With only five weeks left until Hot Licks (Off Beat #3) releases, here's the first big glimpse into the book. Instead of the first three chapters, I've posted chapters two, three and four, because chapter one is more of a prologue that's best read as part of the entire novel.
This is my first m/m/m romance, and it's also my longest romance novel to date at almost 99k words. Joshua, Benji, and Van had quite a lot to say. Enjoy!
Joshua Lansing never would have guessed that a bar existed behind the barber shop façade of the strip mall, and he probably never would have found it without Lincoln’s help.
He’d heard of Off Beat from many of his friends, including his long-term boyfriend Benji Moore, but he’d never managed to visit the bar/live music venue until tonight. When Benji had visited the shore back in July, their three-year relationship been in a rocky place and Joshua hadn’t gone with the group, so he’d missed the outing that had seen Benji’s band performing live at the club.
Tonight he and Lincoln West, one of Benji’s former band mates, were braving a Thursday open-mike night. Being the first Thursday after the Labor Day weekend holiday, Joshua didn’t expect a packed house. Most tourists went home after the holiday, didn’t they?
He followed Lincoln through a heavily-tinted front door and into the kind of eclectic meeting room he’d expect to see at a hookah joint. Big, funky couches, bright colors on the walls, piped music. A chalkboard wall in the back with all sorts of drawings and messages, and above it, a sign that said “No Fucking Swearing.”
That made him chuckle.
Most of the seats were taken upstairs, but the hookah-type lounge wasn’t their destination. An old-fashioned phone booth in the back seemed to be the portal to another room, because a pair of girls in tight shorts and skimpy tops exited from it.
“They use this place during Prohibition or something?” Joshua asked.
“Apparently that’s the vibe Beatrice was going for when she opened it,” Lincoln replied. He went directly into the phone booth and descended narrow cement steps, into the heart of Off Beat.
The same music from upstairs was ten times louder downstairs. A funky bar was to the right, decorated in Tiki items and made of old surfboards. Not a single one of the various tables and chairs matched. Some low, some high, all very kitschy. Nothing about the bar should have worked, but it did.
And the place was pretty packed for almost eight o’clock on a weekday.
Some of his surprise must have shown on his face, because Lincoln laughed. “It’s popular with the locals, so they do good business all year long.”
He nearly asked how Lincoln knew that, then stopped himself. Lincoln was dating the owner’s nephew Emmett. They’d been together since early summer and were pretty serious. And committed wholly to each other.
The thought dinged his guilt bell pretty hard, and he suddenly missed Benji so much his chest ached.
Their current off-again status was Joshua’s fault. He and Benji had been together for almost three years, and from the beginning, once things got serious, Joshua had told Benji he wanted an open relationship. They were committed to each other, loved each other, but they both traveled so much—first for Joshua’s IT job, and then Benji with his former band XYZ, and now with Fading Daze—that finding time together was tricky. The arrangement had left them both free to fuck other people and scratch that loneliness itch, as long as it was once and done.
And for the first two years, it had worked out perfectly. Until that goddamn car accident last summer.
All four members of the dismantled band XYZ—Lincoln, Benji, Dominic Bounds and Tyson Reed, plus Joshua—had been driving north to Philadelphia after a late gig in Fenwick Island, and they’d been sideswiped in a hit-and-run that sent their car careening into a telephone pole. Benji and Dominic got out with surface injuries, and Tyson broke his arm. Lincoln was in a coma for two days with a traumatic brain injury that he was still recovering from.
Joshua had ended up in surgery to remove a big piece of the car from his abdomen, and he’d come pretty close to cashing in his chips. The scars on his face and belly had faded, but were constant reminders to him and to Benji of what had nearly happened. As Joshua recovered, though, Benji started getting clingy, and at first, he’d chalked it all up to some sort of post-traumatic reaction.
Eventually, though, Joshua was well and working again, and this past June Benji had asked to close their relationship. Only them, no more outsiders. Joshua refused. He had very good reasons for refusing, and Benji knew those goddamn reasons, but he still insisted.
The fight hadn’t been pretty. Mean things were said by each of them, things Joshua regretted every day. They’d parted on speaking terms, but they’d also both agreed on a break. A break that, so far, had lasted two months and counting, and Joshua missed him. Texting and Skype weren’t enough.
He wanted his boyfriend back, but so far Benji had given no indication that he wanted Joshua back. Benji was living his dream, traveling with Fading Daze and making new fans with every gig in every new city. Maybe his rock star life simply didn’t have room in it for Joshua anymore.
Confused and no longer enjoying his IT job, Joshua had sublet the apartment he’d only recently rented, taken a leave of absence from work, and moved to the shore to share the three-bedroom apartment Lincoln lived in. The only minor drawback was how grossly in love Lincoln and Emmett were, and he saw it in every look, move and gesture the couple made. It didn’t help that Emmett had practically moved in, too.
Joshua had been there a week, and he still felt no less unsettled about his life than when he’d been in Philadelphia.
Lincoln nudged him with an elbow. “You want to get a table or sit at the bar?”
The bar looked pretty jammed, so he said, “Table. I’ll get one if you want to order our drinks.”
“What are you drinking?”
“Cap and Coke.”
“On its way.”
Joshua wandered to the far side where a counter-height table and two stools were standing empty. Lincoln had mentioned his friend Melody might join them later, but Joshua didn’t want to tie up a stool on a maybe, so he sat at the two-top. The stage was directly ahead, and someone was setting up equipment, preparing for the start of the open mike, which was advertised for eight o’clock.
The crowd skewed toward mid-twenties, but it was definitely eclectic in terms of height, weight, ethnicity and personal style. Considering the owner’s nephew was gay, he imagined the place was also very open-minded. Probably the type of place he and Benji would have enjoyed together.
Will enjoy together.
He needed to fix things, but he wasn’t sure how. He didn’t know how to explain to Benji that he was terrified that closing the relationship was the first step toward the death of it. In his experience, good things didn’t last. Once you committed wholly, that’s when the cheating began.
Lincoln approached the table with two rocks glasses, one dark and the other yellow. He slid the dark one toward him as he sat. With his sunglasses, blond hair, and chiseled cheekbones, Lincoln looked like a movie star in disguise. But the lenses weren’t for appearances sake. Because of the car accident, Lincoln had serious issues with photophobia. The flashing lights of the club would have given him a migraine in two minutes flat without them.
Even though Joshua had nearly died too, and he still occasionally had screaming nightmares, he felt like he’d gotten off lucky. All of his physical wounds had healed, but Lincoln would deal with his problems for the rest of his life.
Or until some brilliant brain surgeon figured out how to fix him.
The house lights dimmed a bit, and the stage lights rose. Some of the noise hushed as a middle-aged woman stood behind the microphone. Joshua didn’t have to ask to know that was the owner, Beatrice Westmore.
“Hello, and welcome to another Thursday open mike night at Off Beat,” she said.
The crowd whooped. Joshua clapped absently, then sipped his drink. Perfect pour.
Rum and cola wasn’t a fancy drink by any means, but Joshua had traveled all over the United States and sometimes Europe for his job, so he’d been in a lot of bars. Tasted a lot of different rum and a lot of Coke. Some places knew how to get it right, and he’d finally found one in his own backyard.
Beatrice introduced the opening act—a girl with a harmonica and foot drum. Joshua ignored her playing and tried to imagine Benji on that stage with his guitar, belting tunes into the mike. His Benji, who sometimes reminded Joshua of a wriggling puppy because he had that much joy inside of him.
