Lark (First & Forever #5) Read Online Alexa Land

Categories Genre: M-M Romance, Romance Tags Authors: Series: First & Forever Series by Alexa Land
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 77768 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 389(@200wpm)___ 311(@250wpm)___ 259(@300wpm)
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Read Online Books/Novels:

Lark (First & Forever #5)

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Alexa Land

Language:
English
Book Information:

What if the most unlikely person you’d ever consider is exactly what you need?
Lark:
Most of the guys I meet just want to get me into bed. Then there’s this sexy firefighter named Dylan. I’m not sure what he wants from me, and I don’t think he knows, either.
Even though we have nothing in common, we have a great time together, and our attraction is undeniable. The only problem? He’s still mourning the loss of his husband years later, and I’m not sure if he’s ready to move on. Even if he was, would someone like Dylan really want someone like me?
Dylan:
Lark Genardi and I couldn’t be more different. He’s uninhibited, carefree, and eight years younger than me, and he embraces life in a way I’ve never seen before. Whenever we’re together, I’m happier than I’ve been in a very long time. But whatever’s happening between us makes me feel disloyal to my late husband’s memory.
I’m not sure if I can find a way to reconcile my past and my future. But I find myself wondering—what if the most unlikely guy I could ever imagine is exactly what I need?
Books in Series:

Firsts and Forever Series by Alexa Land

Books by Author:

Alexa Land



1

Dylan

Malone was definitely up to something.

The tip-off was that my friend waited until the end of our shift to ask, “Would you like to come over and help us celebrate New Year’s Eve tomorrow night, Dylan?”

We’d just spent the last twenty-four hours together at the fire station, and if he was innocently inviting me to spend time with him and his family, he’d have done it a lot sooner. The only reason he’d wait until we were walking out the door was so I wouldn’t have time to think about it or ask a lot of questions.

I was on to him though, so I paused in the middle of the parking lot and asked, “Who’s your wife trying to set me up with this time?”

“You’re jumping to conclusions. All I did was invite you over.” I stared him down, and after a long moment he sighed and admitted, “It’s some guy who recently transferred to Linda’s office.”

“Please tell your wife thanks but no thanks.”

“She says you have a ton in common, though.”

“Let me translate that for you. Whenever she says I and her latest fix-up have a lot in common, she means we’re both gay. If she says a ton, she means we’re both gay and Black.”

Malone swept his light brown hair off his forehead before running a hand over his short beard. I knew those gestures well. It meant he was stalling for time while trying to think of a rebuttal. It failed him this time, because all he could come up with was, “Please? It would mean a lot to Linda, and to me, too. We hate the idea of you sitting home alone on New Year’s.”

“Who says I’m sitting home alone?”

His expression turned skeptical. “Are you trying to tell me the biggest homebody I know actually has plans?”

“As a matter of fact, my friends River and Cole invited me to a party.”

His green eyes narrowed. We’d been friends and had worked together for more than a decade, so he knew to ask, “They might have invited you, but did you actually say yes?”

“I told them I’d think about it. Now I’ve made up my mind.”

I pulled my phone from the pocket of my dark blue hoodie and sent my friends a quick text, accepting their invitation. Not that I really wanted to go out and party on New Year’s Eve, but it was currently the lesser of two evils, and nothing short of this would convince Malone to give up. When I showed him the message on my screen, he grumbled, “The only reason you did that is so you’d have an excuse to turn down my invitation.”

“Yes! Absolutely. Dude, the last guy your wife tried to set me up with carried baggies of meat in his pockets and wore nothing but muscle T-shirts with the sides slit open.”

“He was an aspiring body builder.”

“Who never actually worked out.”

“Hence the ‘aspiring’ part,” Malone said. When I shot him a look, he conceded, “Okay, yes, that guy was odd. But Linda means well.”

“I know she does. Your wife is an angel, and I get that she’s just trying to help. But please, I’m begging you, make her stop. This is the eighth blind date she’s tried to set me up on this year, and each and every one of those guys was a train wreck.”

“You only met three of them, so you don’t really know that.”

“I didn’t need to meet the rest. Their descriptions were more than enough.”

“But this guy could be different.”

I held his gaze and said, “Tell me something about Mr. New Year’s Eve to convince me he’s not as disastrous as the rest of them.”

“He, um…has a job?”

“In other words, you don’t know the first thing about him, other than the fact that he’s gay and works with your wife.”

“No, I don’t. But—”

I started walking again and called, “Happy New Year, Malone. I’ll see you when we’re back here in two days.”

“Wait! Linda made me promise I’d show you his picture.” He hurried after me with his phone raised and asked, “What do you think?” The photo on his screen was of a dorky Black guy in a bow tie and three-piece suit, posing with his cat. I shifted my gaze to Malone and went with staring at him again, until he squirmed and admitted, “I realize taking a formal portrait with a cat is…quirky. But you like animals, right?”

I packed as much incredulity into my look as I could muster. After a beat, Malone put the phone away and admitted, “Yeah, okay, this probably isn’t the guy for you. But you can’t blame Linda for trying so hard to set you up with someone. You need to get back out there, Dylan. It’s been—” He stopped talking abruptly and shifted his gaze to the asphalt.

Six and a half years since my husband died—that was what he’d been about to say, but there was no need to finish his sentence. I obviously knew exactly how much time had passed.

“When the right guy comes along, I have every intention of getting back out there and dating.”

Malone shook his head. “No, you don’t. I think you actually plan to be alone forever, and it breaks my heart. You’re only thirty-four, and you have so much of your life ahead of you! If my wife and I keep pushing you to get back out there, it’s only because we’re worried about you, and we want you to be happy.”

I’d had this same conversation with everyone I knew—repeatedly—over the last few years, and it was always a little depressing. I shifted my duffle bag from one hand to the other as I muttered, “Go home and stop worrying about me. I’m fine.”

He clearly didn’t believe that, but he said, “Alright,” and took a step back as I headed to my parking space. Then he called, “Happy New Year, buddy. I’ll see you in a couple of days.” I acknowledged that with a nod.

As I unlocked my truck, I noticed a fine layer of dust had accumulated on its midnight blue exterior after sitting outside for a day. It was tempting to drive straight to a car wash and get it back to its usual pristine condition, but I knew better. Whenever I came off a twenty-four-hour shift, I needed to decompress for a while, instead of immediately busying myself with errands. If I didn’t, my anxiety would start to ratchet up, and nothing good ever came of that.

On the way home, I made an effort to start shifting out of work mode. I put on some music and exhaled slowly, though there were definitely better places to find peace than the crowded streets of San Francisco during the weekday commute.

At least it was a short drive. I lived in a brown shingle apartment building on Russian Hill, which didn’t look like much from the outside. But my loft was designed to be a soothing refuge with its neutral colors and uncluttered decor, and I felt a sense of relief as I stepped through the door.

My routine after each shift never varied—I put away my things, took a shower, dressed in comfortable sweats, and headed to the kitchen. Then I perused the neatly-labeled storage containers in my freezer and selected a mix of frozen berries, which I combined with a few other healthy ingredients in the blender.

Next, I sipped the smoothie while leaning against the kitchen counter and staring out at the view of Coit Tower. It had been built as a tribute to firefighters and looked like a giant phallus. Sure, why not?

After I finished my drink, washing the glass and blender canister somehow spiraled into meticulously cleaning my kitchen, even though it was already spotless. When I realized what I was doing, I sighed and tossed the sponge into the sink. That instantly grated on me, so I retrieved it and centered it neatly in its holder.

Later on, there’d be a workout, a nutritious meal, and probably a nap, all in the name of self-care. But right now, my only objective was to relax, and that was never easy for me. As I left the kitchen, I muttered, “It’s going to be a long day.”

Somehow, I got through the next several hours without resorting to housework to pass the time. That evening, I curled up on the couch with my tablet. My mind kept wandering when I tried to read, so after a while I switched to surfing the internet.

I hated feeling unsettled like this, and part of the problem was that I was horny. What did it say about me that it seemed like an inconvenience, more than anything else?

When ignoring it failed, I finally gave in and pulled up a gay porn site. It didn’t do much for me, so I tried another. And another. Since I was pretty vanilla, it was basically the same thing over and over—video clips of guys fucking, which just made me feel lonely.

To change things up, I clicked on an ad promising “Hot Guys Live on Cam,” and after checking a box confirming I was over eighteen, a grid with ten live video feeds filled my screen. Most of the guys were naked, and some were jerking off. Clicking an arrow on the right side of the display brought up ten different guys, and ten more after that—it went on and on.

I clicked on a muscular blond guy dressed in briefs, and his window filled my screen. His name, age, and location were displayed along the bottom, and a chat box appeared in the right-hand margin. A counter told me twenty-two men were watching him. Once in a while, one of them would type a request into the chat box, predictable stuff like, “Show me your cock,” or “Jerk off for me.”

The blond was in no hurry though, and I soon figured out why. While he talked to the camera and teased his audience by fondling his cock through his underwear, the newsfeed displayed frequent updates along the lines of, “Dale1974 tipped you five points,” and “Hard4U22 tipped you twenty points,” and so on. I assumed there was some number he planned to reach before giving his audience what it wanted.

I clicked out of the blond’s window and selected a brunet who was already naked and jerking off. Nearly fifty people were watching him, and the tips were racking up fast, maybe to encourage his grand finale, so to speak. When one guy tipped him a hundred points, the brunet called out the screen name and thanked him. Apparently that was part of this site’s appeal—being able to make a connection with the guy on camera, even if it was just in a very small way.

All of this was interesting to me, but not particularly erotic. I stayed on the site for a few minutes to indulge my curiosity, and I found myself wondering about the men who were broadcasting. I checked how much it cost to tip them and learned a hundred points only cost five bucks. The site would obviously take a big cut, so I wondered if any of the guys on cam actually make a living doing this.

I also wondered if they ever established relationships of sorts with their audience. Viewers could add broadcasters to a list of favorites, which meant they could keep coming back and watching the same guy night after night if they wanted to. That seemed like an odd blend of intimacy and anonymity.

As I kept browsing, I discovered a handful of couples. Each was promising to fuck on camera, but none of them were actually doing it at this point. Even so, they all drew large numbers of viewers. For the most part though, it was just guys by themselves sitting in generic bedrooms, either jerking off or teasing audiences with the promise of whipping it out.

I was definitely starting to lose interest, but I clicked the right arrow one more time to pull up another group of broadcasters. That resulted in nine guys sitting in front of their computers, and one who instantly put a smile on my face.

I pulled up the window of a cute brunet clearly living his best life. He was dancing his heart out while dressed in red booty shorts with matching suspenders, along with a plastic fireman’s hat—the kind you’d find in the children’s section of a party store. There was a flashing red light on the table behind him, and he was twirling a garden hose over his head like a lasso.

When I unmuted the sound and discovered he was dancing to “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot, it made me chuckle. He began lip-syncing as he flung the hose behind his shoulders and shimmied back and forth, his smooth skin glistening with a light sheen of sweat.

I couldn’t stop watching. He radiated joy and energy, and I loved the fact that he was doing his own thing, in total contrast to every other person on this site. It wasn’t just that he was campy and fun. He was cute too, with his slightly long hair, big dark eyes, and lean, sexy body—not that twinks usually did much for me, but this guy was undeniably appealing.

The caption along the bottom of the screen read: Lark, 26, San Francisco. I wondered how much of that was true. He looked like he was closer to twenty-one than twenty-six, and that had to be a made-up name, not that it mattered.

I really wanted to tip him, because he’d made me smile more than anything in recent memory. But before I could go buy some points, the song ended and he leaned close to the camera. “Thanks for watching,” he said, as he flashed a bright smile. His voice was a bit deeper than I’d expected. “I’m going to take a short break, but I’ll be back live on the hour on my Gayze fan page. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Gayze is a new site similar to Only Fans, but it’s all queer, all the time. I hope you come by and check it out. My name on there is Skylark S.F., and here’s a way for you to remember it. See you soon!”

He winked at the camera, pulled up a chair, and plunked a blow-up sex doll with a big inflatable dick into it. The doll was wearing a T-shirt featuring a cartoon bird above the caption, “Come fly with me! SkylarkSF on Gayze.” Then the guy stepped out of the frame and froze the shot on the doll.

I quickly typed in that website and created an account. When it asked for a screen name, I went with “Hawk,” in keeping with his bird theme. That wasn’t just random. Since my last name was Hawkins, that had been my nickname in high school. Next, I found his page and spent twenty bucks to subscribe to it for a month.

Then I sat back and eagerly waited for Lark to return.

2

Lark

Keep ’em waiting for the peen.

If I was going to teach someone how to be a cam boy, that would be lesson number one. Not that anyone ever asked me for advice, but they should. After doing this job for about a year, I’d gotten pretty good at it.

The trick was knowing how to keep an audience on the hook. There were hundreds of guys out there just like me, all of them trying to earn a buck by getting naked for strangers on the internet. What was to stop viewers from clicking over to some other guy’s live feed and taking their cash with them?

Just one thing—anticipation.

Give the audience a little at a time, and keep them wanting more.

It was a lot like burlesque. Well, except that a lot of my performances ended with me jacking off for my viewers with a dildo up my ass. That part really wasn’t much like burlesque at all.

But hey, different times.

Tonight, that “grand finale” was still several hours away, and it was reserved for a special audience. I’d just spent the last couple of hours dancing, flirting, and very slowly undressing on a busy cam site. While I’d made some tips along the way, the real goal had been to build my fan page audience, so I was in no hurry to show the goods. In fact, in those two hours, I’d only stripped down to shorts and a fireman’s hat.

In some ways, I treated the job like a bachelorette party stripper with different themes and costumes. Most cam boys didn’t do that, so it was a way to make myself stand out. More importantly, it kept me entertained. Getting naked for money should be fun, right?

After I paused my camera on a blow-up sex doll advertising my fan page, I had about thirty minutes to take a break and get ready for my next show. I reached for a towel and wiped the sweat off my face before pulling on an oversized sweatshirt. Then I put the plastic fireman’s hat back on, just because I liked it.

I went downstairs for something to drink and found some of my housemates in the kitchen. Casey glanced at me and grinned as he said, “Hi, Lark. That’s quite the outfit.” He and Theo, his hot doctor boyfriend, were sitting at the table playing cards with our landladies, Yolanda and JoJo.

I glanced down at my clothes. You couldn’t actually see the shorts under the big, rainbow tie-dye sweatshirt, so it looked like I wasn’t wearing any pants. I was also sporting yellow rain boots with that fireman’s hat. Casey never really knew what to make of me, but I thought I looked cute, so I said, “Thanks.”

When I opened the refrigerator, I discovered my section was empty. I was constantly forgetting to go to the grocery store, so this was nothing new. I eyed the cans on Casey’s shelf and asked him, “Would it be okay if I stole one of your sodas?”

“Help yourself.” Casey was a big, loveable bear of a nurse, with messy hair and a scruffy beard. He’d resigned himself to the fact that I was a mooch, so he added, “If you want some dinner, there’s leftover Chinese food.”

Like I was going to say no to that. I stuck a half-empty carton of fried rice in the microwave, then sat on the counter and watched the card game curiously. JoJo tucked a lock of platinum blonde hair behind her ear and smiled at me as she asked, “Would you like to join us?”

“No thanks. I don’t know how to play whatever that is.”

Theo said, “It’s Texas hold ’em poker, and I’d be happy to teach you.” The hot doctor was a fairly new addition to our household, and it seemed like he was making an effort to win me over. He didn’t need to try, though. I automatically liked him, because he made my friend Casey happy.

“Thanks for the offer, but I’m doing a live stream on my fan page in a few minutes.” I was glad I had an excuse, because I was terrible at trying to learn games that had a bunch of rules.

When the microwave beeped, I gathered the carton, the soda, and a spoon. Then I said, “I’ll see you later. I’m going to keep the tree company for a few minutes, before I go back to work.”

They all thought that was odd. It was obvious by the looks on their faces. I was used to people thinking that about me, and I didn’t mind it.

We’d put up a big, beautiful tree for Christmas, and it was going to be taken down in just a couple of days, on January first. Yolanda said we had to, because it was getting crispy and dropping tons of needles. Even though I knew she was right, it still made me sad. It had been the best tree ever, and I wanted to enjoy it as much as possible before it went away.

I ate my dinner sitting on the coffee table and looking up at the towering pine, with its colored lights and pretty ornaments. Then I hurried back upstairs and rummaged around in my armoire, which was stuffed full of costumes. I decided to go with my angel of darkness look, so I changed into a black jock strap and tiny black shorts, sat down at my makeup table, and took a look at myself in the mirror.

What I saw made me shriek. I tried to fix my disastrous hat hair with a comb and some spray gel, and then I pawed through my makeup basket and applied a quick smoky eye. I had a real love-hate relationship with my thick, dark eyebrows, and I took a moment to try to shape them with some brow gel. Finally, I added some tinted lip gloss and leaned back to assess my look. I’d tried to find a balance between my masculine and feminine sides, and I thought I’d pretty much pulled it off.

After taking a minute to position the camera and move some stuffed animals and clutter out of the shot, I put on the main part of my costume. The glossy, black angel wings were one of my favorite things, because they were absolutely beautiful. They were hooked to a black harness, and I buckled the straps around my chest and shoulders, then tied on a black silk mask. I considered finishing the look with a pair of high heels but decided to go barefoot instead. They wouldn’t really show anyway with the way I was framing the shot, so why suffer needlessly?

When I took a look in the full-length mirror on the back of my bedroom door, I didn’t see Larkin Genardi, the awkward Italian-American kid from L.A. I didn’t even see Lark, the man he’d grown into. Instead, I saw someone else—someone confident, sexy, and mysterious. I wasn’t really this guy, but it was fun to pretend to be him for a night.

I smiled at my reflection and psyched myself up for what I’d be doing over the next hour. The regular cam boy rules didn’t apply when it came to my fan site. These men were paying to be there, so it wasn’t about how long I could drag things out and collect tips. This was about giving them a good show and keeping them satisfied, which would hopefully encourage them to renew their subscriptions month after month.

I’d be experimenting with a new feature tonight, and it made me a little nervous. During the live stream, I was going to give one viewer the chance to purchase a private, hour-long cam show. It seemed like a good way to make some extra cash while offering a perk to my biggest fans. But I had no idea what whoever ended up buying it would expect from me, and I worried about the whole thing turning super awkward.

For now though, I had a job to do, and people were waiting for me. I pulled up a playlist and accessed my fan site on my laptop. When the music started, I turned on a ring light, then the motion-tracking camera mounted to the center of it.

Once I confirmed I was broadcasting, I smiled at the men who were gathering to watch the show. Then I took three steps back, hit an imaginary mark near the center of my bedroom, and began to dance.

3

Dylan

When Lark’s camera went live, my jaw dropped. He’d been cute in his plastic fireman’s hat and little red shorts. Now, he was smoking hot.

He’d changed into an all-black ensemble, including a pair of angel wings that had to be almost four feet across. They were held in place with a BDSM-style harness, which definitely piqued my interest. Even though that wasn’t usually my thing, the straps against his bare skin were undeniably arousing.

So was the way he danced. His movements were fluid and sensual, absolutely meant to entice. His full lips parted as he slid a hand down his body and caressed the bulge in his tight, satin shorts, and I muttered, “Damn.”

Lark made a whole show of removing the mask he wore, taking his time by untying it, then holding it in place for a while as he went on dancing. He peeked out from behind it and winked, then grinned flirtatiously and held it up again. Finally, he cast it aside with a flourish as one song ended and another began.

My pulse quickened as he unbuttoned and unzipped his shorts, then slid his hand into his briefs and cupped his cock. No, not briefs. When he took off his shorts and turned his back to the camera, I discovered he was actually wearing a jock strap. That meant his absolutely perfect ass was on full display, and damned if he wasn’t working it.

Every move, every shake, shimmy, and undulation was mind-blowing, and my cock throbbed as I watched him. I felt guilty at first because this seemed pretty one-sided. But when he turned to face the camera again, I saw just how much he was enjoying this. That little jock strap could barely contain his hard-on.

Lark kept dancing for maybe half an hour, and I remained mesmerized. When the music ended, he unhooked the angel wings and carefully set them aside, which left him in just the jock strap and the leather harness. Then he positioned a chair in front of the camera and took a seat as he flashed a wide, friendly smile.

“Hi, everyone,” he said, as he blotted his damp forehead with the back of his hand. “I see some new names on my screen, welcome to the nest! I’ll be here with you guys for the rest of the hour, and then I’m trying something new. In just a minute, you’ll have a chance to purchase an hour-long private chat, which I’ll be doing right after we finish this one.” He leaned in and typed something with an off-screen keyboard as he continued, “If you’re interested, that item should be popping up on your screen any second now. I’m only offering one private chat tonight, and it’s first come, first served so act fast if you want it.”

I didn’t even think about it—I clicked the icon the moment it appeared on my screen, followed by the button to confirm payment. Only then did I glance at the price, which turned out to be ninety-nine dollars. I would have paid so much more than that.

Lark laughed and said, “Wow, that was quick. Congratulations, Hawk, you were the first person to jump on that private cam session. For everyone else, I’ll be doing this again at some point in the future, so be sure to check back.”

While he chatted about when he’d be broadcasting over the upcoming weekend, I started to worry about what I’d signed up for. It was easy to imagine a private chat turning awkward, and I really had no idea what to expect. But then, I could always bail out if it ended up making me uncomfortable.

A message popped up at the top of my screen, which said: Lark has invited you to a private chat. Clicking a button labeled “accept” produced a text box. I watched him type something while never interrupting his conversation with the rest of his viewers. That was an impressive bit of multitasking.

A moment later, a message appeared in the box: Hi there, thanks for buying the one-on-one session! I’ll be ending the group chat at eleven p.m., and then I’ll send you a link to a private chat room. Is it okay with you if we begin at fifteen past the hour? That’ll give me a chance to freshen up and change before we get started.

I replied: Sure. Anything you want. When I hit send, I watched his gaze flicker to the bottom of his screen. A corner of his full lips tilted up into a smile, and he began typing again.

His next message said: That’s my line—anything you want. You’re paying, so you get to call the shots. That includes my outfit, so tell me, what are you into? Leather? Lace?

He looked right into the camera and flashed a flirty grin. Then he answered some other guy’s question about the next time he was planning to do a costumed photo shoot.

I took a deep breath and responded: Surprise me.

Lark glanced at what I’d written, and his grin turned wicked. A moment later, another message appeared on my screen. It said: Count on it.

At ten minutes past eleven, I was sitting on my bed dressed in nothing but a pair of boxers, and I was second-guessing everything.

What the hell was I doing? Was I seriously planning to sit here and jerk off to some stranger while he did what, exactly? Took off his clothes and performed for me?

