Wheels and Heels (A Story from the Hen and Hog)
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As a teenager, Ira Bedford fled a troubled home life and people who didn’t understand his penchant for feminine things. In the city, he fell in with Cedric, who found him work as an underage stripper. It took him years to escape Cedric’s influence and try to build a life of his own.
Now, he just wants to be left alone to create his art. But Cedric’s on-going harassment means Ira had to drop out of art school, is squatting in a friend’s apartment, and is still relying on his allure as a sexy, skirt-wearing exotic dancer to pay his bills.
Then he meets Jed. Part-time bartender and the apartment building’s superintendent, Jed is just the right mix of strong, kind, and protective to pull Ira out of hiding. He also welcomes Ira into his chosen family at the Hen and Hog Pub. But Ira yearns for more. Still, he doesn’t dare to hope that Jed will want him and his questionable past, his skirts and high heels, his hang-ups, and the profession he seems unable to escape. But Jed will do anything to prove him wrong.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Jed wiped down the bar and pretended he wasn’t eavesdropping on Kearn. Because who eavesdropped on their boss while he fired the bar’s latest—soon to be late—waiter?
“I don’t see what the problem is,” Kearn confessed.
“It’s like . . . I don’t know what to do. This place is . . . Well, what is it? A three-way love child of an English pub, a hipster hangout, and a gay bar?” He threw up his hands in exasperation. “I don’t get it.”
“Oh, Jesus.” Kearn’s voice tuned low and smooth, what Jed liked to think of as his teacher voice. He didn’t use it often. Normally, he had more of a . . . headmaster voice. “You don’t have to get it. You have to take people’s orders and bring them drinks and plates of food.”
“But it’s confusing. There aren’t any televisions—”
“It’s not a sports bar.”
“It’s not an anything bar. And it’s an everything bar.” The waiter waved a hand at his all-black outfit, well-tailored and smart, but at odds with the flannel Jed had on, and the tight tank Landon, the other bartender, was wearing. “I don’t even know how to dress.”
“We don’t have a dress code,” Kearn reminded him. “Wear what you’re comfortable in.”
“But it needs to have a theme.”
“Comfort isn’t a theme?”
“It’s . . .” The poor guy slumped. “Confusing.”
Kearn let out a heavy sigh. “Not really. Drinks and food. You carry stuff from here”—Kearn pointed at the bar—“to there.” He pointed out to the dining area. “Simple.”
“No.” Kearn put up both hands, palms out. “No buts.”
Jed snickered, then ducked his attention to the speed rack in front of him when Kearn shot him a sideways look.
“What we’re going to do is this.” Kearn turned his attention back to the waiter. “I’m going to cut you a check for the shifts you’ve worked, and the ones you’re scheduled for that you don’t have to come in for, okay? You’re going to collect your tips, then go find a job in a bar you feel more comfortable in.”
Kearn looked over at Jed again. Jed nodded, picked up the tray with the tip cups on it, and brought it around to the table where Kearn was just getting up.
“But . . .” the waiter said again.
“Kid,” Jed said, taking Kearn’s vacated seat. “Can I give you a bit of advice?”
He shrugged, head hanging, face miserable.
“Try a coffee shop. Make people coffee. You like coffee?”
That at least got him to raise his head. “That is so patronizing.”
Jed said nothing as he took the cup with the server’s name and set it in front of him. It was dismally light. The kid was cute and earnest, but a terrible waiter.
After a minute of staring into the mostly empty cup, he looked up at Jed, face hopeful. “Do you think I could be a barista?”
“I think you maybe think too much about these things,” Jed told him as he took the cup with his own name on it and dumped the contents into the near-empty one.
“Hey!” Sitting up straighter, the kid pushed the cup across the table. “Why did you do that?” He frowned at the cup.
“I think you need to relax a bit and go with your gut a little more.” Jed glanced at Landon, still behind the bar, who nodded. Jed took Landon’s cup, and dumped that one too.
The kid let out a heavy sigh. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Maybe.” He tilted the cup to look inside and sighed again. “Thanks, guys.”
“It’ll be fine, kid. You just have to find where you fit. Don’t worry about it not being here. The Hen and Hog is sort of an acquired taste. You’ll find your place.”
* * * * * * *
Hours later and nearing home, Jed swept a glance over the abandoned construction site ahead on his right, then the row of boarded-up storefronts on his left. Too many streetlights were out along this stretch. Nervous, he gunned his motorcycle engine as he waited for the light to turn green.
He’d passed a gang of drunk assholes a block earlier, and their slurred derogatives had carried over his bike’s rumble enough he hadn’t needed to hear the exact words to understand the gist. It wouldn’t be the first time his shaggy beard and baggy jeans earned him taunts of “hobo” or “bum.” Never mind he was actually gainfully employed twice over. All anyone saw when they looked at him was his beard and that he didn’t trim it every day.
Ahead, a streetlight flickered, blinked, and went out, plunging the already foggy night into deeper gloom. Didn’t anyone in this neighbourhood report burnt lights? It blinked back on again, then flickered, creating a variegated haze.
