It was a good day in Cascade, Washington.
For a change, the criminal element didn't come out of the woodwork. No terrorists tried to take over oil rigs or armories, no one laid siege to the precinct or tried to distribute designer drugs.
As a matter of fact, the baddies all seemed to have headed for the hills, and the men and women of Major Crimes were taking a well-deserved breather.
"We're going out to celebrate!" Simon announced.
"Works for me, Captain," Jim said, putting the last of his reports in the out basket.
Joel and Henri nudged each other in the side. Rafe grinned at Megan and she winked back at him.
What the fuck was going on?
Rhonda came in, fluffing her hair. Beside her was his fiancée.
"Hello, James." She gave him the slow, sexy smile that went straight to his dick, and he forgot what he was going to say.
Rhonda gazed around. "We all set, Simon?"
"Almost. We're just waiting on Dan."
"Dan's coming too?" The medical examiner was a good guy, but his department was usually so backed up he never had time to join them for a beer or a burger.
"Sure." There was a tap on the door, and Simon turned toward it. "C'mon in," he called.
The door was pushed open, and Dan Black Wolf poked his head around it. "Ah, I see I'm not late."
"Nope." Simon stuck a fresh cigar in his mouth and chomped down. Grinning broadly, he said, "Let's get this show on the road."
"Uh... Where are we going, Captain?"
"You'll see." Simon looked more satisfied than Jim could remember seeing him, and that was starting to make Jim nervous. "All right, people, we've got reservations to keep! Let's move it out!"
"I really don't like surprises," he groused. He'd had plenty of them in Peru, and he could live without any more.
"You'll like this one." Carolyn looped her arm though Jim's and gave him more of that smile. "I promise you, darling."
H pressed his remote, and the passenger doors slid open.
"Okay, everybody. Pile in!"
"How come I didn't get to bring a date?" Dan griped.
Rafe grinned at him. "You couldn't have. There's no room!"
Jim started to laugh, then stifled it as Carolyn turned a reproving eye on him. She spoiled it by giggling herself.
"I could've brought my own car." Dan wedged himself into the rear seat beside Rhonda and Simon.
"There, there, little buckaroo." Rhonda patted his thigh.
"You're not seeing anyone anyway." Simon rested his arm comfortably across Rhonda's shoulders.
"I could've been!"
"But you're not."
"That's beside the point!"
"Cheer up," Rafe said. "The night is young, and maybe you'll find someone at the- "
Simon leaned forward and whacked the back of his head.
"If it comes to that, why are Rhonda and I in the back seat? I'm the captain!"
"Well, Jim and Carolyn are the couple of the hour."
Simon chewed on his cigar. "Okay, I can buy that. But Rafe and Megan aren't, and they've got the seat in front of us!"
"Youth and beauty, Captain."
Jim watched their interaction with amusement and gratitude. How lucky was he to have been able to join this team after he left Vice? They'd become not only colleagues but friends as well.
"Let's go, Henri. As our esteemed captain has pointed out, if we don't get a move on, we're going to lose our reservations." Joel was riding shotgun beside H, and he stared at his watch impatiently. Everyone knew he had a thing about being on time. Usually he was a quarter hour early for everything, but if it was really important, that time frame could stretch to forty-five minutes.
"Sure thing, sugar lips!" H grinned at him. "You all buckled up? All righty then! Moving on!" He put the minivan in drive and rolled out of the underground garage.
The maitre d' led them to a room off the main dining area that could be closed off with a set of pocket doors. A large, round table took up a good deal of the space. It was set with a cream-colored tablecloth, crystal water glasses, fine china place settings, and silverware that was stamped with the restaurant owner's initials. Slim, sterling silver vases with two red roses, a spray of baby's breath, and some ferns were placed before every other seat for each woman.
As the odd man out, Dan had one as well, Jim noted as he choked back a laugh.
Leather-jacketed menus rested at each place.
They all sat down. Before Jim could open his menu, he saw Simon signal someone, and waiters brought in trays with glasses of champagne.
Simon stood and smiled, first at Jim and then at Carolyn. "Jim, you've been one of my best detectives. You've helped make Major Crimes' solve rate phenomenal. Carolyn, you've also done great work, and your promotion to lieutenant is well-deserved. We're pleased that the two of you have found each other and that on Sunday you'll exchange vows and begin a very long life together. If you'll all raise your glasses?" He waited until they did. "To Jim and Carolyn!"
"To Jim and Carolyn!" everyone chorused.
"Thank you all!" Carolyn blushed and smiled happily. She leaned her head against Jim's shoulder and raised her glass in acknowledgement.
"Yes, thank you!" Jim put his arm around her and lifted his glass as well. It was a little awkward, doing it left-handed, but what the hell. That was what letting someone into your life was all about - putting up with the awkward stuff.
"Okay, now let's order!"
"It's fine, James."
"Thanks, sweetheart." Maybe he shouldn't have ordered it, but dammit, why should he let his wonky taste buds dictate what he could eat?
Although... They'd gone to dinner once, and it had been an unmitigated nightmare.
He'd belted back his wine, Carolyn's wine, the water in both their glasses, and was working on the beverages of surrounding tables before she could help him get a grip. He was still embarrassed to think about that. As it was, she'd had to do some fast talking to keep them from being banned from the restaurant.
She gave him that smile, then returned to her conversation with Megan.
He was pretty damn lucky to have this attractive, smart, and caring woman agree to be his wife. He'd had some problems with his sense of taste going out of whack, but Carolyn had figured that by trying a sample of everything on his plate, they could avoid disasters where he'd accuse the chef of trying to poison him.
H tapped on his glass. "Kiss, you two!"
They kissed, although Jim could tell Carolyn was getting annoyed. This wasn't the first... or fifth... or fifteenth time he'd done this.
"Dinner will be over soon," he murmured, "and then I'll take you home."
Carolyn was a traditionalist, and Jim was all for doing whatever made her happy. Earlier in the week, they'd had one of those conversations couples who were going to get married had, and they'd decided it would be a sweet idea for them not to sleep together until their wedding night. It was only going to be a few nights, and Jim could keep it tucked in his pants for that long.
"Oh, no you won't!" Rafe waggled his eyebrows and gave a lecherous grin, although Jim was positive he hadn't known what Jim was thinking. "The night is young, and we've got big plans for it!"
"That's right!" Megan chimed in. "Rhonda and I have hired a limo. We're taking Carolyn for a girls' night out."
"And we're taking Jim to a str- um... for a boys' night out!"
"Do you mind, Carolyn?"
"Aw, Jim, you can't let her tell you what to do!" Rafe admonished, and Megan drove her elbow into his ribs. "Hey!"
She glared at him and he gave her a weak smile.
"No, Rafe's right." Simon peered at Jim over his wine glass. "There's plenty of time for you to become pussy whipped after you're married!"
"I'm not surprised your ex-wife divorced you, Simon!" Rhonda pointedly turned her shoulder to him.
"Now baby- "
"Uh oh. Looks like you're in the doghouse now, Simon!" Dan snorted. "Rhonda, I'll be pleased to replace him in your affections."
"You're a horndog, Wolf," Simon growled at him. "You just want to get into Rhonda's pretty panties."
"Okay, my panties, pretty or otherwise, are not up for discussion; I think that's enough of this conversation! I'm going to the ladies room! Carolyn, Megan, would you care to join me?"
They pushed their chairs back, and Jim jumped to his feet, helping Carolyn up.
"Thank you, James." She smiled into his eyes, and he felt his heart turn over and his cock twitch. "I won't be long."
"Every minute apart will seem like a year." He brought her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.
This time H didn't have to beat on his glass with a spoon.
She blushed and leaned forward, raising her mouth to his.
"'m gonna go warm up the van," H mumbled and headed for the door of the bar, making it out after only two tries.
"'d better go after him. I think he's had one too many." Joel followed him, his steps not quite steady either.
"What say we call it a night? It's getting late."
"Anyone ever tell you you're a fuddy-duddy, Jim?"
Jim rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I get that all the time," he said sarcastically. Hell, he was only thirty-three. There wasn't a single thing wrong with him!
"Okay, one more stop, and then I promise we'll head home."
They went out to the parking lot.
"Whoa! Would you look at that?!"
H's minivan was parked slantwise, taking up three spots.
"You didn't notice?"
"Are you kidding?" Simon frowned at Jim, then turned to H and growled, "That's it for you, Brown. You're grounded!"
"You're not the boss of me!"
"Au contraire, mon frère," Rafe sniggered. "He is your boss!"
"Yeah, well he's your boss, too!"
"Hey, he's all our boss!"
Jim groaned. This night was becoming entirely too long. "Listen- "
"Joel, stop making out with Henri!" Rafe was scowling at them, which surprised Jim. Rafe had never struck him as being either homophobic or prejudiced.
"Why?" Joel looked at Rafe over H's shoulder, grinning drunkenly. "You have something against two guys kissing?"
"Of course I don't! Some of my best friends are- "
"Don't say it, Rafe!"
"- guys." Rafe was all innocence. "Well, they are."
"So what's your objection?" Simon took out another cigar and began to chew on it.
"Hell, Captain, it's just rude! No one else has anyone to kiss!"
It was hard to see Dan's blush against the ruddy color of his cheeks, but not for Jim. He coughed and turned his head to hide his smile.
At Fairy Tails, the last place but one that they'd been to, Dan had caught the eye of one of the dancers, to the amazement of them all - Dan was really a quiet kind of guy. The woman, a statuesque blonde with eyes that were surprisingly brown, had approached him before her act and whispered in his ear.
Jim had no problem hearing the words.
"Hi, sugar. My name's Aurora. I'm in kind of a bind. Would you help me?"
"Me?" Dan looked at her with wide eyes. "You want me to help you?"
She smiled at him, and Jim could see him falling in love.
"What do you want me to do?"
Jim sighed. This wasn't going to end well. Cops and strippers never did.
It turned out her act started with her lying on a bier, like Sleeping Beauty, and a kiss woke her and started her dancing.
"Only problem, sugar, is my artistic associate ran off to get married."
"And he's the one who got to kiss you? Where do I apply for a job like that?"
"You're so sweet." She ran her fingertips over his cheek, and Dan's expression became dazzled. "So, will you?"
"Will I what?"
"Whoa!" Dan's grin was so wide it almost split his face.
"Your Valley Boy is coming out, bud." But it was easy for Jim to see that Dan hadn't heard a word he'd said.
Aurora smiled. "Thanks, sugar. Now, this will be your cue." And she went on to explain it.
She was a beautiful woman, and her body was equally as beautiful, as they'd found out after Dan kissed her and 'woke' her and she went into her act.
When it was over and they were ready to leave, Jim wasn't the only one astonished that she came along with them.
Now Aurora slipped her arm around Dan, whose smile was decidedly smug. Drunk, but smug.
"Okay, so where to now?"
"I know a- "
Just when I thought our chance had passed You go and save the best for last... Simon's cell phone.
"Hi, Rhonda! What's up, babe?" After chatting for a few minutes, he flipped his phone shut. "The girls are about partied out."
"Shut up, Rafe. Anyway, they're going to meet us at The Happy Hippie."
"Happy Hippie. It's Naomi Sandburg's bar."
"I'm not familiar with it."
"She opened it about six years ago, Jim, before you came to Cascade. We thought at first it was going to be a draw for all the druggies in Cascade."
"Hellooo? 'Hippie'?" Rafe actually made finger quotes, and Jim had to fight not to roll his eyes. "Sex, drugs, and rock and roll?"
"Rafe, you're not old enough to remember the summer of love."
"Yes, I am!"
"You were what? Three?"
"I was not! I was... I was... " Rafe scrunched his brow as if he was trying to remember.
"You're drunk, that's what you was, Rafe!" H was watching him with equally drunken glee.
"I am n- yeah," he giggled. "I guess I am."
"So, what's the story with The Happy Hippie?"
"It's just your average college bar. We were never called there," Simon told him. "Not for drugs, not for drunks, and not for underage patrons. The management is really conscientious about carding."
"And Ms. Sandburg runs it?"
"She used to. She turned it over to her son a few years ago."
"I remember a few years ago!" Rafe exclaimed.
"Rafe, you have definitely had too much to drink! And so have you, H. Come on, I'm driving." Jim slipped his hand into H's pocket, searching for the keys to the minivan.
"I beg your pardon!" H slapped at his hand. "I don't know you well enough to have you fishing in my pants!"
"'sides, thas my job!" Joel rocked back and forth, grinning proudly.
"Right." Jim opened the doors and got in.
Everyone was pretty buzzed, even Aurora, the dancer. How come he got to be the designated driver? It was his bachelor party, dammit!
He waited until they'd all climbed in and buckled up, then turned on the ignition.
"You're gonna like The Happy Hippie, sugar. It's a nice place, and the guy who tends bar there is a real sweetie. Though not as sweet as you, Dan."
Through the rearview mirror Jim could see Aurora cuddling with Dan.
Well, Carolyn would be joining him soon, and he'd have someone to cuddle with too.
For a second those blue eyes glared at him - no, not him, at all of them - but then the hostility vanished. Jim felt as if he was being drawn into the blue depths. In a second he'd be drowning in them...
He lowered his eyes, and his vision zeroed in on lips that were parted in a smile - lush lips, full lips, that seemed made to wrap around a cock.
He licked his own lips, parting them, and his eyelids lowered.
"It's almost closing time." The vision spoke, and that voice! It seemed to stroke over Jim's body and zero in on his cock, which was trying to stand up behind his tight jeans and go 'hubba hubba!'
No, that was too fifty years ago. Maybe 'woof'?
"Down boy!" he muttered under his breath.
"You say something, big guy?"
"No, H." It was a good thing Brown's hearing wasn't as sharp as his, or he would have called Jim on that blatant lie.
He'd promised himself he wasn't going to do that anymore. He was straight, goddammit! He wasn't going to look at guys and wonder what they looked like under that Henley, if that was a nipple ring making his nipple plump up like that or if it was the air conditioning of the bar. He wasn't going to wonder what kind of equipment the kid packed, and he didn't mean pistols or revolvers.
He- was going to get a grip.
"Thash- That's okay," Simon said with dignity, which meant that one more drink and he'd be at the stage where he started singing “I Will Always Love You.” "We only want one for the road. Jim here is getting married... "
That was right, he reminded himself. Carolyn had said yes, and they were getting married on Sunday.
He gazed for a last, wistful moment at the bartender.
Damn, he sure was cute.
After the cluster fuck that was his dissertation, she'd invited him to come home, and he was thankful for that.
It wasn't only his failed diss. It was the relationship that had tanked along with it. He'd thought Derek cared for him and that they were keeping their affair under wraps because if word got out that he was gay, Derek's life could be jeopardized.
Derek with his black hair and his lying green eyes -
It was too late that he'd learned the bastard wasn't simply a cop willing to help a grad student with his thesis. Unbeknownst to Blair, Derek had been dating Alex Barnes, the woman who was Blair's academic rival, and he'd given her access to all Blair's notes.
She'd leaked his anthro theories to the world, and of course, taken out of context, they'd come across as little more than science fiction mumbo jumbo.
His academic reputation in tatters, as well as his heart, he'd needed to go somewhere to lick his wounds, and this was the perfect place.
He'd promised it would only be for a few weeks, but the weeks had stretched to months, and now it was three years later. Fortunately, Naomi was his mother, and she didn't seem to be in any rush for him to move out.
It had been a quiet Thursday night - the college students who were his usual patrons were either snug in their beds or snug in someone else's bed, or studying - but a few diehards remained.
Blair glanced at the clock. In a couple of minutes he'd announce last call.
The door swung open, banging against the far wall.
"Whoopsie!" A big black man stood there swaying and chortling.
"C'mon, Joel. Y'know I love your ass, but get it out of the way!" He was pushed forward by a shorter black man, and then four more men and a woman poured into the bar, most of them trying to walk with exaggerated care.
Blair frowned. If his time with Derek had taught him anything, it was to recognize cops, even when they were in civvies. "It's almost closing time." Every one of them seemed to be smashed out of their gourds, except for the one who brought up the rear, who was so gorgeous Blair felt his mouth go dry.
He closed his eyes. It had been a long time since he'd gotten laid. Yeah, that had to be the explanation.
"Thash okay. We only want one for the road. Jim here is getting married, and we're sending him off in fine style."
"Yeah. Thish is his bachelor party."
"Or what's left of it." The one called Jim blinked and then gave Blair a slow smile. "Hello, Chief."
"Hello, yourself." God, he was good looking! But of course he was straight. And as good looking as he was, Blair had learned the hard way to stay away from straight cops.
He shoved the thought of the debacle that had been his sabotaged diss to the back of his mind - he'd gotten good at that - and observed the motley crew: three African-Americans, three Caucasians including a Valkyrie whose body just wouldn't quit, and the man she appeared to be with, a Native American, probably Makah, since they were here in Washington. He'd picked that up from his research as well. Before he'd settled on the topic of 'the thin blue line and the closed society of the police force,' he'd toyed with the idea of doing a dissertation on the acculturation of Native Americans. He supposed he could always go back to that, but after his last diss, he knew the academic community would ignore his work at best, or mock it and tear it to shreds at worst.
"'ll have a Dewarsh." This tall black man wasn't the one who'd come stumbling in at the forefront. He was waving around a fat cigar, and in spite of how he slurred his words, there was an air of authority about him.
"Gin an' tonic."
"Fuzzy Navel!" The man ordering was the less handsome of the two Caucasians, Blair observed - dispassionately, he assured himself.
"That's a girly drink."
"Don't care! Want one!" He pouted, and Blair covered his mouth, converting a snort of laughter into a cough.
The blonde murmured something to the Native American, and he ordered a White Russian for her. "And do you have Yeungling on tap?"
"Yeah, but I'm afraid I won't be able to offer you more than soft drinks."
"Because I'm a Red man?" He looked like he was about to throw himself into a huff of righteous indignation.
"No, because you're tight. You're all tight."
"Awww, man!" the one who'd wanted the Fuzzy Navel whinged.
"Sorry, folks." Blair shrugged and went back to wiping the bar. But he couldn't help continuing to watch Gorgeous out of the corner of his eye.
"We're cops, y'know! We can get your liquor license lifted!" second best stated with his own righteous indignation.
"Try saying that three times fast, Rafe!"
"Liquor license lifted. Liquor license lifted. Liquor license lifted." Rafe smacked his lips, as if he were tasting those words. "Easy peasy. She?" He beamed at Blair. "You're not as think as you drunk I am."
