Once was chance. Twice was coincidence. Three times was a goddamn pattern.
I’d heard that expression before, and thought I understood it, but this morning it made a lot more sense than I cared to admit. Especially since I wasn’t crazy about the pattern that I couldn’t deny anymore.
Half-sprawled on my sofa, I stared at the dark TV screen. The ceiling. The window. The blank wall that probably needed some artwork or something. Maybe one of those pastel paintings my mom had all over her house. Or a photo. There was a shop down on Main Street that carried some cool prints of landscapes and animals and—
And she’s gone.
No matter how many times I mentally changed the subject, the truth remained. Aimee was gone.
Question was, whose fault was it?
Technically, she’d initiated the breakup, but I would’ve dumped her had she given me a second to get a word in edgewise, because she’d fucked him how many times over the last few weeks?
Groaning, I leaned forward and scrubbed my hands over my face. I should’ve been crying or drinking or something. I was devastated, after all. A year and a half down the shitter. The woman I loved—gone. The heartbreak would probably show up soon, but right now I was a little preoccupied by the reason she’d given me for sleeping around.
“A woman has needs, Bren,” she’d said with a sort of apologetic shrug. “He does things that you don’t.”
Over and over, those words ricocheted around in my head. Needs? Things I didn’t do for her? God, was I really that bad at sex?
Maybe I could’ve written it off and told myself she was just making excuses for cheating on me, but there was a small problem with that—she wasn’t the first. She was the third. I’d confronted the first after some rumors had made their way back to me. The second had thrown it in my face while we were arguing about something. And Aimee, I’d caught red-handed.
All three had given me more or less the same excuse.
And now . . .
Now I just wanted to curl up and die. More than twelve hours had passed since I’d caught her, and I was pretty sure everyone in our social circle had already heard. My phone was blowing up. Or, well, it had been until I’d turned the little bastard off. And like Aimee, Billy Fallbrook—the guy who’d been balls-deep in her when I’d walked through the door last night—was part of the local skateboarding scene. Knowing her, she was doing damage control. Knowing him, he was bragging to everyone that he’d nailed her.
Which meant everyone and their mother probably knew by now what a lame idiot I was in bed.
I gritted my teeth, wondering if I really was about to throw up. I swallowed hard to keep my breakfast down, but that was getting tougher every time my brain helpfully replayed that image of Aimee riding a spread-eagled Billy Fallbrook on our bed.
Fuck. Maybe I should’ve watched for a minute or two. Learned from his techniques. Figured out where the hell I kept falling short with the women in my life.
You’re pathetic, Brennan. Fucking pathetic.
Maybe, but I was getting desperate. Whatever I’d done for all three girlfriends, it obviously wasn’t enough. I needed some kind of help. Or advice. Or . . . or some goddamn CliffsNotes.
What the fuck was I supposed to do? Hire a sex therapist?
“So, I suck in bed. Help?”
Was there a documentary out there?
Yes, Brennan. It’s called porn.
Eh. That shit was about as boring as a documentary anyway. I’d probably fall asleep before I learned anything. Or just get depressed because my dick wasn’t the same size as my forearm.
Maybe . . .
I folded my hands under my chin and stared at the wall. I wasn’t paying for a damn therapist. I had no desire to watch porn. I was almost afraid to google “How do I have sex?” because I could only imagine the results.
I needed some help that wouldn’t bill my insurance or clog up my computer with malware.
Hmm . . .
Well, there was a sex shop in town. Red Hot Bluewater or something like that.
As soon as the place’s neon-lit storefront flashed through my mind, I was on my feet and heading for the door. I grabbed my wallet and keys off the coffee table and walked out of my apartment, down the stairs, and out to my truck.
Red Hot Bluewater, here I come.
* * *
I had to be at work in a couple of hours anyway, so I parked behind Skate of Juan de Fuca, the skate shop where I worked. I stepped onto my skateboard and wove my way down the sidewalk toward the sex shop two blocks away.
It felt weird, coming to this part of town so early in the day but not going into the shop or over to the skate park like I usually did before work. Today, I was on a mission. And besides, I didn’t feel like kicking around with all of our mutual friends. Didn’t feel like being around her, and there was a good chance she’d be there. Along with him.