The group of bumping, jeering men drew closer before his light finally changed. He urged the bike forward, relieved to be leaving them behind. His motorcycle looked badass, but it didn’t offer him any protection from a bunch of guys with impaired judgement and a collective mean streak.
Another few blocks and he’d be in a better-lit, less creepy neighbourhood, and then around the end of the construction, the park beyond, and close to home. Hopefully, the rest of the lights would stay green and he could sail through.
Then the streetlight ahead flickered back on and his heart sank. A waif of a girl in skinny jeans and a pair of strappy heels minced through the next intersection toward a break in the chain-link fence of the construction site. Her hips swayed sweetly as she hurried along, the pale jeans and loose sweater she was wearing highlighting her dainty frame.
Soon it wouldn’t be Jed the drunks were harassing.
Jed revved his engine as he approached the girl, giving her warning as he slowed and called out, “Hey there!”
She picked up her pace, clearly frightened, not even glancing his way.
Jed slowed further and pulled alongside her, but not close enough to reach her. “Look, lady.” He didn’t like calling her that, but he had to get her attention somehow.
“Leave me alone!” She picked up her pace, and Jed worried her heels might snap under the workout she was putting them through.
“Listen!” Jed shouted over his bike engine as he pulled around to block the path through the fence. “Just— Oh!”
The “girl” he’d cut off stopped abruptly, clutching a pile of art books against . . . his . . . chest.
The guy curled his lip. “Oh,” he mocked, flipping the hank of hair that hung over his forehead to one side. “Move. I need to get past.”
“You— Sorry. I thought—”
“Wrong. You thought wrong. Most people do.”
“Right. I mean— Shit.” Jed glanced down the sidewalk to track the group of drunks. “I just meant to say.” He sighed. “Look, it doesn’t matter, okay? One way or the other, you’re not planning on going through there after dark, are you?”
“I can take care of myself.”
Jed glanced past him again. The men had slowed, but not given up the prospect of easy prey.
“I wouldn’t take a chance with that many.” He pointed, and the guy followed his finger.
“Right? You really shouldn’t walk here.”
“I don’t have a lot of choice, do I? It’s between where I was—” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder “—and where I’m going.” He pointed in the general direction Jed was headed. Cutting through the construction site would be faster. But in there, if he needed help, no one would know.
“It might be the shortest route, but it’s not the safest.”
“I’m not a child.”
“Still. You should go around to the park at the end to the street. Trust me on this.” Once more, he glanced over at the group of guys and frowned. They’d stopped, lingering on the corner to watch Jed and his new companion. Did they know this was a guy? Jed bet not. Not with the heels and the fact they hadn’t seen his face or talked to him. And when they found out, their wrath would only bring that much more shit down on the guy’s head.
No way was Jed leaving him alone now.
“That’s, like, five miles.”
Jed snorted. “Not five, but longer, sure. At least they’re well-lit, safe miles, yeah?”
“Says the bear who’s obviously never walked in heels in his life.”
Jed glanced down at the guy’s footwear. “Well. No, actually. That’s true. Why are you?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” He stuck out his well-sculpted chin and squared his shoulders.
“Because they aren’t practical?” Jed offered. “And I’m guessing you probably can’t run in them, either?”
“I don’t have to—”
“Get on the bike, please,” Jed said, being as calm as he could manage. The men down the street had apparently decided that whether he stayed or left didn’t matter, as now they ambled closer.
“Are you nuts?” The guy tried to go around Jed, but Jed revved his engine and let the bike roll forward enough to intercept him.
“Please.” Jed put more urgency into his voice.
Behind the guy, a shout went up, and he turned.
“Shit.” Jed’s engine was too loud and he didn’t hear the word, but he saw the guy’s lips move and his tongue dart out to coat them. That brought the lip gloss to Jed’s attention and he blinked. Another shout from down the street banished the distraction.
“Hey, bitch-boy!” someone shouted, and the guy with Jed jumped.
“Dude, you know that’s a fag, right?” One of the assholes called, apparently addressing Jed. So they did know he was a guy. And they didn’t like it.
The young man’s teeth dug prettily into his glossed bottom lip. He looked back to Jed.
“Please,” Jed said again, hearing the stress sneak out from under the tenuous calm. “I really don’t want to get the shit kicked out of me today.”
“Not your fight.”
Jed pulled in a fortifying breath. “Yes, it is. Because if I ignore it, that’s on me. Get on.”
The man’s lips tightened and his high cheekbones darkened. In the dim light, with his long lashes, full lips, and trim form, Jed thought he looked more feminine than not. The cowl neck of his fuzzy sweater and his heels and makeup blurred a line Jed would have to figure out how to redraw in his own mind. Later. Right now, they needed to make tracks.
“I don’t need to be rescued.”
“For Pete’s sake. I wouldn’t walk alone here at night, dude. And I won’t be able to protect either of us from that many assholes. Can we go and discuss who’s tougher someplace less creepy?”
Plucked brows drew down over storm-grey eyes. He had opened his mouth, when another, angrier shout reached them. He glanced over his shoulder, and this time, Jed heard the gasp. The guys were practically on top of them.
“Come on!” Jed revved the engine, bringing the guy’s attention back. They were seriously running out of time here.
