Brandon studied his reflection in the glass door to Gilly’s.
It’s been ten years. You’re a different man now. Nothing anybody says or does can hurt you. You are a moderately successful, occasionally sexually active, tax-paying member of society.
“I can do this,” he whispered.
“Mental pep talk again?” The likeness of his best friend appeared next to him in the glass.
Someone behind him said, “Excuse me,” and Brandon stepped away from the door.
Jessenia had been his partner in crime since the two of them had met on the first day of high school. If he’d been straight or she’d been a man, he would have totally put a ring on it. However, since neither scenario was possible in this time-space continuum, Jessenia had declared Brandon to be her gay bestie, and she was his loveable fag hag. Her words. Not his.
“Just remember, Brandon. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and, dog-gone-it, people—”
He spun and covered Jessenia’s mouth with his hand. “Don’t even—” Brandon felt the vibrations of her voice beat against his palm as she finished speaking despite his aborted threat. He smiled and saw a twinkle in Jessenia’s smoky eyes. The old tag line brought back memories of the two of them watching old SNL skits on Netflix.
“I know we’ve all matured and crap, but inside this confident and magnificently sexy gay man is a skinny little homo who is one shove against a locker shy of a catastrophic meltdown.”
Jessenia’s eyebrows lifted and Brandon realized he still had his hand covering her mouth. He felt something wet his palm and jerked it away. “Gross! Put that girl tongue back in your mouth. Besides, how do you know my hands are clean? I could have jerked off before I left and not washed my hands afterward.”
Jessenia rolled her eyes. “Please. I wouldn’t be surprised if you eventually develop a method of having cum vaporize before it touches anything to avoid the clean-up.”
Brandon laughed, which he knew was Jessenia’s intent. She was the freakishly clean science geek between the two of them. Besides, in Brandon’s mind there was nothing like licking fresh cum off the quivering stomach of a man.
He turned to face the door once again and linked his arm with Jessenia’s. “Let’s show them what studs we are!” he said, then winked.
Brandon opened the door with a flourish. He bowed and gestured in a courtly manner for Jessenia to enter before him. He heard a giggle and watched his BFF do a little curtsey then dash inside. Brandon followed, ready to face the demons of his past.
His ears were assaulted by the sounds of a few hundred people all crammed into the popular bar, and apparently all trying to talk over each other. He knew the reunion committee had rented The Loft. However, he noticed that he and Jessenia had walked into the Jack Daniel’s Saloon area, nowhere near the second-story private rooms. He tried to get Jessenia’s attention, but his voice became lost in the conversations of a rowdy Saturday night crowd. Not to mention covered by the amplified twang of live country music being broadcast from a stage in the back. The scents of beer, bar food and humanity wafted toward him. Brandon jerked as Jessenia grabbed his hand and pulled him farther into the melee.
“Jess, we need to go around the other side!”
She shook her head. “Let’s get a couple shots of liquid courage first. Besides, the band sounds great.” She stopped and turned to face him. “Unless you’re suddenly in a great rush to mingle with our former classmates.”
Brandon smiled and pointed toward the bar in the center of the room. “You want your usual?”
“When in Rome! Get me a Jack, straight up.”
Oh boy! Brandon knew that if Jessenia was hitting the hard stuff she was more nervous than she had let on. High school hadn’t been a time of idealistic adolescence for either of them. Brandon had been a double minority—the only openly gay white male in what was a predominantly Hispanic student population. Jessenia, on the other hand, came from a strict Muslim family who’d emigrated from Egypt only a couple of years before her arrival. Her father had voraciously fought to have his daughter exempt from the uniform code due to religious objections, thereby making Jessenia a target for ridicule.
After they’d finished high school, Jessenia had forgone her hijab and no longer followed the strictures of Islam. When she’d told her mother and father of her decision, they’d informed her that she’d turned her back on Allah and was no longer welcome in their home. It had seemed only logical that they would become roommates. With the help of his mom they’d scraped together enough money for first and last month’s rent on a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Ten years later, the two of them still lived together, were intermittently single and always ready to mingle! Or, more accurately, single and too broke to enjoy a carefree nightlife. Tonight’s reunion was their celebration of freedom. One final nod at the people they’d been and a toast to their future. Plus, in all honesty, a tiny bit of Brandon wanted to show up and thumb his nose at the bigots who’d tormented him.
