Starting from Somewhere by Lane Hayes

1

Bobby J

“Someday, somewhere—anywhere, unfailingly, you’ll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life.”—Pablo Neruda

The Zebra Denwas the ultimate dive bar—complete with dark, dingy corners, sticky tabletops, torn leatherette barstools, and a pervading air of quiet desperation. In the plus column, the bartenders were friendly. They poured a strong drink, offered conversation if you were interested, left you alone when you weren’t, and they played decent music. Oh yeah, and it was right next door to the studio, which made it an ideal place to unwind after practice.

I took a sip of beer, then set my glass down, scanning the bar briefly before tipping my head toward my friends, who had apparently found something hysterical.

“What are you laughing at?” I asked, narrowing my gaze as I swiveled on my seat to face Declan and Tegan.

“You,” Justin chuckled. “Someone catch your eye?”

“Nope. But the night is young,” I singsonged, waggling my brows lasciviously.

“Not for us. We have to let Chester out.” Gray drew a few bills from his wallet and draped his arm over Justin’s shoulders. “Are you ready, babe?”

“Let me finish my beer first.” Justin leaned into his boyfriend’s side and flashed a sweet smile at him.

Justin and Gray were a striking couple with an eighteen-year age difference. Justin was the lead singer of our rival band, Zero, and Gray was a well-respected Grammy-winning songwriter. Okay, “rival” was the wrong word. The guys in Zero and Jealousy were actually pretty good friends these days. As the marquee bands for Scratch Records, we felt a joint responsibility to get our fledgling label up and running. We’d had a rocky start, but Charlie, our fabulous manager, steered us through the worst of it.

And yeah…it helped that Tegan and Declan had mended old fences. Jealousy’s lead singer, Declan, and Zero’s drummer, Tegan, were ridiculously in love. They weren’t gross about it, but I caught those dopey looks they shared every once in a while. It was kinda sweet. They were a hot couple: Dec was movie-star handsome with longish brown hair, blue eyes, and the toned physique of a swimmer. His boyfriend, on the other hand, looked like a badass tattooed wrestler. No lie. Tegan’s muscles had muscles.

I studied the Celtic design inked on Tegan’s forearm for a second, then glanced up and sighed when I caught the gooey-eyed lovefest happening. Tegan and Dec wore matching “I’m so gonna do you when we’re alone” expressions. Note to self: find new friends. Preferably single ones.

“Yeah, we should go too,” Dec said, tearing his gaze from Tegan’s to sip his beer.

“Really? One measly beer and you’re ready to roll?” I hoped my lopsided smile erased my whiny tone. I didn’t want to go home; it was too damn lonely. “The least you can do is help me find a drinking buddy.”

Justin gave me a pointed look as he stood. “I have an idea. Call Johnny.”

Ouch.

I raised my glass and sighed. “He wouldn’t pick up the phone.”

“Hey, I don’t know what happened between you two, but you were good friends. Buy him a bottle of Jack and fuckin’ fix it already,” Justin huffed.

“Justin…” Gray warned.

“What? I’m just saying what everyone else is thinking. Do us all a favor and talk to him. Johnny’s a good guy. He’ll listen. Tell him you’re sorry and—”

“Hang on. What makes you think I did anything wrong?” I narrowed my eyes and shot a menacing look that by rights should have made him flinch.

Justin wasn’t fazed. He squeezed my shoulder and laughed.

“Dude, you’ve got trouble written all over your face. If a bad idea is in the works, I know you probably have something to do with it. And I respect that.” He paused to offer me a high five. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to deal with the consequences. That’s life. Own up, apologize, and move the fuck on.”

“Who are you, and what did you do with Justin?” Tegan asked in mock bewilderment.

Justin swatted his best friend upside the head and jumped out of reach before T could retaliate. He slipped his hand into Gray’s and grinned. “I’m mature now. Right, babe?”

“Something like that.” Gray kissed his cheek and tugged his hand. “Let’s go. See you guys.”

Justin made a phone-call gesture as he walked away, chuckling when I flipped him off.

“He’s right, you know,” Dec said softly.

Apparently, my evil glare needed a tune-up. He raised his brow in challenge.