“Dude, you okay?” Lincoln asked. “I mean, I know she’s not that good on the harmonica, but you look like you want to set fire to the stage with your eyes.”
“Sorry, it’s not her.” He took a bigger gulp of his drink. “I miss Benji. A lot. It hit me really hard for some reason how much I miss him.”
“I know you said you were taking a break from work for a few months, but is it just that? Benji seemed kind of off when I saw him in July. Dominic mentioned you guys were taking a break.”
Great, everyone in the band knew what a selfish asshole Joshua was. He didn’t really want to unpack this mess in a full bar, but the noise on stage was loud enough to keep the conversation mostly private. “Dom’s right. We had a massive fight in June, and we’re taking a break.”
“Like a Ross-and-Rachel break? Or is this some sort of trial separation?”
“More like the first one, I guess.” He hoped.
Lincoln sipped his yellow drink. “What was the fight about?”
Joshua sagged into his chair. Few people understood how an open relationship could function, much less thrive, but theirs had. Until the goddamn accident. That had changed everything for Benji, but Joshua simply couldn’t give him more. “Benji wants to be exclusive and close the relationship. I don’t.”
Lincoln didn’t seem at all surprised. “Why not?”
He stared at Lincoln, not used to the man’s abrupt nature. In the past, Joshua had rarely interacted with Lincoln and Dominic outside of Fading Daze, and Benji had almost always been present. “I have my reasons.”
That got Joshua’s temper going. “Look, I know open relationships are nontraditional, but it worked for us for a long time. And please don’t point out how happy Dominic and Trey are, because they’ve been together barely over a year. You and Emmett a few months.”
Lincoln shrugged. “My parents have been together thirty-plus years.”
“They’re really your best example right now?”
The Wests had doted on their only son, encouraging his musical talents, up until Lincoln came out to them at seventeen. Then his dad punted him down a flight of stairs and broke his collarbone. As far as Joshua knew, he hadn’t spoken to his parents since.
“Okay, fine, what about the Boundses. They’re approaching their thirty-fifth anniversary this November.” Lincoln crossed his arms, as if daring Joshua to dispute that.
Dominic’s parents were as close to a perfect couple as Joshua had ever met. Their five children were all adopted, and they loved each one as if they were flesh and blood. They were welcoming to every single one of Dominic’s friends and band mates, and his band mates’ boyfriends, Joshua included.
“Let me ask you this, then,” Lincoln said, leaning forward. “Are you reluctant to commit to Benji because you’re holding out for someone better?”
Lincoln might as well have punched him in the nuts. “Of course not!” Joshua’s voice echoed a bit too loudly, because Harmonica Girl had stopped making noise. Cheeks flaming, Joshua ducked his head and lowered his voice. “Benji is amazing. I love him so much it hurts sometimes.”
“Then I guess I don’t understand why you won’t commit to him.”
“Neither does Benji, no matter how many times I try to explain.”
Instead of angry, Lincoln looked sad. “You do realize that if something doesn’t change, you guys won’t have any kind of relationship left, right? I’ve known Benji almost as long as you have. When he wants something, he goes for it, whole hog.”
“I know.” It would tear him apart to lose Benji, but more than anything, he wanted Benji to be happy. No matter who with.
They settled in to listen to the acts, Joshua working his drink faster than Lincoln. He totally sucked as a boyfriend, and Benji deserved better, and that required more alcohol. He needed to celebrate how awful he was, so he slipped off his stool and over to the bar. And he froze.
One of the sexiest male specimens he’d ever seen in his life was holding court behind the bar, expertly pouring drinks and flirting with the patrons. Tall and lean, with dark spiky hair, high cheekbones, and the most thickly lashed eyes he’d never seen. A black tee showed off his toned arms and flat stomach. His laughter sent shivers down Joshua’s spine, and that started doing things to his dick.
The thought immediately made him feel like an asshole. Thirty seconds ago he was pining for his boyfriend, and now he was ogling a hot piece of ass. Except Joshua hadn’t felt this kind of burning attraction for someone in a long time. Not since Benji. And before Benji, it had been his high school girlfriend Megan, who’d had his heart for three years.
And then his prey turned to take Joshua’s order, grinning to beat the devil, and Joshua’s heart nearly pumped out of his chest. “What can I get you?” the bartender asked in a voice as smooth as Tennessee whiskey.
Joshua’s brain stopped before he embarrassed himself by blurting out, “An hour alone with you.” Instead, he managed a hoarse, “Cap and Coke.”
“A man of simple tastes. Coming right up.” He also took an order from two other people and began mixing all three drinks at once. He was a symphony of movements, each one precise and measured. A man perfectly in control of his body and his environment.
Joshua was pretty sure his tongue was lolling out when the bartender brought his drink over. He handed the man his debit card, grateful for a moment to clear his head. Maybe come up with something smoother than a raspy drink order. He didn’t usually flounder this badly.
Emmett Westmore saved his ass by coming behind the bar with a bucket of ice to dump into one of the freezers. He bar backed at Off Beat five nights a week, which was why he hadn’t accompanied him and Lincoln. After he dumped the ice, Emmett spotted him and came over. The guy was shy on the best of days, but he shined when he was with Lincoln.
“Hey, enjoying the show?” Emmett asked.
“Depends on which show you mean.” He tilted his head toward the cash register. “Who’s that?”
Emmett didn’t even look. “Van Holt. He’s worked here forever. Well, not forever, but a long time. He’s a nice guy.”
Van Holt. The name had a bad-boy vibe to it that Joshua wouldn’t mind exploring in greater detail.
The bartender—Van, returned with Joshua’s card and a receipt. He glanced at Emmett with those piercing eyes. “You guys know each other?”
“He’s a friend of Linc’s,” Emmett replied. “Joshua, this is Van.” With a smirk, Emmett slunk off.
Van grinned, then held out his hand. “Well, Linc makes Emmett happy, so any friend of his is a friend of mine.”
“Wait until you get to know me better,” Joshua teased, then shook. The faint tingle in his palm raced straight to his heart, sending it off at a gallop.
Van glanced at their joined hands, a funny quirk to his lips. “Is that an invitation?”
“More like a future prediction.”
“Is that so?” People were holding up cash money to order drinks, but Van held eye contact. “I like a guy who goes for what he wants.”
That was encouraging. “So what time do you get off?”
Van’s eyes sparkled at the double entendre. He handed over a credit slip and a pen. “Give me your number. I’ll text you, and if you’re still awake we’ll see what’s what.”
Not a guarantee of future sexy times, but it was a start. Joshua scribbled his cell number onto the paper, then slid it back to Van. “Something tells me you’re worth losing sleep over.” With a wink, Joshua took his drink and returned to the table.
“Were you just flirting with Van?” Lincoln asked.
Lincoln shook his head, but didn’t comment further. Joshua shrugged it off and sipped his new drink, no longer in the mood to get hammered and pass out. Maybe he couldn’t fix things with Benji tonight, but he could sure as hell not be alone while he figured out what to do next.
Van Holt had thrown away more phone numbers than he could count. Hundreds at least, scribbled onto napkins or the backs of receipts. Once a drunk girl had grabbed his arm and tried to write on him with permanent marker, and that had been all kinds of fun to scrub off.
His instinct was to toss Joshua’s number into the trash, along with a few soggy napkins and abandoned cherry stems. Instead, he slipped it into his pocket, in case.
In case the odd little thrill he’d felt while shaking Joshua’s hand wasn’t a fluke.
In case he wasn’t completely exhausted by the end of his shift and maybe, just maybe, could use a little release.