Fuck, the thought of it made my cock throb.

Okay, so that was exactly what I was planning. But I wasn’t sure how I felt about the fact that I was paying someone for sex—and even if it was virtual, that was still exactly what I was doing. It just wasn’t like me. None of this was.

I was so nervous that my palms were sweating. I had to wipe them on my boxers before I picked up my laptop. I’d switched over to it because it had a bigger screen than the tablet, perfect for being a total perv and watching that gorgeous guy get naked for me.

Ugh, just thinking about it made my cock so hard that it actually hurt a little.

But I couldn’t really go through with this, no matter how much it turned me on. There was no way. I’d just send Lark a message letting him know something came up—ha, poor choice of words—and of course I’d tell him to keep the money. Then I’d jerk off by myself and be done with it.

Just then, a message popped up on my screen: Lark has invited you to a private chat. Shit, he was early. I clicked the “accept” button with the intention of telling him I couldn’t stay. But before I could type a word, Lark’s camera went live and he exclaimed, “Hi, Hawk! Ugh, I’m so nervous! This is my first ever one-on-one cam session, and I really hope I don’t screw it up. But if I do, don’t worry. I’ll definitely refund your money.”

Somehow, knowing I wasn’t the only one who was nervous made this easier. I forgot about bailing out as I leaned against my headboard and exhaled slowly.

The camera was pointed at a mountain of mismatched pillows on a bed. There was even a stuffed toy goat peeking out among them. The lighting got brighter, and I could hear Lark moving stuff around as he said, “Sorry, I’m not quite ready. I shouldn’t have started the chat until I was all set up, but I didn’t want to keep you waiting.”

There was a thudding sound, and the light source swung around as he muttered, “Ow, I just stubbed my toe.” He adjusted the light’s angle as he told me, “So, you have two options on your end. You can type into a chat box like before, or you can click the little microphone in the bottom corner and talk to me. Your call, do whatever makes you comfortable. It doesn’t let you turn on your camera though, so I won’t be able to see you.” That made sense. The name of this site was a play on the word “gaze” after all, so of course it was set up like a fishbowl.

I clicked the microphone and asked, “Can you hear me?”

“I can, loud and clear! Wow, you have a great voice. It’s so deep and buttery. I don’t know if buttery makes sense, but that’s just what came to mind.” I could tell he really was nervous. He was speaking a lot faster than he had in the group chat, and he was sort of rambling, not that I minded.

“Thanks. One of my friends is always telling me I missed my calling and should have been a DJ on a mellow R and B radio station.”

A phone in a glittery case landed on the bed, and the light source shifted again. “They’re right.” Lark lowered his voice to imitate mine and said, “This is The Hawk, coming to you live from one-oh-one-point-one FM, K-O-O-L radio, where we’re in the middle of a forty-eight-hour Otis Redding marathon. All Otis, all the time.” In his regular tone of voice, he added, “And of course, every time you said your name, you’d play a sound bite of a screeching hawk, ca-caw!”

I chuckled and told him, “It sounds like you could do that job just as well as I could.”

“But I’m just faking it. Your voice is the real deal, all that velvety goodness.” The camera swung around wildly, and then Lark’s smiling face appeared on the screen. He’d washed off his dark eye makeup, and his hair was held back from his face by a white headband with bunny ears sticking from it. His smile got wider as he said, “Anyway, hi there.”

“Hi.” I was smiling too, not that he could see it.

As he settled back against the pillows, he said, “So, two things. First of all, I really went for it with tonight’s outfit. It’s probably the most daring thing I’ve ever worn on cam, so I need to work my way up to showing you.”

“No pressure. Do whatever makes you comfortable.” He was shirtless, and I had to wonder what was happening out of the shot. I’d already seen him in a very revealing jock strap, so what would be more daring than that? After a beat, I asked, “So, what was the second thing you wanted to tell me?”

“Oh, right. So, I’d been thinking about the best way to do a private cam session for the last few days, and my roommate’s brother, who works in a sex shop, had a really awesome idea.” Lark picked up his phone and tapped the screen with his thumb as he explained, “I ended up buying a vibrating butt plug that comes with an app. I wanted this to be interactive, so I thought, what if my viewer could control what the toy’s doing from wherever he is in the world?”

“There are sex toys that work like that?”

“More or less. Basically, if you install the app, it’ll communicate with my phone, and that’s what’ll actually control the toy. The phone has to be within about ten feet of the toy’s sensor, or it won’t work.”

“That makes sense.”

“Want to try it out?” He held up his phone to the camera and said, “Here’s the name of the app, and it’s a free download. But if this seems weird to you, we don’t have to do it. It was just an idea.”

“It actually sounds intriguing.” I picked up my phone and found what I was looking for in the app store. Then I told him, “Okay, it’s downloading.”

We took a couple of minutes to get our phones synched up, and then a silhouette of a butt plug with a curved, bulbous tip appeared on my screen. There was also a slider with a scale that went from zero to five, and a button labeled “pulse.” I asked, “Can you go get the toy so we can see if this works?” While I said that, I moved the slider from zero to two, then back to zero.

It startled me when Lark yelped and knocked over his laptop. When he picked it up and appeared on screen again, he laughed and said, “Yeah, that definitely worked.”

“Wait, is it—I mean, do you already have it, um…”

“It’s in my ass. Didn’t I mention that?”

“No. Sorry! I wouldn’t have done that if I’d realized you were already using it.”

He asked, “How high did you turn it?”

“Two.”

“Let’s maybe not turn it all the way to five,” he said with a grin. “Two was already intense. Also, I guess I should have tried this out beforehand, but I only bought it yesterday.”

“Are you sure you want to trust me with this?”

Lark held up his phone, and his grin widened as he reminded me, “I can cut you off with the tap of a button, any time I want to. Not that you seem like someone who’d try to kill me with a ten-minute-long orgasm or anything.”

That made me grin, too. “No, that’s definitely not the plan.”

“I’m ready to show you the rest of my outfit. It seems like the hornier I get, the bolder I become.” I actually really understood that. “Hang on a minute while I switch from my laptop camera to the free-standing one.”

The close-up shot disappeared from my screen, replaced a few moments later with a full-body side view. He was sitting on his bed, and from what I could see, all he was wearing were those bunny ears and a pair of thigh-high white socks. But then he rolled onto his hands and knees, arched his back, and struck a pose as he exclaimed, “Ta da!”

I grinned at the fluffy white bunny tail on his ass and told him, “You look adorable.”

He sat back down, one leg bent demurely so it covered his junk, and smiled shyly. “Thanks. The base of the butt plug lets you attach different things, like tails or whatever. I thought the bunny tail was cute, but I was worried you’d think it was weird.”

“I definitely don’t think that.”

Lark’s smile got brighter. “You’re nice. I’m really glad you’re here with me tonight.”

“Me, too.”

He leaned back against the pillows and let his leg drop onto the mattress, exposing his hard cock. He was shaved all over, and his skin looked smooth and silky. While I imagined running my hands over his body, he did exactly what I wanted to do by sliding his palm down his stomach, then gripping his shaft as he asked, “Are you ready to play with me?”

My cock swelled as I took a deep breath and said, “Absolutely.”

4

Lark

This one-on-one cam idea could have gone horribly wrong, but I ended up getting lucky. The guy who bought the session was a total sweetheart. He also had the sexiest voice I’d ever heard in my life, which definitely didn’t hurt.

I started stroking my cock, angling my body toward the camera to make sure he got a good view as I told him, “You can use the toy on me if you want.”

“Okay. I’ll start slow.” As soon as he turned on the butt plug’s vibration, I moaned and arched off the mattress. “That’s halfway between zero and one,” he said.

I exhaled slowly and settled back down, getting used to the sensation. “It feels good. I can take a lot more than that.”

He turned it up, then did it again when I asked for more. “It’s on two now.”

I got up on my knees facing the camera, jerking my cock harder and faster as I began to rock my hips. Hawk’s breathing sped up, just like mine, and I was pretty sure he was jerking off. I wanted to make sure he came before I did, but the toy in my ass combined with this man’s eyes on me were driving me wild.

I bit my lower lip and tried to concentrate on holding back my orgasm. It didn’t help when he said, “Fuck, baby, this is the hottest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Between ragged breaths, I managed, “I hope you’re jerking off for me.”

“I am, and I’m close.”

“Me, too.” I ran my free hand over my body and pinched one of my nipples.

He moaned a little, which sent a wave of pleasure through me. “I want to see what the pulse button does.” His voice was rough.

My words came out in choppy bursts as I gasped for air. “Sure. Anything you want.”

There was no question when he hit that button. The vibration spiked suddenly, then dropped, then spiked again. Each pulse felt like a big cock slamming into my prostate, and it was so intense that it shoved me right over the edge. I forgot all about putting on a show as I came all over my chest and stomach, bucking my hips while trying not to yell and alarm my housemates.

A second or two later, Hawk blurted, “Oh fuck.” The way he cried out made it pretty obvious he was coming too, and that put a smile on my face.

My orgasm left me winded and shaking, and I dropped onto my side as I tried to catch my breath. For a few seconds, there was just the sound of heavy breathing through the speaker. Then he said, “I just came so hard. Wow. That was incredible.”

“Same here. I had fun, thank you.”

I fully expected him to say goodbye and log off. That was what all the men who watched me did—they bailed right after they came. But Hawk surprised me by asking, “Would you maybe want to hang out for a while and keep chatting? I’m really enjoying your company.”

I sat up and told him, “I’d love that. I just need to get cleaned up first.”

“Me, too. I’ll meet you back here in a few minutes.”

I dashed to the bathroom to wash up and lose the butt plug. Good thing no one was around, because this outfit was one my housemate Eliot would definitely label TMN—too much naked. He was shy and got embarrassed easily, and that bunny tail would have definitely sent him running.

When I returned to my room, I threw on a fuzzy pink onesie and dove onto the bed. I spotted my stuffed goat sticking out of the pillows and grabbed him in a hug as I asked, “Are you there?”

“Yup. Just got back.” I was relieved. Even though he’d said he wanted to hang out, I expected him to change his mind once he fully came down from his orgasm. “You look cute. What are you wearing?”

I pulled up the hood, which had bear ears on it, and stretched out my leg so he could see the feet. “A teddy bear footie pajama onesie. It’s cold tonight.”

“Are you into age play?”

I shook my head. “I’m not a little, I just like cute things. I grew up with strict parents who never let me express myself, so I guess I’m making up for it now.”

“I think it’s great that you’re enjoying yourself,” he said. “So, tell me, who’s your friend?”

I held the toy goat up to the camera and grinned as I told him, “This is Jeff. One of my housemates gave him to me for Christmas.”

“Please tell me Jeff’s last name is Goatblum.”

I started laughing and asked, “How’d you guess?”

“It was the only real choice with that first name.”

There was a brief lull in the conversation, and I started to get worried that I wasn’t being entertaining enough. If this was a date, I’d ask him about himself—where he lived, what he did for work, all that stuff—but I’d learned a lot of the men who subscribed to my fan page really just wanted to remain anonymous. The more I thought about it, that actually made sense. They came to me for a break from their real lives, so I shouldn’t be reminding them of it.

Fortunately, Hawk took the lead by asking, “So, what do you like to do for fun?”

“I love making things. I’ve been taking some ceramics classes, which are awesome. I love sewing, too. Gran taught me how. I make a lot of my costumes and stuff.”

“That’s fantastic. It sounds like you and your grandmother are close.”

“We were, but she died four years ago. I lived with her after my parents kicked me out when I was fifteen.” It was so obvious I didn’t date much. I’d managed to mention two depressing things in one breath. So much for light banter.

“I’m sorry about your grandma, and that your family did that to you.”

He sounded so serious. I smiled brightly and quickly changed the subject. “She taught me how to do something else too, besides sewing. Want to see what it is?”

“Absolutely.”

I hung off the edge of the bed and fished around beneath it. When I sat up again, I was holding my ukulele. I sat cross-legged so I was facing the camera and spent a minute tuning it. Then I strummed it while singing an upbeat version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

When I finished, my audience of one applauded and exclaimed, “That was fantastic!”

“Thanks.” I felt my cheeks heating up and tried to turn the conversation away from me by asking, “Do you play any instruments?”

“Yeah, a couple. My mom insisted on piano lessons when I was a kid. Then when I was twelve I decided I wanted to be the next Jimi Hendrix, so I asked for a guitar. My parents bought me an acoustic guitar instead of an electric one, but I actually learned to love it.”

“Do you still play?”

“Sometimes. It’s right here in the corner of my bedroom, hang on while I go get it.” I heard some rustling, followed a few moments later by the sound of him tuning a guitar. “I’m back,” he said, as he continued tuning. “Since you played a song for me, I’ll return the favor and play one for you. What would you like to hear?”

“Do you know any ABBA?”

“Not well enough to play it. How about some Fugees instead?”

“Awesome.”

He then proceeded to play and sing their gorgeous rendition of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” When he finished, he said, “You’re crying.”

I quickly wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand. “I always cry when I see or hear something truly beautiful. You never want to take me to an art museum, because I cry all the way through them.”

“I understand. Let me think of something more upbeat that I can play for you.”

I asked, “Want me to play something else while you’re thinking?”

“I’d love that.”

I hopped off the bed and launched into an enthusiastic, hip-shaking rendition of “Waterloo.” After I completely rocked it out, Hawk clapped and said, “That was sensational. You really do love ABBA, don’t you?”

“So much. They just make me happy.”

As I climbed back onto the bed, he told me, “I’m going to have to learn to play some of their songs for next time—and I really would love to do this again, if that’s okay with you.”

I was thrilled to hear him say that. “I’d love it, too.”

We traded songs back and forth for maybe half an hour or so. But then I yawned, which made Hawk say, “It’s getting late. We should probably say good night.”

This had been the best night I’d had in a long time, and I really didn’t want it to end. But I didn’t want to seem needy either, so I smiled at the camera and said, “Okay.”

“Thank you for everything. This was the best evening I’ve had in a very long time.” It was surprising to hear him say exactly what I’d been thinking. Then he asked, “Would you like me to play you one more song to help you fall asleep?”

“Yes, please.”

I returned the ukulele to its spot under the bed, shut off the bright ring light, and crawled under the covers. Once I was settled in, Hawk told me, “This is the closest thing to a lullaby that I know. I used to play it for my niece and nephew when I’d babysit them. They’re eleven and thirteen and too cool for everything now, so they think this is unbelievably corny. I like it though, and maybe you will, too.”

He played the most gorgeous instrumental version of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and when he finished, I whispered, “That was beautiful.”

His voice was soft and gentle when he said, “Good night, Lark. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Sweet dreams.” I reached over to the laptop on my nightstand and tapped a key to wake it up. It was sad to watch the green light in the corner of my screen turn red, which told me Hawk had logged off. He said we’d get to do this again though, and I believed him.

After I logged out too and shut off the camera and all the lights, I found Jeff Goatblum and hugged him to my chest. There was a grin on my face as I began replaying the entire evening, moment by moment.

5

Lark

The next morning, I woke up feeling energized. After a quick shower, I got dressed in my favorite daytime pajamas—flannel with unicorns—and grabbed my laptop. Then I sat on the window seat in my bedroom and pulled up my fan site.

I knew I was setting myself up for disappointment by checking to see if Hawk had messaged me. Even if he really did plan to get in touch, that probably wasn’t going to happen right away. I still had to look, though.

There were a lot of private messages waiting for me, which always happened after I did a live stream. They were all from guys wanting to hook up, including several offering to pay me for sex. It was a short leap in a lot of people’s minds from cam boy to prostitute. All of them got the same polite cut-and-paste response, which basically boiled down to, “Thanks, I’m flattered, but I’m not available to meet in person.”

I was actually really uncomfortable with the idea of meeting up with random strangers and having sex with them. Despite what I did for a living, I wasn’t interested in getting paid for it, either. I needed to feel safe with someone if I was going to let them fuck me, and the only way that happened was by taking the time to get to know each other. That wasn’t what any of these guys wanted, though. They were just after a quick, no strings attached hook-up, and I wasn’t into that.

I scrolled through my in-box one last time after sending all my replies, but the one guy I actually wanted to hear from hadn’t messaged me. While I debated contacting him myself instead of waiting and hoping, a new message popped up on my screen, and a huge smile spread across my face.

Hawk had written: Hey. I wanted to thank you again for last night. I had a great time.

I responded right away, in the hope that he was still online: I did too, and I’m happy to hear from you!

A few seconds later, another message appeared: Wow, thank you for that very quick reply! What are you up to?

I wrote: Literally nothing. I just got up a little while ago and am sitting here being very lazy. What about you, what’re you up to?

Hawk answered: I’m on my way to the parking garage. I need to take my truck to the carwash, and then I’m having brunch with my parents.

I sent back: Sounds good. I should let you go, but let’s chat soon.

His last message made me squeal with delight. It said: Count on it.

I waited to make sure he didn’t send anything else before closing my laptop and setting it aside. Then I tried to remind myself not to get my hopes up about this guy. I didn’t know anything about him, except that he was probably in the same time zone since he was on his way to brunch. Obviously I’d learn more as we continued chatting, but one thing at a time. I’d heard from him again, and I was happy about that.

While I was sitting there looking out my window, a shiny black town car pulled up in front of the house. A minute later, Hudson Royce—my housemate Kel’s big, blond boyfriend—walked out to the car carrying a small suitcase and a garment bag. It was pretty obvious where he was headed. Hudson didn’t actually live here, so he must have spent the night with the intention of heading to the airport first thing in the morning—without Kel.

As I watched Hudson drive away, I felt so disappointed for my friend. It wasn’t that I thought his boyfriend was a bad guy. They seemed to love each other, but Hudson wasn’t out, and that was tough on Kel. Since Hudson was a professional football player, I could understand why coming out publicly was a big deal. But hiding their relationship meant Kel ended up getting excluded from a lot of things in his boyfriend’s life, including wherever Hudson was going this morning.

The timing was awful too, because today was December thirty-first, and it looked like Kel would be ringing in the new year on his own. We’d all been invited to a huge party, and I’d been on the fence about going. But Kel really needed to go out and have fun instead of sitting home and moping, so I had to convince him to come out and celebrate with me.

When I went downstairs, I found Kel and Eliot seated at the table in our retro pink and purple kitchen. The last time the hot pink Victorian had been remodeled was the sixties or seventies, and I thought the vintage kitsch really added to its charm.

After we said good morning, I asked, “Where are the grown-ups?”

That made Kel grin and Eliot frown. At some point I’d divided myself and my five housemates into two categories—kids and adults. Eliot Gutierrez was a thirty-year-old librarian and aspiring drag queen who felt he belonged in the grown-ups category. But Casey, Yolanda, and JoJo, besides being well into their thirties, also had their crap together in a way the three of us just didn’t. Plus, Eliot was a skinny little twink, just like Kel and me, and in my opinion that also landed him in the kids category.

“Casey spent the night at his boyfriend’s house,” Kel replied, as he reached for a half-empty glass of orange juice, “and Yo and JoJo went out to breakfast before all this stuff was delivered. Please help yourself to a bagel, and anything else you want. There’s enough here for like, ten people.” The kitchen table was loaded up with over a dozen bagels, tubs of cream cheese, bottles of juice, containers of fruit salad, and some other things. That told me Hudson had guilt-ordered a bunch of food before he took off.

As I picked out a cinnamon raisin bagel, I said, “I have a favor to ask you, Kel.”

“Sure. What do you need?”

“I really want to go to that big New Year’s Eve party tonight, but I don’t want to go by myself. Please come with me.”

A frown line appeared between Kel’s dark brows as he pushed his bangs aside. He was Korean-American and incredibly cute, and he’d recently bleached his hair white-blond, which looked amazing on him. “You saw Hudson leaving and figured out he was headed to the airport, didn’t you? Now you’re worried about me being alone on New Year’s Eve, and that’s the real reason you’re trying to get me to go to the party.”

Wow, he figured out what I was up to in record time. “I did see him leaving,” I admitted. “What’s he up to?”

“One of the networks is flying him to L.A. to be a guest commentator at a game tomorrow. This is his last season in the NFL, since he’s been dealing with several injuries. Now he’s really hoping to follow in his dad’s footsteps and land a job in broadcasting, so this is a big deal for him.” His father was an NFL Hall of Famer and one of the best-known football commentators on TV. From everything I’d heard, the man was also a jerk and a homophobe, and a big reason why Hudson was still in the closet.

I asked, “Why’d he leave a day early?”

“There’s a fancy dinner tonight with some bigwigs from the network, and Hudson thought it was important to go and schmooze.”

“Great, so you’re free and can come with me to the party,” I said, as I stuck the bagel in the toaster and took a seat on the counter.

“I have plans tonight,” he said.

“You do?”

Kel nodded. “I plan to stay home in comfy PJs, get very drunk, and pass out before midnight.”

“Please come with me,” I said. “I really want to go, but not by myself. You need to come along too, Eliot.” I knew that last part was a long shot. Eliot was a total introvert and a borderline hermit.

Predictably, Eliot muttered, as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to a big party.”

“You won’t be alone anyway,” Kel reminded me. “The rest of our housemates are going, and you can tag along with them.”

I shook my head. “That’s worse than going alone. Casey and his boyfriend are all sappy and in love, and Yo and JoJo are sappier than ever now that they’re engaged. I’d feel all sad and left out if I was the only one without a date.”

“I don’t know if you’re aware of this,” Kel teased, “but you’re actually adorable. If you go to that party on your own, it’ll take you about three minutes to pick up a hot guy to kiss at midnight.”

“Thanks for the compliment, but I’m terrible at flirting or trying to be sexy.”

Eliot asked, “What are you talking about? You literally make a living doing those two things.”

“I make a living taking my clothes off and shaking my ass for horny strangers.”

“That’s not all you do,” he said. “I heard you when you were doing an online chat in the living room the other day, and you were very flirty.”

“It’s different online,” I told him. “I’m basically playing a character—a sexy, confident version of myself.”

Eliot looked confused. “But you used to work as a stripper. Wouldn’t that take a huge amount of confidence?”

“I was playing a role then, too. I can act a certain way when I’m in front of an audience, but when it’s just me and a cute guy face-to-face, I’m super dorky and awkward. Anyway, that’s not the point,” I said. “I don’t want to go to the party to try to hit on people. I want to celebrate with my friends, and I want all of us to ring in the new year together.”

Kel chewed his lower lip before saying, “I just don’t know if I’m up for it.”

“Please? We all just had the most wonderful holiday season together, and I really want us to make one more memory before everything changes.”

Eliot asked, “What’s changing?”

“It’s just a matter of time before Casey officially moves in with Theo, and who knows where the rest of us will be this time next year?” My voice broke a little at that last part. I really hadn’t planned on getting emotional, but there it was.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Eliot muttered.