“Fine,” I conceded gruffly. “Can we drop it? Any second now, you two are gonna leave me stranded at the bar, so let’s end the night on a high note. Help me find some sexy trouble.”

Honestly, I was more interested in changing the topic than anything. I had a mess to clean up and I knew it. But there was no point in stewing over things I couldn’t change.

Tegan snickered. “On a Wednesday night at The Zebra Den? Good luck with that.”

“There’s gotta be somebody here worth gettin’ to know,” I drawled.

I cast another lazy look in our general vicinity just for kicks. A sexy diversion sounded nice, but Tegan was right. The Zebra Den was no place to pick up a stranger. Flirting was fine. In fact, it was encouraged. However, if you asked me, meaningless hookups had less of a squick factor if they originated at classier establishments. The act might lead to the same happy ending, but in the light of day, one made you feel like you had bubblegum stuck to the bottom of your shoe the following day, and the other clung to you like dog shit.

And yes, that observation was based on personal scientific analysis.

“The blonde by the door keeps looking over here.” Dec inclined his head slightly.

I glanced over on cue. “I spy a wedding ring. That’s a no.”

“Good policy and good luck.” Tegan dropped a couple of twenties on the table. “We’re outta here. Ready, Dec?”

“Yeah. See you tomorrow, Bobby J.” Dec nudged my shoulder as he stood, lowering his voice and adding, “Cute twink alert. Far corner of the bar. Behave.”

“I always do,” I lied, exchanging fist-bumps with my buddies before clandestinely twisting to take a peek at said cutie.

I couldn’t see a thing. The shadows cloaked that section in darkness, making it difficult to discern anyone’s features. Especially if your vision sucked. Fuck, I had to do something about that soon. This was getting ridiculous.

Recently, I’d found myself relying on odd clues to identify people and objects when my eyes got tired and my sight went blurry. The blonde with the wedding ring was a good example. I couldn’t “see” her from here; however, I spotted the glint of gold on her left hand. It might not have been on her ring finger, but I doubted Tegan or Dec would check. They didn’t really care.

And that was the funny thing about perception and communication. No one cared about details unless they were personally impacted. It was a matter of controlling the static. It wasn’t possible to worry about everyone else’s BS and your own at the same time, right? I had far too much BS swimming in my brain at the moment. I was tempted to drown my sorrows in something stronger than beer.

Nah, I could do that at home. I did a quick calculation of the bill. The guys had already paid for our drinks and left a substantial tip. I added a few more dollars because I could, then made my way to the exit, humming along to the David Bowie tune piped through the speakers. I nodded to the pretty blonde. Yep, definitely married. And at the last second, curiosity got the better of me. I had to get a glimpse of the guy in the shadows. Just because.

I adjusted course, fiddling with the zipper on my leather jacket as I sidled up to the padded bar and turned to my left and—wow, he was cute…in a collegiate, eager, and kind of intense way. He had wavy brown hair, long eyelashes, and a sculpted jawline. I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were or how tall he was from this angle, but he was definitely on the young side. Younger than twenty-five, which meant probably too young for me. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t say a cordial hello.

“You look like trouble,” I blurted, flashing a mischievous grin.

He jolted on his barstool as though I’d ripped him from deep thoughts, blinking like a deer in headlights.

“Uh…I do?”

I chuckled softly. “Definitely. Or you look like you’re memorizing a complicated equation.”

“Um…I was. Well, I mean…” he sputtered.

The exchange was awkward. Anyone else would have let the poor guy off the hook. I mean, c’mon. I didn’t know shit about this guy, but it was painfully obvious I wasn’t his type. For all I knew, he was straight as an arrow. If my gaydar was working properly, I’d guess he was gay for sure and probably into a more average-looking Joe.

That wasn’t me. At all. I’d actually been told I came across as a tad intimidating. Now, that could have hurt my feelings, but I understood. I was six three and built like a lumberjack. No shit. I wasn’t quite as muscular as Tegan. In fact, I probably needed to spend a little more time at the gym, but I was a big man with a thick beard and a fuckton of ink under my plaid button-down.

So, what the hell was I thinking when I gestured toward the empty barstool beside him? No clue.

