Michael looked like Christmas morning under the lights on the small stage tucked in the front of The Stallion bar.
He was beside Isobel, and a pretty redhead who was riling up the small crowd of people gathered around the stage by waving her hands excitedly and bouncing away in her tight black dress. She appeared much more relaxed than Michael, who seemed to be lost in thought and not looking out into the sea of faces.
Alex wasn't sure why he'd pushed for Michael to even do the auction when it was becoming increasingly clear that the more time they spent together, the more Alex wanted to see him again. A thought he most definitely did not think was possible at dinner.
Vacating the booth and finding a seat facing the bar, Alex took in the group and began to wonder who would end up with the winning bid for a night with Michael. Girls and guys alike were staring at Michael, eyes taking in the tight jeans and well-defined chest peeking out from behind the flannel.
Mandy and a gaggle of other waitresses had temporarily abandoned their tables and were standing behind the bar counting ones, and Alex couldn't help the flash of jealousy that flowed through him. With the not at all subtle glances Mandy was throwing Michael and the way the girls were all shrieking as they seemed to hype Mandy up, it was crystal clear she was going to be bidding on him.
And Alex found himself both saddened and enraged at the prospect.
Mandy seemed nice enough, but now that he had a taste of the real Michael, he wanted another lick. Literally.
And he was willing to bowl over anyone who got in his way.
When Isobel tapped her perfectly manicured fingers on the mic, the noise slowly started to petter out, and all eyes went to her smiling face. "Alright, you beautiful people. The night is winding down, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate all you guys have done tonight to help the Boys and Girls Club of Albuquerque. You have been so generous all night, and we have one more awesome thing for you guys to bid on in the form of a date with Kiki and my darling little brother, Michael."
The whoops and hollers that rang out were loud, and while Kiki was clearly in her element on stage, Michael was less enthusiastic. He had a grin affixed to his face, but it didn't reach his eyes, and he seemed to be looking everywhere but at Alex, which stung.
"Now, ladies are always first, so let's welcome Kiki," Isobel began, linking arms with the excitable young woman. "My friend Kiki here is not only gorgeous but an accomplished writer. She enjoys long walks in the desert while sipping on a skinny margarita, all animals, and the sound of her own voice. So let's start the bidding at fifty dollars, shall we!"
Alex had never been to an auction of any kind before, but he imagined they didn't last for very long. And Kiki's moment in the spotlight was extremely short-lived.
She had a throng of admirers scattered around the bar, but there were really only two men vying for a night with her once the price crept to three hundred dollars. And she was eventually "sold" to a decent-looking guy who looked absolutely thrilled, and if the piercing scream from Kiki was any indication, she was equally enthralled with her suitor.
Alex watched Kiki hop off the stage and jump into her date's arms before turning his attention back to Michael. Isobel had her arm around his shoulder and was whispering in his ear while he was biting back a small laugh.
Seeing Michael in a relaxed state was quickly becoming one of Alex's new favorite things.
"Attention, everyone! We have another eligible bachelor up here, and I know you're all just dying to take your chances on a night with this hunky little cowboy," Isobel said in a drawl that sounded ridiculous. And Michael's appalled look seemed to agree.
"Michael here is an accomplished engineer and a master of many, many talents. He can fix your flat tire and then turn around and cook you a five-course meal and follow it up with a delicious massage if you're lucky. Now, don't be shy, ladies and gentlemen. My brother is very single and very ready to mingle, so you never know where one date might take you. So let's start the bidding again at fifty dollars!"
Isobel barely got out the word 'dollars' before a tall, leggy brunette at the front of the stage waved a stack of money in the air. She bid her fifty dollars, and the price continued to climb and climb as about seven different people bid, and the price ballooned to two hundred and fifty dollars in less than a minute.
Alex had whiplash from how fast everything was going. He could see how pleased Michael was with the attention he was receiving, and he couldn't blame him for that.
A bunch of people bidding for your affections had to feel good. And Michael came out of his shell the longer he was under the lights, that charisma Alex was just starting to see coming out in spades.
Even though he was actively sort of on a date with Michael, he felt like he was losing him with each raised hand, and it hurt. He knew that if his car hadn't broken down, there was a good chance their paths would have never crossed again, and he shouldn't be feeling that upset about the thought of Michael going out with someone else, but the reality was that the night had changed entirely when Michael showed up in that tow truck.
Now he was watching a room full of people throw money at the man he was dying to get to know better. And that just wasn't going to work for him.
"Do I hear three hundred and fifty?" Isobel asked with a lilt in her voice.
Alex missed the price increase, but he was just getting ready to raise his hand when a familiar voice beat him to the punch.
"Six hundred and seventy-five dollars!" Mandy exclaimed, practically beaming as she started to waltz closer to the stage.
Both Michael and Isobel looked like deer in headlights, probably unprepared for that amount of money. However, Isobel quickly replaced her shock with a devilish smirk, while Michael shook his head a little and smiled weakly at Mandy, who was now right by the stage.
She already had her money outstretched like she knew no one was going to beat her, and while Alex pondered just how well people tipped in that bar, Isobel was getting ready to close things out.
