I don't like to think of myself as ungrateful, but it would be super easy to be jealous of my best friend, Corbin. He rolls through most of his life without an actual gay bone in his body – then he suddenly wakes up to Declan. Who falls into things like that? I get the nervous closet cases, or maybe I should say I'm dumb enough to try going out with them. My point is that Corby is the best person I know, so I always feel a little slimy when I get a tinge of jealousy toward him. I'm not jealous about Declan; I'm just jealous of the relationship they have.
That kind of makes me sound ungrateful when you realize I've been living with Corby and his folks for the last five months, all because of their charity. That's not really fair, either. His parents love me; they always have – though why is beyond me. My parents weren't intentionally bad at parenting; it was just sort of a fact they accepted early on in our relationship. There was never any malevolence, just a general blah about everything, including themselves. I still kind of hate them.
Right at the moment, I'm grateful. Not specifically for the home, my little 'family' here with the Danielses, but for their wifi and their willingness to share the password. I'm kind of crap at technology. I like my phone, but I'm sure I don't use it to its full potential. Apps tend to confuse me. I do like taking pictures of things, though, and I enjoyed looking at the pictures my friends take, so Instagram is kind of my favorite app-type thing, even if I only know the very basics.
It's kind of funny. Here I was, a little gay bean in the dark, and my best friend falls off the pussy wagon and straight into Declan's arms. Then, just like that, Corby makes friends with Noel and Chris, which takes me from zero gay friends to four. I liked going through all their pictures, some with me in them, but most of them doing all kinds of stuff. Living, I guess. Everything seems to center on this speck on the map called Sanitaria Springs.
It's weird, though, that everything seems to come back around in a vicious circle to one thing, one common word that fits me no matter how much I smile, talk, be silly...and that's depressed. I've probably been depressed for a long time, but being in the Daniels home really brought my shitty existence into focus. I suppose some well-meaning people would say 'you should feel lucky someone loved you enough to help you out of a bad situation', and I do. Sometimes. It's hard to maintain any given emotion.
But things keep coming up in my head, surfacing like trash just beneath the surface of my conscious thoughts. Think of it like a lake of thoughts, and just beneath whatever I'm thinking there is all this raw sewage that percolates up in vile bubbles of crap. Wow. That was kind of vivid.
Things begin with my parents, of course. I see how Corby has respect for his parents. He misbehaves, he pushes boundaries, but there's also a limit. There's a line he won't cross. I had no such line with my parents. I have no respect for them. I can't even say I hate them because they are so...incapable that it's not worth the effort. They don't have the basic tools to be responsible humans and I don't know why that is. I never met my grandparents, so I don't know if it's a nature or nurture thing. I'm not sure why they got together or how they managed to stay together, and I can only assume that I was a mistake.
It takes a little out of you to realize you weren't wanted. It wasn't even like I was a happy accident, something you grew to love after you spent some time with it. Instead I was just...unwanted. My parents didn't intentionally neglect me; they were just indifferent to everything. It's amazing I made it as far as I did with them.
Corby's mom took me to get a physical, and they basically said I was underweight and had been malnourished during my primary growth period. This surprised exactly no one. It's why I looked taller than I was; my scrawniness kind of exaggerated my height, like an optical illusion. Now I needed glasses - go me. I mean sure, the world was clearer, but so was the utter failure of my parents and that translated to me.
I never cared much about my grades, except if I liked the teacher – or if the teacher seemed to like me. Then I tried harder, but I didn't mind too much if I failed at something. Kids around me had better clothes, shoes, electronics...food. It really blows your self-worth to recognize just how far beneath everyone else you are and to be powerless to change it. Oh, sure, I could work hard, pull myself up by my bootstraps and get good grades, maybe a job under the table – but why? To satisfy someone else's idea of how I should think or feel or act? I don't think so. It wasn't worth the effort and I know it, because when I did have a job, for a short time – and it was only a few weeks because I didn't get home until nearly midnight walking as far as I had to – I took my first paycheck and bought myself some really nice sneakers. Cool ones. Popular ones. Even then people laughed. I was a poseur. Trying too hard. Or they made fun of me because it was the only nice thing I had – and really, it was a huge contrast from my shoes to my clothes. So I gave up.
Giving up is harder than you think. You sometimes get the idea that you should try again, but there's no use being dumb about it, right? Still, I tried sometimes. Whenever Corby was involved, I did. I said something in the fourth grade he thought was hilarious and the next thing you know he's inviting me everywhere.
His family wasn't what you might call well off, either. Maybe they were my parents gone right. They rented an apartment, but they didn't seem to lack for much. Corby didn't wear a bunch of name-brand stuff and didn't seem to care. Corby did Corby and it was pretty awesome. Sometimes it made me a little jealous, too. I'm not sure Corby appreciated his folks, how lucky he'd been to be born to people that wanted him.
It wasn't hard to get down on myself. I'm scrawny, but not in a short way. That might be cute, I guess. My blondish hair and blue eyes don't get me anywhere. I have no real self confidence, but I put out a pretty good front. So yes, sometimes I was grateful. Sometimes I was thankful. But most of the time I was just sad.
“What are you doing, you luscious tramp?”
I looked up at my doorway as Corby's mom leaned on the door frame, giving me a smile filled with unspoken, and possibly evil, glee.
“Looking at hot guys,” I tell her, waving my phone in the air.
“You still getting all worked up over that football player?” she asked, coming over to sit by me and glancing toward my phone.
“He's got friends,” I told her, grinning.
“Well, let me see!” she said, trying to grab my phone. I laughed and pulled it away, and like the big kid she can be, she started wrestling me for my phone, all the while hollering about how she wants to see. I was laughing and trying to hang onto my phone when Corby poked his head in the room.
“What's up?” he asked.
“Bell is holding out!” his mother stated, giving me a push.
“They're all gay and you're married,” I told her, still laughing.
“I just wanna look!” she said, pouting.
“Mom, really? What's the fascination in looking at teen guys? I mean, for you?” Corby asked.
“Are you kidding?” she asked, levering herself up from the bed. “You're in the best shape of your life at that age. Besides, have you taken a look at your father? Not exactly the best shape of his life.” Having delivered her zinger, and with Corby and I looking at her with some level of astonishment, she reached out and grabbed my phone, then ran through the doorway cackling madly.
I looked up at Corb and shrugged. “Password is on.”
The corner of his mouth pulled up. “I think she likes Sterling's pictures more than you do, and that's saying something.”
I shrugged again. “He's nice looking, I admit. He's got a few friends that aren't too shabby, either.” Not that a single one would look at me twice, but I'd never say that.
“His friends? Did he have some group photos I missed?”
“I looked at the people following him and checked some of them out. When we get to Sanitaria Springs, I have a shopping list.” I grinned at Corby and rubbed my hands together and he rolled his eyes.
“You're a chicken. Sure, you act like you're going to be a slut when we get there, but we both know better,” he said and laughed at my expression.
“Now I have to prove you wrong, so whatever trouble I get in – it's on you!” I said to him.
“Yeah, I'm worried,” he said with a laugh. My phone flew through the air to land on the bed. I glanced toward the doorway, not seeing his mother anywhere – but then I heard her.
“I guess you can only get the password wrong so many times. At least your phone won't have all that porn clogging its memory anymore,” she called out.
With a sense of panic I picked up my phone, which was unchanged. “Funny!” I called out to her, only to hear her cackle in reply.
“I'm going to bed,” Corby said with a chuckle.
“Okay, goodnight,” I said as I entered my password.
“So, which ones you have your eye on?” Corby said, not having left as he'd implied. It's one of the things I love about him – he asks things about other people instead of making everything about him. I should remember that, might make me a better person.
“It's just in my head,” I said with a sigh. “Unless they actually put something that mentions a boyfriend, I can't tell if they're single or not. I mean, doesn't stop me from looking, you know?”
“Of course,” he agreed and sat down beside me. I wiggled over a little to share my screen.
“First I think Sterling was flirting with me a bit when he first made contact, you know? I know he knew Chris and all, and for all I know he was interested in Chris up until he saw how perfectly he and Noel fit together.” I looked at Corby, “It's kind of disgusting if you ask me. Two hot guys dating each other? What's left for the rest of us?”
“Is that how you feel about me and Dec?” he teased.
“You don't count,” I said with a snort. Corby was a nice looking guy, but he was completely family material. Declan was nice and we got along well, but I think knowing he and Corby were sneaking off to get into each other's pants cooled any impure thoughts I had about him. It was annoying, really. Noel and Chris were different. I wouldn't mind being sandwiched between them!
“So what do we have?” Corby asked, looking down at my screen.
“Okay, so we start off with Sterling,” I said, swiping on my screen and bringing up a picture of a guy with wide shoulders, a smoldering look, and a sweat-soaked tee shirt clinging to him. “He's what you call pupcake,” I said to Corby.
“And that is?”
“Young guy on his way to being beefcake,” I said, being an expert on such matters. I swiped my screen again to bring up another picture of Sterling, this time a selfie in what was likely his room. He had on a nice button-up shirt, a sweet grin, and an unholy mess of a room behind him. Reminded me of the entire trailer I used to live in.
