Heat beat down against the roof of Troy Johnson’s truck. He’d scored the shaded spot in Vincent’s employee parking, but that didn’t mean much when the temperature hovered around ninety-five.
He checked his watch. Fifteen more minutes before he could go into work and not look like he had no life.
He flicked through his phone half-heartedly. He could read, he had some ebooks on the phone, but nothing interested him. He hung his arm out the window and drummed his fingers against the metal door. He wasn’t bored; god knows he was no stranger to boredom. Army grunts raised figuring out ways to beat the boredom to an art form. He could amuse himself for a day with shoelaces and some rocks.
This was a different feeling, instead of having nothing to do; he had almost too many choices. For the first time in a long time, he had no externally imposed routine or schedule. School didn’t start for another six weeks. He could go to work or not, if he didn’t care about being fired. It had only been a couple of weeks. He could drive up into the mountains and camp, or get dressed up, drive to Denver and hit the bars. No one would know, either way. And, he feared, no one would care. A box of maps sat on the passenger’s side of the bench seat, taunting him with miles of dirt roads stretching across the top of the Rockies.
None of it sounded appealing. He kept waiting for something to feel important, for something to come along and make him want to get out of bed in the morning. He liked his job, but it wasn’t anything important. Maybe when school started, he’d feel more satisfied.
He sometimes wished someone would just tell him what to do. He remembered feeling like this his senior year in High School. Graduation had loomed on the horizon. Everyone around seemed so excited about finishing school and finally getting started on their real life. All he could think was, oh god, what do I do now? When the Army recruiter came in to talk, he offered a path, a purpose, and an identity.
Now here he was, pathless again. He couldn’t go back; he was done with the military, but he couldn’t find a way forward either.
He sighed, resting his head back against the seat, and turned up the radio. Two more songs and he’d go inside.
He couldn’t wait for school to start.
Vincent’s sat on the very edge of the hipster part of the small downtown right before it turned into fields and barns. Not officially a gay bar, it’d become the unofficial hangout of the gay community in Red Deer. Gay women outnumbered the men two to one in this town, and the bar had more pool tables than disco lights. It also had a full-service restaurant. Parents brought their kids in for brunch and lunch on the weekends, sipping daytime-appropriate cocktails and local microbrews and watching their kids run around the backyard patio full of climbable rocks and a rickety tree house that had given more than one parent a small heart attack as it creaked and swayed.
There was free music in the town square later that night. Vincent’s front patio faced that direction, so he expected business to pick up. The heat from the day lingered, and children splashed in the town fountain while their dogs panted in the shade on the flagstones.
Troy stepped through the back door of the bar and waited for his eyes to adjust. At four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, only a few regulars hung out at the bar.
Angel leaned against a shelf in the back room, flipping through the receipts from earlier in the day. Her hair was a swirl of red, white, and blue streaks, the undercut on one side dark black. She had a skull stud piercing in her nose and Colorado flag gauges in her ears.
“Hey, Troy,” she said. “How’s it going?”
“Love the hair.”
“How’s business today?” He hung his jacket on the hook, swung a black Vincent’s apron over his head.
Angel shrugged. “Slow. It always dips a bit when the college kids go home. Considering that most of them can’t even drink legally, I’m not really sure how that works. But it does. Got a nice new load of tourists, today. I think they’re just hanging out here, getting ready go further into the mountains tomorrow.”
“That’s what I would do.” He tied off his apron with a decisive bow.
By about 7 o’clock the outdoor patio was full. The free music in the square started about 7:30 and people like to come early and get a good seat.
Angel sidled up next to the bar. “Troy. Hey, Troy. That guy is back.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Troy said. “What guy?”
Angel rolled her eyes. “You’re perfect for each other,” she muttered under her breath. “Don’t give me ‘what guy.’ You know what guy.”
Yeah, he knew what guy. Curly blond hair, deep blue eyes framed with surprisingly dark lashes. Taller than Troy, but slighter. And, most relevant to Troy’s interests, the guy always ate alone. “Oh, that guy.”