I gritted my teeth and kept going, without even glancing in the direction of the park.
As I followed the sidewalk, though, I slowed down a bit, nervously eyeing the red-and-black sign up ahead. I couldn’t tell what the sick feeling was now. Or rather, where the queasy betrayed feeling ended and the gut-twisting nervousness began. I’d never been into a sex shop before, and I sure as hell had never gone into a place to ask for advice about how to keep my girlfriend—or, well, hypothetical future girlfriend—satisfied.
Especially since I wasn’t even sure where to start. Where had things gone wrong? She always came. Didn’t she? Or had she been . . . faking it?
Well, if she’d faked it, she deserved an Oscar, because that woman always came harder than either of my previous girlfriends.
My previous girlfriends who’d also deemed me a dud in bed.
My cheeks must’ve been glowing red. I couldn’t remember ever being this humiliated in my life. I hadn’t even brought my phone with me because I was mortified at the thought of turning it on and seeing a million texts from people who now knew I couldn’t turn her on.
She’d never complained about my technique. Not once. Neither had Alejandra, though Kasey had occasionally made passive-aggressive comments about me buying her a dildo or something for Christmas so there wouldn’t be so much pressure on me. But I’d thought Aimee was satisfied. She always wanted to have sex.
Or, well, she had always wanted to have sex. For the first year, she was constantly initiating it, and I rarely turned her down. But the last six months . . .
The nausea nearly lurched up the back of my throat, and I gulped hard to once again keep my breakfast where it belonged. How had I not seen the signs?
Too late now. Only thing I could do was figure out where I’d gone wrong, and see if I could maybe not disappoint the next girl who came along.
Parking was a bitch in Bluewater Bay, and the spaces in front of most shops were full. There were open parking spaces in front of the sex shop, though. So, that must’ve meant nobody was here? This time of day, it wouldn’t be that busy, right? When did people go to sex shops, anyway? Seemed like the kind of thing you’d do at night, under cover of darkness. Unless all the daytime customers were cowards who parked over at Walgreens or the bank. That might’ve explained the random cars sometimes parked behind Skate of Juan de Fuca—people hiding their cars while they browsed porn? Something.
In front of the sex shop, I kicked up my board and tucked it under my arm. For a minute, I stared the place down and tried to psych myself up. The windows were covered in black paper. As progressive as this town was, I supposed Bluewater Bay wasn’t quite ready for street-facing displays full of dildos and condoms. Hell, Juan de Fuca caught flak for having mannequins on skateboards without helmets and pads, so the moral vigilantes must’ve had a field day with this place.
A sign on the door said No One Under 18 Permitted in big, red letters.
Here goes nothing.
Heart thumping, I opened the door and went inside.
Two steps in, I halted and stared at my surroundings. What . . . the hell . . . was all this shit?
The lingerie and condoms, I understood. But some of the . . . tools? Toys? Whatever they were, I thought they belonged in an operating room. Or an interrogation room.
Okay, so apparently I am clueless, because holy fuck.
The place even smelled alien. Like a mix of herbs, fruits, leather, rubber, and . . . I wasn’t even sure I wanted to identify all of it.
My dick didn’t hold a candle to most of the dildos. Well, that might’ve been a clue about my girlfriends’ problems. I hadn’t thought I was lacking in size, but if the “power dong” and “hole buster” were anything to go by, maybe there was an anatomical issue I had overlooked. Okay, so Kasey had once said my cock was clearly the karmic result of some horrible thing I’d done in a past life, but I’d thought she was joking. I supposed—
“Can I help you find something?”
The smooth male voice damn near made me jump out of my skin, and I spun around like an idiot in a haunted house instead of that same idiot in a sex shop. Leaning over the counter, seemingly unaware of the penis-shaped lollipops next to his arm, was a guy with a black ponytail and dark eyes fixed right on me. I thought he was Middle Eastern—didn’t see a lot of people with olive skin like that around here.
And he was still staring at me, waiting for an answer to his question.
I cleared my throat. “Um . . . I . . .”
“Also, do you have any ID on you?” He grimaced apologetically. “We’ve had some issues with minors, so . . .”