As the night went on, he nearly dumped the phone number several times during the rest of the night, in between making drinks, washing glassware, and dancing around his fellow bartender Sasha. They’d worked together long enough to not bump into each other in the narrow space between the two stations.
Joshua and Lincoln left a little after one o’clock, and Van couldn’t explain the urge to follow them. To follow him. He tried to ignore it and do his job, but Joshua’s face kept appearing in his mind’s eye. About his height, lean, with short dark hair and smooth golden skin that could have been from a tanning booth or hereditary. More dark scruff on his chin. He couldn’t help pondering where else he’d find that lovely hair.
Further inspection was required.
With summertime hours officially over, last call was at one-fifteen, and they stopped serving at one-thirty. They were pretty empty by that time, so it didn’t take long for him and Sasha to clean up and shut down. He shouted good-nights to various people on his way across the narrow parking lot to his car. Two-door, cherry red, she was his baby.
He started her up, blasted the a/c, and stared at Joshua’s phone number. Palmed his cell phone. Stared some more. He couldn’t explain the hesitation. He was wide awake and in the mood. Joshua had flirted like a man who knew how to fuck, so no worries in that department.
You’re scared he’s asleep and won’t answer.
“Shut up,” he said to the phone number. He was Van Fucking Holt.
He was fearless.
He tapped the number into his phone, saved it, and then called. The first two rings didn’t matter. The third unsettled him. By the fourth, he nearly ended the call.
“Hello?” Suspicious, but definitely Joshua’s voice.
Joshua chuckled. “I figured as much, even though I don’t have your number in my memory. I usually answer unknown calls with something much racier.”
“Hollywood Phone Sex Line, how may I direct your call?”
Van burst out laughing. “I may have to steal that.”
“Feel free. So. Your place or mine?”
“I have a roommate who’s probably sound asleep on the sofa bed.”
“Hmm. I have a roommate who’s probably sound asleep two doors down, waiting for his boyfriend to get off work and wake him up.”
Van tried to process that one. “Emmett said you’re friends with Lincoln. You live with him, too? I thought he lived with a chick.”
“The chick went back to college. I’m renting a room for a few months to get my head together.”
That sounded like complications Van didn’t need in his life. Still, Joshua intrigued him. And he’d stayed awake not knowing how late Van would be, or if he’d even call, which earned him major fuck points.
“So two couples having sex in the same apartment, possibly at the same time,” Van said. “Sounds like fun.”
Joshua made a soft noise. “That mean you wanna come over and play?”
The growl in Joshua’s voice perked his dick up. “Definitely. Should warn you, though, I top only.”
“Excellent. Then you can bring the condoms.”
“You realize that either requires me to find a pharmacy open at this hour, or to drive back to my place, which is in the opposite direction of yours.”
“How do you know where I live?”
“I gave Emmett a ride once.”
Joshua grunted. “Fine, we’ll use my stuff.”
Van liked how huffy he was getting, probably used to being the one in charge of the dynamics. This was going to be fun. “Good. Be there in a few.”
He hung up, then backed out of the parking space. The barber pole outside of Off Beat was dark, and the front door opened, ejecting Beatrice and Emmett. Bea was always the last person out, except on the rare occasion she needed to be up early the next morning. Then she’d let Van or Sasha close.
He idled up to the sidewalk and rolled down the passenger window. “Hey, Em, you heading over to your man?”
Emmett blinked at him. “Um, yes?”
“Want a ride? We’re going to the same destination.”
“We are?” He kind of squeaked that, which was adorable. “Um, sure. Night, Aunt Beatrice.”
“You boys behave yourself,” she replied with a wave.
Once Emmett was seat-belted into place, Van turned into the thin traffic.
“So, uh, you and Joshua, huh?” Emmett said.
Van winked at him. “Looks like.”
“Guess that works out for everyone.”
“What do you mean?”
Emmett shrugged. “I mean, you don’t do relationships, and Joshua doesn’t do repeats. So it works out.”
Curiouser and curiouser. And maybe a bit disappointing. “How do you know Joshua doesn’t do repeats?”
“Because he has a boyfriend.”
Van nearly slammed on the breaks. “He what?”
“It’s okay, Linc says they have an open relationship, so they can see other people, but only once.”
Only Emmett would refer to fucking as “see other people.” But that wasn’t the important part here. Joshua had a boyfriend, which he’d failed to mention before inviting Van over for sex. In other circumstances, it may not have put Van off, especially with the open relationship thing. But he’d felt something with Joshua. A spark of something unusual and tantalizing and real. What if he realized, afterward, that this was more than a fuck, but Joshua tossed him off like the used condom?
His insides twisted up tight.
“Are you okay?” Emmett asked. “I’m guessing he didn’t mention Benji in passing.”
Benji. Fading Daze. XYZ. Off Beat.
“His boyfriend is Benji Moore?” Van asked.
The night Fading Daze had given a reunion performance at Off Beat, Benji had flirted up a storm with Van, and Van had been incredibly interested. Benji was cute, energetic, and he had a perfect bubble butt. The chance at a hook up had been obliterated by his friend Melody reaching out for help, and then Benji was gone. Back to performing with his band.
Van had never gotten to scratch that itch, and now Benji’s boyfriend was sniffing around him?
Back off, this is too complicated.
His thoughts tumbled all over themselves on the rest of the short drive. He pulled onto the side street, then idled a few houses down from their destination.
“Did I say the wrong thing?” Emmett asked. “You look like you’re about to arrive at a funeral.”
“I don’t like fucking around with people who have boyfriends, open relationships or not.” Mostly true. No way was he admitting to Emmett that he’d felt something with Joshua. He’d come off sounding like a lovesick teenager, and Van had a reputation to uphold.
“That’s understandable. Linc and I talked about it once, when we first started seeing each other. We couldn’t imagine sharing once we committed.”
And that was the fundamental issue for Van: he’d never had anything as solid or strong as what Lincoln and Emmett had, and for one tiny moment tonight, he’d allowed himself to hope. To hope he’d found someone really special for the first time in over a decade.
Too bad it was all an illusion.
“Do you mind walking from here?” Van asked.
Emmett shook his head sadly. “No, it’s fine. See you later, Van.”
He watched Emmett walk down the street, shoulders hunched, probably feeling responsible for ruining Van’s night—which he hadn’t. Van would have been worse off in the morning when Joshua dropped the boyfriend bombshell.
Still, as he turned around to drive home, he couldn’t completely decide if he’d dodged a bullet, or missed out on something potentially great.
This is a mistake. This is stupid. You’re wasting time and gas. Turn around. Go back.
Except Benji Moore was almost to his destination, so turning the car around and going back to the hotel when he could barely keep his eyes open would only result in a car accident. He didn’t need to be in another accident. The last one had fucked with his head enough, thank you very much.
He was supposed to be winding down after a performance with his band, enjoying a few drinks and mingling with fans, not carefully maneuvering his way along Coastal Highway to find his boyfriend’s temporary residence. Fading Daze had a gig every night in Virginia Beach until Sunday, but tonight’s venue had to shut down after a massive grease fire in the kitchen filled the place with smoke and fumes. Bobby, Danielle and Andy had all decided to hit up some of the VB nightlife. Benji had begged off, like he usually did.
And then on the biggest whim of his life, he’d hijacked their rental car and begun the two hour drive north to talk to Joshua in person. He couldn’t put it off anymore. Joshua needed to know, so they could finally decide if they were going to work as a couple.
He'd only begun to realize something about himself a few months ago, thanks to an offhand comment from Andy. Maybe Benji could finally make Joshua understand why he’d asked to close the relationship in June. If Joshua didn’t get it…well, maybe they’d been doomed from the start.