It was a bit of a jig to get through the crowd and, despite his ability to shake it with the best of them, he felt as if he was the sphere in a vigorous game of pinball. He’d just about made it when a particularly hard bounce off an obstacle sent him reeling backward. A shove from behind sent Brandon careening forward, and he landed against a hard male body, only to rebound onto the floor. The last thing Brandon saw before he closed his eyes and raised his arms to ward off the impending shower of beer from a precariously tilting pitcher was a pair of startled pale blue eyes.
“Whoa! That was a close one.”
Brandon looked up to see that the man he’d collided with had saved the pitcher, much to the cheers of those around them. While the man accepted congratulations from nearby revelers, Brandon took the opportunity to rake his gaze up and down the long, lean body above him. His eyes met a pair of well-worn boots and rose up a set of legs encased in soft denim. Brandon only briefly checked out the man’s package—was he really not going to?—before sliding past the trim hips and flat stomach to a nice wide chest, strong throat, and ended up viewing a black felt cowboy hat. The cowboy’s face was turned away so Brandon couldn’t get a clear examination, but the profile was certainly appealing.
Brandon pushed up and moved to get to his feet. A hand appeared in his line of vision and Brandon gladly accepted. He was happy to see that it belonged to Hottie Cowboy.
“You all right?”
Brandon nodded. “I’m good. Sorry about the near beertastrophy.”
Hottie Cowboy let out a low chuckle. Perfect. What were the chances that McStudly was laughing with him and not at him?
“It’s fine. Pretty crazy in here tonight. I think the word got out about the band and half of Dallas is here.”
Brandon occasionally liked country, but he wasn’t exactly one truck ride away from a shotgun wedding with a daisy-duke wearing, whiskey-guzzling good old boy whose hound dog recently ran away. The band did sound good, though. He nodded just to keep Hottie Cowboy’s attention on him and smiled. “Yeah. They’re something.” He leaned in and caught a whiff of sandalwood cologne clinging to Cowboy’s body. Nice. “Who are they?”
“No idea,” Hottie Cowboy said, smiling.
There was a shout and Hottie Cowboy whipped his head to the left. Brandon saw the tendon tighten beneath the dusky tan flesh of his strong neck. He resisted the temptation to lick his lips at the thought of tasting Cowboy’s skin.
“So I gotta go, but sorry again for knocking you over.”
Play it cool. Play it cool. “No problem. I have to get up to The Loft anyway. High school reunion. Woodrow Wilson High School class of 2005! Go Wildcats.”
Hottie Cowboy smirked. “Yeah, well have fun.” He turned and rejoined his friends at the table a few feet away.
Brandon felt his face catch fire. Oh crap. Why the hell was it that every time he got nervous he either clammed up tighter than a vestal virgin or got Montezuma’s revenge of the mouth?
“Wow, Bran Flakes. That was really, really depressing to watch.”
He turned to see Jessenia standing a couple of feet away, holding in what was sure to be a laugh loud enough to fill one of the fake whiskey barrels hanging on the wall.
He stalled for time to compose himself by tucking a lock of his long hair behind his ear. “Yeah. Not my best.”
Jessenia shook her head. “Nope. Maybe he’s straight, and completely clueless as to the fact that you were stripping him with your eyes and Jedi mind-tricking him into asking for your number.”
Brandon glanced over at Hottie Cowboy and immediately noticed the man next to him put his arm around the cowboy’s waist.
“Hmm. On the other hand, maybe I should buy you a drink. Amaretto sour?”
Brandon nodded. “Make it a double.”
Jessenia sidled up to the bar and leaned against the edge. Brandon studied the bottle labels and old concert tickets beneath the acrylic surface of the bar top. As a graphic artist, he could appreciate the design in some of the items.
“I need one Old Number Seven neat, and a tall amaretto sour. Don’t be shy with the sugar syrup and cherries on the last,” Jessenia ordered.