“I don’t plan to either, but we just don’t know what the new year will bring,” I told him. “Besides Casey moving out, which’ll happen any day now, Kel could end up moving in with his boyfriend, if Hudson gets his act together. Plus, once Yolanda and JoJo get married, maybe they’ll want to become parents, and maybe they’ll stop renting out rooms because they’ll need the space for their kids. Or maybe not, maybe they’ll rent Casey’s room to someone who ends up changing the entire dynamic of this place. Who knows? All I know for sure is that we have something special here, and I think of you guys as my family, so I want all of us to celebrate New Year’s together.”

I was rambling by that point, and I was right on the verge of tears. Kel got up and crossed the kitchen to me, and he gave my shoulder a friendly squeeze as he said, “Don’t be sad, Lark. You don’t know if any of that’s going to happen, except for Casey moving out, which is inevitable. But Theo’s house is only five blocks from here, so it’s not like we’ll never see the two of them again. Like you said, we’re a family. That’ll never change, no matter where we end up.”

“You’re right.” I blinked a few times to keep myself from crying.

“And you’re right too, about all of us going out tonight and making a good memory,” Kel said. “Count me in, I’ll go to the party with you.”

Eliot sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but what the hell. Count me in, too.”

I smiled at my housemates and told them, “This is going to be great. You’ll see.”

6

Dylan

I paused on the second floor landing and watched my phone screen for a few moments, in case Lark sent me another message. When it became obvious the virtual conversation had ended, I stuck the phone in the pocket of my dark blue hoodie and continued downstairs to the parking garage.

My first stop was the car wash. Once my truck was spotless, I made a quick stop at the farmers market, then continued on to my parents’ home in the Berkeley Hills.

They’d decided to downsize three years ago, and now they lived in a beautiful Craftsman bungalow with a view of the San Francisco Bay. They were both academics who taught at UC Berkeley, and this new home was perfect for them, both for the short commute and the manageable size. I missed the old house in Oakland though, the one I’d grown up in, not that I ever told them that. They didn’t need me casting a shadow on their happiness.

When I reached their front porch, I shifted the flowers and box of muffins I’d brought them and plucked a folded note off the door. My name was scrawled on the outside in my mother’s fluid handwriting, and inside it said: Hi sweetheart, let yourself in and make yourself comfortable. One of our neighbors is having a crisis of sorts, so your father and I went over to lend a hand. We won’t be long.

They’d given me a set of keys as soon as they’d moved in, but I’d never actually used them before. It wasn’t like I had a reason to come over if my parents weren’t home, and it felt odd letting myself into the house. Since I’d never lived here, I just didn’t have that feeling of belonging that I’d had with the old house.

I went to the attractive kitchen with its mahogany cabinets and dark green stone counters, and after I put the muffins beside the coffee maker, I began hunting for a vase. I had to give up after a while though, because I had no idea where my parents kept anything. The closest I could find was a glass pitcher, so I filled it with water and stuck the flowers in it for the time being. My mom could sort it out when they got home.

After that, I wandered into the living room. I knew what I’d find there, and I knew it would make my heart ache, but I went anyway.

The fireplace was beautifully made of dark wood in the Craftsman style, and there were about twenty photos on the wide mantel in various wood frames. I exhaled slowly and stepped closer.

My mom had arranged the photos more or less chronologically. On the far left was my parents’ wedding portrait. Beside it were a few photos of my sister Diane and me from our childhood, along with a pair of family portraits, taken ten years apart. Near the center of the mantel was Diane and her husband Rob’s wedding picture. And right beside it was mine and Travis’s.

I picked up the framed portrait and studied the two of us. My husband and I looked like kids, and in a lot of ways, we had been. Travis and I were twenty years old when we got married. Everyone said we were too young for that type of commitment, but they were wrong.

People used to joke that we looked like brothers, but that wasn’t really true. It was just that we were both tall and Black with the same muscular build, and we wore our hair very short. Okay, so there were some other similarities too, including the fact that we both looked a little dazed in that picture, but we were beaming at the camera. That really summed up our wedding day—we were so happy, but later we agreed that we’d felt a bit overwhelmed by the huge number of guests and the formality of it all, which his mother had insisted on.

I returned the photo to its spot on the mantel and continued moving to the right. Next up was another family portrait. It included Travis and Rob, and it had been taken just a few months after I got married. Diane was pregnant with her daughter at the time, but none of us knew it yet.

That portrait was followed by pictures of Diane and Rob’s children. Like my sister and me, the kids were two years apart, an older girl and a younger boy. There were posed photos of them as babies, then as kids, followed by some pictures of our family taken at various events—a Thanksgiving dinner, a Fourth of July celebration. Travis was in several of those photos.

And then he just wasn’t.

The photos at the end of the mantel were the most recent. My niece was thirteen now, and my nephew was eleven. Time moved so quickly. That was never more evident than when there were children in your life, growing up before your eyes.

I moved back toward the center of the mantel and picked up a photo of my husband with both kids asleep in his arms. They’d been two and four, and they adored their uncle Travis. He had the most beautiful look of wonder in his eyes. He’d wrongly believed he wasn’t good with kids before those two came along. The unconditional love they’d shown him and the bond they’d shared never ceased to amaze him.

A million memories came flooding back to me as I stared at that picture, and it became tough to breathe. This was why I didn’t display any photos in my apartment—because sometimes the memories dragged me under, and it was hard to find my way back out again.

Just then, I heard a key in the lock and rushed to put the picture back exactly where I’d found it. My parents had been worried about me ever since Travis died. If they found me like this, melancholy and wrapped up in the past, they’d just worry more, and I didn’t want to do that to them.

I went over to the window at the back of the room, and when my parents came in, I said, “Hi, you two. Your garden looks great, especially for the end of December.”

“It’s all overgrown,” my dad said. He was an avid gardener and the yards were his pride and joy, but he could never take a compliment. “I really need to get out there and do some work, but I keep finding other things to distract me.”

My mother came up to me and pulled me into an embrace. She smelled faintly of perfume, just like every day of her life, and the silk scarf she’d tied around her short hair tickled my cheek.

“Hi there, sweetheart,” she said. “Let me look at you.”

She thrust me out at arm’s length and kept a hold of my upper arms as she scrutinized me. Mom was tall at five-eleven, but I had about four inches on her. It didn’t matter though, because I was convinced she saw a ten-year-old boy whenever she looked at me.

Finally, she told me, “You look good. I can tell you’ve been working out harder than ever. You’re all swole.”

I chuckled and asked her, “Where did you learn that word?”

“From some of the undergrads in my intro to sociology course. They’re a colorful bunch.”

“I can imagine.” She let go of me, and as I followed her and my dad out of the living room, I asked, “Is your neighbor and their crisis okay?”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Mom said, with a wave of her hand. “Our new neighbor across the street is recently divorced and likes to think she’s completely helpless. The pilot light went out on her water heater, and she called us in a panic. I’m trying to be sympathetic, because I know she’s struggling. But the sooner she learns she’s capable of standing on her own two feet, the better off she’ll be.”

That was completely my mom. She was loving and nurturing, and I knew she’d drop everything to help a neighbor in need. But she was also practical and occasionally blunt.

When we reached the kitchen, she and my dad started pulling things from the refrigerator, and I asked, “How can I help with brunch?”

“Everything’s ready to go, so you can just relax,” my dad said, as he placed a pitcher of Bloody Marys on the counter. “We just had to put the meal on ice for a bit while we calmed our neighbor.”

I took a seat on a barstool at the kitchen island while Dad filled three glasses with his spicy signature cocktail, garnished them with celery sticks, and put one in front of me. Then I watched the familiar routine of my parents preparing a meal together, in perfect sync with each other as always.

They were both tall and slender with a bohemian edge to their style, like my mom’s flowy, 1970s-era skirts and my dad’s penchant for button-down shirts with funky patterns. They were in their sixties with no intention of retiring any time soon, and aside from my dad’s receding hairline and the fact that they wore glasses now, they hadn’t changed much from the photos I’d seen of them when they first met.

That had happened back in grad school at UC Berkeley. They’d dated for three years and got married after they completed their PhDs. This spring, they’d be celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary.

Even though they were strong and successful as individuals, to me they always seemed like two halves of a whole, and they had the kind of marriage most people could only dream about. It was built on a foundation of love, mutual respect, and the understanding that they were partners for life, ready to face anything that came their way as a team.

They’d always been my blueprint for how to be in a relationship, and Travis and I had worked hard to build what my parents had. In the end though, we’d only had seven years together.

I hadn’t meant to slip into the fog that came with getting lost in my memories. Seeing those photos was probably what had set me on that path. I didn’t know how long I’d zoned out, but I snapped back to the present when my mom’s hand covered my own.

When I looked up at her, Mom asked, “You’re thinking about Travis, aren’t you?” I nodded, then slid my hand out from beneath hers and took a sip of my drink. “Are you still seeing your therapist, sweetheart?”

“Yeah, but we meet once a month now, instead of weekly. After over six years, I guess I ran out of stuff to say.”

“How’s your anxiety?”

Damn, she was cutting right to it. “It’s manageable, and you don’t really need to ask. You’d know if it wasn’t under control because I’d be back on medical leave. People with uncontrolled anxiety aren’t allowed to be firefighters, because we obviously wouldn’t be able to do our job.”

I tried hard to keep the defensiveness out of my voice. She was asking these questions out of love, I knew that. It was just frustrating, because we’d been down this road a million times, and I didn’t want to keep talking about all the ways Travis’s death had left me broken.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was tough to be the only damaged member of such a perfect family. My parents and sister were strong and resilient. When they dealt with adversity, it only made them stronger. I’d learned I wasn’t like that.

Nobody was saying anything, so I continued with, “Anyway, I’ve been fine. I saw the photos on the mantel, and I guess they stirred up some things. It’s not like I spend every day just…lost.”

“When I asked you before, you said the photos didn’t bother you, but maybe I should move them into our bedroom. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable when you come over.” My mom’s voice was gentle. I wasn’t looking at her, because I didn’t want to see the pity in her eyes.

“No, please don’t do that. I love those photos, and I want to remember. It would be a shame to hide them away.”

Fuck. I was unravelling right in front of them. My parents had stopped what they were doing, and Dad put his arm around Mom’s shoulders, to comfort her.

He knew—we all knew—that having a broken son had been hard on her. Claudia Cadence-Hawkins was an absolutely brilliant human being, someone who could solve almost any problem presented to her. But she didn’t know how to help me, no matter how hard she tried, and that was difficult for her. If only she’d realize I was a problem without a solution. None of us knew what, if anything, would ever make me whole again.

“Okay,” she said. “If you’re sure…”

“I am. So, Dad, what projects have been keeping you from your garden? Have you been working on another book?” They gratefully went along with the abrupt subject change.

After we finished eating, I helped my dad do some clean-up in the garden. While he kept the front yard pristine, the back definitely needed a little help. We were about an hour into the job when he asked, “Have you ever tried any of those online dating sites, Dylan? Allen Hirsch’s daughter met a terrific woman on one of those, and they’re getting married in June.”

“Not you too, Dad. Do you know how many people keep trying to get me back out into the dating pool? My friend Malone’s wife has practically made a part time job out of finding people to set me up with,” I muttered.

“Well, maybe there’s a reason for that.”

“I know you mean well—” How many times had I said that to friends and family members? “—but there’s nothing wrong with being single. Not everyone needs to be in a relationship to be happy.”

“You’re right about that, but there’s a flaw in your argument. You’re clearly not happy, son. If you were, your mother and I, and Malone’s wife, and everyone else who cares about you wouldn’t be bringing this up all the time.”

“Do I really seem like I live in a constant state of depression?”

“No, not anymore,” he said, as he leaned on his rake amid a tangle of overgrown nasturtiums. “You did for the first two years after Travis died. We know you’re doing better now, but you still don’t seem like your old self. You used to have this real zest for life, and you’d find joy in all sorts of things. You’re not like that anymore.”

“Maybe it’s just because I’m older. How many people in their mid-thirties act like they did in their twenties?”

He adjusted his glasses as he studied me closely. “That’s a fair point. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect you to behave like a younger version of yourself. But tell me this—when was the last time you were truly happy?”

The words left my mouth before I thought about what I was saying. “Last night. I was talking to a guy I met online, and it was kind of amazing.”

I definitely shouldn’t have said that, because it instantly got his hopes up. My parents had way too much riding on the idea of me finding someone, maybe because it was the only way they’d finally stop worrying about me.

Dad looked delighted as he exclaimed, “That’s fantastic!”

“Please don’t build this into something it’s not. I just had a good conversation with someone. That’s it.”

“I know, but it means you’re trying to get back out there. That’s all we’ve been hoping to see from you.”

I couldn’t explain that it didn’t mean that at all, not when his face was lit up like a Christmas tree. Instead, I suppressed a sigh and turned my attention back to the garden.

But then I realized it might not be the worst thing that he’d read too much into what I’d said. If my parents thought I was making an effort to meet people, maybe they’d stop worrying about me—at least for a little while, until they realized nothing had actually changed.

When I got back to San Francisco later that afternoon, I bought some groceries, then went home and prepared dinner. I made a big pot of lentil stew not just for that evening, but to replenish my freezer, for days when cooking felt like way too much effort. While it was simmering and making the loft smell wonderful, I deep cleaned my bathroom, changed the bed linens, and did my laundry.

Then I made a point of setting the table and sitting down for dinner, instead of eating while standing in the kitchen. I felt calmer tonight, which was usually the case after being away from the fire station for twenty-four hours. That sense of calmness made it easier to take better care of myself.

After I ate and cleaned up, I took a seat on the couch with my laptop and checked the time. My plan was to put in an appearance at that New Year’s Eve party around ten and stay for about an hour. Staying home sounded much better, but I hadn’t seen my friends in a while and didn’t want them to think I was blowing them off.

It was still early though, so I decided to log on to Lark’s fan page. I was hoping to find him doing a live stream, but no such luck. I also wanted to send him a message, so I wrote: Just thought I’d say hi. I hope you had a good day.

After I hit send, I frowned at the screen. I had no game whatsoever. Seriously, none.

That thought made me pause and question my motives. Was I trying to flirt with this person, and if so, to what end?

Besides, he probably had guys flirting with him constantly. Being outgoing and friendly must be a big part of running this type of fan page, and a lot of people probably misinterpreted that. They might even assume they had something going with him, just because he’d been nice to them, or because they’d exchanged a few messages.

Wait, was that what I was doing?

Maybe what had happened the night before was just him doing his job—making me feel like we had a connection, so I’d keep subscribing to his page.

Nah. I wasn’t cynical enough to believe that, especially not about Lark. There was no way that had just been an act last night. He was sweet and genuine, and we really did have some sort of connection. I was sure of it.

After waiting around for a while to see if a message from him would pop up, I clicked back over to his start page. The right side of the screen was filled with a photo of him from the waist up. He was shirtless and smiling flirtatiously at the camera while pushing back his dark hair with both hands, and he looked so sexy.

Beside the photo, it said: Lark, age 26, San Francisco, California. Originally from L.A., this sweet and sexy former exotic dancer is ready to rock your world. I wondered if someone else had written that tag line, because it really didn’t sound like something he’d say.

There were a few icons along the top of the screen, and clicking the first one took me to a photo gallery. It was divided into three sections labeled Just Me, Costumes, and NSFW, which meant not safe for work—in other words, explicit photos.

Just Me turned out to be selfies he’d taken around town over the last year. His hair was dark brown and pretty long in the oldest photos. Now, it barely grazed his shoulders. For a few months, he became a blond, before returning to the dark brown that seemed to be his real hair color. He looked cute either way.

Lark was by himself in every picture, which might have been intentional to respect his friends’ privacy. Some of the backgrounds included Delores Park and a well-known vintage ice cream parlor in the Mission, but the majority of them were taken in his bedroom.

Next, I moved on to the photos of him in costumes, which were pure joy. They ranged from campy to sexy and sometimes managed to be both at the same time. I liked the fact that he really seemed to be enjoying himself in every picture.

After going through those two galleries, I chewed my lower lip and debated checking out the third. Even though he’d gotten naked for me the night before, this felt different. I couldn’t really explain why. It just did.

Ultimately, I ended up closing Lark’s page without looking at his naked photos. That just seemed like the right thing to do.

7

Dylan

Because I ended up dragging my feet and nearly talked myself out of going, I didn’t get to the party until ten-thirty. It was so loud and crowded that I almost turned right back around and left. But it had taken me half an hour to walk here—under the assumption that both parking and cabs would be impossible to find on New Year’s Eve—so I decided I might as well say hello to my friends before making my escape.

River and Cole lived in a tiny house, which was located in the backyard of a grand Victorian mansion in one of San Francisco’s wealthiest neighborhoods. I’d first met River about four years ago through the Victorian’s owner, a feisty little old lady who everyone called Nana. She tended to set off her smoke alarm a lot, which put her on a first-name basis with the entire crew at my fire station.

Nana had pushed River and me together, so we’d agreed to go out for her sake—and in my case, to appease everyone who’d already started asking when I was going to get back out there and start dating. But we both knew nothing was going to come from it. I was still a wreck from losing my husband, and River and Cole were broken up at the time, but they were madly in love and just needed to work some stuff out. Our “date” ended with me putting River in an Uber and sending him to Cole, and we’d been friends ever since.

As I hesitated on the sidewalk in front of the huge Victorian, I started to wonder if I’d actually be able to find those two in all this chaos. Nana was a fierce ally of the LGBT+ community, and it seemed like half of gay San Francisco had shown up for the party.

The whole thing was a sight to behold, including the mansion itself, which was permanently painted in a shimmering rainbow and currently outlined with thousands of hot pink Christmas lights. To add to the festive atmosphere, about twenty go-go boys wearing nothing but briefs were dancing to techno music in the compact front yard.

At least a hundred party guests were clustered on the porch, driveway, and sidewalk, and they were starting to spill into the street, much to the annoyance of the neighbor directly across from Nana’s house, who stood in his front yard absolutely fuming. I’d heard stories about that man, and since he was a huge homophobe I had to wonder if the go-go boys were there just to make his blood boil.

I made my way inside, which was even more crowded and chaotic than what was happening out front. When I texted my friends to find out where they were, River replied: Hey dude, glad you made it! We’re in the backyard, in front of our house. See you in a minute!

As pounding dance music reverberated through me, I cut through the Victorian’s elegant foyer with its giant, crystal chandelier, then the kitchen, where I ran into Nana and her husband. We chatted briefly, and Nana kissed my cheeks and stuck a huge tumbler of spiked punch into my hand before I continued on my way.

It turned out most of the party was actually happening in the backyard, which was huge by San Francisco standards. It took a while to weave through the crowd, but I finally reached my friends, whose tiny house was tucked away in a back corner of Nana’s property.

Cole was the first to grab me in a back-slapping embrace, and he exclaimed, “Hey, Dylan, good to see you!”

River grabbed me next, and there was more hugging and back-slapping. “Happy New Year, man,” he said. “I was starting to think you’d decided to blow off the party.”

Cole gestured at the group gathered in front of their tiny house and said, “Come and sit down. I think you know everyone.”

A blue-haired artist named Skye and his husband Dare slid over and made room for me on their bench, and greetings were exchanged all around as I squeezed in. Six married couples were seated around an unlit fire pit, which held a metal tub filled with ice and beer. Cole was right, I’d met all their friends before, and I genuinely liked them.

For nearly an hour and a half, I nursed that big and surprisingly delicious boozy tropical punch and listened to everyone exchange funny stories. Many of them centered around Nana, who was quite a character. During that time, other people joined us, then eventually drifted off again, but the core group remained.

I tried to relax and enjoy myself, but spending time with a bunch of happy couples made me feel pretty lonely. A few minutes before midnight, I got to my feet and told the group I was heading out. River got up too and asked, “You sure, D? We’re getting close to counting down the new year.”

There was no way to tell him the truth without sounding pathetic—that I wanted to leave because watching all these loving, beautiful gay couples kiss when the clock struck twelve was going to make me feel even lonelier, so I’d rather avoid it. Instead, I said, “Yeah, you know, I think it’s best to beat the rush.”

That didn’t even make sense, since it wasn’t like the party was going to clear out all at once at twelve-oh-one. But it seemed like River understood, and he gave me a hug as he said, “Alright, my friend. I’m glad you stopped by.”

After I said goodbye to Cole and the rest of the guys, I started the process of working my way back through the crowd. It was even more chaotic this time, because champagne was being passed around, and groups were starting to cluster together in anticipation of the New Year’s countdown. When I was halfway through the kitchen, it occurred to me that I was a complete dumb-ass and should have just left by the back gate. But by now the front door was closer, so I continued on.

Just as I reached the foyer, everyone started counting backwards from ten. I wished I’d left earlier. But then, I froze in my tracks as my breath caught.

Lark was standing about ten feet in front of me, bouncing on his toes as he and everyone else yelled the countdown.

He looked sensational. The crowd in this part of the house had thinned a bit, so there was a clear line of sight between us. That meant I was able to take him in from head to toe. He was dressed in a silver sweater that dipped seductively off one shoulder, glittery black ankle boots with four-inch heels, and black satin shorts, which showed off his strong, sexy legs.

I found myself drawn to Lark as if I was caught in a tractor beam. No decision was made. I just went to him.

He was standing with two guys, and when the clock struck twelve, golden strips of confetti began raining down on us. The crowd was yelling and cheering as he turned and looked around.

His gaze landed on me when I appeared at his side, and his radiant smile brightened. He obviously had no idea who I was since he’d never seen my face, so it startled me when he gave me a quick kiss. Then he exclaimed, “Happy New Year!”

I leaned in and kissed him again, possibly emboldened by the alcohol, which had left me with a slight buzz. It started out light and gentle, but then he pulled me close by the front of my jacket and deepened the kiss. My heart started racing, and I cupped his face between my palms. He tasted like chocolate and peppermint, and his body was so warm as he leaned into me.

When the kiss finally ended, I took a step back. We both seemed surprised, and we stared at each other for a long moment. Then he grinned playfully.

I just went on staring at him, because I was absolutely reeling from that kiss. It had left me flustered, and turned on, and things I couldn’t even find the words to describe. I was breathing too fast, and my heart was pounding, and I didn’t really understand what had just happened.

In the next instant, two couples rushed over, and a big guy with a beard and messy hair yelled, “Happy New Year, fam!” Then he grabbed Lark in a bear hug, while two women hugged his companions.

I took another step back. The crowd surged around us, separating me from Lark and his friends.

Then I turned and bolted for the door.

