*Tentative, very uninspired, extremely temporary title, until something much catchier hits me.
A while back, Kate Aaron and I came up with a series idea to co-write based on the feel-good type of movies my grandmother watches on the Hallmark Channel, but with more swearing and sex, because we’re honest with ourselves. We’re after the cozy feel and small town idealism, so a diverse group of people—not always straight, not always white, not always cis-gender or gender conforming—can get their HEAs too. Thanks to our schedules, I’m up to bat with the first installment, classified only by the pairing in what’s probably the most irritating temp title ever.
I’d like to introduce you to Grant and Marc, residents of Flaming, MO, a small town in Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks.
“What about that one?” Joe Duran, my best friend, pointed the mouth of his beer bottle at a tourist wearing the summer uniform of board shorts and a t-shirt.
Not bothering to hide my interest, I gave the guy a thorough once over. “He is hot.” And he was—generous smile, laughing eyes, broad shoulders, and sun kissed skin from his week at our lake. How did I know he’d been in Flaming, Missouri, tourist trap on the Lake of the Ozarks, for the week? Well….
Side-eyeing Joe and his girlfriend, Lily, I took a pull on my beer to hide my smirk. “He’s got this great tattoo on his left hip, too. It’s a treble clef, and the swirl in the middle turns into a heartbeat line.” I pointed to my own hip, so they’d know exactly how close to his groin the guy—Tim or Tom, if memory served—had the ink.
Joe was unimpressed. “Should I be asking how you know what his currently-covered tattoo looks like, or are we just moving on to the next?”
My grin was shit-eating, and I swiveled my barstool to face the room, resting my elbows on the bar top behind me. “To be fair, Joe, you have good taste. For a straight guy.”
“Grant Taylor, you’re such a horndog.” Lily snorted and I tipped an imaginary hat in thanks for the “compliment.” They began their survey again, taking their roles as my self-appointed wingmen seriously. A surge of affection had me clapping Joe on the shoulder and squeezing.
For an early Saturday evening, The HookUp was fairly crowded, but when the last of twilight faded in an hour, the place would be wall-to-wall people, shoppers and lake dwellers alike. Most of the tourists wouldn’t run a boat at night, so they’d find their entertainment on land, and the restaurants and bars of Flaming would serve them well until tomorrow, when we’d do it all again. Except Sundays were slower on the lake; it was generally roll-over day—the weekend visitors would go back to their lives, and the next week’s guests, usually arriving Friday or Saturday, were still getting the lay of the land. Saturday night held the most promise. Those leaving would cram as much fun as they could into their short-lived vacations, and the newbies were just beginning their hedonistic week.
That was the thing I loved most about growing up and living in a resort town. Smallish at around ten thousand local residents, Flaming’s ranks swelled mightily in the warm months, so the pickings were never slim. It was a small town with endless possibilities, and I was there for all of them. I mean, how could a gay—or sometimes heteroflexible depending on the tourist—man go wrong in a town called Flaming ’MO?
“What about him?” Lily was subtle about pointing out the next guy.
Ah, Rory. He was a good time. “He’s here every year.”
“Lemme guess.” Her sarcasm was thick. “You don’t do repeats?”
I swiveled to face the bar again, signaling Brandon, the bartender, for another beer. “I’m wounded. He happens to have been fun three summers running.”
“I don’t hear a no in there.” Joe glanced at Lily with an eyebrow lift. “We may have a winner.”
“Sorry, but I have to pass. Last time, he made a comment about getting more than just a hookup going this summer. I don’t want to give him the wrong idea.” Long-distance and I didn’t mesh, but if he lived here, I’d have definitely considered a fling.
Brandon set my beer in front of me. “Does he know that?”
“Eavesdropping again, Bran?” I smiled to show I was kidding.
He chuckled and leaned on his elbows. “Do you want me to tell you about the earful I got when you thoroughly ignored him two nights ago?”
I held out a fist for him to bump. “You’re a good guy.”
He didn’t knock knuckles, watching me warily. “Don’t be hitting on me.”
Brandon was hot, with a full mouth, cheekbones that could cut glass, and shrewd brown eyes, but I’d never considered him more than a friend. I laughed in mock-surrender. “I’m not. I swear.”
“Does anyone ever turn you down?” Brandon set a bowl of bar nuts down in front of us.
I popped a few and munched with a grin that was all the answer he needed.