That can’t be true. I won’t let it be true.
From the moment he first met Joshua in an elective class in college, he’d been fascinated by the man. Joshua was confident, but slow to trust. He had a keen sense of humor and flirted with direct intent. And he’d very much taken the lead in pursuing a relationship with Benji, romancing him right into bed after only a few months of knowing each other, while always being forthright about not wanting to be exclusive. Benji hadn’t been entirely sure about that at first, but Joshua was under his skin. Joshua genuinely cared about him. They had a strong emotional connection that Benji had never had with a guy before.
And maybe Benji still clung so hard because Joshua was the only person he’d ever dated. The only guy he’d ever loved. He was terrified he’d never find that kind of love again, especially now that he understood why he’d never slept with anyone else these three long years, despite having permission to fuck around, once and done.
This is why you’re doing this. Keep going.
It was after two in the morning. Joshua would probably be pissed at being woken up, but at this point, Benji didn’t care. Even if he crashed on the couch and they talked in the morning, they were going to figure their relationship out this weekend.
He’d only been to the beach house apartment owned by Bobby and Danielle once, last month, to see members of both the defunct XYZ and the thriving Fading Daze together in one room to play music. The only thing missing had been Joshua.
Benji had allowed his anger over their most recent fight to simmer below the surface, and it’s probably what had given him the courage to flirt up one of the bartenders at Off Beat that Saturday. If Benji wasn’t enough for Joshua, then by God, Joshua wasn’t enough for him.
Except Joshua was enough, and part of Benji had been relieved when the hot bartender bailed to go help out a friend. He hadn’t actually had to try having sex with someone else.
The GPS on his phone helped Benji find the right street, and he recognized the white, three-story home. Joshua’s car was in the driveway, and he was surprised by the lights on in the front room. Maybe he wouldn’t wake anyone up after all.
He parked and got out, not surprised by the lingering summer humidity in the air. Virginia Beach had been rife with it, too. A tremor raced through his shoulders and down his spine as he climbed the short flight of steps to the front door. He pushed the doorbell with a shaking finger.
The storm door flew open. “Hey, Van, I thought you bailed,” Joshua said with a bright smile that shifted instantly into slack-jawed surprise.
Benji’s gut rolled. Joshua was expecting someone. “Who’s Van?”
“What are you doing here? I thought you guys were in Virginia Beach this weekend.”
“Our gig got cancelled tonight, and I needed to see you.” The lack of a warm welcome shouldn’t have surprised Benji as much as it did. It also hurt a little. “We need to talk.”
“At two in the morning?”
Irritation rippled over Benji’s skin. “You look pretty wide awake to me. Or was that only because you had a hook up on his way over? Now that it’s me, you’re too tired?”
Joshua blinked, not used to Benji’s temper being directed at him. Benji had been content to roll over and let Joshua lead their relationship for the last three years. Not anymore.
“Come in,” Joshua said. He nudged at the screen door.
Benji went inside, grateful for the cool caress of the air conditioning. He hated intense heat and humidity, and he had no idea how Lincoln had spent the summer here without melting. The faint hum of music trickled out from the hallway, but the house was otherwise silent. He moved to stand near the couch while Joshua locked up.
“Van is a bartender I met tonight,” Joshua said as he turned, finally answering Benji’s question. “I gave him my number. He called and said he was on his way over, but then Emmett got here a little while ago and said Van changed his mind.”
“How could Emmett know that?”
“They worked together at Off Beat. Van gave Emmett a ride.”
Off Beat. What were the chances Van was the name of the bartender Benji had flirted with? The guy Benji had seen definitely seemed like someone who would appeal to Joshua. But he didn’t pursue that line of questioning, because Benji really didn’t care. This was about his and Joshua’s relationship.
“I can’t believe you drove here,” Joshua said with the same tender smile that used to make Benji’s knees turn to jelly.
Tonight it kind of made Benji want to punch him. “I couldn’t put this conversation off any longer, and the timing worked. After this weekend, our schedule wouldn’t get me this close again for weeks, and I can’t do this over the phone.”
Joshua’s entire face fell. “Fuck. Are you breaking up with me?”
“That’s up to you, Josh.” Benji’s belly wobbled. He hadn’t said this out loud to anyone yet, only typed it into a few chat room conversations. Conversations that had cemented his decision to be honest with Joshua as soon as possible. “I know you think I’ve gotten clingy since the accident, and on some level, yes, that terrified me. I saw how much I had to lose. When they told me you were going to fully recover, I haven’t cried that hard in my life. Not over anything.”
His throat tightened, strangled by the memory of those awful hours spent wondering if Joshua would live or die. Wondering if he’d lose part of his heart that night.
Joshua’s chin trembled. “I still have nightmares about the accident.”
“I know you do. I think we all do. But while you were home recovering at my parents’ house, I think I got used to having you all to myself. To knowing you weren’t fucking anyone else, and I got attached to that. And I guess I thought maybe I was finally enough for you. I started to hope we’d be just the two of us.”
“Benji,” Joshua said softly, almost like an apology.
“I know.” He held both hands in the air, palm out. “My fault for assuming, right? But I also…” Benji swallowed against his nausea. “This summer I also figured out something about myself, and looking back it explains a lot of my past behaviors. Like the fact that I, uh, never actually slept with anyone outside of our relationship.”
“What?” Joshua stared at him like he’d sprouted a third eye from his forehead. “You’re kidding, right?”
“But….all of the gigs you’ve played and fans you’ve met…you’ve seriously never slept with anyone else?”
“We’ve gone months with no physical contact with each other. The open relationship is so we don’t start to resent the other person for being on the road. For us being apart.” All things Joshua had used in the past to defend his position on their status.
Benji shrugged. “Being open is what you said you wanted, especially when your job had you start traveling so much. I understood that you needed the freedom to get off with someone while we were apart, and that no matter what, you loved me and no one else. Plus not all of us actually live up to the slutty rock start stereotype. I didn’t want to have sex with anyone but you. I still don’t.”
Joshua was staring at him with the oddest look on his face, as if Benji had just made a good case for Justin Bieber as an important artist. “Fuck me, now I feel like some kind of slut.”
“Please don’t.” Benji took a few steps closer, putting Joshua within arm’s reach. “This isn’t about your actions. It’s about mine, and I’m working my way up to telling you something.”
“You not sleeping around wasn’t the big something? You’re not pregnant, are you?”
Benji couldn’t stop a bark of bitter laughter. “That might be easier to say out loud.”
“Ben, please, tell me.”
“I think I'm asexual.”
Joshua stared. “You’re what?”
“Asexual.” Benji’s stomach rolled. “Um, it means I don’t feel sexual attraction. Not the way everyone else does.”
“I don’t understand.” His eyes widened. “Shit, did you not want to have sex with me all of the times we slept together.”
“No, I did. Of course I did.” Shit, he was screwing his up all over the place. Benji didn’t ever want Joshua to think he wasn’t into it when they’d had sex in the past. “Asexual doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like sex. Some aces do enjoy the physical act and have a sex drive, some only do it to please a partner, and some are totally turned off by it. There’s actually a lot of diversity there, and a whole lot of other labels, like gray-A and demisexual, but that’s probably too complicated for this conversation.”
Joshua didn’t look any less confused. “So if you aren’t attracted to me, why did you start dating me in the first place?” Now he sounded hurt, which hadn’t been Benji’s intention, but this wasn’t about Joshua. This was Benji’s coming out.
