Toward the end of yet another tedious day, Louis Duncan found himself wandering streets he'd not trekked in twenty years. Since his unexpected return to his hometown, he'd tried a variety of the pubs and bars that had sprung up along the High Street in his absence, but only one managed to draw his attention night after night.
The Prince of Wales public house had undergone a total transformation since the dark and dingy days of his youth. It was now a classy-looking modern bar called Harvey's. Wood paneling and floor-to-ceiling windows had taken the place of the traditional beer-and-nicotine-stained walls Louis recalled as being off-limits to a teenager looking younger than his years.
The usual hum of voices permeated the low-level music as he entered the bar and approached the array of bottles. He took a moment to scan the various spirits, although he never ordered anything other than a large bourbon.
"Hey, Lou." The barman, Jake, greeted him as though Louis had been a regular for years. "How's your mum?"
Louis had spent most of the day at her side, the rhythmic chug and beep of the complicated machinery keeping him company. Occasionally a nurse would rustle up a coffee, and a doctor might pop in to update him on her progress, but apart from that the only conversation he'd shared these past couple of weeks was with a fresh-faced, eternally cheerful barman.
"No change," he said, catching the faint nasal vowels of his own adopted New York accent.
Already the longed-for bourbon, a drink he had yet to order, sat before him. For all his youth, this guy knew how to keep his customers happy. Louis lifted the glass and swallowed the contents, savoring the thin heat flaming down into his belly.
"Another?" Jake asked, already reaching for the drained glass.
Louis smiled. For reasons unknown to himself, he always tried to arrange his features into an expression that might pass for pleasant with this particular guy. "Thanks, Jake."
Jake returned the smile and then turned away to fetch the bourbon, affording Louis a prime view of plump ass. He wasn't totally desensitized to the allure of a well-presented body.
"Cute," Carter said softly, taking a perch on the stool next to Louis's.
"I'm a little long in the tooth for cute." Louis glanced at his lover, a handsome, smartly dressed man with a shock of sandy hair. Carter grinned, his gray eyes bright and mischievous, exactly like the man he was before the illness had yellowed his skin and ravaged his body to a wispy husk.
"You're a little long in the tooth for spending yet another evening alone in a bar, but that doesn't seem to bother you so much."
Louis hunched forward on his stool. "Every day I get to sit by and watch the mother I haven't spoken to in twenty years slip closer to death. I think I've earned myself a few lousy drinks, don't you?"
"You don't think you might have earned yourself more? A shot of that, perhaps?" Carter gestured to the barman on his return.
"Only you, my love," Louis muttered as Jake set a fresh bourbon in front of him.
Louis glanced up to meet Jake's curious gaze. "Nothing. Just talking to myself."
"Is that something you do a lot?"
"More than I should." Louis was long past caring whether he looked like a fool or a loon.
"Do you answer yourself too?"
Louis shook his head. "Now that would make me insane." He tried another of his smiles, but his lips refused to tilt.
"Well, I'm here," Jake leaned his arms on the bar, all traces of humor gone. "If you feel like talking to someone."
Louis laughed. "Haven't I bent your ear enough these past couple of weeks?"
"With that accent you can bend my ear any time you like." Jake gazed at him, although to Louis it felt more like a stare. Did he expect an answer? A few more bourbons, and perhaps Louis might have one for him, but not tonight.
He downed his drink and reached for the wallet in his jacket pocket. "How much do I owe?" he asked in his best business voice.
Jake waved a hand. "On the house."
"You think that's a good idea?" Louis took out a note anyway. "I wouldn't want you getting yourself fired because of me."
"That's not likely to happen. I have a very understanding boss."
Louis set the note on the bar. "No boss is that understanding."
"Mine is." Jake slid the note right back. "Did I never tell you my last name?" He grinned. "It's Harvey. My dad owns the place."
He'd not mentioned it, but then Louis had no cause to ask. "Still, I'd rather pay what I owe."
"I've got a better idea." Jake took the ten pounds, folded it neatly, and leaned over to slot it into Louis's shirt pocket. "Why don't you repay my hospitality by taking me out sometime?"
He stroked a thumb across Louis's nipple through the cotton. Louis pulled back as a jolt of pleasure tingled down his body.
What was this? Flirting? No. No, it was part of the job to amuse the sad fucks who visited bars alone in order to drink themselves senseless before bedtime.
"I don't think that's... Uh, actually, I've been thinking about heading back to New York in a week or so." It was the best--the only--excuse he could come up with on such short notice. "That's if nothing improves with my mom."
"A week's a long time." Jake leaned closer, a flirty sparkle lighting the depths of his eyes. "Besides, I'll be heading back to uni myself soon."
What was he after? A quick fumble with an older man? Something to joke about in the lecture halls to entertain the crowds on a wet Wednesday afternoon?
"If you're not busy later tonight," Jake said, casting a lazy gaze down Louis's chest, "I know of an incredible Indian takeaway up the road."
"To take away where?" As soon as the words were out, Louis winced. He'd lumbered straight into that one.
A faint blush rose to Jake's cheeks. "Well, I'm staying with my parents for the summer, but, I mean, you've got your apartment and..." He obviously hoped Louis would fill in the blanks.
Louis forced a laugh. "And with that, I think I'll be going." He gripped the bar top as he made to slip off the stool. A hand closed over his own. It surprised him, the only body contact he'd had lately, not counting his holding mother's withered hand, or Carter's feathery yet imagined caresses. Jake's hand sat on his, warm and weighty. Louis studied the fine blond hairs, the short, trimmed nails. He raised his head to find Jake staring back with something like lust smoldering behind those blue eyes.
"Red or white?" Jake flicked out the tip of his tongue to wet his bottom lip.
"Huh?" What would that silky scrap of tongue feel like lapping at his balls?
"Wine. Which do you prefer?"
"Neither." Louis pulled his hand away and took a step back. "I don't touch the stuff."
"You only drink bourbon?"
"Your liver must love you," Jake said, collecting up the empty glass.
"My liver and I get along great. Catch you later."
"Here's hoping." Jake grinned.
Louis hurried for the exit.