Faking It (A Ringside Romance Novel)
This title is part of the Ringside Romance universe.
Max Tremblay should be happy. His nightclub, Frantic, is one of the most popular gay clubs in Toronto, and his childhood refuge, Ringside Gym, is well on the way to reopening. But when he finds yet another drunk in the alley beside the bar, Max isn’t sure this is the life he truly wants.
Grady Barnes has it all. He’s rich, famous, and wants for nothing. Well, nothing but a good relationship with his father. When he discovers that his father is going to force him into an arranged marriage, Grady has had enough. He tracks down Max, the man who got him to safety after a night of overindulgence, and makes him a proposal: pretend to be his fiancé for two weeks and he’ll invest in Ringside Gym.
When the pair travel to Vancouver to attend a family wedding, the flames of their mutual attraction ignite, and they discover that the only difference between pretend and reality is how well they can fake it.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Friday Night . . . before everything changed
Max Tremblay stood in the alley behind his bar, a bag of garbage in one hand and a puking patron in front of him, and wondered if this was really what he wanted from his career. Because the combined smells of those particular things was something he’d never needed to experience, and yet they’d somehow become a regular weekly occurrence.
Oh yes, the glamourous life of a bar owner.
This was the perfect end to a craptastic day. First, the order of limes hadn’t made it, and he’d had to run over to the grocery store and clean them out, which left more than a few people there pissed off. He’d had an almost fight with his dad on the phone, partially because the stubborn ass wouldn’t admit that he wasn’t feeling well again, but mostly because they couldn’t have a conversation without it devolving into a pissing match. Then Moe had called in sick at the last possible minute, which meant he’d had to take over behind the bar. That had led to some impressive cuts on his right hand—so much for his calluses—from the never-ending removal of bottle caps. Not to mention the three fights that had sent Teddy running and required Max to act as backup bouncer.
And now . . . a vomiting customer.
At least he’d come outside. Cleaning up the bathroom would have made things so much worse.
“Hey, buddy.” He stepped farther into the alley, tossing the garbage into the covered bin before carefully approaching the man. The last thing he wanted was to get punched by a confused drunk. Or get vomit on his shoes. He didn’t have to live through either of those experiences more than once to learn his lesson. “Are you with someone? Do you need me to get you some help?”
I could have opened a clothing store, or been smart and put my money into the gym with Zack like he wanted. But oh no, I wanted to own a gay bar. I wanted to live the high life and be in charge of party central.
He’d spent four years getting his business degree and another five setting up Frantic to be a successful club, but nothing had prepared him for the sort of customer service necessary when dealing with too much alcohol and not enough inhibitions.
Another heave and Max cringed. Dude probably had some friends inside, wondering what happened to him. “I’ll let the bouncer know you’re out here. Don’t want anyone worried about you.”
He turned to go back through the service entrance; one sharp yank and Max realized the security lock that Cameron had sworn up and down was totally and completely fixed this time, boss, wasn’t. Max let gravity take hold of his head, his chin dropping to his chest and the muscles in the back of his neck stretching out. They’d all been run off their feet tonight, and Frantic would be open for another two hours. After that, it would be at least another hour before he’d be able to head home to take a much-needed shower before falling into bed.
First, he’d need to dodge the drunk and go around to the front in order to head back inside. Max turned as the man pushed away from the wall. One look at the man’s blood-shot eyes and too-white skin and Max knew there was no way the drunk would be able to make it back into the bar. No matter how tired Max might be, he couldn’t in good conscience
leave someone this bad off on their own. No telling what might happen to him.
I could have owned a bakery, or become a personal trainer . . .
Max stepped cautiously up to the man, and when he was certain that he wouldn’t get a fist to the face for his troubles, he slid his arm around the man’s back. “What’s your name, buddy?”
Max shook his head. “What?”
The guy cleared his throat. “Grady.”
“Okay, Grady, let’s get your drunk ass into a cab and get you home.”
Grady groaned. “Nooo.”
“Yes. You’re not going back into my bar like this.” Thankfully, Max had more than enough experience moving drunks where he wanted them to go. “Come on.”
With effort, Max encouraged Grady to stumble his way down the short alley to the street, close to the smokers who’d gathered the requisite distance from the main door to partake in their poison. “Hey. One of you guys go grab Teddy for me.”
A young woman peeled from the group and jogged toward Frantic’s front door.