“So is he top of your shopping list?” Corby asked.
“He's on the list,” I say, not sure I wanted to commit to more than that. “This guy, Nate? Look at the grip he has on that bat. I wouldn't mind if he got a grip on me!”
“Nice, Bell,” Corby said with a snort.
“Don't get all puritanical on me, just because you're stuffing Declan like he's Thanksgiving dinner,” I said with a trace of sourness.
Corby raised an eyebrow and the corner of his mouth curled up. “Jealous?”
“Because someone is having sex and I'm not? Yes. Duh,” I replied with a shake of my head. “But wait, there's more. This guy posted this video of Nate working out with this other dude...Crispin, I think? Nate is just hot. Look at his chest. I mean just look.”
“Athletic,” Corby said noncommittally. It's the tragedy of being laid well, I suppose, that you don't appreciate physical beauty elsewhere.
“These two little guys – the ones you mentioned from your trip?”
“Devyn and Griff?”
“Yes. So fucking cute, but they have a friend that seems single. Check out the next contestant, Philip.”
Corby looked at the picture on my screen of a guy with dark hair and green eyes, sort of on the pale side and kind of thin. His face was kind of angular, except the chin was squared off and it gave him a memorable face.
“Cute, right?” I said.
“Eh. He's all right, I guess. If you like him, I guess that's the important part.”
“All right? Jesus, Corb. Declan won't jump out of the closet if you admit another guy looks good, you know.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Says you. He likes me right where I am, and I have no desire to upset that,” he said and tilted his head. “That, Bell, is why I don't really care what they look like. I'm happy with who I have and where I am. It's not like I said the guy was a troll; no need to get offended about your future ex-husband.”
“Dick,” I said to him, just to say it. “Okay, so that's Philip. He's totally different from Sterling – build, height, looks – nothing the same, but I think I like that.”
“You know what that means, right?”
I gave Corby the stank eye. “I have a wide range of attractions, that's what it means. Now the next one is kind of like Sterling in that he's a bit built, but I think he has a boyfriend who is...” I flipped through a few images, “this gorgeous bit of meat.”
“Oh, my God,” Corby groaned and covered his face. I flipped through several more attractive guys and made comments, all of which Corby put up with, though not always gracefully. Gotta love him, though, he sticks through it all. “This one, he's sort of like Philip in that he's not built, but he's foreign and I'll bet they teach interesting things to do with your tongue overseas.”
“Bell, Jesus!” Corby said, laughing as he stood up. “Nice to know our visit is a smorgasbord for you.”
“If they are eligible, and so am I, why shouldn't I snag one?”
“How about you find out if you, you know, actually like one of them first?”
“I'm not getting married,” I said, rolling my eyes. He chuckled and said goodnight. I said as much to him and resumed looking at all the guys I might meet in Sanitaria Springs. Realistically, Corby was more than right. I wasn't what most people think of when they think cute gay fellow. I was downright scrawny, probably because of my parents lack of nutritional standards. Add to that, for some weird reason, I'd grown to at least an average height so I looked skinny and stretched all in one. My face was narrow, which didn't help, but hell with it. I wasn't going to come out of a single visit with a boyfriend, but it was awfully fun to think about.
I'd always wanted a job so I could have a bit of cash in my pocket, eat things when I wanted to and more. It only occurred to me after I'd given up on my first job, after the shoe fiasco, that the cash would have been useful for other things that wouldn't involve anyone else's ridicule. After a few weeks in fast food, I was pretty sure it wasn't the job I had in mind. The grocery store wasn't hiring and the convenience store didn't hire unless you were eighteen. Even though I wasn't so sure about the idea, I went into a chain coffee store and landed a job. Spoiler alert, I actually liked it. People were nicer than they were when going in for fast food. Too many people in a burger joint had bad timing and would come in after they were already hangry and miserable.
Coffee people, by contrast, just wanted their coffee. Except the princesses with their fancy orders, who were never happy no matter who made their drink or the dramatic semi-gay boys – spare me! I was getting done with work in about twenty minutes and the store was dead, which sometimes happens in the evenings. We were caught up, and I wasn't closing, and things were clean enough that they wouldn't have to do a great deal to close up the shop that night.
“Hey,” I said to Dec, smiling. It was always cool when friends came to visit. “Want an iced coffee?”
“Love one,” he said as he pulled out his wallet and leaned on the counter. “Corby should be here, soon. He's going to pick us up.”
“That why you have your backpack on? Staying over?”
“Yeah. Someone has to pry Corb out of bed in the morning so we can get on the road.”
“Yeah. He probably needs prying if you're in bed with him,” I said with a snort.
“He better,” Dec said and laughed. “Have you packed?”
“Tonight,” I said, sliding his drink to him and refusing his cash. “I've decided to go with things a little more form fitting than baggy. If I wear stuff that's larger it just makes me look skinnier, I think.”
“You worry too much,” Declan opined, nodding in thanks for his drink. “If someone likes you, they just will. There are shrimpy twinks crying at night for daddies and otters who want a bear and blah, blah, blah.” He sipped his drink and his eyebrows went up. “This is so good, thank you. But like I was saying, people are going to like what they're going to like.”
“But they need to be exposed to that to know they might like it. You don't have to go any farther than you and Corby. He didn't know he could be happy with you,” I said while starting a drink for Corby. We threw out so much coffee, and yeah it was against corporate policy to give it away, but no one I worked with seemed to mind. Corby doesn't do coffee, so I make him other stuff.
“True, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't have gravitated to me on his own. He's not like you and me, where we grew up knowing guys are both shit and the shit. He had to grow a little, make a mistake, and now he knows.”
I frowned. “You think he's bi or that he'll stay on the dick train for good?”
“If I have anything to say about it, he'll never see another snatch in his life,” Declan said with a grin.
“Slut. You're so in love,” I said with a sigh.
“I actually am. You should try it some time,” he said. I hate that he's so sweet. You can't really call him out for the things he says, 'cause I think he actually means them. It also fires off a jealous streak that I have to control carefully. It's not just that I actually like Declan, and I like how happy Corb is with him – and no, I'm not jealous Declan got Corby instead of me. Corb is great cuddle material, but he's way too much brother material, too. And being pissy to Declan would also drive a wedge between me and Corb. I think asking him to choose would be the ultimate in crappy friendship, but there was also the thought that he might not choose me.
Either way, Corby loses, and I won't do that to him.
Corby showed up about five minutes later and I handed him his drink, which he politely accepted. I figure if he's giving me a ride home, I can do something nice too, right? I mean, he's only the best friend anyone ever had so....
On the way home Declan brings up how I'll be hunting that weekend. Project bag-a-boyfriend he calls it, a summer hunting event. Guy is nuts. Corby just rolls his eyes and groans at the two of us. Once home I get a plate from dinner that was kept for me – unheard of with my birth parents. I mean dinner, much less saving me a plate. After dinner I set about packing, with Declan harassing me because we were going to watch a movie and they were waiting on me. I put the most important stuff in, figuring socks and underwear could go in the bag in the morning.
We watched a gay themed movie with us all snuggled on the couch. Honestly, I'm so glad Corby having a boyfriend didn't change this. Snuggling Corb was a transcendent thing. He just kind of fit no matter how you folded him. We started something else on the TV, but Corb fell asleep so we called it a night. It was a pretty sweet way to end a day. The only thing that would have made it better would be a boyfriend of my own.
“Bell, wake up.”
I felt breath come dangerously close to my ear. “Don't you want to see Logan in person?”
I opened an eye and rolled it until I could see Declan, looking clean and fresh and altogether too awake. “That's cheating. You've heard tell of his ass, have you not?”
“Heard, yes. Kind of neat to see the whole person attached to it, though.”
I opened the other eye. “You don't fight fair,” I said and yawned.
“Corby is making breakfast. Come on,” he said and headed out of the room. I don't know what he was so excited about – he's already got Corby. Why does he need more gay in his life? We teased Corb about checking the car's fluids before we left and he was unimpressed with us. We went past Noel's house and they decided to follow in Noel's car. That was just fine with me. The last thing I needed was to be crushed in the backseat by a hot guy. I chilled in the back seat while listening to whatever Corby got on the radio. My phone, like Corby's, was a pay-as-you-go, so I wasn't going to waste what I had left for data trying to stream music.
Instead I threw myself a little pity party. I thought about all the boys I'd looked at and the names, weeding through them mentally as if I actually was making a choice. Wouldn't that be something? To have a market where you just went through and picked out the guy you liked? With my luck, I'd be on the discount shelf. Or set aside to be returned for being too damaged. Imagine that? A truck full of boys being returned for repair for being defective. I wonder if they'd wipe your mind and start with a fresh install of a personality? There's probably a story in that somewhere. I wrote things, sometimes. They were absolute shit, but I did it anyway. I deleted most of it quickly; there was zero chance I wanted anyone stumbling across any of my deranged musings.
We pulled up in front of a narrow house, much like the houses on either side. In fact it was just one narrow house after another, just with different colors or designs for the face. Some had flowers planted, some were weedy, but they were all the same basic thing – narrow boxes. We climbed the short few steps to reach the postage stamp of a front porch and the door popped open, held there by Grayson, Corby's cousin. He looked better in person than his pictures showed.