One of the gang reached them, grabbed for the guy, and caught the strap of his messenger bag. The slender man was nearly pulled off his heels, and Jed struck out, catching the assailant with a hard jab to his chin. The strap snapped, the guy grabbed his bag under one arm, clutched his books with the other, and flung a leg over the seat behind Jed. He shoved the bag firmly behind Jed’s butt, then wrapped that arm around Jed’s chest. Once seated, he rocked his hips like he could make the bike move by shimmying his little behind in the seat.
Jed groaned and twisted the clutch, jerking the machine into motion, praying the guy was holding on tight enough he didn’t go flying off the back. He didn’t, but his grip around Jed was breath-stoppingly tight. He leaned forward and melded himself against Jed’s back, face between Jed’s shoulder blades. The hard corners of his books dug into the muscle along Jed’s spine. It was a nice distraction from the rest of the guy’s compact body plastered against his.
A lot of swearing followed them down the street. The arm around him tightened, the hand splaying out under the thick fleece of his hoodie. Jed’s heart pounded. He put that down to the near escape and didn’t think about the heat of the palm burning through his T-shirt.
It would have to be a motorcycle. Ira pressed his face against the broad back in front of him and tightened his hold around the expanse of chest.
Why a motorcycle? And him without a helmet. Even if there was one for him to wear, there’d been no time to put it on. That didn’t stop him fretting. The bike rumbled between his legs and the vibrations made his balls tingle. Fuck. That happened every time.
He hated motorcycles. And he loved them. But mostly, he hated them.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried not to think about anything. His messenger bag, secure between his legs, was safe. The man who had rescued—God, he hated that word—him was driving sanely enough, he supposed. The night wasn’t too cold, even with the wind of the fast ride blowing Ira’s hair in sharp twists against his cheek. This was okay. He was okay. And the scary guys had been left way behind, so that was good.
Ira’s resistance to getting on the bike was more about riding a motorcycle than accepting a ride from a stranger. After all, Jed was no stranger to Ira. He’d recognized the bike first, then the guy on it under the dark helmet. They lived in the same apartment building. Ira had seen him coming and going a few times, getting kids on or off the bus for Ira’s single-mother neighbour, Ruby. It had been from Ruby that Ira had learned Jed’s name. She thought he was a godsend. And maybe he was, because he also took out Mr. Gauthier’s garbage and met his grocery deliveries, then carried them up the four flights of stairs for him. Gauthier, Ira figured, was an agoraphobe, because Ira had never seen more than his slippered feet as he accepted his packages from Jed. Then there was Mrs. Stanfield’s dog, Scruffles, that Jed walked every night.
Ira had noticed him: bearded—which should be a turnoff but wasn’t—tatty, well-worn jeans, Birkenstocks—unless he was on his bike—and always with a button-down over a T-shirt. Basically, he had next-to-no fashion sense, but was so unconsciously open and relaxed, with a body that didn’t quit, that Ira couldn’t help paying attention. Too bad Jed had never seemed to notice Ira in return.
When Jed turned his head at a red light and asked for directions to Ira’s place, Ira’s heart sank. Nope. Not even a blip on Jed’s radar. He was probably straight.
Irritated, Ira pointed to the park.
“Other side,” he said.
Jed frowned, tilted his head, but followed Ira’s pointing finger and nodded. So he probably hadn’t heard Ira’s words. No surprise there. Ira cleared his throat and leaned closer.
His heart rate did not tick up a few notches at the feel of beard against his cheek.
“I live on the other side of the park,” he said. “The place with the pink cinderblocks?”
Jed nodded and gave him a thumbs-up. The light changed and they moved forward.
Well. That was interesting. Not only was this guy going in his direction, he was going directly to Jed’s building. He couldn’t have lived there long if Jed hadn’t seen him around before now. This was a guy Jed definitely would have noticed. But maybe that was down to the number of hours he’d been working at the pub. As short-staffed as they were, it felt like he’d lived there the last few months.
Likely, he was a student at one of the nearby colleges or universities. Jed’s building might look cheesy and sketchy from the outside, but it had decent apartments and affordable rent that made it popular for students. The housing complex that had begun construction across from the park was supposed to ease the student-housing shortage, but progress had slowed to a crawl, making the neighbourhood a little bit scarier than it once had been.
“Here you go,” he said as he pulled up in front of the building, though most likely, the words were lost under the rumble of engine. He tried not to be disappointed at how quickly his rider disembarked, covering it by doffing his helmet and wedging it between the handlebars. Hopefully, his hair didn’t look completely dorky. He swept it up into a thick, short ponytail as quickly as possible to minimize the helmet-head effect. Man bun might also be dorky, but was infinitely preferable to sweaty and stuck to his skull.
“Thank—” The guy snarled as his books went sprawling across the pavement, quickly followed by the messenger bag, out of which spilled a froth of lace and netting. “Shit.”
“Thank shit?” Jed chuckled, but shut the bike off and helped his passenger gather the books, while pretending he didn’t notice him frantically shoving the mounds of uncooperative silvery material back into his bag. Bits of it still stuck out once he had the flap closed, but Jed noticed the buckles were missing parts and could no longer be buckled.