Lily reached around Joe for the bowl. “Joe and I have a bet for how long his streak will last.”
“Hey!” Okay, that kinda stung. “I hardly think a couple dates a week in the summer is outrageous. You calling me a manwhore?”
“Thought you didn’t date them.” Brandon pursed his lips like he’d caught me in a lie.
“Not long-term. I don’t do distance.”
“Me either, hon.” Anne, one of the cocktail waitresses, set her tray beside me. She rattled off five or six drink orders to Brandon, then spoke to me with a wink. “I date locals or not at all.”
“See?” I flapped a hand in her direction like she was my new best friend. “Anne knows.”
“That brings up a question.” Joe looked past me at Anne. “Have you ever seen Grant leave with a local?”
Brandon set two beer bottles and a draft on Anne’s tray. “I haven’t.” He deftly made two more cocktails and put them with the others.
She hefted the tray. “I haven’t either. But maybe you have the right idea with the visitors. Less drama when they leave.” Then she was off to serve her table their drinks.
“So your record of no rejections isn’t representative.” Brandon wiped the bar where he’d splashed Coke. “I say we test that.”
“What do you propose?” Lily was too eager for my taste. The gleam in her eye said she was cooking something up.
“Hey! I’m right here.” My protest didn’t move her.
“Hush. Bran, Joe, and I are discussing our wager.”
“Brandon’s not in it.” My bitching fell on deaf ears as they huddled, Joe angled so as to half-exclude me.
“I say Grant should let us choose a local for him to pick up. And he should keep going until one tells him no.” Brandon’s eyes gleamed with wicked amusement.
“I thought we were friends.” I pressed my shoulder to Joe’s back so I could speak low in his ear. “Are you going to let them do this to me?” When Joe shrugged and laughed, I shoved him playfully. “You are the worst best friend ever.”
“What’s the matter?” Joe crunched a peanut, letting me back into their circle with an arm around my shoulders. “Lily bet your streak would last longer that I said it would. If I stop them, I’m less likely to win. It’s a fifty-spot, dude.”
I coughed on my gulp of beer, and when I could speak again, I elbowed Joe. “Traitor.”
Brandon cackled. “I’ll pick your prospect tonight and you can only veto once.”
“Once in the whole thing, or once every time you pick him a new guy?” Lily shouldn’t have been so invested in this. She had her own love life.
“Now we’re doing this more than one night? You guys suck.”
Brandon pretended to consider. “I guess once each night we’re picking for him.” And there was my answer.
“Gee, thanks.” I needed to slow down on this beer—not my first of the night—or I’d be stumbling to my little runabout tied at the bar’s dock. “You’re so generous.”
He ignored me in favor of scrutinizing the bar patrons with more interest than his usual bored professionalism.
“I still haven’t agreed to this nonsense.” But it was pointless to argue. My pride wouldn’t let me back down now. My reputation was on the line.
Brandon patted my forearm. “Don’t worry. I know your tastes, and who your mother is, so no hooking you up with the mayor.”
I groaned in trepidation. My mother was Flaming’s chief of police, so if Bran wanted to, he could make my life hell.
“Oh, suck it up.” Joe clapped my shoulder with a good-natured smile. “You have a veto.”
“Don’t you trust me?” Brandon’s grin was pure evil.
“No. But come on. Hit me with it. Then you have to go back to your job. Your cohort is working her ass off while you’re shooting the shit with us.” Linda, the other bartender, was busy slinging drinks, but she smiled and laughed with her customers, so clearly, she wasn’t as put out by Brandon’s attention on us as I was.
I swallowed more beer, and the butterflies in my stomach veered harder, as though the alcohol boozed them up rather than me. Wait, butterflies? I was nervous? I hadn’t felt that since I gave Bryan Jones my first blowjob.
Okay, this could actually be fun. But there was no way I’d admit that aloud.
“Don’t rush me. I want to pick a good one.” Brandon took his sweet time, but then, a twinkle hit his eye as someone over my left shoulder piqued his interest. “Marc Warren.” He crossed his arms in triumph, waiting to see if I’d veto. His smug grin dared me to refuse.
Joe and Lily both oohed his choice.
“Now wait a minute. You said you’d keep my mother in mind. He’s a cop. You’re setting me up to be told no. Who’s going to date the boss’s son?”
It was Joe’s turn to cackle. “Who said anything about dating? Oh wait.” He pretended to have an epiphany. “If he’s local, an actual relationship isn’t off the table is it? No long distance.”