“Mind if I join you?”

He opened his pretty mouth and closed it twice. “Oh…okay. Sure. Yeah.”

“What are you drinkin’?” I asked, tapping his cocktail napkin.

“This is rum with Coca-Cola.”

I smiled. “Really? Looks flat as can be. Where are the bubbles?”

He picked up the glass and examined the contents before taking a sip. He scrunched his nose a moment later and visibly shuddered. “It might be a little flat.”

I cocked my head and narrowed my eyes. “Maybe that’s not your drink.”

“I bought it. It’s mine.”

“Slow down, Sam. I meant maybe rum isn’t your thing. Can’t stand the stuff myself. Although the occasional piña colada—”

He snapped his fingers. “Shoot, that’s what I meant to order!”

I chuckled. “They don’t specialize in fancy cocktails here. How do you feel about beer?”

“Not my favorite,” he admitted. “And…my name isn’t Sam. It’s Cody.”

I extended my right hand. “Nice to meet you, Cody. I’m Bobby J.”

“Nice to meet you too.”

He slipped his palm against mine and no joke…something happened. Don’t ask me what. I couldn’t say. But I felt a sudden sense of urgency in my bones. It was as if the universe was shining an invisible spotlight on this moment and telling me to pay close attention. Superstitious much? Yes, I was.

Cody twisted in his chair slightly and blasted me with a drop-dead gorgeous grin. I got my first real look at him and wow, he was hot. No, he was lovely. Or maybe the better adjective was pretty. His deep-blue eyes sparked with ready humor. He had high cheekbones, a square jaw, and an adorable dimple at the left corner of his full lips. He was a little bit of everything I liked in one package. Masculine with a hint of softness and a sense of humor.

One drink. One drink only, I reminded myself as I signaled to the bartender.

“It looks like you’ve had two sips of that rum and Coke. I doubt you’re in danger of mixing alcohol, so I’m gonna suggest you switch to a vodka cranberry.”

“Sounds good. Heavy on the cranberry juice, though. I’m driving.”

“You got it.” I ordered our drinks, then turned to my new friend. “I’m about to get real corny here, but I have to ask…what’s a guy like you doin’ in a dive like this?”

Cody chuckled. “I’m sort of doing research.”

“What kind of sort of research?” I prodded.

“It’s a little hard to explain. The gist is that I need to write an editorial piece for my friends’ new publication.”

“Ah. Are you a freelance writer?”

“I’m not a writer at all. I’m a data analyst. I specialize in algorithms and search engine specialization,” he explained.

Oh, boy. Make that a quick drink.

“Sounds…interesting,” I hedged, thanking the bartender when he slid our drinks in front of us a moment later. “What kind of analysis can you do here? Wait. Let me guess. Count the lonely hearts, lost souls, and general miscreants, and determine levels of desperation based on time of day, style of clothing, and overall demeanor. Although I suppose you need a hypothesis too. Say you have a disproportionate amount of lost souls at seven p.m. dressed in end-of-day schleppy work duds staring into their whiskeys like it was a fuckin’ wishing well—pardon my French. What would that tell you? Life is tough, drink faster?”

Cody grinned. “Yes, exactly!”

“Really?”

“Well, yes. See, my friends are computer-science grad students. They’ve been in labs for eight years straight and are about to sign on for a lifetime of more research, which they love. No one is complaining. But since this is the last hoorah before graduation, I suggested forming a club that does a completely different form of research.”

“What kind?”

“The human kind. A scientist will always collect statistical data. Rightly so. Numbers are life. The trick is to use the data to give insight into human interaction that tells a story…and publish it.”

I squinted like an owl at sunrise. “Your friends are geeks, eh?”

He snickered. “I might be one too.”

“Hmm. I see. And you’re a grad student.”

“No, I just graduated from UCLA. I’m going to start in the research and development department at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in September.”

“Damn. You’re going to work for NASA?”

“I am.”

“What does NASA need with search engine specialization? Doesn’t seem like an outer space thing.”

“They didn’t hire me for that particular skill set. They’re more interested in my ability to unscramble data for robotics and advanced exploration systems,” he replied casually.