Grady let his head rest against Max’s shoulder, his breathing coming out in shallow pants. “Don’t wanna.”
Despite the taint of alcohol, there was something about the way Grady spoke that set off alarm bells in Max’s brain. He had a familiar look about him, like an itch in the back of Max’s brain that he couldn’t quite scratch. He’d probably seen the guy around the bar a few times, nothing more. “I know. But you’re going to.” Hurry up, Teddy.
Shit. The last thing he wanted to do was send someone to a place where they weren’t welcome. Not everyone who visited his bar was out, or had a family who supported them the way they should. Not that a drunk guy arriving home in a cab would necessarily cause any problems, but he wasn’t willing to risk it.
“Where do you want to go, then?” Relief washed through Max at the sight of Teddy striding toward him. “Thank God. Here comes the cavalry. Hurry up, he’s heavy.”
“Only you find the pukers.” Teddy took over holding Grady up. “Cab’s been called.”
“Thanks.” Max wasn’t about to leave Teddy out here alone. There was no telling what could happen past midnight once the drunks started to wander around Toronto’s entertainment district. Turning his attention back to Grady, Max snapped his fingers in the man’s face to refocus his attention. “Hey, if you don’t want to go home, you need to tell me where else to send you.”
Grady frowned. “How did you get over there?”
Oh dear. “Magic.” He waved his hands for added effect.
The sloppy grin that slipped across Grady’s somehow familiar face was adorable. “I like magic.”
Max ignored Teddy’s snort. “I can do another trick if you want. You tell me where you want to go, and I’ll send you there.”
Grady’s eyes widened. A man that drunk shouldn’t look that cute. “Tahiti.”
“No, not Tahiti. Somewhere in Toronto.”
“It’s good magic. Where do you want to go in Toronto?”
Teddy broke out into a full-on belly laugh. “That’ll teach you.”
Max flipped Teddy off. “Just hold him still so I can check to see if he has a wallet on him.”
The moment Max drew close, Grady tried to lean in and smell the side of his neck. “Nice.”
The stink of his vomit-laced breath was anything but. “Hold still. I need to make your ID magically appear.”
Reaching into Grady’s pocket told Max two things. First, the man’s thigh hiding beneath the loose-fitting dress pants was hard as a rock. The second was that he didn’t have a wallet. Instead, Max pulled out a wad of cash and a room key for the Fairmont Royal York.
“Well, shit.” He held it up for Teddy to see. “At least I don’t have to pay.”
The group of smokers had gotten larger, and more than a few of them were openly staring and whispering. Seeing a drunk guy being sent home shouldn’t be that much of a show for most of those guys. One or two pulled out their cell phones, and Max knew they were going to start taking pictures. Or worse, videos of the moment this guy started getting sick. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. Max shifted them around so he blocked Grady from the crowd.
The cab pulled up a moment later, leaving Max to help get Grady into the back. The driver took one look at his new passenger and shook his head. “No vomit.” He spoke with a heavy Eastern European accent and wore a frown so deep there was no mistaking his annoyance.
Shit, he really didn’t need this now. “I’ll pay extra if he does. I have an account with the company.”
The driver shook his head again. “No. I’m not cleaning that up.”
Max looked up at Teddy. “Can you go with him to make sure nothing happens?”
It was funny, Teddy had worked for him for over two years now, and not once had he said no to anything Max had asked. But this time, he took a step away from the curb, his hands held up. “Dude, there’s no way. I’m a sympathetic puker.”
How had tonight gotten so utterly screwed up? “Fine. I’ll go with him. Things better be getting ready for a smooth close by the time I get back or I’ll be pissed.” Giving Grady a shove, he slid into the backseat beside him. “The Fairmont. I’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything.”
Traffic in Toronto could be crazy at the best of times. Inevitably, when Max needed it to be smooth sailing, it would turn into a shit-show. Tonight was no exception. Construction had Spadina Avenue down to one lane, forcing the driver to take a detour or risk getting stuck in traffic for longer than Grady would manage to keep his stomach contents in place. Max made sure to roll down the window and held Grady close to him in case things got out of control.
Somehow, they fought through the cars and meandering pedestrians until they pulled into the Fairmont. The driver threw the cab into park and turned around. “Pay now.”
Max fought off a sigh. “I need you to wait for me. I’m just dropping this guy off inside, and then I’ll be back.”