8

Lark

The party at Nana Dombruso’s house was wild. My housemates and I arrived around nine, and all of us danced our butts off for a while. Then Casey and Theo, and Yolanda and JoJo, went off to socialize, while Eliot and Kel worked on getting very drunk. I didn’t really like alcohol, so I concentrated my efforts on eating as much as possible from the dessert buffet that was set up in Nana’s gorgeous living room.

Actually, the whole place was gorgeous. It was like gay heaven. There was a sparkly rainbow painted on the front of the huge Victorian, the yard was full of cute go-go boys, and Nana’s Christmas tree was a ten-foot-tall rainbow-colored beacon of holiday happiness.

I couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like to grow up with a family like this. Nana had several gay grandsons, and that was probably what had started her on the path of being the most amazing LGBTQ ally ever. She tended to “adopt” stray gay men, especially ones like me who were on our own. I’d just met her at Christmastime through Casey’s brother, and she was already treating me like a member of her family. That meant everything to me.

As midnight approached, I ate one last chocolate-peppermint truffle from the dessert table. I’d had so many that I felt slightly queasy. I was doing way better than Eliot and Kel though, who’d been tossing back cocktails and were totally hammered.

They were sprawled out on the couch, next to a drag queen who’d fallen asleep and was snoring. “It’s almost midnight,” I announced, as I hoisted Kel into an upright position. “We need to go find our housemates, so we can all celebrate together.”

“That sounds like a lot of effort,” he muttered.

I sent Casey a text to find out where everyone was, and we agreed to meet up under the chandelier by the front door. It took some coaxing, but I finally got Kel and Eliot on their feet and moving in the right direction.

We reached the entryway just as the crowd started shouting the countdown. I turned to my friends and exclaimed, “Here we go!” We all started yelling along with the crowd, while I bounced up and down excitedly.

At midnight, everyone yelled, “Happy New Year!” Eliot and Kel turned to each other, kissed the air, and drunkenly slumped together with Kel’s face mashed into Eliot’s shoulder. Then they possibly dozed off for a few moments.

Meanwhile, I turned to look for someone to plant a New Year’s kiss on and discovered an absolutely gorgeous guy standing right beside me. He was tall and muscular, with broad shoulders and the warmest dark eyes. It seemed like he wanted to say something, but instead he just stood there. Maybe he was shy. I flashed him a smile, then planted a quick kiss on him and exclaimed, “Happy New Year!”

I was pleasantly surprised when he kissed me again. It was light and tentative, but it ignited something in me. I grabbed the front of his jacket and pulled him close as I deepened the kiss. He tasted sweet, like pineapples and oranges. When he reached up and gently held my face between his hands, I wanted to melt.

The kiss went on for a while. Once it finally ended, he seemed startled and took a step back. He still hadn’t said a word, but he stared at me with what looked an awful lot like desire. I grinned flirtatiously, hoping he’d take that as encouragement and say something.

Just then, the rest of my housemates joined us. Casey seemed a bit tipsy as he yelled, “Happy New Year, fam!” Then he squashed me in a bear hug, while Theo, our sober designated driver, stood back and grinned. Meanwhile, Yolanda and JoJo hugged Kel and Eliot. The boys hadn’t puked or passed out yet, so that was good.

After Casey let go of me, Yolanda and JoJo each gave me a hug. Then I turned to say something to the cute guy I’d been kissing and found he’d completely vanished. I stood on my toes to try to spot him in the thinning crowd, but there was no sign of him. That was surprising, since he was easily six-foot-three and should have stuck out—unless he’d bolted out the front door the moment my back was turned.

I whirled around to face my companions and exclaimed, “He Cinderellaed me!”

Eliot frowned at that and adjusted his glasses as he asked, “Are you using the word ‘Cinderella’ as a verb?”

I stared at him for a beat before asking, “Did anyone see where that guy went?”

Casey looked confused. “What guy?”

At the same time, Yolanda asked, “You mean the tall, handsome Black guy in the canvas bomber jacket?”

I nodded. “We were kissing right before you guys showed up.”

“I saw him standing there when we joined you,” Yolanda said, “but I didn’t know you’d been making out.”

“We weren’t making out.” I thought about that and admitted, “Well, maybe a little. But then he just ran off without a word! Why would he do that?”

“No idea.” Yolanda put an arm around Eliot when he started to slump and asked him, “Exactly how much did you have to drink, cuz?” Sometimes I forgot those two were cousins.

“Lots and lots,” he muttered.

“We should probably head home before these two pass out,” Theo said, as he started guiding a swerving Kel toward the front door. On the way out, I kept looking for my handsome Cinderella, but he’d vanished.

We walked two blocks to Theo’s funky, French car. Eliot complained the whole way, but we’d been lucky to find a parking spot that close.

Casey rode shotgun, while everyone else crammed into the backseat. Yolanda and JoJo snuggled up cozily while the rest of us formed a twink pile with me at the bottom. “Please don’t barf. I’m begging you,” I muttered, as Kel settled in on my lap and Eliot sort of wrapped himself around both of us.

Somehow, we made it home without a major, booze-based catastrophe. When we pulled up in front of our hot pink Victorian, Casey said, “I’m going to spend tonight at Theo’s house, so good night all. Don’t forget, you’re coming over for brunch tomorrow.” Happy New Years were exchanged as we spilled out of the back seat.

Once we made it inside, Yolanda and JoJo said good night and headed to their bedroom at the back of the first floor. At the same time, Kel and Eliot climbed the stairs, mumbling about not feeling so good. That left me standing there by myself.

I was too wound up to go to bed, so I went into the living room and plugged in the pretty colored lights on the Christmas tree. Then I flopped down on the couch, took off my new black glitter boots, and rubbed my sore feet through my short, pink socks.

While I still looked halfway decent, I took the phone from my pocket and snapped a selfie with the tree in the background. Then I logged on to my fan page and posted it with a New Year’s message.

There was a crocheted blanket draped over the back of the couch, and I pulled it over me and got comfortable before checking my messages. As usual, I had a couple from guys looking to hook up, which I’d reply to in the morning. There was also one from Hawk, which he’d sent several hours ago: Just thought I’d say hi. I hope you had a good day.

Simple as it was, the message still made me smile because it showed he’d been thinking about me. I replied: I’m happy to hear from you! I just got home from a big New Year’s party, where I ate too much chocolate, my friends got drunk, and I kissed a cute guy at midnight. He then did a perfect Cinderella impression and ran away when my back was turned. He failed to leave a shoe behind though, so I’m not sure how I’ll ever find my prince again. How was your night? Did you do anything fun? Also, would you think it was weird if I gave you my number? It might be easier to text instead of messaging this way, but feel free to say no. Anyway, I should let you go, but let’s talk soon. Happy New Year!

After I sent the message, I reread it and frowned. It was too long and rambling, and maybe he’d think it was too soon to exchange numbers. That was actually a big step, compared to the anonymity of fan page messaging. Plus, maybe it had been weird to tell him about kissing some guy. I’d been shooting for funny, but there was a good chance I’d landed on awkward instead.

In fact, I’d probably just blown it. I didn’t even know this guy’s real name, and we’d only been chatting for a day, so why couldn’t I be more chill?

This was how I always ruined potential relationships—I wanted too much, too soon, and that sent guys running. Why couldn’t I just be happy with messages on my fan page? Why’d I have to try to make it into something more?

I held my phone for a while and watched to see if he’d message me back. But then I realized I was acting kind of pathetic, and I sighed and logged off.

I really had to learn to stop getting my hopes up.

I ended up falling asleep on the couch and was still there when JoJo and Yolanda came into the living room the next morning. They were carrying big, plastic storage boxes, and JoJo’s platinum blonde hair was tied back with a bandana, which told me they had work to do.

When I sat up and the blanket slid off me, Yolanda drew a sharp breath, dropped her box, and put her fists up. She might be tiny, but given the choice between fight or flight, that tough cookie went straight to fight.

“Sorry,” I muttered, as I pushed my hair out of my face. “I didn’t mean to pop up like a jack-in-the-box and startle you.”

“We thought you’d already gone to brunch,” JoJo said. “Kel mentioned your door was open and you weren’t in your room so we thought now would be a good time to, um…”

“You’re taking the tree down. I know. I’m going to shower and change while you do what you have to do.” I collected my boots and phone and headed for the stairs.

When I returned maybe fifteen minutes later, the couple stopped what they were doing and stood there looking guilty. They knew I was overly attached to the tree, and they didn’t want to make me sad by taking it apart in front of me. That was probably why they’d only removed the ornaments on the far side of the tree so far, so it still looked okay from my angle. I knew that because I saw a couple of the ornaments on the coffee table, waiting to get wrapped in tissue paper before they were packed away in the boxes.

“Thanks for trying to spare my feelings, but I’ve accepted the fact that the tree’s dead and getting kicked out today.” That wasn’t true. I hadn’t accepted it at all, but I didn’t want them to feel bad about it. The tree was definitely getting crispy, and it couldn’t stay forever, even if I wanted it to. “I’m going to go ahead and head to Theo’s house. Are you two planning to join us?”

“Yeah, probably in an hour,” Yolanda said, as she smoothed a strand of dark hair toward her ponytail. “Theo and Casey know we’ll be late. I’m not sure when Eliot and Kel will be getting there, though. Kel’s hung over, and I’m not even sure Eliot’s awake yet.”

“Okay. Well, see you in a bit.” I started to head for the door, but then I turned back and said, “Please don’t leave the tree’s carcass lying in the gutter for trash pickup. That would be so sad.”

“We won’t. We promise,” JoJo said.

“What are you going to do with it?”

Yolanda muttered, “Best not to ask.”

“Yeah, you’re right. See you soon.” I took a last look at the tree before heading out.

The sky was really blue and the sun was shining. It was on the cold side though, so I pulled up my hood before making the short trek to Theo’s house.

My path took me through Delores Park, which was almost empty. I paused to take a photo on a park bench, because my unicorn horn hoodie with its big fabric ears was pretty cute. Then I posted it to my fan page.

I’d never been the kind of person who loved to take tons of selfies, but the thing about having followers was that they constantly wanted new content. I didn’t do much that was interesting. It wasn’t like I was always jetting off to exotic locations or anything. For me, just leaving the house was an event, so I took photos whenever I went anywhere.

Once the photo was posted, I clicked over to check my messages, but there were none. I considered sending Hawk a good morning message, but maybe that would be weird. He already had one unanswered message from me, so it was probably best not to let them pile up.

I logged out of my fan page, then decided to send a text to my younger brother Logan, the last member of my family who still spoke to me. He’d only been twelve when I was kicked out. It wasn’t like pre-teen boys were great about sending messages and staying in touch, so we’d drifted apart over the years.

But I was trying to rebuild our relationship, so I’d begun texting him pretty regularly. This one said: Happy New Year, Logan! I hope this year is fabulous for you! That was followed by a bunch of emojis.

He replied a few moments later with: HNY

I tried not to be disappointed. That was something anyway, even if he couldn’t be bothered to actually write out “Happy New Year” or ask if I was okay. I decided to try for a bit more and wrote: How’ve you been?

A minute ticked by before he responded: Just super tired. I’m walking into work right now so I’ll TTYS

I wanted to ask if he wanted me to send him some money, but when I’d offered before he’d just seemed offended. He worked three jobs and was trying to put himself through college without racking up a ton of student loan debt, and I felt bad for him. His life definitely wasn’t easy. He still lived at home to save money, and it wasn’t like our parents were warm and loving. Plus, he was always either working or in school, so no wonder he was tired.

I felt a bit deflated as I got up and continued on to Theo’s house. This year wasn’t off to a great start. But when I arrived at my destination, I stuck a smile on my face. There was no reason to drag my friends down with me, just because I felt off.

Theo lived in a stunningly beautiful pearl gray Edwardian that he’d inherited, which looked like a big doll house. Casey answered the door when I knocked and gave me a hug before leading me to the kitchen.

This was my first time visiting, since Casey and the doc were a fairly new couple. I looked around curiously, taking in all the details. There were tons of books, sometimes stuck in random places, and more houseplants than I’d ever seen. A mini forest was positioned in front of every sunny window.

Casey’s plant-loving boyfriend was dressed in jeans and a heavy metal T-shirt, which was way different than the buttoned-down doctor I was used to. He handed me a hot chocolate as soon as I entered the kitchen, and I thanked him and said, “Everyone else should be here before too long.”

“Yeah, Yolanda messaged us,” Casey said. “We actually wanted to talk to you about a couple of things, so that works out. Let’s go have a seat in the family room.”

I knew what was coming. He was going to tell me he was moving in with Theo, I was sure of it. Since I was the emotional one in our group, I was getting the news separately. But I wasn’t going to cry and make this about me, even though splitting up our pink Victorian family was hard to take.

There was a bunch of food set up on a sideboard in the den. The cozy room was just off the kitchen, and it had comfortable furniture, big windows looking out over the backyard, and of course a ton of plants.

They invited me to help myself to the buffet, but I told them I’d wait for the rest of our friends to join us. I took a seat on a dark blue club chair while Casey and Theo sat down on the couch. Between us was a coffee table loaded with books and one stray houseplant.

“We have a favor to ask you,” Casey began. Okay, maybe this wasn’t going where I thought it was. “I’d mentioned Theo and I were planning a trip to Hawaii, as we finally settled on the first week in February. We wanted to ask if you’d be willing to house-sit for us while we’re gone. You could either stay here or come and go, whatever works for you. We just need someone to look after things and water the plants, and obviously we’ll pay you, so—”

I blurted, “You don’t have to pay me, and I’m thrilled to house-sit! Wow, I can’t believe you’d trust me with such a big responsibility.”

“Of course we trust you, Lark,” Theo said. “It should be pretty straightforward, too. I’ll write up instructions for what to water and when. Other than that, it’d be great if you could bring in the mail and, like Casey said, just generally keep an eye on things. I’ll feel better knowing the house isn’t sitting empty while we’re gone.”

I took a sip of my hot chocolate before saying, “This is fantastic. I thought you were about to break the news that you were moving out, Casey.”

“Actually, that’s the other thing I wanted to tell you.” Oh yeah, he’d actually said there were a couple of things, hadn’t he? “I paid my rent for January, but I’m officially moving in with Theo this week.” The couple exchanged the sweetest look as they joined hands.

That made my heart hurt, but I smiled at them and said, “Congrats! I knew it was just a matter of time. Do you need help moving your furniture? I’m stronger than I look, and I’d be happy to lend a hand.”

They seemed surprised by my reaction. “Thanks for the offer,” Casey said, “but I decided to leave it behind. Yolanda can charge a bit more rent if she offers the room fully furnished, and I won’t be needing any of those things once I move in here.”

“Makes sense.”

He watched me for a moment before asking, “Are you okay with this news?”

I chose my words carefully, which was a lot different than my usual approach of blurting out anything that came to mind. “I’m going to miss you for sure, but it’s not like you’re going very far. We’ll still see each other all the time.”

“Definitely.”

I put the cocoa on the coffee table and got up as I said, “I need to visit the restroom. I’ll be right back.” Then I calmly left the room.

Once I was in the bathroom with the door shut behind me, I exhaled slowly and worked on not crying. Casey and Theo didn’t need to see me upset. Those two were an amazing couple who absolutely belonged together, and I really was happy for them.

It was just that I always had a hard time with people I cared about moving on and leaving me behind. A few years back, I’d dated a smug college student who was majoring in psychology, and he used to love to analyze me. According to him, about ninety percent of my personality was a response to my massive abandonment issues, from when my parents disowned me and almost everyone else in my family turned their back on me.

Ninety percent was an exaggeration, but the rest of it rang true. If it was up to me, I’d gather up all the people I loved and keep them with me forever…not like, locked in the basement or anything. That kind of made me sound like a psycho. I probably wasn’t a psycho though, because if I was, that smug college dude definitely would have told me.

After a few minutes, I flushed the toilet to sell the idea that I’d really been using the bathroom, instead of hiding and trying to get it together. I paused to look in the mirror and frowned at my reflection as I pushed the unicorn hood off my head. Then I tried to smile as I went to join my friends.

9

Dylan

I felt awful about running off after Lark and I shared a kiss. That obviously hadn’t been the right thing to do, and I owed him an explanation.

But how could I explain suddenly finding myself overwhelmed and confused, because I’d felt a spark and that had never happened with anyone other than my husband? How could I tell him I was racked with guilt about that, because I felt like I was cheating on a man who’d been gone for years?

That was too much to put into a text. It was also way too much to dump on a virtual stranger, just a couple of days after meeting him.

I had to say something, though. He needed to know I was the person he’d kissed, and I wanted to apologize for leaving without saying anything. I’d logged on to send him a message when I got home from the party and discovered he’d already messaged me. He’d even randomly mentioned the kiss he’d shared with a stranger, who’d then disappeared on him. How weird was it going to seem to him when he found out that was me?

I’d started to write a reply, but it turned into a jumbled mess so I deleted it. In the morning, I tried again. I was about to leave for work, and at this point I just needed to say anything, so he didn’t think I’d ghosted him.

I decided to keep it simple. Even though there was a lot I needed to tell him, it would be so much easier to have an actual conversation at some point, instead of trying to write it all out. The message I ended up sending said: Hey, Happy New Year. So, funny story. You know that guy you kissed at midnight? That was me. Sorry I left without saying anything. I’m on my way to work, but I’d like to talk to you sometime soon. By the way, my name is Dylan Hawkins.

I reread the message and decided it was better than nothing. Then I stuck the phone in my pocket and checked my reflection in the mirror inside my closet door. I was dressed in dark blue work pants and a matching T-shirt, with the fire department logo on the left side of my chest. We also had dress uniforms, but this more casual uniform was what we normally wore at the station when there were no special events planned.

After I tightened the laces on my black work boots, I pulled on a department-issued windbreaker and picked up my tote bag. Time to shift back into work mode. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, and then I straightened my posture and left the apartment.

Our shifts began and ended at eight a.m., but most of us usually got to the station about twenty minutes early. That gave us time to gather in the kitchen and chat over coffee, along with some of the outgoing crew.

Then at eight sharp, we sat down with our coffee around the long kitchen table, and our shift leader delivered the morning briefing. This was a time to discuss any special events or scheduled visits to the station, tasks that needed to get done that day, and our individual assignments.

Usually, the briefings went off without a hitch. But this time, we didn’t even make it five minutes before the alarm sounded. It was always jarring. My heart started pounding and my adrenaline surged as all of us leapt to our feet.

The next minute passed like a choreographed dance, each move practiced countless times—rush to the ground floor, pull on our waiting fire equipment, board the ladder truck, go, go, go. The door at the front of the bay rattled open automatically, and we put on our headphones to shield us from the piercing siren as the huge vehicle lunged forward.

We shot through the city streets, surging up and over the hills, blaring the horn at intersections to avoid a collision. We were responding to a call for a possible structural fire, but there was no way of knowing what we’d find until we got there. I clutched the grab bar beside my seat, weighed down under my heavy helmet and fire suit, and concentrated on my breathing as I tried not to think.

We arrived on the scene in a matter of minutes and scanned the building as the truck came to a stop. There was no visible fire or smoke, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

As we piled out of the truck, we were met by a skinny guy in boxers and a tank top. He waved his arms and yelled, “Sorry, false alarm! I’m the one who called, because I smelled smoke and heard a fire alarm going off. Turns out it was just my neighbor, who’s a complete moron. He put some leftover pizza in the oven for breakfast, then forgot about it and went out to walk his dog. He’s back home now, and the pizza’s burned to a crisp, but there’s no actual fire.”

We still had to go into the building and perform a thorough sweep, because that was protocol. It turned out to be exactly what the guy in his underwear had said, and as we trudged back to the truck sometime later, Malone muttered, “It’s going to be one of those days.”

Unfortunately, he was right about that. We went out on five more calls over the next few hours, two of them back-to-back. Some shifts were just like that, while others might not result in a single call.

They all proved to be either false alarms or things we could easily handle, but they still took their toll. Every time our alarm went off, there was that accompanying shot of adrenaline, which carried us through the call. We could barely recover from one adrenaline surge and the crash that followed before we were bombarded with another.

Malone and I were assigned to kitchen duty—by choice, since we actually enjoyed cooking—and we ended up getting a late start on dinner after returning from yet another call. My friend was running on a hell of a lot of caffeine at that point, and he was loud and animated.

The first thing he did was brew more coffee. Then, as we pulled ingredients from the refrigerator, he asked, “What are the chances we’ll actually be able to sit down and eat this meal?”

“Slim.”

“It’s been a while since we worked New Year’s Day, and I don’t remember if the last one was this hectic.”

“I don’t remember, either.” Our shifts tended to blur together in my mind, and most holidays were pretty indistinguishable from any other day.

Malone jokingly called himself my sous chef, even though he did as much as me to get dinner on the table. We both peeled and chopped some potatoes, and then while I worked on assembling a big pot of clam chowder, he put together a green salad, whipped up a batch of drop biscuits laced with cheddar cheese, and complained endlessly about his fourteen-year-old daughter Molly’s first boyfriend. Apparently the kid had come over to celebrate New Year’s with them, and he’d tried to slip Molly the tongue when he went in for a kiss at midnight. Needless to say, this was not okay with Malone.

Eventually, his rant wound down, and I said, “So…I kind of met someone.”

He turned to me and exclaimed, “How are you only now telling me this?”

“We were busy all day.”

“But we’ve been in the kitchen for twenty minutes!”

“You were talking about Frenchy McTongue-Slipper.”

“That kid’s a little weasel, but this is more important. I need you to start by explaining the part where you ‘kind of’ met someone. Did you, or didn’t you?”

“I did, but it’s complicated.” I leaned against the edge of the gray laminate countertop and said, “I met him online night before last, and we had a great chat. Then I ran into him at that New Year’s party I mentioned. It was right at midnight, so we kissed. But afterwards I ran off, because I got overwhelmed. Now I don’t know what to say to him.”

“I need so much more information than that. Start at the beginning. Did you meet him on a site that’s known for hookups, or for dating? Because that makes a difference.”

I turned away from him to stir the pot of soup and said, “It doesn’t really matter where we met, but it wasn’t a dating or hookup site. I just randomly stumbled across this guy. We ended up having a great chat and trading songs back and forth on the guitar and ukulele, and it just felt really good. The next day, we exchanged a few messages, and then it was a total surprise when I saw him at that party.”

“You’re being intentionally vague. Why won’t you just tell me where you met him?”

“If I did, you’d reach some inaccurate conclusions about him, and about all of this. I want you to keep an open mind.”

Malone grinned at me. “Is it, like, a twenty-year-old TikTok star who posts videos of himself disco dancing? Is that why you’re embarrassed to tell me? Because dude, seriously, if that’s what makes you happy then yes, I will tease you mercilessly. But I’ll also be thrilled, because you’re finally making an effort to meet someone.”

