Alex was shocked that a man so devilishly handsome, with all the cowboy swagger in the world right within his grasp, was so boring.
On paper, Michael Guerin seemed like a perfect match for him. He was tall-ish, with Alex tended to go for. And he had a moppy mess of curls that Alex couldn't help but marvel at. Plus, he was intelligent. Like the kind of smartness that could be intimidating if you were someone who wasn't confident enough in your own intelligence.
But alas, he and Michael had no spark.
They'd been at dinner for over an hour, and the most exciting topic broached had been talk about Alex's chicken Florentino and how well spinach could be incorporated into different meals.
When the check came, Alex didn't put up much of a fight over Michael insisting he would pay, although it was clear there wouldn't be a chance for Alex to pay Michael back because there was never going to be a second date. So, he let Michael put dinner on his card, and he left a generous tip for their waitress before the two made their way out into the relatively bustling parking lot to say their goodbyes.
"Well, that was a nice dinner," Alex forced himself to say as they approached Michael's centuries-old pick-up that was closest to the restaurant.
Michael smiled, but it felt more perfunctory than genuine, and held out his right hand. "Yeah, sure. Nice to meet you, Alex."
Alex grasped his hand and was surprised to feel a warmth invade his belly. The man was gorgeous, if not incredibly bland, so it shouldn't have shocked him as much as it did.
"You too, Michael. Safe travels home." He gave the man a tight-lipped smile and then turned on his heels to find his truck, which was a couple of yards away.
Before even starting the car, he pulled his phone out of his back pocket to text his brother Greg, the man responsible for this awkward date.
Alex : I appreciate the effort, but that was a total dud.
Greg: Noooooo. I thought you guys would hit it off. Michael's a cool guy.
Alex : I guess…
Greg : Sorry brother. No more set-ups from me. Promise.
Alex knew his brother was lying, but it was hard to be mad when he just wanted to see him happy.
When he'd moved to Albuquerque ten months ago to take some classes at UNM after a decade-plus in the military, Greg was the only person he knew. And Greg had made it his personal mission over the last few months to introduce Alex to as many people as he could in a bid to help Alex come out of his shell a bit.
It wasn't like Alex was a loner or anything, but he worked all day doing freelance cybersecurity jobs, took his night classes, and went home to his one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city. He didn't have much time for friends, let alone a significant other, when he'd first come to town. However, he had a routine now, and he found that he could carve out some time to have a social life, and Greg was determined to help him find one.
Greg had briefly dated Michael's sister a year or so back, and he and Michael had stayed in touch, thus how he'd found himself at a nice, if not slightly bougie Italian restaurant across town. Alex seldom left his little neighborhood downtown, so he thought nothing of making the half-hour trip out to a place closer to Michael's house.
But he started to regret that decision when he went to start his car, and it sputtered over and over again.
"Crap!" Alex screamed into the silence of his car.
Alex : What are you doing now?
Greg : Went camping with some of the guys, remember? I told you the other night you were over. Why?
Alex : Yeah, I forgot. No reason. Have fun brother!
Alex had no one else to call on a Friday night to help him out besides Greg, so he sat in his car for a while, playing out the different scenarios in his head.
Option one was to call an Uber, ditch his car for the night, and figure out what to do about it during daylight hours. But who knew what would happen if he left his car there, and he wasn't interested in coming back the next day and seeing it had been towed or worse.
Option two was to google the closest garage and see if anyone had an after-hours tow, so he'd at least know his car was in a safe place for the evening, and he could deal with it in the morning.
Option two was the better option, but Alex found it difficult to contact anyone at the garages within a ten-mile radius.
It wasn't until the fifth garage he called that a grumpy older man answered and said he would get someone over to the restaurant within the hour. And he didn't lie.
An entire hour went by with Alex fiddling around on his phone and almost dozing off at one point before he saw a tow truck make its way into the parking lot.
It was pushing 11 pm, and the lot was pretty empty, but he didn't give the old man any information about his car, so he jumped out and flagged down the truck, arms waving around wildly until he was spotted.
The lot was dimly lit, and he couldn't see much when the truck pulled up except for a halo of curls in the driver's seat.
"You've got to be kidding me," Alex said louder than he meant to, as Michael exited the truck and hopped down with a plop on the asphalt. He'd changed from his earlier outfit of black slacks and a maroon button-down into ridiculously tight jeans, obnoxious cowboy boots, and a flannel that was possibly missing some buttons.
His words had come from a place of confusion since Michael had told him he was an engineer.