“Yeah. Yeah. Sure.” I fished my wallet out of my back pocket, pulled out my driver’s license, and handed it to him.
He took it, looked it over, and slid it back across the counter. “You’re good. Sorry about that. We—”
“No, I get it. Don’t worry.” I stuck my license back in my wallet and into my pocket. “I still get carded for R-rated movies, so it’s cool.”
He laughed. “You too?”
“All the time.” I rubbed my chin, which I hadn’t had to shave since yesterday. “Damn baby face.”
“I know, right?” He folded his arms and leaned on them. “So, what can I help you find?”
And suddenly I wasn’t laughing anymore. Shit. Nerves. Hello. What could I say without sounding like an idiot? Why did I even care what this guy thought of me? He’d probably seen and heard things in here that would’ve blown my mind while he didn’t bat an eye. This was, after all, a guy who worked in a place that sold penis-shaped lollipops—Now in Banana Flavor, apparently.
I shook myself and pulled my gaze away from the candy. “To be totally blunt? I’m having some issues with my girlfriend. And I guess I thought . . .” I glanced around the shop, my shoulders sinking as my stomach turned to lead. “I don’t know what I thought.”
“I assume you mean problems in bed.”
Heat rushed into my cheeks. Staring at the lollipops because they were easier to focus on than him, I nodded. “Yeah.”
“So . . .” He absently tapped a pen on the counter. A pen with a big plastic dick on it. Of course. “If you don’t mind my asking, what kinds of problems?” He paused. “So I can help you narrow down a solution, I mean. Not . . . not trying to pry.”
“Well . . .” I thumbed the peeling tread on my skateboard. “What do you have for people who thought they knew what they were doing in bed, then realized they didn’t?”
“Ouch. Hmm. Well, fair warning, I’m not a sex therapist or an expert.” He chuckled. “I just sell the tools.”
“Hey, I don’t need a therapist. If you can point me toward the right tools”—and maybe show—no, tell!—me how to use them—“we’re good.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” He came around the cash register and motioned for me to follow him. I fell into step behind him, and we moved toward the far end of the shop. At a large bookcase, he stopped, and gestured at the shelves that were crammed with books. “Any of these could help, so I’d suggest browsing through it and seeing if anything sounds like what you need.”
“That’s just it.” I stared at the books, my heart sinking. “I . . . I don’t know. I have no idea what the problem is.”
“That’s perfectly okay.” He waved a hand at the bottom shelf. “It’s not all techniques and things like that. We’ve got books that may as well be textbooks on human sexuality.” Turning to me, he lifted his eyebrows a little. “Could be worth it to read through and see if something resonates.”
I scanned the titles, and nodded. Then I looked around the rest of the shop. “It’s funny. Up until last night, I thought I knew what I was doing. Now, I feel like a clueless virgin.”
He watched me for a moment. “If it’s not too personal . . . what happened?”
Too personal? We’re standing in the middle of a store full of fake penises, talking about my sex life.
“I caught my girlfriend.” I swallowed. “Ex-girlfriend now. With another guy. And she said it was because I didn’t fulfill her ‘needs.’” I made the sharpest, bitterest air quotes ever. “Whatever the fuck that means.”
His posture stiffened. “That sounds to me like an excuse to cheat.”
“That’s what I thought when the girl before her made the same excuse. And the one before her.”
He grimaced. “Wow. Well. Excuse or not, cheaters are . . .” He pressed his lips together, then shook his head. “Anyway.”
“All I know is, something was wrong, and I’m hoping there’s something here that can help me fix it.”
He shifted his weight. “All right. Giving her the benefit of the doubt—which, for the record, I don’t give to cheaters—maybe you two were mismatched somehow.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about him being angry at her on my behalf. Vindicated wasn’t the word. Maybe kind of relieved that he hadn’t laughed me out of the store for being such an absolute dud that she’d had to resort to whatever Billy had going for him.
I sighed. “So I’m mismatched with her and the two before her?” I shook my head. “Whatever’s going on, I’m the common denominator.”
He started to speak, the tightness in his features making me wonder if it was something snide, but he hesitated. Then he shook himself, and his expression relaxed a little. “Well, it might mean you haven’t figured out what you want enough to find a partner who matches.”