I wanted to tell him he wasn’t terribly far off with that guess, but it would have opened the door to a million questions. So instead, I said, “The thing is, I wasn’t out looking to meet anyone. It just happened. And actually, I’m surprised to find myself attracted to this guy.”

“Why is that?”

“Imagine my type,” I said. “Now picture the exact opposite of that.”

My friend mulled that over. “As far as I can tell, your type is basically guys like you—big, burly, sort of alpha. Am I right?”

“Pretty much.”

“Okay, got it.”

“The point I’m trying to make is that he caught me off guard,” I said. “I wasn’t looking for anyone, and I never saw myself with a guy like him, but there was just this connection. Then when we kissed, it really threw me for a loop.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I felt a spark, and it made me feel like I was cheating on Travis, or at the very least being disrespectful to his memory.”

Malone’s expression softened. “I always wondered if guilt or something like that was keeping you from getting back out there and trying to meet someone.”

“I know it’s irrational. I also fully realize how much time has passed, and that Travis would never have wanted me to be alone forever. We even talked about it once. He flat-out said he wanted me to get back out there and date again if anything ever happened to him. But even knowing that, I just feel so damn guilty.”

Malone asked, “So, what are you going to do to get past it?”

“I have no idea.”

He mulled things over for a few moments before saying, “Here’s what I think. This guy you just met isn’t your type anyway, right? If he’s not someone you’d see yourself with long-term, maybe that takes the pressure off. Could you work out a friends-with-benefits type of arrangement and just have some fun, instead of thinking of it as a potential relationship? That might actually be the perfect way to ease yourself back out into the dating world, while you work on getting over your misplaced guilt.”

“Maybe.”

After a pause, he asked, “Should I call Linda? My wife is way better at giving advice than I am.”

“No, don’t do that. I’ll figure this out.”

A deep voice asked, “Figure what out?”

I hadn’t noticed our friend and coworker Heath entering the kitchen, and now he was watching us curiously as he poured himself a cup of coffee. Of course, Malone instantly blabbed about what I’d just told him by saying, “Dylan met a guy, and I was trying to give him advice.”

Heath’s brows shot toward his hairline. We always jokingly called him the Viking, because he was big and blond with long, wavy hair, which he wore in a man bun when he was at work. “Good for you, buddy,” he said, as he slapped my back. “It’s about time you started dating again. Don’t listen to Malone, though. He gives terrible advice.”

Malone started to protest, but then he admitted, “Yeah, I do. So, help him out, Heath. You’re the king of casual dating. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’ve dated half the population of San Francisco, so what can you tell our friend here?”

Just then, Loretta joined us in the kitchen. Our shift leader was a strong Black woman who was as no-nonsense as her shaved head, and she asked, “Is Heath giving Dylan dating advice? That’s a terrible idea, unless we’re trying to turn him into a huge man-whore. No offense, Heath.”

Heath shrugged and said, “None taken.”

Loretta asked, “Why does Dylan need dating advice?”

“He met someone online and made out with him at a party last night. Now he doesn’t know what to do,” Malone explained.

“Call him and ask him out,” Loretta said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“You know it’s more complicated than that,” Malone said in a loud whisper, as if maybe I wouldn’t hear him from two feet away. Then he turned to me and asked, “Where’d you leave it with this guy, D?”

“I sent him a message before work.”

Heath asked, “Did he respond?”

“I don’t know.”

“Check your messages,” Malone said. “We need to know if this guy got back to you. If he’s not interested, then we’re getting ourselves all worked up for nothing.”

“I’m cooking dinner.”

“I can keep an eye on the chowder while it simmers.” Malone picked up a wooden spoon and gave the pot a stir to illustrate his point. “Go see if he replied to you, then report back.”

I tried to argue, but it was three against one. Finally, I sighed and pulled my phone from my pocket, then took a seat at the long table beside the open kitchen and navigated to Lark’s fan page.

It turned out he had replied to the message I’d sent about being the guy at the party. He’d written: OMG!!! I can’t believe that was you! Wait, are you being serious or making a joke? Sometimes I can’t tell, especially in a text. Were you really the guy I kissed at midnight?

I answered with: Yes, that was really me. You’d mentioned giving me your number so we could move from here to regular texting, do you still want to do that?

He sent me his phone number about five seconds later, so I clicked out of the fan site and texted: Hi, this is Dylan.

Lark replied: Hi Dylan! This is all just awesome! That was followed by five lines of various happy emojis, ending with an eggplant.

A second text popped up, which said: Oops, sorry about sending you the dick emoji. I got over-excited.

A third message appeared a moment later: I don’t mean I got a boner by texting you. I just got carried away with the emojis.

When I chuckled, Heath said, “Awwww.”

I looked up and found my coworkers lined up at the counter, watching me like I was their favorite TV show. I frowned at them, then turned back to my phone and wrote: I’m at work, so I should go. I just wanted to say hi, and I hope we can talk soon.

He replied: For sure. When do you get off work?

I wrote: Not until tomorrow at 8 a.m. I’m a firefighter, and we work twenty-four-hour shifts. I’ll try to text you later this evening though, as long as I’m not out responding to a call.

Lark’s next text said: That’s awesome that you’re a firefighter! Text me any time, I’m always up late. That was followed by a bunch of smiley face emojis, ending in another eggplant. His last text said: Oops.

That put a huge smile on my face. I couldn’t help it. He was just really cute.

Of course, my coworkers had to comment on it. “Wow dude, you’re beaming,” Malone said.

“I regret ever telling you anything in my entire life,” I muttered, as I got up and returned the phone to my pocket.

“We would have figured out something was up anyway,” Heath said. “You never act like that.”

I frowned at him and asked, “Like what?”

“Like my fourteen-year-old daughter when she’s talking about a cute boy,” Malone said, which made our friends grin. I just sighed and went back to preparing dinner.

Mercifully, we made it through the meal without interruption. After we ate, a couple of crew members stepped in to clean up the kitchen and do the dishes, and Loretta turned to me and said, “Why don’t you take a break and call that guy? After the day we had, I’m obviously not going to assign any tasks for this evening. So, as long as we don’t get another call, you have the time.”

“I can wait.”

“I know that, but I’m trying to tell you that you don’t have to.” Loretta pinned me with a sharp stare. It felt like she was about five seconds from ordering me to call him. Not that she would, obviously, but she still gave that impression.

“Okay. I’ll be in the reception room if you need me,” I said.

The firehouse was in an eighty-year-old building, and the interior had been remodeled about ten years ago. In addition to the lobby and the large bay which held the trucks, there was a room on the ground floor which was mostly used to host VIPs. It had escaped the remodel, because the people in charge liked its vintage charm. That meant it looked a bit like a country club from a bygone era, with traditional furniture we all described as “fox hunt chic.” It was stuffy and uncomfortable, but I liked the photos on the walls. They were of the crews who’d worked at this station over the years, along with eight decades of fire trucks.

Another good thing about this room was that it provided a bit of privacy, unlike the rest of the building. I took a seat on the plaid sofa and sent Lark a text, which said: Hi. I have a few minutes, so would you maybe want to talk?

My phone rang a moment later, and I tapped the icon to accept the video call. Lark appeared on my screen, and a huge smile spread across his face as he exclaimed, “It’s you, my Cinderella man! What a wild coincidence that we live in the same place and were at the same party!”

“Small world.”

His smile got brighter. He was sitting on his bed, and he settled back against his giant, mismatched stack of pillows. “There’s that sexy voice. Now I know you and Hawk really are one and the same. My name’s Larkin Genardi, by the way. You told me your name, so you should know mine, too.”

“So that’s where ‘Lark’ comes from.”

“Yup. Most people think I made it up, but I would have picked a much cuter bird, like a finch or something.”

“Larks aren’t cute?”

“Not really. They’re pretty generic, except for the horned lark. It’s awesome. It always looks like it’s pissed off, and it has two tufts of feathers on top of its head, kind of like this.” The phone shifted, and he made a two-pronged crown on top of his head with his fingers. A moment later, the image blurred, then landed on Lark’s crotch. He was wearing pajama pants with round cartoon unicorns on them. “Oops! I was trying to hold the phone between my knees, but I dropped it,” he said, as his face appeared on-screen again.

“No worries.” I paused before saying, “So, um, I want to apologize for running off without a word last night. I can explain why I did that, but it’s complicated and probably best saved for when we have more time.”

“You don’t owe me an explanation.”

“Yes, I do. I guess the short version is that I got overwhelmed, but I shouldn’t have left like that. You deserved better, especially since we’d just—”

“Shared a panty-melting kiss?”

I grinned and said, “Yeah, that.”

After a slight pause, he asked where my fire station was located. When I told him the cross streets, he asked, “Can I come by and say hi?”

“Now?”

He nodded. “Would you be able to come outside and chat, just for five minutes?”

“I’m not sure. We’ve been on a lot of calls today, and we could get called out again at any moment.”

He smiled at me, but it was obvious he was trying to hide his disappointment. “It’s okay. I come up with a lot of impulsive ideas, and that probably seemed weird.”

“It didn’t. There’s just a chance I wouldn’t be here when you arrived. Plus, it seems like a lot of trouble for you to go through for a short visit.” I clearly wasn’t as spontaneous as he was, so it was hard to wrap my head around this idea.

“It wouldn’t be any trouble at all. You’re only ten or fifteen minutes away, since there’s no traffic right now,” he said. “I just thought it sounded fun, but I don’t want to pressure you or anything.”

After a moment, I surprised both of us by saying, “Okay. I’d love to see you, so come on over.” I hesitated before adding, “I need to be upfront about something, though. It’s probably weird to bring this up since we just met, but you should know I’m not looking for a relationship. I think it’s important to put that out there before you invest your time in me, because I’d never want to lead you on.”

I felt like such an ass for saying that. Why assume he’d want a relationship with me in the first place? But being honest about where I was seemed like the right call.

His expression remained perfectly neutral as he told me, “That’s fine. I’m not looking for a relationship, either.”

“Okay. I’m glad we’re on the same page.”

Lark asked, “Are you open to a friends with benefits type of thing? Because I like you, Dylan, and I think we could have a lot of fun together.”

“Yeah, I am.” I’d never done that before and had no idea how it would play out, but given my limitations, it seemed like our only alternative.

“Great! I’ll see you in about ten or fifteen minutes, assuming my housemate lends me his car. He probably will, because he’s a nice guy. If I get there and you and the fire truck are missing, I’ll just turn around and come back home. No biggie.”

“Alright. See you soon.”

“I can’t wait to give you a hug,” he said. “You seem like you could use one.”

He wasn’t wrong.

10

Lark

Okay, so I’d told a bit of a lie.

I’d said I wasn’t looking for a relationship when I absolutely was. But if Dylan couldn’t offer me that, what was I going to do, walk away? No chance. Being friends with benefits was so much better than nothing at all.

I tumbled off my bed and stuck my feet into a pair of rainbow Crocs as I shot Casey a text, asking to borrow his car. He replied: Go right ahead. It’s in the driveway. I’m at Theo’s, but my spare keys are hanging on a hook by the door. I sent back a thank you with six exclamation points as I jogged down the stairs.

When I reached the ground floor, I found Yolanda and JoJo cuddled up on the couch with glasses of wine. Yolanda asked, “Where are you off to?”

“I need to go hug a fireman. I’ll be back soon. Casey’s letting me borrow his car, just so you know.”

I grabbed the keys, and as I hurried out the door I heard JoJo say, “I feel like ‘hug a fireman’ is a euphemism for something, but I don’t know what.”

Yolanda replied, “We probably don’t want to know.”

Once I was in the car with the engine running, I shot Dylan a text which said: On my way! Then I tossed my phone onto the passenger seat and fastened my seatbelt before jerkily backing out of the driveway.

Okay, so I hadn’t actually driven a car in a few years, and Casey’s ancient Honda Civic was oddly responsive. I barely touched the gas, and it went shooting forward. Lightly grazing the brake pedal almost threw me through the windshield. But somehow, I managed to lunge and jerk my way across town.

When I pulled up across the street from my destination, I sent Dylan another text letting him know I’d arrived. Then I got out of the car and paused to take a look at the vintage firehouse. It was on a corner lot, cream-colored with red trim, and its architectural style blended in with the neighborhood’s Edwardian apartment buildings. The ground floor garage held one huge fire truck and two smaller ones, and the second story apartment’s tall windows were lit up and looked welcoming.

The bay door was open, so I ran across the street and looked up at the huge, red truck from out on the sidewalk. When Dylan appeared—oh so sexy in a form-fitting T-shirt that showed off his big arms and shoulders—I said, “This looks exactly like a toy I had when I was little. Mine wasn’t as shiny though, because it came from a garage sale.”

“Come on in, and feel free to look around.”

“Thanks. Oh, and hi.” As I said that, I grabbed him in a hug. I’d warned him I was going to do that when we were on the phone, but it still seemed to take him by surprise. At first it was like hugging a mannequin, but then he relaxed a little and put his arms around me. A few moments later, he relaxed even more and held me securely as I tucked my head under his chin. He felt warm, and strong, and solid.

Dylan asked, “How are you so much smaller than I remembered?”

“I was wearing four-inch heels at the party.”

“Oh, that’s right. I noticed them. They were glittery.” That made me grin, because it meant he really had noticed.

He let go of me and stepped back with a shy smile, and I wandered into the garage and looked around with wonder. I’d never been in a firehouse before, and everything was interesting.

I circled around the side of the big truck, and then I squealed when I saw a brass pole. “I always thought those were only in the movies,” I said, as I rushed over to it and looked through the hole in the ceiling.

“It’s vintage, like the firehouse.”

“Do you really slide down it?”

“Sometimes.”

I turned to him and asked, with a teasing smile, “Do you ever do anything else with it?”

He looked confused. “Like what?”

“Like this.” I backed up a few feet and stepped out of my Crocs before running and taking a flying leap at the pole. I grasped it with the crook of my arm so the sleeve of my rainbow tie-dye sweatshirt would help me glide. Then I spun around several times before dismounting with a backwards flip.

Dylan looked surprised. Then a huge smile appeared, and he exclaimed, “That was incredible!”

“Thanks. I used to work as a stripper. Only one of the clubs I worked at actually had poles, but I haven’t forgotten how to do it. Obviously, you need to picture me in a sexy little jockstrap, not this.” I stretched out the front of my enormous sweatshirt to show him the silkscreened “realistic” unicorn, which clashed with the much more cartoony unicorns on my flannel pajama pants.

“It was still sexy,” he said, which made me grin.

After I slid my feet back into my Crocs, I wandered deeper into the garage and asked, “Is it really okay for me to be in here?”

“Of course. We always welcome the public during our down-time. In fact, we do several tours a month for schools and other groups.”

“The kids must love it.”

“They do, especially this part.” He went over to a shelving unit and took something out of a box. When he handed me a gold badge and plastic fire helmet, my eyes went wide.

“Can I keep these?”

“Of course.”

I squealed and put on the helmet, and as I pinned the badge to my sweatshirt I said, “Thank you! I actually already have a plastic fireman’s hat, but this one is way better because it says ‘San Francisco Fire Department’ on it.”

“I know you do. It was what you were wearing when I saw you for the first time on that cam site.”

Dylan actually seemed embarrassed to admit that, but it made me smile. “Well, good thing you caught me on firefighter day. That must have been what drew your attention.”

“Actually, your cuteness drew my attention, coupled with the fact that you were the only person on that site who seemed to be having fun.”

“It’s kind of boring to just sit in front of the camera and jerk off,” I said. “I mean, I do that sometimes, but my goal is to give people a taste of what they’ll get if they join my fan site. I’m definitely not everyone’s idea of a good time, but fortunately there are guys out there who like a dash of quirky with their sexy.” I winked at Dylan as I said that, and he seemed a little embarrassed again.

“It’s all brand new to me,” he admitted. “I’d never visited a live cam site before that day, or gone to Only Fans or Gayze or anything like that. It’s all been…surprising.”

“In a good way?” He nodded shyly, which I thought was adorable. Somehow, this great big firefighter was turning out to be one of the most innocent guys I’d ever met.

There was a brief lull in the conversation, and because I didn’t want to wear out my welcome, I said, “I should go. Thank you again for my accessories.” I tipped the helmet at a jaunty angle as I said that.

“Already? I was going to show you the rest of the fire station.”

“Next time. I meant it when I said I just wanted to drop by for five minutes.” I was fine with giving Dylan a crash course in the real me, but I didn’t want to embarrass him by meeting his coworkers while dressed in pajamas. “Do you want to meet for coffee tomorrow, after you get off work?”

“Oh. Um, I can’t.”

I spoke quickly to cover my disappointment. “That’s fine. It was short notice, and you probably already have plans.”

“It’s not that.” Dylan hesitated before telling me, “I’m always really frazzled at the end of a twenty-four-hour shift, so I make myself go straight home and unwind. A nap is usually involved too, since I never sleep well at the station.”

“I understand.”

“I’m not blowing you off, I promise. The thing is, I struggle with anxiety. It’s an ongoing effort to keep it in check, and the routine I follow at the end of each shift helps me cope.” I was surprised by how open he was about that. He met my gaze and asked, “Would you like to come over for dinner tomorrow? I’d love a chance to talk and get to know you.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to throw off your routine, because it sounds important.”

“It’ll be fine. I’ll have all day to unwind, and I don’t need more than that.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’d love to have dinner with you.”

“Great! I’ll text you the address. Can you come over at six?”

“Sure. I can go ahead and bring us takeout if you want, so you don’t have to go to any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble at all. I actually love to cook.”

I flashed him a big smile. “And I love to eat, so that works out perfectly.” That was a flimsy excuse for a joke, but it made him grin. “See you tomorrow, Dylan.”

We both went in for a hug at the same time and ended up sort of botching it. We bumped arms, and once we got a hold of each other, my hat fell off. When we both tried to retrieve it, we almost bumped heads, and I jerked back quickly.

He picked up the plastic helmet and handed it to me as he said, “Thanks for the visit. This was all really unexpected.”

Was that a good thing?

After we said good night, I ran across the street. That was a mistake, because I ended up kicking off one of my Crocs, which flew underneath the Honda. I had to fling myself onto the ground and partially stuff myself under the car to retrieve it. While I did that, I whispered, “Please don’t let him still be standing there watching this.”

When I stood up and turned back to the fire station, Dylan was right where I’d left him, watching everything I was doing. His expression hovered somewhere between amusement and disbelief.

I waved to him with the Croc, then opened the car door, threw the shoe inside, and climbed in after it. After I started the engine and put it in gear, I lunged forward before slamming on the brakes at the stop sign on the corner. I looked in the rearview mirror once I made it through the intersection, and yup, he was still watching. Did I know how to impress a man, or what?

The drive home became slightly smoother as I finally got used to the touchy pedals. Somehow, I even managed to park in the short driveway without sending the Honda hurtling through Yolanda’s garage door. That was quite the accomplishment.

When I went inside, I discovered Yolanda and JoJo were right where I’d left them. JoJo said, “That was quick.”

At the same time, Yolanda said, “Nice hat.”

I adjusted the tilt of my red plastic helmet and said, “Thank you. It’s my most prized possession.” I leaned against the doorframe as my gaze flickered around the living room. It looked so empty now that the tree and the decorations on the fireplace mantel were gone.

JoJo said, “It appears operation hug a firefighter was a success.”

“I think so, even though I sort of blew it right at the end. I went and visited that guy I kissed last night. He was at work, so I didn’t want to take up a lot of his time.”

“Nice, so you tracked down your Cinderfella,” JoJo said. “Are you going to see him again?”

I nodded. “We’re having dinner tomorrow night. I’m super excited, but I really shouldn’t be. He already gave me the whole ‘I’m not looking for a relationship’ spiel. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that in my life?”

“Come and sit down,” Yolanda said. “I’d offer you a glass of wine, but I know you’re not a fan.”

As much as I would have loved the company, I didn’t want to interrupt their time together. Yolanda was a nurse who worked swing shifts and long hours, so it was rare that she and her fiancée had an evening to themselves.

“Thanks,” I said, “but I’m kind of tired, so I think I’ll go to bed. Have a good night, you two.”

When I went upstairs, I briefly considered logging on to the cam site to try to drum up some new subscribers, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Instead, I curled up on my bed with my toy goat and replayed my visit with Dylan.

Okay, so that had been a pretty impulsive idea, bothering him at work like that, but I’d been dying to see him again. I needed to know if I’d been imagining the spark between us, and it was definitely real—to me, anyway. I had no idea what he was feeling.

I’d really hoped he’d kiss me again, but nope. And yeah, I could have just kissed him myself, but I was already the weirdo barging in on him at work. Trying to kiss him too would have made me feel like I was throwing myself at him.

Not that I was above that or anything, but there was a time and a place for being super thirsty, and his workplace wasn’t it.

My phone buzzed, and when I pulled it from the pocket of my pajama pants I was surprised to see a text from Dylan. It said: Thank you for coming by the firehouse. That was the best thing that happened to me all day.

I told him: It was the high point of my day, too.

He wrote: Here’s my address as promised, for tomorrow night. That was followed by a street address, apartment number, cross streets, information about where to park, and a link to a map of his neighborhood.

It was so thorough that it made me grin. I replied: Thank you. What are you doing right now?

Dylan’s next text said: I’m sitting in the lounge with some of my coworkers. They’re watching a movie, but it’s not holding my interest. I keep expecting the alarm to sound again at any moment. After all those calls today, I feel like it’s inevitable that we’ll get another one this evening, although there’s no actual way of predicting that.

I wrote: I’d be tense all the time if it was me, waiting for an alarm to go off. I don’t know how you do it.

A few moments ticked by, and then another message popped up. The rest of my crew is used to it. I guess I used to take it in stride too, before my anxiety became an issue.

I asked: Have you been a firefighter a long time?

His answer surprised me: Fifteen years. I applied as soon as I turned 19, then went through training for several months and started working when I turned 20. Those are the minimum age requirements for the SFFD. I’m almost 35 now.

I wrote: I’ve never met someone who’s always been on such a clear career path. How did you know that was what you wanted to do?

His reply was spread over several texts: When I was eight years old, our next door neighbor’s house caught fire. It was the middle of the night, and my parents grabbed my sister and me and brought us outside, because they were afraid the fire would spread to our house. It was terrifying. Our neighbors stood with us, crying as they watched their house burn, and we all felt so helpless.

The houses were really close together, and it was just a matter of time before the only home I’d ever known went up, too. But then, the Oakland Fire Department arrived in this huge truck with a screaming siren. This crew of men and women jumped off the truck, and they went to work without fear or hesitation. They put out the fire and saved our house, and from that moment on I knew there was nothing else I could possibly do with my life that was more important than what I’d witnessed.