"Sorry to disappoint," Michael mumbled, making his way over to the truck and tapping on the hood.
Alex hadn't moved from where he was standing next to the driver's door, taking in Michael's rugged appearance and letting his eyes roam over the hair that decorated his broad chest. It took another tap on the hood for Alex to catch on to the fact Michael wanted him to pop the hood, and he ducked his head sheepishly and reached inside the car to pull the lever that freed up the hood.
Michael quickly figured out how to support the hood and then started looking around, utterly silent while working. Alex thought about walking over to stand beside him, but he knew nothing about cars and didn't want to hover, so he stayed by the door and kept quiet himself.
After about five minutes, Michael lowered the hood back down and leaned down on it. His face, while gorgeous, was stony and unimpressed, eyes zoned in on Alex like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world than standing here with Alex.
"Looks like it's your transmission. I can tow it back to the shop and take a look tomorrow," he said matter of factly.
Alex nodded and cleared his throat. "Um, I thought you were an engineer?
"And you moonlight as a tow man?"
"Tow man?" Michael mimicked. It was dark, but Alex thought Michael might have rolled his eyes.
"Been working at the garage since I was a teenager, and I pick up some extra shifts when Sanders needs help. Pretty sure I mentioned that during dinner, but I guess you weren't listening." Michael said that last part softly, turning quickly on his heels and walking back over to the truck to start the process of attaching his vehicle to the bed.
There was a 'sorry' on the tip of Alex's tongue, but his throat seized up at the last minute, and he couldn't get any words out. He felt like the biggest asshole in the world, but he didn't even know where to start with an apology. He just stepped aside and let Michael do his thing for the next few minutes, watching him and looking at Michael with fresh eyes.
Was a change of clothes really changing Alex's whole opinion about the man? Alex was attracted to Michael two hours ago, so it couldn't be just that. No, this Michael just carried himself differently, like he was more comfortable in his flannel and more secure in himself. The Michael from dinner was stiff and awkward and struggled to make eye contact.
"Alright, you ready? I can drop this at the garage, and you can call an uber or something." Michael said it over his shoulder before climbing back into the truck and not waiting for Alex to respond.
Alex followed quickly and gingerly climbed into the passenger seat.
Much like the last half hour, there was nothing but silence between the two as Michael drove them a few miles down the road to a junkyard that had a slew of cars in the small lot. He parked in front of a trailer, and Alex could see his old pick-up parked in front.
"You can get out and wait for your ride over by my truck. I'm going to drop the car off by the garage around back," Michael huffed out, staring straight ahead.
It was a blatant dismissal, and Alex didn't even bother answering. He just got out of the truck as quickly as possible and stalked over toward the trailer as Michael pulled off.
He couldn't blame Michael for being cold to him. He'd blacked out to the point he hadn't even listened to Michael when he spoke earlier, and if the roles had been reversed, Alex would have been upset as well.
When he pulled up the uber app, he found that not only was an uber home going to cost nearly fifty dollars, but the nearest one was over twenty minutes away. By the time Michael had come back, he'd made a decision, and he hoped like hell Michael was a better person than him.
"Nearest uber isn't close by. Could you maybe give me a lift? It's only twenty minutes from here, and I'll pay you, obviously," Alex offered up with a small, pleading smile.
Michael looked at him, really looked at him, eyes making prolonged contact with Alex's for the first time all night, and Alex sucked in a huge breath.
"I was actually headed to meet my sister. She organized this fundraiser at a bar by my place, and since my night was free now, I told her I would come help."
"I can come with you!" Alex blurted out without thinking.
Michael laughed softly to himself, eyes darting around the sky above Alex's head. "Why would you want to do that?"
It was a valid question that Alex didn't have an answer for outside of the fact he felt bad he was such a crappy date earlier, and he wanted to make it up to Michael, maybe walk away from this night with a friend if nothing else.
But he couldn't say that, not after the disaster from a couple of hours earlier.
"I don't know. I'm not ready to go home yet."
A series of emotions passed over Michael's face, and for a solid ten seconds, Alex was sure Michael was going to tell him to go to hell, have a nice life, and never contact him again. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised by the response.
"Alright, Alex. Let's go for a ride."
Michael stopped himself several times from looking across the truck bench to drink in the sight that was Alex Manes.
He was breathtakingly sexy in his black jeans and gray sweater, and if their date hadn't been the worst date he'd ever been on in his entire life, he would have already propositioned him and asked him to ditch the bar in favor of a nightcap in his bedroom.