“Hi!” Gray called in greeting and small hugs were handed out. Gray raised an eyebrow at me. “It's really nice to meet you, Bell. Right off the bat I want to let you know that we are in complete agreement.”
I tilted my head to one side. “On?”
“My boyfriend's butt.”
Internally my temperature dropped by about ten degrees. I felt a moment of panic as I tried to figure out which way to jump. Usually people aren't really big on their boyfriends getting compliments about specific body parts. I'm not that surprised that Corby said something; he must have thought it would be okay.
I nodded and smiled. “You're a lucky man.”
He smiled widely. “Don't I know it!”
Relief flashed through me. Gray led us toward the back of the house and to the kitchen. He offered Corby coffee and Corby flipped him off. I liked that Gray was already teasing Corby – his distaste for coffee is well known.
“Gray, these are our friends Noel and Chris,” Corby said by way of introduction. The couple raised their hands and said hello nearly at the same time. Freaky, but kind of hot how in sync they were. I'd have been so happy to have either one of them next to me. The idea brought a black wave over my thoughts and soured my stomach briefly. I swallowed and took a slow breath to steady myself. I was going to have fun this weekend, damn it!
The guys settled in around the table and Gray set out some stuff for sandwiches. Chatter flowed freely and I started to relax, until Corby told Gray about how I've been stalking everyone, digitally speaking. That was okay, actually – I could put that persona on.
“Can you blame me?” I asked Gray. “Have you seen some of these guys?”
“I know they're there, but I'm pretty happy with who I have,” Gray said demurely. “Do you have anyone specific in mind?”
“It's hard to tell who's single, you know? People don't always list their relationship status,” I said, frowning lightly. “It'd make it easier.”
“We have operation bag-a-boyfriend going for Bell, here. Have any intel for us?” Declan asked.
Gray opened his eyes wide and let out a breath. “Um. I don't hang out with the guys all the time, but I can only think of two – no three – single guys in town. At least the last time I knew.”
“Who?” I asked, leaning forward.
He ticked them off on his fingers as he said their names. “Boomer Bennett, his ex, Phillip Ashmore, and Nik Buchanan. Oh, and the guy Nik was seeing, Nate Kennedy; not sure if he's seeing anyone yet.”
My eyes were wide. “That's an awfully good looking group of guys,” I said.
Gray smiled and shrugged. “I don't care. We have an invite tomorrow afternoon for a pool party over at the Kirkwoods'. Jamie tore his knee up a few weeks ago and I guess he's getting a little bit loopy being mostly trapped indoors. I'd probably feel the same way if I couldn't get out at all.”
“Unless you were here with a certain guy?” Declan said in a teasing tone.
“Well, duh,” Gray said and laughed. We mostly hung out for a good part of the day, then we headed out later toward the evening to a free outdoor musical – The Music Man. We picked up Gray's boyfriend on the way, and he was pretty excited about seeing the show. It was a little amusing to me because he didn't look like what I'd expect from a theater nerd. He was solid, toned and looked athletic. I guess lots of actors work out to look good on film, and I bet he would. Well, that ass for instance. Not to ignore the freaking eggplant up front.
We climbed out of the cars and retrieved a few blankets from the trunk to sit on.
“Hey,” Gray's boyfriend Logan said. Damn, he was good looking up close.
“Hey,” I replied.
“I'm told you have my medal?” he asked.
I raised an eyebrow as some of the guys started to laugh around me. “Medal?” I asked.
“Yeah. You get one for a prize winning ass, right?” he asked. I flushed and he laughed and threw an arm around my shoulders which felt better than it should have. “I'm teasing, Bell. After all the razzing these guys gave me on their last trip, I had to get you a little.”
“What are we missing out on?” Chris asked.
I decided to tell on myself, a little. “When Gray came to visit last year he didn't have a picture of Logan to show us, so he sent him a text asking for a selfie.”
Chris looked at Noel, who had a little smile on his face as he waited for me to tell the story. They both looked at me to drop the punchline.
“So Logan took a nice picture, shirtless for his boyfriend,” I said, letting a little playful hunger in my voice to let them know what they'd missed. “But the thing was, he must have just gotten out of the shower, because the mirror behind him showed off the aforementioned prize-winning ass.”
Chris and Noel started laughing and the group joined them, though lighter as they were already familiar with the story. I was a little surprised Logan grinned about it, but then he must be kind of confident with a body like that.
We found good spots on a gentle slope and spread out the blankets. I felt a little bit weird since everyone I was with had their boyfriend with them, but Corby pulled me down beside him and Declan. Logan gave everyone a run-down of the show we were about to see, including famous numbers, things to watch for that were funny and some of the history of the show. The premise sounded a little silly to me – a pool hall is talked about like it's the devil's playground or something.
The show started and I was kind of blown away. I'd never been to a live show like this, and the mix of the movement on stage, the music and the witty lyrics was pretty damn good. What really sold it, though, was the acting to set up each number. Stage acting was kind of weird as they seemed to toss subtlety out the window and over-emphasize their facial expressions and body language. I mentioned that to Logan during the intermission.
“If you think about it, in a movie they can zoom in and you won't miss an important facial expression or something like that. In the theater you have to make sure the audience sees what's going on, drawing attention to things in a way you wouldn't need to in a film – because you could just change cameras and force the audience to see what you want,” he explained, clearly pleased to talk about theater.
“This will sound kind of judgmental,” I said, “but you really don't look like a theater nerd. Not a high school one, anyway.”
“Not the first time I've heard that,” he said with a laugh. “I play a lot of sports, and trust me, I love sports. The theater is something different, though. I have to really jump through hoops when the school play is being put on, because I have a coach that wants me at practice and a director that wants me at rehearsal. Sometimes it's a little dicey trying to do everything I want to. My parents even had to get involved once when I had a coach that demanded I pick the team or the production.”
“What an asshole,” I commented.
“Eh, I understood. Everyone wants one hundred percent from their team, cast, group – whatever it is. I really didn't like the power play, though, trying to force me to do what he wanted.” He shrugged and grinned. “It worked out.”
“So, what do you know about single guys in this little town?” I asked him, since he wasn't there for the discussion earlier.
“Eh, not much,” he said. “I think Nate Kennedy started seeing someone. I saw him kissing some guy at the batting cages one afternoon when I went with Gray to take some practice swings and get ourselves a couple of meat twinkies from the concession.”
“Um, what?” I asked and giggles ran through the group.
“What? You guys never had a meat twinkie?” Logan asked with a grin.
“Maybe you should tell us what they are, first,” Chris said with a slightly suspicious tone and a wide smile.
“Corn dogs!” Logan said, holding his arms out. “What were you thinking, perv?”
“Nothing!” Chris said, laughing. “I don't have impure thoughts. Jesus loves me!” Chris dissolved in giggles.
“Jesus may love you, but the devil does that thing with his tongue,” Noel said quietly. There was a second where everyone was quiet, before Chris turned toward his boyfriend.
“I thought you didn't want everyone knowing you were the devil?” Chris asked, and we lost it. Noel was blushing and laughing, and it actually made me feel good. He sometimes looked like the world was on his shoulders, but now he just looked like a happy guy. The look fit him.
The intermission ended and the show resumed. I got right back into it and was a little amused to hear Logan singing the songs under his breath with the actors. As the show finished I found I was in love with the musical theater, something I'd never experienced before. I knew I wanted some part of it going forward. We all went back to Gray's house, and his mom was home. She was super nice and reminded me of Corby's mom. Instead of making me comfortable, it made me think again how my mom sucked. It was a constant, vicious circle. Everything came back to my own crappy life. Well, it was better now, but still. I'll bet none of these guys knows what it's like to not live at home anymore.
A few of the guys took showers, but I decided to wait until morning. There were a lot of us; you can't hit one water heater that hard. Logan had been dropped back at home, so once more only Gray didn't have his partner there besides me – except that I didn't have one, of course. We sat down and played a board game in the kitchen, which was actually really cool. If we'd have watched a movie or something, then the couples would have snuggled, and I'd have felt even more odd-man-out than I normally do. When we did go to bed, Gray had a full sized air mattress in his room for Noel and Chris, and I shared the pull out couch with Corby and Dec. Dec was teasing Corb and using me to help him out, and I relaxed. I had offered to sleep on the chair, just so it wouldn't be weird for them, but Dec told me he was completely used to sharing Corby with me, so it was all good. Ugh. Such a nice person.
As I drifted to sleep, I mentally sighed as I scratched Nate off the potentials list. If he was snogging some boy, he was likely taken. I know if that hottie was snogging me, I'd move heaven and earth to keep him.
I woke slowly, feeling an odd sensation, which turned out to be Declan sleeping on my chest. Corby was no-where to be seen, but rather than get up or wake Dec, I just closed my eyes and pretended he was someone else. I didn't touch him, but just enjoyed the sensation and the fantasy that I was feeling one of the Sanitaria possibilities sleeping on my chest.