He could feel Angel’s gaze on him, but he just got wiping at a particularly cloudy spot on the bar that really needed some attention.
“Uh huh.” Angel leaned over the bar. “I could introduce you. Didn’t you say something about being a vet once? Well, he’s a vet, too.”
Troy’s head came up. “Yeah?” Down at the end of the bar, two frat guys in baseball caps tried to get his attention. He wondered where they came from, if they had any idea they were in the closest thing Red Deer had to a gay bar.
Then again, maybe they were gay. He couldn’t always tell. He passed for straight all the time. Heck, he hadn’t known he was gay for sure until Afghanistan.
He muttered something noncommittal at Angel and moved down to the customers. He took their orders, got them their drinks, and made small talk, his mind on the blond guy the whole time.
Troy hadn’t dated anyone since moving to Colorado. He was here to earn his degree while staying as far from his West Virginia hometown as possible. He’d stopped by there after his discharge, of course. But he left as soon as human decency would allow. He didn’t want to talk about war, about the friends he had lost and things he had done. And he certainly didn’t want to have to whole coming out scene. That could wait until some vague time in the unforeseeable future. Like maybe never.
Maybe he’d give it a shot, let Angel introduce him. What did he have to lose? If he was planning to stay in Red Deer for at least the next four years, he needed to start making some friends. And if the guy was a vet, they’d have something to talk about. Troy wondered where he’d served. He seemed kind of skinny. Maybe he was Air Force.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Angel talking to the guy. They seemed pretty friendly, laughing, and smiling at each other.
“So how about you let me hook you up with the new guy?” Angel asked Dmitri.
“What new guy?” Dmitri asked, not making eye contact.
“The guy you’ve been eye-fucking for the last two weeks. The luscious hunk with the tattoos and an ass that won’t quit. The guy staring at you right now. That guy.”
They both turned and looked in the window, catching Troy’s eye. Startled, Troy turned back to the bar.
“Oh, my god. He’s adorable,” Angel said as Troy turned away from the window. “I think he was blushing. If he was a chick, I would totally hit that.”
“Yeah, because you’re known for your discernment.”
Angel hit him. “Are you calling me a tramp?”
Dmitri shrugged, his eyes wide. “I’m not not calling you a tramp.”
A woman at a nearby table snorted a half-laugh as if she was way too familiar with Angel’s dating habits, and Angel narrowed her eyes at Dmitri.
“Hmm,” Dmitri said innocently over the lip of his coffee cup. “What’s the special tonight?”
“Cream of get a clue soup.”
“Funny. You should be a comedian.”
“Fine. You’re on your own.”
“Oh Angel-cakes, don’t be like that. You know I’m just jealous.”
Angel sniffed. “Damn right you are, you monk.” She settled on hip on the side of Dmitri’s chair and put an arm around his shoulder.
“Look, Troy’s new. He doesn’t know anybody in town and it would be good for him to hang out with some other people, make a friend. Just take him out for some coffee. It doesn’t have to be anything big; I’m not asking you to have sex with the guy.”
Privately, Dmitri thought that having sex with the guy sounded just fine.
“You could just talk to him, you know,” Angel said. “Besides, I think he said he is a vet. Or was a vet. Or something.”
“If he’s a vet, why is he working as a bartender?”
“Gee, I don’t know. Sounds like the kind of thing you could find out by having a conversation with someone.”
“Why bother?” Dmitri slumped back further into his metal chair. “You and I both know I suck at relationships. If we talk, and he somehow manages not to hate me right away, then what? We go on a date, two dates. Third date sex…” Dmitri’s stomach lurched pleasantly at that thought. He imagined running his hand through the silky brown hair, gazing into those hazel eyes and running his tongue along the sleeve of tattoos lovingly caressing each curve of bicep and triceps. That scruff of beard would feel great against the inside of his thighs.
“Third date sex, then what?” Angel tucked her tray under her arm and watched him with an amused smile.
“You went away there for a bit, Dimka. Whatcha thinking about?”
“Don’t you have a job to do?”
