The Square Peg looked dingy and rundown from the outside, but Ben told himself that on a gloomy February day, with the sun hidden behind clouds and a brisk wind flinging trash along the sidewalks, most places wouldn't look their best.
Not that he could blame the weather for the tattered poster in the filthy front window, advertising a Pride parade that had taken place two years earlier, or the way the bar's main door had a loose handle and a series of dents that looked as if they'd been made by a fist.
Fair-sized parking lot behind it, though, and a cab company on the corner, close enough for even the drunkest customer to stagger to safely.
Potential, he told himself as he finally got the handle to work and opened the door. It's got potential.
Which was more than he could say for his love life or his job, but he wasn't going to think about either of those. Jenson had finally collected the last of his belongings two days ago. They'd been stacked neatly in a box by Ben, who'd methodically searched their apartment for any item to which Jenson could legitimately lay claim. He had enough reminders of their five years together in his head without needing to wince at the sight of a memento from a vacation or a forgotten T-shirt.
Work, well, his job was the same as it'd ever been. Which was, according to Jenson, the problem.
"You add up numbers all day, and you're starting to look like one. A big fat zero. Zero personality, zero fun, zero-- Oh, what's the use? It's over. Find yourself an accountant like you to fuck, and get each other off quoting statistics. And when you forget his birthday, apologize by telling him the percentage of men who do that, and I'm sure he'll forgive you."
"Jesus, my father had just died, and you hate celebrating your birthday."
"It doesn't mean you're allowed to forget it!"
Not the first argument they'd had, but it'd ended up being their last.
The carpeted area just inside the door was an indeterminate color, and it was sticky, forcing Ben to work to peel his shoes off it. The scuffed wooden floor beyond it wasn't much better. Didn't anyone ever mop up the spilled drinks?
It was dim enough that Ben wanted to walk around flicking on every light switch he came to. Ambiance was one thing, but customers needed to see what they were drinking. A half-empty glass on a table caught his eye. There seemed to be something floating in it. He peered at it as he walked past. A lemon slice, limp and raggedly cut, paper-thin at one end, thick at the other. Which meant the slice next to it had been ruined too.
Lemons were about fifty cents each. Assume the bar used ten a day... Ben shook his head. No, somewhere like this wouldn't get through that many. Even so, not paying attention to the details was what sent many a business under. A wasted lemon slice didn't sound like much, but Ben could spot a red flag even in this poorly lit a room.
Sitting on a stool behind the long, laminate-topped bar--where the lighting was decent, at least, but it would have to be, or the bartender wouldn't be able to see what he was doing--was a young man so pale he probably needed vitamin D supplements. He was leafing through a thin local newspaper, a bored look on his face. At the end of the bar, two men and a woman were talking quietly, and in the corner underneath a dart board that had seen better days, four men sat at a round table having what sounded like a good-natured argument.
The place wasn't empty, but no one could call it busy either.
Ben approached the bar, and the young bartender looked up from his paper, showing some faint signs of animation as he was faced with a customer. "Hi. What can I get you?"
"Actually, I'm looking for the manager," Ben told him. "Shane Brant? Is he here?"
The bartender nodded, and a lock of his straight blacker-than-black hair fell in front of his eyes. "In the office," he said, gesturing at a door in the wall behind the bar. "Go around to the side, and I'll let you in."
Ben smiled his thanks as a section of the bar was raised to allow him to walk through. Still, he was surprised at how easily he'd been allowed to walk into the private section of the bar. Maybe he looked so safe and respectable he didn't qualify as a security threat--and wasn't that a depressing thought?
There was another young man behind the bar, crouched, counting bottles and making notes on a piece of paper. He was blond, pure twink, with eyes green enough that he had to be wearing tinted contacts. He gave Ben a flirtatious wink that didn't seem sincere and a curious once-over that did.
"Hi there. I'm Patrick."
"He's not interested," the bartender said, rolling his eyes and saving Ben from coming up with a response. "Get back to the inventory."
Patrick pouted but did as he was told. Ben cleared his throat and walked through the door to find himself in a corridor with an open door to his right that was clearly an office.
Inside the room was a massive desk that had to weigh five hundred pounds. A man sat with his back to the doorway, studying a clipboard in his hands. As Ben watched, he made a notation, then turned. "Vincent, do you think--" He stopped when he saw Ben wasn't Vincent. "Can I help you with something, mate?"
"That depends," Ben told him. From indifference to wary suspicion in the space of a minute. Neither attitude was what he'd expected. "Are you Shane Brant?"