I replied: Wow, talk about a defining moment. Do you ever wonder what you would have done for a living if you hadn’t witnessed that fire?

Dylan answered with: I think I might have done what my parents wanted me to. They’re both college professors, and they pushed my sister and me toward careers in academia, since it’s been so rewarding for both of them. I did go to college for a semester, before I turned 19 and was able to apply with the fire department. I liked it well enough, but I couldn’t see myself locked away in academia long-term.

I said: Your parents must be so proud of you for the career you ended up choosing.

His next text said: They are, but they worry about me, too.

Before I could reply, another text popped up: I’m going to try to get some rest. Good night, Lark. See you tomorrow.

I replied: Sweet dreams, and waited to make sure he didn’t send anything else, but it seemed he really had gone to bed.

I shone my phone’s flashlight at the ceiling over my bed before turning off all the lights. Then I settled in, stuck my hands behind my head, and stared at the glow-in-the-dark plastic stars above me while I thought about a gorgeous guy named Dylan Hawkins.

11

Lark

I ended up arriving early for my dinner date. After my Lyft drove off, I stood on the sidewalk and looked up at Dylan’s apartment building. Russian Hill was a pretty swanky neighborhood. This four-story building with its dark brown shingle exterior was understated, but there was no question living here must cost big bucks.

What made it obvious was what I liked to call the topiary tipoff. If a building’s front door was framed by a pair of fancy little trees in pots, it was expensive. This particular entryway featured two tall, skinny plants trimmed into perfect spirals, like Dr. Suess trees. That usually meant the landlord could tack on an extra couple of hundred bucks a month to the already jacked up rent.

When a woman with a purse dog left the building, I hurried up the steps and caught the door before it closed. Then I slipped into the lobby and took a look around. There was a seating area with a dark green sofa and chairs on a fancy area rug, stone floors, and a dull landscape painted directly onto the wall. It was definitely posh, but again, it was understated. This was a place for successful people who didn’t want to flash their cash.

I wondered how much firefighters made. Then, because I was nosy AF, I looked it up on the SFFD website. It definitely paid a comfortable salary, but this was one of the most overpriced housing markets in the country. Maybe this building meant Dylan had family money—not that it mattered. I was just curious about him.

At one minute to six, I crossed the lobby to the elevator and pushed the button. While I waited, I checked out my reflection in the highly polished metal door. After a lot of debating, I’d gone with what I jokingly called my boy costume for this date. I was wearing jeans, sneakers, and an oversized hoodie, all in shades of blue. To truly sell the look, I’d even put on a backwards-facing baseball cap. But then, because I was me, I just had to mix it up with my unicorn backpack, which looked like a chubby stuffed animal. Plus, the T-shirt I wore under the hoodie was cropped and mesh, but that was a surprise for later.

I rode the elevator to the top floor and knocked on the door to Dylan’s apartment at six sharp. Nothing happened, so I knocked again. Then I did that a third time.

Maybe I shouldn’t have skipped the buzzer outside the main entrance. I sent Dylan a text letting him know I was here and knocked one more time. Still no response.

Had he gotten called away? Actually, I doubted it. Dylan definitely seemed like someone who was polite enough to send a message if something came up.

After a couple more minutes of knock and wait, knock and wait, the door was flung open so abruptly that it startled me. Dylan was barefoot and dressed in gray sweatpants and a wrinkled white T-shirt. He’d obviously been sound asleep. I knew that because there was a crease down his left cheek, from where his face must have been mashed into a pillow.

“I’m so sorry,” he blurted, as he stepped aside to let me in. “I was taking a nap, and I don’t know what happened. They usually last two or three hours, not eight and a half.”

“I’m glad you got some rest,” I said, as I stepped past him into a modern-looking loft.

“Were you waiting long?”

“No. Just a minute or two. I skipped the downstairs buzzer and let myself into your building, I hope that’s okay.”

“It’s fine.” He let the door swing shut, and then he stood there looking lost. “I was going to order groceries and have a nice meal ready for you…”

“No biggie. We’ll just order a pizza instead.” I gathered him into an embrace, and then I held him for a long moment and rubbed his back. Between just waking up and the fact that this had to be doing a number on his anxiety, he was clearly struggling. When I let go of him, I said, “I’m going to make myself comfortable on your couch. Take all the time you need to get ready. I’m great at keeping myself entertained.”

He took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. It sounded a bit shaky. His dark eyes searched mine, as if he was seeking reassurance. I smiled at him before heading over to the sofa and settling in with my backpack on my lap.

The loft was one big, open room with high ceilings. There was a doorway over to my right, which I assumed led to the bathroom. Dylan went in there and shut the door, and I looked around curiously.

The space was beautiful, but it wasn’t what I’d call homey. It looked like the furnishings and artwork had all been selected by a designer, who’d been given the instructions, “Make it look like a masculine, high-end hotel suite—modern with a dash of rugged.”

He had an incredible city view that included Coit Tower, and at the moment the sky outside the wall of windows was a deep indigo. The loft’s dark blue walls were almost the same shade, while the furniture was mostly brown leather and wood. A few abstract paintings and a striped area rug brought in some more blues and burnt orange tones, while four wood and metal sculptures looked like they belonged in a museum. And—that was it.

Aside from two of the smaller sculptures, which sat on a sideboard over to my left, there was nothing on any of the surfaces, including the chunky, wooden coffee table in front of me. I wondered idly if the table was actually vintage, or just distressed to make it look like it was.

I put down my backpack and twisted around to look into the kitchen, which was in the back corner, beneath an elevated platform that held an unmade bed. I’d expected the fancy, stainless steel appliances and dark wood cabinets, but I hadn’t expected the counter to be completely empty. Didn’t he own a toaster?

Dylan returned after a few minutes dressed in jeans and a dark blue Henley, along with brown Timberland-style boots. Did he know he matched his apartment?

“Sorry again about keeping you waiting,” he said. “Can I offer you a glass of wine?”

He looked kind of lost as he stood at the far end of the couch, and it seemed like he didn’t know what to do with his hands. He crossed his arms, then tried sticking his hands in his pockets before finally letting his arms hang by his sides.

I thought alcohol tasted gross, but it seemed like wine could help him relax, and he might not want to drink alone. I got up and flashed him a big smile as I said, “Sure. I’ll come with you.” Then I followed him to the kitchen and discovered he owned some kind of mini fridge with a glass door, and apparently its only job was to hold wine bottles. Man, he was a lot fancier than I was.

He turned to me and asked, “Which do you prefer, red or white?”

Neither? I went with the first answer that came to mind. “Pink?”

“Oh, you’re into rosé? That’s my sister’s favorite. I always keep a couple of bottles on hand for when she visits.”

He opened a bottle of pretty, pink wine, then filled two glasses about halfway. When he handed me one of the glasses, I clinked it against his and said, “To infinity, and beyond.”

That made him grin. “I wasn’t expecting that.” Sure, but it accomplished what I’d wanted it to—it made him smile.

While he took a drink, I tilted the glass and sloshed the wine toward my lips, then tipped it upright again without ever actually taking a sip. I didn’t want to insult him by rejecting his ruined grape juice, but I had no intention of drinking it, either. With any luck, he’d get nice and tipsy and fail to notice he was the only one drinking.

I leaned against the edge of the counter and asked, “Did you have to go out on any more calls last night?”

He nodded. “Two of them. I really don’t know what it was about New Year’s Day that made it that hectic, but I’m so glad it’s over.”

Dylan drained his glass, then refilled it and tried to offer me more. “I’m still good, thanks,” I said.

“Are you hungry? You mentioned ordering pizza. There are also several good restaurants in the neighborhood that deliver.”

He still seemed a little tense, so I said, “I’m in no hurry. We could just go back to the couch and chat for a while, if you want to.”

Dylan brought the wine bottle with us, and as we both took a seat I asked, “Would you think it was weird if I took my shoes off?”

“Please do. I want you to be comfortable.”

I pushed off my light blue sneakers with my toes. Then I pivoted around so I was leaning against the arm of the couch with my knees bent and my feet on the cushion. He followed my lead, neatly tucking his boots under the sofa before moving into the same position.

I slid my feet forward until the tips of our toes touched, and he grinned at my socks. When my shoes were on, all that showed was a light blue stripe around my ankles. But now he could see the cartoon mermen printed on each sock.

“You’re full of surprises.” He showed me what he meant by lightly running one of his feet over a merman.

I nodded at that and said, “Always. I’m all about the unexpected layers. The more you peel away, the more interesting I become.”

“That’s saying a lot, since you’re already fascinating.”

“I don’t know about that, but thanks for the compliment.” As he drank some wine, I toyed with my glass and said, “I have a question for you. Last night in one of your texts, you mentioned how you were inspired by the Oakland Fire Department when you were growing up. So, why’d you get a job here, instead of there?”

“When I applied to become a firefighter at nineteen, I decided I should put a little breathing room between myself and my parents. Don’t get me wrong, they’re wonderful people and we have a great relationship. But I could see them coming by the firehouse all the time to check on me, especially if I stayed in Oakland.

“I was right, too. When I got my first position at twenty, they used to drop by the firehouse unannounced with gifts for the crew, or cookies, or snacks. But since I was in San Francisco, they were only able to do that a couple of times a month, instead of several times a week, which I know they would have done if I’d stayed in my hometown.”

“That was sweet of them, though.”

“It was and they meant well, but it was also embarrassing. I got teased mercilessly by my crew, even though they adored my parents and were thrilled about all the things they brought. I was already the youngest person at the station, and they really didn’t help sell the idea that I was a full-grown, competent adult.”

“I can see how that could be tough.” I started spinning my glass by the stem, which created a tiny vortex in the pink liquid. “So, I have a very important question for you.”

“Okay.”

“As a firefighter, do you really get people’s cats out of trees?”

Dylan chuckled at that and said, “Yes, we do.” He held up his right hand with the outside edge facing me. There was a little question mark-shaped scar on it. “See that? It’s from a bad-tempered calico that I plucked out of a pine tree.”

“I can’t believe you guys are actually out there rescuing kitties.”

“Well, if we have some spare time and someone in the neighborhood needs help with something like that, we try to lend a hand. It’s a way to be a good neighbor.”

He finished his wine, and I snatched the bottle off the coffee table and refilled his glass to the rim. He drank some of it while I went back to making a little wineado in my glass, and I said, “The other stereotype I always hear about firefighters is that they all love to cook.”

“Definitely not true. I happen to love it, but six members of my eight-person crew would rather do literally anything than end up on kitchen duty.” He frowned and added, “I was looking forward to cooking for you tonight.”

I hit him with my best flirty smile and said, “It’s not like this was your only chance ever. Just invite me over again.”

Then I lost control of the wineado. It sloshed onto the front of my sky blue hoodie, and I muttered, “Oops.” I put the glass on the table and stood up as I said, “I should have known I’d do that. I have a bad habit of always needing to fidget with something.”

“Want me to run it through the wash?”

“No thanks. I don’t want you to go through any trouble.” I took off the hoodie and put it with my backpack.

Dylan stood up too and put his glass beside mine. When I turned to him, he was staring. “That’s a very sexy shirt.”

I looked down at my dark red mesh top, which fit like a second skin and was cropped to about three inches below my nipples. Combined with my low-rise jeans, there was a lot of exposed skin all of a sudden.

I grinned at him and said, “I did mention having a lot of unexpected layers, sometimes literally, like with this outfit.”

“You’re gorgeous no matter what you wear, but this is incredibly hot.”

He was still rooted in place, and it seemed like he was unsure about what he should do. I decided to make it easy for him and took a step closer. “You can touch me,” I said, as seductively as I could. “In fact, you can do anything you want.”

Dylan hesitated before slipping his hands around my waist. I tossed aside my baseball cap and leaned into him, and he buried his face in my hair. He was clearly getting more turned on by the minute, but he was holding himself back.

It was obvious he was struggling with something, probably the same thing that had made him run off after we kissed on New Year’s. I really didn’t know what it was, but I assumed he’d tell me when he was ready. For now, maybe he just needed a little encouragement.

I pressed myself against him and kissed his neck as I ran my hands up his back. Something about that finally flipped a switch. In the next instant, Dylan won—or lost—whatever internal battle he’d been struggling with and grabbed me with both hands.

He picked me up, and as I wrapped my arms and legs around him, he devoured me with a deep kiss. It was pure need and hunger, and the sexiest little moan slipped from him as I parted my lips.

We tumbled onto the couch with me on top, and he caressed my hair and body as we kissed. I felt his cock swelling and rubbed myself against it shamelessly while my cock throbbed.

I got up for a moment, just long enough to strip off my jeans and socks before climbing on top of him again. Dylan muttered, “Fuck,” as he cupped my ass. It was completely exposed with the dark red silk thong I was wearing—barely wearing, actually, given the way my hard-on was tenting the front of it.

Everything seemed urgent and clumsy. My pulse was racing, and I was breathing so loudly that it was all I heard. When I tugged at his shirt, he pulled it over his head and threw it aside. My hands shook as I fumbled with his belt. At the same time, I sucked one of his nipples, which made him buck beneath me.

I finally got his jeans unzipped and had every intention of sucking him, but Dylan surprised me by flipping me onto my back. He yanked down my thong and wrapped his lips around my cock, and I practically purred as he slid his mouth down my shaft.

He sucked me almost frantically, clutching my hips between his big hands to keep me from thrashing around. I was only vaguely aware that I was moaning and thrusting, lost to the intense sensations radiating through me. Minutes later, I mumbled, between gasps of air, “Dylan…I’m gonna come.”

He sucked me even harder, and I yelled as I exploded down his throat. I arched off the couch, practically contorting as that massive orgasm destroyed me. It went on and on, my moans nearly turning into sobs as my body gave everything it had.

By the time it finally ended, I was wrecked—weak and shaking as I tried to catch my breath. I grabbed onto Dylan as he shifted us around and positioned me on his chest. Something warm covered me as my body shuddered with an aftershock.

When I could finally string a sentence together, I mumbled, “You didn’t finish.”

He began to gently stroke my hair as he said, “There’s no hurry.”

12

Dylan

I’d never seen anything quite like that before. When Lark came, he let go of all his inhibitions, yelling and writhing and arching up off the sofa. It was all I could do to hold his hips steady so I could keep sucking him.

Now he was curled up on top of me, and he seemed so small and fragile. I managed to reach my shirt and cover him with it, while he mumbled something about the fact that I hadn’t come. I told him there was no hurry.

I stroked his hair and enjoyed the floral scent of his shampoo while I kept an arm around him. Meanwhile, he clung to me in a way that was really touching.

After a few moments, he said, “That was intense. I came so hard that I’m pretty sure my soul left my body for a minute.” Then he amended, “Not, like, through my cock. I’m not saying it shot out with my jizz or anything. That seems sacrilegious.”

When I chuckled, he grinned and kissed my chest. I shifted around and pulled my phone from the pocket of my jeans as I told him, “I’m going to order us something to eat. I bet you’re hungry.”

“Starving.”

“Let’s go with your pizza idea. What do you want on it?”

“Those spicy little pepperoncini pepper things and pineapple.”

“Really?” When he nodded, I pulled up the app for a nearby pizza restaurant and said, “Got it. One large pizza, half with the most horrifying toppings I’ve ever heard of, and half just cheese.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“And I hope to continue not knowing for a very long time.” Once I placed the order, I muttered, “I forgot to get you some soda, so you can stop pretending to drink your wine.”

“You knew I was doing that?”

“Uh, yeah.” I held up the phone so I could see it over the top of his head and opened another app. “I’m going to place a quick grocery order. What would you like to drink?”

“Fruit punch, please.”

I almost asked if he was kidding, but I was starting to realize I should just take Lark at his word. After I added some fruit punch to the cart, I said, “I’m going to get some snacks while I’m at it. What do you like to eat?”

“I love cereal at any time of day.”

“Let me guess, the more colorful the better?”

“For sure.”

I asked, “Do you drink coffee?”

“No.”

“Hot chocolate?” When he nodded, I asked, “With whipped cream or mini marshmallows?”

“Surprise me.” I added a few things to the order that I thought he might like and sent it on its way. Then I placed the phone on the coffee table and wrapped my arms around him as he asked, “Are you horrified that I eat like a five-year-old?”

“I’m not really big on judging people.”

“You’re a nice guy, Dylan Hawkins.”

“I try. The groceries will probably take close to an hour, even with rush delivery. Can I get you some water in the meantime?”

He climbed off of me as he said, “Yes, please. Be right back, I’m going to use the bathroom.”

Lark took my Henley with him, and while he was gone I climbed up the ladder to the platform and made my bed, because it had been bothering me. Then I found a clean T-shirt and put it on, neatly tucking it into my jeans.

By the time Lark returned to the sofa, I was waiting for him with two glasses of ice water. He’d put on my shirt, which almost reached his knees, and he looked adorable.

“I like the concealed closet off your bathroom,” he said. “It’s very ‘hidden chamber of secrets.’ I was wondering where you kept all your stuff.”

“I actually had to add the closet when I moved in, and that was the only place one would fit. When the property owner converted the top floor of this building into lofts, which were trendy at the time, he decided any hipsters who’d buy a place like this would be fine with keeping their clothes on metal racks.”

“You’re definitely not a hipster,” Lark said, as he sat on the arm of the couch with his bare feet on the cushion. His toenails were painted baby blue.

“Not even a little.”

“So, what attracted you to this place?”

“I needed a change, and it was unlike any home I’d ever lived in.”

“Makes sense.” He took a long drink of water after I handed him the glass. Then he asked, “Do you think we have time to make you come before the pizza gets here?”

That abrupt subject change caught me off guard. An embarrassed laugh slipped from me, and I said, “Let’s not try. I don’t want to be literally caught with my pants down when the delivery person arrives.”

“Okay. I just feel bad for leaving you hanging, and I hope we get a chance for round two after dinner.” I grinned at that, and he asked, “So, tell me, what are you into? Sexually, I mean.”

I took a sip of water, then put my glass on the table as I tried to figure out what to say. Finally, I admitted, “I feel like I should have a clear-cut answer for that at my age, but the truth is, I’m not really sure anymore. I always stayed in this narrow lane of what I thought I liked, but the same old things like watching porn have stopped doing it for me.

“When I watched you do that strip tease on your fan page, and later when we played together one-on-one, it was a revelation. You turned me on in ways I’d never even imagined. So now, I guess I’d say I’m in the process of learning about myself and evolving.”

When I glanced at him, Lark flashed me a huge smile and said, “We’re going to have so much fun.”

I grinned at him, but then I looked away again and admitted, “It’s not easy for me to leave my comfort zone, but I really do want to explore my sexuality and grow from this experience. I’m just not sure which is the better approach—easing into it slowly, or diving into the deep end.”

“Deep end, no question.”

“You really think so?”

“When it comes to sex, definitely. You need to get in there and see what turns you on. Let’s say for example that you think you might be into voyeurism. How are you going to know unless you go out, find an exhibitionist like me, and watch me do my thing?”

“That’s generally not considered a good thing, being a voyeur. There are a lot of negative connotations associated with that word.”

“I know what you mean,” Lark said. “The idea of a voyeur might make you think of a peeping Tom, someone who watches people without their permission. But all it really means is someone who gets off by watching others. That can be totally consensual, like when you watched me on my cam.

“It’s the same with calling myself an exhibitionist, by the way. All it means is that I get off on being watched, not that I’m some sleaze in a trench coat, flashing people on the bus.”

“I like the fact that you can talk about sex so openly. It’s something I’ve always shied away from, for some reason.”

Lark asked, “Did your parents treat sex like it was something dirty?”

“No, just the opposite. They were practical and no-nonsense and always encouraged an open dialog when I was growing up. But I was horrified by that and couldn’t imagine anything worse than talking about sex with my parents. I’m still kind of closed off and embarrassed to talk about it, actually.”

“That’s really interesting,” Lark said. “I grew up in a very different type of household. My parents used religion as an excuse to condemn me and kick me out when they found out I was gay. Before that, they tried to force feed us the message that sex was wrong and dirty and only meant for married people making babies.”

“I’m so sorry they kicked you out. How old were you?”

“Fifteen.”

“Oh god, that’s awful! What did you do?”

“Luckily, my grandma took me in. I ended up living with her until she passed away when I was twenty-two. At first she took care of me, and then I took care of her toward the end of her life.” While he spoke, Lark looked down at his hands and started picking at his short fingernails, as if to distract himself from what he was saying.

“It must be hard to talk about this, but I’m so glad your grandmother loved and accepted you.”

He looked up at me with a sad smile. “She loved me, but she actually didn’t accept me. Gran thought being gay was a sin, but unlike my parents, she didn’t disown me for it. Don’t get me wrong, I adored her, and I’ll always be grateful to her for taking me in. I can only imagine what would’ve happened to me if she hadn’t. We had a good relationship, too. But it was basically like don’t ask, don’t tell—she didn’t want to hear about the fact that I was gay, and she definitely didn’t want to see it.

“I got pretty tired of hiding who I was all the time, so after she passed, I moved to San Francisco. I didn’t know anybody here, which was a big plus as far as I was concerned. And of course, it’s known for being welcoming to LGBTQ people, so it seemed like the perfect place for me.”

I asked, “And has it been?”

“Turns out no place is perfect, but I don’t regret moving here. The only real problem with it is that rent is outrageous. I came here with nothing but four hundred bucks, my gran’s sewing machine, and a few clothes in a backpack.”

He smiled at me and continued, “Good thing I’m kind of cute, because I was able to land a job as a stripper within a week of moving here. I’d been flipping burgers when I lived with Gran, but a minimum wage job wasn’t going to keep a roof over my head in this city.”

“That must have been tough,” I said, “growing up overnight like that. Actually, everything about working as a stripper must have been difficult.”

“It wasn’t so bad, and I actually grew up overnight when my parents kicked me out—not that I had much of a childhood before that. My dad would always tell me to ‘act like a man,’ even when I was five years old.” Lark grinned at me, but there was sadness in his eyes. “I’m making more sense now, right? The silly outfits, the unicorn backpack, the fact that I act like a kid—I’m giving myself the things I never got to have growing up.”

“You’ve made sense all along. Remember our conversation when we did our one-on-one cam session? You told me then that you grew up with a strict family and never got to express yourself, so now you’re making up for it.”

He seemed surprised. “You actually remember that?”

“Sure. It was just a couple of nights ago.”

“I know, but I usually assume most people don’t really listen to me.”

When I said, “Well, I do,” a lot of emotion welled up in his dark eyes, and he quickly looked away.

Our pizza arrived a few moments later. I usually ate my meals at the little table by the window or while standing in my kitchen. But I wanted Lark to be comfortable, so I put the box on the coffee table and brought us some plates and napkins.