“Account number. You could stay there, and I’d be screwed.”
“Fine.” Max rattled it off. “Just wait for me. Please.”
The driver narrowed his gaze. “Be quick.”
Like he was going to do anything but deposit this guy in the lobby. “Give me five minutes. Ten at the most.”
With a little more effort than it had taken to get Grady into the cab, Max pulled him out and walked him past the bellhop, through the sliding doors, and into the lobby. Okay, this was the end of the line. “Here you go. You better head up to your room now.”
Hoping Grady would act like a windup toy, Max steadied him on his feet and encouraged him in the direction of the elevators. For his part, Grady took a few semi-confident steps forward before staggering to a halt. Max crossed his fingers. “Keep going, bud.”
Grady looked side to side and started to spin in a circle. “Nice here.”
By now, they’d drawn the attention of some of the staff. No doubt they didn’t want to deal with a drunk client any more than Max did. It was well beyond his responsibility as a club owner to do anything more than ensure Grady made it into a cab. He certainly wasn’t responsible to get him back to his room. But as much as he wanted to be rid of Grady, Max couldn’t abandon him or make him someone else’s problem.
With a sigh, he walked up to Grady and wrapped his arm around him. “Okay, let’s get you to your room.”
Grady looked up at him with those big, brown eyes and smiled. “Hi. I’m Grady.”
“Yes, I know.” With a lurch, he got him moving.
“Who are you?”
“Max. Max. Mmmax.”
“Come on, dude. Here we go.” He pressed the button at the same time Grady placed a sloppy kiss on his cheek. “Jesus. Stop that.”
“Max.” There was something nearly possessive in the way Grady said his name. It was bizarre hearing it spoken that way by a stranger.
“Give me your room key.”
“Yeah, baby.” Grady fumbled for the small piece of plastic in his pocket and held it out for Max to take. “My place with Max.” He giggled.
Max turned the plastic key over in his hand. “What floor?”
Dear God. “What floor are you on?”
“Six . . . no. Umm . . . seventeeeeee.” Grady pulled out the little cardboard key holder and shoved it at Max. “Here.”
At least Max now knew where they were going.
The elevator doors dinged open, and Max hauled him in and jammed the button for the sixteenth floor. What little life Grady had in him must be near its end. Max could feel Grady’s body slowly start to relax against him. He was fast running out of time to get him to his room, or else he was going to need a luggage cart to get Grady’s drunken ass down the hall.
Thankfully, he didn’t have to drag Grady far from the elevator to his room. The key card quickly whirled and snapped open, revealing a spacious golden suite. This wasn’t the sort of room Max could afford to spend a single night in, and he had no doubt that the wad of cash in Grady’s pocket wasn’t the only money the man was living on. Grady was well off and, with any luck, had people who would be there to check on him in the morning.
Max guided him to the bed and encouraged him to sit on the edge. “I’m going to take your shoes off and get you some water. Then I’m leaving.”
There were those puppy-dog eyes again. “No. You should stay.”
Max chuckled as he pulled off first one, then the other, of Grady’s very nice dress shoes. God, he hoped the vomit wouldn’t stain the leather. “No, I most definitely should go. You’re drunk.”
As Max tried to stand, Grady reached out and pulled him forward so they both landed on the bed. The air whooshed out of Max’s lungs, and he smashed his nose on Grady’s chin. “Fuck!”
“Okay. I like to fuck.”
Grady tried to kiss him again, but this time Max was ready for the advance. With a quick push, he slid off the side of the bed and rolled to his feet. “And I’m out of here.”
“No, Max, you should stay. Come stay.” Grady patted the bed beside him. “Please, Max.”
Max might be many things—goofy, control enthusiast, way too fond of horror movies—but he was never a man to take advantage of another person. “Stay there. I’ll be right back.” Getting a glass from the bathroom, Max filled it from the tap, needing a few moments to catch his breath, before going back out.
Grady had tried to take off his shirt, undoing a few of the buttons, but giving up before he was finished. He looked over at Max and smiled. “Hello. Who are you?”
Grady smiled. “Nope.”
Max shook his head, put the water glass on the nightstand, turned, and headed toward the door. “Drink lots of water, Grady.”
