None of Adam Ellery’s fantasies had ever involved a muscle-bound and cowboy-hat-wearing avenging angel, but they would now.
In hindsight, it had been a dumb idea to come to the laundromat this late on a Friday night. Assuming there would be less traffic than on Saturday morning, Adam had trekked out on a cool Colorado mountain evening to take advantage of what he’d thought would be the least populated time to wash his clothes. What had ended up happening instead was that Adam became the wash-cycle entertainment for a pack of drunk and high frat boys. They’d taken his blue briefs, his club shirt, and his Ten Reasons You Shouldn’t Bug an Entomologist tee, and when Adam tried to steal one of them back, they stole his glasses too, right off his face, and added them to their giggling game of Keep Away.
Blushing and terrified, Adam stood in the center of their jeering semi-circle, his back to a table where the contents of his laundry basket had become part of the bullies’ game. He told himself he’d be fine so long as he didn’t panic. They were mostly trying to out-macho each other, stepping on Adam to prove they were bigger and badder than the rest. They weren’t hurting him, and they might not hurt him at all if he played his part in the game well. If he was lucky, he’d just lose a pair of underwear and a few of his favorite shirts.
He didn’t want to think about being unlucky.
“You wear this freaky blue shit for underwear, huh?” The frat boys snickered in unison as one of them bumped Adam’s shoulder. “What color you wearing right now?”
Adam shut his eyes and focused on his breathing. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of pushing him into a panic attack. He wouldn’t.
Another push. “We’re talking to you, fag.”
“Please.” Adam had been in this position before. It was time for him to beg. “Please give me my glasses back.”
“Show us your underwear first, freak.”
The nervous flutter in the pit of Adam’s stomach turned into sick fear. No, he couldn’t do this. No. No. His panic congealed and began to rise. “Please,” he whispered.
But his fear only fueled them now. “Strip, faggot.” Someone shoved at his shoulder again. Adam realized with a sick heart that he would very soon be stripping, or collapsing in a heap and either ending up in the hospital or lying here alone on the floor. Or worse. What would these jackals do to him if he had an attack?
Oh God, oh God, oh God oh God—
“What the fuck is going on?” someone bellowed.
Adam startled, but so did the frat boys. One of them swore, and all of them staggered back, parting from their circle around Adam’s table, and as his panic fell back to somewhat manageable levels, he was able to see the newcomer.
It was a cowboy.
Cowboy was cut. Not handsome. Not in the let-me-jack-to-you cowboy porn mag way, at any rate. He wasn’t ugly, but he didn’t have a marble jaw or anything, and he wasn’t magazine-slick, not even close. But muscles? Oh yeah. Normally Adam did not go for muscles, because muscles scared him. Muscles could hurt him. Muscles had hurt him on more than one occasion, leaving him still unable to enter most large public restrooms.
Right now, though, muscles were either going to save or bury his ass, and Adam should stop staring at them.
Cowboy looked pissed, but at the frat boys, not Adam. He took his time approaching them, covering the distance between the side door to the laundromat and Adam’s table with a slow, steady gait that made his hips roll enticingly in his beaten-up jeans and was punctuated by the clip-clop of his equally worn cowboy boots. The closer he got, the more he slowed down, giving the frat boys plenty of time to take him in.
“I asked you a question,” Cowboy said. “What. The fuck. Is going on?”
The frat boys murmured among themselves before one of them replied, “We’re just messing around, old man.”
Cowboy said nothing, only stared back at the boys. His gaze lingered on the one holding Adam’s glasses.
The one holding Adam’s glasses took a step back.
One of the drunk-high boys, though, tossed his hair back out of his eyes and fixed his adversary with an insolent leer. “Did we pick on your boyfriend, honey? We’re sorry.”
Adam felt something bounce against his hand, and when he looked down, he saw his glasses lying beside him on the table. Immediately he grabbed them and put them back on. When he lifted his gaze again, Cowboy was standing one beefy arm’s length away from the one who’d spoken. Cowboy’s expression up to that point had remained cool, but as Adam watched, the man’s face split into a nasty grin. The five others shrank back into the corner, whispering various panicked expletives under their breath. The frat boy tried to keep his cool, but even from the side, Adam could see it cracking.
The laundromat went silent as Cowboy ran a thick, gnarly finger down the frat boy’s chest.
“Don’t be jealous. You want my cock, little boy, all you gotta do is bend over.”
The frat boy sputtered, swore, and swung.
Cowboy blocked the blow, grabbed Frat Boy’s nuts, and grinned. “Tell your fuck buddies to give the man his clothes back.”
Frat Boy swore, then yelped in pain as Cowboy’s grip tightened. “Fuck—do it,” he cried, and seconds later, Adam’s clothes came sailing over his shoulder to land on the tabletop.
Cowboy jerked his head in a curt nod of approval. “Good boy. Now all of you apologize.” Frat Boy made a muffled gurgle as Cowboy went on. “And just so it’s clear, you’re getting this one shot to do it without your pants in a long, hot cycle in the washer and your dipshit asses waiting outside until they’re done.”
Adam kept rigid, his head spinning as, one by one, the frat boys came up to him and murmured terrified apologies before speeding like bullets out the door. The one who had challenged Cowboy was last, making his apology on his knees, his hair held tight in Cowboy’s grip. Then he beat it out of there as well, leaving Adam, frozen in place with his mouth gaping open, alone with his rescuer.
Cowboy tipped his hat, turned around, and walked away.
# # #
Outside of a lingering flicker of irritation in his jaw, Cowboy gave no clue he’d routed six men and saved Adam’s pathetic little hide. He simply went to his dryer, pulled over an empty cart, and began folding his clothes. He made no eye contact with Adam, not until Adam got himself under control and was able to walk up to his rescuer, nervous hands tangling in front of his belly. As Adam shoved down the last of his panic, Cowboy stopped folding and waited for Adam to speak.
“Thank you,” Adam managed at last.
Cowboy acknowledged him with a jerk of his head. “Not a problem.”
He resumed folding his clothes.
Adam stood beside his cart, watching. The need to keep talking to the stranger burned inside him, but the man wasn’t making it easy. Yet Adam couldn’t walk away. When Cowboy stopped folding again and leveled that cool hazel gaze at him, Adam shoved his fear down hard and stuck out his hand. “I’m Adam Ellery.”