"Right." He had to bite back a smile, but he sobered quickly. These men were cops; if he gave them an inch, they'd wrap it around him until he couldn't tell top from bottom. He had no doubt if any of them was stopped driving home, they'd toss his ass to the wolves, and he'd have no choice but to leave Cascade, which he'd really grown to love.
"Henri can drive!"
Blair observed the shorter black man as the others thumped him on the shoulders.
Henri grinned at him and held out a fisted hand. "Rock o' Gibraltar!" he declared, then spoiled it by swaying back and forth.
"Your hand, maybe, but not the rest of you, and I still say no alcohol. If you want to try getting my license lifted, go right ahead, but if I serve you, drunk as you all are, then my license really will be gone with the wind. So cite me if you're going to, or else get your asses out of here!"
"Le's fine somewhere else."
"You can try, but it's almost 2: all the other bars are gonna be closed." Blair grinned. He turned to his other customers, who'd been watching wide-eyed, and grimaced. Not a good example for Cascade's finest to set for them. "Last call," he sang out. It was mean of him to rub it in, but he couldn't help it. It was nice to get a bit of his own back.
And besides, he was enjoying the eye candy. About six feet tall, blue eyes... And straight, Blair reminded himself. He shook his head. What a waste.
"Sorry, Chief." Gorgeous gave Blair a rueful smile. "Joel, stop being an asshole. And H, you know I'm doing the driving."
"In that case, I hope you haven't been drinking."
"I stopped three bars ago and switched to coffee."
Why did people think that made much of a difference? He'd just be a wide awake drunk.
"I gotta take a leak," the Makah announced.
"You shoulda gone before we left the last place." Henri laughed uproariously.
"Restrooms are over to your right."
"I'll wait for you at the bar, sugar." The blonde leaned down and kissed him, and Blair would have sworn he saw hearts and cupids floating around his head.
"Hurry it up, Dan." Henri called after him. "Hey! Jukebox!"
Three of the men joined him around the machine. "Who's got a quarter?"
"That takes quarters, Chief?"
"It's an authentic Wurlitzer. It takes quarters- "
"Can you give me change of a twenty, Hairboy?"
Blair smiled faintly, unoffended. He'd been called a lot worse by cops. He took the bill and turned to the register in the middle of the bar, rang a no sale, and counted out forty quarters.
"Sorry, this is all I can spare." A ten joined the quarters on the bar.
"Joel, get your butt over here and help me!"
"What do you need, little man?"
"Take some of these quarters. And I'll show you the 'little man' later on!"
"Get a room, you two!" Rafe hooted.
"You're jus jealous. Hey, this' got the 5th Dimension!"
"When the moon is in the Seventh House... " Joel warbled off-key.
"No, you dope! It's the other flower power song!" He put in his quarters and the song came out of the speakers.
Can you surry, can you picnic...
"We're gonna dance!" Henri pulled the big man into his arms and began to move to the music.
Blair leaned forward and murmured, "And, as I was going to say, it plays the music of the 60s."
Gorgeous chuckled. "It looks like we'll be here for a while." His cool blue eyes met Blair's, and Blair felt his temperature rising, along with his cock.
Down, big fella! This guy is straightt! Maybe if he kept reminding himself...
"I'm sorry we're keeping you from going home to your family."
"Thanks, but that's not a problem. Naomi's out of town - she's my mom," he felt obliged to clarify, "and there's no one to go home to, not even Larry."
"The Barbary ape who used to be my roommate. Clint Eastwood hired him for a movie and there was no living with him after that: it went right to his head." He was pleased when Gorgeous gave a spurt of laughter. "I haven't seen you in here before." Oh, great, as a pickup line, that was on par with 'What's a nice guy like you doing in a joint like this?'
And that wasn't a pickup line. The guy was straight. And of course he wouldn't come to The Happy Hippie. This was a college bar, not a cop bar! Geez, Sandburg, get a grip!
He held out a hand. "I'm Blair Sandburg."
As he hoped, Gorgeous introduced himself. "Jim Ellison."
God, his hand felt good!
Let it go before you make a fool of yourself! he ordered himself.
Was it his imagination, or did Jim seem unwilling to let him go?
The door opened, and three women walked in. And didn't that sound like the start of a bad bar joke?
"Damn, I should have locked the door," Blair muttered under his breath.
Jim snorted with laughter, and Blair gave him a puzzled look.
"Uh, sorry. I just thought of something funny."
"Okay." Blair turned back to the women. At least they didn't look drunk. "Sorry, ladies, I'm closed."
"That's all right, Slick. We're just here to pick up our men." The woman who spoke was extremely attractive. She looked over the other bar patrons dispassionately, then shook her head at the rowdy bunch around the jukebox, where Big Brother and the Holding Company were backing Janis Joplin.
Come on and take it, Take another little piece of my heart now, baby...
She paused for a moment, frowning, and then walked up to Jim and kissed him. "Ready to go, darling?"
Well, damn. Didn't that suck canal water?
His imagination was really running riot tonight. Now it would have him ready to swear Jim seemed reluctant to leave...
No, he wasn't going that route again.
The other two women corralled the men and herded them toward the door.
"Here I am." He came from the direction of the restrooms, being especially cautious in his steps.
"Hey, sugar." The blonde went to him and looped her arm through his.
"Hi, sweet pea." He smiled up at her owlishly and kissed her.
"Who's she?" Uh oh, the women weren't quite as sober as Blair had thought.
"She'd my lady!"
"Oh, sugar! No one's ever- Not in such a long time!" The blonde sniffled, and Blair offered a bar napkin.
Dan took it from him and tenderly dabbed at her cheeks.
That was so sweet.
"Where're we going now?" Dan asked.
"I don't know about you, but James and I are calling it a night."
"That sounds like a good idea. Some of us are on duty in the morning."
"And that would include me." Jim groaned. "Let's go, everyone. I'm driving. Aurora, I'm afraid we're tight for room- "
"Sure. I understand." Her expression became hard and closed off. "Well, Dan, it was nice- "
"You'll have to sit on Dan's lap, if you don't mind?"
"If I don't- you'll let me go with you?"
"Sure." Dan looked confused. "Why wouldn't we?"
"No reason, I guess."
Blair handed her more napkins.
"You're welcome." He watched as Dan and Aurora walked out. Definitely an odd couple, but kind of a cute odd couple. And that made him realize how alone he was.
"Simon, you've got to put a stop to that!"
"A stop to what?" The Captain stared at Carolyn, confused.
"To Dan seeing that- that- "
"Watch it, ma'am. I don't ask a lot from the people who come to my bar, but a little politeness is one of the things I demand." Blair stared at her stonily.
"Hmph!" She turned to the other women. "Did you see how she was dressed? You could see she wasn't wearing a bra! Where'd Dan pick her up? The Pussycat Lounge?"
Everyone in Cascade knew the Pussycat Lounge was really a front for a brothel. What no one could figure out was why the cops hadn't shut it down yet.
"It's obvious she's a- a- " Carolyn's lip was curled in a sneer, and the two women she'd come in with seemed willing to go along with her.
"Put a sock in it!" Simon ordered. "Dan's a grown man, and who he goes out with is none of our business!"
"Well, I don't want to rush you out - " Or he wouldn't if Jim hadn't been encumbered by a beautiful woman, who was unfortunately petty. Could Jim see that? Probably not, love was blind. " - but it is closing time."
"Sorry, Chief. And sorry about the little contretemps too. It was nice meeting you."
"Same here." Contretemps. He spoke French! Blair breathed, "You have no idea how nice!" then raised his voice. "Come back and see me sometime."
Jim grinned at him and winked.
"Well, good night." Carolyn didn't seem to have noticed that wink. She was headed toward the door, her hand firmly gripping Jim's arm. The witch.
"G'night." The remaining men and women followed them out, the door closed behind them, and silence fell on the bar.
"I thought for a time you were gonna have a problem, Blair," one of his regulars finally said.
"Nah. That'll be the day when I can't handle a few drunks."
"Yeah? You're kinda short."
"Height doesn't matter. The deadliest fighters I knew where the Jinhaka Indians; they taught me all they knew, and they were only about four foot zip!"
"Well, we would've been right behind you."
The cops, even drunk as they were, would have made mincemeat of these guys, but that was too cruel to say. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
"Well, we'd better get going too. We've got class tomorrow, and Professor Edward's a real hard ass. See you next week."
"Yeah, next week. Get home safe." He locked the door after them and turned out the neon Budweiser and Miller signs in the windows.
Usually this was the best part of his night, the bar quiet, the lighting subdued, and nothing left to do but empty ashtrays and refrigerate the lemon and lime wedges and the cherries and olives. Once that was done, he'd sweep the floor, and then make sure the tables and booths were clean and the restrooms didn't look as if pigs had visited them. He'd toss the trash in the dumpster out back, and finally go up to his apartment above the bar.
Usually he'd have a beer to unwind, but tonight -
He hurried through his tasks. Tonight he was going to jerk off to images of Jim Ellison. And 'straight cop' be damned!
At least he knew that's what his father would say. The last time they'd had dinner together at the house that hadn't been home to Jim since before he'd left for boarding school, William Ellison had given him a derisive look and snapped, "You don't want people to think you're a queer, do you, Jimmy?"
Of course he didn't. He wasn't.
Those times in high school were just kids experimenting. They didn't mean anything.
And those times when he'd been a Ranger, they hadn't counted. That was just buddies helping each other out when there weren't any women available.
Now, though... That bartender was so cute.
At first Jim had felt the hostility rolling off him, but then he'd looked at Jim, and that hostility had changed to something else. The scent of it had teased his nostrils. Good. It was so good.
No point in thinking about him. Even if the bartender wasn't straight, Jim was.
And besides, he was too young for Jim.
He kept telling himself that even as he stripped off his clothes, coated his dick with lube, and began jerking off, picturing that mouth, that hair, those eyes...
"I meet a lot of someone’s, Naomi."
"Don't be coy. Someone has attracted your attention. You've been whistling I'm a Believer all morning."
He'd never seen any point in obfuscating. His mother always knew.
"Someone came in the bar the other night."
"Ah!" She hummed happily.
"No, don't get all excited about it. He's a cop."
"Oh." The corners of her mouth pulled down in disappointment.
He was grateful she didn't ask if he were sure. After the disaster with his dissertation, she'd known he could spot a cop at fifty paces.
"You know- "
"There are twelve bottles of this pinot grigio."
"Oh, dear. And I ordered a case more."
"Really not a good idea."
"It's a good vintage," she said defensively.
"You know the college crowd." Blair didn't want to hurt her feelings, but he was pretty sure she'd let those feelings influence what she bought. He'd seen pictures of that vintner in a brochure, and he was a good-looking man.
"Not as well as you, apparently. You're doing a good job running the bar."
"And you did mention they really weren't into wine." She sighed. "Maybe I can give some of these bottles away as gifts?"
"Now, what was I saying? Oh yes. I ran into an old friend of yours at the airport."
"Crap," he swore under his breath. "Uh, that's nice."
"I knew you'd think so. I invited him to come by for a drink."
"Yes?" She looked at him with innocent eyes.
"I- You- Do you realize he's jailbait?" The last time Blair had seen him, Alec had been sixteen, and he'd made no secret of the fact that he wanted to blow Blair.
"No. He's over the age of consent. He showed me his driver's license."
"Oh, no, you don't want to go there, Naomi! Did I tell you I got suckered into teaching him how to drive? And then he took my Corvair and almost wrecked it!"
"I'm sure he didn't mean to." She patted his cheek. "You don't have to thank me, sweetie. You work too hard. Take a night off. It's the beginning of the week. Bart can handle the crowd."
She was being facetious. On Sunday nights if they got twelve people they considered themselves mobbed.
She checked her watch. "Now, he'll be here in about twenty minutes, and you don't want to keep him waiting. Go on up and take a shower. You're all covered with spider webs and dust. Just make sure you dress nice, and have a good time."
He was grumbling as he went up the stairs, but he still heard her last words, "And I'm sure you'll forget all about that cop in no time."
And all Alec still wanted to do was blow him.
"Look, I'm not a kid anymore."
"You're still four years younger than me."
"And I always will be. I don't see why it makes any difference."
Why not? You can't have the one you want. Why not have the one you're with?
"This wouldn't be fair to you." He spoke loudly to drown out the wicked voice in the back of his mind.
Alec grinned. "I'm not asking for fair. I'm not asking for happily ever after. I'm not a virgin, you know. And all I want is... "
"To suck my cock."
Alec shrugged. "Why not?"
"Because it wouldn't be ethical? I was your professor, after all."
"You were a T.A.! And you're not anymore."
"All right, I'll grant you that. But I don't love you."
"Geez, Prof, don't be such a girl! What's love got to do with it?"
"Pardon me, but do you really think telling me there are no strings will get you laid?"
"It's worked before." Alec gave him a sly grin and licked his lips, and Blair found his cock didn't mind if Alec didn't mind, not if it could get those lips wrapped around it.
"Slut!" he muttered to it.
"Did you say something?"
"I'm a realist. I haven't found the one I love yet, and until I do, I'm- "
"No, please. Don't say you're going to love the one you're with!" He was uneasy. If Alec's mind was running in the same direction as his, how was he ever going to withstand the temptation?
You came, I was alone, I should have known, you were- And wasn't that just great? Some joker at the jukebox had to pick that very song.
He shook his head.
Alec shrugged again. "I was going to say I plan on having the time of my life."
"You do have a way with words."
"I try, Prof."
"And stop calling me 'Prof.' I'm not in academia anymore."
"Okay, fine. Look, Blair. I like you very much. I think we could have a good time together. There's no need to get all existential about it. Now, what do you say?
Jim was off somewhere getting married. Blair was here alone, and it had been a very long time since he'd let anyone in his bed.
"I'm probably going to regret this, but... okay."
"Neato!" Alex grabbed his hand.
"Where are we going?"
"Your place? My place? Who cares? Whichever is closest!"
"Uh... your place?" Blair's apartment was just a flight of stairs away, but he was reluctant to let Alec invade his space.
Alec couldn't know he was already thinking this was the worst of bad ideas. But Blair was lonely.
And maybe it would work out.
This had been a bad idea. In spite of Alec's bravura performance at the bar, he'd nuzzled up to Blair after he'd blown him and murmured, 'I love you.'
Blair consigned himself to every one of Nergal's nine hells. He'd known...
The only light in the room was from the streetlight filtering through the curtain. He began fumbling for his clothes.
He'd never considered himself a coward, but now he sat on the floor to pull on his Nikes rather than taking the risk of sitting on the bed and having it dip and wake Alec.
"You're not leaving, are you?" Alec mumbled.
Shit! "I've got to. I have a delivery in the morning, and- I'm sorry, Alec."
"I don't love you."
Alec leaned up on his elbow and turned on the bedside lamp. He regarded Blair through the hair that spilled over into his eyes, which were drowsy and sated. "I know. You told me before."
"Yes. But you love me."
"What gave you that idea?"
"You- you just said- "
"Oh, that? Are you sure you're older than me? Everyone says 'I love you' after mind-blowing sex."
But Blair hadn't. He cleared his throat. "It was good. Thank you."
"You're welcome." Alec yawned and turned over, pulling the blanket up around his shoulders. "Turn the light out when you go, and make sure the door is locked."
Feeling dismissed and oddly inconsequential, Blair grabbed up his jacket, switched off the lamp, and left.
Blair groaned and brought the cup of coffee to his face to hide his grimace. If this wasn't just what he needed - his mother visiting before noon. Especially when it had been after five before he'd finally fallen asleep.
"You're only supposed to use the key in case of emergency."
"Yes, of course. Sorry."
She wasn't sorry. Blair knew her well enough to know that. But she was his mother, and she loved him and worried about him, and he knew he'd forgive her.
Besides, it wasn't as if she'd caught him in bed with a gorgeous hunk of cop, straight or otherwise.
"So, how did it go with Alec?" She went to pour herself a cup of coffee.
"We've decided we're not compatible. I told you he was too young for me."
"Did he at least take your mind off that cop?"
"Why, yes, he did. As a matter of fact, I'd forgotten all about Jim," Blair lied. "Thanks so much for reminding me."
"You're in a mood." She set the coffee down, untasted.
"Look, Mom. I'm a big boy. Just let me find my own date next time."
"Fine. Bite my head off, why don't you?" She turned with a huff and headed toward the stairs that led to the bar, then paused. "I'm flying down to California."
"But you just got back from there!"
"I'm going back again."
"Naomi, what's going on?"
"Why would anything be going on?"
"I'm not." She glanced at him over her shoulder, a smile tugging at her lips. "And how would you know if I were?"
"I learned from the best. I learned from you."
"Flattery will get you everywhere." She came back to him and rested her palm against his cheek. "I am sorry, sweetie. I just- "
"I know, Mom. Thank you."
She sighed. "I really do have to go."
"Sure. So which vineyard are you visiting this time?"
"What makes you think- " She smiled at his look. "All right. I'm going to Vinedos de las Uvas de Oro."
"Jean Claude Prideux's vineyard? I thought all you two did was argue."
She gave him a prim look.
"Never mind, I don't want to know. And what's up with a Frenchman giving his vineyard a Spanish name?"
"You'll have to ask him."
"What?" He gave her a suspicious look. "When?"
"It's just a figure of speech."
"Yeah." Was his mother getting ready to give him a new stepfather? On second thought, he really didn't want to know. "I'm going back to bed."
"And who's going to run the bar?"
"Bart can. He can use the time."
"Baby, I'm really sorry it didn't work out with Alec."
"It's okay. Just promise you won't try to set me up again." He put his cup in the sink and turned off the coffeemaker.
"When are you leaving? Will you need a ride to the airport?"
"No, I'm good."
"Mom. Next time, make him fly up to see you. You don't want him to think you're easy."
"No." As far as he knew, Blair's father, whoever he was, was the only man Naomi had ever been in love with. "But you don't want him to think so."
She went to him and kissed his cheek. "Thank you."
"For being my son."
"In that case, thanks for being my mom. Now let me get some sleep. The date you set me up on had left me worn out."
"Forget it. Just go and have a good time."
Each time the door to the bar opened, Blair looked up in anticipation.
Each time he was disappointed.
Well, really, what had he expected? Jim Ellison was a straight cop who'd gotten married two months ago. Blair had come across the announcement in the Cascade Tribune, not that he'd been looking.