When I raised the lid on the box, Lark said, “Wow, it looks delicious.” He pushed up his sleeves, picked up a slice, and took a huge bite. Then he moaned with pleasure as his eyes rolled back in his head.

A little while later, the groceries arrived. I poured him a glass of bright red punch, and he seemed delighted when I handed it to him.

After we ate, I stuck the leftover pizza in the fridge and returned to the couch with the grocery bag. “I got you a few things,” I said, as I placed a vivid box of cereal on the coffee table. “I have no idea what that tastes like, but I thought you’d like it because there’s a unicorn on the box.”

His eyes went wide. Then he snatched the box off the table and hugged it to his chest as he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen unicorn cereal before! Thank you so much!”

That was a much bigger reaction than I’d expected. He was still hugging the cereal when I produced a lemon cupcake and said, “I got you some dessert, too.”

“It looks delicious, but where’s yours?”

“I already had pizza, and I only allow myself one treat a day.”

Lark frowned at me and said, “We’re definitely sharing that.”

His joy revved right back up again when I put a box of hot chocolate, a canister of whipped cream, and a bag of pastel mini marshmallows on the table. He immediately popped the lid and squirted some whipped cream into his mouth. Then he held up the can and announced, “Your turn.”

“It’s okay, I don’t need any.”

“Yes, you do. This doesn’t even count as a treat. It’s mostly air.”

It seemed silly to argue, so I said, “Yeah, okay. Go ahead.” When I opened my mouth, he loaded it up with whipped cream, which made me laugh.

“It’s good, isn’t it?”

“It was delicious.” I didn’t even know why I’d tried to deny myself. Once I swallowed it, I told him, “There’s one more thing.” I reached into the shopping bag and tried to keep the surprise hidden while I removed its packaging. A moment later, I hung a candy necklace around Lark’s neck.

He actually gasped as he looked down at the string of pastel candy beads and ran his fingers over them. Then he set aside the cereal box, launched himself onto my lap, and grabbed me in a hug as he exclaimed, “Thank you! How’d you know I love these?”

“It just seemed like something you’d enjoy.”

He sat up, straddling my lap as he petted the necklace. “For sure, but it’s always a huge struggle between really wanting to eat it, then being sad when I don’t have it anymore.”

I pulled five more candy necklaces from the shopping bag and smiled at him. “It didn’t make sense to just get one.”

Lark shrieked with delight, and then he sandwiched my face between his hands and kissed me. It started out sweet and playful, but soon lust took over and everything intensified. When I began to get hard, he met my gaze with mischief in his eyes and asked, “Would you like to watch me strip for you? I’m thinking you might enjoy some old-school burlesque.”

“That sounds incredible.” He kissed me again, and then he got up, found his phone, and rummaged in his backpack. When he produced two folding fans, I asked, “Did you just happen to have those with you?”

He turned to me and struck a pose as he opened both fans with a flick of his wrists. One was rainbow-striped, and the other was hot pink with the word “yasss” printed on it. “Of course,” he said with a grin.

Lark took off the Henley, leaving him in just his red mesh top and silk thong, and muttered, mostly to himself, “I wish I’d thought to bring some heels.” He quickly positioned my dining chairs about ten feet apart, facing each other in the open space between the sofa and the front door. Then he led me to one of the chairs and told me, “Sit back and enjoy the show.”

He tapped his phone screen, and when “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago started to play, he took a seat on the other chair, straddling the back of it. He was facing away from me, and he turned his head and smiled at me over his shoulder.

It was astonishing to watch him transform from cute, playful Lark into a bold, confident seductor in the span of about three seconds. He stood up slowly with his back arched, and then he began to dance.

His moves were both graceful and powerful. Using the chair as a prop, he spun around it, almost like it was his partner in a tango. Then he tipped it and spun it on one leg before sitting down on it. He spread his legs wide, and at the same time, he popped the fans open and used them to hide his growing hard-on.

Lark danced his way through a slow, sexy strip tease, perfectly timing his moves to the changing tempo of the song. Once he tossed aside the mesh top, he shimmied out of the sexy thong with his back to me. Then he went fully burlesque with the fans. Every time he faced me, he covered his cock with a fan, then uncovered it the moment he turned away.

I was mesmerized, turned on, and impressed, all at the same time. His skills reminded me of a Broadway dancer, and then he was completely naked behind those fans, which was deeply erotic. He also seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, which made it even better.

When the song ended, he tossed the fans aside, stalked over to me like a panther, and pushed my legs apart. Lark’s grin was teasing, and his dark eyes sparkled.

There was no music now, but he danced for me anyway, writhing between my legs before turning and giving me a lap dance. My cock was throbbing at this point and straining against my clothes. I couldn’t help but notice he was just as hard.

He dropped to his knees, unzipped my jeans, and pulled out my cock while never breaking eye contact. Then he deep-throated it in one fluid move, which made me moan.

We both knew I wouldn’t last long. Not after all of that. Just minutes after he started sucking me, I rasped, “I’m about to come.” He sucked me even harder as he jerked himself off.

I was startled by the primal yell that tore from me as I shot down his throat. The intensity of that orgasm was a huge surprise, too. My vision blurred and my body shuddered as raw sensation rolled through me in waves.

Afterwards, I slumped in the chair, and Lark dropped into a seated position. Once he caught his breath, he grinned at me and said, “I made a mess.” In other words, he’d shot his load across the wood floor.

“Good. Come here.” He got up and straddled my lap, and I kissed him before saying, “Spend the night with me.”

“Love to.” He kissed me again as I caressed his back. This went on for a while. Finally, he climbed off my lap, smiled at me, and said, “Be right back.” I openly admired his gorgeous ass as he walked across the loft to the bathroom.

While he was gone, I zipped up, wiped the floor with some paper towels, and decided that was enough clean-up for now. Lark joined me in the kitchen a couple of minutes later, stark naked and completely unbothered about that. He stretched up to give me a kiss, then thanked me as I handed him a glass of ice water. I told him I’d meet him upstairs and kissed his forehead before taking a turn in the bathroom.

By the time I joined him in bed five minutes later, he was falling asleep. I climbed under the dark blue comforter and spooned him, and he sighed contentedly and said good night. I kissed the top of his head and said, “Good night, baby boy.”

Just before we both drifted off, Lark whispered, “That was a perfect date.”

He would have been right, except for what happened the next morning.

13

Lark

I woke up all warm and cozy in Dylan’s arms. He was pressed against my back, as secure and protective as a turtle shell. I grinned and snuggled even closer.

After a while, he stirred a little and ran a hand down my chest and over my stomach. I rolled over and watched him as he slowly awoke. His expression was blissful, and a little smile curved a corner of his mouth. He raised his lids a fraction of an inch and glanced at me through his thick lashes.

In the next instant, his eyes flew open. He seemed confused and disoriented, and he launched himself out of bed.

It was a damn good thing there was a railing around the edge of the platform, to keep him from falling ten feet to the living room floor. He backed up so fast that he ran into it. Then he dropped to his knees. He was breathing really fast, and I wondered if he was having a panic attack.

I climbed out of bed, but I didn’t try to approach him. Instead, I crouched down and asked, “Are you okay, Dylan?”

Even though he nodded, he looked like he wanted to cry. He sat down and hugged his knees to his chest. Then he took a few deep breaths, which seemed to calm him a little.

After a while, he whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“I was having a dream. I thought I was in bed with my husband. Then I woke up, and he wasn’t there, and it all came crashing back.”

“You have a husband?”

His voice was rough as he whispered, “No. I did, but he died a few years ago. I’d never spent the night with anyone but him, not until last night. I guess…I guess I got confused when I felt you beside me. I thought it was Travis. The dream was so vivid…”

I’d never seen anyone look so completely devastated. It was like he’d just lost his husband all over again, and now he was fighting back tears with everything he had.

Even though I desperately wanted to hug him, I didn’t think he’d welcome that right now. So I stayed where I was and whispered, “I’m sorry, Dylan.”

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I should have told you sooner. Actually, I was going to tell you about Travis last night, but we were having fun and it just…it was so nice that when you looked at me, all you saw was Dylan, not ‘Dylan the widower.’ That’s who I am to every single person in my life, but there was no pity in your eyes, none of that constant concern.”

I asked, “Is he the reason you ran off after we kissed on New Year’s?”

He nodded. “I feel so guilty, even though I know he’d want me to move on.” No wonder he said he wasn’t looking for a relationship. After a pause, Dylan stood up and told me, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Once he was downstairs with the bathroom door closed behind him, I raced down the ladder and got dressed. Then I rushed around and put his apartment back together as best I could, starting with the dining chairs in the middle of the room. Dylan struck me as someone who needed things neat and orderly, and this was the only way I could think to help.

He’d gone into the bathroom just wearing boxers, but he came out fully dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved black Henley, and sneakers. I was standing beside the couch with my backpack on, and I smiled at him and said, “I’m going to take off, but I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.”

“What about breakfast? There’s your cereal…” He looked around and seemed confused by the way I’d tidied up.

I’d stashed it in one of his cupboards and almost said we could have it next time, but I wasn’t sure if that would ever happen. “I already requested a Lyft, so I need to go.”

That wasn’t true. He clearly needed some time to get himself together though, and that was a good excuse to get me out the door.

“Okay.” He crossed the room and gave me a hug as he said, “Last night was amazing. Thank you for everything.”

I let go of him and pulled up a smile as I headed for the door. “I had fun, too. Take care, Dylan.”

Once I got downstairs, I dropped onto one of the uncomfortable couches in the lobby and pulled up the Lyft app on my phone. Screw the bus—I was absolutely going to treat myself, after the morning I’d just had.

When I got home, I found my housemate Kel in the living room with his gay chinchillas. He’d had one of them for a while, and his boyfriend had given him a second one for Christmas. The animals had been crazy about each other from the moment they met, which was how we knew they were gay. The website Kel had read after the fact said you were supposed to introduce two males slowly, or they’d probably fight. But these two little furballs had failed to get that memo and had fallen in love instead.

At the moment, they were side-by-side on a striped beach towel that was spread out on the floor, happily munching away on the grassy hay stuff that made up their diet. Kel was lounging on his side next to them, with one hand propping up his head. He smiled when he saw me and exclaimed, “Hey! Hot date last night?”

I sat down cross-legged on the living room floor and said, “Mostly. How are you doing, Kel? Is your boyfriend back from L.A.?”

“Not yet. He stayed for some meetings with the network. They were impressed with the job he did on New Year’s Day, so they’re talking to him and his agent about an ongoing position as a football commentator.”

“If he gets the job, would you move back to Southern California?”

Kel sat up and pushed his bleached hair out of his eyes. “I don’t know. I already uprooted myself once by moving up here when he got traded, and I gave up a lot to do that. I had the best job in L.A.! I was the pet wrangler for an actor, so I got paid to hang out with his dogs and backyard chickens all day. It was so great.”

“You love animals more than anyone I’ve ever met,” I said, “so I can see why that job would have made you really happy.”

“It definitely did. The guy I worked for was so nice, too.”

“Maybe he’ll hire you back if you return to L.A.”

“He can’t, because someone else is doing that job now. I’d never want him to fire that person, just so I could come back to work.”

“Right. I didn’t think of that.”

He glanced at me from beneath his long bangs and said, “I keep going back and forth about what I’ll do if Hudson gets the job. He’s never actually made a commitment to me, so am I being ridiculous by following him around like a puppy?”

“I wouldn’t say you’re being ridiculous, because I know you love him.”

“I really do, but at the same time it breaks my heart that I’m not more of a priority in his life. I don’t need to be the most important, but it’d be nice if I made it into his top five.”

I asked, “You don’t think you are?”

“No. I think his career, football in general, his fans, his teammates, and his father’s opinion all rank way ahead of me. They’re the reasons he refuses to come out, too. So, I’m left as his dirty little secret, the boyfriend he won’t even take out to dinner because he’s worried about someone seeing us.”

“I’m sorry, Kel. That must hurt.”

After a pause, he said, “Maybe I’m being selfish. Even though things are slowly changing in pro sports, he really would face backlash if he came out. It could affect that commentator job, and future earnings…” Kel sighed as he petted one of his chinchillas. They’d both moved closer to him, as if they sensed he was upset and were trying to help.

“It’s not selfish to want to be treated like you matter.”

“I guess so.”

“Here’s what I think, for what it’s worth,” I said. “You’ve been in a holding pattern for the last year—waiting for things to change, and waiting for it to become a real relationship. But maybe you just need to start living your life, Kel. Hudson’s not making you a priority, but you’re not making yourself one, either. What if you start focusing on what you want—your dream job, your ideal place to live, and what you want your life to look like—and work on making that happen? Then let that be the deciding factor in whether or not you follow him back to L.A.”

“That’s good advice. I really am tired of being in a holding pattern, like you said, so I’m going to think about what would make me happy. First thing is figuring out a career, instead of the string of random jobs I’ve had this past year. My life needs some direction.”

“Do you have some ideas about what you might want to do?”

“I definitely want to work with animals. That’s really vague though, so I need to narrow it down.” I nodded, and Kel met my gaze and asked, “What about you, Lark? If you could be anything or do anything, what would you choose?”

“I have no idea. I actually enjoy being a cam boy, but I don’t see myself still doing this in five years, or even three. For now, it’s an easy way to make money, but eventually I’d like to do something with my life that lets me keep my clothes on.”

“I know what you mean. Did I ever tell you I used to work as a go-go boy when I first moved out on my own? Later on, I lucked into that pet wrangler job. Now, who knows what’s next?” Kel frowned and muttered, “I feel like I should have more of a handle on what I want to do with my life by now, but I just don’t, even at twenty-five.”

“I’m twenty-six and in the exact same boat.”

After a pause, Kel said, “Let’s talk about something more cheerful. Tell me about your date last night.”

“It was with the most incredible guy. He’s a firefighter named Dylan, and he’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.”

“That’s awesome!”

“Yeah, but I can’t let myself get too excited. We agreed to just be friends with benefits.”

Kel studied me and said, “But you want it to be more than that, don’t you?”

“I do for sure. He’s widowed though, and it really doesn’t seem like he’s ready for another relationship.”

“That’s sad. Was it recent?”

“No. He said his husband passed away a few years ago, but it’s not like being in mourning has an expiration date.”

“True, but where does that leave you?”

“I don’t know yet,” I said. “It’s only been a few days. I’m going to give it some time and see what happens.”

Kel nodded. “Definitely do that. But if weeks turn into months and he still can’t give you what you need, I hope you take the advice you just gave me. You shouldn’t have to wait around forever, wishing for more.”

I thought I probably would wait around forever, until Dylan finally decided he was ready to start a new relationship. But watching what Kel was going through felt like a wake-up call. It wasn’t the same situation, but after a year of waiting and hoping for more, my friend was depressed and dissatisfied. Was I setting myself up for the same fate by getting involved with a man who didn’t want what I did?

Kel and I chatted for a few more minutes, and then I got up and said, “I think I’m going to go upstairs and crawl under the covers. I’m wiped out, and I feel like this day needs a reset.”

“I think going back to bed is an awesome idea.”

He gently picked up his chinchillas and cradled them in his arms as we went upstairs. Before he ducked into his room, Kel said, “Thanks for listening, Lark. I’ll see you later.”

After I changed into a cozy onesie, I flopped onto my bed and stared at the ceiling. I couldn’t get Dylan off my mind. I kept seeing the look of pure devastation on his face when he thought he was waking up next to his husband but found me there instead.

No wonder he’d said he wasn’t looking for a relationship. Was he even ready for a friend with benefits? I really hoped so. But how could I possibly compete with the memory of a man he’d obviously adored?

14

Dylan

The next few days were pretty miserable. I felt awful about what had happened when I woke up beside Lark. The poor guy has probably been completely traumatized by the way I’d freaked out on him. At the same time, that incident had stirred up a lot of emotions in me, and I needed some time to sort it all out.

I’d tried to explain that to Lark in a text, but it sounded like I was blowing him off. To make sure he didn’t feel rejected, I made a point of sending him a few messages each day. His responses were always friendly and up-beat, but they were fairly impersonal, too. Not that I blamed him. He probably had no idea what to make of me, so what was he going to do, pour his heart out?

Over those few days, I worked a shift, plodded through another pair of days off, and went to work again. My coworkers were quick to point out I was “acting weirder than usual,” and after dinner Heath and Malone cornered me in the kitchen.

Malone plucked a sponge from my hand as he said, “Dude, stop. You’re scrubbing things that don’t need to be scrubbed.”

“Come and sit down.” Heath herded me toward the table and chairs. “We want to know what’s going on with you.”

I crossed my arms over my chest and muttered, “Who says anything’s going on?”

Malone rolled his eyes, which reminded me of his teenage daughter. “Come on, D. You can’t pretend we don’t know you, not after all these years.”

As we all took a seat around the table, Heath said, “It has something to do with that guy you were interested in, doesn’t it? Did he break up with you? Is that why you’re so sulky?”

“Okay, I definitely haven’t been ‘sulky.’ I’ve just had a lot on my mind.”

Eventually, they dragged the story out of me. I told them about the meltdown I’d had when I woke up next to Lark, and they both tried really hard not to look like they completely pitied me. They didn’t quite succeed, though.

“Man, that must’ve been rough,” Malone muttered, “not just for you, but for that poor guy you were sleeping with.”

“I know. I feel horrible for doing that to him.”

He asked, “How’ve you two been since then?”

“I haven’t seen him since that morning,” I admitted. “I needed some time to get myself together.”

Heath looked concerned. “Don’t tell me you ghosted him.”

“No, of course not. I’ve texted him every day.”

“And?”

“And nothing,” I said.

Malone asked, “Dude, what are you doing? I know you like him, so why are you purposely trying to wreck this?”

“I’m not! Do you think I dreamt about Travis on purpose, then made the choice to freak out on Lark?”

“No, but you did make the choice to let days go by without seeing him,” Malone said. “I don’t buy the idea that you’ve needed this long to get yourself together, either. So, what’s the real motivation behind not seeing him for almost a week?”

Heath answered before I could. “I think he’s self-sabotaging. He’s probably afraid to open up and really care about someone, after the type of loss he experienced. But instead of just breaking things off, he’s slowly eroding their relationship. Then, when New Guy finally decides he’s had enough of being put on the back burner and walks away, Dylan won’t blame himself.”

I sighed and told him, “That’s not what I’m doing.”

Heath raised a brow. “You sure about that?”

“I don’t want to drive Lark away. He’s the best thing that’s happened to me in years,” I said. “All I’m doing is taking a little time to regroup, after an awkward and embarrassing incident that really rattled me.”

“But now you’ve done that, for days.” Malone leaned forward and said, as gently as he could, “It makes me sad to see you blowing this, D. We all just really want you to be happy.”

I told him, “That’s what I want, too.”

“Honestly? I think you’d rather keep yourself safe than be happy,” Malone said. “It must be scary as hell, opening yourself up and caring about someone again after such a devasting loss. As long as you keep this new guy at arm’s length, you don’t run the risk of getting hurt. Isn’t that what’s really going on here?”

“Everyone’s an amateur psychologist,” I muttered.

Malone was perfectly sincere when he said, “The fact that I’m trying to help should show you how much your happiness matters to me, Dylan. It matters to all of us.”

This was pretty out of character for my friend, and he’d probably had to dig deep for that. I didn’t really know what to say in return, but fortunately, my phone beeped. After I took it from my pocket and read the text, I got up and said, “You’ll probably be thrilled to hear this message is from Lark. He’s downstairs.”

Heath and Malone both leapt to their feet, and Heath exclaimed, “Invite him up!”

While I headed for the stairs, Malone hurried into the kitchen and said, “I’ll put on a fresh pot of coffee for our guest.” I didn’t tell him not to bother, because Lark wouldn’t want any. Malone would end up drinking it all himself anyway.

As soon as I stepped out the front door of the fire station and spotted Lark, my heart leapt. He looked absolutely adorable, as usual. This time, he was wearing a rainbow tie-dyed thermal shirt beneath a pair of pale blue overalls that had been cropped into shorts, along with a backwards baseball cap and glittery red sneakers.

He was carrying a white bakery-style box, and he smiled at me and held it out as he said, “Hi, Dylan. I just stopped by to drop off some cupcakes for you and your coworkers. I was baking today and ended up making way more stuff than my housemates and I could actually eat.”

“Thank you.” I took the box and grinned when I raised the lid and saw what he’d made. They were basically Lark in cupcake form, with rainbow swirls of frosting and tons of colorful sprinkles. Some random holidays were represented, including red and green sprinkles with tiny candy Christmas trees, and orange and purple ones with bats and pumpkins. The rest were just sparkly and bright. “These are amazing. Why don’t you come upstairs and have one with me?”

He took a step back and shook his head. “No, that’s okay. I just wanted to drop those off, not bother you while you’re working.”

“You could never bother me, and I’m not busy. It’s been a slow day, so we finished our to-do list and already ate dinner. Now most of the crew is watching a movie.”

“You probably want to get back to the movie, then…”

“I wasn’t watching it. Please come inside, before I drop these,” I said as I shifted the box, which wasn’t the sturdiest thing in the world. “I’d feel awful if I ruined all your hard work.”

“Okay, but just for a minute, and maybe just in there.” He gestured at the small lobby through the open door.

I led the way inside and put the box down. The room was pretty basic—just a few benches lining the walls and some framed pictures. He went over to a large portrait of all the current crews in our firehouse, posing in front of the ladder truck. I was in the back row, standing beside Malone and Heath.

While he studied the photo, I said, “I’ve missed you.”

He turned to me and asked, “Really?”

I nodded. “I’m sorry about staying away the last few days. I’ve just been trying to come to terms with some things, and—”

“You don’t have to explain.” Lark moved closer and smiled at me. “Just do whatever it takes to make yourself feel okay. I’ll be right here when you’re ready.”

“You’re amazing.” I reached out and brushed a strand of hair off his cheek. When my gaze dropped to his luscious mouth, he licked his lips.

Anticipation crackled between us. I became very aware of the way his breathing sped up as he met my gaze.

In the next instant, we were all over each other.

There was really no explaining it, other than one moment I was thinking about how much I’d like to kiss him, and in the next, we were. His baseball cap fell onto the floor, and when I picked him up and pushed him against the wall, he wrapped his arms and legs around me.

Lark’s tongue was halfway down my throat when we were suddenly interrupted by cheers and applause. We both looked up the stairs, and there was my entire crew, clapping and cat-calling. I turned red and put him down, and Lark took an exaggerated bow.

Then he called, “Hi, everybody! I’m Lark, and I brought you cupcakes. I used way too much food coloring, so don’t be surprised when you start peeing rainbows.”

Malone quipped, “Looks like you brought our man Dylan some wood, too,” which made everyone laugh. I turned my back to them and adjusted the front of my pants.

