It wasn't until a redheaded girl about his own age grinned at him that Bryant Hensley realized he was humming the Rice-A-Roni theme song, and that was probably the reason he'd gotten a few wary glances from the people he passed on the sidewalk. Well, that and the blatantly touristy way he kept craning his neck to take everything in. He couldn't help it. He'd been camping at Oak Mountain State Park and had seen his fair share of beach down at Gulf Shores, but that was nothing compared to the way the hills of San Francisco took a nosedive toward the bay. Not only that, but nobody tried to build whole neighborhoods on the sides of Oak Mountain. He wondered how on earth people ever got their cars up their driveways.
Bryant knew he was going to hate himself later for insisting on walking all over downtown San Francisco, but he wanted to see it all. He'd caught a trolley once or twice for the hell of it, but he liked walking. He'd gotten a little lost in Chinatown, and he still hadn't managed to find the infamous Castro district yet, but he was enjoying himself. He'd heard that Pier 39 was a tourist trap, and he was headed there now. He might even take the ferry out to Alcatraz, do all the touristy things he was supposed to do. The city was new to him like so much else in his life, and he figured he might as well soak up as much of it as he could stand.
He had a brief, wistful thought that Jamal would have gotten a kick out of trailing Bryant around--and would be maddeningly untouched by sunburn, something Bryant still hadn't figured out how to avoid--but shoved it aside. Jamal was still playing football; he'd been scouted the end of their senior year at the University of Alabama. Bryant was planning to watch ESPN for the draft coverage to see which pro team he went to since he was pretty sure nobody from back home would call to say.
He didn't blame Jamal for moving on with his life. The man had a hell of a career in pro sports awaiting him, much like Bryant had before the injury that had ended his chances of showing up in the Play of the Day segment of Sports-Center.
Sometimes, though he hated to admit it, he was a little relieved things had turned out like they did. A career-jeopardizing injury that sent Bryant soul-searching on the West Coast meant that he could avoid all the pitfalls of negotiating media minefields and keeping up an image for the fans. He sort of felt sorry for Jamal; at least Bryant was free to be as out of the closet as he wanted to be now.
His parents had expressed heaping mountains of doubt at his choice of cities for relocation. His mother had worried that he would forget to lock his doors at night, and his father had said simply, "Watch yourself out there. Plenty of strange folks in a place like that."
Bryant was counting on it. He was tired of feeling like he didn't belong where he grew up and was hoping that maybe San Francisco had a few things to offer on that front. He wondered if he could find something gaudy and brightly rainbow-colored to celebrate his new freedom. He was gay in the capital of gayness; he figured he was allowed to be as cheesy as he wanted, at least for a little while.
He could feel his leg stiffening as he kept walking, the muscle constricting in pain from his uneven gait and the awkward angle of the sidewalk. When his back joined in the chorus, he finally had to concede defeat, at least for the moment. A painted metal bench between a streetlamp and a planter full of pansies caught his eye, and he sank down onto it with a sigh of relief.
Bryant's body seemed to pop and settle like an old house in winter, and he groaned softly. His back wouldn't relax properly, a knot of tension keeping the muscles on the left side of his spine in an endless spasm. He took several deep breaths, focusing on the source of the pain until he could finally sit up almost straight.
He knew better than to walk so much. Now he was going to have to sit here until his still-healing injury stopped screaming at him long enough that he could walk back to a nonresidential street and find public transportation to his car. Pier 39 was out of the question today. He tried not to feel disappointed, instead focusing on releasing tension from his muscles.
Just as the pain started to ease off, becoming more bearable, he heard the door close to one of the townhouses behind him. Natural curiosity had him turning around to look before he thought twice.
Standing on the top step of the house directly behind him, juggling several boxes in one arm while trying to lock the door with the other, was a small woman with long, black hair, the kind of black you couldn't get from a bottle. Bryant had been attracted to the odd woman in his lifetime, though it was rare, but he liked the look of this one from the back. Tall for a woman, though still significantly shorter than Bryant's six feet two inches, she was slender, almost boyish, with narrow shoulders and hips. From what he could see, he thought she looked Asian.
