“Hey, did you hear about Parson?”
Kent freezes, his protein bar halfway to his mouth. That’s Carl; Kent would recognize his grating, overconfident voice anywhere. It sounds like he’s out at the water cooler, and he probably doesn’t realize that Kent is in the break room — and therefore, within earshot — but he’s enough of a dick that Kent can’t be sure.
The answering voice is female and hushed: “I heard something about him hooking up with Alexei.” That’s Tamia.
And that’s… what?
Carl snorts. “In Parson’s head maybe. It's a lie, and he made it up himself. Pathetic.”
Kent goes hot and cold at once, flushing with anger and shock. He hadn’t done either of those things — whether or not he’d hook up with Alexei Mashkov (he totally would), there’s no way in hell he’d tell anyone at work about it, much less float a rumor that it had happened when it hadn’t.
To her credit, Tamia’s skeptical as she asks, “Really?”
“Obviously,” Carl says.
“If you say so,” Tamia replies, still dubious.
As their voices fade away, and Kent sighs and tosses what’s left of his protein bar in the trash. Hopefully, whatever bullshit misinformation is in the air, it won’t reach Alexei himself.
Kent has taken several temp jobs since he started working on his accounting degree, but this is the first one where he feels like he’s on a kindergarten playground instead of in an office. Except that five-year-olds probably don’t spread sex rumors. So maybe it’s more like high school drama, but Kent has been working with teenagers for years at a local sporting goods store, and they’re definitely more mature than Carl.
To be honest, Kent’s not exactly sure what he did to make the dude hate him so much. He suspects it’s something to do with the fact that Carl is hoping to be hired by the company after their project is done (in which case, Kent is direct competition) or that he’s been trying to get into Tamia’s pants since day one (in which case, Kent is not).
At lunch, Kent sits with the other temps, since there aren’t any empty tables. He’s got his head down, so it comes as a complete surprise when Alexei squeezes into the chair next to his and scoots so close that he’s practically in Kent’s lap. “Hi Kenny,” he says warmly, looking right into Kent’s face, and that… is not something he’s ever called Kent before.
It makes Kent feel like he’s been eating rocks, a whole pile of them that are sitting in the pit of his stomach and dragging it down. Is this all some kind of joke? Are Carl and Alexei in on it together?
Except — Alexei doesn’t look like he’s joking. He’s angled toward Kent, and his head twitches in a tiny, almost imperceptible nod. Then, he winks.
Kent risks a glance around the table, and Carl’s jaw is almost on the floor so — okay, not in on it together. He looks back at Alexei and finally replies, “Hey.”
Alexei’s grin widens. “So, Thursday is Valentine’s,” he comments, all nonchalance as he unwraps a sandwich. “You want I tell you about surprise now or later?”
“Valentine’s?” Kent croaks out.
“Mmhmmm,” Alexei hums around a mouthful of peanut butter and jelly. He swallows. “Remember I say maybe I have plan?”
There’s that nod again, barely a movement, while Alexei holds his gaze steadily.
“Right,” Kent says slowly. “You sounded like it probably wouldn’t work out, so I guess I… forgot about it.”
Alexei seizes on that. “Didn’t think it would work! But I pull string, and we have reservation at new fondue place. My friend is bartender. Someone cancel last minute. Maybe they break up; sad for them, but happy for us. Is two-for-one special. You keep night free for me?”
Kent sees Carl’s expression go from shocked to bewildered. And okay, Kent still has no idea what’s going on, but — this could be fun. He knocks his shoulder into Alexei’s and gives him a close, private smile. “For you? I’m always free.”
Across the table, Tamia perks up. “I waitress there on the side!” she exclaims. “And I just agreed to pick up a shift on Thursday. I’ll try to get you seated in my section.”
Shit, Kent thinks, but Alexei doesn’t seem bothered by it. “We give you best tip,” he promises, and then turns to Kent. “I pick you up at six-thirty. Reservation at seven.” He drops one catcher’s-mitt hand onto Kent’s knee under the table and gives it a quick squeeze — Kent’s face flames — before he addresses Carl, “You have plans?”