“Thank you,” the guy muttered, reaching for the books as he awkwardly stuffed the overfilled bag under his arm.
“I can carry these.”
The guy’s eyes widened. “No. It’s fine. I can—”
“At least to the stairs?”
The kohl-lined, dilated-pupil stare was his only reply.
“I’m harmless. I promise.” Jed tucked the books under his arm and his bike key into his jeans pocket, then retrieved his apartment keys. “Come on. Can’t leave my bike here long.” He didn’t know what floor the guy was on, but there were only five of them, and only a dozen apartments on each floor to choose from. The building had a mix of long-time tenants like him, and short-term students. Jed knew which apartments had high turnovers, so that narrowed the choice even more.
The guy hurried after him towards the front door of the building. “You live here.”
Softly voiced, that wasn’t a question, which was weird, but Jed shrugged. “Yup.” He headed for the street door. “Eight years now. Found it when I was an undergrad at Ryerson. I’m on five at the far end of the hall. Parking lot side, thank God.” The other side of the building looked out onto the brick wall of the hotel next door. “Oh, for Pete’s sake!” He bent to pick up a small section of garden fencing that was leaning against the calf-high planter in front of the building. “Someone keeps pulling this out and setting it to the side. I swear it’s to let their dog piss in my garden.” He shoved the fencing back into the earth along the edge of the planter, and straightened. “Which floor?” He unlocked the door and held it expectantly.
“Oh. Me . . .” The guy hurried inside. “I’m on four.”
There was a wispy quality to the guy’s voice that made him hard to hear. Jed tried to minimize his movements, reduce the jingle of his boot chains and keys so he didn’t miss anything.
“Last on the left too.” The guy pointed toward the stairs and rearranged his bag again.
“So you’re right under me.” Jed inwardly winced as soon as the words were out.
The guy’s face flushed a delicious pink. “No! I—”
“Come on. I’ll drop these off, then I have to move my bike.”
“Where do you park it?”
“Got a deal with the landlord. He lets me park it inside the fenced area as long as I keep it locked and keep people out. I’m on call for minor maintenance stuff too. Leaky pipes and burnt bulbs, I’m your guy.”
“You’re the super?”
“Yeah, I guess I am. I can handle most basic stuff. Grew up on a farm, so.” He shrugged. “I got skills.”
His companion smiled at last. He had a dimple on his left cheek, and in the light inside the foyer, his eyes were a little less stormy and a bit more sparkly. Or that could have been the glitter of eyeshadow. Jed wasn’t sure. But the effect made his heart skip a few times, just the same. It didn’t help one bit when the guy began to nibble on the lip gloss coating his lower lip.
Ira tasted cherry and realized he was nibbling on his lower lip. Hastily, he stopped, licked the tender spot, then huffed out a breath when he realized Jed was watching his mouth very closely.
Unnerved, he glanced around the time-worn lobby of the building. The glittering chandelier and two ancient, brocade-and-carved-wood sofas gave the deserted lobby the sense that it had dropped out of its own time and been forgotten in this one. They were a dust-pale reminder of the grandeur hinted at by the two sweeping branches of the staircase that led, one left, one right, up to the first floor.
Ira motioned to the set that branched up to the left. “After you.” His voice was smaller inside, even, than it had been out on the street, and he lowered his chin. He’d never unlearned the habit of keeping his voice down, staying small, being unobtrusive. It was the best way he knew to stay safe, but common sense also said keep the bigger man where he could see him. Not that he thought Jed would pull anything.
Or that he wanted to watch how Jed’s jeans clung to his ass and thick thighs as he walked.
On the first floor, Jed held open the door to the rest of the stairwell leading to the upper floors, and they continued the climb to the accompanying shushing of their feet on the worn carpet. Ira said nothing when Jed held the fourth-floor door for him, as well, and followed him down the corridor to the far end.
They had just passed Ruby’s door and Ira was fiddling with his keys, when her door opened.
She poked her head out. “Hey, Ira? Oh!” She smiled wide. “Hey, Jed.”
Jed acknowledged her, and she turned back to Ira. “Baby, your phone has been ringing off the hook all night. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, Ruby. I’m sorry. My cell battery gave up the ghost. It’s probably my mother. She worries. I’ll tell her to stop, okay? I hope she didn’t wake Tess and Danny.” It was a lie. Probably the last person who would call him was his mother. He’d figure out who was blowing up his phone later.
Ruby waved a hand at him. “I wish. They won’t settle anyway. Their daddy’s picking them up this weekend, and they are so excited.” She blew her corkscrew bangs off her forehead and sighed. “Just wish he hadn’t told them on Wednesday. Now I have two more days of ‘How much longer?’ and ‘Do you think daddy will . . .’ fill in the blank with everything from ‘take us to the park’ to ‘buy us ponies.’ So.” She huffed out a breath, sending the curl up again. “Fun times.”
“You can do it,” Ira encouraged.
“You need me to get them on the bus in the morning?” Jed asked as Ira at last found his key and slid it into the slot.
“I’ll be okay for that, but could you get them off at three? I can’t get home until six or so. I know it’s longer than normal, but . . .”
Jed’s face fell.