The man was mid-thirties, his hair cropped so close to his head it was difficult to see its true color. Light brown, maybe. Pale gray eyes and a calmly competent expression were both off-putting and reassuring. The man exuded intimidation without trying, but there was no anger or dislike in his appraising stare. A good man to have at your back and a bad enemy, Ben decided. He felt better once he'd slotted Shane into a category.
"Benedict Lozier. You've probably been wondering when I'd show up."
Shane scratched his nose. "Haven't been able to sleep worrying about it. Thank God you're here now." He had an English accent, not strong enough for Ben, whose secret vice was British TV shows, to be able to narrow it down to a region. But it was unmistakable.
He was being sarcastic, Ben thought. Once he'd thought it, his brain took hold and circled it around for much longer than it should have, leaving him standing there staring. "Uh, right. So. You knew my dad."
"That I did. Better than you, or at least that's the impression I got." Shane set his clipboard on the desk. "Correct me if I'm wrong."
"No. Not wrong." Ben sighed and looked around the room. It contained a haphazard collection of horizontal surfaces on which other things were stacked, often precariously. This wasn't going the way he'd imagined.
"Is there something in particular I can do for you, Benedict?" Shane tilted his head and studied Ben with the same thoughtful gaze he probably wore when deciding which shirt to wear.
"I thought we should talk," Ben said.
"And so we are." Shane blinked patiently.
"About the business."
"The bar," Shane corrected him. "The bar I've managed for six years, working my backside off to keep it open and out of the red. The bar you've inherited as a reward for--what was it again? Oh yeah. Being the son of the owner. Would you even have recognized your dad if you'd passed him in the street?"
No. Probably not. Ben had been a toddler when Jenna, his mother, had given Craig--Ben couldn't think of him as Dad--an ultimatum: stop using or get out. Craig Lozier had always taken the easiest choice, innate laziness guiding him instead of any sense of responsibility toward his wife and young son.
Or at least that was the impression Ben had gotten from the little his mother had told him over the years.
"I inherited half," he said, the need for accuracy prompting the correction. That was another habit of his that had irritated Jenson. And he tried to restrain himself when it really was a trivial matter, but this didn't qualify. "You got the other half. That was very generous of Craig, in my opinion."
"Not sure you're entitled to an opinion on this matter." Shane shook his head and stood. "I built this place, okay? It was Craig's money, but the hours and sleepless nights and advertising decisions were mine. I appreciate Craig made me a partner in his will, but I also know I deserved it. And that you've got a lot to learn."
"You're right about that." Ben wasn't sure if admitting it would get Shane on his side, but it was the right thing to do either way. "I intend to learn it. I sort of get the impression Craig was happy being a silent partner, but we were different in about a thousand ways."
Shane snorted. "Yeah, you don't strike me as the silent type."
"I don't usually have arguments with people I've just met, though." He meant it as an apology.
That got him a raised eyebrow with some skepticism showing. "I'll take your word for it. Start over, shall we? Nice to meet you, Benedict. Sorry about your dad. I'm sure you're gutted. Now piss off so I can get back to sorting out the payroll, yeah?"
The hostility Shane was showing left Ben off balance and lost for words. It was so unfair and unwarranted that he had no defense.
"I'm not gutted, as you put it, because I haven't seen Craig since I was a kid. He wasn't there. He left. He did. Not us. Not that it's any of your business." He tried one more time to be conciliatory. "I'm not much of a drinker. I'm not sure what goes in a gin and tonic, to be honest." That didn't get a smile. Well, it wasn't very funny. "But I can help you with the accounts and the payroll if you point me at your computer."
Shane's pale eyes narrowed. "No need. Like I said, you can piss off now we've done the introductions and all that. I'll send you a check every month with your cut, just like I did with your dad. Someone like you doesn't want to hang around a gay bar on the dodgy side of town. Not exactly your cup of tea, is it?" Shane moved closer. He was shorter than Ben by an inch or two, but that didn't stop Ben from taking an involuntary step back. Shane was wearing black jeans and a denim shirt over a gray T-shirt, with battered leather lace-up boots. He looked tough without trying, and his exposed forearms were muscular in a wiry way, a faded tattoo decorating his right arm, some kind of bird that had been brightly colored once. "Or don't you trust me? Is that why you want to breathe down my neck? You think I'd skim off the top and do you out of your share?"