Carolyn Elaine Plummer and James Joseph Ellison are pleased to announce their marriage on September 19, 1993 at the First Protestant Church of Cascade. Upon their return from their honeymoon in Acapulco, the happy couple will reside at the bride's home at 528 Vista Way.
And why would he come back to a college bar anyway? Oh sure, he'd seemed to enjoy talking to Blair, but...
"Hey, bartender! How about a Johnny Walker?"
He looked over the kid who stood at the bar. "How about you show me some ID?"
"Whining won't get you that whisky any sooner."
"Here!" He tossed his license across the bar. "And hurry it up, wouldja? Red or Black, makes no difference to me!"
Blair picked up the license and studied it carefully, then shook his head. "Not gonna serve you, man. This is bogus as a three dollar bill."
"No, it's not!"
"And your name is Li."
"Yeah! Like... uh... Robert E."
"Uh huh." Could these kids get any dumber? "It doesn't matter what you say, I'm not serving you."
"Damn you! Okay, give me my license back."
"Now why would I do that? So you could try to sucker another bartender with it? Take a hike."
"Dude, do you know how much that cost- Uh... " The kid turned brick red.
"I can imagine. Get out of here, and don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out."
Grumbling, and with a dirty look that would have killed Blair dead where he stood if it had been a loaded weapon, he left.
"Well done, Chief."
"You remembered my name!"
"A good bartender remembers all his customers' names." Blair didn't tell him that was usually after a couple of visits.
"Oh. Sure." Did he seem disappointed?
Blair thought it might be a good idea not to pursue that thought. "When did you walk in?"
"Just in time to catch your act. May I?" He held out his hand and Blair gave him the license. Jim turned it over a few times. "He really expected you to believe he was a forty-eight year old Oriental man?"
"It looked that way, didn't it?"
"I wonder how many times he got away with this." He settled himself on the barstool.
Blair shrugged. "What's sad is that he'll probably get another one in a week or so and try it again."
"Okay if I deal with this?" Jim held up the license. "Major Crimes has been looking into the ring that's dealing with counterfeit identities."
"The underage drinking in Cascade is getting out of hand, and having available ID is a big part of it."
"Well, sure. I was going to turn it in at the local precinct, but since you're already here... "
"So... uh... What can I get you to drink?"
"You don't remember from the last time?"
"You never did order. Anyway, I was only going to serve you a soda; you were driving, as I recall. "
"Okay, you got me. And since I'm driving again, you'd better let me have a tonic with a twist."
Blair filled a tall glass with ice cubes, then took the soda hose and pressed the button for tonic. "So, what are you doing in this part of town? Rainier is a little off your beat, isn't it?"
"Not really. All of Cascade is my beat," he said solemnly.
"Definitely one of Cascade's finest." Blair garnished the drink with a lime wedge and slid it across the bar to him. "Well, you're always welcome."
"Thanks." Jim squeezed the lime into the tonic, then dropped the wedge into the glass. "Actually, I... I didn't want to go home just yet." His expression was shut off.
"Oh?" The light dawned. "Oh!"
"It's not her fault. She didn't count on me being- On me having problems."
"Yeah, but it's for better or worse."
"Not this much worse."
"You want to tell me about it? I've got a good ear, and talking to your bartender is like talking to your priest."
"Sure. Didn't you ever hear about the sanctity of the bar?"
"I'm not Catholic." He gave Blair an amused smile, and all Blair wanted to do was jump over the bar, take that face between his palms, and kiss that smile off those lips.
He cleared his throat instead. "That's okay. I'm not a priest. Doesn't make any difference. The sanctity of the bar is the same as the sanctity of the confessional."
Jim raised the glass to his lips, and Blair thought the conversation was dead in the water.
"I've got this thing."
Blair would have teased him. 'Yeah? I do too, and I call my thing Oscar,' but Jim had suddenly become serious.
"Hey, Blair!" The hail came from the first booth off the end of the bar. "Six letter word. First and fourth are the same, and so are the second and sixth."
Dammit. Just when Jim was opening up to him. Blair replaced his scowl with an easy grin and called back, "People."
"See? I told you he'd figure it out!" Money changed hands.
"Pretty clever," Jim said.
"Not really. Naomi raised me on cryptograms. A four letter word beginning and ending with the same letter is mostly 'that,' although it can be 'dead,' 'else,' or 'says.'" Jim looked impressed, and Blair wanted to preen. "Listen, this is my early night, and you really do look like you could use someone to talk to. Would you like to come upstairs for some dinner? I've got some barbecued beef in the slow cooker. It makes the best sandwiches."
"I'd like that, but... "
"I'm a pretty good cook, honest. I got this recipe from an old Indian I met in Calicut. The beef is so tender it literally melts in your mouth. Of course, he used chicken."
"I'm sorry, Chief. I've got to get home." Jim took a sip of his soda, then put the glass down on the bar and reached for his wallet. "What do I owe you for this?"
"Forget it." Hiding his disappointment, Blair gave him his best 'you don't know what you're missing' grin. And of course he meant the barbecued beef. "It's on the house."
"Well... thanks." Jim pushed back from the bar and stood up.
"You're welcome. Bye, Jim. Come back soon," he whispered.
Oh, well. Blair watched the door close behind that hot butt, then sighed and shook his head. Win some, lose some. But it would have been nice to win at least one.
The door opened and he pinned a grin on his face. "Evening- Jim?"
"Is this too soon?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about, but you're always welcome!"
"Thanks. That invitation still open, Chief?"
"Then if you don't have any objection, I'd like to take you up on it."
"Any objections? Are you kidding? Hey, Bart!" he called to the man who filled in for him on Wednesdays. "You've got the bar. I'm taking off now."
"Sure thing, boss."
"Call me if you need me."
"Sure thing, boss."
Blair leaned close and whispered, "Just don't need me!"
"Sure thing, boss!" Bart winked at him. "Have a good night."
And maybe he wouldn't have been either, if the damned spices in the dinner Blair had made hadn't left him feeling as if flames were about to shoot out of his mouth.
Blair hadn't panicked. He'd simply handed Jim slices of white bread until the burning subsided and then said, "Next time I won't use the spicy mustard."
The kid was so sure there was going to be a next time.
There couldn't be. Jim was straight. And he was married. And he had this fucking problem with his senses.
He must have been out of his mind earlier. He'd gotten no further than his pickup truck when the disappointment in Blair's blue eyes when he'd turned him down hit him. He'd turned around and gone back to the bar.
The expression on Blair's face when he realized Jim had returned... No one had looked at him like that in a long time.
No, that wasn't true. Carolyn used to look at him like that when they were first going out. In the past two months though... It was as if living together had shown her what he really was - a freak who could see and hear and taste things, who'd go off in a daze...
He didn't want Blair to look at him with the same distaste.
"I'm sorry, Chief. I'm not a very good guest. I'd better leave."
"Listen, I'll make mac and cheese. If you're not in the mood for that, I've got some hamburgers in the freezer, I can make those instead. You don't have to- "
"I have to. This wasn't a good idea. I'm sorry," he repeated. "You're a nice guy. A cute guy. You deserve better."
And he walked out.
And he was never going back to The Happy Hippie again. Ever.
It had started with that incident in The Happy Hippie on the night of his bachelor party. Maybe Carolyn had had a few too many, but even using that excuse to cut her some slack, it had been an unkind thing to do to Dan. He was an adult, and he could date anyone he wanted.
And not only that, but since the relationship seemed to be continuing, she didn't want Jim to remain friends with him.
She'd changed too. Once she hadn't seemed to mind helping Jim when things became a little stressed for him. She'd seemed happy to make sure his food wasn't too spicy, the sheets on the bed weren't too rough against his skin, the music when they went clubbing not too loud, the images on the movie screen not too painful to his eyes.
Now she just complained about him.
They'd just returned from having dinner with her sister Wendy, and Fred, Wendy's fiancé, and all Carolyn had done was pick on each of Jim's shortcomings. Wendy had joined in with almost fiendish glee. Fred had grown silent and his eyes had become cautious, and Jim had to wonder how much longer he would remain Wendy's fiancé.
Apparently Carolyn had seen his reaction also, and afterwards she berated Jim for that as well.
"Y'know, Carolyn," Jim finally snapped, "if you're so unhappy with me, why did you marry me?"
"I loved you, you moron!"
"'Loved?' Does that mean you don't anymore?"
"Don't put words in my mouth, Jimmy!"
And that was another thing. She'd always called him James. Jimmy was the name his father used to call him. It always made him feel like a boy.
"Look, I don't want to fight with you. I'm going to take a shower and get ready for bed."
"Do you want me to put on that negligee Rhonda and Megan gave me?" It was from Victoria's Secret, and the first time she'd worn it he'd removed it with slow deliberation, because otherwise he'd have torn it off her.
That had been on their honeymoon, when they'd still had feelings for each other.
"Why bother?" They both knew he wouldn't be able to get it up for her. Maybe if she'd stopped wearing that perfume that gave him a splitting headache he wouldn't have such a problem.
"Fine. I guess I can assume you'd prefer not to share the bed with me either."
When he came out of the bathroom, toweling himself off, it was to find the couch made up.
It wasn't her fault she hadn't liked that Aurora woman, Carolyn thought resentfully. One look and anyone could tell she was a tramp - anyone who wasn't a man that was. All they saw were the boobs. Which had to be fake.
Dan was being led around by his dick. He was a nice guy, and she liked him, but facts were facts. He deserved better than that.
And if he brought the other men from Major Crimes to that club where Miss Sleeping Beauty worked - Oh, god, could Jim have found someone else?
If he was seeing another woman, how would she bear it?
But if he wasn't, how else could she explain the fact that he hadn't touched her in almost a month. That wasn't normal for newlyweds.
She'd even offered to wear the sexy nightie that Rhonda and Megan had given her for her bridal shower, but Jim had looked as if he couldn't be bothered.
In desperation, she'd made up the couch, hoping he'd come storming into the bedroom and demand to know what she thought she was doing. But he hadn't. He'd just lain down on those damned sheets that cost a fortune.
Didn't he realize how much she cared about him? She thought about the jacket she'd given him for Christmas. It would take at least six months for her to pay it off, but it could just as well have been a cheap knock-off from Target for all his appreciation of it.
She'd thought their working together would bring them even closer, but it seemed she was wrong. The gap between them just grew wider and wider until now it felt like a chasm.
Captain Banks had told her a position was opening up in the Technical Support Division. It would be a nice promotion. She'd been reluctant to accept it, but now she thought she'd better consider it.
Megan smoothed down his collar. "Jim isn't going to want to go with us, mate. He's still a newlywed."
"Even after six months?"
"But it's six months!"
"Hey, Joel and I still treat each other like newlyweds!" H slid his arms into his own overcoat. "And it's been way more than six months for us!"
"But we'll be more than happy to keep you company." Joel grinned. "Where are we going?"
"Cool. Let's go! See you in the AM, Jim."
"Yeah. Bye, guys." I'd like to go, he thought wistfully, but he knew he couldn't say anything. As everyone was all too fond of saying, it was only six months. The bloom shouldn't already be off the rose.
What was he thinking? Everything was... Okay, it wasn't fine, but it was... He sighed. It could be better, he supposed. Carolyn had taken him back to her bed, but he had to push himself to approach her for sex, otherwise weeks could go by without either of them getting any. And Carolyn seemed reluctant to touch him.
This wasn't right. They should still be unable to keep their hands off each other.
He'd always been a tactile kind of guy. He liked touching and being touched. It might come across as girl-y, but he even liked cuddling.
He glanced at his watch. It was six, but he knew Carolyn wouldn't be home for at least another couple of hours. She'd transferred to the Technical Support Division earlier in the month, and she was working hard to make her mark in it.
That meant another lonely dinner.
He remembered the dinner Blair had made for him. It had been very good, but he'd made a bigger deal of the bite of spices than he'd had to, becoming suddenly afraid of the attraction that flared between them.
Now it was four months later, and things weren't getting any better at home. Might Blair be willing to forgive him for being such a jerk and have dinner with him? Or just a drink?
It wasn't as if they were going to do anything physical. Just dinner. A drink. Some conversation... Maybe a hug? Was he out of his mind, wanting a little tenderness? It had been so long since Carolyn had...
Okay, that was dangerous ground. All he was looking for was friendship. Right. That was all.
Jim reached for the shearling jacket Carolyn had given him for Christmas. He'd nearly had a heart attack when he'd realized how much it cost. And then he'd wondered why she'd bought him such an expensive gift. But it was so comfortable he couldn't ask her to return it.
Besides, that would have simply started another argument, and he was getting so tired of those.
He was tired of having dinner alone as well, and while he was a decent cook, the last thing he felt like doing was dragging his butt home and slaving over a hot stove.
Yeah, he decided on the spur of the moment, he'd go to The Happy Hippie.
The place was mobbed with college-aged kids, who chatted and called to one another over the music coming out of the jukebox.
Wild Thing, you make my heart sing...
Cigarette smoke hung in the air, making his eyes burn. He glanced at the bar, but a woman stood behind it, smiling indulgently at the crowd.
For a minute he was tempted to turn around and leave, but... He wanted to see Blair.
He walked up to the bar.
"Hi there. What can I get you?" the woman asked.
"Uh... is Blair here?"
"No." Her voice and her eyes were suddenly cool. "He's on a date."
"Oh." Jim thought he was going to throw up. Blair was seeing someone? "Uh... "
"Did you want anything?"
Just Blair, he realized with some shock, but he was too late. "No. Sorry, no, I've got to go."
He got out of there, and the cold night air was a relief after the heat and the crowd of the bar.
Why should it surprise him that Blair had a boyfriend? Blair wasn't obligated to wait for him. They were barely acquaintances, let alone friends.
He climbed back into his truck and headed home. He was starting to get a headache - probably from the noise and the smell. The kids in the bar seemed to have doused themselves with Aramis and Drakkar Noir, Charlie and Aviance.
His stomach turned at the memory of the clashing fragrances, and he swallowed.
He knew he'd have to eat something - his headache would only get worse, probably crossing over to migraine territory, and he was pretty sure there was a Swanson's Hungry-Man TV dinner in the freezer.
How dared that Jim Ellison come back here? What was he trying to do, ruin her son completely?
She didn't find it hard to believe Blair had been drawn to him after only seeing him a couple of times. Hadn't she fallen head over heels for Blair's father after just a single meeting in the summer of '69?
Timmy was a widower with two adult children, and Naomi had realized he'd never marry her, but they'd had a wonderful summer together.
And she had loved him.
Even more, she loved the son he'd given her.
And if any cop thought he could play fast and loose with her son's emotions - well, he just had another think coming.
Blair came back from the men's room. "Thanks, Naomi."
"You're welcome, sweetie. That's what moms are for. And I enjoyed it. It's been a while since I was behind the bar. "
Her baby boy didn't know what a close call he'd had, and she wasn't going to tell him.
What she was going to do was call Jean Claude. He had a son Blair's age, and wouldn't it be perfect if they all made a match of it?
"I'll leave you to this crowd, Blair. I don't remember it ever being this busy!"
"Shouldn't they be in Fort Lauderdale or somewhere else in Florida?"
"Nah, they're all back from there. Class starts on Monday."
"Do you... you do miss it, baby?"
"Teaching students who'd rather be getting- " He cut off his words, then continued, "who'd rather be partying than in my class? No."
"But you wouldn't necessarily have been a teacher."
"Wouldn't I? You know what they say, Mom. 'Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.'"
She grabbed his arm and gave it a shake. "You can 'do.' Don't you dare insinuate you can't!"
"Maybe. Once. Now... " He shrugged as if it didn't matter, but it broke her heart to see the stark expression on his face.
"Oh, baby. Damn Derek for causing you to lose that chance!"
"No, it's all right, really it is. Who'd tend bar for you if I was forever gallivanting out of the country to Irian Jaya or Sumatra or... "
"I'd have managed. I am an adult." She patted his cheek and let him turn away to refill a glass of beer. "And I will find someone for you," she declared under her breath. Her eyes rested on the young man who stood on the other side of the bar, hesitantly offering her his ID, and she beamed at him. "And what can I get for you, sweetie?"
At the end of eighteen months, their divorce was final, and Jim had long since moved out. He'd found a loft at 852 Prospect and settled in to the life of a divorced man.
At least he didn't have to worry about working with his ex-wife. With Carolyn's transfer to the Technical Support Division, only occasionally was she asked to help out at Major Crimes, and if he knew in advance, he was able to make sure he was out of the building.
Like earlier, when he was in the woods outside Auburn.
No, he didn't want to think about that. It reminded him too much of the time he'd spent in Peru, holding that Pass with the Chopecs.
God, he was so fucked up.
He needed a drink.
Actually, he needed a lot of drinks.
And he knew just the place.
And the hell with that woman in The Happy Hippie telling him Blair was dating. So what? It was a free country, and all he was going there for was a glass of tonic. And maybe he'd ask Blair to put in a few shots of vodka.
Determined to get over him, Blair had dated someone else Naomi had introduced him to in spite of her promise - and damned if he could remember the guy's name. He'd been cute, and they'd seen a couple of good movies together, but he'd had to break it off when Nick - that was his name! -- Nick announced he wanted to fuck Blair.
It was just after that fiasco that Naomi began making noises about him flying down to California to meet Jean-Claude, and he'd finally agreed. They were catching an early morning flight tomorrow, and he'd already told his patrons The Happy Hippie would be closing early. That had been met with good-natured groans and one wiseass winking and saying, 'Gonna have a dirty weekend?'
'Not likely,' he'd retorted. 'Not with my mom there!'
Bart was going to run the bar for the four days he'd be gone; Blair had told Naomi he really couldn't stay away longer than that.
He used to enjoy traveling, but lately he found he didn't like the idea of being out of Cascade.
"Hi, Chief. How are you?"
"I'm fine." Blair reached for a glass. "And you?"
Jim shrugged. "I've been better."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Liar! the little voice whispered. He filled the glass with ice cubes and tonic water, garnished it with a twist of lime, and set it before Jim.
"Sure. It's- "
"Ah, don't tell me it's good business."
"What do you want me to tell you?"
"Nothing. Sorry. Do me a favor. Add a shot of vodka to this. And don't worry about me driving. I'll call for a cab when I'm ready to go home."
"So how's married life treating you?" Blair studied him carefully as he poured the Stolichnaya into the glass, got a swizzle stick, and stirred.