“No, don’t worry,” she said quickly. “I’ll think of something.”
“Just that I don’t get off the lunch shift until four, or you know I would. We just lost another server. The turnover is getting ridiculous.”
“I can,” Ira blurted and his voice squeaked. I can? I don’t know the first thing about kids. He glanced wildly at Jed, who tilted his head. “I mean. They know me.” He glanced at his toes, then peered up at Ruby. “They can hang here until he gets home, right?” He flailed a possibly hysterical wave in Jed’s direction.
Ruby lifted an eyebrow and looked at Jed.
“Sure,” Jed said slowly.
“Are you sure, Ira?” Ruby sounded sceptical. “They can be a real handful.”
“Nah.” He flapped a hand. “It’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. We’ll . . . figure it out.” The kids were six years old. How bad could it be, hanging out with twins for an hour or two?
“You’re a lifesaver, Ira. I swear. I owe you.” Ruby’s smile was so wide and relieved, he couldn’t help but smile back.
What the hell did I just do? “Don’t worry. I have one teensy rehearsal at ten. It’s over by noon, and I’ll be home by one. Lots of time.” Not like he had a real job to worry about. The last one had ended when his manager hadn’t bothered to correct a belligerent customer who kept trying to cop a feel under Ira’s skirt. In fact, the manager had suggested Ira just let the asshole satisfy his curiosity and move on. Ira had been shown the door when he’d poured the asshole customer’s mojito over the asshole manager’s head and told them both to go fuck each other.
He shivered at the memory. Confrontation wasn’t his thing, but neither was being treated like some kind of curiosity for other men’s amusement.
“You okay?” Jed asked. A warmth, firm and huge, settled at the small of Ira’s back.
“Fine,” he snapped, stepping away just as he realized the warmth was Jed’s hand, and that it was comforting. “Yeah.” He offered a limp smile as compensation. “I’m fine. Just a chill.” Not entirely a lie.
Jed’s frown under his beard was sort of epic and sort of adorable at once.
“Listen.” Ruby’s chipper voice broke the moment, and Ira glanced at her, almost having forgotten her presence. “I have got to turn in. I have a double tomorrow, and the kids—well. I have to get them into bed. I really appreciate you guys helping me out.” She winked and backed up to close her door.
“No problem,” Jed told her.
“Happy to,” Ira agreed, and she closed her door, leaving them alone in the hallway.
“So.” Jed shifted from one foot to the other. “I’ll—”
Ira pushed open his apartment door. “Can you put those on the table?” Now he had Jed here, he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. “Don’t worry about the floors,” he added quickly when Jed glanced at his feet in their heavy boots, then at the pale linoleum between the door and the kitchen table.
“Sure.” Jed strode through Ira’s apartment looking completely out of place. He was huge, dressed in dark jeans, black boots, and a thick, wool-lined hoodie in grizzly-bear brown. Ira’s place was, like him, pale, delicate, filled with whimsy, and completely impractical.
“I like what you’ve done here,” Jed said, setting one stack of the text books down gently. The rest seemed forgotten under one arm as he took a thorough look around, gaze gravitating to the cloth covering Ira’s current clay sculpture. Other pieces in various stages of completion lined the shelf above his work space. He’d been going a bit overboard with a dark-fey forest theme the past few weeks, and twisted trees, gnarled flowers, and ethereally beautiful but sinister male near-nudes awaited his attention.
Buckets of carefully labelled oven-bake clay were stacked on another shelf, along with his paints and brushes, all backed by a dazzlingly not-safe-for-kids display of the sketches he intended for the next series.
Ira’s face heated. His space, his pride and joy, suddenly looked like a leftovers sale in the Value Village overflows section—the stuff they kept by the back door because it wasn’t good enough to put on the sale floor—crossed with an amateur porn shop. He dropped his messenger bag and kicked it under a kitchen chair, then wrapped both arms around his stomach. “Thanks.” The word came out a soft rasp of sound, and he ducked his head, trying to clear his throat.
“You okay?” Jed turned to him immediately, taking a few of those long, authoritative strides in his direction. “Ira?”
“Fine,” Ira barked. Or tried to. Once again, his voice failed him, and the word came out more of a faint pop than speech.
“Hey.” Jed was right there, in his space, his shadow looming, close enough Ira could hear his breathing. He was huge, really. Not paunchy, but broad and dark, and Ira curled tighter, hunching his shoulders. He shouldn’t be afraid of Jed. The man’s touch was tender as a teddy bear when he pried Ira’s chin up with one finger.
“Look at me.” His deep, rumbly voice, quiet as Ira’s normally was, still resonated and spread a swath of warmth between them. That encouraged Ira to lift his gaze from the cracked edge of the welcome mat he’d found in a clearance bin in the Canadian Tire parking lot sale.
“Hey,” he whispered.
Jed’s smile curved wide and eased Ira’s nerves. “Hey there.”
Ira blinked, watching as the hairs of Jed’s beard shifted and reformed with the smile. Fine lines appeared between his brows. Without thinking, Ira reached up to touch them, like he could smooth them away, as if easing an imperfection from soft clay.