Cowboy nodded again and accepted Adam’s hand, closing it in his warm, rough grip. “Denver Rogers.”
Their hands lingered a moment, then fell apart. The touch had bolstered Adam, though, and instead of fighting for the ability to speak, he tried to sort out what he should say. All he could think of was how no one had ever rescued him before, but he didn’t want to seem pathetic. Asking personal questions felt too brash just yet. Offering to buy the man something to drink seemed appropriate, so he gestured toward the coffee shop. “Can I get you something? As a thank-you?”
Denver stopped folding and searched Adam’s face. Eventually he shook his head.
This time Adam was glad the man turned away, because he was blushing in mortification. Rescued and then rejected. Well, what do you expect? He rescued you out of pity, not as a come-on.
Adam murmured another thanks under his breath and wandered off in search of more of his laundry, gathering up the basket the frat boys had been messing with and adding it to his stash at his table by the door. On the way past his remaining washer, he saw it had finished, so his next move was to switch his laundry to a dryer.
Something perverse and obstinate made him use the one next to Denver’s. It also encouraged his mouth to flap again. “Do you live around here?”
It was easier to talk when he was busy with clothes, he found, and something about it seemed to make Denver answer easier as well. “Few streets over.”
“Me too.” Adam caught Denver’s gaze and smiled. “The Park Place apartments across the highway. I just moved in.” He gestured wryly to the laundromat. “This is my first time without facilities on site. Well, I have them, but they’re communal, and I found out today they’re never working and that when they do, they eat your clothes. So here I am.”
Denver nodded and went back to his clothes.
Adam kept talking, because he was nervous and starting to panic and it was either talk or go fetal at this point. “I’m a grad student at the university. Entomology. Bugs. I want to learn more about pollinators. I started with bees, but now I’m into moths. It’s fascinating stuff, really. You wouldn’t believe how much the world would change without them. No food, no flowers, and wow, I should really stop talking.”
He’d blushed scarlet by the end of his babble, and fetal was starting to sound really amazing, but Denver glanced up at the end and gave him a reassuring but slightly sly grin. “You’re fine.”
“Not as fine as you,” Adam said before he could stop himself. Then he melted into the wall, half-falling into his dryer and knocking his glasses sideways as he realized what he’d just done. “Oh God.” He held up a hand and shook his head even before Denver looked up at him in surprise. “I’m sorry. Really. I just—”
His voice died as Denver came around his dryer door and stood in front of Adam.
Denver’s hard gaze made Adam want to run screaming and spread his legs at the same time. He was half in the dryer and trapped between Denver’s door, his own, and Denver himself. Three million pounds of hot, beefy cowboy bore down on him, not saying anything, not glaring, not really, just . . . looking. The world fell away until the only things left were Adam’s small body, Denver’s huge one, and the damp towels underneath his ass. Denver didn’t move, neither advancing nor retreating, just staring at Adam. Measuring? Waiting? Adam couldn’t tell. Something told Adam, though, that the next move was his.
Fear kicked up at the idea, but it was dual-headed: fear of rejection, either in anger or disinterest—and fear of waiting too long and missing out on bringing that big body closer.
He pushed his glasses back up onto his nose.
Quit acting like you’re afraid of the world all the damn time.
The worst part was, it was true. Adam was always afraid. Afraid of what might happen, Afraid of what had happened. Afraid of rules broken or bent sideways, of things being out of place, as if this might invite the world to fall in around his ears. Afraid of not having control. Afraid of what people knew about him just by looking at him. Afraid of what they might find out. Afraid of what they thought of him, what they might do to him—in general, Adam was afraid. Of the uncertainty that went with absolutely everything about Planet Earth.
He was still afraid of Cowboy. But for the first time in a long, long time, desire was keeping pace with fear. It wouldn’t take but a little shove to put it in the lead.
Remembering the way Cowboy had handled the frat boys, reminding himself how Cowboy hadn’t asked for anything for that service, realizing that Cowboy was waiting for Adam to give full permission, Adam drew in a slow, silent breath. Then he let it out, shifted against the edge of the dryer, and pushed his knees open.
Heat sparked in the back of Denver’s gaze, and his mouth lifted up at one corner into a slow, crooked smile.
When the cowboy’s big hand rested on Adam’s thigh, the touch went straight to his cock, and his lips parted on a gasp. His other knee lifted slightly, eager for the other hand as his mind spun erotic scenarios faster than the speed of light. But the hand never came. Instead Denver stepped back and examined Adam critically again.
“This you being grateful, or are you really wanting to play?”
“Yeah,” Adam whispered. Play. He didn’t need a guidebook to get the double entendre in Denver’s tone. Adam wanted every tendre, double and otherwise, that Denver put on the table. Or under it. Or over it.
Denver’s wicked half-smile faded a little. “You’re not doing this, are you, because you’re grateful I chased away the idiots?” When Adam frowned, he went on. “Don’t play because you’re afraid of them, or worse, of me. I don’t roll that way. I only want to play because it makes you hot and because I’m promising you I’ll make you come so hard you won’t be able to stand.”
Adam was pretty sure he couldn’t stand now. “Th-that last one. That’s why I’m playing.”
“Good.” Denver’s countenance was full of promise as he nodded to Adam’s dryer. “Finish loading your stuff. Then you’re going to see to mine.”
Adam couldn’t tell if there was innuendo in that last part or not, but he didn’t care. He was fairly certain even folding Denver’s underwear would be erotic.
Denver really did have Adam fold his underwear, which was plain old tighty-whiteys. That part was dull as toast. What had the back of Adam’s teeth aching was that Adam’s pants were undone and Denver stood behind him, his hands deep inside Adam’s briefs—red and white striped—the whole time.
Adam was still having a hard time with the idea that they were going to “play” in the laundromat. He’d assumed they’d quickly finish up their work here and move on to one of their respective apartments. Of course that in itself had sent him into a quiet panic-spiral, but he’d been caught up in the moment and had been determined to ride out the neurosis.
Nowhere in his agenda had he seen himself folding underwear. While Denver fondled him. In the laundromat.
With his glasses left on, at Denver’s insistence.
Not that being fondled was bad. However, they were in public. While Adam found this very hot, it was also weird, and it felt a little dangerous.