“Oh.” Not surprising—the answer was that I was clueless about something. I’d just figured it was about women, not myself, but what the hell did I know?
He tilted his head. “There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. Some people take years to find exactly what it is they need with a partner.”
He pursed his lips as he scanned the shelves around us. “For starters, I think we need to find your kink.”
I bit back an incredulous request for him to repeat that, catching myself an instant before I would’ve sounded as stupid as I felt.
He turned to me. “What kind of stuff do you fantasize about?”
“Fantasize . . .” I avoided his gaze, staring at a rack of magazines, but not really looking at them as I kept working at that peeling tread on my board. “I don’t . . .”
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he said softly. “Just might, you know, help me steer you down the right aisle.”
I glanced up and scanned the signs on the ends of the various aisles. Lingerie. Dildos, Dicks, and Vibrators. So Much Lube. Kinky. Kinkier. Kinkiest.
The answer was down one of those aisles?
“I, um . . .” I gestured at them. “None of that stuff.”
“Okay, fair.” He shrugged. “Do you watch porn?”
“I have, but it’s boring as hell. Maybe I’m watching the wrong kind?”
“What kind have you watched?”
I had to think about it for a minute. I was pretty sure the last time I’d looked at porn, I had to use my mom’s credit card to get past the “prove you’re eighteen, asshole” screen. If memory served, I’d been more excited about accessing porn than watching it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Two people fucking?”
He gave a quiet laugh. “Well, that rules out orgies, and presumably BDSM?”
“Never watched anything with S&M in it. Or orgies.”
“So, what you did watch . . .” His eyebrows rose a little. “Did you enjoy it?”
“Always thought it was kind of boring, to be honest. It’s all fake.”
“Yeah, a lot of it is. You ever tried amateur?”
“No . . .”
He watched me for a moment. “Let me ask you this: are you into men?”
“What? No!” I shook my head. “I mean, one of my exes convinced everyone I’m gay, but . . . no. I’m not.”
“Okay. Are you into women?”
“Huh?” I laughed. “Of course I am. That’s why I’m here. To figure out how to not be a loser in bed with a woman.”
“Right, but . . .” He absently ran the backs of his fingers along the edge of his jaw. “Okay, well, to put it more bluntly, what do you think about when you jerk off?”
Fresh heat rushed into my cheeks. “Um . . .”
He smiled warmly. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Trust me—I’ve heard it all.”
“It’s not that. I mean, okay, it kind of is, but . . .” I pretended to be interested in a couple of weird metal objects whose purpose I wasn’t sure I wanted to figure out. “I don’t really think of anything when I jerk off.”
“You don’t think of anything at all?”
I hesitated, then met his eyes. “Is that weird?”
“Well, no.” He folded his arms loosely and shifted his weight. “But I think it might be telling.”
“How do you mean?”
“Let me ask you this first: why do you jerk off?”
I studied him, trying to figure out what the hell he was getting at. “Because I have a boner? And I want to go to sleep?” God, could this conversation get any weirder?
“But not because you’re thinking of someone?”
I shook my head.
“Have you ever thought you might be asexual?”
“Uh . . .” I blinked. Yep. The conversation could get weirder. “Come again?”
“Asexual. Maybe you’re . . . not into sex.”
I shifted my weight. “That’s a thing? People can be asexual?”
“Yep. It’s not just plants anymore.” He smiled, and something about his expression gave me permission to laugh, which was good—it meant I was breathing again.
“But if I was asexual, I wouldn’t jerk off, would I?”
“Maybe, maybe not.” He shrugged. “Some people do. I do.”
I jumped like he’d smacked me. “So . . . you’re asexual?”
He nodded. “That’s why I started wondering. Some of the stuff you said, it sounded pretty familiar.”
“How come I’ve never heard of people being asexual?”
“A lot of people haven’t. It’s only been the last few years that it’s really been acknowledged.” He scowled. “Isn’t terribly accepted, but it’s a start.”
“So it’s just . . .” I rocked from my heels to the balls of my feet, wondering where all this nervous energy was coming from. “People who don’t like sex?”