"Not good, Chief." Jim raised the glass to his lips and took a more than healthy swallow.
"You might want to take it easy on that, Jim. That's got a 50% ABV."
"Huh?" Was the alcohol already hitting Jim?
"Alcohol by volume," Blair explained patiently.
Jim nodded, but took another swallow anyway, and Blair sighed. Why did he even bother?
"My divorce just became final."
Ah, shit! No wonder- "I'm sorry, man."
"So am I. I thought... " He shook his head. "Never mind what I thought. It was just plain stupid, I guess."
"Listen, Jim. I'm due to take a break." He wasn't, but Jim looked like he needed someone to talk to. Anyway, the bar wasn't that crowded. It was spring break again and most of the kids were in warmer parts of the country. "How about if you join me?"
"I'd- I'd like that, chief."
"Cool. Let me make myself a drink, and I'll meet you in the booth at the back of the bar."
"For not throwing me out on my ass."
Blair couldn't think up a clever response to that that wouldn't sound like a heavy-handed come-on, so he just said, "You're welcome."
"You say something, Jim?" Blair sat down opposite from him with a tall glass filled with milk.
"No. What's with the milk? Are you a teetotaler? Doesn't that make running a bar a little odd?"
"Want to take a sip?"
Jim's sense of taste still gave him problems from time to time, even though he'd been to a number of doctors about it, and hadn't they been totally clueless? Normally he didn't take anything anyone offered him. He'd become even more guarded after Carolyn had let slip at her bridal shower about that little incident at the restaurant before they were married, and of course word of that had filtered down to the men at Major Crimes. They'd thought it was hysterical to slip him doctored sandwiches or beverages - jesus, were they eight? - and even Simon had tried to catch him with a pineapple Danish. But for some reason he trusted Blair not to offer him something that would set his senses off.
The milky moustache on Blair's upper lip had absolutely nothing to do with Jim wanting to accede to his request.
He raised the glass, sniffed, and began to laugh. "Bananas? This is a banana milkshake?" Although he hadn't heard a blender.
"No, it's a Dirty Banana. Milk, Creme de Banana, and a splash of Kuhlua." Blair waited for him to try it.
He sipped cautiously, then took an appreciative swallow.
"Yes, I like, very much!"
"It's what I drink when I'm not on duty. I can drink it all night and not get a buzz on. Though when I want to be decadent, I use chocolate milk." Blair smiled at him, and Jim found he liked that very much also. "So, what did you want to talk about?"
What did he want to talk about? He didn't really want to discuss his failed attempt at being married. "Actually, I wanted to apologize for running out on you the last time I saw you."
"That's not necessary, Jim."
"Still, it was rude, and I'm sorry."
"Fine. Apology accepted. Was that all?"
"No. I also wanted to take you to dinner." He'd never asked a guy out, and he wasn't sure how to do it right. He finished in a rush, "To make up for it."
"Thanks, but I'm afraid it's too late."
"I- I see." Jim felt as if he'd been slapped in the face. He'd done some research about the gay lifestyle, and he'd hoped that after a year Blair would have dumped his boyfriend's ass, but apparently Blair was like Dr. Seuss' Horton, faithful 100%. "Your mother said you were seeing someone."
"When did you see my mother?"
He didn't respond to that. "I'm sorry. I'd better go."
But he was on his feet and hurrying toward the door.
His truck wasn't parked too far away. He got in and started the engine, pretending he didn't hear Blair still calling his name, and drove home.
It had been looking kind of promising, too. Jim had apologized. Okay, it was for pretty much the wrong reason - Blair didn't really care that the last time they'd been together Jim had gotten cold feet and split, but why hadn't he come to see him in the sixteen months since?
Not that Blair was counting.
And what had Jim meant about Naomi telling him Blair was seeing someone?
Naomi, on the other hand, had a carryon and four suitcases, which needed to be packed and repacked half a dozen times before she was satisfied she hadn't forgotten something important. She'd certainly left her years as a flower child far behind.
Blair had her carryon slung over one shoulder and his own over another. They boarded the jet and found their seats in first class.
"Jean Claude made the reservations."
"I hope he didn't pay for them too."
"Oh, these are our seats!"
It didn't escape Blair that she hadn't answered. He decided to let it go. He had other things on his mind.
If he hadn't been obligated to make this visit - he had a feeling Naomi was more involved than she'd previously let on - he'd have backed out and tracked Jim down. And he'd had the perfect excuse: the underage drinking problem in Cascade. He'd have gone to Jim's precinct and told the captain there that he was willing to volunteer to get this scourge under control.
And if that meant working with Jim Ellison - he smiled to himself. So much the better.
But he'd promised his mother, so he was here on this jet instead.
They buckled their seatbelts and waited for takeoff.
"You're very quiet, sweetie. Are you worried about the bar? You don't have to, you know. Bart's a very competent bartender."
"I know, Naomi. I'm not worried. I was wondering about something though. Jim Ellison was in The Happy Hippie earlier tonight."
"Oh?" Was it just his imagination or was the one word laden with caution?
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. Welcome aboard Cascade Airlines flight 285. We'll be flying nonstop to San Francisco International and should arrive in approximately one hour and fifty-five minutes. We'll be cruising at an altitude of 38,000 feet, with an airspeed of 400 miles per hour. The skies are clear and the temperature in San Francisco is a cool fifty degrees. So sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight."
"That's one thing I love about flying to California. It doesn't take long to get there. Thank you." Naomi smiled up at the flight attendant and accepted a magazine.
"Naomi, Jim said something about you telling him I was seeing someone."
"Now when could I have done that?"
"That's what I'm asking you." Was she going to obfuscate?
The jet taxied down the runway and was soon airbound.
"You deserve better, Blair." She took his hand and held it tightly.
"I won't argue with you there, but when did this happen?"
"About... about a year ago."
"That was just before you introduced me to Nick."
"You remember his name!" She looked pleased. "He told me how heartbroken he was when you stopped taking his calls. Why won't you reconsider going out with him? He cares about you."
"Really? So much that he tried to pressure me into doing something, even after I told him I didn't do that?" He tried to keep his annoyance in check. Just recalling what he'd had to do to make Nick accept that he didn't bottom- He was a pacifist, goddammit!
"Oh, sweetie." The pleasure left her face. "I'm sorry."
The flight attendant stopped by their row again. "Would either of you care for a beverage or a light snack?"
"I'll have tea and those lovely biscottis your airline offers."
"Yes, ma'am. And you, sir?"
"Just tea, please."
She smiled at him and went to the galley, a saucy sway to her hips.
"All right, now, Naomi. Spill the beans. What did you tell Jim?"
"And you're not angry with me, Blair?" After her confession, there had been silence between them for the rest of the flight.
"No, Mom." How could he be? She had his best interests at heart. But this last meeting with Jim...
How might that have turned out if he hadn't had to leave to meet Jean Claude Prideux?
He sighed and went to the baggage claim to wait for Naomi's luggage.
"Thanks for driving me down, Jean Paul."
"It's my pleasure; I get to spend a little more time with you. I enjoyed meeting you and showing you around my father's vineyard."
"I enjoyed meeting you too. It was a real coincidence that we were both flying out today."
"Kismet, yes." Blair smiled at him. Jean Paul was about his height and had warm brown eyes and light brown hair that was streaked from hours in the sun. He was about a year or two older, which made a pleasant change. Aside from Derek, all Blair's sex partners had been his age or younger. Out of respect for Jean Paul's father, they hadn't fooled around, although they had shared some heated kisses and a bit of frottage. Blair wouldn't have minded being distracted further by him, but Jean Paul was flying to France to study new growing methods under family friends who lived in Bordeaux.
"You have the address where I'll be staying until September. Promise you'll write?"
"I promise. And you'll write me too?"
"Oh, yes!" Blair knew how it would be though. They'd exchange a few letters, but then life would catch up with them and the correspondence would peter out. Still, it would be interesting while it lasted.
Not knowing where Blair's thoughts had taken him, Jean Paul gave him a brilliant smile. "And perhaps we may share a glass of wine?"
"I'd like that."
"I'd like that, too." But Blair also knew the odds of them developing any kind of a meaningful relationship were against them.
"Cascade Airlines Flight 582 is now boarding at Gate 7A."
"See you in September, Blair." Jean Paul kissed both his cheeks, and Blair smiled and duplicated his action.
"In September, Jean Paul." Blair headed for his gate, turning once to gaze behind him when he felt eyes on him.
Jean Paul had turned also, and he grinned and waved.
Although the kisses on the cheek struck him as wimpy.
Jim had volunteered to go down to San Francisco to attend the conference. It had been a spur of the moment thing - Joel was supposed to go, but he'd been caught in the backlash of a bomb blast. Thankfully it wasn't serious, but it had affected his inner ear, and his doctor had advised against flying.
H couldn't go because he was waiting until Joel was better before he fell apart, and Rafe and Megan were taking a well-deserved vacation together, cruising the Caribbean.
Jim was the only one left, although he knew that with what was going on with him lately, he'd been the last choice.
Still, Simon had trusted him to get the job done, and he had. Nothing wonky had gone on with his senses while he'd been in San Fran, and now he was waiting at the airport for his flight to be called.
And then he heard a very familiar voice say, 'In September, Jean Paul,' and he'd narrowed his vision to spot Blair and this Jean Paul doing the cheek kissing thing.
He felt his stomach turn over, and for a second he thought he was going to throw up. Blair looked so happy.
Of all the rotten luck. Not only had he lost his chance with Blair, but he'd lost it to someone who was cute, unburdened by the crap-load of emotional baggage Jim was lugging around, and at least half a dozen years his junior.
He stared at Blair's retreating figure, memorizing the way his jeans molded to his ass and clung to his thighs and calves.
And to top it off, Blair turned and gave that heart-stopping smile to Jean Paul, whoever he was.
Okay, so Blair was happy. Jim wasn't such a selfish bastard that he wanted Blair to be miserable, even if he was.
He sighed and began walking to the gate where his flight was boarding.
It was a pretty empty flight. Not many people were traveling up to Cascade on a Tuesday afternoon it seemed.
Blair was sitting toward the rear of the jet, and the other seats in his aisle weren't occupied. He wore a headset and appeared to be studying something. Jim could hear the pages turn.
No, what was he thinking? He was too far away to hear anything.
"Excuse me," he murmured to the flight attendant who was making sure the overhead bins were firmly secured, "I see someone I know back there. Would it be all right if I sat with him?"
"You can see how crowded we are." She waved a hand indicating the interior of the jet and smiled. "Go join your friend."
Okay, Operation Be Blair's Best Friend was about to start.
"Is this seat taken?"
"No." Blair looked up, and Jim held his breath, waiting to see his reaction. Blair's expression became incandescent. "Jim! What are you doing here?"
"Hi, Chief. Police business. Do you mind if I join you?"
"Not at all."
"I didn't realize you were going to be in San Francisco." Jim made himself comfortable in the aisle seat.
"That's why I couldn't have dinner with you on Thursday. My flight was leaving in a couple of hours. Listen, Jim, I really would have loved to go out with you." He turned red. "I mean to eat."
"Maybe we can try it when we get back to Cascade."
"Yeah. I'd like that."
"I like you, Blair. I'd... I'd like us to be friends."
"I'd like that too."
"So... " Jim took a deep breath. "What were you doing in San Fran?"
"Oh, I was just passing through. Naomi wanted me to meet someone."
Yeah, that good-looking guy Blair had kissed goodbye. But he wasn't going to bring that up, wasn't going to come across as a jealous son of a stalker bitch, even if that was what he was.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking."
Jim breathed a sigh of relief. The captain would give his spiel, and by the time he was finished, Jim would be able to safely change the subject.
This time she didn't have to ask if he'd met someone. She knew he had.
Now she could concentrate on her own love life. Jean Claude had asked her to move in with him. That wasn't a big deal - she'd never been one for tradition - but it would take her away from Cascade. Again, not a big deal, but she'd be away from Blair also.
There had been times when Blair was younger when they would be separated not only by miles but by oceans and continents as he'd pursued his dream and she'd pursued hers. After that disaster while he'd been in college on the East Coast, she'd promised herself that she would never allow that much distance to be between them again.
But Blair wasn't a boy any more. He was a competent businessman.
And the distance between Cascade and Jean Claude's vineyard was only about six hundred miles and took a couple of hours at most.
She'd give it more thought.
"How does dinner Saturday evening sound, Jim?" He was going to bring him right back up.
And that was just because it was something friends did for friends.
"Isn't that your busiest night?"
What a great guy, to worry about that. "Bart can handle it." Actually he'd jump at the chance to work Saturday night. It always provided the best tips.
"In that case I'd- " Jim paused and cleared his throat. "Yeah, I'd like that."
"Cool. I'll make reservations at Marcone's- " It was the hottest new restaurant in Cascade. "- and pick you up about 7."
Their friendship had been progressing nicely over the past four months. They'd eaten at the various restaurants in Cascade, they'd been to the movies, they'd even gone camping. And fishing. Jim in cutoffs, knee-deep in the stream, was a wonder to behold.
Of course, Blair hadn't had any sex in about a year, but that didn't matter when he could spend time with Jim.
He wanted to look his best. He laid his clothes out on the bed, a nice suit, a blue shirt that matched his eyes, sky blue boxer briefs and an A-shirt the same color.
Of course Jim wouldn't know what he wore underneath that suit, and he never would know, but a guy could dream, couldn't he?
No cologne, but just a whisper of Preferred Stock aftershave. He'd always preferred scents that made a more subdued statement, and he'd noticed Jim seemed to also.
The phone rang. "Sandburg."
"Ever think about becoming a cop? You've got the greeting down pat."
"Hi! How come you're calling? We'll see each other in about an hour." He suddenly had a bad feeling about this. "We are still on for later, aren't we?"
"No, I'm sorry, I'll have to cancel."
"Is something wrong?" That damned anniversary!
"No. I've... An old friend just got into town, and I'm- "
"That's okay. He can join us. Is he a member of your old Ranger squad?"
"No. It's... Blair, she's a woman."
"Oh." Well, sure. Jim was straight. And it was Saturday night. It made sense that he'd rather have a date with a woman than have a date- dinner!- with him.
"You don't mind, do you Chief?"
"Of course not!" He'd only got Bart to fill in for him, gone out and bought a new outfit, and made reservations at the classiest restaurant in Cascade, all in hopes of making sure Jim didn't brood about his failed marriage.
"It's okay. You have a great time."
"Look, I've got to run, Jim. I have a date myself, and I've got to get ready."
"A- a date?"
"Yeah. Have a great time," he repeated.
"Chief!" Jim sounded as if he didn't want Blair to hang up.
"Can I... Will you have dinner with me later in the week?"
He opened his mouth to say, 'Sure, if I'm not busy,' but instead he said, "Sure. Just give me a call."
"I will. You're a real friend, Blair. And I... I hope you have a great time, too. Bye."
"Bye, buddy." Blair hung up. The big dope didn't even question how he could have a date if he'd planned on having dinner with Jim.
Sighing, he called Marcone's and canceled the reservation.
Okay. It was a Saturday night and he had the night off. The question was: was he going to spend it at home pining for the one he couldn't have, or was he going to go on the prowl and find someone he could have?
Ruefully he eyed the new outfit he'd purchased. It was suitable for the nice restaurant, but not for what he had in mind now. He put it back in his closet and took out a pair of black leather pants, a black tank top, and a black vest.
The pants were too snug for underwear, but that was okay, he'd do without.
He was just sucking in his gut and edging the zipper up - carefully so as not to catch either skin or hair - when the phone rang.
"Hi, Blair. It's- "
"Jean Paul!" Well, talk about something to cheer a guy.
"How nice. You remember my voice."
"Well, it's a very attractive voice." And one he seriously hadn't expected to hear.
"Merci bien. "
Jean Paul burst into laughter. "You're so funny, Blair!"
"It's what I live for. So how are you? Where are you?"
"I'm here. I'm doing well. I missed you, though."
"Jean Paul, you're in France. I'd have thought you were enjoying all those cute Frenchmen."
"But you were five thousand miles away!" Jean Paul sighed heavily, then said in a cheery voice, "But I'm back now!"
"Back in California?" Would Bart be willing to cover for Blair if he took a few days off to fly down to visit Jean Paul?
"No. Not yet at any rate. I was able to make a connecting flight to Cascade International. I'm here, in your fair city!"
"You are? Awesome!"
"Yes! I thought you might come pick me up. We could have a bite to eat, perhaps continue what we started in my father's fermentation room?"
"I'd love to!" This was going to be great. Jean Paul got his sense of humor, and was a nice guy, and if his kisses were anything to go by, he should be pretty good in the sack too. "How long are you in Cascade?"
"My flight leaves at ten."
"Tonight? Well that sucks." Okay, Blair might be pining after a certain straight cop, but Jim was out with a woman, and Blair was a normal, red-blooded guy. "Could you change your flight?"
"I think that can be arranged." The pleasure in Jean Paul's voice made Blair grin.
"But I'm afraid I must fly out tomorrow night at the latest."
"Damn." Well, he'd just have to make those arrangements to fly down to Vinedos de las Uvas de Oro as soon as he could. "Listen, why don't I book you a room at the Cascade Marriott?"
"In a hotel? You don't want me to stay with you?"
"I live above a bar, Jean Paul. Noisy isn't the word for it, especially on a Saturday night."
"The Marriott has a decent restaurant, and I'll join you for dinner tonight."
"And perhaps you'll stay and have breakfast with me as well?"
"I like that idea! I'll pick you up at the airport in about twenty minutes."
"I look forward to it, mon ami."
Blair hung up, then dialed the Marriott and made the reservations. It was a nice room, the desk clerk assured him, and yes, the restaurant remained open until 11. Plus room service was available until the early morning hours.
Blair went into his bedroom whistling softly. See you in September, see you when the summer's through...
He was already wearing something sexy. All he needed were socks and shoes, and he'd be on his way.
Jim was willing to admit he'd panicked, and when Isabel had turned up at Major Crimes to take a deposition and had seemed interested in seeing him again, he'd jumped at the chance to show Blair he had a social life beyond him.
Although as it turned out, he'd had to borrow Rafe's car. Isabel'd taken one look at his truck and refused to set foot in it.
Blair had never done that.
Dinner with her the evening before had been good, and on the spur of the moment he'd invited her to a movie tonight. That hadn't been as good. She'd wanted to see that new Brad Pitt movie, and then had spent most of it hiding her face in his shoulder.