She glanced pointedly around the mostly empty bar. “Don’t try to distract me with work. Better men than you have tried. So you were telling me about what horrors would follow actually speaking to Troy.”
“I’m never going to talk to him, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, that’s right. Because if you talk to him, you’ll go on a date, and then have sex, and then?”
“Then I shut him out emotionally one too many times, he gets clingy; I pull back more. We fight and break up then he never wants to see me anymore, and I have to find another place to eat, and I have nothing pretty to look at anymore.”
“Oh, well, when you put it that way, it makes perfect sense. Idiot.” She smacked him on the head with a menu. Luckily, Vincent didn’t believe in the offering everything plus the kitchen sink. His menu was burgers, steaks, and nachos, with the occasional salad in grudging acknowledgment of the many vegetarians in town.
“Whatever. I know myself.” He pulled the menu from her hand and made a show of looking at it. He really wished sometimes that he didn’t know himself as well as he did. Or that Angel didn’t know him as well as she did. But being best friends for twenty years gave her a lot of insight into what made him tick. “I’ll take a gin and tonic and some nachos.” He didn’t look at her, but he could feel her disapproval beating against the top of his head.
She turned with a huff. Dmitri wondered what he’d get for dinner tonight. If she was really mad, she’d bring him the salad.
Angel walked back to the bar, her forehead creased in annoyance. She called out her drink orders to Troy then disappeared into the kitchen. When she came back out carrying a tray of burgers and fries
“Hey, Troy, I’m a little busy. Can you take those drinks outside for me?”
“Sure. No problem.” He usually stayed behind the bar, but if it was busy enough, he helped her out.
“That sangria is for your Prince Charming at table six. His name is Dmitri, by the way.”
“Oh, sexy,” Troy said before he could stop himself.
He took the tray and distributed the drinks to the patrons on the patio, saving the customer, Dmitri, for last. The music had started, and guitar-heavy blues drifted across the square.
“Here you go.” Troy carefully placed the carafe of sangria on the table.
“Hi,” Dmitri said. “Is that for me?”
“Yeah, Angel asked me to bring it over to you. Didn’t you order it?”
Dmitri smiled. He had a great mouth, nice full lips. The bottom one was a little fuller than the top one. Very kissable, in Troy opinion. And those eyelashes were really much too dark for such a fair-haired man. Troy fought the urge to run his fingertip across the fringe of lashes.
“I didn’t. Angel always thinks she knows what I need better than I do.”
“Oh.” Troy reached for the carafe, but Dmitri stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“No, leave it. She’s right, as usual.”
Now what is he supposed to say? He used to be so good at small talk. In high school and on base, he’d be the life of the party, the one who does the introducing. Lately, since he’d gotten out, it seems he’s forgotten how to do normal things like talking to people.
This stuff was a lot easier in a war zone, where your options are limited, and you were thrown together day and night with nothing else to do but explore. You didn’t date in a war zone; you fucked and hoped both of you stayed alive for the next day.
Troy ran his hand through his hair and sighed mentally.
“I’m going…I’ve got to go back to the bar. It was nice meeting you.” He cursed himself mentally. Nice meeting you? He’d barely met the man. Just dropped a drink on his table.
“Angel tells me you’re a vet,” Dmitri said.
“Yeah, I am. You think she’s starting a dating service for vets?”
“I wouldn’t put it past her. She likes to play matchmaker and truthfully, she’s got a very impressive her record of setting people up.”
Troy looked through the window where Angel was depositing food at a table of four women, one of whom looked about four seconds away from running her hand across Angel’s ass. “Really? I don’t think I’ve seen her date the same person twice. And I’ve only been here a couple of weeks.”
“Angel’s a do as she says, not as she does person.”
“She’s awesome. She deserves someone special.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Dmitri smiled again and this time Troy smiled back.
“My name is Dmitri.”
“I’m Troy. Nice to meet you.” Oh, god. He’d already said that, hadn’t he? Smooth. “Well, I reckon I should be gettin’ back.”
