale of towels, dropping it right in the perpetual puddle that had seeped into the hallway from that same leak.
“Damn it.” He kneeled down and blotted the beer with the towels. “Can you hand me the wrench from under the end of the bar?”
“Since when do we have a wrench?”
“It’s mine.” He’d relocated it from his bike saddlebag because the boss was too cheap to spring for his own fricking tools, let alone replace the keg. “If I tighten the hose connector—”
“Oh, leave it, Logan. It’ll just leak again in half an hour anyway.” She shoved his shoulder when he tried to stand. “Stay down there. It’s only another foot to the end of the hall, and you’ll be less obvious if you scope out the guy from floor level.”
“I don’t want to scope anyone— Ow!” He rubbed the back of his head where she’d smacked him.
“Just look, you big baby. Twenty bucks says I’m right.”
Logan heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Fine. Easiest twenty I ever made.” He’d tuck it into her tip jar at the end of her shift.
He crawled forward, avoiding the remains of the beer leak, Heather shuffling along at his hip. A bar patron snickered as he passed them on the way to the john, but Logan ignored him. Five months ago, he’d never have been caught dead in such a ridiculous position. Now, he didn’t give a shit how stupid he appeared.
When he reached the corner, Heather held up two fingers in a peace sign, pointed at her eyes and then at the bar. He mouthed, Bitch, and she grinned.
He rocked forward until he had a clear view of the far end of the bar. A bolt of fire shot from his throat to his balls.
He scrambled back and fell onto his ass in the remaining beer puddle. God and the devil take it, what was Riley doing here?
“Logan?” Heather hunkered down in front of him. “What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
A ghost. What a joke. Logan was doing his best to face up to becoming a ghost himself, and the only man in the world who could shake his resolve sat less than twenty feet away. He heaved himself to his feet, snatching a marginally dry towel from the sodden pile to blot his jeans.
Heather propped her chin on his shoulder. “So. Do I win?”
“Yeah. No. I . . . need air. Taking a break.” He retreated down the hallway, tossing the towel into the hamper inside the stockroom door as he passed. “Tell Jase I’ll take over behind the bar in—” Jesus. How could he work his shift tonight?
He fumbled with the panic bar of the back door and escaped into the alley, drawing in deep breaths of air tainted with stale beer, urine, and garbage.
How the fuck was this possible? Riley was supposed to be hacking around Europe on that folklore grant with his freshly minted master’s degree, not hanging out in Portland, and in Stumptown Spirits, of all the bad fucking luck.
Luck? Who was he kidding? Luck and Riley didn’t coexist on the same planet, at least not where Logan was concerned.
He crept down the alley and emerged on the sidewalk in front of the bar. The October chill hadn’t reduced traffic on the sidewalks of Old Town, but Logan didn’t spare a glance at anyone. He sidled up to the tinted window, glad for once that Bert refused to invest in any window coverings, and peered inside. Riley was still sitting at the end of the bar, his profile illuminated by the pierced copper lantern overhead.
The downlight burnished his hair to a glow like polished mahogany. It highlighted the slope of his turned-up nose. Caught the upper curve of his ear where it protruded from the shaggy haircut he’d always insisted on because he was self-conscious about what he called “these open car doors on either side of my head.”
Heather emerged from the hallway with her hands full of burger platters, and Riley tracked her, his head panning toward the window.
Shit. Logan jerked back, chest heaving, and leaned against the rough brick wall. Had Riley seen him? He didn’t think so, although it would be hard to miss him once he started his shift. He’d be trapped behind the bar until midnight with Riley practically in his lap.
No fucking way.
He hunched below the window and duck-walked a couple of feet down the sidewalk before inching up to peek through the glass again.
Riley wasn’t staring at the window, thank God. His head was bent, one fist clutching the hair above his forehead, which always made it stick up like a kid’s who’d just awoken from a nap. He was scribbling notes on a legal pad, probably in that crazy shorthand he’d invented for himself. The bar in front of him held a scatter of papers topped by a fat paperback.
When Riley’s glasses slid down his nose and he pushed them up with the eraser end of his pencil, Logan nearly sprinted into the bar to rip the thing from his hand. Christ, did he want to poke himself in the eye? Riley wasn’t the most coordinated of men. Half the time he managed to fall up the stairs, for Chrissake.
Someone nudged Logan in the ribs, and he glanced irritably to his left. A hefty twentysomething guy with a tribal neck tattoo and a leather jacket chinking with more chains than the average bike shop crouched next to him, breathing alcohol fumes in Logan’s face, his eyes avid.