“You must be fucking brilliant. And I’m not apologizing for that f-bomb. Some observations require proper emphasis,” I deadpanned, raising my beer. I tapped my glass against his and winked. “To smarties.”

Cody sipped his new cocktail and nodded. “Thank you. This is much better.”

I inclined my head in acknowledgment, then sat back on my barstool and gave him a thorough once-over. Sure, I played lead guitar in an up-and-coming rock band, but I was also a reasonably intelligent dude with a degree from a prestigious university. So, I was suitably impressed by his education and future employer. But unlike Cody, I’d never given a shit about numbers or equations. I liked people. I liked knowing what made them tick. And this guy was certainly interesting.

“It’s June now. What are you gonna do till September?”

“Um, I have a part-time summer internship lined up, but it’s no big deal,” he replied quickly.

“Hmm. You should have some fun too. Maybe kick it at the beach, counting babes while you make up stories for your friends,” I teased.

Cody frowned. “I sunburn easily, but for the sake of research, I’m planning a trip to the beach soon, so…yes.”

“Right.” I smiled kindly even though I wanted to laugh out loud. This guy was fuckin’ adorable.

“And…I’m gay, so I wouldn’t count babes or check them out at all. That would be disrespectful. And rude.”

“I see,” I said evenly.

“Do you? I’m confused. I thought—”

“What did you think?”

“I thought—I thought maybe you’re gay too, and that’s why you’re talking to me. I can’t tell. I’m not good at detecting flirtation or seduction. If I got it wrong I—what’s so funny?”

Okay, this time I laughed. I kept it light and made sure to smile, so he’d know I wasn’t laughing at him. I was just…charmed.

“Nothing’s funny. You got it right,” I assured him. “I’m flirting with you, but I’m not necessarily seducing you. Trust me, if I was actively trying to get in your pants, you’d know.”

“Oh. So, you don’t really want…me. That’s okay! Conversation is good,” Cody assured me, raking his teeth over his plump bottom lip nervously.

I reached out to run my thumb over the swollen skin. I shouldn’t have done it, but I couldn’t resist. He didn’t know me at all. I was just a strange dude in a bar. But it seemed important that he know I found him very attractive.

“It’s not a matter of wanting you, Cody boy. If I can be perfectly honest…” I paused a moment to give him a chance to weigh in.

“Um, yes, please.”

“I’d do you in a heartbeat.” Shakespeare, step down. I’ve got this.

Cody’s Adam’s apple slid theatrically in his throat. “Do me?”

“Yeah. Do you, take you, fuck you. Whatever you want to call it. Over the bar, over a table, over a stool…”

His mouth was a perfect O. I set my fingers under his chin and winked.

“There are people here,” he whispered.

“True. We wouldn’t want to get arrested. As much as I’d enjoy the hell out of shimmying your khakis off and making that fine ass mine, sex in public is generally frowned upon,” I said matter-of-factly. “There’s always the bathroom.”

Cody swatted my hand away and snickered. “Very funny. Okay, I get it. You’re flirting. Lewd techniques may be effective in finding the desired temporary sexual partner.”

I flashed a megawatt grin as I waggled my brows, pleased when he snort-laughed. Yep, I was a sucker for a good sense of humor.

“You’re on to me. Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself before you try gettin’ in my pants?” I teased.

I wasn’t trying to—okay.” He lowered his lashes and took another sip of his drink. “What do you want to know?”

“How old are you? Where are you from? Any siblings, pets, or serious phobias?”

He cleared his throat. “I’m twenty-four. I’m from the Bay Area…Lafayette, to be exact. I have an older sister and a younger brother. No pets, however, my list of phobias would take a while to get through. Snakes, spiders, heights, and elevators are just a few. Oh! And sharks.”

“Okay, a few of those make sense, but why elevators?”

“I got stuck in one when I was a kid. It was probably for no more than twenty minutes, but I was traumatized. I still have nightmares about it.” He traced a circle in the condensation on his glass. “How about you?”

“Elevators don’t bother me.”

“No, it’s your turn to tell me about yourself before I try to get in your pants.” He slapped his hand over his mouth and widened his eyes comically.