Without another look, he left the room and made his way back to the front of the hotel. Max normally loved his life, his business, his friends, but recently everything had become just a bit harder. Zack was probably right that he’d been overworking recently, taking on too much between the day-to-day tasks of Frantic and helping out where he could with the reopening of Ringside Gym. Nights like tonight were starting to take their toll in more ways than Max would admit to anyone. Maybe it was time for him to take a vacation, do something for himself to recharge his batteries. Though the thought of going away on his own wasn’t very appealing either.
He needed something new in his life. Someone new.
When he finally walked through the sliding glass doors and the cab was nowhere to be seen, Max felt the remnants of his energy slip from his body. His legs buckled, and he sat down on the curb, ignoring the approach of the bellhop.
“Sir, are you okay?”
Max didn’t bother to look up at him. “Could you get me a cab?”
He had nothing to complain about, not really. Things were going great—his business, his friendships, even the occasional dates he’d go on. So why, sitting on the curb in front of the Fairmont Royal York on a Friday night the last week of September, did Max want to do nothing more than to run away from everything and start new?
No more drunks. No more micromanaging. No more being everyone’s parent.
For once in his life, Max wanted someone to take care of him instead of take advantage of him.
The bellhop signaled a cab over and opened the back door. “Here you go, sir.”
Mustering the last of his energy reserves, Max pushed himself to his feet and climbed gingerly into the back while slipping his last ten into the bellhop’s hand. “Thank you.”
The driver looked at Max through the rearview mirror. “Where to?”
He should go back to work, to the club. Everyone would wonder what had happened to him. Teddy wasn’t one to keep the fun details about a drunk to himself, and they’d want to be sure that he was okay. Max knew all this, and yet he still gave the driver the address of his apartment.
“Take me home.”
Saturday Morning . . . before everything changed
It was the pounding that eventually yanked Grady from the fitful sleep he’d slipped into at some point in the last few hours. It started behind his eyes, a little tap dance that began somewhere around his optic nerve and eventually moved deeper into his brain. Waking up with a headache after a night of drinking was, unfortunately, not a new occurrence for him. What was weird was that he could actually hear the pounding.
No. That wasn’t his head.
That was the door.
There was no way Grady could ignore it, not with the constant beat that had fallen in sync with his brain. He wanted to, really, really badly. Given that he’d come to Toronto without letting anyone know, he’d managed to enjoy two blissfully anonymous weeks without his father finding him. There was no way a hotel employee would be beating on his door in that manner, which meant his freedom had come to an end.
“Grady, open this door. Now.”
Of course, his father hadn’t come himself. That would have been too much to ask, to be reprimanded in person. The voice of his father’s assistant, though, that shrill little note that Justin knew drove him insane, forced him to open his eyes.
“Just a minute.” His voice cracked, and he had to swallow hard around the overwhelming cottonmouth. “Just a minute.” Louder this time, and enough for Justin to hear. The knocking finally stopped.
Grady had lost track of exactly what had happened last night somewhere around midnight. There’d been a pool table along the back of a club, one filled with some of the hottest men he’d seen in a while. The heavy beat of the electro music had set the pace for his drinking—steady and often. Break, run the table, win another drink. Rinse and repeat. He would have been fine if he hadn’t let the brunet pull him out onto the dance floor.
He didn’t dance. Mostly due to lack of coordination, but partially because it made him black out if he’d been drinking. One moment he’d been grinding up against the hottie, and the next he remembered retching.
Another knock on the door. “I’m getting tired of being ignored.”
“Jesus fuck. One second.” The familiar rush of anger swelled inside him, only to be just as quickly squashed by the pounding of his head.
Trying to piece together what had happened would have to wait until later. Grady pushed himself up and gingerly swung his legs over the side of the bed. When the contents of his stomach stayed put, he grabbed the glass of water on the nightstand and downed it greedily. At least he’d been with it enough last night to hydrate.
Pushing himself up, he grabbed his temples and shuffled over to the hotel door to let Justin in. “I need an aspirin before you start bitching.”
“You have five minutes.” Justin pushed past him, leaving a trail of freshly applied aftershave in his wake. “Make that fifteen. I’ll wait for you to shower.”
Prissy little shit. “So generous.”
The idea of a shower was actually quite tempting, a far better alternative than the reaming he was going to receive. Grabbing some clean clothing from the dresser, he disappeared into the bathroom.
His fifteen-minute grace period quickly became twenty as he took his time to scrub away the remnants of whatever had happened last night. The water helped ease his hangover to the point he felt more human. By the time he’d finished getting dressed and reemerged, a tray with coffee and an assortment of pastries were set on the coffee table. Justin had apparently ordered room service.