“Well, not necessarily.” He half shrugged. “Some asexuals want nothing to do with sex. Some will do it if their partner is into it, and they’ll still enjoy it. And some people aren’t interested in sex unless they have a really strong emotional bond with someone.”
“So, even though I like sex, I’m still . . .”
“From what you’re telling me, that’s my guess.” He held my gaze. “When you and your girlfriend did have sex, did you ever initiate it?”
I thought back, and now that he mentioned it, I couldn’t remember being the one to initiate it. Narrowing my eyes, I said, “So what you’re suggesting is, it was my fault she cheated.”
“No!” He shook his head. “No, not at all. But it—”
“I mean, what the fuck am I supposed to tell the next girl? We can date, but I don’t do the sex because I’m asexual?”
“Look.” He patted the air, and his tone was quieter and gentler than before. “There are plenty of options for asexuals. There are—”
“Shit.” I shook my head and took a step back, inching toward the door. “No, I think coming here was a bad idea. I’m not good at sex, but I want to be.”
“Because you want sex?” he asked softly. “Or because you want to be able to please your partner?”
“What’s the difference?”
We locked eyes. He didn’t say anything, and I wondered if he didn’t have an answer, or if he wanted me to put the pieces together. Nervously, I tugged at that piece of tread again, and when it snapped, I jumped. Swallowing hard, I moved the board under my other arm.
“I, um . . .” I took another step toward the door. “I have to go.”
I turned and hurried out. He didn’t follow me or try to stop me.
I dropped my board to the sidewalk, stepped on it, and got the hell out of there.
* * *
“Hey, Brennan.” My boss, Colin, snapped me out of my thoughts. When I turned, he gestured into the back room. “Got a shipment of wheels. You know what to do.”
I got up off the stool behind the cash register. “On it.”
While he manned the register, I went into the back. This part of my job was pretty easy—open the shipment, match everything to the packing list, put the new merchandise in with the back stock or out on the shelves if there was room. Most of this would end up on the shelves. We’d been running low on this particular brand of wheels for almost a month, especially the fifty-one- and fifty-three-millimeter sizes.
I cut the tape on the box and started pulling out sets of wheels, checking them off as I went. The whole time, though, my brain was elsewhere. Good thing this was mindless work, because I was busy thinking about everything the guy at the sex shop had said earlier.
Asexual? Since when were people asexual? How the hell did that work anyway? And how the hell was I asexual? I could get a boner. I could use it. I came every time. Almost every time. More often than not. I liked the things my girlfriends had done for me when they weren’t out doing them for other guys.
Shaking my head, I collapsed the empty shipping box and tossed it on top of a two-foot stack of flattened boxes. Then I opened the next one and started inventorying wheels again.
And of course, my brain went right back to Red Hot Bluewater. The more I thought about our conversation, the more I kind of felt like a dick for walking out that the way I had. Maybe the guy had been a bit blunt, but he was trying to help. And it wasn’t as if he’d laughed me out of the shop or said something was wrong with me.
“For starters, I think we need to find your kink.”
How we’d made it from there to asexual—that was the part that blew my mind. The fact that we’d been standing there in a room full of porn and sex toys, having a straight-faced conversation about it, was . . . weird. And he’d said he was asexual too. But he jerked off? And he worked in a sex shop?
Except . . . what if he was onto something? He’d seemed like he genuinely wanted to help me figure out my problem, so I didn’t get the impression he was fucking with me.
I glanced around to make sure Colin hadn’t wandered back here. Then I pulled out my phone and googled “asexual.”
My jaw dropped as I stared at the screen. There were thousands of results, and none of them seemed to be about houseplants. Skimming over it, I was inundated with terms I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen in high school biology.
Graysexual? Demisexual? Cupiosexual? Apothisexual? The fuck?
“How’s that shipment coming?” Colin’s voice startled the shit out of me, and I shoved my phone into my pocket just before he poked his head into the stockroom. “I’ve got someone looking for Radial Red in fifty-two.”
“Uh.” I’d seen three sets of those not thirty seconds ago. Where were— There. I grabbed the sets of Radial Reds, double-checked that they were fifty-two millimeter, and tossed them to him. “They’ll be in the system in two seconds.” I held up the packing list. “All I need to do is punch this in.”