“I was attracted to you, Josh, just not sexually attracted. I was romantically attracted, aesthetically attracted, emotionally attracted. All of those things can be separated from having sexual attraction. It’s how I used to think I was gay, because I had all of those other non-sexual attractions toward guys, instead of girls. One of the terms I’ve seen for that is homo-romantic.When I jerked off, I thought of guys. Not of actually doing anything sexy with a guy, like in real life, but their faces or voices. And I always blamed not acting on my interest in guys, not dating anyone before I met you, on the middle school bullying.”
Bullying that had left a terrible scar on Benji’s ability to entrust his body to another person—until Joshua.
“Those first few months, we developed a bond, a real emotional bond,” Benji continued. “You never pushed for sex. You respected that I was a virgin, and you waited until I was ready. It’s why I was able to give you my body. There was trust in place first, before we had sex. And please believe me when I say I enjoyed every single encounter. You have never forced me into anything, I swear.”
Joshua was silent for a moment, probably trying to sort through everything Benji was throwing at him. It was a lot to digest. “How long have you known all of this?”
“Not long, really. I found a huge website about it and suddenly so many things made sense. That even though I do enjoy the physical pleasure of sex, I put more value in our emotional connection. In the fun things we do together and the time we spend out of bed. But when we see each other in between our travels, sex is the first thing on your mind, and I’d be content cuddling on the couch for eight hours.”
“That’s why you asked to close the relationship again.”
Benji’s eyes burned with tears. “Yes. I had to know you could want me, and only me, before I told you any of this. And when you refused, instead of backing off like I’ve always done, I fought you.”
He pushed away memories of the worst fight they’d ever had—and the only one after which they’d parted still angry. Separate. “In the end it proved to me that I’d never be enough. "I love you so much, Josh, but I can’t keep going forward like this.” His voice cracked. “Knowing I’m not enough, knowing you still need sex from other people, is killing me inside.”
Joshua let go of his hand and sank to the couch. He covered his face with both hands and sat there, shoulders trembling. Benji watched him, his heart breaking wide open, certain this was it. This was the end of their three-year relationship.
So many things were racing through Joshua’s mind that he didn’t think he’d ever have a coherent thought again. All he could do was sit there while fear and adrenaline made his body tremble, and try not to dissolve into open sobbing.
He knew what asexual was on an intellectual level. As a bisexual man, he’d made it his business to understand the full spectrum, because he often found himself defending his identity, especially to co-workers who simply didn’t get it. But never in his life had he expected Benji to drop this sort of news on him.
Except all of the small signs started to jump out at him all at once. Joshua always the one initiating sex. Benji still being a virgin at eighteen and being so shy about everything at first. Eager to give hand jobs, but not a big fan of sucking Joshua’s dick. Looking at their sex life from a new perspective, one that more clearly saw his boyfriend’s hesitations and awkwardness, horrified him. No matter how many times Benji said he liked sex, Joshua still felt like he’d somehow taken advantage.
He rubbed the heels of his palms into his eyes to stave off threatening tears, then blinked hard at the colorful dots left behind. Dots that cleared, only to show him Benji’s sad face and tear-filled eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” was all he could think to say.
“I’m sorry, too.” Benji sat next to him, close enough that their knees touched. “Maybe we weren’t meant to be each other’s forever guy.”
“But what if we are?” Joshua hated the childish whine in his tone, but he didn’t want to give Benji up. He couldn’t imagine their lives apart. Benji was the first person Joshua had ever dated, male or femail, who'd made him believe in true love--but what good was true love if it was strangling them both? “I don’t know if it makes a difference to you or not, but Van was the first person I’ve tried to hook up with since before the car accident.”
“Really? Men or women?” Benji seemed genuinely stunned, especially when Joshua nodded yes. “But you’ve been better for months.” Then he got mad, his dark eyebrows dipping into a sharp V. “If you weren’t pursuing other people, then why did you refuse to close the relationship?”
“Just because I wasn’t out looking for tail doesn’t mean I wanted to lose the option.” At this point, the excuse was kind of lame, but the truth? Speaking the God’s honest truth out loud felt too much like playing “Bloody Mary.” He’d say it, and then it would happen, and they’d be ruined anyway. But by keeping it from Benji, wasn’t he delaying the inevitable?
Maybe breaking up now would spare them both even more pain down the road.
Benji slumped against the couch cushions, hands loose in his lap, shoulders slumped. “So we are breaking up. Aren’t we?”
“Is that what this is?” Joshua couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes. To see the pain and heartbreak he knew were there, and it was all his fault.
“I can’t keep doing what we’re doing, Josh, I won’t. I love you so much, but I deserve to be loved by someone who doesn’t need anyone else except me. And right now that’s not you.”
Agony wrapped itself around Joshua’s heart and squeezed. He couldn’t breathe. Of all the things he’d imagined would happen tonight, losing half of his heart wasn’t one of them. Despite the fight in June, he didn’t think they’d actually break up. He thought they’d fix things, like they always did, but not this time. “I wish I could be the man you deserve,” Joshua said.
Benji let out an awful, sob-like sound.
“I don’t want to do this in the middle of the night.” Joshua squeezed Benji’s knee, unable to look at him. “Whatever happens, it happens in daylight, when we’re both awake and aware of what we’re doing. You can sleep with me or in Danielle’s room. You don’t have to sleep on the couch.”
“Dani’s,” Benji said with another sob, and then fled. He shut himself in the bathroom.
Joshua’s heart shattered even more. He slowly rose and shuffled toward his own temporary bedroom, leaving the broken remains of his relationship behind. He lay awake a long time, chest heavy with unshed tears, still clinging to a small shard of hope that maybe he could fix things in the morning.
Except when he woke from a dozing sleep fraught with dangerous shadows, that shard of hope crumbled at his feet.
Benji was already gone.
Benji had set his phone alarm to wake him up at sunrise so he could get back on the road and avoid another painful conversation with Joshua. Asking them to sleep on it felt like an avoidance tactic, another way to prolong the inevitable declaration that their three-year relationship was over. But he’d played along, tossed and turned for a few hours with no real sleep, and then he was driving south with three Red Bull’s to keep him company.
He ignored several calls, not only from Joshua’s ring tone, but also Danielle’s and their manager Eddie Grand. At a quick pit stop to relieve his bladder, he texted Danielle that he was safe, unharmed, and he’d be at the hotel in an hour with an explanation. He dreaded going back, but he had no choice. The band had a gig tonight, and even though he wanted to crawl into a liquor bottle and pickle there for a week, he wouldn’t let them down.
Traffic going into Virginia Beach on a Friday morning was a nightmare, but their hotel was relatively easy to find. Still took him thirty minutes past his expected hour to get there. The elevator ride was a nightmare, full of crammed bodies and summer sweat, and by the time he got his keycard out to open the door, all he wanted was to face-plant in the bed he was sharing with Danielle—the room had two queen beds, and while Andy and Bobby were outwardly accepting, they still had a thin layer of “no homo” to work on. Especially Bobby.
Too bad he was pounced on by Danielle the minute he opened the door. “Are you okay?” she asked with tears in her round brown eyes.
Someone called with the news. Great.
“No.” He glanced behind her, but the guys were noticeably absent. Somehow that made it okay to let his guard down. His eyes burned. “We’ve over. Fuck.”
She yanked him into a hug, which was a little awkward because he was way taller than her petite form, but it felt good. Comforting in a way he sorely needed, so he let himself cry. He mourned the loss of someone who still meant the world to him, until he was a sweaty, hiccupping mess that she gently nudged into the bathroom.