It didn't last, of course. Corb came back down and teased Declan awake, asking if he was going to start dating me, now. Hah! As if! At any rate, I got up and headed up to shower. It was then I realized that the socks and underwear I'd planned to pack after the movie we'd watched the night before leaving hadn't ever gotten packed. Shit! I'd done the commando thing a few times due to necessity, but I hated it. This wasn't necessity; it was stupidity. What made the situation ten times worse was the anxiety that slammed into me full force. I was in a stranger's home, about to take a shower and I had no socks or underwear. The feeling was crippling.
“Can I pee before you get in the shower?” Noel asked. I turned and my mouth flopped a few times. His brow drew down in concern. “What's wrong, Bell?” he asked, placing a hand on my shoulder.
Like a switch, the touch made me slide into a persona – what people expected of me, I guess. “Nothing! Why do you ask?” I asked, smiling.
He adjusted his body, squaring up to me. “Because I've seen that same expression in my mirror too many times. If you don't want to say, I won't force you,” he said, backing off a step. “I'm going to the bathroom. But I'll be right back, if you want.”
Fuck. So he's beautiful, and a completely decent person. That likely meant Chris was, too. People like Noel don't stick with people who aren't the same way, unless they get stuck in a bad situation, and Noel had been there, done that. Not that any of that mattered right now. What mattered right now was that Noel was going to pee, wash his hands and step back out of the bathroom and give me a look. Pity, because I couldn't admit I screwed up? Expectant, that I'd have decided to spill my guts to a relative stranger? I mean I knew Noel, but I didn't know him. Group hang outs. Never one on one. I heard the sink being shut off, and moments later Noel popped out and I looked for his expression. He smiled.
“Thanks. I had to go bad enough, I might have just opened the door on you.”
“Wouldn't be the worst thing,” I said, then biting my lip. God. Awkward!
He blushed slightly. “I don't know about that. I'm going downstairs.” He paused, clearly giving me an out. If I didn't say anything, would he tell someone? Fuck, then Corby would feel like he had to rescue me. “Okay then,” he said, breaking my fevered thoughts.
“I, um, forgot to pack socks and underwear.”
“Oh,” he said, his voice soft. Why did he sound understanding? I was just being stupid.
“Please don't tell Corby,” I said, smiling and trying to throw a chuckle in there. “He'd go all out of his way to get me to Target or something.”
Noel nodded gently. Fuck, he was so nice! “Well, you could do what I'm doing,” he said.
My eyes went wide. “Dude. I've been single a long time. Please do not tell me you're commando right now.” I paused and groaned at his amused expression. “Fuck. Inside voice, Bellamy!”
He chuckled. “Relax. I meant we're going swimming, so I just put on a bathing suit. Little net is sort of like undies, I guess, if that makes you feel any better.”
I felt so stupid that I actually slapped my forehead. “Oh my God! Swim trunks! Stupid...ugh.”
One side of his mouth pulled up in amusement. “See you downstairs.” He headed down and I followed, just to grab my trunks from my bag. My face was red, but I didn't hear the room chuckling as if Noel was telling them, so there was that. I rifled through my bag and pulled out my trunks, very colorful and they made me smile. After showering I headed back down and put my sneakers on sans socks, which wasn't so bad. It would only be for a while, anyway.
We headed over to the pool party. I felt a little self-conscious – I'd been staring at the guys we were likely to see like a fan swooning over pin-ups. I almost felt like 'I perved you' would flash in neon over my head. It was sort of like hitting Pinterest and looking up cute guys. There were pages and pages of them, something for every physical attraction – and if you clicked on one? Pages and pages more. I'd gone from account to account with these guys, and felt like I knew them the way you 'know' a celebrity.
“So, Bell,” Corby said in a teasing tone of voice, so I was immediately ready for him. “Should we try to wingman for you, or just let you pillage?”
“Hmm. I'm afraid if you guys hang with me, they'll think I want a foursome. I just can't think that way, Corb. Can't do it.”
“What?” Declan asked, turning around in his seat to face me. “Why would they jump to the conclusion of a four-way?”
I blinked at him. “You two are obviously a couple. You'd be hanging around me while I'm looking to score some dick. What else would they think?”
“Did you...seriously just say you'd be trying to score some dick?” Declan asked and then burst out laughing. “I love that! Corby,” he said, turning his tone sultry, “when we get back home, I'll be looking to score some dick!”
“Bell, why is it you always land me in trouble?” Corby asked with a laugh.
Declan looked back at me with a bored expression. “He thinks I'm demanding.”
I held a hand up. “Seriously? Can't listen to sex stories about you guys. Picturing Corb with his clothes off is sort of like that strange porn where they pixelate the privates, you know? I just can't go there.”
Declan burst out in giggles and I saw Corb shaking his head. It's true, though. I don't think I've ever perved on Corby. He's always been a brother to me in every sense of the word. Declan turned around and we pulled up in front of a large home with trimmed shrubs and a manicured lawn. I felt a little more conspicuous in my ensemble. I didn't know we were mixing with rich gays today.
We climbed out and behind us Noel and Chris climbed from Noel's car, with Gray and Logan exiting the back seat. We could hear the sounds of water splashing, so we headed around the side of the house. The pool was in-ground and pretty good sized. I could smell something good on the grill, but all of that input ground to a halt as I saw the first one of my stalking victims lift a boy up in his arms and drop the screaming guy in the pool.
Maybe Sterling was closer to beefcake than I'd thought.
We climbed up on the deck and Gray made some introductions. I nodded and smiled, all the while wondering how I'd ever fit in with these people. I sort of didn't want to take off my shirt. Why had I even come? Just to stare at guys I couldn't ever hope to have a chance with?
“Come on, Bell,” Corby said as he pulled his shirt off. And he thinks I get him in trouble.
“There's sun screen in the bucket,” said a handsome guy with black hair and deep, ocean blue eyes. “Use what you need.” He pulled his top off to reveal a set of abs that weren't fair for any one person to have. I mean, Jesus!
“Thanks, uh...sorry, didn't get your name,” I managed.
“Robin,” he said with a smile. “That's my boyfriend, Lucien,” he said, pointing at another boy.
“Cool,” I said with a bob of my head. Lucien was eating a burger, and chose that moment to look over at us. He had ketchup on the end of his nose.
Robin let out a deep sigh. “Yeah. Cool is one word for it,” he said, then headed over to Lucien. Well, boyfriend goals, I guess.
At first the amount of hot guy skin on offer was so overwhelming that I think my boner was getting tired. Eventually, though, I think I got desensitized. I know it's sometimes more interesting to see a guy in form fitting underwear than to see him naked. Naked has no mystery. It's still sexy as all hell, but no mystery. Underwear that fit well were a mysterious tease. I started to wonder what some of these guys would look like in a tight tank top.
Time was passing and I needed to make a move. I spotted Nik sitting down on his towel with some guy that was kind of cute, if you ask me. I headed up to the grill and got a cheeseburger off the platter and wandered over by them. They were speaking a foreign language and it was kind of darling. They were a little animated, obviously teasing, and I backed off because I felt like I'd be intruding. I'd circle back around later.
I turned, catching my balance just as a big hand grabbed my upper arm to steady me. Sterling. Up close, wet, and smiling in apology.
“All good,” I said. Maybe squeaked, but no one needs to know.
Wiping wet hair off his forehead, he grinned. “You're one of the guys over from Binghamton?” he asked, his southern drawl making my cockles stir.
“I am. Were you expecting us?” I asked, desperate to keep this going.
“Chris told me you guys were coming. Jamie was all 'bring more people over, I'm starved for attention!” he said in a falsetto, raising his voice.
“I did not, you big nerd!” Jamie called out.
“Oh. Um. Jamie's the one who got hurt, right?”
Sterling looked back at me. “Yeah. I'm kind of taking care of him right now. The pool is great for him, to strengthen the knee up and keep his body weight off it. Hey, nice to meet you; Gotta make sure he doesn't tweak the knee, okay?” He smiled and waved a hand to me, and jumped in after Jamie. He grabbed Jamie up from behind, and Jamie spluttered like a wet hen. Sterling just paddled around backward, dragging a protesting Jamie. It was kind of possessive if you ask me.
Oh. Maybe Sterling wasn't available anymore? Well, shit.
I noted Nik's buddy was gone so I wandered over and sat down. “Hi, I'm Bell.”
He smiled, eyes sparkling. “I am Nikolai. Please call me Nik.”
“Nik it is,” I said, feeling good about his response. “Where is your friend?”
“Friend?” he asked.
“You were talking to him in another language, I didn't want to interrupt before.”
His face lit up like his birthday and Christmas just got rolled into one. “Is my friend Matei, from Romania. We are both from Romania and he is come stay for the summer. “
I let out a low whistle. “Romania, eh? I would have to look hard to find that on a map.”
“Many Americans cannot find states on a map, so do not be worried about countries,” he said and then laughed. I liked his laugh. I also liked that Matei was his friend and not his boyfriend.
“Well, I'll make it a point to find out where Romania is, just because of that,” I said. I'd almost said 'just because of you', but that would have been creepy. “Do you live here in Sanitaria Springs now?”
“Yes. Papas adopt me. They adopt my brother, Sasha, many years before and did not know about me.”
“Wow!” I said, impressed. “When they found out, they adopted you, too?”