“What’s the show? Some chick with her tits hanging out?”
Another guy, this one in fashionably ripped denim and a backward black ball cap, jostled him from the other side. Logan scowled at them and pulled his elbows in tight.
“Don’t be greedy, man. Share.”
They matched his stance and peered through the window.
“I don’t see nothing,” Leather-guy said.
Jesus. Logan ducked and flipped around, his back to the wall and his ass on the less-than-pristine sidewalk. Between the dirt and the beer soaking the seat of his jeans, he’d smell like the back alley by the end of the night, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
Denim-boy stood up. “Place is a dump. Nothing but guys.” He looked down at Logan, the whites showing around his faded blue irises. “This ain’t one of them homo havens, is it?”
“Christ,” Logan muttered, and levered himself to his feet and moved away from them, keeping low until he’d cleared the window.
“Hey!” Leather followed him. “He asked you a question.”
“You gonna make us?” Leather-guy shoved Logan’s shoulder, the jut of the idiot’s chin begging for a swift uppercut. Posers. Logan’s least favorite demographic.
When Logan didn’t respond, Denim-boy strutted over but stayed safely behind Leather, out of first-strike range. “Like to see you try.”
Posers and cowards. Perfect. Logan should spend the evening with these assholes, to remind himself why he wouldn’t miss his life.
Except that Riley Morrel was within his reach, separated from him by one measly brick wall, rumpled and intent and infuriatingly oblivious.
In other words, totally fricking adorable.
So Logan did the right thing. He ran, the guffaws of Leather and Denim chasing him down the alley.
He’d forced himself to leave Riley once. He could do it again, although the tension snarling his belly called bullshit to that, mocking him more successfully than the laughter of the losers on the sidewalk. You’re not as strong as you pretend.
Five months. Five months of self-denial hell down the tubes. Five months since he’d touched Riley’s skin. Seen his eyes light up at some arcane mythological reference he’d managed to trace through the centuries.
Five months since Logan had staged that callous scene and bailed like a coward before he lost his resolve. He’d thought he’d been cauterizing the Riley-wound in his soul while he’d marked time here, waiting for the end. But one glimpse of him and Logan was as raw as he’d been that day in Eugene.
Goddamn it all to hell and back. It was way easier to get over the death of someone you hated than someone you loved. Logan knew that from experience. His cousin’s first serious boyfriend had died in a car crash when the two of them were only nineteen. In her mind, he was still perfect, and as far as she was concerned, nobody could ever measure up. She hadn’t even tried to get over the loss. Twelve years later, she still hadn’t moved on.
He didn’t want that for Riley, so he’d done his damnedest to make himself unworthy of devotion. Why couldn’t the man take the fucking hint that Logan had scattered all over their bedroom floor?
Logan stormed down the hallway to the office. Bert Johnson, his short-term boss, sat at his desk, scowling at his dinosaur of a computer monitor and poking at the keyboard with both index fingers.
Logan took an unsteady breath and grabbed a discarded bar towel from the back of a chair to hide his trembling hands. “You’d finish that a lot quicker if you learned how to type.”
“Bah.” Bert didn’t bother to glance up. “Bunch of nonsense. Pen and paper were just fine in my day.”
“Hate to tell you this, but it’s still your day.” But it wouldn’t be Logan’s day. Not for much longer. He had to remember that. Had to resist the temptation sitting at the end of the bar, an impossible feat if he got within touching distance of Riley. “How about this? You take my bar shift tonight, and I’ll finish the bookkeeping.”
Bert raised a shaggy eyebrow, his long face and narrow chin making him look like a Victorian pen-and-ink illustration of Marley’s ghost. “You don’t get tips from bookkeeping.”
“I know.” It didn’t matter. He’d have given the money away anyway. “Come on. You know you’d rather pour beer than inventory it.”
Bert pushed himself out of his chair and stalked to the door. “Your funeral.”
Logan dropped onto the unforgiving wooden seat. “It’s my butt’s funeral in this chair. Christ, Bert. Get a pad, for God’s sake.”
He snorted. “Young folks. So soft. In my day, we knew how to make do.”
“Yeah, yeah. Big talk. Go on. You’ve got a bar full of thirsty people.”
Bert disappeared down the hall with another snort, as close as he ever came to laughter, and Logan settled into the hard chair. Maybe the discomfort would keep his mind off the fact that Riley was bare yards away.
Nope. Nope. Nope. Thinking about Riley and bare in the same sentence was a recipe for disaster—or at least for a looser pair of pants.