Damn it. He hated it when the West Virginia slipped out. He hadn’t had to hide it in the Army, where any kind of southern accent was more common than not, but it made him feel like a hick in this upper-middle class college town. It seemed like everybody here was either a doctor or a lawyer or a professor.
“Wait,” Dmitri stopped him. “Do you want to get coffee maybe one day? Lunch? A walk around the reservoir?”
Troy clutched the drink tray to his chest and looked at the guy. “Really?”
“How is it possible that you’re single?”
He could sense the patrons on the patio talking more quietly, leaning closer trying to eavesdrop subtly, so he leaned in closer to Dmitri. “I mean, you’re so good looking.”
Dmitri laughed. “You think I’m good looking?”
Dmitri laughed again. “Looks aren’t everything. Maybe I’m a horrible person.”
Troy tilted his head and studied Dmitri. “Well, I think if you were looking pretty and acting ugly, Angel wouldn’t be friends with you.”
“So, if we got out and everything is awful, we can blame Angel.”
Troy smiled broadly. “Absolutely.”
Dmitri laughed. Troy thought he was even better looking when he smiled. “This is, I think, the weirdest pre-date conversation I’ve ever had. I’ll tell you what. You go to coffee with me, and I’ll tell you why I’m single, okay? Then you can tell me you why you’re single. Then we’ll get that all behind us, and we can look forward to the next step.”
“I guess so. But I have to warn you. I haven’t had a date since high school.”
Troy shrugged. “Yeah. And it was all girls then.”
“So this would be your first date with a man?” Dmitri’s voice dropped.
Something inside Troy shivered, and he put a hand on the table and leaned down. “Actual date? Technically, yes.”
Dmitri’s eyes dropped down Troy’s body, blatantly checking him out.
Troy straightened up, hoping Dmitri liked what he saw.
“So, it’s a date then?” Dmitri raised one eyebrow.
“Sure. Where and when?”
“Tomorrow’s Friday, so I have to work tomorrow night. How about Starry Night at three? I’ll load up on caffeine to help me through my shift.”
Dmitri’s eyes were locked on Troy’s mouth, so Troy bit it gently, rolling it between his teeth, and then releasing it. Dmitri mirrored the action and then looked up as he sunk deeper into his chair, legs spreading. “I’ve got Friday off for the Fourth, so that works for me. Starry Night at three it is.”
Troy was starting to remember how this all went.
Angel called for Troy over the murmur of the crowd. “Troy! Little help here!”
“I’m going to get fired,” Troy laughed. “See you tomorrow.”
“I look forward to it.”
Troy forced himself to saunter slowly back into the bar despite the butterflies in his stomach. He resisted the urge to look back though he could feel Dmitri’s eyes on him.
Troy pushed the door open with a flourish, almost smacking Angel in the face with it as he did. “Sorry.”
“Oh, Dmitri,” she said, batting her eyelashes. “You’re so pretty.” She flipped her hair back so that the undercut showed. “I don’t know why you asked little ole me out.”
“That is the funniest shit I have heard all day. I don’t think he’s going to be surprised that you’re still single if that’s all the game that you got.”
They walked further into the bar, Angel yanking the drink tray away from Troy. “Give me that.”
“I’ve got game,” Troy said. “I got so much game; I’m practically Milton Bradley.”
“Oh, yeah. You’re smooth. Like milk chocolate.”
Troy sighed, deflated. “I know.” He whined. “I got nothing. I’ve never dated. I don’t know how to do this.”
Angel took pity on him, wrapping her thin, strong arm around his shoulders. “Come on. I’ll give you Angel’s quick and dirty tricks for dating. Never failed me yet.”
“Yeah? How many second dates have you had?”
Troy shook his head. “You’re ruining all the lesbian stereotypes, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. But maybe one night the doors might open, and Ms. Right will walk through those doors and sweep me off your feet. Then I won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
“From your mouth to god’s ear,” Troy said.
“It’s a coffee date. It will be fine. What could possibly go wrong?”
Troy groaned. “Never say that. Now you’ve cursed it.”
Angel hugged him. “Don’t be a baby. It will be fine.”