“Yes,” he said with assurance. “Papas are very giving people. Good people.”
“That's amazing,” I said. “Um, so your friend Mat, he's only here for the summer?”
Nik grinned at me. “Not if I can make him to behave! Then papas will let him stay here. I will help him to learn so he can live in the United States.”
“Big responsibility,” I said, a little awestruck.
“Best friend,” he said to me sincerely. “You have best friend? Person that you will do anything for?”
I nodded. “My friend Corby.” I turned and scanned the gathered people. “He's over there, with that cute little guy.”
“He is handsome,” Nik said politely. “Matei and Nik spend much time in orphanage together. We are bonded tightly, yes? You understand?”
I smiled at him. “Yeah, I think so.” I noted his eyes moving, tracking something – or more likely, someone. I turned and saw a few new people joining the group. One of them was Nate, and I swear if I had the ability to have children, I'd have popped one out spontaneously just looking at him. His skin was a golden honey color, tanned to perfection. His arms were on full display in a tank top, and they looked like the exact thing you'd want wrapped around you on a cold night. Warm night. Hell, light, dark, day or night – the arms. Man, the arms.
“Wow,” I said.
Nik grunted. “Nathan is most beautiful boy I have ever seen. Was sort-of boyfriend for a little bit.”
I felt lecherous immediately. Poor Nik. Here I was ogling someone who probably hurt him to think about. Damn hormones.
I glanced at him and he looked down for a moment and let out a breath. He rolled his head on his shoulders as if working out a kink and then noticed me looking at him. His cheeks colored.
I blinked and then smiled. “Nothing. I was just wondering who the guys are with Nate.” I lied to him is what I did. I knew those two fun-sized hotties were Devyn and Griffin. Even their names were cute.
“The blond one is Devyn,” Nik told me. “Is cousin to Nathan. Other is Griffin, boyfriend to Devyn.”
Desperate to not talk about Nate with Nik any longer I asked, “So you aren't dating anyone?” Nice. Nice frontal attack. No subtlety. No class. Smooth, Bell. Smooth.
“Not for now,” Nik said. He smiled and continued, “Was very hurt after Nathan. We are friends, now. I am thinking is time for me to stop worrying about being the horny, and worry about making sure Matei does not fuck up. You understand?”
I laughed and he grinned at me. Matei happened to join us, and asked a question in Romanian. Nik replied, sounding so exotic, and then he looked at me. “Matei isn't very good with his English. He ask what we laugh so hard about.”
“You should tell him because it's funny how many guys want his number,” I said, smirking. Matei was pretty nice looking, up close. His face reminded me a little of Nate, actually, which only made him more appealing.
Nik spoke quickly in Romanian, giggling and Mat shoved him, laughing back.
“I am man for woman!” Mat said to me, laughing and gesturing as if he were a muscle man as Nik said something else in Romanian. They were really cute around each other. They'd probably make an adorable couple, but I think they were more like Corby and I – brothers. My thoughts were interrupted by a svelte girl with midnight black hair, long and trailing down her back.
“Mat? You want some food?” she asked.
Mat grinned, but blushed all at once and stood. “Food with you, Averi?” he asked, his accent making her name sound otherworldly.
“Come on, you big flirt,” she said and took his hand. “Do you want something, Nik?”
“No, thank you. I will swim,” he said. I joined him for a while, but we got separated and the conversation was kind of over anyway. As I thought about that, I realized that Nik was still getting over his feelings for Nate, so I would have no chance. I don't really have a chance with any of them, but it still brought a little pang to have it sort of in my face. I glanced at Nate, wet and glistening and I knew I couldn't hold a candle to that godling of a guy.
“Hi. Nate, right?” I asked, being bold. He ran a hand over his face to sheet the water away from his eyes and smiled.
“Yeah. Do I know you?”
“Bell,” I said with a grin. “I'm here with the crew from Binghamton.”
His eyes lit with recognition. “Right! Gray's cousin was coming with some friends. Cool.”
“I saw your workout video,” I said. “Do you train like that year round?”
He blushed, and my God! My imaginary ovaries were dumping eggs into – yeah, too far. Eww.
“I do. I play baseball. I mean, I like other sports, but my real passion is baseball. My friend Dylan recorded that, just being a weirdo,” he said with a little chuckle. “Um. Got me a boyfriend, though, so I can't really rag on him.”
Just like that all my little imaginary babies with Nate were aborted. “Oh yeah? From a video?” I asked, trying to recover. God damn it, he blushed some more.
“Yeah. Dylan was trying to hard sell him on me, I guess.”
Before I could stop myself I said, “Why would anyone have to hard sell you?”
His lips twisted in an embarrassed smile. “I'd just gotten out of a relationship, sort of. It was messy for a bit. I wasn't sure what I wanted. I'm bi, see, and it's kind of a headache sometimes. People judge pretty fast, say I'm just gay and get it over with or that I'm a slut, so....”
There was obvious hurt in his voice, and it brought me down to earth with a blindingly obvious realization that made me feel dumber than whale shit. Nate was a person, with feelings. All the pictures were of guys with emotions, dreams, and I was just thinking about getting off with them. Well, more than that, but Nate twisted my libido into knots. His feelings had gotten smashed around, just like sweet Nik, and here I was, a horny hormone trying to get off all over them. I felt like shit.
“That's messed up,” I said to him. “Is your boyfriend coming today? Be cool to make another friend.”
He smiled. “Yeah. He had to work this morning, and we're going to hear him play tonight. He's in a band. Maybe you guys would want to come?”
“Sure! I mean, I have to ask since I'm not driving, but yeah.”
“Awesome. They're really good, and they draw a decent crowd, but it's always good to get more people. We get a little group in there, cheer them on.”
We drifted away from each other, splashing going on in some parts of the pool and other parts kind of calm, with people just floating and talking. I shifted over to Corb and Dec, who were talking to Dev and Griffin.
“Hey,” I said in greeting.
“This is the guy,” Declan said.
“Huh?” I replied.
“Oh, cool,” Griff said. “Operation bag-a-boyfriend, huh?”
“Christ, Dec!” I groaned as they chuckled. “I'm looking to connect, but not like, hook up, you know?”
Griffin looked at Dev and shook his head. “Oh well. We'll keep looking.”
“What, what now?” I asked and they all laughed at me again. I hate couples.
“Corby told us you'd been disappointed to miss out on the trip over the winter,” Griffin said, glancing at his boyfriend for whom he was interpreting his hand signals. “I know what it's like looking at all the damn couples and trying to find one decent guy.”
I raised an eyebrow, skeptical. “You do?”
“Hard to believe, right?” Griffin said, not looking at Devyn. “I came along at just the right time to snag him up before anyone else could.”
Devyn jumped on Griffin's back and seemed determined to drown him. It was funny as hell, to be honest. It didn't last long before Devyn was signing again.
“What kind of guy are you into?” Griffin asked.
“I think all he really requires is an attached dick,” Dec teased. I splashed him.
“He's been looking at all the photo accounts,” Corby said. “At least when he can get his phone away from my mother. She pervs more than he does.”
Griffin fixed me with a serious look. “That's a whole lot of nice looking guys to look at. Setting that aside, what's important to you?”
Well, hell. I guess that's a good question. “Um. Funny, I guess. I'd just like to be able to get along. Relate maybe.”
“What do you like to do?”
“He hits up this clown porn site,” Corby said with a snicker and Griffin splashed him furiously.
“I hate clowns!” Griffin said emphatically, so much so that we all started laughing. Griffin frowned and looked around. “Be right back.”
He swam to the side of the pool and hopped out. Devyn got my attention and mouthed what looked like 'who?' as he moved his hand around, finger pointing to the guys all around us.
“Who did I...like?” I ventured.
He nodded, smiled like an angel. What a devil.
“Um, not sure there was anyone not worth looking at,” I said, blushing. He lifted an arm and flexed, giving me a sultry look for a half a second. We laughed at him and he grinned.
“You and your boyfriend make a pretty cute couple,” I said, admitting candidly what everyone should know already. He smiled widely at me and made a hand motion.
Griffin popped back into the water and shook his hair free of water. “What are you thanking him for?” he asked his boyfriend. Devyn signed to him and Griffin laughed before looking at me. “Well, thanks. Considering Nate perved on us, I'm inclined to agree.”
“I'll never live that down, will I?” Nate asked as he drifted into our group.
“Is Elliot coming?” Griff asked, sidestepping the question, but all I could think about was what Nate had seen while 'perving'. Shit, had he seen them having sex? My train of thought jumped the track before an imaginary porno could roll in my head.
“Yeah, should be here any minute,” he said. “You guys coming tonight?”
Devyn gave him a thumbs up. I looked over at Corby. “Nate's boyfriend is going to be playing in a band tonight and he invited us. Do you think we can swing it?”
Corby shrugged. “I'm down. Babe?”
“Sounds like fun,” Declan said, leaning back into Corby, who wrapped him in his arms. Lucky shits.
“Sweet,” Nate said. “Oh, there he is.”