"Whoa, what?" Ben held up both hands in surrender. "What happened to starting over? First off, I don't know you, but that doesn't mean I'm assuming you're dishonest. Second, you don't know me either, so you have no idea what my cup of tea might or might not be. And for the record, I'm gay, and I'm not interested in a monthly check. I want this." He waved at the space around them, then his eyes focused on the piles of paperwork and boxes of liquor bottles stacked halfway to the ceiling. "Okay, maybe not this specifically."
"I know you're gay. Your dad told me. Doesn't mean you're going to fit in here." Shane's gaze traveled over Ben, appraising enough that he had to fight the urge to pull back his shoulders and suck in his stomach. "You're wearing a suit, for God's sake."
"I spent the day at work and came straight here." Okay, that'd sounded perilously close to an excuse, and there was nothing to apologize for in wearing a perfectly ordinary suit. It wasn't a three-thousand-dollar bespoke one, just an off-the-rack suit marked down in the January sales. "I'm an accountant. This is practically a uniform. Sorry if I don't meet the dress code. Next time I'll be sure to wear my leather pants."
Shane's eyebrows quirked. You'd still look like an accountant."
"And what does an accountant look like?" Ben demanded, giving way to his rising temper. He was standing in a bar he half owned, and he was damned if he was going to be marginalized by some mouthy thug with an attitude problem.
Shane grabbed him by the shoulders, surprising a yelp out of him, and spun him around so he was facing a small mirror on the wall, spotted with age and with a chipped corner. "Take a look."
Ben swallowed, seeing not himself, but Shane's hands, curled over his shoulders, gripping him tightly. Large hands, the fingernails short and ragged as if they'd been bitten. He was acutely conscious that Shane was standing close enough that their bodies touched, his elbow nudging Shane's ribs when he brought his hands up, forming them into fists.
"Pretty little boy," Shane said into his ear, all easy scorn. "You don't belong here. It's not one of the clubs you're used to, all clean and expensive and safe. This is a bar, mate. There's a fight once or twice a week, the cops keep coming in to check the nasty queers for drugs, looking for an excuse to shut us down--or a blowjob to look the other way, depending on who's on duty--and the punters would take one look at you and piss themselves laughing."
Under other circumstances, Ben would have found Shane's phrasing charming, if incomprehensible. Instead, he was wondering how much it would cost to buy out Shane's share of the business so he wouldn't have to deal with him. "You don't know where I belong," he said stubbornly, looking at Shane's reflection instead of his own. "Do you get off on this?"
"On telling you what you need to hear? I'm trying to do you a favor."
"You're full of shit if you think this is a favor. Do you have a problem with me specifically, or is it that you never learned to share?"
Abruptly he was left standing alone, his shoulders still feeling the weight of Shane's hands. Shane had retreated--no, not that--Shane had moved to lean against his desk. There wasn't space for two desks in the cluttered room, but somehow Ben couldn't see Shane being amenable to rearranging the space regardless.
Well, if this turned out to be the only suitable office space, maybe Shane wouldn't have a choice.
"Call it what you like. This is my place. It's not much, maybe, but it's somewhere people can come and have a drink without being worried they'll get stared at for who they're with or what they look like. It's a safe place, and there's not many of them around. I can already tell you're gonna want to change things. Improve us. Bet you've got a nice long list already, just from five minutes in the place."
"Yes, and a regular cleaner and a few more light bulbs are at the top of it," Ben said, opting for a pleasant smile he knew would be infuriating. "Why don't you give me the guided tour first? Then we can discuss what else is going on the list. I'll make sure I include therapy sessions for you or a personality transplant. You pick."
"Asshole," Shane muttered.
"Hey, good for you. You've learned to speak American."
"Been here long enough." Shane hitched himself up to sit on the desk, knocking a flutter of papers off onto the floor. He wasn't glaring, not quite, but it was a close thing.
"Too long, maybe." Ben never thought of how something was going to sound before he said it, so wincing was a familiar action. "I just mean, it might be good, having someone new come in. You know, fresh air, shake things up?"
"Not all that big a fan of change," Shane told him. "Place is fine as it is. People like it."
"I saw the financial statements, okay? I know things could be a lot better. You can't tell me you wouldn't like it if the business was a huge success with huge profits."
"Yeah, I can't wait to buy a Rolls-Royce and a place in the country." Shane gave him an exasperated look. "Listen, suit, there's only so much money the people around here have, and some of them spend too damn much here as it is. Not that I'm complaining, but I remember when my dad used to drink up his wage packet on a Friday, and we'd go short the rest of the week."