But Alex was uptight, uninteresting, and a poor listener. His stark cheekbones and perfect pink lips couldn't keep Michael from remembering how bored he'd been for the hour and a half they sat across from each other earlier.
Though there was something different about Alex when he was a little frazzled and out of his element. He could tell Alex needed to be in control a lot of the time, but he wasn't in control of his car breaking down, and he was even less in control when he saw that Michael was the one that came to save the day.
And learning that he'd completed ignored something Michael had said during dinner? Well, now he was officially losing it.
"What's your sister raising money for?" Alex asked as Michael pulled his truck to a stop a block away from The Stallion Bar and Lounge.
"It's to raise funds for a local boys and girls club," he said brusquely as he got out of the truck.
He walked over to the sidewalk and cursed himself silently for being such a gentleman and opening the door for Alex, who beamed back so bright Michael had to look away immediately.
They walked to the bar, and when they got inside, the place was packed with people of all ages listening to his charismatic sister, who was on the small stage, thanking everyone for the turnout. Michael shot her a thumbs up once she spotted him, and he walked through the crowd toward the back corner where you could always find a booth across from the bar.
He could sense Alex hot on his trail, and he kind of liked knowing he was so close. He could smell his lavender and vanilla-like scent, and man, was it intoxicating.
Michael found a booth and slid in, watching Alex slide in across from him. Before he could speak, his favorite ex-lover and lead waitress, Mandy, came over to get their drink order.
"Hey!" She exclaimed happily, her warm brown eyes shining and her long black hair bouncing against her standard bar uniform. She leaned over as she always did to give him a quick peck on the cheek.
"Hey, Mandy," Michael said back with a grin. He stole a glance at Alex, expecting him to be looking around the bar and focused on anything but him. But he was stunned to see that Alex was staring at the both of them, eyes darting back and forth with an almost irritated expression.
"What can I get you guys?" Mandy asked. "Well, I know what you like, Michael. But what about you?"
Alex snickered, and Michael felt his cheeks flame, partly from embarrassment and partly from shock. "I'll have what he's having."
Mandy was none the wiser to Alex's little attitude, and she bounced away without a care in the world, stopping by another table and infecting them with her positive energy.
"Friend of yours?" Alex asked after a beat.
"Ex, actually," Michael replied, leaning back in his seat.
Alex raised an eyebrow. "You friendly with all your exes?"
"I try to be. If it ends well, why not stay friendly?"
Michael shrugged, staring back at the man across from him who was deadly serious and nothing like the distant guy from hours ago. It was much easier to stare into the eyes of this guy. "Not that friendly. But friendly enough to be able to come into her bar, order a whiskey, and it not be weird for either of us."
Alex seemed to consider his answer and then smiled before turning his attention to the rest of the bar, who'd broken out into loud cheers as Isobel wrapped up her speech.
He knew he had about thirty seconds before Isobel descended upon their table, but she must have been hitting the cardio at the gym a little harder these days because she got to them in fifteen.
"Howdy, brother!" She screamed as she playfully pushed him aside and sat down next to him. "And howdy, little Manes."
"Ah, most people just call me Alex."
"Well, where's the fun in that?" Isobel drawled, sizing Alex up with a sweeping looking. And he found himself pleased to see that Alex wasn't wilting under her gaze. He was giving it right back to her.
"Great turnout, Iz," Michael chimed in.
"Yes, it is. You know, there's a little date auction coming up later, and one of our eligible bachelors backed out. There's no chance either one of you handsome men would care to fill-in?" She asked both of them, but Michael knew she was hoping Michael would agree. She'd already asked earlier when he'd told her his date sucked and he was going to stop by, so it wasn't clear what angle she was going for bringing it up in front of Alex.
Alex laughed. "I'm good. But maybe Michael might like to do it. It's for a good cause, right?"
Michael felt like a bucket of ice-cold water had been dumped over his head, and he'd been slapped upside the head, but he didn't know why. He didn't even like Alex, and yet his words felt like a stinging rejection.
"I agree, little Manes. There are many men and women in here who would love to spend some time with my brilliant brother. What do you say?" Isobel purred, even batting her eyelashes.
Michael rubbed his hands against his face, avoiding both sets of eyes on him, and groaned. Alex didn't want him, but maybe someone else here did. "Whatever. Sign me up."
Isobel shrieked and planted a massive kiss on his head before getting up from the table, and Michael presumed setting things up for the auction. As soon as she departed, Mandy came back and set four glasses of whiskey down on the table.
Michael raised an eyebrow at her in question, and she just smiled harder. "It's busy tonight, and I may not be back for a bit. I just wanted to make sure you would be taken care of."