"Six hundred and seventy-five dollars going twice…."
"Twelve hundred dollars!" Alex heard himself say the words, but it didn't even sound like his voice. On the contrary, it was higher pitched and almost needy, and he would have been mortified if he hadn't also been so proud of himself for going after what he wanted.
All eyes were turned to him, and if they'd been in the middle of a 90s teen movie, the DJ would have cut the music dramatically for added effect.
For the first time since he'd taken the stage, Michael brought his eyes to his, and the shyest grin pulled at his lips. The sight momentarily froze Alex, and he knew he was smiling back like a lunatic, but he was powerless to the feeling.
"Well, well, well. We've got a bid of twelve hundred dollars on the table," Isobel said pointedly and cast a glance down at Mandy, who was shaking her head slowly in defeat.
Alex still hadn't moved from his stool, and he and Michael were still locked in their staring standoff while Isobel went through the motions of ending the bidding war.
"And we are sold to little Manes for twelve hundred dollars!"
Alex vaguely saw Isobel waving him forward, and he willed his feet to start walking. The crowd of people parted for him as he made his way, and he passed a sullen Mandy, giving her a gentle nod as he approached his curly-headed prize.
"I hope you take cards," Alex said sheepishly to Isobel once he reached them.
She held her hand out to him, and he took it as she climbed down to the main floor with Michael close behind.
"Oh, we take it all, baby," Isobel replied with a wink. "Give me your card, and I'll write down your details."
Alex fished his wallet out of his pocket and handed over his American Express, acutely aware of the hole Michael's eyes were burning in the side of his head.
"Thank you. I will be right back!"
With Isobel off, Alex and Michael were left standing together, surrounded by bargoers who were starting to use the dance floor for its intended purpose.
Michael nodded toward the back of the bar and started to walk in that direction, and Alex followed along. Their booth was still open, so they easily slid back in and sat in silence for a few long seconds.
"So," Michael broke the silence, amusement dancing across his face. "If you wanted to go out with me again, all you had to do was ask."
"Shut up. You're paying for the next round."
Michael had never been happier to be proven wrong.
As he sat across from Alex and really drank him in, he was sure this man was far from the flop he initially pegged him as. Instead, this man was driven, intriguing, and sexy as all hell. Plus, he'd just spent over a grand to block someone else from taking him out for a night.
Michael was willing to bet once Alex was all in on something, he played for keeps. And in the current moment, Michael couldn't think of anything better than being the man who got to be kept by Alex Manes.
"What are you thinking?" Alex asked, leaning his elbows on the table after taking a long drag of his beer.
A forlorn Maddy had congratulated Alex on nabbing himself the sweetest guy in New Mexico and brought them over two beers to celebrate, though Michael politely sent his back and asked for water instead. The whole act of being auctioned off had sobered him up, and he was Alex's ride after all.
She'd just left after dropping off the water when Alex narrowed his eyes and asked that open-ended question.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, what is going through that brain of yours right now."
Michael took a second to consider what was floating around his brain at that moment, aside from wondering how Alex would taste on his lips. He couldn't tell him that. Not yet, at least.
"To be honest, I kind of feel bad for Mandy," Michael said truthfully. But when he saw Alex's face drop slightly, he instantly wanted to take it back.
"Oh. I mean, would you have rather she won the date?"
Alex sounded unsure, and Michael cringed internally. He put his water down and cautiously extended his hand out until his fingers lightly brushed against Alex's forearm. He let Michael's finger linger there for a few seconds before he relaxed his arm and then took Michael's hand in his.
The thrill that traveled from Michael's toes up through his body was unlike anything he'd felt before. "I'm happy you bid on me, Alex. I just feel bad because Mandy and I barely dated, and I didn't even realize that she was still interested in me like that."
The way Alex raised his eyebrow was too adorable for Michael to put into words. "I could have told you she was still interested, and I just met her."
"I guess I can't pick up on things like that very well," Michael conceded.
"You can't tell when someone likes you?"
Michael shrugged and felt heat rush to his cheeks. "If someone is all over me, then I guess I can infer that they like me. But it's not like that's happening all the time."
And at that, Alex stifled a laugh.
"That wasn't supposed to be funny," Michael said, feeling a bit self-conscious.
"I'm not laughing at you. It's cute, actually," Alex said behind a smile that started to put Michael at ease again.
Michael squeezed Alex's hand softly. "Well, I'm picking up on a vibe right now."
"And what kind of vibe is that?"
"Oh, just thinking maybe this adorable guy who paid twelve hundred bucks to take me out on a date may like me a little bit."
"Hm. You could be right, but I think you should test that theory." Alex licked at his lower lip, and Michael almost spontaneously combusted.
"And how do I do that?"
Alex let go of Michael's hand, leaving him momentarily cold before Alex cocked his finger at him and started to lean across the table, lips headed right for lips.
Michael caught on a second too late to what was happening, but as he started to meet Alex in the middle, he was forcibly pulled back into his seat by a firm grip. He was about to wail on the person when he turned around but stamped down his anger slightly when he saw his sister standing there.