It’s hard not to feel smug when Carl gives a grudging no in response. Kent’s plans may be fake, but at least he’s got some.
Basically, it’s a weird fucking day, and Kent is glad to escape when it’s over. He shuts down his computer promptly at five, but before he’s even halfway out of his chair, Alexei glances up and asks, “I walk with you?”
“Sure,” Kent agrees, and when they’re outside and well clear of the building, he says, brightly, “So, what the fuck?”
It seems to take Alexei by surprise. “What you mean, what the fuck?”
“I mean, why are you acting like we’re… dating, or whatever? Two-for-one special at the fondue place? Is this a joke or something?”
“No!” Alexei exclaims, sounding affronted, and then his voice goes concerned. “You not hear?”
“Rumor, about us.”
Kent groans. “I was afraid of that. Fuck. Listen, I swear I didn’t —”
“I know,” Alexei cuts him off, simply, like he never had any doubt. “Was Carl, making shit up. Can’t stand him.”
Huh. “I had no idea,” Kent admits. “You’re nice to him.”
Alexei shrugs. “Have to be nice at work. But he’s dick.”
It’s so surprising and Kent is so relieved not to be the butt of some coordinated prank that he starts to laugh. “Then what the fuck was that?” he asks, more jovially this time.
“I’m just mad and think maybe make him feel dumb, get even. Should have asked first. I’m sorry,” Alexei says, contrite.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kent replies. It had been fine. Confusing, but fine. Now that he knows it wasn’t malicious, the look on Carl’s face had been more than worth it. “Actually, thanks. I owe you one. Have a good night, okay?” With an awkward gesture that’s half wave, half salute, Kent starts backing toward his car.
“You owe? Maybe I make you pay for fondue,” Alexei suggests.
Kent stumbles over his own feet in surprise, and Alexei lurches forward to grab his arm. “You —” Kent starts once he has his balance back. “You were serious about that?”
Alexei draws his hand back and jams it into his jacket pocket. “I’m not lie. I get reservation last minute, but no date. And we have to show Tamia we’re best couple! I’m just joke, I pay, so free meal for you.”
He looks so genuinely hopeful that Kent can’t imagine saying no, even though Alexei’s rationale isn’t as flattering as, say, actually wanting to have dinner together. “Sure, yeah, okay. Why not,” Kent says. After all, his actual Valentine’s Day plans involve watching sappy movies with his cat, and he’s not sure which is more pathetic: that or going on a fake date with his pretend boyfriend. It’s probably a toss-up.
At least this job is going to end in a few days, and after that, it won’t matter anymore. In the meantime, there are worse things than a free dinner with an attractive guy.
On Valentine's Day, Alexei greets Kent at his door with a single red rose — which is unexpected to say the least — and Kent accepts it gingerly. “Think dozen is too many for first date,” Alexei says with a wink. He’s wearing a cardigan, and it kind of makes him look like somebody’s grandfather, but it kind of works too.
“Should I bring this to the restaurant?” Kent asks. Otherwise, how is Tamia ever going to see it?
Alexei shrugs. “Whatever you want. Is yours now.”
Kent ends up sticking it in a bottle of water and leaving it behind, because he doesn’t have a vase and he doesn’t want something else to keep track of when he’s already juggling so many lies.
While Kent is settling into the passenger seat of Alexei’s SUV, Alexei waves a hand and says, “Sorry for mess. I’m forget to bring inside.”
Kent cranes around and catches sight of — a hockey bag. His eyebrows shoot up. “You play hockey?”
“Just beer league, for fun.”
“Yeah? I played a lot when I was younger.” Kent considers how much of an understatement that is. “A lot.”
Alexei glances over at him. “You any good?”
Kent snorts. “I was all right. Probably would have been drafted if I hadn’t blown out my knee.”
There’s a suspicious tilt to Alexei’s smirk. “I think you being modest. I’m Google you later.”