Which, Adam was surprised to discover, only made the situation that much sexier.
The only fly in the ointment was that even turned on, he was still nervous. He was hard, yes, and he was enjoying himself, yes, and he was currently leapfrogging over so many neuroses he was likely breaking a world record, but he still worried. What if someone came in? What if they called the police? What if he was arrested and he ended up playing fold-the-underwear with someone who wasn’t Denver? What if his advisor found out? Would getting caught having public sex do something to his teaching assistantship? Would he still be able to get a job? Would getting felt up in a laundromat inadvertently lead to him living on the streets, starving and exposed, selling his body for sex, which meant he would contract a disease and die?
“Turn your head off,” Denver drawled. He sounded amused. Patient and amused. “Unless I’m doing something you don’t like?”
God, no. “I just—I don’t want to get caught.”
The hands on Adam tightened briefly. “You’re already caught.”
Was he ever. “I mean, I don’t want to be arrested.”
“Cops don’t usually patrol laundromats.” Denver shoved the waistband of Adam’s pants down, exposing his naked backside to the air before Denver’s hand slid over Adam’s ass and his fingers dipped into Adam’s crack. “I got you, baby. You just do what you’re told and stay relaxed. I’ll make sure you have a good time.” He chuckled, and a finger pressed up against Adam’s opening. “And that you don’t get arrested.”
Denver’s words didn’t do half as much for Adam as that finger did, especially once it disappeared and came back cold and slippery with lube. Adam wondered briefly where the hell that had come from, and then he moaned and fell forward onto the folded laundry as Denver pushed inside.
“That’s right.” The finger breaching Adam pushed deeper, and Adam moaned again. “This is all you have to do. Don’t worry about who’s watching. I’m watching. I’m watching my finger go into your ass, watching you spread open for me. You gonna take my cock next, sweet thing? You gonna moan all over my folded clothes while I fuck you?” The finger fucked Adam gently but insistently. “Right here on the table where everyone can see?”
Adam whimpered and lifted his ass higher so Denver’s finger could fuck him deeper.
Denver laughed low and wicked and pushed in with a second digit. “That’s right. That’s the way.”
The two fingers stretched Adam deliciously and set fire racing across his gland. “I’m messing up your laundry,” he rasped, then groaned and arched his back as Denver twisted his fingers and fucked deep at the same time.
“You’re going to make my laundry dirty, baby. You’re going to come all over it.”
The very thought pushed Adam into overdrive, wicked and impossible and dangerous and dirty, and he shut his eyes, giving up all pretense of folding laundry so he could reach back and grip the edge of the table. When Denver pushed more clothes underneath Adam to lift him higher, Adam shimmied his pants down the rest of the way and pushed his thighs as wide as his jeans would let him against the side of the table to raise himself up, lifting himself higher and higher as Denver thrust more laundry beneath him until the cowboy had Adam right where he wanted him.
“Nice ass you got here, boy.” Denver palmed Adam’s left cheek as his fingers continued to plunge inside Adam. “Real nice.” He slapped the cheek a few times, and Adam twitched, then shuddered. His glasses shifted on his face, not falling, but no longer of any use to him. Adam could imagine what he looked like: a debauched nerd. A debauched nerd with his ass spread over a pile of laundry.
The mental image made him moan.
Denver laughed, a wicked sound. “Yeah. You like this. You like this more than you want to admit. Ass in the air in a laundromat, finger-fucked by a guy you just met. Humping my laundry.” Another slap, another groan from Adam. “There you go, boy. Make noise. I like to hear noise. I know you want my cock in your ass, right here on this table, but it ain’t happening until you make more noise.” This time the slap stung, going straight to Adam’s cock. “Come on. Let me hear it.”
The heat from the dryers was nothing to that coming off Adam’s face. Part of his brain was screaming in pleasure, part cataloged all the ways this was wrong wrong wrong, and another huge chunk of it simply sat frozen in shock. What was he doing? What in the world was he thinking, letting a stranger—a big, muscle-bound stranger—finger-fuck him and spank him and tell him to make more noise, and in public? This was insane. This was crazy.
This was so freaking hot he nearly melted from it. For once in his life, even his anxiety was turned on.
What Adam loved more than anything else, though, more than the shame of the exposure and the rough way Denver told him what to do, how giving control up to Denver took away all his anxiety, all his fear.
No fear. When was the last time he hadn’t felt any fear? Any at all? He was afraid when he was asleep as well as awake—his dreams were nothing but anxiety nightmares. When he was awake, his life was ruled by illogical rituals and paranoid habits, some standard obsessive-compulsive disorder traits, some unique to Adam alone, every last one of them born out of fear: fear of the unknown, fear of the known, fear of the chaos that was life. He was wired on such powerful meds he had to use sleep medication to come down, and even with that he was still afraid. He was afraid of what he wanted. Afraid of what he needed.
He’d lost Brad, the only boyfriend he’d ever had, to fear.
Right now, in the laundromat with Denver, Adam felt no fear. None. None. The only emotion he knew outside of being turned on beyond his wildest dreams was being so overwhelmed with relief that he wanted to cry.
Denver’s free hand ran down Adam’s back, finding his spine through his shirt. “Let go, Adam. I told you: you’re safe. Turn off your head and let go, because I’ve got you.”
Adam drew in a slow, shaky breath. He held it for a moment.
Exhaling so hard he went boneless, Adam let go.
Everything was gone now, everything but sensation. People may have come into the laundromat; Adam wouldn’t have known. All he knew was Denver and what Denver told him to do. Make noise: Adam made noise, grunting and moaning and sighing and eventually babbling about how good Denver made him feel.
“Relax,” Denver told him as a third finger entered him. It hurt, but Denver went slow, stretching him. Adam focused on the sensation, letting the pain turn into a burn, letting Denver take him wherever it was Denver wanted to go.
A rustling sound drew Adam briefly out of his lust-coma: condom. Denver was putting on a condom. God, he hadn’t even thought of that. What if Denver hadn’t put on a condom? What if he’d just fucked Adam without it? What if Adam had gotten a horrible disease, all because he’d let some stranger—
A hand on Adam’s lower back stilled his whirling thoughts. “Easy. You’re okay.” The hand massaged him gently. “You need to stop?”