Which he could have tolerated - an opportunity to play the big, strong protector, but she wasn't the only one disturbed by the movie's plot. Most of the girls in the audience, and some of the boys, had gasped and shrieked, and a few had even gagged. As a result, his ears hurt and he was starting to get a headache.
"Let's get a nightcap," she suggested as they left the theater.
"I know a nice place." He opened the car door and waited for her to get in and buckle up before he went around to the driver's side. This date had been a mistake, and seeing Blair would make up for it. The drive was only about ten minutes. They'd have a drink, he could talk to Blair, maybe set up something for later in the week, and then he could go home.
He pulled into the parking lot across the street from the bar.
"This is it? The Happy Hippie?" She didn't seem impressed. "It sounds kind of new age."
"No, it's a college bar."
"Aren't you a little... mature... for a place like this?"
"The owner is a friend of mine. I think you'll like him; like it."
"If you say so, Jim." Now she sounded bored.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Well, too late now to change his mind. He opened the door and ushered her in.
Blair wasn't behind the bar. The guy Bart was.
"Hi, Bart. Is Blair- "
"Jim! Nice to see you. Blair's away."
"Oh. I know he had a date last night, but I was sure he'd be working tonight."
"Usually, yeah, but he's dropping a friend off at the airport."
"Is he coming back to the bar, or is he taking the rest of the night off?"
"I'd like a Cosmopolitan," Isabel said pointedly.
"Sure thing, Miss. Jim, you want your usual?"
"Okay, one Cosmo and one vodka and tonic coming right up."
"The bartender knows what you want?" She frowned. "Just how often do you come here?"
"I told you, the bartender is a friend of mine."
Bart put the Cosmo on a coaster in front of Isabel. She brought the glass to her lips, then grimaced and returned it to its coaster.
"Ugh. I've had better on City Island, and that was awful!"
Jim scowled at her, then turned back to Bart. "Do you know when Blair will be back?"
"He should be back soon, if you want to wait. He said he was going to stay until Jean Paul's flight took off."
Jean Paul? Blair never mentioned anyone by – Wait a second! Wasn't that guy from the airport last spring named Jean Paul?
Bart checked his watch. "And that should have been about twenty minutes ago."
"Do we have to wait, Jim? I have to catch a flight myself, and I'd like to make an early night of it."
"All right." Jim paid for the drinks - he'd barely had a chance to take a sip of his - and nodded to Bart. "Tell Blair I said- "
"Jim! Hi! I didn't expect to see you here tonight."
"Blair! I was afraid I'd missed you."
"Looks like you nearly did." Blair looked from Jim to Isabel, smiled, and held out his hand. "I'm Blair Sandburg. You must be Jim's friend."
"Isabel Kane." The handshake she gave Blair was limp. Jim didn't have to be on the receiving end to tell that.
"Uh... " He moved Blair's collar aside. "Hickey, Chief?"
"No thanks." His grin nearly split his face. "I have one. Actually, I have a whole bunch of them."
Jim didn't know what to say to that. Fortunately, Isabel stepped in.
"Well, it was nice meeting you, Blair, but I do need to make an early night of it."
"It was nice meeting you too. Will we be seeing more of you?"
She looked from Blair to Jim, then shook her head. "I don't think so. Long distance relationships don't work out too well. Goodnight."
"I'll give you a call later in the week. There's a new bowling alley down on Fifth and Columbia."
"I'll be here."
Would he? He'd had that date last night, and now he'd turned up covered in love bites.
"Jim." Isabel was sounding impatient.
"Yeah, I'm coming." Why had he ever thought it was a good idea to go out with her instead of Blair?
"He's a nice guy, Blair."
Jim had just closed the door behind him. How was he able to hear Bart's words?
Wondering about that didn't stop him from straining to hear how Blair would respond.
"Yeah, he is."
Well, geez. A little more enthusiasm there, Chief?
Oh, no! Was he hearing things again? Resolutely he pushed that from his mind and went to open the car door for Isabel.
"You don't need to see me in, Jim. It's been an interesting weekend. Maybe we can do it again the next time I'm in Cascade." She got out of the car before Jim could say anything, but even with the door closed, he still heard her mutter, "But don't hold your breath. That's going to be a cold day in hell!"
Oh, god, was he losing his mind?
He put the car in gear and drove back to his condo.
What a shitty weekend. He hadn't even had sex.
Although he was certain Blair had. Jim could smell another man's scent all over him. And there was that love bite just over his jugular - he hadn't been shy about admitting there were more of them.
Jim had seen at least one other when he'd moved Blair's collar.
He stood in the hallway outside his condo, his key in his hand, and lost himself in the memory of the feel of Blair's skin beneath his fingers. It had been rough with a hint of stubble, and Blair had shivered when he'd touched it.
Jim let himself into the darkened condo. He made sure the door was locked behind him, then tossed his jacket aside. Even though there were no lights on, he had no trouble making his way to the bathroom. He stripped down his trousers and briefs, spit in his hand, and began jerking off.
And when he came, he moaned Blair's name.
Naomi was thrilled, and she was willing to tend the bar on those weekends she was in Cascade. And on those weekends she was also at Vinedos de las Uvas de Oro, Bart was happy to work the extra hours.
So why didn't he see this as an ideal situation?
Because as much fun as Jean Paul was, he wasn't Jim.
But that wasn't Jean Paul's fault, and Blair wasn't going to do anything to let him find out.
"Yes, yes, yes!" Jean Paul chanted as he thrust backward in time to meet Blair's movements. "Now, Blair! Now!"
He began filling Blair's hand with thick ropes of come.
Blair cried out and began to orgasm. It felt like he was coming for ages.
"Mmm." He spread kisses across Jean Paul's upper back.
"Blair, get off me, please." Jean Paul's arms were trembling.
Only then did he realize he was letting Jean Paul carry most of his weight. "Sorry." He eased over onto his side, taking Jean Paul with him. His cock softened and slid out, but remained tucked in the crack of Jean Paul's ass.
"Blair?" Jean Paul sounded hesitant.
"Who's- Who's Jim?"
"You called his name just now."
"Ah, fuck it. I'm sorry."
"No, it's all right. I'd just like to know if - Am I just one of the group?"
"Is he part of your history, or part of your harem?"
"You're the only harem I've got." Blair nuzzled a kiss to Jean Paul's neck.
"Truly? I just wondered because this isn't the first time you've done this."
"Well, damn. Why didn't you say anything before?"
"I didn't want to- If this Jim meant anything to you, I didn't want you to have to choose between us."
"There's no need to make a choice, Jean Paul. Jim is just a friend."
"But one you fantasize about."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing." He turned over in Blair's arms and pressed a warm kiss to his lips.
Before Blair could think of how to reply to that, the soft, snuffling sound Jean Paul made indicated he was asleep.
And it might have made Blair a chicken shit, but he found he was relieved.
"Strike!" Blair raised his arms over his head and did a little victory dance that also consisted of his hips rocking back and forth and side to side.
"Nice, Chief." Jim made sure his eyes were on Blair's face. He grinned at him, then relaxed back in his seat.
"Aren't you going to total up the score?"
"No need. You bowled a perfect game. Let's turn in our balls and shoes and grab a burger."
"Sounds good to me." Blair picked up the card and stuffed it in his pocket.
"Going to frame that?"
"Maybe." He glanced at him from the corner of his eye.
"I was just wondering if you were still seeing Ms. Kane."
"Who? Oh, Isabel. No, she lives in Boston. That makes dating difficult."
"Yeah, I guess so."
"So how about you, Chief? Are you still seeing Jean Paul?"
"How'd you know about Jean Paul?"
"Bart mentioned you were seeing his flight off the night you met Isabel."
"Oh, right. Yeah, we're still together." He gave Jim another side-long glance. "He's a nice guy."
"Yeah? I mean, yeah. I don't see you dating anyone who isn't nice." Why'd he even bring up the subject? "So, what's the plan for Thanksgiving?
"I keep the bar open for the kids who can't go home for the holiday. I don't serve alcohol - I hope you weren't getting your shorts in a twist over that, Jim."
"No." He smiled. He'd been about to do some yelling, but Blair had cut him off at the pass. "You're a good guy."
"Thanks. It was actually Naomi's idea, back when she first opened The Happy Hippie. She knew I wouldn't be able to come home, and she hoped someone would make sure I wasn't miserable and alone."
"She's a good mother."
Blair raised an eyebrow. "Why do you say that like you're surprised?"
"No reason." He had no intention of informing Blair she'd told him her son was dating someone, thereby pretty much breaking his heart.
Wait, what? No, his heart hadn't been broken. He'd just missed having Blair as his friend.
"Is she going to be there too?"
"No, she's spending it with Jean Claude Prideux."
"Isn't he a vintner?" He turned in the shoes and retrieved his own, holding his breath the entire time. If they were going to go bowling on a regular basis, he'd have to buy his own bowling shoes. The smell of the rented ones almost had him retching.
"Yes! You're aware of his label?"
"I'm not a total Philistine, Chief."
"Sorry. It's just his label isn't very well known here in Cascade."
Jim just grunted. His father had served a Uvas de Oro Cabernet Sauvignon the last time Jim had dined with him, and he'd had nothing but praise for it. It was a little fruity for Jim's taste, but rather than start an argument, he hadn't said anything.
"Mind if I join you for Thanksgiving?"
"Jim, I'd love it!"
"Yeah? Good." He breathed a sigh of relief. Truthfully he hadn't been certain if Blair would agree to his participation. "What can I bring? Dessert? An appetizer? Veggies?"
"Your fine self will be more than enough." Blair's grin was so broad Jim found himself grinning in response.
"My momma didn't raise me like that."
"In that case, bring whatever you'd like. I promise you there won't be any leftovers! And speaking of leftovers, let's get those hamburgers. I'm starved!"
He opened the door and stepped in. The aroma of delicious food caused him to inhale deeply and smile.
For once his sense of smell didn't overwhelm him.
The Happy Hippie looked really nice, really festive. Food was being served buffet style. A long table was set up in the center of the bar, loaded down with two turkeys, a large spiral ham, four different vegetables, two types of potatoes, stuffing, ambrosia, crab cakes, pasta salad, white, rye, and French bread, plus biscuits. And gravy. Lots and lots of gravy.
Heavy inroads had already been made on the food.
Blair was behind the bar, filling glasses with soda.
"Jim! Hi! Wow, that's a lot of pies!"
"Hi, Chief. Where do you want me to put them?"
"The bar is set up for dessert. Put them here."
"What can I do to help?"
"You don't have to- Thanks, man. Hang up your jacket. This tray goes to the booths down at the end."
The Happy Hippie wasn't large, but it was packed. Jim served the kids, put the used glasses on the tray, then returned to get another round. He passed Bart, who also carried a tray.
"Good to see you, Jim." Bart grinned and nodded.
"Same here. I'll bet Blair does all right today."
"How do you mean?"
"Places that stay open on Thanksgiving usually make out like bandits."
"Oh! No, Blair doesn't charge. He remembers what it was like when he was in college."
"What a great guy!"
"You've got that right. Look, I just need to serve these sodas. Why don't you get yourself a plate and join Blair?"
"What about you?"
"I've already got mine." He winked and went to serve the other booths, then returned the tray and took a stool at the bar.
Jim went to sit beside Blair.
"Thanks, Jim. Here's your tonic with a twist, and I fixed a plate for you. I don't think you'll find anything too spicy."
Jim didn't know what to say. He remembered how great it had been when Carolyn had cared about what he'd eaten. He also remembered how awful it had been when she stopped caring.
"Something wrong, Jim?"
"No. Who made all this?"
"I did. So did Bart. Naomi did too before she had to leave."
He took a forkful of white meat. It was tender and touched with a hint of garlic and rosemary. "Mmm!" he mumbled around it.
"What do you think of her stuffing?"
He took a cautious taste. "Hey, it's good!"
"Don't sound so surprised. You like how I cook, and I learned everything from her."
"And so you should be." The door opened, and Blair turned his head. "Sorry, we're- " He caught his breath. "Jean Paul!"
Jim scowled, then wiped the expression from his face. Had Blair seen? No, it looked like he was too busy kissing this guy.
"What are you doing here? I thought you were spending the day with your dad."
"He and Naomi were so busy billing and cooing I felt like a fifth wheel, so I decided to see if I'd be more welcome here."
"You know you are!" Blair grabbed his hand and drew him toward Jim. "Jean Paul, this is my friend, Jim."
Now, why did Blair drive his elbow into his boyfriend's side?
"Not now, Jean Paul. Jim, this is Jean Paul."
"It's nice to meet you." Jim wanted to crush this guy's hand, but he didn't.
Blair gave him another shove. "Get a plate and help yourself, babe. I'll get you a drink."
Blair didn't talk much, beyond mentioning his fascination with Sir Richard Burton - the explorer, not the actor, he'd explained with a grin - when he was an undergrad. That was the first time Jim realized there was more to Blair than just a cute bartender.
Blair had laughed over some of Jean Paul's stories, which made sense, since Jean Paul was his boyfriend, but it looked as if he was really engrossed when Jim spoke.
Which surprised him, since the time or two he'd felt compelled to talk about those months, Carolyn had never wanted to hear about them.
Or was he only seeing what he wanted to see?
He suddenly noticed Jean Paul was rubbing Blair's back and giving him sultry looks. Shit. Did he have to make their relationship so obvious?
Well, nothing like being the odd man out. Jim made a production of glancing at his watch.
"It's getting late. I'd better be going, Chief." Most of the dishes were disposable, so he didn't feel guilty about not volunteering to stay and help clean up. If Jean Paul wanted to suck up to Blair, that was his prerogative.
"But Jim, you only had one slice of pie!"
"But I stuffed myself on everything else. It's going to take forever for me to work this off." Jim patted his stomach, firmly assuring himself he was not drawing attention to how flat it was.
"Are you sure you have to go?"
"I'm sure, Chief. Besides, Jean Paul is going to resent me for monopolizing so much of your time."
"Not at all, Jim," Jean Paul said politely, but Jim could tell he was lying.
He retrieved his jacket. "Thanks for a great day, Blair." He hugged him, then turned to Blair's boyfriend. "It really was nice to meet you, Jean Paul. Will you be in Cascade long?"
"As much as I'd like to, I'm afraid not. There's always work at the vineyard."
"Well, take it easy. I hope I'll see you again."
"I said, me too." Jean Paul smiled. "Excuse me, Blair. I want to visit the men's room."
Jim watched as Jean Paul walked away, his trousers emphasizing his bubble butt. He noticed a few of the young men following him with hungry eyes, but oddly enough, none of the girls seemed interested.
He turned back to Blair. "I'll call you next week, all right, Chief?"
"You bet. Drive carefully, Jim."
"Always do. So long, Bart. 'Night, everyone."
"G'night, Detective! Happy Thanksgiving!"
Yeah, really happy. He got out of the bar, closing the door behind him. It had been a good day. Why was he in such a pissy mood?
"He's a nice man, Blair."
Jim came to a dead stop. He didn't care that he was eavesdropping on a private conversation, dismissed that he was listening to a conversation he shouldn't have been able to hear. He listened anyway.
"Yeah, he is, isn't he?" There was a smile in Blair's voice, and suddenly Jim wasn't so pissed.
"I can see why you- " Bart must have leaned forward to murmur something into Blair's ear, because try as he might, Jim couldn't make it out. But whatever he'd said caused Blair to start choking.
He was about to go back to make sure Blair was okay when the door opened and two couples came out. "Oh, hi, Detective Ellison. It was a great Thanksgiving, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was."
One of the girls looked sad. "I wouldn't have had a holiday at all if it wasn't for Blair and Ms. Sandburg."
"My parents found out about Trish," she put her arm around the other girl and hugged her, "and they told me not to bother coming home."
The light went on. "Oh, you're... " They nodded, and he turned to the two young men.
"Yeah, us too. When our parents found out- It's a good thing we have full scholarships, or else we'd be up shit creek. Didn't you know? Everyone in there tonight is gay."
"No, I didn't know." He could see the kids were getting nervous. "And it doesn't matter a hill of beans to me."
"I wish it was like that with everyone. Well, good night."
"Hold on a second!" Jim fumbled in his pocket.
The four of them cringed.
"No, it's okay." Jesus, what did they think he was going to do? "Here's my card. It's got my work number on it, and- " He took out a pen and scribbled on the back. "This is my home number. If you have any problems, give me a call."
"Really? Thank you!"
"You're welcome. Now make sure you drive carefully."
Jim walked to his truck, feeling every one of his thirty-five years. Those poor kids.
And Blair had seen to it that they had a good Thanksgiving. He really was one of the good guys.
"We're pretty empty." Bart followed Blair's gaze. There was one couple on the dance floor, while another stood at opposite sides of the pool table.
The table that had been set out at Thanksgiving was in place again now, weighted down with platters of cold cuts and baskets of rolls and sliced bread. It wouldn't go to waste; he'd refrigerate whatever was left over, and they could have sandwiches for the rest of the week
"Well, the kids probably have better things to do tonight than hang out in the local bar." To be on the safe side, he had a dozen bottles of champagne chilling, but he really didn't anticipate having to open them all.
"Y'know, you call them kids, but you're not much older than them."
"I'll be twenty-six in May, Bart. And they're- "
"At least twenty-one if they want to drink here."
"They still seem so much younger."
"I know. You've been all over the world, and I suppose compared to that their lives must come across as sheltered."
"Yeah." He found that with the passage of time it hurt less to realize he'd never have the career of his dreams; dreams could change.
Thankfully, Bart let the subject drop. "Do you think it was worth spending all that money on this?"
"It wasn't that much. And you know it was Naomi's idea."
"But you did all the decorating."
"Well... " She'd been looking forward to it, but then Jean Claude had persuaded her to welcome in the new year at Vinedos de las Uvas de Oro, and so that was where she was now. "Besides, if I've got to spend New Year's Eve here, I want to look at something pretty."
"I'll take the shift if you have plans."
"No, no plans, Bart." Blair had lost his enthusiasm for the holiday.
When Jim had come by on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts, Blair had casually brought up New Year's Eve. "Want to welcome in the new year with me- us?"
"I'd like to, but my girlfriend wants to go to the Ball."