Alexei’s tone grows more sympathetic as he says, “I’m sorry for knee. Big sports injury, change all life plans, must be hard.”
And that isn’t something that Kent would delve into on a real first date, much less a fake one. “It was an adjustment, for sure.”
“You still watch?”
Probably more than he should. Kent often wonders if he should have made a cleaner break, but it’s harder than it sounds. “All the time,” he admits.
“The Aces. They probably would have drafted me.”
He laughs good-naturedly when Alexei greets that news with an exuberant boo. “I’m Falconers fan,” he announces.
Kent groans. Of course he would be a fan of the team that Jack plays for, now that Jack’s finally made it to the NHL. It’s probably lucky that they aren’t trying to start an actual relationship. “Well, let’s not have our first fight before our first date,” he warns.
They arrive early, and Kent perches beside Alexei on a bench, a few inches away, until Alexei chuckles and tugs him closer with an arm around his shoulder. Kent steadfastly doesn’t think about how well he fits tucked into Alexei’s side. “Is date, kroshka,” Alexei murmurs. “Sit close to me.”
Jesus fuck. It’s all Kent can do not to shiver. “Right,” he says, fumbling his phone from his jeans pocket into his blazer.
“Wait,” Alexei orders him. “Is that cat on phone?”
“Oh — oh yeah, that’s my cat,” Kent replies. “Her name is Kit.”
Alexei beams. “Gorgeous lady! Tell me about.”
That Kent can do.
After they’re seated at a booth, Alexei extends one arm, hand on the table, palm up. Kent tentatively covers it with his own, and Alexei holds it, stroking over Kent’s knuckles with his thumb. His eyes are warm in the mood lighting, and Kent traitorous heart trips over its own rhythm. Not real, he reminds himself. This is not real.
He’s startled by a bright voice chirping out, “Hey guys!” It’s Tamia, who’s appeared at the edge of their booth. “Sorry to interrupt.”
Kent’s first instinct is to yank his hand back, but Alexei’s grip tightens as he grins.
The meal starts with cheese fondue — and who knew carrots would taste so good dipped in cheese? — and a salad. Even better than the food is the conversation: they talk about being non-traditional students, and more about hockey, and Kent listens, enthralled, as Alexei recounts his decision to leave Russia despite how much he loves it. “Can’t be myself there,” he explains. “When I’m get here, had to work for money for bring mama. Then we both work for my school. Now I get offer for good job, so I take care of us both.”
“Are they hiring you after your internship?” Kent asks. “I heard there’s an opening for a Junior Accountant.”
Alexei shakes his head. “No, another company. I’m recommend you for Junior Accountant.”
Kent goes still. “You did?”
“You work hard, very smart, good fit.” Alexei smiles at him. “I’m say they should pick you. If not you, Tamia. If not Tamia, interview someone else. Not Carl.”
“Oh,” Kent says. He feels one corner of his mouth quirk up, and he glances at his plate, feeling unaccountably flustered. “Thank you.”
They order a variety of meats to share, and Alexei teases Kent when he uses his phone to time how long they cook in the fondue pot. “Shrimp not kill you if you cook for one minute, fifty-five seconds,” he says playfully.
“Do you want to end this night at the hospital?” Kent banters back. “Or for me to get sick right here at the table? That would give all these couples something to talk about.”
Alexei rolls his eyes. “Not going to get sick if cook for five seconds wrong.”
That’s probably true, but Kent’s having flash of inspiration. “Hang on. Do you really want to give them something to talk about? We could stage a dramatic breakup. You know, have a big fight, I’ll storm out…”
He expects Alexei to enter into the spirit of the thing, to plot some ridiculous scenario even if they don’t go through with it. Instead, he shakes his head, looking thoughtful. “No, is Valentine’s Day, don’t want to ruin for everyone having nice time. Besides, Tamia see and then what we say at work tomorrow?”
“Besides,” Alexei continues, “how we kiss goodnight if we break up?”
“I don’t put out on the first date,” Kent quips, which isn’t necessarily true.
“No?” Alexei asks, meeting Kent’s eyes. “Not even little bit kiss?”