“Ha. All right, then. I’m thirty-three. I’m from Chicago. No siblings, no pets. My dad has a parrot, but I haven’t seen either of them in a couple of years.” I made a quick mental note to call my dad and continued. “And my only real phobia is going to the doctor’s office.”

“That’s a normal phobia. My mom is a surgeon. She has lots of stories about patients who put off procedures because they’re afraid of anesthesia or—”

“Oh, no. Anesthesia is not the issue. I don’t like waiting rooms, stethoscopes, charts, shots. My phobia extends to dentists and optometrists too. I need to make an appointment to get my eyes checked, and I’ve been putting it off for a while. I should have done it a year ago, but I made excuses every time the date arrived. Now, I’ve got an actual issue.”

“How so?”

“I need…glasses,” I admitted with a put-upon sigh.

“Glasses are hot.”

I fixed him with a “yeah, right” look. “I’m a guitar player in a rock band. I’m not wearing glasses.”

Cody chuckled. “Wear contacts. That’s what I do. I’d be blind as a bat without them.”

“Yeah, contacts are probably the way to go, but I still have to make an appointment and get to the office to make that happen. See? My phobia rears its ugly head, and here I still am…squinting at a cute stranger in a dark bar ’cause I can’t see a damn thing from a distance,” I huffed, reaching for my beer.

“A cute stranger. Me?”

“Yeah, you.”

“Thanks, but since you need glasses, I won’t get overly excited about the compliment,” he quipped.

I grinned. When the urge to assure him I thought he was very attractive got too strong, I switched topics. If our acquaintanceship had another ten-minute run, it was probably wise to tone down my flirting game. “Tell me about the research you’re doing with your friends.”

Cody sobered immediately and cleared his throat. “Um, there isn’t much more to tell.”

I grinned like a madman. “Bullshit. Something sassy is goin’ on here. Admit it.”

“No, no. Nothing like that.”

“Sure, I believe you,” I taunted. “Let me guess. You’re supposed to pick someone up, sex them up, and then write about it.”

He did that fish-out-of-water, openmouthed look and shook his head. “Uh…no.”

I set my hand on his shoulder and let out a hearty guffaw. “I think that’s a yes. Looks like I did half your research for you by coming over here and buying you a drink.”

“No, you have the wrong idea. A researcher is an observer. I didn’t intend to speak to anyone.”

“But you’re talking to me now. Ball’s back in your court, Code-meister.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s flirtin’ time! Bring it on. Hit me with your best moves, lines…whatever floats your boat.”

Cody shook his head furiously. “No, I’m—I’m not good at that.”

“I am.”

“I can tell.”

“Then use me.” I threw my arms open wide and gave him a Cheshire cat grin. “I’m a great flirt. Gold-medal caliber. I’ll teach you a trick or two before I head out.”

“That’s very generous of you,” he snarked.

I nodded. “I know, right? And look at you. You’re already flirtin’. The boy’s a natural!”

“No. No, I wasn’t flirt—ooh, I get it. Teasing is part of flirting.”

“It can be. It’s all in your tone of voice and your body language.”

He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “I see.”

“You know, you’re thinking too hard. Flirting is a free-form sport. It’s all about trusting your instincts and staying in the moment. There’s no script.”

“A script! Yes. That’s a great idea.” Cody pulled his cell from his pocket and typed a quick message.

“No. Bad idea. Put your phone away, hotshot. Now, look at me. Remember, body language matters. You’ve got to make and maintain eye contact. But you also need to lean in a little,” I instructed. “Give it a try.”

He wiped his palms on his thighs, sucked in a deep breath, and licked his lips before teetering into my personal space.

“What should I say?”

“Give me a compliment. First thing that pops into your mind.”

“You have pretty eyes,” he said, fluttering his lashes.

Don’t laugh, don’t laugh. I pursed my lips and bit the inside of my cheek, hoping to keep the floodgate intact.

“Thank—ha! I’m sorry, but that was terrible, honey. Try again.” I set my hand on his knee and squeezed. “This time, don’t give me those baby blues. This isn’t about you. A good flirt makes it about the other person. Show me what you got.”

“No, thanks.” He twisted to face forward and primly picked up his cocktail.