A tall boy, not quite slender, was peeling off his shirt and leaving his brown hair standing up. He jumped in and swam over to Nate, who grabbed a-hold of him and drew him close. Yeah, lot of love in that look. It was almost shiny, a new love right off the showroom floor. I've seen that aimed at a lot of people.
“I'm going to get a hot dog,” I said and swam over to the side and wandered to the grill. Robin was placing some newly cooked stuff on a platter and he gestured at me to grab a plate.
“Do you just stand here cooking?” I asked him.
“I just make up a batch here and there. People get hungry on and off, you know?” he replied. “Are you having a good time?”
“Yeah, this is really cool. Thanks for letting us join in,” I said, feeling grateful.
“Anytime,” he said. Arms appeared from behind him, wrapping around his waist and he turned to show Lucien leaning his cheek against Robin's shoulder. “Hey, you,” Robin said affectionately.
“Hi,” Lucien said. His gaze shifted to me. “Hi. I'm Lucien.”
“Bell,” I said with a nod. “Your boyfriend is a good cook.”
“That's not all he's good at,” Lucien said devilishly.
I put my hands up while Robin laughed and looked over his shoulder at his boyfriend. They seemed to slip into their own little world, so I scooped up a burger to go with my hot dog and turned to go sit down. Nik and Mat were sitting together again, but Averi had joined them, and I wasn't sure if I should head over.
“Bell! Hold on!”
I turned to see Griff climbing out of the pool, Devyn swimming after him. Griffin ran over, dripping like mad. “Mind carrying a few burgers for us? We're all wet. We're going to sit with our friend, he just got here.”
“Cool,” he said with a grin. He grabbed a paper plate and threw a mess of burgers and hot dogs on it, then handed it to me. He dashed off, Devyn behind him and I wondered just what the sweet hell was going on. I followed them over to the other side of the pool where I saw the friend they must have been referring to just stepping onto the pool deck. I'm pretty sure it was Philip – and damn. That was one square chin. It looked strong, determined.
“Philip!” Griffin said.
“Hey,” Philip lifted his hand in greeting, but Griff bypassed that and hugged him. “You're all wet!” Philip cried out, trying to turn out of Griffin's grip. Griff let go, but Devyn hugged right afterward and Philip just dropped his arms to his sides in surrender. “My shirt is soaked,” he growled.
“If it helps, we brought you a burger,” Griff said, not sounding sorry at all.
“Hey,” I said, proffering the plate of food. “I'm Bell.”
“Phil,” he said with a nod and took a burger. I was hoping he'd take the plate. Dev and Griff grabbed food from the plate and we sat down together.
“Just so you know, I don't care that you're not wearing a bathing suit. I'm throwing you in,” Griff said to Phil in a conversational tone.
“I said I'd stop,” Phil protested. “Besides, I smell like fish.”
I waited a moment, but had to ask. “Why...do you smell like fish?”
He turned his gaze to me. “I finally got a job. Local fish fry place.”
“The food is awesome, even if it makes him smell like my sister,” Griffin said with a grin. “And to be clear, she's a twat so I'm not really making a vagina joke; it's more of a knock on my sister.”
“Uh. Oh. Okay,” I said, a little confused.
“Chicken fights. Come on, Dev,” Griffin said, popping up. I watched them run and jump into the pool, then Griff scrambled onto Devyn's shoulders and they headed over to similar pairs and started playing, trying to knock each other over.
“Ever since he graduated you'd think he's on drugs,” Phil snorted. I glanced at him in question and he pointed toward the pool. “Griff. He's totally energized, but in a way that makes you think he needs Ritalin.”
I snorted out a laugh and he smiled at me. “They seem pretty cool. They were excited to see you,” I offered.
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah. I didn't want to come because my ex is here, but it's hard being in the family and avoiding each other. Kind of forces me to get over it.”
He took a bite of his burger, swallowed and sighed. “I love Robin's burgers. I don't know why, but they taste so freaking good.”
“Right? Lucien's one lucky bastard,” I said.
“You don't know the half of it.” He glanced at me. “It's so disgusting, except it's everything I ever wanted.”
I quirked an eyebrow at him. “Do tell.”
He shrugged and his cheeks went red. “Robin's hot and all, but they don't even look at other guys. Like, they seem perfect. I know they've had trouble – like, personal trouble – but they always come out the other side together, in one piece. It's...cosmic. Literally handmade for each other.”
I tilted my head and looked back over the groups of guys, spotting Robin and Lucien together with a few other people. Robin was behind Lucien this time, his arms draped over the smaller guy's shoulders and his hands were one over the other in the middle of Lucien's chest. It was possessive and loving all in one.
“Yeah, they look good together,” I said, perhaps a bit morosely.
“Relationship goals. Totally,” Phil said sagely. “That's my ex, by the way. I know I didn't answer before. Lots of the guys call him Boomer, but his name is Sterling.”
I turned back to Phil. “You guys dated?”
He frowned. “You don't have to look so surprised.”
“I'm not, not really. I'm just wondering...why would you guys ever break up?” In truth I thought they were very different in appearance – Sterling being an obvious jock-type and Philip very much not. They seemed like they would make a nice couple, physically.
Phil sighed. “Doesn't matter. Apparently it's because I'm an asshole that expects too much.”
I looked at him in confusion. “How's that?”
He shook his head. “I'm just...fucked up I guess.”
“Ah. I bet I'm more fucked up than you,” I said triumphantly. A little smile curved his lips.
“Is that a challenge?”
“Ultimate loser,” I said. “We can sell tickets.”
He snorted and then laughed lightly. “It's just...I want what Robin and Lu have. No looking at other guys.” He looked at me. “The whole family says I have a right to try for what I want in a relationship, to set the expectations. But they also tell me I'm unreasonable, essentially, and they wish me good luck.”
I frowned. “When you say looking...?”
“Like, if I'm out with a guy, I don't want him to be looking at other guys. I want him to be with me, you know?”
“Oh. Yeah. Rude,” I said in agreement. “I mean. Guys that were hot before you dated will still be hot, but I can see not staring or something while you're out with your boyfriend.”
“That's the thing,” Phil said. “I don't think it's asking too much that they be in love enough to not look at other guys. I mean, if you're satisfied, why would you notice?”
I tilted my head side to side. “Maybe. Everyone's wired differently. I think everyone has the potential to think a guy in line somewhere has a nice ass, but forget about it two minutes later because it doesn't really matter. You know?”
“Sort of, I guess,” he said with a sigh. “Your turn. How are you more fucked up than wanting something from a relationship you can't have?”
I grinned. “I have you beat cold. I date fuck-ups.”
He chuckled. “What?”
“Yep. Closet cases, experimenters, the ones that are only gay when they're drunk or stoned – I get all that action.”
He looked at me. I started to laugh, and he joined me. “That is pretty messed up. Why don't you go for a regular gay?”
“Oh, well, get this, right?” I said, warming to the subject. “My best friend Corby – Corbin Daniels? He's cousins with Grayson. You know him?”
“I know Gray,” he said. I looked over, spotted Corby and called out to him. He looked over at me and I waved. He waved back and I turned away.
“That's Corb. Best. Friend. Ever. Also, up until about eight months ago, straight.”
“Ugh. You were in love with your straight bestie?” Phil asked, looking sorrowful.
“Nah. Corb's great at cuddling, but he's so much like a brother, I can't even perv on him.”
Phil raised an eyebrow and then glanced back over at Corby.
“I know. I'm cool if you perv on him. I just can't do it.” I laughed and Phil chuckled at me. “So through this weird set of events, he falls off the pussy cart-”
“The what?” Phil asked, laughing loudly.
I grinned widely. “The pussy cart. You know, one day he's all about getting some poon tang, next day he's got Declan in his bed. I mean, talk about your lucky bastards!”
“Which one's Declan?” Phil asked. I turned and hollered at Declan, who turned toward me. As with Corb I waved and he waved back, and I turned away from him. “Nice,” Phil said.
“I know, right? I didn't know anything about Declan being out. Then, all of a sudden, he makes friends with Noel and Chris.”
“Those the guys beside Corb and Dec?” he asked. I turned to confirm and then back to him.
“Yes. They are so fucking sweet together it makes me sick and horny,” I said, laughing at my stupid statement. Phil belly laughed and wiped at his eyes. “So yeah, not only do I get the oddballs, I get my best friend-”
“Who fell off the pussy cart.”
“Exactly,” I said, with us laughing again. “Plus he finds these two other out guys as friends and I'm like 'I just want a boyfriend, damn it!'”
He shook his head, chuckling to himself. “Well, pretty fucked up. I'll give you that.”
“Oh, I've got more. Trust me, my life is a hot mess.”
What happened next was nothing short of kizmet. We talked parents, both philosophically and grading them on how messed up they were. He told me about his brother, and how he'd tried to step up after their father had finally gone too far. We went into what should have been embarrassing details, but I actually forgot about how bad I was supposed to feel and just got into trying to 'out fucked up' him. The conversation ended when Griff and Devyn returned, wrestled Phil to get his phone and wallet out of his pockets, then dumped him in the pool.
“Argh!” he hollered as he surfaced. “Midgets!”
Dev and Griff swamped him, then seemed to notice me.