Grady grabbed a croissant and shoved half of it into his mouth while he poured himself a black coffee.
“Your father isn’t happy with you.” Justin was sitting on a couch, his ankle across his knee.
“When is he ever happy with me?” Grady fell into the chair opposite his nemesis. “I’m surprised you found me.”
“Find you?” Justin cocked an eyebrow. “We knew where you were the whole time.”
The croissant got stuck in his throat as he tried to swallow. “What?”
Justin rolled his eyes. “Did you honestly think your father wasn’t keeping tabs on you? That you could simply slip away from Vancouver unnoticed when the company is in the throes of one of our largest acquisitions? The last thing he needs is for you to become an embarrassment and put things in jeopardy. Again.”
There was his headache! Back with a vengeance. “I just needed space.”
Justin reached into a file folder that Grady hadn’t noticed. From between its protective shell, he pulled a glossy five-by-seven photo and tossed it on top of the pastries. “Space for your newest toy?”
Grady picked up the picture. “When was this taken?”
“I’m not sure if that question scares me or not.” Justin pulled out a second, then a third photo.
A fit, tall man, with arms like small trees, was holding Grady close. There was a look of exasperation on his face, but a sparkle in his eyes that came through perfectly in the photograph. For the life of him, Grady couldn’t remember the man or where they would have met. “Answer me, Justin.”
“Last night. Your boyfriend was on his way up to your room.” The second picture showed Grady kissing his mystery man’s cheek. “Is this someone else I need to take care of?”
“Don’t be a prick.” Grady ran his thumb across the man’s chest. “He’s not like that.”
“Oh, a one-night stand then. That makes things easier. Next time, be more cautious about where you’re displaying your affections. This picture could have easily been taken by the paparazzi and this would be all over the gossip pages.”
Grady looked back over to the now-empty glass of water beside his bed. Had his mystery man put that there for him? Given how far gone he’d been, he doubted he would have been thinking well enough to get the water himself.
Had they had sex? God, he really had been fucked up if he had to question if he had or not. Grady’d felt many things when he’d woken, but the ache of having spent an evening engaged in drunk sex wasn’t one of them. Well, that’s something.
“Not a one-night stand either.” It would have been easy for someone to have walked him into his room, taken his cash, screwed him, and left without Grady knowing what had happened. He didn’t know who his mystery man was, but he needed to find out. If for no other reason than to thank him for not taking advantage.
“Either way. If this is going to be a problem, I need to know. Better to pay him off now than wait for this to come out of the woodwork later.”
“No problem.” Not one for Justin to handle, at any rate. “Leave him alone.”
Justin cocked his eyebrow again. God, Grady hated when he did that.
“I’ll deal with him. Neither you nor Father have anything to worry about.”
“I hope not.” Justin sighed before getting to his feet and collecting the pictures. “I’ll keep these, just in case. Your father wanted me to pass on a message.”
Grady closed his eyes. “Of course he did.” It was usually best when Justin acted as intermediary.
“You have ten more days to get whatever this is out of your system, and then he expects you back in Vancouver. There’ll be an announcement after your brother’s wedding, and he wants you to be available for the press before and after.”
“It wasn’t within my job capacity to know. Regardless, he needs you home.”
That wasn’t the only reason Father wanted Grady back where he could lay hands on him. The moment Lincoln got married, all eyes would turn to Grady, the next victim of matrimony’s grasp. Being gay didn’t make him any less available to Father’s need to extend his business ties through a strategic marriage. If anything, it made Father and his company more appealing to clients for their liberal views.
Not that Grady had any intention of getting married, let alone allowing his father to pick out a partner for him. Screw that.
Justin looked at him long and hard before shaking his head. “Fighting him will only make things more painful. You know that.”
“I’m not fighting him. I’m fighting for myself.”
“Semantics.” Justin strode for the door. “Ten days. Then back home.”
The click of the latch closing echoed through the suite. Typical Justin, walking away from him as though he was still a child in need of instruction. Grady closed his eyes. “Ten, nine, eight, seven . . .”
This shit shouldn’t bother him considering how long Justin had been in his life. And yet . . .
What he needed to do was to figure out who his mystery man was and warn him about his father’s impending interference. His brain ploughed through the hazy memories of the previous evening. The man in the picture didn’t look familiar, but clearly he’d been concerned enough about Grady to get him back to his hotel room and make sure he was set for the night.