Jim didn't even have to clarify that. There was only one 'Ball' in Cascade on New Year's Eve, and that was the annual charity event held at the Mayor's mansion. The tickets cost the moon, but even so they sold out early. By the beginning of November, it was almost impossible to get them. He must be really serious about this new woman to be willing to spend that kind of money.
Jim had started seeing Michelle Drennan, an ATF agent who was headquartered down in Seattle, shortly after he broke up with Isabel, the lawyer. He'd brought Michelle to The Happy Hippie once or twice -
Okay, Blair never liked to delude himself: Jim had brought her four times.
"That's okay. You and Michelle can drop in for a glass of champagne earlier- "
"No." Jim looked uncomfortable. "She's working on a case down in the Keys."
"Oh? Bummer. But she's flying in for the long weekend? "
"We broke up, Chief."
"That's too bad." He couldn't say he was sorry. He'd known just by looking at her that Michelle wasn't right for Jim. "So who's the lucky woman?"
"Sonia Price. She's a doctor at Cascade General."
"Mind if I ask how you met?"
Jim pokered up. "Let's just chalk it up to serendipity."
"Have a good time." Blair dropped it like a hot brick. "Look, we're closing late on New Year's Eve, so if you want to stop by after the ball drops, feel free."
"Thanks for the invite, Chief. Uh... here." He handed Blair a rectangular package covered in Chanukah paper. "I didn't know which day to give it to you, so... "
"Any day would have been fine. Thank you." He gave Jim a box covered in Christmas paper.
Jim tore off the paper and opened it. "A pair of Jags tickets!"
"I know how much you like basketball. And I thought you could take someone with you." He'd actually hoped Jim would invite him to go along.
"Thank you! Now come on, open yours!"
Blair was more careful with the paper. He was going to save it, just as he'd saved the ticket stubs from the first movie they'd gone to see together and the card when they'd both bowled perfect games. Jesus, he was such a girl.
His eyes widened when he saw what was in the box. "Jim! This is a first edition by Sir Richard Burton!" He ran reverential fingers over it. "The Sentinels of Paraguay!"
"You mentioned you'd been interested in Sir Richard Burton, and when I saw this- I take it you like it?"
"You bet your ass I do! This is awesome stuff! He speculates about certain members of the tribe - sentinels, he called them - having enhanced senses, and using those senses to protect the tribe against enemies, help them find game, things like that."
Jim had a dazed look in his eyes, and Blair chuckled ruefully.
"And I'm rambling. How did you find it? I've been looking for a copy of this forever!" Blair jogged around the bar and hugged him. He'd kept a rein on his desire to touch Jim in spite of the way Jim would casually put a hand on his arm or rub his back or shoulders. This was a safe enough excuse. "Thanks, Jim!"
His smile was pleased. "You're welcome!"
They stood there for a minute, staring into each other's eyes, but then there was a demand for the television to be turned on so the patrons could watch the local TV station's Christmas movie marathon. It started with A Christmas Story and ended the next day at noon with Alastair Sim's version of A Christmas Carol.
"I love these marathons." For a second he considered inviting Jim up to watch the rest of it with him. What the hell. Nothing ventured, and all that. "Jim, you know I'm closing the bar just before midnight tonight." He'd open it again the evening after Christmas. "Why don't you stay and watch the rest of it with me?"
"Thanks, Chief, but I'm sure you don't want to hang around the bar with a cop on Christmas Eve."
"It would be Christmas Day by that point. And I thought we could watch it upstairs. Naomi gave me a TV for Chanukah. It's got a 54 inch screen and PiP!"
"Picture in Picture. We could break it in."
"Fifty-four inches, huh?" Jim slanted him a grin.
"I didn't know you were a size queen, Ellison."
Jim started choking on his drink, and Blair took the opportunity to pound his back, although it was really more a stroke than a thump.
"Behave, Sandburg," Jim said when he caught his breath, "or I'll tell your mother on you!"
"Tell her what?" God, he loved flirting!
"That you're putting the moves on a poor, defenseless straight boy."
That brought Blair up short. Yes, they were flirting, and yes, it was fun, but as Jim had pointed out, deliberately or not, he was straight, and if Blair didn't watch his step, he was not only going to get his heart broken, he was going to lose a good friend in the bargain.
"Chief?" Jim looked concerned. "What's wrong?"
"Your threat to tell Naomi has made me see the error of my ways." He stuck his nose in the air and strove for a light touch. "Consider the invitation rescinded."
There was a concerted groan, and they turned to see the patrons staring at the screen, where one of the boys was being dared to touch his tongue to the metal flagpole. He'd do it and get stuck.
"They may think they're sophisticated college men and women, but they're really kids at heart." Jim's grin was wry. "Including you, Chief." He turned his drink round and round on its coaster. "Seriously, thanks for asking me, but I'd better decline. I have to work tomorrow- "
"On Christmas?!" Even though he was Jewish, Blair always made sure to shut the bar down on Christmas Day.
"The others all have family or friends they'll spend the day with. I don't mind. And besides, I took off Thanksgiving."
Blair's heart gave a leap. Jim had been at The Happy Hippie. Had he deliberately taken the day off to spend it with Blair?
No, of course not. Don't be a dope, Sandburg! Don't let your mind go there!
"Can you stay a while?"
"I'd like to, Chief, but I'd better be heading home." Jim's grim was lopsided.
"You're gonna miss out on Ralphie getting his Red Ryder BB Gun."
"My loss. Good night, Blair. And- and if I don't see you, have a happy New Year." He put a twenty on the bar.
"Hold on. I'll give you your change."
"Keep it." He walked out.
"I wish you'd called earlier, Blair. Dad has this big party and invites all the local vintners. I have to be here."
"Why don't you come down here? We can spend New Year's Eve together."
"I've got the bar to keep open."
"But Bart could do that for you."
"It's not his bar. He shouldn't have to work on New Year's Eve."
"And neither should you. Naomi has already told us it's one of the slowest nights of the year."
Naomi said too damn much, he thought with uncharacteristic resentment. She wasn't here to run the bar.
And then he was ashamed. She deserved whatever time off she wanted to take. If she hadn't offered him this position at the lowest time in his life, how would he have coped with the loss of everything that mattered to him - his career, his reputation, his lover?
"Well, it's too late this year. But how about Valentine's Day?" After all, Jim would probably be wining and dining his doctor. Blair might as well enjoy himself too.
"Oh, yes, I'd love it!"
"And I'll wear the gift you gave me for Chanukah." A bright red thong and a matching tank top.
"Oh, lala! It's a date!"
"Okay, then. I'll see you soon, Jean Paul. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Blair."
"Thanks, boss. Anything I can do for you before I go?"
"No, I'm good."
"Well, then, I'll see you next year."
"Yeah. Have a safe one." He watched as Bart gave a final wave and left.
The number of people in The Happy Hippie had quadrupled, to Blair's surprise. Still not a mob, but enough so the bar would show a modest profit.
Customers had drifted in and out all night. Most of the food was gone, as well as half the bottles of champagne.
He drew a beer, then left it on the bar while he made himself a sandwich of roast beef on rye.
"You making any resolutions this year, Blair?" one of his regulars asked.
"Every year," he teased. But this year most especially. Jean Paul was a good man, and he was his boyfriend. Jim Ellison was a straight cop and was not. Blair was going to stop dreaming about him. "Last call, everyone!"
And then the door opened and Jim walked in.
So Blair had flirted with him a little. So what? Jim was a big boy. He could have pretended not to pick up on the mild innuendo, but had he? Nooo. And then to make matters worse, he'd had to go and leave a twenty on the bar, like Blair was some kind of hooker.
He did have to work Christmas Day; he hadn't lied about that. But he'd managed to alienate everyone who had to work along with him. By the end of the day, no one was talking to him.
Even Sonia, who didn't know him well, had remarked on his attitude. He'd brushed it off as a case he was having problems with.
She was a nice woman, and why she had ever agreed to have a drink with him he couldn't figure out, but he was going to treat her better. She deserved it.
He hated wearing a tuxedo, which was why, once he'd left his father's house, he'd sworn never to have another in his closet. When he and Carolyn had gotten married, he'd worn a black suit.
But it was a requirement for the New Year's Eve Ball. Major Crimes had taken a table, and attendance was mandatory, so he'd gone out and rented a tux.
What the fuck had they used to clean it? The trousers felt like sandpaper against his legs, and as for the shirt that was part of the rental - He tugged again on its collar. His neck was itchy, and it felt like it was strangling him.
Sonia looked gorgeous. Her gown was a midnight blue confection that left her shoulders bare, emphasizing her elegant collarbones. Diamonds and sapphires showcased her slender throat and hung from her dainty ears. And the perfume she wore was light and pleasant, unlike the cloying musk Michelle had favored.
Still, the noise and the clashing scents were giving him a headache. He'd hoped that for a change his senses would behave.
The band swung into another tune. "Oh, Jim! A samba! Let's dance!"
"Certainly." He led her to the floor and took her in his arms, his palm against her bare back.
They danced well together. She was a tall woman, and in heels they were of an equal height. Was that why he didn't find himself aroused by her?
He hoped he wasn't that shallow, but the fact remained that his cock was decidedly uninterested. He sighed.
"Are you all right, Jim? I imagine seeing your ex-wife here wasn't a pleasant surprise."
"I should have realized that the entire Cascade P.D. would have tables. Even the medical examiners are here."
"Yes, I saw Dr. Wolf. The woman he's with is quite attractive, isn't she?"
"Yes." He recalled how Carolyn had reacted to Aurora. Would Sonia be that generous if she knew what Dan's girlfriend did for a living?
"Jim? You've gone off somewhere." Her palm on his cheek brought him back to the present. "Would you rather leave?"
"You're an angel to be so considerate."
"Not at all. It's part of my nefarious plan. I have a bottle of champagne chilling in my condo. We'll go there, have a few more glasses to continue our celebration, and then I'll have my wicked way with you."
The dance ended before he had to respond to that, and he escorted her back to their table.
"You two looked good out there," Dan Black Wolf said. He and Aurora must have been table hopping.
"Yeah, definitely looking good, Ellison," Rafe chimed in, doing a wink-wink-nudge-nudge thing. "Don't let this one get away."
Just what he needed. Another yenta.
In spite of himself he grinned. Blair was rubbing off on him.
A buzzing sound brought the pain behind his eyes back with a vengeance. "What is that sound?"
Sonia gave him a mildly startled look. "You could hear that over all this noise? It's my beeper. I told you I was on call, didn't I?" She took it from her purse and studied the readout. "Well, at least this patient waited until after the ball dropped. I'm sorry, Jim. I'll have to leave."
"I understand. I'll drive you home so you can change." He was relieved. He had a valid reason for leaving himself.
"There's no need to go all that way. Just drop me off at the hospital. I keep a spare set of scrubs there." She smiled at the others who sat at their table. "Happy New Year, everyone."
"Happy New Year!"
"Thanks for the lift, Jim. I'll call you, all right?" she called as they dragged her away.
"Sure." But she was too far away to hear him.
One of the doctors paused at the door, turned, and scowled at him. "Peasant!" he spat. "She's too good for you!"
Jim was taken aback by the animosity in those words. Well, fuck him and the horse he rode in on! Sonia was a grown woman, she could date whomever she chose, and she'd chosen him.
And as to how he could hear from that distance, he refused to wonder about it. Maybe a rush of hot air from the hospital had carried the words to him
He tugged at his bowtie, loosening it, and then undid the top two buttons of his shirt and rubbed his neck. He had two choices. He could go back to the Mayor's mansion and party on with the rest of the gang, or he could call it a night and go home.
A third choice occurred to him, and a slow grin curled the corner of his mouth.
Yeah. He could go to The Happy Hippie.
"Jim! I didn't think- Man, it's good to see you! Happy New Year!" Blair didn't hug him, although he was bouncing on his toes.
And that was okay. Blair had his boyfriend, Jim had Sonia. It was okay.
"Happy New Year- "
"Jim, what's this?" Blair moved aside Jim's collar and touched his throat.
"Your neck. It looks like hives."
"This damned shirt. I don't know what they used to clean it."
"I've got some cortisone cream around here somewhere."
"That's okay, you don't have to- "
"Jim, you have no idea how uncomfortable that looks." He rummaged around behind the bar. "Listen, make yourself a sandwich while I- Ah, here it is!" He held up the tube triumphantly.
"I appreciate this, Chief." Jim held still while Blair smeared the cream on his neck. "Oh, god, that's so much better!" The abrupt absence of the irritation was only part of what made him sigh.
"Does this happen often, Jim?"
"No, I haven't worn a tux in ages."
"I mean your reaction to the dry cleaning chemicals."
"As I said, I don't usually wear tuxedoes. All I know is that this one is driving me crazy. The trousers feel like sandpaper!"
"Not good. I've got a pair of sweats upstairs that might fit you."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "Your boyfriend's?" Jean Paul was a little shorter than Jim, and probably not as muscled
"No. Um... actually, they were going to be for your birthday." Blair blushed scarlet. Oddly, Jim could feel the heat of it from where he stood.
Well, he was only a couple of feet from Blair.
"Thanks, Chief. If you've got a sweatshirt too, I'll take you up on that."
"And I totally missed the last quarter. Sloman and Wallace were all over the court, scoring big time, and I had to read about it in the newspapers."
"That's too bad."
"Tell me about it. I should have brought you."
"Live and learn, buddy."
"Yeah. That's why I'm giving you these tickets."
"Happy birthday." Jim loved the befuddled look on Blair's face.
"But my birthday isn't for another month."
"The playoffs start next week. Consider it an early present."
"Yeah? Like your sweats?"
"Like my sweats. And I'd still like to know how you knew my exact size."
Blair smiled and tapped the side of his nose. He was so adorable when he tried to look mysterious.
"Well, just don't tell me it's a gay thing." And so what if Jim thought another guy looked adorable. It was a free country. He could do that.
Especially considering Blair's reaction.
He gasped and snorted beer out of his nose. "That's so not cool, man! Next time wait until I swallow!"
Jim had a sudden image of Blair on his knees, his lips around Jim's cock, and he was abruptly so hard he could hammer nails with it. Nothing Sonia had ever said had gotten to him like that. He opened his mouth to ask if Blair always swallowed, then thought better of it. Blair liked him, and he didn't want to jeopardize their friendship.
"So, do you want to grab a bite before the game or after?"
Jean Paul's birthday had come and gone, and Blair hadn't even sent him a freaking card!
Okay, what could he get him? It would have to be something awesome, and he imagined some groveling would be involved as well.
Flowers. Yeah, and a box of candy. A big box of candy!
And maybe he'd fly down and give them to Jean Paul in person.
"Detective! I wasn't expecting to see you today."
"Why not?" Was he becoming predictable?
"I thought you'd be over at Rainier. Blair's team is playing today."
"The Happy Hippie sponsors a gay softball team. They're playing The Panthers."
"I'd heard something about that at the precinct." He didn't say the cops on the team had a heavy betting pool going on. They felt they were a sure thing against the gay team they'd be playing. "I didn't realize Blair played."
"He's a mean shortstop."
"He didn't say anything about a game today. I think I'll go over and watch. Rainier, you said?"
He made his way to join them.
"Hey, Ellison! It's good to see you here!"
"Carpenter." Jim didn't particularly like the Vice cop, but it was a beautiful summer afternoon, he had the weekend off for a change, and he was going to get to see Blair in tight, white pants.
Correction - the pants were purple. But no matter what the color, they looked damn good on him, hugging his thighs and his ass.
"How are we doing?" he asked his friends, but Carpenter was the one who answered.
"Who'd have thought a bunch of- " Jim stared at him, and he quickly changed what he was going to say. "They're better than we expected! I mean, for piss sake, their uniforms are purple!"
"Fuscia." The batting lineup was just below them, and the Timberwolves were on the bench. One of the women glared up at him. "If you're going to mock our uniforms, at least get the color right!"
"That's enough, Carpenter," Simon snarled. "We're here to make a good impression, show we can all get along."
"Jim, what are you doing here?" Rafe and Megan were sitting side by side sharing a bag of popcorn. To everyone's surprise, that relationship was still going strong. "I thought you had that deposition downtown."
He shrugged. "We got done sooner than the D.A. expected. What inning is this?"
"Bottom of the ninth, and there are two outs. I can't believe they're only three runs behind us." Carpenter didn't mention the bases were loaded.
"Yeah, those gay boys and girls usually wipe up the field with our straight brethren." Joel and H grinned and high-fived each other.
"It's just not right. I mean, they don't run the bases, they skip them! And look at that shortstop! He looks like a girl with that long hair."
"Shut your mouth, Carpenter. That shortstop is a good friend of mine."
Blair was just stepping up to the plate. He looked around, and Jim knew exactly when he spotted him. A big grin split Blair's face, and he pointed to the centerfield.
"Oh, god!" Jim grinned back and shook his head. "He's pulling a Babe Ruth!"
He watched as Blair took a couple of practice swings, rolled his shoulders to loosen them, and then took up his stance.
The first ball was high and inside, just missing Blair's head. Carpenter hooted, and Jim glared at him.
The second ball was a foul tip into the stands.
The third was a strike, and the cops on the Panthers' side of the field went wild.
"He's drawing this out," the woman down below remarked. "Normally he'd never swing at such a miserable pitch. We may as well go on to The Happy Hippie for celebration drinks. He's gonna belt this one out of the park."
"You wish, girlie!" Carpenter just couldn't seem to leave well enough alone.
She didn't bother glancing over her shoulder; she simply flipped him off.
Jim leaned forward. He could see the signals the pitcher and the catcher exchanged, and he found himself chewing his nails. It would be so easy for Blair to get hurt.
The pitcher went into his windup and let the ball fly.
For a long moment time seemed to stand still, and then Blair's bat connected with a loud whack, and he tossed it aside and took off running. The ball sailed past the infield, past centerfield, and was gone.
The three runners on base came in, tying the score, and Blair rounded third and jogged home.
"He might look like a girl, Carpenter, but he's got a mighty powerful swing." Jim gave Blair a thumbs up and started to walk down to the field.
"What are you doing, Ellison?"
"I told you he's my friend. I'm going to join him.
"You'd better watch who you call friend! People are going to think you're a fag too!"
"And why should I let what other people think bother me?"
"Because you just might not get backup when you need it!"
"Are you threatening one of my men, Carpenter?"
Jim had known Simon was coming up behind them, but Carpenter was clueless. The plainclothes cop turned red, and then his lips became a tight, thin line.
"I'm just saying as cop, Ellison shouldn't be spending so much time at The Happy Hippie. You can't be too careful."