Brandon smiled and bumped shoulders with his BFF. She knew him so well. Jessenia slugged back her first drink. Judging by the expression on the bartender’s face, he hadn’t expected Jess to be the one who picked up the hard stuff. She signaled for another and Brandon saw new respect in the hunky bartender’s eyes for the beautiful woman beside him. Too bad. Well, nice for Jessenia, but Brandon’s score for the evening was negative two.
He quietly scanned the crowd and sucked down his drink. It wasn’t long before the balm of first stage inebriation began to soothe his ragged psyche. They ambled farther into the bar area. Jessenia pulled Brandon’s arm when she saw one of the black benches miraculously vacant. The band started a new song and Brandon found himself tapping his foot to the beat. He ordered another drink from a roaming waitress. Three or four sips in, Brandon started to feel as though this night wouldn’t be a total loss. Good drink. Good music. His best friend beside him. He was about ready to head upstairs full of alcohol-induced confidence when he spotted Hottie Cowboy out of the corner of his eye.
Brandon couldn’t help but watch that long body cross the floor. He moaned a little when the most perfect cowboy ass was put on display as the man bent over to take a shot at the pool table off to the left side of the room. The clack of the balls was lost in the music and noise of the crowd but Brandon imagined that the percussion waves were felt in his chest as his heartbeat increased. He put the straw back in his mouth and sucked only to realize that his drink was gone. He wiggled his straw around for a couple of seconds, trying to capture one of the cherries in the bottom of the glass. Successfully spearing one, he slipped the sweet fruit off the tip of his straw.
“Oh, do the thing!” Jessenia cheered.
As a teen he’d thought it would be cool to learn how to tie a knot in a cherry stem with his tongue. Now it seemed silly, but he performed as requested.
“Voilà!” he announced, holding up his prize.
Jessenia’s laughter rang in his ears, but Brandon’s eyes were trained on Hottie Cowboy, whose gaze was focused on Brandon. Brandon swallowed and smiled. He held up the knotted stem and shrugged. The guitarist on stage burst into a solo right as Hottie Cowboy’s eyebrow rose, and Brandon would have sworn there was a twinkle in the cowboy’s blue eyes. Cowboy’s companion sidled up next to him and rose on his tiptoes to whisper in his ear. Brandon saw a little flick of the man’s tongue. Apparently Hottie Cowboy thought the move a little too aggressive, because he stepped away and frowned at his companion.
Note to self. Hottie Cowboy does not like ears licked. Brandon was a touchy guy, but always took note of a person’s no-go zones. Jess sometimes called him an octopus because he constantly caressed his boyfriends, or had an arm around their waists.
Right now this octopus wants to get his tentacles wrapped around all that cowboy flesh.
“Hey, Bran Muffin! You listening to me?”
Brandon looked over at Jessenia and shook his head. “Nope. Why, what’s up?”
“I asked if you were ready to head up to The Loft. I think we can officially be considered fashionably late. However, judging by the way your eyes keep roaming over to the pool table, I venture to say that you’re quite comfortable where we are. Wanna ditch and stay here to ogle cute cowboys?”
Brandon sighed when Hottie Cowboy turned back to his game. “No. Let’s go. Hey, you never know. Maybe there’s a man upstairs who was desperately in love with me back in high school but too afraid to come out of the closet. Maybe I’m only minutes away from meeting the man of my dreams!”
Jessenia took Brandon’s glass away from him. “That’s it. I’m cutting you off. You’ve been reading too many of those romance novels again.”
“Excuse me! Who’s the person demanding copies of the very same books after I’m done with them?”
Jessenia stood and gave him a wink. “Can I help it if guy-on-guy action gets me all a-Twitter?”
Jessenia’s willingness to accept all relationships was only another testament to how different she was from the family she’d been born into. He stood, took one last look over his shoulder at Hottie Cowboy, then followed Jessenia back toward the bar so they could walk around the other side of the building to The Loft. She took his hand, practically skipping. It was almost nine o’clock at night and still in the nineties. There was nothing like a Texas summer. The glow from the huge Gilly’s sign above their heads had Brandon looking up. He saw the small white balls of light lining the upper deck and heard the cheers of former classmates as they reminisced with old friends. He opened the door for Jessenia and gestured for her to enter.