Lily slung her arm around Joe’s waist and kissed his cheek. “Let’s not marry him off just yet. See if he can get Marc to say yes to a hookup. Then we work on the date.”
Brandon ticked points off on his fingers. “Marc is only a little older than you, he’s hot, he’s into men, and I happen to know he’s also not looking for a relationship. He’s not opposed to the occasional one night stand, so if that’s all this is, then working for your mother won’t bother him.” He deliberately flicked his eyes up and down my body. “Unless you’re afraid he won’t be interested.”
The challenge was unmistakable. I fixed Brandon with an unimpressed look while Joe and Lily snickered. I finished my beer before I casually turned my barstool to the side, then glanced in the direction Marc was sitting. He was by himself, rolling a beer bottle between his palms and staring through the window next to his booth.
Brandon wasn’t wrong. Marc Warren was a hell of a specimen. With his strong jaw and piercing blue eyes, he was a very serious man. At least, our interactions at the Blue Cove Marina, where I worked and he sometimes rented jet skis, had been nothing but business. Now that I was trying to assess whether he was open to being approached, I realized how hard he was to read. He didn’t display a single tic. Was he brooding? Bored? Contemplating the meaning of life in the lake’s waves beyond the window?
Now or never. I stood and slid my empty bottle at Brandon. “Watch and learn.”
Joe and Lily whispered, “Yes,” to each other and bumped knuckles as I turned toward my prey.
Three feet before I reached Marc’s booth, he looked in my direction. When those startling blue eyes landed on me, I popped my dimples. I didn’t get a smile in return. Instead, he quirked an eyebrow.
Not as welcoming as I’d have hoped. No matter. I’d have him laughing in a minute. With a confident jut of my chin, I slid into the booth across from him. Up close, he was hotter, his tan skin contrasting nicely with his white t-shirt bearing the logo of a boating company. His lips seemed fuller, more kissable.
“Sure, you can sit.” His other eyebrow rose to meet the first. “Can I help you?”
I leaned on my forearms and noted his beer was mostly untouched. “You keep rolling that between your hands, it’s going to get warm.”
Marc snorted. “You’re worried about the temperature of my beer?”
“A man’s beer says a lot about him. I’m just making sure yours says what you want it to say.”
He took a pull from said beer, and I watched his throat bob as he swallowed. He hadn’t shaved, and the scruff suited him. “And what does it say about me?”
I relaxed, resting my arm across the seat back, and grinned. “It’s Sam Adams, so you have better taste than a college kid. A bottle instead of a can says you care more about the taste than getting buzz.” I peered at the label. It was one of the summer varieties. “Little White Rye. I haven’t tried that one. Any good?”
He tilted the lip of the bottle toward me. “Want a taste?”
Oh, good sign. “Yes, I do.” I dropped my vocal register and maintained sultry eye contact so he’d hear the double entendre. Making sure our fingers brushed, I slipped it from his hand, taking care with how the glass fit to my lips. I watched him watch me tilt back to swallow and didn’t miss his amusement, or the way his focus flickered to my neck. I licked my lips as I passed his beer back, surprised by the bright hint of orange and something spicy to go with it. “That has a great finish.”
“So what can I do for you, Grant?”
I signaled Anne, who sidled over from the next table. “Yes, sweets?”
“Two of those.” I pointed to Marc’s beer. “On my tab, please.”
“You got it.” She hurried off.
“I sure hope you have a designated driver after drinking what you just ordered on top of what you’ve already had, seeing as how I’m nowhere near ready for another round.” Marc smiled his first genuine smile, though, belying the sternness of the words. He had dimples of his own. Nice. Then he took a long gulp, draining half.
Through the window, I pointed across the inlet separating The HookUp from Blue Cove Marina. “See that bungalow with the porch light on beside the marina?”
Marc squinted through the glass. “Yes.”
“That’s my place.” I shifted my finger to the bar’s dock and my little Bayliner runabout bobbing in the gentle waves. “And that’s my ride. I guarantee you, it’ll be traffic free.” The trip from the dock to my slip at the marina was a matter of a minute, two if I counted tying off.
At this, Marc frowned. “The Missouri boating limit for blood alcohol is still .08, the same as in a car, Grant.”
“You worried about me, Officer Warren?”