I smiled. This guy was fucking adorable. I tipped back the last of my beer and observed the rigid set of his shoulders and his tight-lipped expression.

“Hmm, you’re kinda sassy, aren’t you?”

He set his glass down and gaped at me. “Sassy? Are you for real? I rescind my compliment. You don’t have pretty eyes. Grr, that’s not true. You do. But you’re too…too…”

“Too what? Keep going. We’re cooking with butter now, baby. Don’t stop,” I encouraged, circling my wrist like a director on a movie set.

“Too cool. I don’t do well with cool.”

“Me? I’m not cool. I’m just…good at faking it. And the one thing I’ve learned is that sincerity matters. It’s best to say something you think is true about the other person.”

“You want me to tell you what I really think of you?”

I grinned. “The nice stuff. Remember…this is just practice.”

“Okay, um…you have beautiful eyes. In fact, you’re easily the most handsome man I’ve ever met. You’re funny and you seem nice and—”

“Oops. You’re losing steam.”

“How?”

“Well, telling a guy he’s handsome is good, but following it up with ‘nice’ is a buzzkill. Better to stick to a theme and keep rolling, you know?”

“A theme…like body parts. Okay.” Cody furrowed his brow. “You’re muscular and your beard is…sexy. I wonder what it would feel like if you rubbed it against my—never mind. Wow, erase the last thirty seconds of my life, please.” He reached for his glass with a trembling hand.

“Against your…what?” I leaned in, lowering my voice for his ears only in a deeper than usual timbre. “Your cheek, your lips, your thighs…your ass?”

“My…my…” he sputtered. “Really?”

“Sure.” I rubbed my bearded chin and nodded. “Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it.”

Cody shook his head vehemently. “Definitely not.”

I chuckled. “How about licking your ass?”

He stared at me for a long moment. I expected him to tell me I was out of line…and I was. Disgusting? Also possible. What I didn’t expect was for him to say, “Are you referring to the cheek or the actual anus?”

I busted up laughing. Seriously, busted up. I hooted as I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye. I noted a few curious glances aimed our way. Cody did too, but he didn’t back down or try to retract his inquiry. He awaited clarification…like a true scientist.

“The latter,” I said. “If you’ve never tried it, I highly suggest adding it to your sexy-time repertoire. You won’t be sorry.”

“Hmm. There are a lot of nerve endings in that area. I suppose it makes sense.”

“Yep. The pudendal nerve branches to the dorsal nerve in the male and female anatomy. For a man, the close proximity of the prostate to the anus makes it especially…enjoyable.” I shot a mischievous smile his way before tipping back the last of my beer.

“Whoa. You either memorized this passage on WebMD or you’ve done intensive study regarding—”

“I’m a med school dropout,” I admitted, shifting on my barstool to pull my wallet from my pocket.

“Really?”

“Yep. I’m the human equivalent of a guide dog who didn’t quite make the cut. Written exams were a breeze for me, but I struggled with the big stuff. And I internalize too much.” I tapped my temple and handed my card to the bartender when I realized I’d blown all my cash on a tip earlier. “A good doctor has to compartmentalize. I suck at that.”

“I see. But why are you afraid to get medical assistance now? Knowledge is power.”

“True. I guess it’s a personal flaw. I learned the hard way that it’s best to emphasize the positive, follow your passions, and live the hell out of your life,” I replied, nodding my thanks to the bartender, then scribbling my name on the receipt.

“Good advice, but it helps if you can see what you’re doing. You put the tip in the wrong place.”

“I never put the tip in the wrong place,” I rasped with a wink.

“Oh, I get it. Sexual innuendo. However, you did write the numerical tip incorrectly.” He pointed at the line above my signature meaningfully.

I scowled. “I meant to do that.”

“Mmmhmm.”

I gave him serious side-eye as I pushed the receipt away. “You’re humming. What does that mean?”

“Nothing. It’s just that…you’re not what I thought.”

“How so?”

“You’re smart.”

“You thought I was dumb?”