"How do you know how much time I spend anywhere? Have you been following me, Carpenter?"
"Of- of course not! Why would I do something like that?"
"That's what I want to know."
"I'm just trying to be a friend."
"I don't number dirty cops among my friends."
"What are you talking about? I.A. didn't find anything on me!"
"And why is that?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I suggest you leave my men alone, Carpenter." Simon stood shoulder to shoulder with Jim.
"And I'd better not hear anything about The Happy Hippie being raided. The Sandburgs run a clean place, and if it gets busted for drugs or underage, I'm gonna lay it at your doorstep and come after you."
"You don't understand! Those gay boys are just waiting for a chance to get at our asses! None of us are safe!"
"Do you really believe that?" Jim shook his head. "I feel sorry for you, Carpenter. I've seen Sandburg's boyfriend, and you have nothing to worry about. Neither do I, so you don't have to be concerned about me either."
"But- but- "
"Y'know, if you're so interested in what gay men do, why don't you rent a video and find out?"
Carpenter's eyes bugged out. "I...I gotta go!"
"You do that. And remember. Leave The Happy Hippie alone." Jim stared after Carpenter's retreating back, then turned to his captain. "Thanks, Simon. I appreciate your support."
"Yeah, well, make sure you watch your back, Jim. I don't trust him. He's the kind who'll sneak up behind you, and you won't always be able to hear him coming. Meanwhile- "
Simon sighed. "Meanwhile I'd better tell Joel and H to cool it. If a straight cop like you can be targeted - everyone at the precinct knows you're dating that seriously hot doctor at Cascade General, for Pete's sake! Unfortunately, there are always assholes like Carpenter who only see what they expect to see. Well, Sandburg seems like a good man, even if his team did beat the pants off ours. Go on and join him. And remember you have the day shift tomorrow."
"And the first round is on me!" Blair sang out. He looked around and smiled when he saw Jim approaching. "Can you join us?"
"I'd enjoy that, but is that going to sit well with your team members?"
"Why wouldn't it?" Blair seemed honestly puzzled.
"Well, I'm a cop, and the opposing team was all cops."
"Not a problem."
"Seriously. They know you're a friend of mine, so they won't hassle you."
For a moment, Jim found himself lost in Blair's warm blue eyes, so different from the icy blue of his own.
He blinked, shook himself out of it, and cleared his throat. "Speaking of hassles, will you let me know if anyone comes to The Happy Hippie and gives you a hard time?"
"You bet. I keep a bat behind the bar, but I'll let Cascade's finest know if anyone tries to hold us up."
"I'm not talking about Cascade's run of the mill scum, Chief."
"Then who?" Blair's brows knit in a sudden frown, and all Jim wanted to do was smooth it away. Blair's frown deepened to a scowl, and Jim grimaced. Fuck it. Had he said something, given himself a way in some manner? But no, Blair was saying, "Oh, shit, you're not talking about the police department itself, are you?"
"I'm afraid I am. I'm sorry. One of the plainclothes cops from Vice objected when you smiled at me."
"But we're friends!"
"I know. He's one of those assholes who think every gay man is lusting after his skinny ass."
"He's not my type."
"I already told him that. Just be careful, okay, Chief?"
"Shit. I'm not proud, Jim. I'll protest good and loud if anyone comes around The Happy Hippie trying to cause trouble."
"Good. I just wanted to warn you. And do me a favor: don't do anything stupid."
"Got it. Do you need a ride?"
"No, my pickup is in the visitors' lot. I'll meet you in about fifteen minutes."
"Cool. See you in a bit."
Maybe they'd better put their friendship on hold.
Jim sat with Blair at the end of the bar.
"You've got some sauce at the corner of your mouth, Chief."
"Thanks." He wiped it off, wondering what Jim would do if he'd asked him to lick it off. He froze. Oh, shit, he hadn't said those words out loud, had he? "Uh..."
But no, Jim seemed too relaxed. He just raised an eyebrow.
"I think we need to talk, Jim."
"That doesn't sound good. That's what Sonia said to me, the other day."
"You're right. In a case like that, it doesn't sound good. What did she have to say?"
"She's used to working crazy hours, and she thought dating a cop would complement that, but my hours are even crazier than hers, and she thinks we should see other people."
"Ouch. I'm sorry."
Jim shrugged. "That's the way it goes. She's a nice woman, but dating her is a job, and I've already got a job."
"So what are you going to do?"
"I think I'll take a break from dating. So what do we have to talk about, Chief?"
"I think we should take a break too, Jim." The look on Jim's face was injured, and Blair hurried to make his point. "You're the best friend I've got, and I don't want to see you get hurt because of me!"
"You're worried because of Carpenter? I appreciate it, but you don't have to give him a second thought. He's an asshole, and I can take care of myself."
"Are you sure, Jim? It would kill me- "
"Trust me, Sandburg. It will be fine."
Of course, the phone line ran both ways. Blair called him. He got the answering machine and left a message.
He left half a dozen messages before he bought a clue - in spite of what Jim had said, he just wasn't interested in being Blair's friend any more.
And that hurt worse than anything he'd felt before.
"You've got to stop doing that." He was sitting at the small dining room table that also doubled as his desk. Before him were an adding machine, a ledger, and an assortment of invoices. "What if I had a guy up here?"
"But you don't. Jean Paul's at home." She'd left him at the vineyard a few hours earlier, and to say he was distressed was putting it mildly. The last time he'd seen her son was for the Memorial Day barbecue The Happy Hippie sponsored, and that was more than three months ago.
'Please, Naomi. Talk to him!' he'd begged. 'I don't know what I've done wrong!'
She'd tried to tell him he hadn't done anything wrong, but he wasn't listening to her, and so she promised to bring it up with her son.
Blair ducked his head.
"Are you blushing? Could you have had someone else here?"
"Whether I did or not isn't any of your business."
"Jean Paul- "
"It's not his business either." He stood up so abruptly his chair almost toppled over. "I'm sorry."
"Are you all right, sweetie?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
This was the way he'd been when he came home almost six years earlier, brittle and on edge, but she didn't say that. "Bart's downstairs tending bar."
"That is what he does."
"But not five nights out of the week."
Blair shrugged. "I needed a vacation, and he said he needed the hours."
"I could understand it if you were taking a vacation, but you're up here working." She went to him and brushed the hair out of his eyes. "Blair."
"Look, I'm a grown man- "
"And Jean Paul isn't the one."
"No." His shoulders hunched as if he was expecting a blow. "I tried. It's just-"
"I understand. I'm sorry." She took him in her arms and rocked him as she had when he was a little boy.
"Not any sorrier than I am. Jean Paul's a great guy. He's sweet and funny, and dammit, he cares about me! Why can't I love him?"
"For the same reason I can't really love his father."
"Oh, Mama! I didn't even think! This is going to screw things up between you two!"
"It doesn't matter. I've only ever loved one man in my life." She thought of Timmy and that wonderful summer they'd spent together. "It looks like you take after me in that."
"Only loving one man? Well that sucks!"
"Perhaps it seems like we're unlucky in love, but I never regretted falling in love with your father." And she enjoyed the men she'd met since then, safe in the assurance her heart wouldn't be broken by any of them.
"But I'm not in love with anyone!"
"Aren't you?" She sighed. She'd hoped it wouldn't come to this; she'd tried her best to prevent it, but the heart chose whom it chose. "When was the last time you saw Jim Ellison?"
He let her go and stepped back. "About a month ago. He came to one of the games."
"The Timberwolves are doing well this year." One of the other things Naomi had encouraged him to do when he'd first returned from the East Coast was to join a softball team. She hadn't expected him to get into the sport so enthusiastically that he formed his own team.
"I thought the Panthers were going to pi- um- have a coronary when we won."
"The police team is very competitive, isn't it?"
"Yeah. And it makes them crazy that a bunch of gay men and women persistently beat them."
"Have you called him?"
"Don't play the answer a question with a question game with me, Blair Sandburg. I'm talking about Jim Ellison."
"Of course I called him! I'm not a girl to wait until the guy I- " He gave a gasp and swallowed the rest of his words. "He's a good guy. But he's straight! After Derek I swore- And then there's Jean Paul. Mama, what should I do?"
"You'd better call Jean Paul and break it off with him. It's not his fault you can't love him, and it's not fair to keep him hanging on. Just remember, you won't be able to have a romantic relationship with Jim Ellison, and being friends with him can very well lead nowhere. Somewhere down the road, he's going to want marriage and children. Are you willing to take the chance that the woman he marries won't mind him remaining friends with you?"
"If all I can have is his friendship, then I am willing."
"All right." She didn't have to tell him that if it didn't work out that way he would have to accept it and move on. Her son was a realist, and he knew that. "I'd better go." She'd need to find another wine distributor. Jean Claude wasn't going to be happy her son had broken his son's heart, but that was the way it went sometimes. She kissed Blair's cheek. "Oh, and I think maybe I'd better leave this." She put the key on the table.
Okay, maybe he'd be low again in a few minutes, if Jim didn't answer the phone, but if he didn't, Blair knew he'd go on.
The phone rang four times, and his heart was beginning to take up residence in his shoes. Two more rings and it would go to the answering machine.
And then it was answered.
"Ellison." He sounded out of breath.
"Jim! It's- "
"Blair! I was parking my truck when I heard the phone ring. I just got in."
Blair had driven down Prospect a couple of times - not that he was being nosy or anything. He'd just happened to be in the neighborhood. There was a goodly distance between the parking across the street from Jim's building to his condo on the third floor.
"Is this a bad time?" He'd wonder about how Jim could have heard the phone another time. "Do you want me to call back?" Please say it's okay for me to call you back!
"No, wait! Don't hang up!"
Breathing a sigh of relief, Blair admitted, "I wasn't going to. But where have you been? I was afraid I'd offended you."
"Not a chance, Chief. I've been undercover, and- Listen, would you mind if I stopped by for a drink?"
"When? I'll even shut the bar down!"
"No need to go to extremes. Give me about half an hour to shower and get myself together, okay?"
"Works for me, Jim. Listen, Bart's tending bar tonight. Did you want to grab a bite to eat?"
"I could do with some normal food."
"Good. See you in thirty, then."
Blair hung up the phone, then danced across the room. "If you want a do-right-all-day woman, You've got to be a do-right-all-night man... "
Okay, get a grip, Sandburg! Pick out something to wear - nothing too dressy - grab a shower, and get downstairs and look casual!
"Uh.... Jean Paul."
"You sound surprised to hear from me. Did Naomi talk to you?"
For a second Blair couldn't think of anything to say.
"Look, in a few weeks it will be our first anniversary," Jean Paul said in a rush, "and I... I want to know if we even have that to look forward to."
"Excuse me?" He was going to remind his boyfriend that they'd met in the spring, but that would only irritate Jean Paul, because he'd forgotten that as well.
And then he realized Jean Paul was referring to the September date when they officially became a couple.
Jean Paul sighed. "Is it over between us?"
"Do you want it to be over between us?"
"For god's sake, don't be coy with me! I think I deserve better than that from you!"
"You do, and I apologize. It's not you- "
"Don't say it's you and not me. I deserve better than that too!"
"Yes. I didn't mean to come across as glib." Shit. Now he was starting to feel guilty. More guilty.
"Why didn't you at least invite me to one of your softball games?"
"What? Jean Paul, you don't even like softball!"
"But still- "
"I thought this was a busy time of year for you." It was a lame response, and Blair wasn't really surprised when Jean Paul had nothing to say to that. "Would you even want to fly up for a softball game?"
"If you were playing? Yes."
"Yes, I believe you are. But I can't go on like this. I thought I could, but... I need someone who loves me."
"Someone like Valdez?"
"Elfago and I have been friends since we were kids. And besides, he's straight."
"Yeah." Blair had met the guy when he'd flown down to make amends for missing Jean Paul's birthday. He'd also seen the looks Valdez had sent in Jean Paul's direction. The Latino was gone on Blair's boyfriend, but if Jean Paul couldn't see that...
"Blair, you're an excellent lover, but I need someone who's more flexible."
"What do you mean? I'm flexible. Don't I fly down to see you?"
"Now you're deliberately being obtuse. Why won't you let me top on occasion?"
"I thought you preferred bottoming."
"I do, but I'd like a little variety in my love life as well."
"And Valdez is the one to give you that?"
"Dammit, Blair, leave Elf out of this!"
"Fine. But I was up front with you about that, Jean Paul. I don't bottom." He glanced at his wristwatch. "Look, I've got to go- "
"And this appointment you have to keep is more important to you than me? Than us? Then I guess this is the end for us. I'm sorry. I loved you very much, Blair."
"Jean Paul- "
"Please don't call me or come to see me again."
"Jean Paul- "
"Jean Paul- "
But all that was on the other end of the line was the dial tone.
Jim pushed open the door of The Happy Hippie. It was cool and dim, a relief from the humidity that had overtaken Cascade. It seemed the dog days of August had continued on to September.
"Hi Jim!" Bart grinned at him from behind the bar.
"Hello, Bart. Is Blair around?" He was kind of surprised Blair wasn't waiting for him in the bar.
"Here I am, Jim. Sorry I kept you waiting." Blair approached from the corner where the stairs to his apartment were.
"I just got here myself."
"Look, I don't feel like having a drink here. Can we go somewhere else?"
"Taking a busman's holiday? Sure." What was wrong? Blair was usually an easy going kind of guy. He had never seen Blair look so stressed.
Bart didn't seem to notice, but then Blair was his employer, not his friend.
Blair walked out, not bothering to respond.
Jim exchanged glances with Bart, who just shrugged. "See you."
"Yeah. Bye, Bart." Jim hurried after Blair.
"You want to take my car, Jim?"
"I'll drive, if you don't mind." He waited until Blair was beside him in the truck, fastening his seatbelt before asking, "What's going on, Chief?"
"You're not the only one who's single. Unless you've found someone in the past month?"
"No. I was on a stakeout. I'll tell you about it later. Jean Paul broke up with you?"
"Yeah, just now."
"I suppose I should have seen it coming."
"Do we ever? What can I do to make you feel better?"
Blair stared at him for a moment, then looked away, muttering something under his breath.
Jim had no trouble understanding the words: Oh, you don't want to ask me that now!
Did that mean- What did that mean?
Jim reached over and rubbed his shoulder. "Want to get drunk?"
"Y'know, I think I do."
"Okay, then. Let's go."
This was why he generally didn't drink. And why had he this time-
Abruptly he remembered. Jean Paul had broken up with him.
But that didn't make sense. He wasn't broken-hearted that they were no longer a couple. Oh, he should have been more of a gentleman about it and not strung Jean Paul along for so many months, but he knew he didn't love Jean Paul, he was used to him, and....
The john flushed, and he froze.
Who had he dragged home with him? And what must Jim think of him, to be abandoned like that?
He peeled open an eye and squinted at the bedside clock.
Which wasn't there. Had he and his unknown partner been so wild in their fucking that they'd knocked the clock off its night table?
He buried his head under the pillow. Jesus, he hoped he'd had the sense to use a condom!
"C'mon out, Chief. I know you're awake."
"Jim?!?" He peeked out from under the pillow. Yep, it was Jim. "What time is it?"
"A quarter to ten."
"Yes, AM." Jim gave him a look. "Here. I think you can use a couple of aspirin and a cup of coffee."
Blair groaned and managed to get himself upright. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and risked a quick look down. Well, at least he wasn't naked. He reached for the tablets and the white mug that Jim was offering him. He washed down the aspirin with a couple of gulps, hissing as he burned his tongue.
"Sorry, Chief. I should have warned you."
"For coffee that tastes this good, I'll willingly suffer a little pain. What did you do to it?" Blair always chose generic brands of coffee, which were okay but nothing to write home about. This tasted like ambrosia.
Jim smiled at him as if he'd given him the best present in the world. "I know a little Columbian who gets it for me."
"Someone gets it for you?"
"Yeah. Juan grinds beans from Columbia, Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador, and voila."
"Voila?" This wasn't making sense. When did Jim have the time to go home... Wait a second. Blair didn't have any white mugs in his cupboard. And that bathroom flush had sounded odd. And... "Uh... Jim? Where are we?"
"At my place."
Oh, god. He wanted to bury his head in his hands, but if he did, he'd spill coffee all over himself. "What happened last night?"
"You don't remember?"
"You really don't remember?"
It was Blair's turn to give him a look.
"I shouldn't have let you drink so much. If I'd realized... " The corner of Jim's mouth pulled down, his expression decidedly unhappy.
Nausea was never part of a hangover for Blair, but right now he felt sick. What had he done to have his friend looking like that?
"Should I be apologizing?" he asked cautiously.
"No, Chief. You did nothing you need to apologize for. I didn't think you should be alone so I brought you home with me; I didn't want you to pull a Jimi Hendrix."
"Thanks." Blair brought the mug to his mouth and dipped his head down, hoping to hide his blush.
"Don't mention it. That's what friends are for."
"I... uh... I don't remember taking my clothes off."
"I did that after I helped you up here; I thought you'd be more comfortable."
Blair felt his color rise. "Jim, did I do anything inappropriate?"
"You mean like making a pass at me? No." Jim sat down beside him on the bed and ruffled his hair lightly, as if he knew Blair had the headache from hell. "I spent the night downstairs on my loveseat. It's just below the loft, so I'd be able to hear if you started yacking." His expression this time was more amused. "You didn't."
"Well, thank god for small favors. Seriously. Jim, I can't thank you enough. Or apologize enough for being such a schmuck."
"Well, the thanks and the apology are unnecessary. You did me a big favor."
"By inconveniencing you?"
"No." Jim cuffed his head, but again lightly. God, he was such a great guy! Why couldn't he be gay? "By explaining what's been going on with me."
"You really don't remember anything?"
"I wish you'd stop asking me that." Blair scowled. The coffee was helping, but the aspirin hadn't started working yet; his head really hurt too much. "It'll probably all come back to me, but right now, be a sport and fill me in?"
"You got me to talking about what went on during the stakeout. I was on my own. Usually that doesn't bother me, but this time... Something about how my senses were reacting made you think about the book I gave you for Chanukah."
"The Sentinels of Paraguay? What- " Some of the previous night started to come back to him. "Jim, you're a Sentinel!"
"Yeah, it looks like I am. You had me try a few things, describe what kind of earrings a girl at the other end of the bar had on, asked if I could distinguish what she was saying to her girlfriend, and when I could- "
"How did you manage that?"