Kent chokes on his fully-cooked shrimp. After calming his sputtering with a drink of water, he asks, incredulously, “Wait, you’re serious?”
Alexei is watching him fondly, despite the fact that Kent nearly needed the Heimlich. “This is good date. Good date should end with a kiss. Unless you not want.”
Kent gapes across the table, but he’s interrupted from answering by Tamia, who arrives with dessert menus. Alexei enthusiastically chooses the turtle fondue, and Kent agrees without even looking at the options. Whatever, it’s chocolate; he’ll like it. When their order is placed, Alexei extends his hand for Kent’s again and says, “So, when you adopt Princess Kit? You get from shelter?”
Still dazed, Kent gives a rambling answer and tries not to worry about the fact that he’s a human disaster. He concentrates on speaking normally instead. On not fucking this up in the first ninety seconds. On just — fucking breathing like he’s doing it naturally.
The dessert course is decadent. There’s a fondue pot full of rich chocolate and caramel swimming with pecans, and a tray with everything from fruit to marshmallows to brownies. Alexei squeezes Kent’s hand, then drops it with a delighted exclamation. Tamia says, low, “I got you some extra strawberries.”
“Best,” Alexei says, beaming at her.
She grins back. “You guys look really happy. I hope this all works out for you.”
Even though Kent has already eaten his fill, the chocolate fondue is so amazing that he knows he won’t be leaving a crumb of food behind. It’s good, too, how vocal Alexei is in his enjoyment of it, his appreciative noises that nearly have Kent squirming in his seat. “Kroshka, did you try cheesecake?” Alexei asks. “No? Try.” He extends a dripping piece across the table.
Christ, Kent’s going to go up in fucking flames. He manages to play it cool as he takes the bite of cheesecake in his mouth, letting his lips slide back against the tines of the fork and darting his tongue out to catch a smear of chocolate. It’s delicious, and he gives a pleased hum and says, “yeah, that’s really good,” all while looking Alexei right in the eye.
Alexei just smirks, his gaze dark, like he knows what game Kent is playing but he enjoys it anyway.
Maybe they’re both playing the same game, Kent realizes, as Alexei sticks the fork in his mouth to suck off the remaining chocolate.
Back at the truck, instead of opening the passenger side door, Alexei backs Kent into it, his hands on Kent’s hips. “Sure I can’t have kiss good night?” he asks. “Just little one?”
“Shouldn’t that be when you drop me off?” Kent asks, but he tilts his head up.
Alexei answers him on a murmur: “If you want. Rather bring you home with me.”
“Then kiss me there.”
“Kiss you here first,” Alexei insists.
So Kent says, “Okay.”
When Kent arrives at work the next morning, he’s in Alexei’s truck and yesterday’s clothes. Beside him, Alexei is smug and cheerful as they walk toward the office. “I want take you out again,” he announces. “You say yes?”
Kent snorts. “You’re asking now? What, you had to make sure the sex would be good first?”
“No, sex with me always good,” Alexei replies, and Kent isn’t arguing with that, although his sample size is admittedly small. Hopefully it won’t be for long. “Maybe you tell Carl, he can spread around.”
“Hell no,” Kent says, laughing. “I don’t kiss and tell.”
Kent’s in the break room, getting a celebratory candy bar from the vending machine, when a voice floats in from the hall: “Did you hear about Kent?”
It’s Tamia this time. Kent jerks in surprise; she’d definitely noticed that he was wearing the same shirt as yesterday and given him a sly look, but he’d never imagined that she’d gossip about him.
Carl grunts out an annoyed-sounding nope.
Tamia continues anyway. “They offered him a Junior Accountant job, part time until he finishes school, then full time after that.”
Kent grins and fishes another dollar bill out of his wallet. Tamia deserves a candy bar too — she’d become friends with someone in HR, who had given Tamia’s resume to her sister, who worked somewhere that was looking for an accountant.
It’s definitely not to reward her for spreading rumors.
After all, it’s not a rumor if it’s true.