Stop? No, he didn’t want to stop. “No,” he said out loud, because Denver had gone quiet and clearly wouldn’t resume until Adam clarified. Realizing that made him feel a little easier, and he tried to glance over his shoulder, needing to see that condom to feel completely okay. There it was, wrinkled and shiny and half-covering Denver’s not insignificant cock.
Adam felt the last of his nerves slide back into rest position.
“Thanks.” He met Denver’s gaze. “For thinking of the condom.”
Denver lifted an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t fuck without one. Not without a hell of a lot of promises and a round of tests.”
Even better. “Good to hear,” Adam said, and turned around again. The fingers on his back began stroking again, and Adam shut his eyes and drifted back to euphoria, deeper this time than when he had left.
When Denver finally thrust his cock inside, Adam sighed out loud, a long, stuttering exclamation as his cowboy claimed him. Thick as a post, Cowboy was, his penis as beefy as the rest of him. Adam focused on how it felt inside him, sliding inside his channel, nudging against his prostate though not quite stimulating it. Whimpering, he tried to thrust back, but Denver clamped a hand on his neck and held him in place, forcing Adam to take his cock at Denver’s pace.
Adam found he liked that hand on his neck almost as much as he liked the fat cock inside him, so much so that when Denver took it away he cried out again, and when that didn’t give him what he wanted, he whispered, “Please.”
The big hand returned, thumb stroking the edge of Adam’s hairline, fingernails ghosting over Adam’s skin. Then Denver pushed him down, pinning him to the table.
Adam relaxed and let go again.
That was all there was to the world, Adam holding still beneath Denver’s hand as Denver plunged in and out of Adam’s body. At some point, he went deep enough to scrape Adam’s prostate after all, but even then Adam didn’t move, only moaned and gasped and held absolutely still while his cowboy used him. Denver took his time, thrusting, rolling his hips, slapping at Adam’s ass, squeezing it so hard Adam cried out.
Adam never wanted it to end.
Denver took Adam’s cock in his hand and stroked it in time to his own thrusts, urging Adam toward his release. Adam did as he was told, following that electric feel, letting Denver send him there, tipping himself over the edge when Denver told him to. Spending against the clothes beneath him, he lay still and shuddering with aftershocks as Denver pulled out. Head tilted to stare dreamily at the wall, he felt Denver fumble behind him with the condom before shooting all over Adam.
He lay there, ass bare and sore, glasses dangling from one ear, shirt covered in spunk, as Denver’s belt buckle clinked. He kept still as Denver’s footfalls moved around the table to the bathroom and back again. He didn’t move even when a damp, warm washcloth—bless you, laundry—moved over his backside and between his legs, cleaning him up.
When Denver pulled him back to his feet and straightened his glasses, however, he faltered. Not just because his legs didn’t seem to want to bear him up, but because as Denver tugged Adam’s pants back into place, the real world came back with them. Adam realized what he had just done, how he had behaved. What he had let a stranger do to him. How much he had exposed himself in ways that had nothing at all to do with being fucked in public, how far he had strayed from safe with Denver. He thought about how much he had wanted this—all of it, kinky sex, danger, everything—and how long he had wanted it.
This was what Brad saw. This was why he rejected you. This was why you had to go.
“Hands up,” Denver murmured, and like a child, Adam lifted his arms, letting Denver strip the semen-stained shirt off his body, pulling the neck wide to keep his glasses from getting smudged—well, worse than they already were. When Denver came back with his Ten Reasons T-shirt, Adam lifted his hands without being told and let himself be dressed.
When Denver looked down at him, searching Adam’s face, Adam stared back up at him, unable to do anything but silently beg Denver not to let this be the end of their encounter.
Denver stared at Adam a long, long time. Eventually, he nodded at the table full of mangled, semen-soaked clothes. “You messed up my laundry, boy.”
There was a sharpness, an edge to Denver’s tone that tempted Adam to be afraid. He wouldn’t let himself take the bait. “I’m sorry.” Adam dipped his head. “I’ll wash them for you again if you’d like.”
“I’m out of quarters.” He caught Adam’s chin and lifted it. Adam met his eyes, heart pounding, but still didn’t let fear get a grip.
“Yes, sir.” He wasn’t even sure what he was agreeing to, he just knew he’d agree with whatever Denver said.
Denver let go of Adam’s chin and ruffled his hair. When he started to gather his semen-stained clothes into an empty basket, Adam realized his cowboy planned to leave without so much as an exchange of phone numbers.
He also realized there was no way he could let that happen.
“Wait.” Adam put his hand over the top of the basket, screwing up his courage and looking Denver in the eye. “I still have quarters. I want to wash your dirty laundry for you.”
Denver frowned at the dirty clothes. “I gotta get to work, so I can’t stay.”
Get to work? Adam glanced at the clock on the wall, which read 9:30. “Where do you work?”
A gay bar, the local one instead of the college club scenes. The one Adam hadn’t ever been to because he didn’t do bars without the rest of the Bug Boys as backup, and they didn’t do gay bars. A trill of anxiety tried to take root, but Adam was too eager to meet Denver again to heed it. He’d moved out, hadn’t he? Surely he could go to a bar alone as well. “I can finish them for you and get them to you later. When you get off work, maybe.”
Denver looked amused. “I get off at 2:30 in the morning.”
Something in his tone made Adam swallow his offer to arrive after closing. He tried to hang on to his bravado, but it wasn’t something he was well-versed in. “Oh.”
His cowboy regarded him with a clear-eyed gaze that seemed to burn into the back of Adam’s brain. It made him want to fidget and never move again all at once. Mostly he clung to his yearning, wanting more than anything to prolong this encounter, to get back to that place where he didn’t feel afraid, just hot and wild and free.
It must have worked, because Denver held out his hand and said, “Give me your phone.”
Without a word or beat of hesitation, Adam dug into his pocket and passed it over, then watched as Denver punched at the screen for half a minute before giving it back.
“Give me a holler if you want company at the laundromat again sometime.” Picking up the basket of clothes, he winked at Adam as he headed for the door.
Denver Rogers couldn’t stop thinking about the cute grad student from the laundromat. He thought about him all night long, all through his shift and as he went to bed, and again when he passed the Park Place apartments on his way to the grocery store.
It worried him.