“Take a shower,” she said in a rare mothering tone. “Then take a nap. Andy and Bobby went to the beach for a few hours, so you’ll have some peace.”
“Do you need me to get you anything? Food? Hard liquor?”
He was so tempted by the liquor, but he had to sing tonight, and all that sobbing wasn’t going to help his voice. “Actually, lemon water would be great.”
“On it. I’m so sorry, Benji.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
The shower helped enough that he was able to nap for a few hours, but he still woke up restless and upset. Andy and Bobby were back from the beach and quietly taking turns in the bathroom, while Danielle read, lounging on their bed. Benji blinked bleary eyes at her, positive he was hung over despite having had no alcohol in days.
I fucking hate crying.
“Hey, dude,” Bobby said as he towel-dried his hair. He had a brash, take-charge personality that he seemed to be dulling down a bit. “Dani told us. Sorry to hear it.”
Benji grunted in response. He’d have to get used to platitudes about the breakup. The awful part was, he’d left before he and Joshua could mutually agree that it was over. They’d sort of left out the part where they both said it out loud and meant it. But Joshua’s “I don’t want to do this in the middle of the night” had pretty much spelled it out. He didn’t want to break up in the middle of the night; he wanted to wait until morning.
Fuck that noise.
“How was the beach?” Benji asked, hoping to redirect the conversation away from him.
“Crowded.” Bobby slipped a surf-themed sleeveless tee on over his board shorts. “Water wasn’t too cold though. And there were plenty of bikini bodies to admire.”
Danielle rolled her eyes, then put her tablet down. She scooted to the edge of the bed and gave Benji a look he didn’t particularly like. “You don’t have to pretend to be normal for our sakes, okay? You drove two and a half hours at night to try and fix your relationship, and it imploded instead. Take time and process this.”
“I don’t want to process it.” Benji sat up, still physically exhausted but determined too. “I want to forget about it and focus on the band.” Fading Daze continued to gain fans with every city they visited, and their manager was very close to landing them a recording contract with a small, but respected label. Downloads of their recorded songs, many of them originals written by Trey Cooper and used with permission, were really good, and constantly climbing the ranks on various indie sites.
Success wouldn’t give him back what he’d lost with Joshua, but it gave him something to focus on so he didn’t fall back into the pit of depression that had nearly taken his life as a lonely, bullied adolescent. He needed to look forward, not backward.
Today he changed the beat of his own song.
Joshua wallowed in the mess of his own making for the rest of the day, getting up a few times to use the bathroom, or get a drink of water. Mostly he stayed in bed, replaying last night’s conversation and June’s fight over and over. Picking it apart. Knowing what had gone wrong, and perfectly aware it was all his own fucking fault. He’d pushed Benji away.
He was an asshole, full stop. But he’d ended it now, instead of waiting for it to implode later.
But what if we didn’t? What if we were like the Boundses and I lost my person?
He didn’t believe in soul mates, but he did believe that the love he and Benji shared was very rare. And instead of fighting for it, he’d set Benji free. Free to pursue his career and find another lover.
Except…the asexual admission had floored him. It confused and worried him. He hated the idea that he might have ever pressured Benji into having sex he didn’t want, and he hated that Benji had been so tied up in knots over telling Joshua. As if he expected Joshua to dump him over it.
And didn’t I kind of?
Fuck, but he needed to talk to someone about this. Lincoln and Emmett had been in and out of the house a few times, their voices muffled. Doors opened and shut. Lincoln had found Joshua that morning, curled up in a ball on the living room floor, and Joshua had told him what he’d done. After Lincoln put him to bed, he hadn’t bothered him again. And he also hadn’t shown any sort of judgment, which was nice. Lincoln had known Benji longer, been in a band with him for two years, but he was still being decent to Joshua, and that meant a lot.
Lincoln would listen, but again, he also had a stake in this as one of Benji’s friends. Dominic? Same problem. Joshua also wasn’t comfortable confiding in Lincoln’s boyfriend, so Emmett was out. He was friendly with his coworkers, but no one really got his relationship with Benji. His family was totally out of the question.
It truly sucked that at the age of twenty-four, he had very few good friends.
I truly am a workaholic.
He’d lucked into his IT job directly out of college, and he’d had it ever since, working upwards of sixty hours a week. Seeing Benji when he had a chance. Hooking up to scratch an itch when he needed the stress release. He’d slowed down because of the car accident, but when he was cleared to return to work, he’d been restless. Bored.
And he was the same way here at the shore. No coworkers to chat with, no clients to entertain with stories. No actual job to do, and now without Benji…he’d well and truly hit bottom. So he stayed in bed and wallowed until Saturday morning, when Lincoln and Emmett tag-teamed him into getting up and taking a shower.
They made him sit through a pancake breakfast, while they both joked about some of the antics at Off Beat the night before. Lincoln bar backed sometimes too, and he and Emmett had both been there to see some decent live acts. The friendliness gave him hope that Joshua wouldn’t be punted out of his rented room sooner than planned.
It also reminded him that he’d been expecting Van on Thursday night, only to have Benji arrive instead. In all of the stress over his relationship, he’d forgotten Van never showed as promised. Or had he shown up and peeked inside, only to see Joshua and Benji arguing?
He had Van’s number, because Van had called to confirm their date. After he finished eating and put his plate in the sink, Joshua hunted around for his phone. He found it in the living room, under a stack of sheet music. Ten percent battery left. One of the many chargers in the house was in the kitchen, but with Lincoln and Emmett still fussing around in there, he took his phone into his room to connect it.
While it charged, he sent Van a text: Hey, it’s Joshua from Thursday night. I didn’t hear from you after our call.
He didn’t want to sound too creepy, considering he’d waited a day and a half since their planned hookup to reach out, so he added: Ping me back so I know you didn’t die in a horrible car wreck on your way to meet me.
Snickering at the morbid humor, considering, he sent the text.
Less than ten seconds passed before a reply came through: Ping.
Joshua: Change your mind about having a little fun?
Van: I don’t do other people’s boyfriends. Too complicated.
He could sympathize with that. He’d always made it clear with his hookups that it was a one-off deal, so he rarely had to bring up the whole open relationship thing. Except—
Joshua: Who told you I had a boyfriend?
Van: Emmett. Gave him a ride since going same direction.
He could throttle Emmett for sticking his nose into things. He could also kiss him for it. If Benji had shown up while he and Van were getting down, things could have gone a whole lot worse.
Worse than breaking up?
Joshua: If it helps, we broke up.
Van’s next reply took longer: Why?
Joshua: Complicated. Honestly I’d like to talk to you about it. Need an unbiased, outside opinion on everything that’s happened.
Van: No other friends?
Joshua: Sadly no. My friends are Benji’s friends. I’m a recovering workaholic badly in need of making my own friends. Interested?
Van’s reply was an address and three pm. Joshua put the address into his GPS. Not too far, maybe a few blocks. Van hadn’t outright said yeah, sure, let’s be buddies, but this was a start. A chance to meet and talk, without a bar top between them.
Despite the connection he’d felt with Van during that initial handshake, Joshua’s breakup with Benji was still painfully fresh, and he truly wanted nothing more out of Van than friendship. And with his declaration of Joshua’s love life as “too complicated,” he was fairly certain Van was on the same page.
“For a man who avoids complications like the plague, you’re seriously about to step into someone else’s complicated love life? On purpose?” Melody Thompson asked with enough sass in her voice to make Van stop and listen, rather than dismiss her objections. He adored his temporary roommate for her blunt nature and big heart, but sometimes both things got her in trouble.