"I repeated what they were talking about - their tenth college reunion, and then we walked down to where she was. I pretended I recognized her and greeted her by name - her friend had used it. Then I asked if she'd got the invitation to the reunion and if she was going. She said she and her friend were just talking about that, and maybe they'd meet us there."
"Uh... they thought we were together."
"Okay." Some straight guys would pitch a hissy fit over being mistaken for gay, but Jim didn't seem upset, so Blair wasn't going to do any boat-rocking. "And was she wearing the earrings you said she was?"
"Yep. Yin-Yang earrings."
"This is so cool!"
"More than you can imagine! The noise got to be too much for me, and I thought I'd have to leave, but you showed me how to dial it down. No, Chief, you don't have to thank me for anything!"
Although how Blair could not remember Jim blowing him...
He had been sprawled out on the bed, stripped down to his underwear and humming some Lovin' Spoonful song. Jim had been certain Blair was awake, especially when Blair turned his head toward him. 'Jim,' he'd murmured, and curled his fingers through Jim's hair. 'Jim.'
And Jim hadn't been able to help himself. He'd freed Blair's cock, which had been soft, but not for long. As soon as he touched it, it had hardened, and his mouth began watering.
It had been a long time since he'd given a blow job, but he hadn't forgotten how, and Blair tasted so damned good...
He'd been enjoying it too, Jim was positive, but then after he'd come, his moans had faded into snores.
And he didn't fucking remember.
It was probably just as well. The last thing Jim wanted was for Blair to think he'd taken advantage of him while Blair'd been at an emotional low point.
He went into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee.
But did Blair really not remember what had happened last night? Maybe Jim should just come out and tell him: Blair, we sort of had sex last night. And I'd like for us to do it again.
"I thought it was the straight guys who were supposed to claim they were so fucking drunk the night before," he groused to himself.
"You say something, Jim?"
Shit! He'd been so intent on his thoughts that he hadn't heard Blair come down the stairs.
Blair must be right behind him.
He pasted a grin on his face. "Just making a list of what I'll need to make break- " He turned, and his mouth went dry.
Blair stood there, his shirt hanging open over the blue tank top he wore, curly chest hairs visible. His jeans were zipped, but the button was undone, and his feet were bare. He carried socks and sneakers in one hand and the coffee mug in the other.
"Sorry, Jim." He sighed, his brow furrowed, probably from the lingering effects of his hangover. "I'm not at my best this morning. What were you saying?"
Okay, this was the perfect time to tell his friend what had happened. He was sure Blair wouldn't get bent out of shape. Well, he was pretty sure.
He opened his mouth, but what came out was, "I was just thinking that now that we're both unattached, we should hang out together. I mean, I know we've hung out before, but... well, we could kind of bolster each other's morale."
"Yeah? I'd like that. So what did you have in mind for us to do? As friends?"
Jim wasn't sure if he was disappointed or relieved. "The Cascade PBA is sponsoring a street fair for the kids of Brother Marcus' Halfway House in a couple of weeks. I thought we could go."
"I love street fairs!"
"In that case, is it a date?"
"Okay, now that we have that settled, sit down and I'll make you breakfast."
"I'd like that, Jim. Anything I can do to help?"
"No, I've got this one, Chief."
Blair smiled up at him, and for a moment Jim was lost in the blue of his eyes.
And then he smiled back at Blair, turned to the panty, and got out the Aunt Jemima.
In spite of how he wound up here, tending the bar, he was happy. And knowing he had a friend in Jim Ellison made him even happier. Yes, it did.
So getting drunk hadn't been such a bad idea. His headache was easing off, and he'd gotten to see Jim's place.
It was a nice place, and in another lifetime he could see himself sharing it with Jim.
But that wasn't going to happen. What was going to happen was that he and Jim were going to a street fair.
He yawned. Jim's breakfast left him nicely full, and he didn't have to open the bar for another six hours.
Catching some z's sounded like a good idea.
And maybe he'd have a cool dream like the one he'd had in Jim's bed.
And it was all because Jim was his friend. It didn't matter that they weren't lovers, didn't have sex - his dreams more than made up for that.
It was odd, because he didn't usually remember his dreams, but the past couple of weeks... He'd had the same dream every night since he and Jim had gotten drunk and he'd spent the night in Jim's bed - sighing in pleasure as Jim imprisoned his wrists with one hand while he stroked the broad palm of the other over Blair's torso, dragging lightly through the hair on his chest, teasing his nipples, going lower and raising goosebumps on the way, and then finally bending over him to swallow him down to the root.
Blair would wake in the morning, the sheets tangled and sweaty.
He knew the smart thing to do would be for him to stop seeing Jim.
He grinned at his reflection. "Fuck the smart thing."
Oddly, he couldn't remember the date he'd met Jean Paul. He knew it was in the early spring, and they'd started dating in September - that Happenings song had kept running through his mind - but beyond that...
Smiling wryly, he looked around his apartment. He'd asked Bart to take over for him tonight and had spent the day cleaning. Now it was neat as the proverbial pin, and the odor of roasting Cornish game hens flavored with garlic and rosemary filled the air. He'd invited Jim to dinner; it would be a great way to celebrate their friendship.
One day, maybe, he'd find the need for a lover overwhelming, but for now, he had his hand and his imagination, and he was content with that.
The phone rang, and he picked it up. "Sandburg."
"It's- " There was an explosive sneeze. "It's Jim."
"Hi, Jim. Bless you."
"You don't sound well."
"I'm not feeling well. That's why I'm calling. I've come down with a bad cold. I'm sorry; I'm not gonna be able to make dinner tonight."
Dammit. "Don't worry about it. We can do it another time. Want me to bring you some chicken soup?" Blair hadn't been to Jim's condo since the night he'd gotten drunk, but he knew where it was.
"Thanks, but the last thing... " Jim sneezed again. Blair yanked the phone away from his ear, just a little too late, and he winced in sympathy. "... you need is being around me."
"Bullshit. That's what friends are for. You said it yourself. I whipped up a batch of Grandma Sandburg's chicken soup the other day, and I'll bring it right over. Can I get you anything else? Ginger Ale? Crackers? Vitamin C?"
"No. I bought some NyQuil. I just thought I'd take that and try to sweat this cold out- "
"That sounds like a plan. But I still think the chicken soup will be good for what ails you. I'll see you in about half an hour. Bye, Jim." Blair hung up before Jim could tell him not to come and hurried to the kitchen.
He turned off the oven and took out the Cornish hens. They were almost done anyway, and they'd be cool enough to refrigerate by the time he got home. The pinot noir would need to come out of the fridge now, though. Otherwise it would be too chilled to drink.
That done, he rubbed his hands together. He was going to Jim's place, and that had dinner beat any day!
He'd made chicken soup a few days ago, when he'd been feeling particularly domestic, and then froze it. He took a couple of containers from the freezer and set them on the table.
Uncle Ben's would go well with it, too. He headed for the pantry and looked for the rice.
Jim sneezed, and for a second he thought his eardrums were going to explode. He breathed a sigh of relief when they didn't. He'd had some NyQuil earlier, but to be on the safe side, he took another dose.
He'd hoped that he could broach their friendship at Blair's place, but maybe here, where he'd first gotten physical with his friend, would be a better idea. Only he'd come down with this damn cold.
Everyone at Major Crimes was keeping their distance, and Simon had frowned at him earlier and told him to go home. "Take some sick time, Jim. God knows you've got plenty racked up!"
Jim looked around the kitchen. For the past few days he hadn't felt well enough to clean up after himself, and the loft showed it. Dishes were piled on every flat surface, and dirty pots sat on the stove. As for his living room, the place was a disaster area with newspapers, magazines, and mail stacked high and beginning to topple over; Blair was going to think he was a slob.
He left the dishes to soak in the sink, stuck the pots into the oven - out of sight, out of mind - then took the dry mop from closet and began running it over the floor.
And then his nose began to run as well. He grabbed up a couple of tissues and blew. This wasn't good. He picked up the bottle of NyQuil and read the label. Okay, according to this, it should be good for a runny nose too.
He filled the cup that sat on top of the cap and knocked it back.
Should he change the sheets? There was really no reason for Blair to go up to the loft, but he might ask for a tour of the condo. He hadn't really gotten a chance to see it the last time he was here.
Plus it was about time they got changed. He nodded. Yeah, he'd put the blue sheets on the bed, the ones that matched his eyes.
A glance at his watch told him he had about ten minutes before Blair showed up.
Jim sneezed again. This wasn't going to work. He poured out another dose of NyQuil, then blew his nose and went up to make sure changing the sheets wasn't all that the loft needed.
And he was dithering. Why was he so nervous? He was just going to help out a friend. And that dream he'd had the night Jim had brought him here - that was just a dream.
He went to the door to the left of Colette's. It opened on a long, spare corridor. There were no plants to give color to the blank space, nothing on the walls, As a matter of fact, the only thing that broke up the monotony was the out-of-order sign on the elevator doors.
Well, it looked like he'd be hoofing it. He found the stairwell and climbed to the third floor.
"How'd you know it was me? No, wait a second! You heard!" For a time after they'd realized Jim was a Sentinel, Blair hadn't been sure he was doing his friend much good. Jim would go off into a daze, but after doing some research on the 'zone out factor,' they pretty much had it under control.
"Yep!" Jim grinned proudly, then sneezed. He didn't quite catch it in time. "Sorry."
"It's okay, Jim." Blair pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the moisture from his jacket and grinned at him. "Bless you."
"So what did you hear? My footsteps? Me huffing and puffing up the stairs?"
"Actually, it was your heartbeat."
Blair felt his eyes widen. "You could tell by my heartbeat? Whoa, that is so amazing!" He took a step forward to hug his friend.
"No! You- " Jim stuck his finger under his nose and pressed so hard Blair found himself wincing. But it apparently stopped a second sneeze. "You really don't want to be here right now, Blair. I'm so sick."
"I can see that." Jim's nose could rival Rudolph's, and his eyes were bloodshot. They also looked as if he was having trouble focusing. "Come on, let's go inside and I'll heat this soup up for you." He held up the bag with his offering.
"Thanks, Chief. Uh... " He blinked. "Are there two of you? What the hell. You're both cute. C'mon in."
Jim thought they- he was cute?
"Are you okay, buddy?"
"'m fine." Jim slung his arm around Blair's shoulders and urged him into the condo. "'m better than fine. In fact, I'm so good... " He began to sway.
"Right. Let's get you to bed."
"We're going to bed? Cool!" Jim planted a noisy, wet kiss on Blair's cheek.
Blair was starting to become concerned. "Jim, no way are you gonna make it up to your bed."
"No bed?" Was Jim actually pouting? Blair smothered a laugh. This was serious.
"No bed. Let's get you to the couch."
"You're gonna join me, right?"
"I think I'd better heat up the soup." Blair went into the kitchen, put the soup down on the counter, and began looking for a pot. He was getting nervous. Jim had always been friendly, hadn't been shy about putting an arm around his shoulders in public, but this was more than friendly. It would have been fine if Jim was his boyfriend, but Jim wasn't his boyfriend. He wasn't any boy's boyfriend.
"But then you'll join me?" Jim looked at him with puppy-dog eyes.
"Jim, are you sure you're okay?"
"Yep. Why do you ask?"
"You're not acting the way you usually do."
"And how do I usually act? Stuffy? Uptight? Like I've been hiding in the closet too long?"
"Don't get all bent out of shape. I just meant- " He saw the bottle of NyQuil. "How much of this did you have?"
"Three- " A frown furrowed Jim's brow, and for a second his eyes looked as if they were going to cross in concentration. "Four of those cap thingies." A huge smile creased his face.
Blair picked up the bottle and studied the label. "Since when?"
"When did you take the first dose?"
"Um... "He peered down at the watch on his wrist, then shied back. "Whoa! That was weird!"
"What was? What's going on, Jim?"
"The numbers looked gigantic." Jim suddenly looked disturbed.
"Dial it down, Jim."
"Right, Chief." He concentrated for a moment.
Relief flooded Jim's features. "Better. Now... uh... what were you asking?"
"When did you take the first dose?"
"Uh... Simon sent me home just before lunch. I stopped at the drugstore, and... and... " His eyes seemed to lose focus again.
"So let me get this straight- "
Jim started giggling.
"Want to share that thought, Jim?"
"You said 'straight.' You're gay, Chief! And so am I!"
"On and off since I was in high school, but most recently since I blew you."
"Oh, my god, that wasn't a dream?!"
"No. And do you know the blow that was to my ego? I give you a blowjob, and you fall asleep and don't even remember?"
"Sorry, Jim. It's just that- You really did?" He'd jerked off to the memory of those dream-like images of Jim above him, of Jim's tongue lapping at his shaft and dipping into the slit at the tip, of Jim's lips closing around his cock and giving him earth-shattering pleasure. It had been depressing to know that was as close to Jim as he'd ever get, but now Jim was telling him it was real? It had really happened? His cock was rock-hard.
"Yes, I really did! Geez, what's so hard to believe about that?"
"The fact that up until about two minutes ago I would have sworn you were a diehard straight boy?"
"Well, it looks like I'm not. So, are you going to make love to me or not?" Jim seemed to have shaken off the effects of the NyQuil, and he looked belligerent, but also a little scared. "I know I'm not the best bet for a romantic relationship. I can't hold onto one."
"I wasn't too successful with that either, Jim."
"But I'm faithful, Chief. I never cheated on any of the women I dated."
Blair remembered. Even when Jim had been miserable with Carolyn, he hadn't betrayed their vows.
"If you... if you'll give me a chance, I swear to god I'll never cheat on you either!"
"I believe you. Let's go." Blair had been friends with Jim for three years, and he wasn't about to look this gift Sentinel in the mouth. He took Jim's arm and led him toward the stairs. "I don't know how you've managed to become suddenly sober, but let's get you up to bed before your body realizes just how much of that NyQuil you've drunk. You go up ahead of me, and just remember, if you pass out and fall backward, you'll land on me!"
Jim was steady enough going up the stairs, and as soon as he got to the top, he began tugging off his shirt. "So you're going to make love to me?"
"I don't think it's a good idea, Jim."
"Why not? Don't you lo... don't you like me?"
"I like you." He wasn't taking the chance of saying he loved him. It could be the NyQuil making Jim behave in this manner. "Look, let me help you get your pants off."
"You know, in Great Britain, pants are underwear." Jim sounded so hopeful Blair couldn't help laughing.
"I'm not talking about your shorts, smart guy." He pushed lightly, and Jim sat down on the bed. "I have every intention of making mad, passionate love to you, but not when you're too sloshed to enjoy it."
Jim flushed and looked away. "I'm sorry, Chief. I really didn't know you were that drunk."
Blair turned Jim's face so he had to meet his eyes. "I guess you'll just have to make it up to me then, won't you?"
"You'll let me?"
"Oh, yes." He stroked his friend's - his lover's cheek. "Are you cut, Jim?"
"Huh? Oh, my foreskin? No, my father didn't believe in that. Called it barbaric. And why are you smiling?"
"Ever hear of docking?"
"We're going to do that?" Jim flushed. His eyes widened and his pupils expanded until the pale blue of his irises was just a thin ring around them. He licked his lips.
"You bet, babe. We'll both be leaking precome. I'll hold our cocks together while you stretch your foreskin to cover both crowns." Blair risked a quick look down. A wet spot was forming on the front of Jim's boxers. "And then I'll stroke you while you stroke me. Think you'd like that?"
Jim's eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed back on the bed.
Blair pulled down the bedspread. The sheets were a cool blue. He raised Jim's legs and got them onto the bed, then covered him.
"I love you, Jim." He brushed a light kiss across Jim's lips. "Sleep well. When you're better, I'm gonna wear you out!"
Jim opened an eye. "Does it matter?"
"Do you promise?"
"Okay." His eyelids were drooping, and Blair couldn't resist kissing him again.
"I'll have that soup ready for you, Jim."
"Thanks, Chief. And I love you too."
Blair knew the smile on his face had to be sappy, but he'd never felt so pleased with how his life was turning out.
And if it turned out that it was just the NyQuil talking...
Well, he'd worry about that when the time came.
Jim stared at the bathroom door. Behind it, Blair was showering, and Jim had been able to tell the minute he'd stepped under the water: the rhythm changed slightly.
Jim couldn't stand here, listening as Blair soaped the loofah and ran it over his body - he was getting a hard-on.
He went into the kitchen and began putting together a light brunch. They'd been together a couple of months, and he'd never been so happy.
Still, there were times when he worried. He'd made such a hash of all his previous relationships-
"What's wrong, Jim?"
He jumped. He'd been so involved with his gloomy thought that he hadn't heard the shower turn off or Blair come out.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, and he could feel the heat of his lover's body.
His lover... Jim gave himself a shake. He couldn't stand here all day, so he turned. And his mouth went dry.
Blair wasn't exactly dressed. "Sorry, Jim," he said sheepishly. "I'm not really a morning person, and I forgot to bring my clothes into the bathroom with me."
Jim could have reminded him, but he'd been too entranced by the sight of Blair walking down the stairs in his skivvies. And truthfully, he'd been hoping Blair would come out of the bathroom with just a towel knotted around his waist.
"Uh... I hope you don't mind me borrowing your bathrobe."
Jim shook his head. The towel would have been preferable, but his robe was fine. It had never looked as good on him, and the knowledge that it covered Blair's naked body...
He hadn't talked Blair into moving in with him yet, and after he left to go back to his apartment, Jim could raise it to his face and inhale their combined scents.
His gaze dropped down to where Blair's knees peeked from beneath the hem. They looked strong, and manly, and...
"Thanks. So what's bothering you, Jim?"
He knew there was no point in trying to hide his worries from Blair. "I'm thirty-six and divorced. You're twenty-six and single."
"Yeah, and your point is?"
"Where did we go wrong, Chief?"
Blair's smile was incandescent, and Jim found he couldn't catch his breath. "We didn't go wrong, Jim!"
"We didn't?" Blair's fingers were in his hair, and he didn't dial down the tactile sensation, didn't fight the feelings that swamped him. They were just so right!
"No, you big dumb, semi-straight cop!" Blair leaned forward, and his breath, fresh and minty, washed over Jim's lips.
"Explain it to me, Chief." His voice was husky, and he was pleased to see Blair shiver and lean even closer.
"Ah, Jim. We were just saving the best for last!"