The boxes were starting to tilt dangerously in her hand, and she looked like she was about to lose her balance. Bryant jumped up without a second thought, wincing at the spark of protest from his leg.
"Here, let me help you with that," he said gallantly, tilting the boxes into his own arm while he put one big hand on her back to steady her.
"Thanks." The voice startled Bryant and made him jump. It was surprisingly deep coming from that little frame, and more than that, it was unmistakably male. The face that looked up at him was almost too pretty to be a boy, but there were masculine cues to the angle of his jaw and the set of his mouth.
Oh shit, Bryant thought. He's hot. Out loud, he heard himself say, "I thought you were a girl!"
Before the words were even all the way out, Bryant was kicking himself. Dark eyes hardened dangerously, and the lush edges of the man's mouth pressed flat in annoyance. There was a hint of reckless color creeping into his face, and Bryant swallowed his apology. It was such a cliché, but damn if he wasn't cute when he was angry.
"Well, I'm not," the man said, reaching for the boxes. Bryant kept them away from his reaching hands easily enough; the man was about six inches shorter than Bryant, though now that he was looking, he could see that his slender-seeming frame was all lean muscle. Tasty.
"I'll carry these," Bryant said with a smile. "Where are we going?"
"We aren't going anywhere," the man said. "I'll take them. Thank you." He made another unsuccessful swipe for the boxes, and Bryant grinned as he held them away.
The smaller man sighed and rocked back on his heels, irritation plain in his face. He gave Bryant an evaluating look, as if he were calculating exactly what kind of trickery it was going to take to get his boxes back from the big, blond former linebacker who was playing keep away with them. Bryant liked that look; he liked being the cause of it.
"Look," the man said, "I don't know who you are, but--"
"Bryant Hensley. Nice to meet you. And you are?"
"--I really don't have time for this. I'm going to work, and I'm going to be late if you don't give me those boxes."
"I'll carry them for you. Where do you work?"
Bryant watched the man's jaw tighten and clench and felt a shiver tickle over his skin at the sight.
"Look, Mr. Hensley, I'm trying to be polite. Please be reasonable."
"I'm being perfectly reasonable. You need help, and I'm helping you."
"I do not need help!" The man seemed taken aback at his own outburst and blinked. "I appreciate your wanting to help," he said, more subdued. "But really. It's fine."
The diamond-bright smile he gave Bryant was patently false, but it was gorgeous nonetheless, and Bryant felt his heart turn over. He wanted to play some more to see what other sorts of reactions he could coax out, but he realized he was being kind of an ass.
"Can I at least carry them to your car for you or something? This stack's taller than you are." The man's eyes narrowed dangerously, and Bryant shrugged, half apologizing.
"All right," the man finally said, though the gusty sigh made Bryant feel guilty for doing him a favor. "It's right over here."
Once Bryant had the boxes in the backseat of the late-nineties Civic, he took an awkward step back and shoved his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. "Sorry for the trouble," he said, giving what he hoped was a charming smile. A chunk of his white-blond hair fell into his eyes, and he shook it out, embarrassed. He really needed a haircut; he knew he was starting to look kind of ragged.
"No trouble," the man answered absently, already getting into his car. Bryant thought he looked like the kind of guy who was monumentally busy all the time.
With one last nod, Bryant turned and walked down the sidewalk away from the man and his car, doing his best to disguise the way his injured leg didn't seem to want to bend as easily as the other one. He had a feeling he was failing miserably and probably looked like an idiot to boot. He tried to tell himself that the man wasn't watching him and didn't care, but he felt the embarrassment creeping over him anyway and hunched his shoulders against it, wincing at the pain that lanced through them when he did. Damn, he was out of shape since the surgery.