He wasn’t sure why he kept thinking about the kid or why thinking about him so much made him uneasy. He pretty much made it his mission to fuck his way through every twink who came to Lights Out, and that wasn’t the first time he’d given out his cell number. In fact, he’d ignored ten different texts and photos while he’d done his shift at the door of the bar after leaving Tucker Laund-O-Rama, and he’d turned down several offers of bed-warmers and back-room blowjobs. As far as offers went, that had actually been a pretty slow night for him, really. Nobody had caught his eye, though.
Not like the cute entomologist with blond hair and glasses.
At the laundromat.
Really, it was that last bit that was holding him up, and for a dumbass reason. So when he couldn’t shake the uneasiness Saturday afternoon, he headed for the one person he knew would give him a therapeutic dose of reality.
El Rozal sat behind his counter at Tucker Pawn, bronze arms covered in nicotine patches and a scowl on his face. When he saw Denver, he gave a curt nod and reached over to scratch the ears of his black and white mop of a dog. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself.” Denver grinned at the patches and shook his head. “Trying again, I see.”
El grunted and pushed his black hair out of his eyes. “Sorry I had to bail on you for laundry yesterday. I can’t wait until Paul’s done with this certification crap.”
El’s boyfriend was studying to be a vet tech. “When’s his test?”
“Tuesday.” El reached for his shirt pocket, realized what he was doing, and sighed. “What’ll it be, Mr. Rogers? Buy, sell, or trade?”
“Buy, as in, I’m buying lunch if you’ll haul your ass out from behind that counter for it.”
Grimacing, El glanced at the clock on the wall. “Believe me, I’d love to, but I promised Paul I’d meet him on campus with sandwiches at one.”
“Oh. No problem.” Denver tried for a no-worries smile, but he wasn’t feeling it.
If El had still been smoking, he’d have stared at Denver over the tip of the burning cherry. As it was, he simply stared, his hard, dark eyes assessing. “Business is slow, though, and it’s a long time until one. What do you say to a cup of coffee and a croissant?”
This time Denver didn’t have to fake the grin. “I say flip that sign and get MoJo’s leash.”
“You’re still buying,” El said, ruffling the ears of the mop-headed dog, who had gone wild at the word leash.
El preferred the local Mocha Springs Eternal coffee shop to Starbucks, which was fine with Denver, as he only ever ordered black coffee anyway. He got El his usual frothy caramel thing and brought both drinks out to the patio, where MoJo was already nestling into her owner’s lap.
“Few more weeks, it’ll be too cold to sit out here,” Denver observed as he eased into the metal chair across from El. It groaned under his considerable size, but he knew from experience this one could take him.
“I’ll be out here wrapped in scarves in December unless they let MoJo come inside.” El sipped at his coffee. “So, muscle boy. It appears you have something on your mind.”
Denver shifted in his seat, making the metal groan more. “Nothing really. Just had an interesting night is all.”
“Last I checked, that wasn’t unusual for you. Unless you did three at once again?”
He shifted again. “No.” He took a fortifying sip of coffee. “Actually, I hooked up at the laundromat.”
El stared at him a moment, then barked in laughter. “Are you kidding me? For real? Jesus, after all the jokes?”
That at least made Denver smile. Ever since El had met Paul, El and Denver had been joking about how Denver’s Mr. Right would walk into the Tucker Laund-O-Rama. “For real.” His smile faded a little. “Just a hookup, though.”
“Still, that’s pretty funny. Your place or his?”
“Uh.” Denver took another swig of coffee.
El stared at him, then laughed again. “Your truck? How do you even maneuver in there? You barely fit to drive.”
Why wasn’t this fun? Why wasn’t he leering and bragging? Denver didn’t understand. “Actually, it was in the laundromat.”
“They finally disinfected that bathroom?”
“No.” Denver tugged at his hat and pulled it lower over his face. “Over a table. On my laundry. Which reminds me, I’m going to have to go back this afternoon and do another load.” When El stayed silent, Denver looked up at him, holding his friend’s probing gaze. “It was sexy as all fuck. And it shouldn’t have been. He was this skinny, rabbit-like thing being bullied by drunk frat rats. Cute, but way too scared to play as hard as I do, so I didn’t even have him on my radar. Then all of a sudden he was sitting in a dryer, spreading his legs, and I lost my head.” Denver slunk in his chair, which was starting to protest with serious alarm. He ignored it. “He’s a grad student, at East Cent, I assume. Studies pollinators or something.” His cock stirred. “Damn ass you could bounce a quarter off of, and when you slap it . . .” He lingered in a moment of lust, body responding in a more familiar, comfortable way as he recalled what it had felt like to plow that sweet furrow. When he emerged from his haze, El was still watching him, but he had a worrying, knowing smile playing around his lips. “What?” Denver demanded.
“Nothing.” El sipped his drink, letting his tongue slip out to catch the foam from the rim.
“The fuck, nothing.” Denver shot back. “What? You’re looking at me like you just caught me with my pants down and my dick all shriveled.”
“Probably because I just did.” El set his coffee down and lazily stroked his dog’s head as she lolled in ecstasy. “I told you that you’d never meet Mr. Right in the bar.”
Denver shot up so fast he nearly knocked his coffee over. “Get off. I fucked him over my laundry.”
“Yeah. And you took me out to coffee to tell me about him. When was the last time you did that, buddy?”
Never. He’d never sought El out to tell him about a trick. He slumped again. “Fuck.”
El didn’t laugh, and his smile gentled. “It’s not the end of the world.” Denver looked meaningfully at the dog mop, which El had acquired because of his own Mr. Right. El grinned and leaned down to nuzzle his girl. “It’s not the end of the world at all.”
Denver sipped his coffee as the October breeze blew around him, and he watched his best friend make out with his dog. He tried to tell himself El was wrong, that he wasn’t hung up on Bug Boy, that it had just been a weird hookup, that he wasn’t going to end up adopting a dog or a cat or something else fucking insane. That he wasn’t going to be the one rearranging his life for someone else.
Even if, sometimes, he wanted to.
# # #
After leaving El back at Tucker Pawn, Denver headed over to Tiny’s Gym for his regular Saturday afternoon routine, and after fifteen minutes at the free weights, he felt a lot better. When he left the gym two hours later, soaked head to toe with sweat, every muscle aching, he’d forgotten all about how hot Bug Boy had been and had almost forgotten how badly he wanted to hook back up so he could fuck that sweet little mouth.