Well, the graysexuals and asexuals and whateversexuals were going to have to wait, apparently. When I got home tonight, I’d google this shit and actually read it.
For now, asexual or otherwise, I had work to do.
Two days after he came into Red Hot Bluewater, I still couldn’t get Brennan out of my mind. Or was it Brandon? Brennan. Brendan, maybe? Pretty sure it was Brennan. I’d only given his driver’s license a quick look, though. Brandon? Brennan?
Whatever his name was, he hadn’t come back in. Not that I’d expected him to, but I hoped that meant he was finding all the answers he needed. It had taken me months to get my head around the concept of being asexual, and what that meant, and where I went from there. I didn’t envy him, because I’d been there, done that, no thanks, keep the T-shirt.
I kept wishing he would come back into the shop. I wanted him to find the answers and accept who he was, and if I could help, I wanted to.
That wasn’t the only reason I perked up whenever the bell on the front door jingled, though. It was probably just the novelty of running into another asexual in this town. Bluewater Bay had plenty of queer people, especially since they’d started filming Wolf’s Landing here, but the ones on my end of the spectrum didn’t seem to be all that common. Or, well, they didn’t come strolling into the sex shop very often, anyway. Big shock.
It was also possible I’d been wrong about Brennan, and I wanted a second chance to talk to him so I could either clarify things or apologize for screwing with his mind. He’d pinged asexual to me, but I was no sexuality psychic. And the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit there might’ve been some wishful thinking involved. Another asexual in Bluewater Bay? Yes, please!
And what would I do if he did come back? Direct him toward a few more answers, then clock out and wave good-bye because I wouldn’t have time for anything else before I sprinted out the door to go pick up my kid or work my second job.
Muttering a few curses, I looked at the clock above the door. According to the legs of the leather-clad Tom of Finland character, it was ten fifteen. Only two minutes since I’d last checked.
Today was going to be a long one. Full shift at Red Hot, then on to Old Country Pizza, where I delivered pizzas for that inflexible asshole who always smelled like cigars. Tomorrow, same deal. My next day off from both jobs was . . . I couldn’t even remember. Too depressing to think about.
Maybe it was time to ask both my bosses for a little simultaneous vacation time, even if it meant working double shifts to make up for the unpaid days off from Old Country. I needed a breather. Maybe some social interaction with someone who wasn’t buying a pizza or a dildo. As it was, I’d barely had time to go to the asexual social group out in Port Angeles, and hadn’t been to the bigger one in Seattle since last year.
Between my jobs and my son, there just weren’t enough hours in the day. My social life was nonexistent. The closest I came to one these days was the mosque we attended. Tariq liked the other kids, and the adults were nice when they weren’t needling me about the lack of a maternal figure in my son’s life. Or my lack of attendance, since “I barely have time to grocery shop or breathe” didn’t seem to fly.
Finding time to socialize with other people like me? Yeah, right.
Which was probably why I kept an eye on the shop’s front door, hoping Brandon—Brennan—would come back just so I could talk to someone who got it. Or was in the process of getting it.
At the very least, it would be a distraction from a monotonous morning of precisely nothing happening. Chin on my hand, I leaned on the counter and scanned the store, looking for something to do. Tuesdays were slow as hell here. They’d be slow at my other job too, which meant not a lot of tips, and the boss might cut drivers loose. Great. A tighter budget. Totally what I needed these days.
But at least working at Red Hot was relatively low stress. As far as retail jobs went, it didn’t suck as hard as it could have, and Violet was a saint when it came to being flexible for a single parent.
The only real downside? Slow days. Like this one. When there was nothing to do but stand around.
I drummed my fingers on the counter. So . . . fucking . . . boring.
The UPS driver came. The FedEx driver came. The mailman came.
No customers, though.
I shifted my gaze toward the shelves of sex toys I’d restocked this morning. How many dildos would it take to build a tower all the way to the ceiling? The Tower of Dildylon? The Leaning Tower of Phalluses? The Eyeful Tower?
Please, someone, come through that door . . .
No one did. Of course.
I took out my phone and started browsing. Violet didn’t mind as long as my daily task list was done and there were no customers in the store. And it passed the time.