"You're the best," Michael said with a wink that made Mandy blush before she sauntered off. He heard Alex snort, and he turned his attention to him.
"Not that friendly," he murmured around a sip of bourbon.
"Why do you care?" The words were out before he could think it through.
"Okay, Alex," Michael replied a little harshly. He saw Alex wince, and he immediately regretted his tone but didn't say anything to help the situation.
They sipped on their drinks and listened to the pop music filling the air for a few minutes until Alex leaned across the table, lips wet from the alcohol and eyes a little glassy.
"Have you always liked working on cars?" He asked, yelling over the music to be heard.
The question caught Michael off-guard, and he suppressed the urge to laugh since this was the most sincere question Alex had ever asked him. "Um, yeah. I guess. I mean, it's just something I've always been good at."
"That makes sense."
"Mechanics are good with their hands. And I imagine engineers are as well," Alex proclaimed, and Michael couldn't help but nod.
Neither one said anything to follow-up, once again resorting to clamping their lips shut. But having already downed both glasses of whiskey, Michael got some liquid courage and chose to speak.
"How are you liking UNM?"
Alex did that thing again where he smiled like he meant it, but Michael didn't look away this time. "I love it. I never thought I would get the chance to go to school. And I feel old as hell, but I love it."
Michael smiled back. "I went to UNM. I loved it, too."
"Best times of your life?"
"Eh. Had some good times for sure, but I kinda hope the best times are yet to come." Michael meant it in the general sense because he hated thinking that the best years of his life were spent existing off easy mac and hooking up with random people at frat parties, but whatever he said sparked something in Alex, who was regarding him with a look that could only be described as sweet.
"Greg said you were a cool guy," Alex stated with no follow-up.
"Greg said you were a little rough around the edges."
Alex laughed, and it was a marvelous sound. It was the kind of laugh that made you happy just hearing it.
"He's not wrong," Alex began. "You agree with him?"
"I think you're a tough guy to figure out, Alex Manes."
"Can I ask you something?" Alex said before flagging Mandy down and holding up two fingers to signal they would need more drinks.
Michael fidgeted a bit in his seat but nodded. "Sure."
"You're like a completely different person here than you were at the bar. Why is that?"
"Look who's talking," Michael responded quickly.
"What? I think I'm behaving exactly the same."
Michael scoffed. "I don't think you heard half the things I said at dinner. You decided within the first five minutes we met that you weren't interested."
"That's not true."
"Oh, it's not? Tell me what you thought about me. For real."
Alex took a long time before answering, even giving Michael a tantalizing look that made his jeans feel even tighter. "I thought you were dry and a little dull. You didn't seem comfortable, and it made the conversation feel flat. That's probably why I kind of zoned out. Which I'm incredibly sorry for, by the way."
Michael regarded him tenderly with a soft half-smile. And since Alex was being honest, he figured he deserved some honesty in return. "I'd never worn that outfit before in my life. Izzy made me get new clothes a few days ago. I don't go on many dates these days, and I was nervous. I think I let my nerves get the best of me, and I suddenly needed to do a deep dive into what makes spinach such a valuable vegetable."
Alex chuckled and shook his head. "Hey, you're not wrong about that."
They sat watching one another for several seconds, and Michael felt himself getting lost in all things Alex, but before he could do something wild like reach across the sticky table and hold Alex's hand, Mandy came back with their drinks.
"Thanks," Alex said without even sparing her a glance. He waited for her to disappear before he asked his next question. "What did you think about me?"
Michael thought about lying. They'd somehow turned things around to a point where they were actually vibing and getting along, and he didn't want to ruin that. But he also figured he didn't have much to lose by telling the truth.
"I thought you were dreadfully boring. Like next level boring. And arrogant. It didn't seem like you wanted to be there, and it only made me more nervous," Michael got out in a hurry. Without the whiskey coursing through his veins, he would have cast his eyes down to the table, but he didn't dare take his eyes off Alex right then.
Alex took a deep breath. "I'm very set in my ways. And I think it comes off as arrogance, but I swear that's not me. I'm a kid from small-town in New Mexico, and I'm no better than anyone in this bar."
Michael found himself putting his hand down on the middle of the table, almost in invitation. "I believe you. And I'll say, nothing is boring about you right now."
He watched as Alex regarded his hand and understood the implication, but just as he started to move his hand across the table, both their heads jerked to the stage where Isobel was standing and beckoning Michael to come up.
Oh, yeah. Michael had forgotten Alex wanted him to go on a date.
With someone else.