Shit, now he was thinking about Adam again.
Denver thought about Adam so much he forgot he’d meant to stop at the store on the way home. He was out of just about everything, to the point that he wouldn’t be able to make himself an omelet. Grumbling, he got ready to turn the truck back around and head to his usual grocery when he saw the Super Walmart across the street.
Bad idea, he warned himself.
The warning made him angry, and he knuckled down, turning on his signal and heading into the department store’s parking lot. It was fine. It was just a store. They were all the same. He parked and stormed through the doors, grabbed a cart, and got ready to conquer.
Within ten minutes he was swearing, sweating, and doing whatever he could to get the hell out of there.
Denver didn’t just hate the big box stores—he couldn’t seem to function in them. Before he’d moved to Tucker Springs, there had been a Target he’d gotten to know well enough to survive, but Walmarts were hard, this one in particular. Nothing in the layout was the same as other stores, and the whole place seemed to be designed to get him turned around backward. This one wasn’t quite as bad as the one where Denver hadn’t been able to find the entrance, but it was close. He was able to find his eggs and milk, but everything else was a wash. By the time he made it back to his truck, he was shaking.
Never again, he vowed. He’d go all the way back to Tucker Market, no matter how far away he was.
This was what came of getting caught up in a crush, he told himself when he was back in his apartment, making a six-egg-white omelet for dinner. He let himself get caught up in everyone else’s relationship drama—it was really getting around too. First Jase hooked up, then El had practically gotten married, and at this rate Seth was probably headhunting a sweetheart. Just because they all wanted to jump off a bridge didn’t mean he had to. Maybe he’d hooked up in the laundromat like he and El had always joked, but that didn’t mean a damn thing either. The only thing it got him was so distracted he’d had to deal with the big Walmart. Not good, not good at all.
Of course, Denver couldn’t help checking his phone for messages a little too often. Usually it was the other guy chasing him, so checking messages and hoping for them was something new. He liked to make the boys hunt him down so he could weed out the guys who were too much work, spotting the needy head cases before they got to be too clingy. Denver didn’t chase anybody. He had a system, and it worked great.
Except this time he was chasing, and it wasn’t going so well. Usually by now he’d have at least one “thanks for the great time” text, but he had nothing from Adam. Nada.
Nothing at all, not Friday, not Saturday either, and not on Sunday morning when he woke up.
To distract himself, Denver went back to the gym, even though he wasn’t due until Monday. Deciding he could use some extra leg work, he put in another two hours on free weights and then five miles on the treadmill.
He went to bed Sunday night sore as fuck, exhausted, and cranky because he still didn’t have any texts. He wasn’t sure what upset him more, that Adam hadn’t reached out, or that Denver cared that he hadn’t.
Though Adam had moved out of Crispin House, the unofficial off-campus housing for entomology graduate students, he’d unwittingly left a few things behind, and the Tuesday after his laundromat adventure, he went back to collect them. He’d needed to do so for some time, but it took him that long to work up the nerve. To soften the anxiety of the chore, he called first to inform them he was coming over.
“Just stop by, man,” Ollie told him, bemused at the call. “You know you’re always welcome here.”
That was the crux of the issue. To Ollie, to the rest of the Bug Boys, to all rational individuals, visiting someone’s house was normal. Nobody got worked up because they didn’t “belong” in that house or apartment or dorm room.
Nobody, that is, except Adam.
Ollie let Adam in the door with a cheery wave.
“I miss you, man,” he teased, punching Adam lightly in the shoulder. “And not just because the bathroom turned into a sty about ten minutes after you left.”
Adam tried to smile, laugh a little, to basically be human in the presence of a friend who meant well, but it was hard when your brain was screaming at you the whole time.
As a delectable cherry on the top of his neurotic sundae, in addition to depression and anxiety, Adam suffered from a rather sophisticated case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Oh, everyone could make jokes about hand washing and cleaning things and alphabetizing the cupboard, but in Adam’s experience, very little was laughable. Inside the tortured confines of his mind, everything had to be Just So or the world would not continue to turn properly on its axis. He found comfort in the knowledge he didn’t have something truly crippling, like the poor boy who couldn’t reply in conversation until he’d repeated the words spoken to him by someone else backward in his head.
There was one very large OCD handicap, however, that got in his way more than any other: Adam didn’t know how to navigate the anxiety morass that was people and their respective spaces.
Put simply, Adam’s brain had decided people could only be in spaces in which they belonged. Public spaces, while not his favorite, were tolerable—except for hotels, which seemed to break all the rules while being an exception at the same time and in the end simply confused him beyond his ability to cope. Private residences were his everyday dragon, however. Visitors to his house, even for a few hours, had been a source of stress for Adam since as long as he could remember, and visiting other people’s houses always made him feel anxious and raw.
His parents told stories about his distress as a very young child when they visited friends or family, of how unsettled he became for reasons they couldn’t understand. After the third time of having to leave a hotel in the middle of the night because Adam was throwing up after crying so hard, they stopped trying to stay in them. They took turns going out until he was old enough to stay on his own, because he’d never been able to tolerate a babysitter, not even his grandparents. Though it had been a winding and awkward road, eventually Adam had been properly diagnosed and began to struggle in a healthy way with the limitations his mental illness placed on his life. He’d come a long, long way.
He had not, however, come far enough to deal gracefully with the thorny issue of retrieving forgotten items at his former place of residence. Thankfully, Ollie knew about Adam’s tic and stood patiently beside him on the doorstep while logic and OCD waged their war over whether or not Adam could cross the threshold.
With a deep breath and a promise to himself that he wouldn’t stay longer than necessary, Adam went inside Crispin House.
To distract himself from too much internal-panic dialog, he tried for small talk. “How’s everyone doing?” he asked Ollie as he made his way cautiously through the space, searching for his forgotten possessions.
“Great. Mick and Brad are out golfing right now, taking a break from Fundy. Stedman’s brutal, man.”
“Sorry to hear that. Give them my best.”
Ollie followed Adam around, chatting in his friendly, eager way as Adam found his things and put them in the box he’d brought to take them back to his apartment. Ollie was an inch shorter than Adam and absolutely adorable. He reminded Adam of that Latino guy from Dancing With the Stars, Mario Lopez, only hotter and more stacked. He was straight, Adam was almost sure of it, even though he’d never seen him date. Whatever his orientation, he was pleasant to look at and not at all a bad distraction from panic.