Jed’s eyes widened ever so slightly. Their moss-green depths lit, and Ira found himself swallowing his uncertainty. Mechanical, razor-winged butterflies whirred to life in his belly, and he licked his lips.
He didn’t move a muscle as Jed leaned in, laid his lips over Ira’s, and kissed him with the same gentleness he’d lifted his chin. The tickle of Jed’s moustache surprised him, and he jolted. It was a tiny twitch, like he’d become one of those butterflies, trapped in Jed’s tender grip.
The kiss ended abruptly as Jed straightened. “I—” A flush rushed up his cheeks from under the dark beard, and he stepped back. Not exactly roughly, he thrust the books he was still carrying into Ira’s hands and backed out the door. “I’m sorry!” He turned and practically fled, the door closing in his wake.
For a heartbeat, Ira was frozen in place, shock, excitement, and disappointment all roiling inside, immobilizing him. Then he realized Jed had run, and he tossed the texts onto the dining table. They slewed across it, some tumbling to the floor, but Ira was already at the door, after Jed.
By the time he got the door open and his head out into the hallway, Jed was abreast of Mrs. Stanfield’s apartment and moving fast. Just as Ira was about to call out, Mrs. Stanfield’s door swung open, and a tiny brown blur sped past Jed’s feet.
Quick as lightning, Jed scooped the bundle up and turned as Mrs. Stanfield’s voice tinkled out of her apartment. “Scruffles!”
“I got her, Mrs. S.,” Jed called, going back.
“Oh. Jed.” The little old lady’s voice broke over Jed’s name, and she appeared in the door, dropping a bag of garbage to the floor at her feet. “Thank you, young man.” She shook a finger at her dog. “Bad dog!”
Scruffles wiggled in Jed’s hands.
“I was just bringing my trash to the chute and he bolted.”
“Let me.” Settling the pup in the crook of his elbow, Jed picked up the sack of trash and waited while Mrs. Stanfield shuffled out of her door with another, smaller sack in her hand.
“Thank you, Jed. You’re a good boy.”
Jed chuckled. “I try, Mrs. S. I try.”
Ira loosened his death grip on his door handle, and it rattled. Jed glanced over at him, pulled in a breath, but Ira lifted one hand. He smiled, gave a little nod and a wave.
Jed nodded back, staring for a moment, lips parted, gaze fixed on Ira’s lips. Mrs. Stanfield said something to him, and with a last, quick lick of his lips, Jed broke the connection to escort Mrs. Stanfield and Scruffles to the trash chute.
Ira slipped inside, closed and locked his door, then focused on cleaning up the books and straightening out his clothes from his messenger bag.
At least that answered the straight-not-straight question.
Cherries. The thought filled Jed’s head as Mrs. Stanfield prattled on about Scruffles’s latest foray into her pantry, and his discovery of a long-forgotten package of mini marshmallows.
Ira tastes like cherry pie filling. And he could draw. Really well. A flush of heat spanned Jed’s chest when he pictured the images on Ira’s wall.
“Good God. He’d better take those down before the kids—”
“Pardon?” Mrs. S. looked up at him as he pushed back the cover of the garbage chute.
“Oh!” Jed smiled down at her. “Nothing. Sorry. I was preoccupied.”
She tossed her sack into the dark square, then waved a hand at him. “You young people. Always with six things on your mind at once.”
Not six. Just the one. And Jed’s imagination was off again, this time focused on the memory of Ira’s swaying hips as he’d hurried to cross the street in those towering heels. And why don’t those heels bother me one little bit? Because Ira rocked them, for one thing. Plus, attending high school in the small, theatre-oriented town of Stratford, he’d seen all kinds. The only surprise had been that he had mistaken Ira for a girl at all, not that Ira had been partly dressed like one.
“Jed?” Mrs. S.’s crackling voice pierced his daydream, and he blinked at her. She patted his hand. “Just want to make sure you drop the bag down the chute, and not my dog, dear.” She winked at him.
Jed glanced between the dog nestled in the crook of his elbow, and the trash bag at his feet. He picked up the bag and shoved it against the swinging door. He scowled at it, stuck between the door and the frame of the chute’s opening.
“I see you finally noticed young Ira.” Mrs. S. smirked.
Little old ladies should not have the capacity to look so . . . smug.
He glared at the stuck trash bag and gave it a poke.
“You heard me.” Mrs. S. plucked her dog from his arm. “He’s a cutie, for sure. Very distracting.” Her wink was darn near lascivious, but before he could react, she’d turned and started back for her apartment. “Scruffles will be ready for his walk in another half hour. He needs his dinner first.” She waved over her shoulder without turning. “Enjoy yourself in the meantime.” She did a crooked little jig as she walked and cackled to herself.
“. . . Sure.” He pushed absently at the stuck trash bag. The chute cover banged shut and Jed jumped. What just happened? Had she just suggested . . .? Shivering, Jed all but jogged in the opposite direction. For goodness sake, she was his grandmother’s age.
But she hadn’t been wrong. Ira was cute. And sexy. And . . . Jed shook himself. A student who wouldn’t be around past April.
But those drawings . . . And the delicate sculptures with the shimmering painted embellishment and hauntingly sad, lovely faces. The man had talent.