“You know, I'll just get in the pool,” I said and jumped in next to them. Phil peeled his shirt off and threw it out of the pool, and then there was wrestling, teasing, and chicken fights. Phil and I took turns as a team, and the winning strategy against some folks was just to fall into them. The afternoon seemed to stretch and I forgot about being down, about how crappy things had gotten. I was in a bubble where everyone around me accepted my right to be there. I was welcome.
What put the bow on that was how broken I felt, and how broken Phil felt. As I spent more time with him I began to wonder – maybe I wasn't looking for the physical attraction of a Nate or Sterling. Maybe it wasn't the cuteness of a Devyn or Griffin, or even the perfection of a Robin and Lu. Maybe...I needed to look down deeper. Maybe my broken parts could fit the right way with someone else's broken parts. In fact, maybe neither Phil nor I was broken. Maybe we were just...incomplete. If I looked at it that way, maybe....
“Ah! Okay, you! I really have to get home, now. I have a show to do!” I turned to see the tall brown-haired boy laughing and seemingly trying to escape Nate's clutches. Nate was sort of carrying Elliot to the side of the pool, but he was also holding Elliot which was kind of sweet and kind of jealous inducing.
I looked at my other broken piece, Phil, and asked, “Are you going to hear Elliot's band play?”
His answer was covered by Griff tackling him in the water and dragging him under. Griff surfaced and said, “We're all going.”
Phil flopped around, kind of in a funny way and I grabbed his arm to stabilize him. He bobbed for a second and wiped his face before looking at me and smiling. “I'm in my work clothes, my shoes are wet.”
“Pft! I'll run you home to change. Come on, slacker!” Griff said, splashing Phil in the face.
Surreptitiously, I splashed Griff back. Suddenly it was Dev and Griff versus Phil and I. Griff finally hollered that he had to get moving to get Phil ready in time.
Phil glanced at me. “Um. Is everyone dressing up?”
I cocked my head at him. “I hope not. I forgot to pack fresh underwear and socks, so I'm going in my bathing suit.”
Phil blinked at me a few times and then brayed laughter. I giggled and shoved him, and he shoved me back. He tackled me and I fought with him, both of us slipping against each other's slick skin. Eventually, though, we stopped. Griff floated a little closer.
“Phil. You guys look about the same build. I mean, if you want to dress Bell up a little. Just saying,” he said. Phil splashed his face idly and Griff choked, having swallowed some of the pool water.
“Huh,” he said quietly. “You have freckles across your nose.”
I rubbed at the freckles self-consciously.
“Want to borrow some dry clothes?” he asked.
It seemed like an important question. I mean, you don't loan strangers your clothes. I wanted to say yes, but was that the right answer? Screw it.
“Yeah, that'd be great,” I said, wiping my wet hair back.
“Come on,” he said and I followed him out of the pool. Dev and Griff were toweling off, and I went to find Corby to let him know what was up. I ended up with Corby, Declan, Noel and Chris surrounding me.
“Wasn't Phil on your list?” Corby asked.
“What's he like?” Noel asked.
“Is he boyfriend material? Should I talk to him?” Declan asked.
“I think you can take him, if it comes to that,” Chris teased.
“Guys. Guys! Relax.” Sure, I say that, but I'm grinning ear to ear.
Corby put his hands on my shoulders. “You can do this.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh my God, Corb! Cut it out!”
“Seriously. We can be your wingmen,” Declan said.
“He might be concerned with four guys standing around while I awkwardly flirt,” I joked.
“Flirt? So is he cool? Make sure you actually like the guy, Bell. Seriously,” Noel said in a tone that stopped my fluttering nerves cold. I glanced at him and his face was set in worry. Fuck. He really did care about me. I mean, he saw me as having value enough to worry about. Like Corby did. Ah, shit. Don't want to get weepy!
“He seems legitimately cool,” I said to Noel. He nodded and smiled tentatively. Such a sweet guy. I'm weird enough as it is, no need to make a scene. “Okay, I'm off! See you wherever we're going!” I grabbed my shirt and shoes and followed Phil to Griffin's car.
Phil and I sat in back while Griffin drove us. Griffin rested his hand on the shifter and Devyn rested his hand on top of Griffin's.
“I hate you two, by the way,” Phil said conversationally. I saw Griffin look in the rear view mirror at Phil, who added, “Damp underwear sucks. Big time.”
“I told you to take a suit to work,” Griff said, and you could hear the finger-wagging in his voice.
“And I told you I didn't really want to go,” Phil countered. He glanced at me and sighed. “They're trying to make me be more sociable.”
“Whiner!” Griff said, laughing. “You've shoved your head in the sand long enough.”
“Okay, mom!” Phil replied, snickering.
We pulled up to an odd-looking home. It looked as though the second floor may have had a balcony running the length of the home, but it had been enclosed and now hung awkwardly over the front door. Griffin said they were going to run and change and would pick us up in thirty or forty minutes.
I followed Phil into his house. He dropped his wet shoes on a mat by the front door, and told me I could leave my shoes there as well. I followed him through the tidy home and up the stairs.
“I might need a shower,” he said. “I usually do after work.”
“Okay,” I said as I followed him into his room. It was a little on the small side, like the room I'd had in the trailer with my parents. The room I had now wasn't huge, but the home it was in made a big difference. “Nice computer.”
He glanced at it and let out a sigh. “I win,” he said.
“Win? Oh, are we back to the screwed up game? I think I'm ahead on points,” I said to him playfully and sat on his bed. He pulled a few things out, cargo shorts I think and maybe a fresh shirt. I only saw tiny swatches of cloth as he had the items in front of him and his back was turned to me.
He turned to look at me, and tilted his head. “My mom lost her job a few months ago. Things got tight. My dad wasn't helping, or wasn't helping any more than he ever had. I got...stupid about wanting stuff. It kind of sucks having friends like Griff sometimes. His family isn't rich, but they're pretty comfortable. I'd like to have a car. Lots of the guys just...get them handed to them.”
I nodded in understanding. “I hear you. I couldn't even get a job. Walking home would put me in after midnight and I almost got turned into roadkill a few times. A car is on my wish list, too.”
He cleared his throat. “Okay, but the fucked up thing is...I was all emotionally stupid and I decided to set up a webcam to make some money.”
I stared at him, waiting for a punchline. When I realized there wasn't one, I was desperate to break the tension. “Um, can I watch? I get paid on Fridays,” I said, trailing off and hoping he found me funny.
He smiled weakly. “One of my friends – family, even though we aren't the closest – he gave me a lot of shit for it. I got mad, at first. Then it got me to thinking. It was illegal, of course, but I could have gotten my brother in a world of hurt.”
“He opened a bank account for me in case I actually did get a job. I was using that to prove I was old enough to cam.”
I frowned lightly. “That sucks, but now I'm curious. What was it like to cam?”
He shuffled his feet and shrugged. Lifting his gaze to mine he said, “At first it was just what I thought I wanted. Guys telling me how cute I was. Tipping me cash for little things. Didn't take long before they wanted more, and it kind of felt okay because...well, they weren't here, you know? It kind of felt like it wasn't real, in a way.” He blew out a breath. “Some guys were real assholes. I got a little freaked out. Then Derek had his say and I ended up dropping the whole cam thing, and actually found a job at the fish fry place.”
I nodded. “I'm not giving you full fucked up points for that because I'd have done it, too, but I lack a computer and camera.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Nothing really fazes you, does it?”
“Please,” I said with a chuckle. “You won't be the last guy to get naked for some sheckles. Speaking of, what do I have in my wallet?” I asked, playfully reaching for my back pocket. He blushed hard, but smiled.
“I should shower. Do, um, I smell like fried fish?”
I stood and leaned close to him, and mixed under the light chlorine smell was definitely a smell of fried fish. But besides that, being so close, the eyes, man, the eyes. So deep. I shook myself mentally before I zoned out over his eyes too much.
“Yeah. You smell like you screwed Griffin's sister.”
He rolled his eyes and smiled. “She's a bitch. There's socks and underwear in the top drawer. Use what you want.”
“Oh, shit! I didn't bring a change of clothes!” I groaned. All I had was my swim suit and ratty tee. Okay, not ratty, but I'd been wearing it off and on all day.
He eyed me for a moment. “Well, like Griff said, we're close in build. Pick something out.”
I let my eyes go wide. “I can go through your drawers? What if I find your sex toys?”
He chuckled. “Then be naked and ready to go,” he said with a snort and left the room.
“Good answer,” I said under my breath. I had no intention of following through, but I was enjoying the chemistry – and I'm sure there was chemistry. We were both screwed up, but I was really starting to feel like there could be something between us – something not built on lusting after pictures on my phone, though I was open to that. Phil was good looking, though – hot, but not in the same way as Sterling or Nate. Maybe the important thing here is that he's my kind of hot.
I heard the shower kick on and I flipped through his things, pulling out a few items – jeans, a faded tee and underclothes. It felt weird for a minute to wear underclothes that weren't mine, but I kind of forgot about it pretty fast. The jeans were the tiniest bit loose, but the shirt hung on me nicely. I looked over at his pillow and immediately gave in, leaning over to smell. It was an odd smell, but a good one. Soap, a little musk maybe from his skin, a little fried fish.