“No, not at all. But I assumed you were more…how should I put this? Worldly rather than book smart.” He smiled tentatively, then added, “Maybe you’re both.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe I’m like a lot of folks out there with a headful of shit they can’t use while trying to make sense of whatever’s left.” I shrugged nonchalantly. “Hey, we’re getting dangerously close to intellectual overload. I thought you wanted pointers on how to flirt like a pro.”

“That was your idea,” he huffed. “I’m the observer, remember?”

“I remember. But here’s something you might be able to use for your ‘research’ in one reliable acronym…CBS. Confidence, bravery, and sincerity. If you’re confident, brave, and sincere, you can’t go wrong.”

“I could probably go wrong.”

“No way. Confidence gives an impression of self-possession and sometimes makes people think you’re more courageous than you’re feeling at any given moment. And sincerity is the magical ingredient that plenty of folks simply can’t wrap their brains around. If you confidently and bravely walk up to a hot dude and feed them some bullshit line, you’ll come across as a creep or a player. If you mean what you say, you’re golden. Should come naturally to you. You’re not a creep, and you don’t seem like a player.” I narrowed my gaze. “Are you?”

“A player? Me? I know how to play the piano and the recorder. Does that count?”

I chuckled. “In this case, no. If you falter on C, B, or S, you’ll probably still do okay. Two, or worse—all three…you’re toast.”

Cody nodded as he pulled out his cell and typed a few notes. “Got it. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Give me one shot before I go.” I motioned for him to start talking.

“A flirting shot. Okay.” He licked his lips nervously, then shook his head. “I can’t. Everything I’m thinking is…rude.”

I barked a quick laugh. “You have my complete and undivided attention. Bring it on.”

“Um…your jeans look tight. I can’t wait for you to stand up so I can see your ass. But I’d love to see your ass out of them too.”

I bit back a grin. “Okay. That was direct and kinda hot, but do not under any circumstances try that with anyone else on planet Earth.”

“Too much?”

“A tad.” I squeezed his shoulder as I stood. “Keep practicing. It was nice to meet you, Cody.”

“You too. I’ll walk out with you. I’ve done enough research tonight.”

I nodded, then led the way to the exit, holding the door open for him. I stepped outside and gazed up at the fast-moving clouds drifting over the half-moon before turning toward my new acquaintance. Cody pulled his keys from his pocket and smiled.

“Where’d you park?” I asked.

“Over there.” He gestured at the black Mini Cooper at the far end of the lot mostly hidden in shadows.

My chivalrous side kicked in out of the blue. “I’ll walk you to your car. I’m heading that way.”

Cody beamed at me. “Thank you. Are you working early tomorrow?”

“No, why you do ask?”

“I’m making polite conversation. No flirtation whatsoever. Although I was mulling over our earlier discussion and realized you’re guilty of double standards.”

“How so?”

“Earlier you said…and I quote, ‘I’d do you.’ You added something about doing ‘it’ over a bar, a table, etcetera. Ring any bells?” He pointed his key fob at his car and gave a satisfied nod when it beeped on cue.

I squinted warily. “Yeah, but—”

“When I told you I wanted to see your posterior in your Levi’s, I was somehow out of line. The logic confuses me. Why should you be able to say what you’re thinking, and I can’t?” He came to a stop at the driver’s side of his car and crossed his arms, silently issuing a challenge of some kind.

“Now that you mention it, I suppose that does seem unfair.” I scratched my beard thoughtfully, then turned around to show off my denim-clad ass. “Ta-da! I present my posterior.”

Cody snickered. “Very nice.”

“Glad you approve.” I pivoted to face him and fumbled with my belt. “I guess I could show you the whole kit and caboodle…or caboose.”

“No, no. Let’s not ask for trouble.”

I raised my hands in surrender. “If you say so.”

“I do. Kiss me instead.”

“Excuse me?”

He pursed his lips, looking uncomfortable as hell. To his credit, he didn’t back down. “You heard me.”

The husky note in his voice zipped through my veins like a secret elixir. The sudden onslaught of need and desire was a powerful combo. I stepped closer, wedging myself between him and the Prius parked next to his car. I was at least four inches taller than Cody and much bigger. I could squish him like a bug. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t that kind of guy, but he didn’t know that. He should be careful around men like me.

“Why?”