Ollie leaned against the kitchen door while Adam went through a section of the cupboard, now simply volunteering gossip as it came to him. “Andrew’s girlfriend broke up with him, but you know how weird he is, so he doesn’t care. Kim—well, I don’t have to tell you. All he does is study, study, study.”
Adam listened to the rest of Ollie’s report of his former housemates’ lives with half an ear as he moved from the kitchen to the upstairs hall closet, where he was fairly convinced one of his towels had ended up, even though he’d always kept his things in his own room. He’d tried not caring about the missing towel once he’d realized it was gone, telling himself it was a towel and didn’t matter, but it had become his favorite one in some obtuse way, possibly simply because it was missing. Searching for it now through his discomfort seemed less upsetting than trying to live with leaving it behind.
“So how has it been, living on your own?” Ollie asked. “You get lonely, or just happy to have a place all to yourself?”
Adam couldn’t find the towel. It wasn’t anywhere in the closet, and now the closet was a mess, which meant he had to stand there and make it right. “A little of both, I guess.”
“Here, let me help,” Ollie offered, taking some of the towels Adam had rooted through. Adam hid his wince at the idea of Ollie folding anything correctly, but apparently not very well because Ollie smiled at him wryly. “It’s okay, dude. They’re my towels. I don’t mind how they’re folded.”
Adam sighed and added not caring about poor folding to his already burdened list of things-he-was-ignoring. “I know. It’s just . . . well, you know.”
“I do, man.” Ollie’s smile died, and he looked concerned. “Is that why you moved out? Were we too messy?”
“No,” Adam said, then forced himself to be honest. He liked Ollie. “Okay, that was always a little hard. But it’s important for me to learn to live with that too, so no, that wasn’t why.”
“Was it your house thing? Did we have guests over too often and they freaked you out?”
Now Adam was starting to get embarrassed. “No.” That hadn’t been why he’d left, though not having to face that awkwardness was a perk.
Ollie studied him a moment, then grimaced. “It’s Brad, isn’t it?”
Adam became very focused on folding a washcloth.
Ollie shook his head. “I told him to lay off. I told him.”
“It’s okay,” Adam lied. “He means well. And really, it was time for me to try living on my own. It was always supposed to be the next step, and now I’ve done it. Or am doing it or whatever. It’s okay.”
“Well, come visit us, all right? I really do miss you, man. Not for the cleaning, either. You’re good company.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Please. I am not.”
“You are! You respect people’s space, you know? You’re good people.” He clapped Adam on the shoulder.
Adam blushed a little and smiled, a real smile this time. “Thanks. We’ll have to do coffee sometime.”
“It’s a date,” Ollie said, aiming his index finger at Adam in a faux warning as he backed away and headed toward his own room. “See you around.”
Adam spent another half an hour trying to find the towel, which was the last of the items he was missing. He’d done well with staying in the Wrong Space, but he was stuck now because he couldn’t find that fucking towel. It was a task unfinished, a puzzle without an end, a string of ceiling tiles to count that kept adding more squares. Worse, with every minute he lingered, he increased the odds—which he calculated like a rabid squirrel inside his head—that he would run into Brad.
At four thirty in the middle of the laundry room, that’s exactly what happened. Except it was less that he ran into Brad than that Brad came looking for him.
“I heard you were here.”
Brad stood on the stairs, looking down at Adam still searching for his towel. Poised like Joan Crawford in a movie, Brad appeared ready to give some overly dramatic line. Knowing him, he had a few choice ones queued up and ready to go.
“Hey,” Adam replied, trying like hell to sound casual. “Just looking for my burgundy towel.”
“Did you look in the upstairs cupboard?”
“Yeah, and the hamper. Can’t find it anywhere.”
“Well, I’ll keep a lookout for it and get it back to you.”
Adam tensed a little. “That’s fine. I’ll find it. I’m sure it’s here.”
He should have known the dismissal wouldn’t work. Brad had sought him out. Brad had never liked the idea of Adam moving out. Brad hadn’t even really wanted them to break up, just wanted Adam to learn his place or come crawling back begging—something that part of Adam still wanted to do but that more of him knew he shouldn’t. Part of him wanted to give in, but too much of him still remembered how awful it had been at the end.
Most of him, though, was too busy thinking, It’s his house, not yours. You don’t belong here. Get out, get out, get out!
Adam drew a steadying breath and let it out through a slightly chattering jaw.
Brad made a tsking sound. “You’re doing it, aren’t you? You’re doing that people-in-the-wrong-house thing.”
“I’m just looking for my towel,” Adam repeated, carefully, like the lifeline it was. “I won’t be but another few moments.”
“It doesn’t have to be another few moments.” Brad finished his descent and swanned over to Adam, lighting gracefully on the corner of the sorting table, folding one delicate leg over the other. “I told you. You’re overreacting. You never had to move out just because we broke up.”
Adam made himself release a steady breath. “That’s not why I moved out. It was time.”
“Look at you. You’re shaking and twitching and freaking out over a towel. How can you live on your own when you’re like this? What do you do when you have a panic attack and no one is there to help you?”
“I don’t have them,” Adam snapped.
“Not yet. You’ve been gone not even two weeks. You will have one, though. You have them all the time. And what then?”
“I don’t know.” Adam bunched a wad of other people’s dirty clothes in his hands, realized what he was doing, and dropped them with a heavy shiver. “It’s not your problem, okay? Leave me alone.”
Brad pushed off the table and came to stand in front of him. “Just come home. Please. This is ridiculous.” He took Adam’s hand, and when Adam caved and looked up, he saw all the love and empathy Brad had to give, the comforting space that had drawn him in the first place, the acceptance that had made him, at least for a while, feel normal. He wanted it again. The cost that came with being with Brad suddenly seemed irrelevant.
Anxiety, OCD, and perhaps simple common sense sent up a flurry of butterflies. Mayday, Mayday! Get out of here, or you’re going to make another stupid mistake!
“You know,” Adam said, his voice shaking with forced brightness, “you’re right. If you find my towel, bring it to the lab. Have a good evening.”