Forcing himself up, he went in search for his previous evening’s clothing. The wad of cash was still in his pocket, as was the condom he’d put there for good measure. Could never be too careful or too prepared for a spontaneous fuck. There was one additional item that hadn’t been there when he’d left for the evening—a napkin embossed with a neon-purple logo.
The bar he’d clearly gotten smashed at. His mystery man must have been in attendance, or possibly worked there. Either way, it was his best chance to find the man to simultaneously thank and warn him about what might be in store for him.
Grady would buy him a drink as a thank-you for not taking advantage of him when he’d been in no position to defend himself. Not that he’d have minded bedding the hot stranger, but at the very least he’d want to remember the experience.
That was what he’d do. Find out what time the bar opened and check with the bouncers to see if anyone remembered his knight in shining armor.
* * * * * * *
Grady was fairly certain he’d never been at any bar this early before. Well, not since he was underage and had maneuvered his way into various clubs. Being a rich white boy who was well-known in society circles made it easy to bribe his way into places he had no business being. And, when that failed, he snuck in. That had the added bonus of pissing his father off if he got caught. Pretty much a win-win for a teen hell-bent on rebellion.
Waiting in the sparse line to gain entry into Frantic was certainly a contrast to those years. Because of his family connections, Grady rarely waited in line for anything in Vancouver. If Justin hadn’t arranged entrance for him, a few well-placed smiles and winks with the mention of his name and he was escorted to the VIP lounge. Being in Toronto, he was able to be simply another face in the crowd. No special treatment. That had been the appeal of coming here alone—anonymity. Disappearing into the background, even for a short while, to pretend to live a somewhat normal life.
Ah, the joy of illusions.
There was a complete beast of a man checking IDs and letting people into the doors. Something about him looked familiar, but nothing Grady could put his finger on. He’d started off at another bar last night. The guy he’d been flirting with had mentioned Frantic. His memory was a bit blurred around their arrival, but he did remember playing pool and then the dancing. Nothing like gaps in the old memory to inspire confidence. Still, enough of the surroundings looked familiar that he knew this was the right place.
“Next.” The bouncer did a double take when he saw him. “Back for more, eh?”
“So you recognize me?”
“From last night.”
“How bad was I?”
“Pretty far gone.” The bouncer motioned him to the side so he could let the next person up. “We found you puking in the alley, and the boss wanted to make sure you made it back home safe and sound. Good to see you didn’t die.”
The boss? “The manager put me in a cab?”
“The owner. He went with you and never came back. I assumed you puked in the taxi and the cabbie made him clean that shit up. It would explain his pissy mood when he came in today.”
If Justin had been present, this revelation would have earned Grady an eye roll. “Is the owner in tonight? I feel I owe him an apology.”
“Boss-man is always here. I swear he lives in his office. Go on in. Ask for Max at the bar, and someone will grab him for you. He’s usually hiding until midnight or so.”
With the bouncer’s blessing, Grady gave him a smile, slipped him a fifty, and did as he was instructed.
Patrons hovered around the sides of the dance floor, hugged the bar and pool tables. Ah, that was where he’d gone from drunk to fucked over. Flashes of playing for drinks came back more clearly, as well as the face of the man who’d pulled him onto the dance floor.
The bar was starting to fill up with the early arrivals looking to get the party started. It took him a solid ten minutes before he was able to catch the attention of the woman behind the bar. “Hi. The bouncer said I could ask you to locate Max for me.”
The woman gave him a quick up-and-down, before nodding. “He’s in his office. You can go back if you want. Down the hall there, first door on the right.”
Before he could say anything, two young guys stepped up to the bar in front of him. The blond looked to be barely old enough to be legal. His partner was not much older. “Oh my God, are you Grady Barnes?” The blond guy’s wide-eyed expression was as cute as it was amusing.
The familiar tone of joy that others made when they recognized him made his skin crawl. Still, he plastered on a huge smile and lowered his voice to that sexy timbre he knew they’d expect him to have. “You got it, handsome. And aren’t the two of you the cutest.”
“Shit, I knew it was you. We saw you here last night and that’s why we came back.” The blond pulled out a black marker. “Can you sign my shirt?”