I’d just started reading some clickbait article about celebrities and their pets when the bell on the door jingled.
Oh yes. Finally! Someone’s—
I nearly dropped my phone.
“Oh hey!” I set the phone down so hard, it slammed against the counter and I startled myself. “Uh, hey. How are you?”
“I’m good.” Brennan smiled shyly as he tucked his skateboard under his arm. “Didn’t catch you when you were busy, did I?”
“No, not at all.” I cleared my throat, folding my hands on top of my phone. “So, um, you’re back.” Smooth. Real smooth.
“Yeah. I . . .” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve been thinking about everything you said last time I was here. And, uh, I was on my way to work, so . . .” He gestured up the street. “I don’t work very far from here. So, you know, thought I’d swing in.”
“Oh.” I paused. “I, uh, I’m sorry if I threw too much at you the other day. It’s—”
“No, it’s cool.” He waved his hand. “I did a lot of thinking afterward. And looking around on the internet.”
He nodded, scanning our surroundings uneasily. Then he met my gaze. “One minute, I think you’re right. The next, I . . .”
“Don’t know what to think?”
“Yeah. That. How’d you know?”
“Been there.” I grimaced. “I can probably relate more than you think.”
“I figured. That’s, uh, why I came back, actually.” He pulled in a deep breath as he gave the shelves and merchandise another sweeping glance. “I have . . . so many questions.”
“Well.” I flattened my palms on the counter and stood a little straighter. “That’s what they pay me the big bucks for, so ask away.”
He gulped, rolling his shoulders. “Man, I’m not even sure where to start.”
“You said you did some looking on the web, right?”
Brennan nodded. “A few hours’ worth, yeah.”
“Anything in particular you want to know about?”
“Is ‘all of it’ too broad?”
“It’s kind of hard to know where to start, but I get it, believe me.” I whistled. “It’s overwhelming.”
The bell on the door jingled, and I glanced over as a couple of guys strolled in, hand in hand. About three seconds later, a redheaded woman walked in looking like she was on a mission.
Really? Now you all start coming in?
Brennan glanced at them, then turned to me. “I guess I should, um, let you get to work.”
Disappointment tugged at my chest. “Yeah. Sorry. It’s just me for the next few hours, so . . .”
“I need to get to work myself anyway.” He swallowed. “I was mostly coming in to see if I could buy you a drink or something later. To apologize for being kind of a dick the other day, and to ask you about all of this.”
“Oh. I . . .” That wasn’t what I’d expected. We had customers ask us out and offer to take us for drinks all the time, and the creepy undertones were enough to make my skin crawl. But nothing about Brennan’s request pinged as anything except innocent and genuine.
He rocked from his heels to the balls of his feet. “If that’s not cool, it’s fine. I don’t want to monopolize your time or anything.” He glanced again at the other customers. In a quieter voice, he said, “I just feel completely fucking clueless.”
“Well . . .” I moistened my lips. “I’m not off from my second job until probably nine.”
“That’s okay. I’m usually up late.”
I wanted to jump at the offer—how long had it been since I’d been out with anyone?—but I hesitated. My son was at my sister’s tonight, since she covered for my babysitter once or twice a week, and he was staying overnight. So it really didn’t matter if I got home at ten thirty or midnight. Did it? What was the harm?
I smiled. “Sure. You know where the Captain’s Lounge is?”
Brennan’s lips quirked, and he seemed to lose focus for a second, but then he nodded. “Yeah, yeah. I know where it is.”
“I can meet you there a little after nine if you’re sure that’s not too late.”
His eyes lit up. “Great. Sounds great. I’ll see you there.”
He started to go, but hesitated. “Oh. I just realized I didn’t catch your name.”
“Zafir? Interesting name.”
I laughed. “Says everyone who ever tries to spell it. It’s Lebanese. And you’re . . .” Was it Brennan or Brandon? “Brandon, right?”
“Brennan. How did— Right. My driver’s license.”
“Well. Um. Zafir, you said?”
“See you this evening.”
And with that, he was gone.
The Tom of Finland clock said it wasn’t quite eleven yet, so I still had way too many hours left before I met up with Brennan. Chances were, the time would move even slower from here on out.
But that was okay. Now I had something to look forward to.