Now, he rolled his eyes. “Of course. I’d hate to see anything happen to you. It’d be a waste.” Anne’s timing with our fresh beers was perfect. Calling his bluff, I reached for both drinks, but he snatched his before I could. “That was probably the most unsubtle anyone’s ever been getting me to accept a drink.”
I grinned again. “I’m not near as think as you drunk I am.”
Finally, finally, Marc laughed. The joke was lame, but he relaxed. “I guess you’re a big boy who can find your way home without my help.”
There was my opening. “Well, if you wanted to help me get home, Officer, I would be open to that.” This time the beer was actually cold when I drank and tasted even better. “Very open.”
He leaned forward on his elbows, and the low timbre of his voice sent shivers down the back of my neck. “How open?” Those two words dripped sex.
“Like, pay-my-tab-now-and-let’s-go open.” I focused on his lips. “Before I get any more buzzed. You know, for safety.”
The air between us sizzled, and to my surprise, he covered my hand with his smooth, dry palm. His hands were nice, strong with long, graceful fingers. He squeezed, the tips stroking my wrist in obvious interest. “Okay. Let’s go.”
I stood, adjusting my shorts and tugging the hem of my t-shirt down so my half-chub wouldn’t be apparent. Marc’s hand on the small of my back burned like a brand, but he guided me to the bar instead of toward the door. Oh yeah, pay the tab.
Something snagged his attention to the entry door, where a tall man in khaki shorts and a baseball cap, a local whose name I thought was Dustin, waved to him. Marc waved back as we stopped beside Joe and Lily. Brandon was waiting on a customer beside them, but cocked his ear in our direction.
“Joe, I think you know this guy. He’s had a bit too much to drink to legally drive or boat home, so would you see him there safely? His boat’s tied at the dock.”
Joe suppressed a chuckle. “Sure thing, Officer.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me, my date’s here, and I think he’d like this fresh beer Grant was so kind to buy me without asking first.” Marc eased away, his fingers trailing along my forearm with a brief stop to grasp and squeeze my pinky finger. Then he sauntered in his friend’s direction.
There is no way that just happened. My inner voice was as stunned as I was. Marc greeted the tall guy with a side hug, passing my beer to him. Despite the sting of rejection, I wasn’t wrong about the way Marc’s hand had lingered before he’d stepped away. Or that pinky squeeze. Unless that was part of the game, making me think he was interested?
Joe and Lily burst into gales of laughter, but I was too mesmerized by the pair threading through the tables toward Marc’s booth to tell my best friend and his woman to stuff it. Dustin drank from his—my—beer and smiled at Marc in appreciation.
“Ouch.” Brandon didn’t sound as amused as my best friend and his girlfriend.
The sympathy in that one syllable enabled me to break my stare. I resumed my perch on the bar stool beside Joe with a huge frown.
“That’s never happened to me before.” I looked at Brandon, half-dazed. “Right? I’m in here cruising all the time, and you’ve never seen that happen to me before.”
“I haven’t, buddy. That was… painful to even witness, and I’ve seen a lot.”
I glugged my beer, no longer caring how nice it was. Joe and Lily, taking in my humiliation, finally stifled their mirth.
“Next one’s on me, okay? That was brutal.” Joe draped over my back, his fingers slipping into my hair to scratch my scalp, half dutch rub, half sympathetic pet.
I shrugged him off. “I’m not a dog. Jesus.”
Lily got off her stool and came to my other side so they bracketed me. She kissed my temple. “Oh, sweetie. I’m sorry. He could have just said no thanks. What a jerk.”
I couldn’t even reply. I didn’t know what to say.
Joe was good on his word, buying the next round—with the fifty he’d won from Lily, though, so how nice a gesture was it, really? Still, at least my friends kept me from thinking about it too hard, with a steady stream of banter that had nothing to do with Officer Stick-In-the-Mud.
The reflection in the mirror behind the bar kept catching my eye, though. It wasn’t long after Dustin had arrived that he and Marc left. I zeroed in on Dustin’s hand on the small of Marc’s back. As they left, Marc made eye contact for the briefest of seconds. Was it my imagination, or did he look genuinely chagrined?
Well, he should. That was a dick move.
Then why, suddenly, did I want another shot at him?
Did you like what you read? There’s more available! Visit Kate Aaron’s and AJ Rose’s shared Patreon page, where you get two authors’ works in progress, sneak peeks, exclusive content and more for the same level of support. There’s more of Grant and Marc’s story to be read!