* * * * * * *
Jed’s shift was never going to end. The lunch crowd was, thankfully, much less contentious than the average after-supper bunch, so he rarely had to double as bouncer when he worked the afternoon shift. They came in, ate, and left, with their own jobs to get back to as quickly as possible. Sure, they didn’t tip as much, but at least it was busy enough most of the time to keep his mind off Ira.
After two, though, the afternoon dragged. He’d let Landon go home around one thirty. No use both of them standing around doing nothing for three hours, and it was easier to refill the bar fridges if there was only one person behind the bar getting in the barback’s way.
By quarter after two, Jed had washed every glass and beer stein and coffee mug in the place, cut enough limes, lemons, celery stalks, and various other cocktail dressings to last the night, and wiped down every surface at least twice.
He’d even offered to help Kimi fill the fridges, but she refused. Though she did cock her ponytailed head and grin at him the third time he asked. “Someone has got it bad,” she teased.
“Oh, come on.” Her dimples deepened in her round, pixie-cute face. “You’ve got some hot twink on your mind. I know that look. Who is it this time? The big redhead who flirts with you constantly? Or that emo dude with the dog collar?”
“Stop.” He scowled at her. “Johnny doesn’t flirt with me. He just hangs out. Plus, he’s so not a twink.” Pushing six three and at least as broad as Jed, Johnny was young, but more cub than twink. “I don’t have anyone on my mind.”
“You are the worst liar in the history of ever. Here.” She all but tossed him a two-four of Blue Light. “You want to help, bring that back down to the walk-in and fetch up a case of regular, will you? I brought the wrong one up.”
He grunted as the case hit his chest. Tiny she might be, but fragile? Not even a little. She’d grown up on a farm somewhere farther west than he had, and wrangled bison until she’d escaped to Wilfrid Laurier University. Like him, though, school had not been her bag, and now she barbacked at the Hen and Hog during the week, and DJed all over the city on the weekends. She was fun to work with and always chipper.
He’d known dozens of girls like her back home. Sweet and kind, sturdy, hardworking, but not for him. He’d known that early on, but the farm boys hadn’t had much more appeal for him than the girls had. Maybe that was why Ira’s slim waist, long legs, and heels had caught his attention. He had always appreciated the showier guys of the theatre over the beefy, calloused farmers like himself.
Not that he’d ever dared kiss any of them . . .
“Hel-lo!” Kimi snapped her fingers in Jed’s general direction. “Earth to Jed. You in there?”
“Huh?” Jed shook himself. “Blue Light. Yeah. I’m on it.”
“Regular!” she shouted after him as he all but sprinted for the stairs to the basement. “Blue Regular, ya space cadet!”
“Yeah, yeah!” Her laughter followed him down the stairs, and he had to grin at himself. He was losing his mind. Over a guy. And one he had only met once, for crying out loud.
“And who I’m going to see again if this shift ever fucking ends,” he muttered to himself as he rummaged through the beer cases in the walk-in.
Only, he’d never before kissed a guy the first time he met him. Okay. That was a total lie. He’d . . . well. Not kissed, exactly, because it wasn’t like he hadn’t had his share of mostly anonymous hookups. He’d just never kissed like that on the first meeting. Like kissing away the worry on Ira’s face had become the only imperative in Jed’s existence for that instant. As though seeing Ira gaze up at him, kissed lips parted, breath hitched to a thin pop of surprise, was life’s elixir.
“Yo! Dude. You coming out of there?”
Jed glanced up from staring blankly at a case of Blue to see Herschel peeking around the door to the walk-in. The narrow hallway from the stairs to the staff wash and change rooms was blocked by the thick refrigerator door.
“Oh. Yeah.” Jed snatched up a case of beer, stopped, set it back, and picked up the right case, then hurried out. “You done for the day?” he asked as he made sure the fridge door latched.
“Nah, dude. Working a split. Merik bailed again, the asshole. I swear if Kearn doesn’t can his ass soon, I’m outta here. Sick and tired of coverin’ his shifts, ya know? I had plans tonight, man.”
“Hot date?” Jed grinned at him.
That earned a snort. “Sure, man. Let’s go with that.” He leered and bumped Jed’s arm with his elbow. “Remember the chick with the sequin top and—” He made a classic “big-boob” gesture in front of himself and winked and nodded. “She was in last Saturday.”
“Liesel,” Jed supplied. “Kimi’s friend?”
“Yeah her. Tapped that good.”
Jed shook his head. “You’re a dog. You know that.”
Herschel shrugged. “Whatever, man. She’s into it too, so what the hell.”
“Maybe you’ll get a rain check.”
If Herschel wasn’t as openly generous and willing to do whatever needed doing around the bar as he was, Jed wasn’t sure he’d be able to like the guy. He went through girls like a scythe, and every one of the bar’s staff had had to run interference for him at one time or another to keep the many ex-lovers at bay.
“Don’t forget she’s Kimi’s friend, dude. You tap that and toss it, you’ll have Kimi on your ass. You don’t want that shit.”
Herschel gave a noncommittal shrug. “We’ll see.”
It would be an interesting show, that was for sure.