A few minutes later he walked back in with his shorts on, toweling his hair dry. His chest was more developed than mine, but having said that, he was clearly a runner-type build, not a weightlifter. Really big nipples. Truly memorable. Definitely my kind of hot.
“Stuff fit okay?” he asked as he hung his towel and slipped his shirt on.
“Yeah. I'll wash them and get them back to you,” I said.
“Cool,” he replied and combed his hair. I stood, not entirely sure why, and he pulled socks from his drawer and turned around, a foot or two away from me. We looked at each other and there was a fucking moment going on, I know it! I've seen them on TV, I've read about them – hell I've seen pictures on my phone, and this was one. My pulse sped up, I felt like I was sweating, and my mouth was a little dry. What do I do?
“So,” he said quietly, cautiously. “You don't seem to mind me being so screwed up.”
I shook my head gently. “I don't. I actually like it.”
He frowned. “You do? Why?”
“Since we're basically being brutally honest with each other about our shortcomings,” I said, dragging the words out a bit. “I like that you admit you're imperfect, because I am, too. I don't think I can keep up with someone who thinks or knows they are better than I am. I don't know if you think you're better, but you don't come off like that to me.”
“I don't,” he said with a shake of his head. “But why does that matter? It doesn't sound right.”
I sighed. “I've been having this weird feeling. Between us. Like...the parts of us that are strange or broken to other people...maybe they would make it easier for us to fit together.”
He wet his lips. “Shouldn't you want someone better, though?”
I looked him straight in the eye. I mean, I bored into his skull with my gaze. “I want someone that likes me for me. Broken bits included. Seems kind of impossible, but maybe the idea isn't to find the perfect person, but someone who's perfect for me.”
His eyes narrowed the tiniest bit, then relaxed. He took a step toward me and looked at my face. “I like your little freckles. They're actually on your cheeks, too. Really light.”
“I like your chin,” I said, feeling silly. “It's squared off and rugged.”
His mouth opened slightly. “Um. I'm about to kiss you, so if you don't-” I stepped toward him and that's all it took. Two skinny boys who'd been dancing around, getting a little closer to each other all day were connected at the hip and the lip. I think the fact we bared all our dirty laundry the way we did just made things easier. I'm sure some people would rather hide those things as long as they could, but right now, with this guy, it was the way to go. Hot damn, he was a good kisser, too. I don't have that much experience in the kissing department, but I think I could do this with him and not worry about anyone else's kissing style.
He leaned back, a tiny smile playing about his lips, and looked at my face, studying me. “You know what's fucked up?” he asked, his voice low.
“What?” I rasped.
“I meet someone who bares their soul to me, lets me do the same, and he's leaving town. Isn't that the ultimate in fucked up?”
I shook my head. “No. I think it makes this time more important. It also means I am going to have to give Corby gas money to drag my ass back out here.”
“I can probably borrow my mom's car, sometimes,” he said.
“Then we have a plan,” I said, my voice shaking. “I can't believe this is happening.”
“You're telling me,” he said.
“How can you go from a buff guy like Sterling to me?” I asked, blurting out the stupidest thing my mind could find on short notice.
He titled his head. “I think it's because I looked inside you, instead of strictly your outside. I'm not ashamed to say I appreciated Sterling's muscles, but...you had a pretty good hold on me during that kiss.”
“It was just in case you were thinking of stopping,” I teased, feeling giddy.
He smiled, perhaps shyly. A blush settled in on his cheeks. “No. I was just wondering if I should breathe or not. Seemed like passing out would be decidedly unsexy.”
“We can always find out,” I said, being bold and moving closer to him. A car honked out front and I jumped then growled. “That was no thirty to forty minutes!”
Phil went to his window and hollered that we'd be right there. He tugged on his socks and grabbed a pair of dry sneakers from his closet. He paused long enough to lay a light kiss on my lips, something to whet my already raving appetite. He then took my hand and led me down the stairs and out the front door to the car, where we climbed in the back.
Devyn turned around and smiled widely at us.
“Don't say it, Dev,” Phil warned.
“Oh trust me, he already did,” Griff said and laughed as he pulled away from the curb. I looked down at Phil's hand, fingers splayed out on the seat and placed my hand over his. He glanced up at me and smiled, blushing slightly. I looked out the window and soaked in the feel of his hand under mine.
We arrived not too long afterward. The place was a coffee house of some sort with an open mic night. We went inside and got ourselves something to drink, and since I was actually getting hungry, I bought a grilled turkey sandwich with fries. I sat beside Phil and shared my fries with him. The guys were talking all round us, but I was in my own little world.
“So, what's with the family you keep mentioning?” I asked. “You said parents and brother, but you seem to imply more than that.”
He bobbed his head. “All these guys. I used to be a real dickhead. No joke!” he said as I stared at him. “But Griff reached out and really helped me turn myself around. These guys have my back, even if they don't agree with me.”
“That's cool,” I said.
“You're in, too. I mean, Gray brought you guys over, but now you all belong to the group, you know?”
“Um, no, I hadn't realized.” Was he serious?
Our chat was interrupted by Elliot's band. A girl – woman, whatever – stepped up to the microphone as the drummer ran a quick tattoo across his set. The bassist thrummed a couple of chords and the girl greeted the crowd. Our table started to cheer, so I joined in. It was nice to belong to a group, sometimes.
The band was pretty good, I thought. Phil told me how Elliot had been accepted to Julliard, then had to decline when his father had suffered a stroke. Eventually I just leaned on him as we listened to the music, and he was so damn comfortable. I mean, here I was in public with someone I could pretty damn near cuddle with, and it was no issue. He just put an arm around me and we listened to the music, clapped, and spoke during their breaks. I had a sudden vision of a day I wanted. Lying on a couch, cuddled against Phil to watch movies on a rainy day. Just...eating junk food and huddling together under a blanket. Hopefully with him not smelling like fried fish.
“Hey, Bell? We have to head back, soon,” Corby said between songs. “We still have a drive and Declan's parents won't let him stay another night.”
“Argh,” I said and smiled to take any sting out of it. “Okay.”
The band slid into their next song, and I perked up. “Oh my God! Corby's dad loves this song!”
I glanced at Corby and he was clearly feeling the same enjoyment I did at hearing the familiar tune.
“My mom loves this song,” Phil said in my ear. “Want to join the others? Little dance?”
“Oh, hell yes!” I said, letting him pull me out on the small dance floor. I put my arms around his neck as the girl did a damn good job with the vocals.
Turning and returning,
to some secret place inside
Watching in slow motion
As you turn around and say
Take my breath away,
Take my breath away
Phil mouthed the words to me, maybe singing so low I couldn't hear. I placed my head on his shoulder and he copied me, and we swayed to the cool old song. As much as it killed me, the night had to end. We had walked out into the parking lot, and I was dreading parting from Phil. I mean, for crying out loud, I actually found a guy! And I have to leave! All of that was set aside as I noted Declan with his palm out, wiggling his fingers at Corby in a 'gimme' gesture.
“What's this?” I asked.
Declan glanced at me and grinned. “Corby lost a bet.”
“You cheated,” Corby said, placing a dollar in Dec's outstretched hand.
Suspicion filled my mind. “What bet?” I asked.
“Oh, look at Phil! Doesn't he look happy, Dev?” Griffin said with obvious glee.
“Uh. What are you so happy about?” Phil asked.
Devyn started to sign and Griffin interpreted. “You have been miserable. You weren't ready before, but I think you're finally ready to stop being lonely and move on.”
“What about this bet?” I asked Declan pointedly.
Declan raised an eyebrow. “I take potential boyfriend research seriously. Corby doubted my skills.”
I looked at Phil and then back at our friends. “You guys set us up?”
“That's why you were so insistent I go to the pool party,” Phil said, realization dawning.
“Yeah. We've been conspiring with Declan. We weren't sure,” Griffin said, looking at our friends – his co-conspirators – and smiling. “But we made an educated guess.”
Phil sighed and looped an arm around my shoulders. “I hope you guys are ready to be driving my ass back and forth to see him, then, considering what you've caused.”
“Exactly,” I said to Corby, the conspiring little...conspirator. I had a horrible thought. “Please tell me your mother isn't in on this?”
“No. She was legitimately mooning over Sterling,” he said, laughing.
Soon afterward we were parting in the parking lot, hugging and giving no more than small pecks goodbye. Well, I mean I went home wearing his clothes. Not sure how many points that's worth. We'd exchanged numbers,but now we had to do the long distance thing.
As we parted I said to him, “I'm going to need you to be sending pictures so I don't have any opportunities to be distracted by other guys,” I told him.
He looked at me doubtfully. “If you like me, why would you look at other guys?”
I frowned. “That came out wrong. Will you just send me pictures so I can look at you when you're not there?”
“If you do the same,” he said, his tone growing gentle.
“And this is how sexting gets started,” Declan said to Corby. “Get a solid kiss for the road, Bell.”
And you know what? The little pecks were fine, but Dec was right. I wanted something to hold onto. So I kissed the fuck out of him. I mean, I hope not literally, but you know.
I hope this works. He's my kind of broken and I think I'm his.