"That's very..." Ben faltered. Telling Shane he had a social conscience would probably sound condescending. He hurried on. "So we make the bar popular outside this area, bring in a new clientele, turn the place into something more attractive--"
Shane straightened, his frown on the menacing side. "Kick out all the faggots and tart it up for a bunch of losers who'd come here for shit and giggles, then wander off to the next hot place to be, leaving us with no one, you mean? Yeah, you've got a real head for business."
"I'm an accountant. Business is my business."
"Another thing you didn't get from your dad," Shane said. "He was a good bloke, but there was a reason he let me run things. Kind of thought you might be willing to leave things as they were."
"I should have called first or something," Ben conceded. He was willing to concede a lot if it meant they could have a civil conversation. "Rather than springing this on you." He wished it had occurred to him Shane might not want things to change or might not welcome a motivated partner with open arms.
"I could have called you when he died." Shane sighed. "I was scared shitless you wouldn't have heard, and I didn't want to be the one to tell you."
"Were you friends?"
Shane shook his head. "Don't think I'd put it like that, no. But we were friendly."
"Friendly enough he told you I was gay." Ben frowned. "Though how he knew that, I don't know. I wasn't exactly warbling Judy Garland songs when he left. Hell, I was only coming to grips with 'the cow says moo.'"
"He left, sure. Doesn't mean he didn't keep tabs on you and your mum. His sister's the gossipy sort. Kate, is it? Your auntie?"
"Aunt Kate. Yes." Ben saw her a few times a year, dutifully driving over to her suffocatingly warm, cluttered house and pretending to be interested in her three yappy dogs. "I didn't know she'd kept in touch with Craig."
Or that she was reporting back to him.
"He was sad when your mum passed. Not gutted; I won't lie. He hadn't seen her for over twenty years, and what they had, well, it'd faded, I guess. But it upset him. Came in here and got hammered a few times, told me a few stories about her. His way of dealing."
"Don't." Ben knew he'd stiffened, the memory of his loss rolling over him, a gray wave of desolation. His mom had been taken from him slowly, by degrees, the cancer playing cat and mouse, but when the end had come, the shock had been as sharp and cutting as if she'd been killed in a car crash out of the blue. "He wasn't there for her. Ever. He didn't have the right to be sad, to be anything."
Ben would never admit there'd been part of him who'd felt a savage pleasure when he'd heard cancer was what had taken Craig too. That was something he'd keep locked carefully inside. He suspected its existence meant he might be a horrible person, so he tried his best not to think about it.
Shane was studying him, and when their gazes met, he nodded. "Right. Well, anyway. Sorry. Tricky subject, I suppose."
"You could say that." Ben's shoulders and upper back were tense.
"Shall I show you around, then?" Shane offered, and Ben felt the tension ease. He was beginning to suspect that underneath the bristly exterior, Shane might actually be a pretty nice guy, and that possibility combined with the fact that he wasn't hard on the eyes made the whole thing just a little easier to take.
"Sure. I'd like that."
"It's bigger than it looks," Shane said. "Craig and me, we talked about expanding the bar, maybe putting in a snug."
"I don't know what you call them over here. Kind of a smaller room, quieter, with its own bar. In my local, it was where all the old men went, but it doesn't have to be like that. Maybe we could do snacks in there. Don't do that now. Another bar would take some of the pressure off when things get busy."
Ben blinked as Shane rattled off his ideas in clipped tones, his accent stronger. "That's certainly something we could look at," he said cautiously, unwilling to commit fully to what would be an expensive renovation, but glad Shane wasn't completely against change. Even if it was only a change he'd suggested. Somehow he thought Shane wouldn't be as keen to adopt any of his ideas.
"Yeah," Shane said flatly, his brief burst of enthusiasm fading. "Whatever. Okay, so through here's the storeroom, with a door to the yard in the back." He weaved his way through cases of drinks and unlocked the exterior door. Like every other painted surface in the place, it needed attention. A cool breeze swept in, making Ben shiver. "I put a ramp in. Makes it easier when we have deliveries, see? They can wheel them in."
"Great idea!" Ben said, realizing he'd gone too heavy on the approval. Oh, what a wonderful picture of the doggie! Let's hang it on the fridge for Daddy to see...
Shane slammed the door, the bang underscoring his feelings nicely. He stalked out of the storeroom with Ben on his heels and went down a short corridor with two doors opening off it. "Loo for the staff through there, not filthy, but don't get any ideas about eating dinner off the floor, because you'd be lucky to survive the first bite. There's a room for them here where they can hang out when they're on their breaks. Couch, a telly, that kind of thing." He indicated at the door but put his arm out to block Ben's attempt to open it. "It's a dump; take my word for it. You don't need to check it out. Not as if you'll be spending any time in there."