“Because I might never meet anyone like you again. If I do, I might not be confident, brave, or sincere enough to tell him what I want. I feel like this might be a chance I should take. I understand if you say no. I’m not your type. I get it. I’m not sure why you talked to me at all tonight. Or why—”

I curled my fingers around the back of his neck and sealed my lips to his.

So what happened to my gentlemanly resolve to not corrupt a nerdy, adorable dude barking up the wrong tree for some sexy action? I had no fucking clue.

I suspected the same misguided protective instinct that told me to walk him to his car was responsible. And I also wanted to stop that nonsense about “my type,” as if I were out of his league, when in fact the opposite was true. He deserved better than someone like me. Someday he’d find that guy. In the meantime, I was only human. And it was just a kiss…nothing more than a press of lips in the moonlight between strangers.

Until he slinked his arms around my waist and slipped his tongue inside, gliding it alongside mine. I released a feral-sounding moan as I took over, instinctively pulling him against my chest and slanting my mouth over his to deepen the connection. Our make-out session started out sweet and languid. An equal exploratory give-and-take with soft sighs and gentle caresses. He splayed his hands over my back, letting them drift to my ass. He hooked his thumbs in my pockets and rested them there. I kissed, licked, and sucked at his tongue and his lips fervently. Any second now, he’d squeeze my butt and change course. The anticipation nearly killed me.

I did my best to keep my dick out of the equation. I concentrated on his pretty mouth and made it my mission to steer clear of his perfect posterior. I knew myself too well. And this man was all kinds of tempting.

I nibbled his bottom lip and licked his jawline before slowly pulling away.

“There. Is that what you wanted?” I asked, rubbing my nose against his.

“Y-yes,” he replied dreamily, blinking to meet my gaze. “Wow. You’re a good kisser.”

“Thanks.” I popped his butt and scowled at him. “What was that crack about you not being my type?”

His adoring grin dipped. “Ow. Did you just…did you spank me?”

“I did.” I held his chin, pressing featherlight kisses on his lips. “You must know I’m crazy attracted to you, Cody boy. I wouldn’t have spent the rest of my night at the bar if I wasn’t. And for your information, I don’t have a type.”

He cocked his head. “No offense, but that seems suspicious. Everyone has a type,” he argued.

“Who’s yours?”

“Tall, dark, manly, and unattainable. Like you.”

I grinned. “You’re definitely flirting with me.”

“I’m a quick study,” he bragged.

“You are. And I’m very attracted to you.”

“But…”

I didn’t answer him. I tucked a strand of hair behind his ears and swiped my thumb over his bottom lip, letting my gaze roam as I memorized his features. What a funny evening. How had I gone from a friendly beer after a day in the studio to here? Better question…why didn’t I want to leave?

I leaned in again and traced the seam of his lips with the tip of my tongue. “No buts.”

Cody moaned aloud, grabbed a fistful of my shirt, and writhed, rubbing his obvious erection against my upper thigh before capturing my mouth in a searing kiss.

Here’s the deal…I crumbled. All my best intentions faded faster than a fart in a fan factory. He was sweet and sexy and dammit, the way he looked at me made my heart flip and my dick swell in my jeans. Hey, I knew I should have reset my walls and gently pushed him away, but it wasn’t that easy. My body was not in sync with my mind. At all.

“Oh, my God. That’s so…more. Please. More.”

He whimpered when I pulled back slightly. “Shh. We can’t screw around out here. We’re in a public parking lot.”

“You’re right. Come to my house. Oh, wait. My roommate might be home and—”

“Cody…”

“What? I’m being confident, brave, and sincere. According to your calculations, I’m killing this flirtation thing.”

“You are,” I assured him with a smile. “Too well. Listen, give me your number. I’ll text you and we can—”

“Death knell. Abort mission, abort mission,” he proclaimed, lifting his hands in the air and sliding out of my arms. “Thank you for the drink. It was nice to meet you. Get your eyes checked, pronto, and…have a good life. Bye!”

Cody jumped into his car, revved the engine, and peeled out of his parking space in seconds flat. It was actually pretty damn impressive.

And me? I stood with my hands at my sides and my brows furrowed, wondering what the hell had just happened.