“I’m not stepping into his love life,” Van said. He kind of regretted ever mentioning his aborted Thursday night hook up, and he definitely regretted mentioning who he’d started texting with obsessively during their shared Saturday morning brunch. Then she’d started reading over his shoulder.
“Meeting to talk about it is definitely stepping into it. You’re inviting him willingly into your personal space to chat about his ex-boyfriend.”
“Aren’t you the one always haranguing me about making friends? You and Bea both.”
“We harangue because we love you.” Melody settled into her own chair at the small dinette in Van’s apartment, then scooped more fruit salad onto her plate. “And speaking of loving you, you have been such a good influence on me since I started staying here. I never used to eat this good.”
Van snickered. “It’s called clean eating, Mel. Everyone should try it.” He ate another spoonful of his hemp milk-soaked muesli, then made obnoxious lip-smacking noises that had her laughing.
“I still can’t believe you drive two hours to a grocery store every month. You’re nuts.”
“I don’t trust the internet, and I wouldn’t have to drive two hours if there was a Whole Foods closer.” He pointed at her plate of Ezekial bread toast with fresh strawberry spread and side of fruit salad. “You complimented me on getting you to eat better, and now you’re making fun of my shopping habits?” He pretended to sulk.
Melody rolled her eyes. “Yes. I am.”
“Whatever. Eat my food, sleep on my sofa bed, make fun of me. I see how it is.”
“Your sofa bed is hard.”
Van laughed out loud at her deadpan delivery. They had a version of this conversation every other day, just like they had in the month and a half since Melody ditched her old place and started camping out at his. She’d been too scared to live there anymore after a date reacted like an asshole to her being trans, beat her up, and then dropped her off at the old motel she rented a room from. She was terrified he’d come back and actually kill her, and Van wanted her safe. They hadn’t been friends very long, but he had a difficult time trusting other people enough to let them into his life, so he cherished the few friends he had.
He’d kill to protect her from anyone else who meant her harm.
His place was pretty tiny, one of three carved out of the second floor of a four-story beach house that had been converted into apartments back in the seventies—and the avocado fixtures told the tale of how long it had been since the landlord did any updates—but he was happy to have her.
She speared a piece of cut apple. “So back to this Joshua guy. Why do you care so much? You flirted for like two minutes.”
Van couldn’t explain it to himself, much less to Melody. He’d felt something strange with Joshua, a connection he rarely felt for other people. Joshua had a take-charge nature that appealed to him. He’d wanted Van, and he hadn’t been subtle about saying so. He’d just forgotten to mention a very big detail: boyfriend.
“Who says I care?” Van said, going for flip instead of honest. “Maybe I still want to get into his pants, and now that the boyfriend is an ex, all systems are go.”
“Except you aren’t that kind of asshole.”
No, he wasn’t. As attracted as he was to Joshua, he’d go and do what he’d agreed to do, which was try and be an unbiased sounding board for Joshua’s relationship issues. Hands off. No significant looks. Light flirting only.
Except that ass, walking away in those jeans.
No. No hot ass. Talking only.
“It’s also a good thing you aren’t that kind of asshole,” Melody added.
“Yeah, I’m a real stand up guy.”
“You’re kind, Van. People don’t get enough credit for being kind.”
Van didn’t think he was particularly kind, but he also tended to be his own worst critic. Never good enough, always trying to make up for the mistakes of his youth. Awful, life-changing mistakes he’d never truly reconciled with his present. Ignoring that part of his life was easier than trying to unpack all of it.
“You keep calling me kind, and I’ll make you start paying rent,” Van said.
Melody saluted him with her fork, then kept eating.
After brunch was cleaned up, he had time to kill before meeting Joshua. He settled in with his tablet to binge a few more episodes of Glee. High school-based television shows weren’t usually his thing, but Melody had turned him onto the show, and now he was addicted. Plus the songs were awesome and the eye candy was a nice bonus. He might have liked school more if he’d had a Mr. Shue.
Their meeting location was one of Van’s favorite local hangouts—a dark, dingy hole in the wall that served the best raw oysters in town, and the rainbow flag above the door always made him feel welcome. He arrived a little early and told Jen, the purple-haired hostess, that someone was meeting him before settling into a booth near the back. The place only had six booths, four tables, and one long bar, and he’d once seen a fire code capacity of sixty.
He fucking loved odd little joints like this. It’s why he loved Off Beat so much.
A boy wearing tight jeans under his green apron sauntered over to take his order. Van put in for a platter of oysters and a seltzer water with two lemon slices. This wasn’t a date, so Joshua could order whatever he wanted when he arrived.
His seltzer appeared first, and a few minutes after three, tall, dark and handsome strode into the place. Joshua’s laser-focused gaze found him right away, and Van kind of hated how his heart gave a little kick. Joshua sauntered over, hands inside of khaki shorts that showed off toned legs dusted with the same dark hair on his head.
“I think I’m a few minutes late,” Joshua said as he slid into the booth opposite Van. “The entrance was tricky to find.”
“Keeps the tourists out.” Van used enough inflection to indicate he lumped Joshua into that tourist category, and it wasn’t a compliment. Might as well set the tone.
Joshua seemed totally unruffled, despite the general puffiness around his eyes. “So I take it you know the place. What do you recommend?”
“I always get the raw oysters. I don’t know their supplier, but they’re the best oysters you can get that you didn’t harvest yourself.”
He pulled a face. “No thanks. I don’t do raw fish.”
“No? You seem like a sushi kind of guy to me.”
“I’ve tried different kinds without the raw fish, but sushi doesn’t do it for me.” Joshua shrugged, but he seemed to enjoy the fact that Van couldn’t get a read on him.
Van was usually good at figuring people out. Good bartending skill. “So what are you into?”
Joshua’s lips twitched at the intentional phrasing. “Nothing too crazy, but nothing too boring, either.”
“Try the beer-battered fish sandwich.”
“Sounds closer to boring.”
Van tugged the menu out of reach, then grinned. “Wait until you taste it.”
“Fine. Challenge accepted.”
When the waiter returned with Van’s oysters, Joshua ordered the sandwich, as well as two Cap and Cokes. At Van’s raised eyebrows, Joshua shrugged. “It’s been a fucking shitty two days.”
“Right. We are here to talk about that.” Van squeezed a bit of lemon juice over an oyster, then slid it down the hatch. Salty-sea perfection.
Joshua grimaced. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t mention Benji the other night. Our agreement is—was, once and done with other people, no repeats. Most of the time it doesn’t come up with a guy or girl. We have sex and then go our separate ways.”
“Guy or girl?”
“Bi guy here.” Joshua’s frown deepened, as if expecting Van to make an issue of it.
Van shrugged. “Pan guy here, nice to meet you.”
He visibly relaxed into the booth. “Anyway, it’s been that way since Benji and I started dating, and so far it’s worked. At least, I thought it was working. It’s not like I was hooking up every other day. Once or twice a month, maybe, especially if we were apart for a long time. Obviously you know Ben is a musician, and I traveled all over for my job, so it left us free to get off when we were apart.”
Van ate another oyster, surprisingly intrigued by these details of Joshua’s love life. “You said you thought the agreement was working?”
“Yeah.” His two drinks arrived, and Joshua took a long gulp from one glass. “Don’t judge me, I walked here.”
“Sitting here not judging.”
“Dude, you’re the one who’s had a major emotional crisis this weekend, not me. Drink away.”
Joshua tipped his glass at him, then took another sip. “I feel so stupid now, looking back, seeing what was right in front of me the whole time. Except how was I supposed to figure it out, when Benji didn’t even know until a few months ago.”