A small crowd was starting to form, curious onlookers who would no doubt start to recognize him as well. If he didn’t get out of here soon, he’d be stuck. “Sure thing, but then I have to meet a friend.” Signing his name with a flourish, he quickly handed the marker back. “Now you two stay sexy and have fun.”
“Thanks, man!” As Grady walked away, their words followed him. “Holy shit, it was him. He’s so hot.”
The hallway was just past the side of the bar where the woman had indicated. The noises of the bar were quickly muted, to be replaced by the sound of a lone, deep male voice. Grady slowed his approach, not wanting to interrupt if Max was in the middle of something.
“Zack, dude, Nolan has it under control. No, no. Will you shut up? If he says that you need a month to fix the sauna, then you need a month. No. Jesus, you’re an asshole. Put him on the phone. Nolan. Nolan, dude, I’ll hit him for you. Yeah. Yes. I . . . I guess I can try to be there. Tomorrow when? Yeah, okay. No, I don’t. Tell him to fuck off for me.” Max chuckled, sending a shiver through Grady. “Okay. See you tomorrow.”
It was strange, Grady almost didn’t want to look around the corner and see the in-person man that went with that voice. There was something almost too perfect about it—the warmth that wrapped around the words, the teasing embedded in his tone, not to mention the sexy rumble. Even though he’d seen the pictures of Max from the night before—and yes, the voice suited him—Grady was scared that seeing him in person would break some of the magic that he’d enveloped around the man.
“I know someone’s out there. I can hear you breathing like a stalker. Just come in and get it over with so I can get my shit done.”
The blush that heated Grady’s face felt foreign. He hadn’t been caught eavesdropping since he was a kid standing outside of his father’s office, trying to figure out what mood the old man was in.
He wasn’t that child any longer. He’d had that burned out of him before he’d learned how to drive. Despite how much of an ass he’d made of himself the night before, he owed it to Max to be an adult now.
Or as close to one as he ever got.
Straightening, he ran his hand through his hair, put his best smile firmly in place, and stepped into the office.
Max’s attention had been fixed on the schedule that Nolan had sent him earlier in the day, so he wasn’t really paying that much attention to his new arrival. He’d been expecting Candace or more likely Teddy, ready to inform him of some new disaster or another.
So when he looked up and saw a stranger standing there, he immediately went on the defensive. “May I help you?”
Whoever the guy was, he certainly knew how to rock the casual look. Gray suit pants that hugged his thighs perfectly, a plum-colored dress shirt with the top two buttons opened and the sleeves rolled partway up his arms. Max forced his gaze past the man’s smirk to his eyes. There was something familiar about the sparkle he saw there, not to mention the mop of black curls that sat atop his head.
The drunk cleaned up nice.
Max’s grin slipped back into place. “I see you survived what I’m sure was an epic hangover.”
“Yes, I had quite the headache this morning, but at least I woke up in my own bed.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and stepped into the office. “I wanted to stop by and thank you for getting me back to my hotel in one piece. I’m not sure many people would have done that and not taken advantage of the situation.”
Max found it difficult to imagine anyone taking advantage of the stranger. He seemed to be a man who was used to getting his own way. “You were a guest at my club and needed help. I take my responsibilities seriously.”
The man pulled his hand from his pocket and crossed the floor. “Sorry. I’m Grady, Grady Barnes.” There was a note in his voice, as though the mere mention of his name held a degree of power. Like saying Beetlejuice or some such insanity.
Max got to his feet and took Grady’s hand. “Max Tremblay. Good to meet you.”
Their hands slid together; Grady’s warm skin pressed against Max’s calloused fingers.
Looking into Grady’s eyes as they shook hands, Max’s chest tightened and a trickle of adrenaline seeped into his bloodstream. Max had met more than his fair share of attractive men over the years—it was one of the perks of owning one of the hottest gay clubs in the city—but there was something different about Grady, something that resonated in a way that Max hadn’t experienced before. Despite what Zack had told him about meeting his partner, Nolan, for the first time, how he’d been overwhelmed by shock and a feeling he’d never been able to name, Max hadn’t quite understood what his friend meant.
Now? Yeah, he did now.
When the handshake came to an end, he missed the warmth of Grady’s touch almost immediately, which disturbed him more than it probably should.
Clearing his throat, Max pointed to his guest chair. “Can I offer you a drink?”
Grady sat down, a smirk firmly in place. “Is this a test to see if I’ll take it or not? Because I’m about to fail it and say yes please. Whatever you’re pouring.”