Back upstairs, Kimi relieved him of the case of beer, and he was left to once more fritter about the bar looking for things to do while the clock meandered its merry way exactly nowhere. Four o’clock was never going to come.
Ira sagged, staring at his reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The side seam of his dance tights bit at his hip, and he plucked at them, squirming slightly like he could escape from the tiny discomfort, then tidied the strap of the loose tank top he was wearing. Behind him, Cobalt waited patiently.
“Problem?” His instructor lifted one neatly sculpted eyebrow, canted a hip, and waited.
“I—” Biting his lip, Ira turned to face him. “Do you know anything about kids?”
“They don’t dance very well.” Cobalt lifted himself up straighter and gave Ira a pointed look. “And have very. Short. Attention spans.”
Ira blushed, but a smile crept across his face. Cobalt had that effect on him, relaxing him enough that he didn’t feel like he had to hide the shy grin. “I deserved that,” he admitted.
“Care to share?”
“Sorry. I’ll do better.”
“Oh, get it off your chest, sweetheart. You aren’t going to make any progress on this piece with your head in the clouds. Now. What about the rug rats?”
“Just that I promised my neighbour I’d get her kids off the bus. Tess and Danny. Six-year-old twins.”
“Practically teenagers these days, dear. So what’s the problem? Feed them. Give them some arts and crafts. It’ll be fine.” He tipped his head to one side. “You must have a spare paint brush or two lying around someplace.”
“Arts and crafts?”
“Don’t be a snob. Kids love that shit.”
Ira grinned. “Do they? Because I can do that.”
“Good. Now can we dance?”
Ira nodded and found his place while Cobalt started the music. In about six bars, though, Ira had lost the plot of the dance and stumbled to a halt.
Cobalt waved the remote at the stereo and the music stopped. “Now you want to tell me what really has your tights in a twist, darling? Because you are paying a fortune to fall all over yourself here, and I know you can’t afford that.”
Ira didn’t miss the darling, and he bit his lip. “Okay. So one of our other neighbours usually watches Ruby’s kids for her. Only he can’t today because he’s working, so I am, only he’s coming to my place to pick them up when he gets off.”
“He.” Cobalt crossed his arms.
Ira’s face flamed.
“He kissed me last night,” Ira said, his voice dropping down into the wispy place where his insecurities lived.
“Awww. And you liked it.”
“Of course I liked it. He’s . . . tall.” Oh my god. Seriously? Tall?
Cobalt snorted. “Nothing wrong with tall. Now.” He waved the remote again, obviously hitting Play, because the music blared again. “Dance, because, sweetie, we are on the clock, and I have my own tall, grizzled, and handsome picking me up for lunch.”
Ira nodded and forced himself to focus. He had no idea how Cobalt made it all look so easy. Not just the dancing, but the unapologetic flare of his wardrobe, the assertive tone of his voice, even the dashing, devoted boyfriend. Ira wanted to be him when he grew up.
He’d start by doing his best to learn to dance like him, and stop wasting his time on silly distractions, like the manic, tireless butterflies in his belly over a teensy kiss.
As the music grew more frenetic around him, Ira drew on the queasy turmoil, echoed it in his movements. It was so all-encompassing it wasn’t difficult to use it to enhance the already frantic steps of this part of the dance. He could be the butterflies, perhaps, and that might exile them from his stomach. At least for the time being.
“Better!” Cobalt clapped and stopped the music as Ira reached the end of the choreography. “Now that gives us something to work with going into the next movement,” he said, hurrying to the front of the room. “You ended here, correct?” He lifted both arms and a foot, mimicking the last pose, making Ira’s panicked butterfly look more like a plunging hawk.
“Show me.” Cobalt motioned to him and waited.
It was easier to concentrate as they immersed themselves in creating the next movement of the dance, and Ira silently thanked his old roommate for pointing him to the studio where he’d found this particular teacher. Landry had moved away from the city—and dance—just as Ira was truly discovering it, and while he wasn’t nearly good enough to dance at the studio Landry had left, he was happy to have found a place with Cobalt at the community centre.
Besides, he was a sculptor and an artist. Not really a dancer. The lessons certainly helped when he was on stage at the clubs, but that wasn’t going to be his life. It was just the rent.
And while this improved his technique and musicality, it wasn’t a dance that would fly at the clubs. For one thing, he was altogether too clothed, even in the wispy tank, short-shorts and tights. Cobalt was teaching him this in a very transparent attempt to convince him that being a glorified go-go boy wasn’t a future.
Even if dance wasn’t his life, this was fun, and Cobalt was a good teacher. All too soon, though, their time was up. Cobalt’s boyfriend arrived to pick him up, still wearing his chauffeur’s uniform, which fit him like that proverbial glove people were always talking about, and Ira’s distraction evaporated in the heat of the gaze the two older men exchanged.
Back came the butterflies, endlessly churning, like clockwork mechanisms with perpetual-motion gears.
“Relax,” Cobalt told him as they shuffled out of the studio together. “He already kissed you once. That means he likes you. Just be yourself.”
Ira smiled, but it felt flimsy. What was there about his pale, washed-out, mimsy self that could hold the interest of a tough, charming biker guy like Jed?