"Um, what the hell, Iz?" He asked angrily. He noticed Alex was lounging back in his seat, an unreadable expression on his face. He wanted to link their hands again and feel his warmth, but he figured it wasn't the time with Isobel hovering.
"Sorry to interrupt this…moment. But I came to give Alex his card back and tell you guys about your date," she said, totally unbothered by the fact she'd just interrupted them. "You are very trusting, little Manes. I could have raked up quite a bill on your tab."
Alex took the card and an envelope from Isobel's outstretched hand. "Pretty sure I could have found you."
Isobel shrugged. "Okay, so look. Kiki wanted the museum tickets, which left you guys with the hot air balloon and picnic date. I know Michael isn't afraid of heights, but what about you?"
Alex looked amused. "Retired Air Force."
"That's right. Well, the voucher is good for any Saturday for the next two months."
Alex's phone started to ring in his pocket, and he excused himself to take the call outside, leaving Isobel to take his place in the booth. His sister had a suspicious look on her face, and he knew he was about to get grilled.
"Alright, Michael. What the hell happened from dinner to now?"
Michael wished he had a clever response, but he was as shocked as she was. This night had gone from forgettable to one he didn't want to end, and he had no explanation for it.
"I don't know! Everything was going so shitty, but then it changed when it was just us not trying to be something we're not. He's funny, and I think we do have a connection. We just didn't see it at first."
Isobel shook her blonde hair as she laughed. "Well, you know how you can be. And he just spent a ton of money on you, so be good to him. Plus, you adore Gregory, and I don't want you to mess up that relationship. It survived our breakup, but it won't survive you screwing over his brother."
"Go back. You know how I can be? What does that mean?" Michael asked incredulously.
"Um, did you not see the girl blowing all her tip money on a second chance with you? You, my dear, dear brother, are a love em and leave em kind of guy. But you don't even realize it's what you're doing," Isobel said in the slightly patronizing voice he'd loathed his entire life.
Michael honestly had never thought of his dating record that way and simply thought his past relationships had just run their course. But he could see where Isobel was coming from when he thought about the fact he was more than likely the one doing the breaking up.
But he hadn't found his person yet, and he never saw the use in sticking around in situations that never had a future.
"Whatever, Iz. Alex didn't even like me at first, so pretty sure if anyone were to leave anyone, he'd be ditching my ass. And we're connecting now, and I want to see where it goes. So, if you could be on your way, that would be great."
Isobel rolled her eyes before standing up. "Just be careful, okay. I'm a little concerned that you went from calling the man a pompous asshole with a shitty personality to making googly eyes with him in the span of like two hours."
The angle with which Isobel was standing, coupled with stragglers hanging around the booths, meant neither Isobel nor Michael noticed Alex standing a few feet away and taking in everything Isobel had just said.
"Alex!" Michael spat out, eyes wide and scared.
Isobel, for her part, looked embarrassed and apologetic, an expression Michael had seen maybe once in his lifetime. And she hastily made her exit after gifting Alex a sympathetic smile and mouthing an 'I'm sorry' to Michael.
Alex once again was unreadable, and it was breaking something inside Michael. He waited for him to sit down, but when he continued to stand in his own world, Michael carefully got out of the booth to stand next to him.
"Alex, I'm sorry," Michael half yelled as the music seemed to drown him out.
Alex turned to him and scoffed but didn't say anything. He turned to walk out of the bar, and Michael immediately followed, even though it wasn't like Alex asked him to tag along. He shouted to Mandy to close his tab out and handed her two folded twenties from his back pocket, losing Alex in the crowd as he stopped to settle up.
When he finally made it outside, he saw Alex walking down the street, and he started a brisk pace to catch up with him, eventually following in step with him until Alex stopped next to Michael's truck. He propped himself casually against the door and looked at Michael like he was waiting for him to speak.
"Alex, please," Michael bellowed, sticking his hands in his pocket and leaning back on his heels.
"A pompous asshole is one thing. But a shitty personality?" Alex quipped, his lips turning up into a sneer. "And to think all I told Greg just now was how you weren't nearly as depressing as I originally thought."
Michael's fear started to dissolve as he saw the mischievous gleam in Alex's brown eyes. "Depressing, huh? I'm a delight."
"You're about to be something that starts with a d," Alex said, digging down deep in his registry to ignite a fire in Michael's belly.
Michael took slow steps forward, giving Alex plenty of time to side-step him or push him back if he wanted. But none of that came, and within seconds he was pressed against Alex, chest to chest.
"And what d is that?"
Alex looped his hand behind Michael's lower back and gently pushed him further into his body until their lips met, and Michael lost track of time, space, and his own name.
It was all soft lips working in sync to deliver pleasure to one another in waves on the dimly lit city streets of Albuquerque.
When they finally parted, both panting and holding onto each other like they were afraid the other would disappear if they couldn't feel them, Alex spoke, his voice barely above a whisper, but the hunger in his eyes all-consuming.
"Driving. The d is for driving. Please take me home. Now."