He glanced around the half-empty place, then leaned in. “Benji thinks he's asexual, but he didn’t realize it until this spring. And he’s been scared to tell me.”
Van tilted his head, a bit stunned by that one. “But you two have been fucking, right? I thought asexual people didn’t like sex.”
“Apparently there’s a spectrum within a spectrum. Benji knotted himself into pretzel trying to explain he enjoys sex and isn't turned off by it, he just doesn’t feel sexual attraction, and that I never forced him to do anything he wasn’t into, but I still feel like such an asshole. I mean, we met in college and I knew going into it that he’d never had sex before, and we dated a few months before he was comfortable moving past hand jobs, and he never initiated anything, it was always me, and he never once hooked up with another guy, even though he had permission…” Joshua huffed a few times. “I’m rambling.”
“A little.” The rambling was also kind of endearing, because it meant Joshua was nervous and—nope. Not endearing. Not even a little bit. “Okay, so Benji discovers something huge about himself, and he tells you, and you tell him what?”
“That I love him. I asked questions, and I tried to understand. I hate the idea that I could have ever forced him into a sexual situation he didn’t want, but he insisted I never did, and I believe him.”
Okay, now Van was officially confused. “So why did you break up?”
Joshua’s shoulders sagged. “Back in June, Benji asked for us to close the relationship. No more one-offs with other people.”
Van didn’t need to hear the end of that story. “You said no.”
“I have my reasons.”
“I bet you do. What were Benji’s reasons?”
“He needed to know that he was good enough for me.” Joshua’s voice got tight and strangled. “And he is. He’s an amazing, loving, energetic guy, and I love him so much.”
“But you won’t close the relationship and be loyal to him for reasons?”
“He’s on the road all the time with Fading Daze. He’s living his dream, and I’m so happy for him. Proud of him. He’s better off free of me.”
“Did he tell you that?”
Joshua drained his first glass, then started on the second. “Not in those words. But he was right about one thing. He deserves to be loved by a guy who needs him and only him.”
Van chewed on that while he ate a few more oysters. Joshua’s sandwich and chips appeared. He peeked under the bun, probably assessing the house made tartar sauce, then took a big bite. Chewed. His dark eyes lit up as the special ingredient hit his palette.
“Damn, what is in that?” Joshua asked.
“The batter has red chili flakes and Old Bay.”
“Told you so.”
“Fine, you’re right. And help yourself to my chips, I won’t be able to eat them all.”
“Thanks.” Van had no intention of touching those greasy things. “Okay, so what I’m getting here is you both still love each other, Benji wants commitment, but you won’t do it. Why?”
“Because things are good the way they are. Why change what’s working?”
“Except it’s not working, obviously. Not if you guys broke up.”
Joshua gave him an exasperated look. “No shit, I figured that one out, thanks. That’s my reason, though. Being open worked for three years.”
“For you maybe. It’s obviously not something Benji wanted or needed, if you said he never hooked up with other people.”
“But I didn’t know that until two days ago.”
“So Benji dumps all this truth on you, but you still recite the party line? Shit, I’d have dumped you too.”
Van held up his hands. “Look, you wanted an unbiased, outsider’s opinion, so I’m giving you one. What’s the real reason you won’t commit? That deep down, in your gut fear that’s keeping you from being exclusive to someone who sounds like a pretty great guy. Plus the whole rock star thing is super hot.”
Hell, Benji was super hot, and Van totally would have hit that back in July—except why was Benji hitting on him so hard if he was ace? That was odd. Only not really, because they’d had the exclusivity conversation in June, and he didn’t remember seeing Joshua that July night. He hadn’t been with Benji. Had Benji been purposely seeking out a hook up to prove something to Joshua? Or himself?
“What?” Joshua asked. “What’s that look for?”
“Full disclosure? You know the weekend Fading Daze came down to the shore to visit Lincoln and practice for Unbound?”
“Yeah.” Joshua put his sandwich down, once again laser focused. Intense.
“Benji and I got into some pretty heavy flirting at the bar. Things were definitely looking toward future naked times, except I had to leave suddenly to help a friend out of a jam. And that look, my friend? That look on your face is exactly why you don’t want to lose Benji. Jesus.” Van had seen some epic glares of jealousy, but Joshua had the whole back off, he’s mine thing down.
Joshua seemed to have trouble getting his facial muscles under control. “Sorry. It’s just, he’s never talked about hooking up with anyone, for obvious reasons now, so I’m not used to hearing about him flirting with other people. Especially…” He cut himself off, then took a big bite of food.
Van was so not having mercy. “Especially what?”
He mumbled something around his mouthful.
Van waited patiently until Joshua had swallowed, then put a hand on his wrist so he didn’t eat more. “Especially what?”
It was hard to tell under the dim lights, but he was pretty sure Joshua blushed. “Especially not with guys I’m into,” he said softly. So soft Van almost missed the confession.
And he kind of wished he had missed it, because the words caressed his skin like the gentlest of fingertips, reminding him of how attracted he was to Joshua. Not that he was going to act on it. This was talking only.
Complicated relationship is mega complicated.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Van said. “What’s the real reason you won’t commit?”
Joshua finished his second drink, then flagged the waiter down for a third. Van had a funny feeling he’d be driving the guy home at this point. Some people needed liquid courage in order to be honest about themselves.
Probably why Van didn’t drink.
“My parents are horrible people,” Joshua said once the third drink made its way to the table. “I mean, they didn’t abuse me or my siblings, but they were incredibly toxic together, and for whatever reason, instead of divorcing and trying to be happy apart, they seemed to love making each other miserable by cheating. Constantly. Openly. They didn’t even try to hide it from us kids.”
Van tried to digest that tidbit. His own parents hadn’t been fonts of love and acceptance, but they seemed to care for each other. Respected each other and the roles they played in the marriage. But cheating on each other? Never. “That’s sucks, Joshua. Really sucks. But what does that have to do with Benji?”
“They were married. In a committed relationship. But they still cheated all over each other. I just…” Joshua’s face scrunched up. “I’m fucking terrified that closing the relationship is the beginning of the end. That one of us will meet someone we’re intensely attracted to.” He glanced at Van’s face, then back at the table. “I’m scared one of us will cheat, and I couldn’t stand it if Benji ever cheated on me. Or if I did on him. It would kill me.”
The genuine grief in Joshua’s voice hammered his words home and made Van’s heart ache for him. “Do you honestly think, especially knowing what you know now, that Benji would ever cheat on you?”
“No.” Joshua didn’t pause to think.
“Do you think you’d cheat on him?”
“I don’t know. My parents are serial cheaters. My sister cheated on her husband. One of my brothers cheated on a girlfriend with two other chicks. I guess I’m scared that it’s genetic, you know?”
Van frowned. “So the open relationship loophole gives you an out. You sleep with someone else, you don’t have to feel guilty about it?”
Joshua opened and shut his mouth several times. “I don’t know. I never thought about it like that.”
At that point, Van wasn’t sure if he wanted to smack Joshua in the face or give him a hug. And his indecision made him all kinds of determined. “Dude, if you really love Benji, and you want to be with him, then fucking man up, close it up, and grovel for his forgiveness. Being a good partner means trusting the other person, and also trusting yourself. You can’t live your life expecting to turn out like your parents.”
Words everyone ought to live by, no matter their childhood. And that sealed Van’s decision to see this through. “Tell yourself you’re not them, Joshua, and go get your boyfriend back.”
(c) A.M. Arthur 2017
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