A man shouldn’t be that smooth and charming all at the same time. “I own a bar. Getting people drunk is kind of my thing. And, boy, did that sound better in my head than coming out of my mouth.”
Grady laughed as he took the glass of Scotch from Max. “You found me puking in an alley last night. I’m the last one to criticize. Thanks.”
“I take it last night was an anomaly for you?” Reclaiming his seat, Max let the burn of the Scotch distract him from Grady’s good looks. “I don’t remember seeing you here before.”
“I’m in town from Vancouver. Was trying to do my best impression of the prodigal son running away from home.”
Grady looked him right in the eyes as though he were waiting for something. Some sort of recognition, of his face, or name, or . . .
Max sat bolt upright. “Oh shit. You’re Grady Barnes! As in youngest son of Theo Barnes, CEO of Barnes Retail Development.” Max downed the rest of his drink in two gulps. “No way.”
Grady laughed. “It doesn’t normally take that long for someone to recognize me.”
“Sorry, I’m not a reality TV person.” A lot of his staff were though. Canadian Celebrity House had been last summer’s biggest show. Most of the staff had been in lust with Grady and had been heartbroken when he’d been prematurely eliminated for trying to bribe the house monitor into letting him go out unattended for a night to party.
“I’m going to thank you for that. I hated every minute I was involved in that hell house.”
“So why do it at all?” Max had always assumed that anyone who went on one of those shows did it for the exposure. Washed-up celebrities looking for a way to stay relevant, or up-and-comers wanting to make a splash.
“Let’s just say that I was trying to get back at my father for . . . well, something he’d done.” Grady took a drink and let out a sigh. “I didn’t think it would be quite as awful as it turned out to be. Nothing more frustrating than having every minute of your life under a microscope for public consumption.”
“Ah. So the bribe—”
“Was my way to get off as quickly as possible. It had the added bonus of pissing my father off because it made our family look bad, so a complete win-win. Cheers.”
Interesting. So Max wasn’t the only one with an awkward relationship with his father. “Yeah, my dad and I butt heads quite a bit. Sometimes you just have to walk away for everyone’s sake.”
“Or, in my case, run halfway across the country.” Grady rolled his glass between his hands. “You don’t strike me as the kind of guy who needles his parents for no reason.”
“Not exactly.” This wasn’t the type of conversation he’d normally have with his friends, let alone a complete stranger. “We had a falling out when I was a kid. We mostly got past it, but every now and again . . .” He shrugged.
“You’re in better shape than we are. We never saw eye to eye.” Grady’s gaze slipped to his glass. “Life has a way of throwing you curves, and sometimes you can’t quite manage them.”
Max had developed a definite bartender sixth sense, knew when someone had a problem they wanted to share but had no clue how to go about doing it. Grady obviously had something going on, and needed someone to talk to. Max couldn’t imagine not having at least a friend to go to, talk to, when things got rough.
Leaning forward, Max set his glass on his desk and cleared his throat to get Grady’s attention. “I won’t pry, but are you okay? Do you need help or . . . something?”
Whatever had been bothering him, Grady must have pushed it away. The too-charming smile was back in place, and he drained his glass. “I’m good. But thanks for asking. Now normally, I’d ask for another, but I think given my previous evening’s adventures, I better leave while I’m ahead.” He got to his feet and ran his fingertip across the edge of Max’s desk. “Thank you for not taking advantage of me last night. Not everyone in your position would be that honorable. Or pass up the chance to take some compromising pictures of me for the press.”
“I’m not in the habit of abusing my power.” Jesus, what kind of life did this guy lead if he had to thank a person for not raping him?
“Never thought you were. But you have to understand that with some of the people in my life, it’s a rare thing. Pictures and videos ending up on the internet is a pretty common occurrence. I’ve had a few people try to blackmail me over the years.” There wasn’t so much a note of anger in his voice, but rather something almost sad. Grady shook his head. “Also, if anyone comes asking about me, or last night—”
“Don’t worry. You weren’t here and nothing happened. And even if you were here, I never saw you and I’m sure you would appreciate your privacy.”
Grady’s smirk morphed into a full-on grin. “It’s been good to meet you, Max Tremblay.”
“You too, Mr. Barnes.”
The scent of Grady’s aftershave lingered far longer than Max would have anticipated, making his erection as inconvenient as it was uncomfortable.