If Shane hadn't seem so determined to keep him out, Ben would have let it go, but curiosity reared its head, and he pushed past Shane's arm and opened the door.
In the small, crowded room, the young bartender was just pulling a maroon polo shirt over his head. His eyes widened when he saw them. Swiftly, he kicked at something on the floor next to the lumpy plaid couch until it was out of sight. "I was just changing," he said, picking up a similarly colored wad of fabric. "Shane, that tap that was leaking, well, it's not dripping now. It's practically a stream."
"Good thing we keep spare shirts," Shane said, with a glance at Ben that seemed more than a little bit suspicious.
There was a blanket draped along the length of the couch and a second one balled into something resembling a pillow. It was easy enough to guess the young man had been sleeping there, and the worried glances he and Shane were exchanging told Ben there was some reason he wasn't supposed to be. He cleared his throat.
"Right, sorry," Shane said. "Vincent, this is Benedict Lozier. He's got a half interest in the bar."
"Since when?" Vincent seemed shocked.
"Since his father was the old owner and left it to him," Shane said. "This is Vincent."
"Vin," Vin said. "He calls everyone by their full names. It's a thing."
"I noticed. Nice to meet you properly." Ben shook Vin's hand.
"Uh, yeah. You too." Vin plucked at the shirt with a grimace. "Black's better. Doesn't show the dirt."
"So change again when your shirt's dry." Shane sounded more patient with Vin's outraged fashion sense than he had with Ben. "If you're done here, maybe you should get back behind the bar."
Vin scratched his bare forearm, drawing Ben's attention to a display of ink that was both intricate and, to Ben's eyes, painful. Shane's much smaller tattoo was one thing, but he couldn't imagine sitting still for the hours it would take to have that kind of artwork etched into skin. It was a dragon on a bed of skulls, all in black, apart from a single baleful red eye. Vin seemed to go in for decorating his body with more than ink. Multiple silver studs glinted dully in his ears, along with a dragon earring, and there was a small hoop in his eyebrow. They were probably the tamest examples. Yeah, there was the shine of a tongue stud.
Ben, who didn't have a tattoo or a piercing to his name, felt nakedly normal and uncomfortably curious about what else Vin had embellished. Nipples, navel, cock? Okay, now he was the one grimacing.
"Not exactly fucking hopping out there, but sure."
Vin edged past Ben as cautiously as if boring would rub off on him, and Ben sighed, halting him with a gesture. "You're sleeping here? Why?" he asked bluntly.
"Me? Sleep here? No way." Vin wasn't a good liar in Ben's opinion, and Shane's exasperated sigh showed he thought so too.
"He got kicked out. New landlord looking to improve the image of the place. I'm letting him doss down here for a few nights. Already got feelers out for a place down on Austin Street that might open up soon."
"He shouldn't be staying here," Ben said. "It's just not suitable even in the short-term. I'm not telling you to kick him out onto the street, but you have to see that." He could see chip crumbs on the floor by the couch, and a stack of pizza boxes on a table. The room smelled funky. He was willing to bet the staff washroom was doubling as Vin's bathroom.
"I could stay with you upstairs," Vin said with a hopeful look at Shane. "I wouldn't be in the way."
Shane shook his head. "I like my space, thanks. I don't share. If I did, my couch, this couch--what's the difference?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe because no one should be living here? And not just because it's probably illegal. Where do you take a shower?"
Vin, gaze firmly locked on the floor, shrugged.
Ben sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He was starting to suspect he'd have to find a chiropractor. "Okay, you can stay with me tonight."
"What?" Vin and Shane both spoke at the same time as if they'd rehearsed it.
"Well, he can't stay here; it's ridiculous." Ben looked at Shane. "Plus he looks like he hasn't had a real meal in forever."
"I'm not looking for a handout," Vin protested, but it was hard to read his expression.
"I'm not offering one. But you can't sleep here, and the couch in my den folds out into a bed that'll be a hell of a lot more comfortable than this." Ben knew he was being impulsive and didn't care. This was the new him. No more boring Ben; from now on he'd be a risktaker.
"You don't know him," Shane said. "He could rip you off, trash the place--"
"Hey!" Vin protested. "I wouldn't. Any of that." He turned to Ben. "He's right, though. You don't know me."
"Yes, I do," Ben said. "You're one of my employees."