Not waiting for a reply, he grabbed his box and all but ran to the stairs, hurrying up them as Brad called for him to wait, wait. As he bolted out the door, Adam tossed a nervous wave to Ollie, then headed down the walk and around the corner to his car. By the time he got there, his breath was coming in short, shallow gasps. He was a ball of sweat, and his vision was half-colored red by his impending attack. With Lamaze-like breathing and a lot of internal deal-making, Adam tossed his box on the passenger seat and drove like a nervous grandmother to his apartment, where he locked the door and crawled into his bed. Drawing the covers up over his head, he whimpered as he hyperventilated quietly in the dark.
# # #
Dating Brad had seemed like such a good idea at the time. They’d moved into Crispin House within days of each other, and for over a year were simply friends, bonded by their orientation, their academic discipline, and their love of Thai food. Since Brad had also lived in the same house as Adam, they could stay up late on the couch and neck and it wasn’t any trouble, because by Adam’s weird, rigid code of dwellings, they both belonged there. Actual sex had gotten complicated because technically they didn’t belong in each other’s rooms, but they hadn’t had sex at first, just made out. If it had all been able to stay as it had begun, it would have been a great relationship. When they’d started dating, Brad had made him laugh, made him feel safe and secure.
However, what had begun as concern and shepherding had quickly turned sour. Brad started micromanaging Adam’s life, smothering him with love and what Brad had meant to be protection. It was bad for a long time, at least six months of their nine-month relationship, but Adam was so drawn in by Brad’s desire to care for him, to protect him and guide him, that he couldn’t quite quit the crack cocaine Brad had become, though he knew the illegal substance would probably have been healthier. Which was why when, in a diva fit, Brad had broken them up, assuming their parting would only last long enough for Adam to beg for forgiveness, Adam had seized on a brief moment of sanity and made his escape. To linger, he’d known, would see him fall back into the codependent pattern of yearning for someone to take care of him, to make decisions for him, to decide what was good and bad for him so he didn’t have to, even if that came at a cost of his self-esteem, his friends, his fragile sanity.
Brad had tried so hard to get Adam back, and Adam often wondered if Brad realized just how desperately Adam wanted to return. Their relationship to Adam was like a sugared donut. Sugar had long, long been Adam’s enemy, wiring him too hard and too fast, making him crash into a sea of anxiety he couldn’t hope to control. Sugar was bad. But donuts looked so good, despite the fact that he hadn’t tasted one in fifteen years. They always looked like the most wonderful, wicked sin Adam could imagine, and he didn’t have to imagine. He remembered.
Brad was a donut whose taste still lingered in Adam’s mouth. Lying under the covers, Adam shivered for several hours, weeping quietly, telling himself over and over and over again that no matter what he thought he wanted, he could not under any circumstances have another bite.
He needed something else to eat. Something not-Brad. Adam needed to date someone, or at least fantasize about someone, who was level-headed. Someone who didn’t try to control him. Someone who was kind but gave him space. Or really, at this point, someone who wasn’t Brad would probably do.
Someone, say, who was big and burly and liked to fuck in laundromats.
Adam emerged from the covers slowly, eyeing his phone, which he’d laid on his nightstand. It had gotten dark, so he turned on a light. He did have Denver’s number. He hadn’t used it, figuring Denver hadn’t really meant for him to text, that giving Adam his number had just been a polite gesture. Yet he did have the number.
Maybe texting would be enough to break the freak-out that seeing Brad had caused. It was the kind of exercise his old therapist would have set up for him: just sending the missive could be healing. It wasn’t a real risk, either, because Denver wouldn’t text back. He wouldn’t reject Adam. He just wouldn’t care.
Yes. It was a very, very good idea to text Denver. Before he could psych himself out of the act, he picked up the phone and started composing.
Hey there. This is Adam from the Laund-O-Rama. Not sure if you remember me, but wanted to say hi.
Adam’s finger trembled, but it only took him twenty seconds to hit SEND. He sat in his bed clutching the phone for a long time, heart pounding, adrenaline pumping. God, that had been unnecessarily terrifying. But he’d done it, hadn’t he? He’d done it, and that was good. Right? Did he feel healed? Maybe. Maybe a little. It was a break in the pattern, which was good, so yes, it was good, and he felt a little healed. A little. Maybe—
His phone dinged, and he nearly dropped it in surprise. He did drop it when he saw the notice: incoming text from Denver Rogers.
Sure I remember you. Thought maybe you forgot all about me. What you doing, baby?
Adam had to put the phone down on the end table and go back under the covers again. Holy shit. He’d texted back. Denver had texted back. What was Adam supposed to do now?
He had no idea. Except that he had to reply, obviously. Adam reclaimed the phone with trembling hands and tried to push back the panic.
Nothing much. What about you? Are you working?
He studied his reply for a moment. Lame, yes, but also benign. Surely this would be the end of the exchange. He considered deleting the questions, but nothing much looked too curt on its own, so he didn’t. Then he made himself hit SEND again.
Denver answered within thirty seconds, like he’d been waiting.
Yep, working at Lights Out like always. Stop by and your first drink is on me.
Adam stared at the display. Doubt and panic tangled, and the clash wasn’t pretty. Denver wasn’t even supposed to text back—never had Adam dreamed he’d tell him to come over!
Before he could figure out if he had to reply or could just ignore it, the phone dinged again.
What time do you think you might stop by? I’ll watch for you.
Holy. Shit. Adam took the phone under the blanket with him, lying sideways as he stuttered out a reply. You really want me to come?
Hell yes. I’ve been waiting for you to call.
He’d been waiting? Really? Adam emerged from the blanket to sit up straight and read the text over and over. Denver didn’t seem to be joking. He wants to see me. Adam’s anxiety paused, uneasy, but full of longing too. Every part of his psychotic orchestra had liked Denver.
He certainly wasn’t a donut. Denver Rogers was a big, meaty steak. Adam didn’t normally do steak, but Jesus, was he craving beef right now.
I could swing by around ten, he replied.
See you then.
Adam held onto the phone, waiting to see if anything else happened. It didn’t.
Then he realized what he’d just promised to do, what he’d gotten himself into. Going across town to Lights Out. An unknown, local bar.
To meet Denver, who had fucked him over a laundry table. Who had, allegedly, been waiting for his call.
“Oh God,” Adam whispered, and went back under the covers.