Lark kissed my cheek and said, “Text me later.” Then he scooped up his hat, gave my friends a cheerful wave, and bounced out the door.

I picked up the box and carried it up the stairs, hiding my grin as I said, “All of you suck. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”

“We had to come check on you,” Heath said, with a huge grin. “We heard all these wet, sloppy sounds and needed to make sure you weren’t getting attacked by a giant octopus. Turns out it was just a tiny little twink with a bird name.”

Malone asked, “Did he have to leave because it’s past his bedtime on a school night?”

I sighed before telling him, “Dude, he’s twenty-six.”

“That’s still enough of an age gap for me to tease you mercilessly forever.”

Once everyone helped themselves to coffee and a cupcake, most of the crew went back to their movie, but Heath and Malone sat down at the table with me. While I admired the cupcake on my plate, which featured Halloween, Easter, and Christmas sprinkles atop a magnificent rainbow swirl of frosting, Heath said, “Seriously though, why’d he leave so fast? I was hoping you’d introduce us.”

“Probably because he doesn’t know where he stands with me right now,” I muttered, “so he didn’t want to stick around long enough for it to become awkward.”

“That didn’t look awkward,” Heath said. “It looked like two people who are really into each other.”

“There’s always been an overwhelming attraction, right from the start. But the physical part is easy. I’ve been able to hook up with strangers because it’s just sex with no emotions involved. It’s different with Lark, though.” I slowly spun my plate as I said that, studying that joyful cupcake from all angles.

“Because you care about this guy,” Malone said, and I nodded.

About half an hour later, I went into the bedroom for a little privacy and sent Lark a text, thanking him for the cupcakes. He replied right away with: You’re very welcome. I had fun making them.

When I asked if he wanted to video chat, the phone rang in my hand almost immediately. I opened the video call, and Lark beamed at me and said, “Hi there. Where are you right now?”

“The room where we sleep. We call it the dorm.” I stood up and panned the phone around to show him the eight beds with matching dark blue blankets. They were arranged in groups of four on opposite walls and offset so they weren’t directly across from each other. They were also bracketed on either side by four-foot-high dividers to give the illusion of privacy, but of course it really wasn’t private at all once every bed was filled.

“It’s so stark,” he said.

“Yeah, we don’t really personalize our bunk, because someone else is going to be sleeping here tomorrow night, and another person will be in here the night after that, until we rotate back in for our shift.” I sat back down on my bed and leaned against the wooden headboard.

“Your loft is kind of the same way,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s really nice. But it’s also on the impersonal side.”

“Yeah, that was by choice. I wanted a living space that wouldn’t stir up a lot of emotions or trigger my anxiety. For a while after Travis died, just about anything would set me off—not just obvious stuff like photos, but little things like his favorite coffee mug, or a tchotchke we’d bought together on a trip, even a shell we’d collected at the beach. I had to go for a completely clean slate, so I’d have a chance of pulling myself back together.”

“You said something once about buying the loft because it was so different than what you were used to. That makes sense now.”

I nodded and explained, “When we got married, his parents bought us a home in Bernal Heights. It was a beautifully restored ninety-year-old Edwardian. I just couldn’t stay there after Travis died, so I signed it over to his parents. Then my mother-in-law absolutely insisted on finding me someplace new. She went house hunting with me, bought me that loft, hired an interior decorator, and paid for the furniture.”

“She must really love you.”

“No, not really,” I said. “Travis was an only child and the center of his parents’ universe. No one was ever going to be good enough for him. Then there was the fact that we were only twenty when we got married. They thought we were way too young for such a big commitment. They learned to accept me eventually, but buying that loft was all about Travis, not me. They knew he would have wanted to make sure I was okay, and it was one last thing they could do for their son.”

Lark chewed his lower lip for a moment before saying, “Is it okay to ask what happened to him?”

“He was a firefighter, and he died in the line of duty. He went back into a burning apartment building, because some of the residents said they didn’t see their elderly neighbor with the rest of the people who’d been evacuated. While he was inside, part of the building collapsed.”

I cleared my throat to push down the lump that had formed, and Lark whispered, “Oh, no.”

After a moment, I continued, “Much later, we found out that elderly woman had actually been in Florida visiting her sister when the fire broke out. She just hadn’t bothered to tell any of her neighbors she was going to be out of town. But of course, Travis didn’t know that at the time, so he went back in to save her.”

Lark whispered, “Were you there when it happened?”

“No.” I shifted my gaze from the phone screen to my left hand, which was compulsively trying to smooth out a wrinkle in the blanket. “Travis and I joined the department at the same time. In fact, we met the first day of training and went through it together. By the time training was completed, we were engaged.

“We were so angry when the captain told us we wouldn’t be assigned to the same firehouse. He had a policy of splitting up couples, because he felt they’d always put their partner’s wellbeing above following orders. We thought it was unfair and complained to anyone who’d listen. But you know what? That captain was absolutely right. If Travis and I had been on the same crew I’d be dead now too, because nothing on earth would have stopped me from going into that collapsing building after him.”

Lark whispered, “Oh god.” When I looked at the phone, tears were streaming down his cheeks.

“Please don’t cry, baby boy.” I ran a finger over the screen, which was a poor substitute for being able to touch him.

He quickly dragged his sleeve over his face as he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make this about me by getting emotional. It’s just so sad.”

“I try to look at it like this—we had seven great years together.” I fidgeted with the edge of my phone case, and after a moment I said, “It’s weird to think this summer will mark seven years since he died. He’s been gone almost as long as we were married. And even though both loving him and losing him will always be a part of me, I’m okay now, for the most part. I know it doesn’t seem like it. You’ve seen me struggling, but the last three or four years haven’t been like this. I spent a lot of time in therapy and learned to heal. But meeting you stirred up a lot of stuff.”

“I can see why it would be tough to be with someone again, after all those years.”

I glanced at his image on the screen and said, “If you’re talking about sex, I wasn’t celibate this whole time. I was for almost three years, but I became desperate for human contact, so I started having sex with strangers I met on a hookup app. It actually didn’t make me feel all that guilty, because there was no emotion involved. It was just two people getting what they needed and moving on. But you…you’re something entirely different, Lark.”

His eyes went wide. “I am?”

“Definitely. It’s not just that I’m attracted to you, or that I really like you as a person—which I do.” I hesitated before admitting, “When we kissed on New Year’s, I felt a spark. That only happened to me once before, and to feel it again with someone other than Travis shook me to my core. I think I’ve been reeling ever since.”

He said softly, “I felt it, too.”

“You did?” When he nodded, I said, “I wish we were having this conversation face-to-face, not over the phone. It feels like a cop-out, just like calling us friends with benefits when I’m feeling…everything.”

“This is easier,” he said, “and it doesn’t really matter what we call ourselves. Let’s forget about labels, take things day by day, and just enjoy it.”

“That’s an excellent plan.”

Lark grinned at me. “I have good ideas sometimes.”

“Will you come over tomorrow evening? I want to try again, since I completely blew it last time.”

“You didn’t blow it at all. That was a really fun night! Why don’t you come to my house instead, though? Your first day off is supposed to be about relaxation, so let me cook for you.”

I asked, “Are you sure? I don’t want you to go to any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” he said with a big smile. “I’ve got this.”

15

Lark

I definitely did not have this.

Why’d I think I could impress Dylan with this whole domestic goddess routine? I could barely make a bowl of cereal, let alone do any actual cooking.

The only things I’d done right: selecting a cute outfit and buying an adorable apron. It was printed to look like the ocean, with a cartoon unicorn riding a pizza slice like a surfboard. I was wearing that with a red cropped top, purple shorts, and white platform Mary Janes with little tie dye ankle socks. In short, I looked fab. The utterly trashed kitchen was another thing entirely.

Kel and Eliot were standing in the doorway, looking worried as Kel asked, “Are you sure you don’t want our help?”

“No thanks. It’s important to me to prove to Dylan I can do this on my own.”

Eliot asked, “Okay, but…why, exactly?”

I turned to my friends and leaned against the counter. “Because he has a super stressful job, and on his days off he really needs to relax. You guys know I’m terrible about taking care of myself. Most of the time, I don’t even remember to buy groceries and end up mooching off one of you so I don’t starve. But Dylan doesn’t need someone like that, someone he has to worry about and take care of. He needs someone who can stand on their own two feet, without being a burden to him.”

Eliot glanced at the cute penguin-shaped appetizers I’d made, and the carefully arranged fresh veggies on skewers, which looked like a blooming flower garden. “Alright, I get that,” he said. “Is this stuff really selling that message, though? It might come across as a little…”

I finished for him. “Childish. I know, but I’m not trying to pretend I’m a different person. I might be trying to come across as more capable and responsible than I really am, but I’m never going to stop loving things that are fun, cute, and silly, and I think Dylan actually likes that about me.”

“Cool. Then carry on,” Kel said. “Eliot and I are about to head out to a movie. I hope the date goes great.” JoJo and Yolanda were having dinner with friends, and of course Casey had moved in with Theo, so Dylan and I would actually have the house to ourselves this evening.

After my friends left, I took a look around the kitchen and sighed. How had I managed to make so many dirty dishes? There was no time to clean up, either, since Dylan would be here any minute. Hopefully he wouldn’t want a tour of the house and would never see this mess.

I picked up the tray of appetizers and the flower arrangement-style salad and carried them down the hall to the living room. I’d set up a card table in front of the fireplace and covered it with a white table cloth, then set it with the prettiest dishes we had—well, that Yolanda and JoJo had. All I had were paper plates with poop emojis on them.

Dylan arrived right on time, looking hot as ever in a dark blue Henley and jeans, which were just tight enough to show off his big, sexy body. He kissed my cheek and handed me a long, rectangular box, and then he looked around and said, “What a wonderful house. It reminds me of the Victorian I grew up in.”

“I’m super happy here. Before this, I was renting a room in a plain apartment across town, and this is so much cuter. But what I really love about it are my housemates.” I raised the lid on the white box he’d given me and squealed with delight. It was the type of box that usually held flowers, but this was filled with mini donuts on stems, wrapped up in pretty paper and a ribbon, like a dozen roses. Each was iced in a gorgeous pastel color and decorated with sprinkles.

After I carefully put the box on the bench in the entryway, I threw my arms around Dylan and exclaimed, “Thank you! They’re perfect. How can you possibly know me so well?”

“It’s easy. Any time I see anything absolutely adorable, I think of you.” That was really sweet. I gave him a kiss, and then he smiled at me and pointed out, “We’re almost the same height today.”

That made me grin. “And all it took was a five-inch heel.” I picked up the box and gestured at the living room. “Let’s go sit down. I made some cocktails and nibbles for us to enjoy before dinner.”

I moved the donut bouquet to the couch, and as I sat down across from him at the decked out card table, he said, “This is amazing.” He picked up one of the penguin appetizers and studied it from all angles. The head and body were black olives, and the bottom one was cut open and stuffed with a little slice of fresh mozzarella, to give it a white tummy. Bits of carrots made up the beak and feet.

“I’m not a great cook,” I admitted, “but I can assemble things like a boss. Just be careful of the toothpick hidden inside there, I don’t want you to stab yourself.”

He stood the little olive penguin on his plate. Then he carefully lifted a veggie flower out of its mason jar vase and held it by its skewer stem. Red bell pepper spikes and rolled up spirals of thinly-sliced cucumber formed the petals, around a carrot medallion center. “I’m blown away by the time and effort you put into this. It must have taken you all day.”

“I wanted to make it special for you,” I said. “Be careful of the toothpicks in those too, it took a lot of them to hold the flower salad together. Also, there’s ranch dressing in that little cup by your plate, so you can dip your veggies after you pluck them.”

“I feel bad about taking them apart and eating them.”

“No, don’t. It’s what they’re for.” I pointed at the silver goblet next to his plate and added, “That’s home-made fruit punch, by the way. It’s currently nonalcoholic, but as you can see, there are a few different ways for you to doctor it up.” Four tiny booze bottles were lined up beside the fancy cup. I’d been absolutely thrilled when I went to the liquor store earlier that day and discovered they sold cute, miniature versions of the full-size bottles.

“You really thought of everything.”

“I tried. This is actually the first time I’ve ever thrown a dinner party, so I wanted to get it right.”

Dylan poured a tiny bottle of rum into his cup, then stirred it up with a palm tree-shaped swizzle stick and raised the goblet in a toast. “To you, Lark, the most thoughtful and adorable dinner party host I could ever imagine. You’ve done an extraordinary job and have made me feel special, so thank you.”

It felt good knowing he appreciated the effort I’d made, and it felt even better to watch him devour the veggies and appetizers. “I figured you’d appreciate something healthy, since you’re so fit,” I said. “There’s a stromboli for dinner, which is kind of like a rolled up pizza if you’ve never had one. And then dessert isn’t even going to pretend to be anything but fat, sugar, and yumminess. But at least I tried to start us out on the right foot.”

“That all sounds great.” He plucked a baby carrot and ate it without dip before asking, “Are any of your housemates around? You speak so highly of them, and I’d love to meet them.”

“They all cleared out for a couple of hours to give us some privacy, but hopefully you’ll meet them later this evening. Well, except for Casey. He officially moved in with his boyfriend, and even though he still comes around a lot, he won’t be here tonight.”

“Were you with your housemates on New Year’s Eve?” I nodded, and he said, “I remember seeing them, but I don’t know who’s who.”

I took a sip of fruit punch, which had turned out yummy if I said so myself, and told him, “So, this house belongs to a woman named Yolanda Gutierrez. She’s a nurse, and a total bad-ass. People might underestimate her because she’s only like, five-four, but she’s strong and tough and amazing.”

“I’m guessing she was the Latina with long, dark hair at the party.”

“Yes! That’s her. She put the down-payment on this house with an inheritance she got after her dad died, and she rents out the four upstairs bedrooms to help cover the mortgage. She’s a total boss lady, and I admire her. No matter what happens, she just handles it, like when the water heater died and flooded the laundry room a couple of months ago. She’s a first time homeowner and it’s not like she knew what to do, but she stayed calm and figured it out. I wish I was more like her.”

“You don’t think you are?”

“Not even close. Then there’s her wonderful girlfriend, Josephine Deveraux. Oh wait, make that fiancée. They got engaged last month. Anyway, JoJo is transgender and a gorgeous blonde goddess who’s all about living her life proudly and authentically, with grace and dignity. She’s just incredible. She had this awful family who kept dead-naming her and refusing to support her, so she struck out on her own at eighteen and completely built herself an amazing life from the ground-up. She studied jewelry design and makes these absolute works of art—literally. They’re sold in several museum gift shops, and she also runs a successful online shop. I admire her so much.”

Dylan said, “You’re a lot like that, you know.”

“I wish. When my parents kicked me out, I never would have made it if Gran hadn’t taken me in. And I can only dream about being able to support myself by creating things of beauty, the way JoJo does.”

“These two women you admire so much are probably in their thirties, right?”

“Yeah. Yolanda is thirty-eight, and I think JoJo is something like thirty-six or thirty-seven. She was vague about it when I asked.”

“So, give yourself some time,” Dylan said. “They’ve had an extra decade to figure things out and get their lives together. Plus, you just told me JoJo studied jewelry design—in other words, that was a skill she learned, and you could definitely do the same thing. Is there an area of art that interests you?”

I shrugged and said, “I took some ceramics classes a couple of months ago, and they were fun. At Christmas, I made ornaments for all my housemates, and they really loved them. It felt good that something I’d made got such a great response. But it’s just a hobby, and I don’t really see supporting myself by making ceramics.”

“Just to be clear, I’m not saying there’s a single thing wrong with what you do for a living. But if you admire what your friend is doing, there are ways to follow in her footsteps. One way is by taking classes and discovering what you love, which you’ve already started to do.”

We talked about art classes for a while, and I thought it was nice that he was trying to be supportive. Then I got up from the table and said, “Be right back, I need to stick the stromboli in the oven.”

I went to the kitchen and turned on the oven, and as I pulled the pizza roll from the fridge, Dylan said, “What a charming kitchen.”

I hadn’t realized he’d followed me, and I told him, “You weren’t supposed to see the mess I made while I was making dinner.”

“Can I help clean up? I actually like doing dishes. If it’s going to be a while for the main course, how about if I wash and you dry until it’s ready?”

I raised a skeptical brow. “Are you just saying that because this is so horrifying that you feel you have to step in?”

“Nope. I really do like it.”

“Well, okay then.” I took off my apron and hung it around his neck. While he tied it around his waist, I filled half of the double sink with warm water and lots of soap, so it foamed up into a big, puffy cloud of bubbles. Then I found a clean dish towel and the old barstool that was kept stashed in the laundry room, sat down beside Dylan, and crossed my legs. “Okay,” I said, “let’s do this.” He grinned at me as he pushed back his sleeves.

Working side-by-side with him turned out to be surprisingly fun. He pulled up some background music on his phone, and we chatted while we made our way through the dishes. I told him about Kel, Eliot, Casey, and Theo, and he said, “So, Casey must have been the big guy who hugged you on New Year’s.”

“I think everyone hugged everyone, but he got to me first, right after you kissed me.” I flashed him a teasing grin and joked, “Were you jealous?”

“I was, actually. Since I barely knew you, it shouldn’t have mattered. The fact that it did just added to the confusion I was feeling.”

“I wonder what would’ve happened if you hadn’t seen me at that party,” I said. “Do you think you would have asked to meet me?”

He thought about that before saying, “I hope I would have been that bold. I know I would have asked for many more nights like that first one, where we chatted and played music and hung out together online. But you’re an entertainer with hundreds of fans, so you probably would have felt like an unattainable fantasy to me.”

I snort-laughed and said, “Oh yeah, I’m a real fantasy.”

“You are. That’s why hundreds of people follow you on your fan page.”

“I’m a weirdo with lots of silly costumes and a nice ass, and I’m willing to take my clothes off for an audience. That’s about it.”

“You’re so much more than that, Lark.”

A thought occurred to me, and I exclaimed, “I forgot about our dinner!”

Dylan chuckled at that. He dried his hands and set a timer on his phone for the stromboli, while I dashed across the kitchen and finally put it in the now thoroughly preheated oven. When I turned back to him, he said, “I like this song,” and drew me into his arms. “U Move, I Move” by John Legend was playing, and we began to slow dance.

I rested my head on his shoulder and heard him exhale slowly as we swayed to the music. “This feels so good,” he murmured, as he rubbed his cheek against my hair. “I didn’t realize how much tension I was carrying until I finally relaxed.”

“How was your shift yesterday?”

“Fairly quiet. It still left me on edge, though. That’s why I called my therapist this morning and changed our sessions from once a month back to once a week. I feel like I’m…slowly unraveling, I guess. I always assumed my anxiety would lessen as time passed, but the opposite is true. Pretty soon, it’s going to start affecting my job, and then I don’t know what I’ll do.”

After a pause, I said, “I hope this isn’t an insensitive question, but do you ever think about retiring? Not because of your anxiety. I just mean you’ve given fifteen years of your life to a high-stress job, and that’s a lot.”

“I think about it all the time.”

“What’s stopping you?”

“Two things, I guess. This is how I’ve defined myself, all my adult life. I don’t even know who I’d be if I wasn’t a firefighter. Hell, I even have part of the fire department’s original logo tattooed on my bicep, that’s how much this job is a part of me,” he said.

“I understand what you’re saying.”

After a pause, he admitted, “Plus, I’d feel like a failure if I had to quit because I couldn’t handle the job anymore.”

I leaned back a little, so I could meet his gaze. We stopped dancing, but we still held onto each other. “If someone on your crew injured his back carrying a piece of equipment and couldn’t physically do the job anymore, would you think he was a failure for retiring?”

“No, of course not.”

“So, why treat mental health differently than physical health? If it was a physical injury and you had to retire because of it, there’d be no shame in that,” I said. “It’s exactly the same if you have to retire for your mental health.”

“You’re absolutely right, but there’s still a stigma attached to mental health issues.”

“I know. But are you worried about the people in your life judging you, or are you judging yourself?”

“It’s not like my friends and family would think less of me if I had to quit, so I guess it really just comes down to me.” He paused before saying quietly, “I don’t know how I’d feel about myself, or what I’d do with my life if I didn’t have my job anymore. I just think I’d feel really lost.”

“Whatever ends up happening down the road, I want you to know I’m here for you, Dylan.”

“Thank you. I really appreciate that.” He drew me closer, and we began to dance again.

A few minutes later, the timer went off and I took the golden brown stromboli from the oven. When Dylan complimented me on it, I told him, “Thanks, but I really didn’t do much. The pizza dough came from a tube, the type that’s like a Jack-in-the-box and bursts open when you least expect it. My main accomplishment was only screaming a little when it startled me. Other than that, all I did was slap some cheese and pizza toppings on it and roll it up. Although I’m about to do something else that’ll probably horrify you, so mentally prepare yourself.”

Using store-bought pesto and pizza sauce, I quickly painted most of the stromboli green. Then I painted the round ball at one end with the red sauce, added two slices of pimento-stuffed green olives for eyes, and stuck on a pair of antennae I’d crafted out of thin bits of celery. Dylan burst out laughing and exclaimed, “It’s the hungry caterpillar from the children’s book!”

“Oh good, you recognized it. That was the only cute thing I could think of that’s shaped like this. And I know it’s super juvenile, but I just wanted to make it fun.”

He seemed sincere when he said, “I think your creativity is absolutely wonderful.”

The pizza roll ended up being pretty delicious. I followed it up with dishes of ice cream I’d decorated with banana slices, sprinkles, chocolate chips, and colorful cereal, to make them look like teddy bears. We capped off the meal with two mini donuts from my gorgeous bouquet, and then we went back to the kitchen and finished the last of the dishes.

When we returned to the living room, we both took off our shoes, and then we stretched out together on the couch. Dylan wrapped his arm around me and kissed my forehead before saying, “This has been a perfect evening.”

I grinned and told him, “It has, and it’s not even close to over yet.”

16

Dylan

As we got comfortable on the couch in Lark’s living room, I said, “Thank you, not just for the meal, but for making it an experience.”

“Thanks for going along with it. I know ninety percent of what I do is silly and childish. The word my parents always used for me was frivolous. It meant a lot to me to just get to be myself.”

“It sucks that anyone ever tried to dim your sparkle. I promise I’ll never do that to you.”

That seemed to make him happy. Lark was all smiles as he put his head on my chest and draped an arm and a leg over me. I was stretched out on my back, and he was curled up at my side, in the crook of my arm. That felt like the most natural place in the world for him.

It surprised me that all of this was so effortless. I felt right at home in this house, only partially because it reminded me of my childhood home. But more than that, I was just really comfortable with Lark. He was an amazing man, and I felt good when I was with him—happier than I’d been in a very long time.

Whatever was happening between us only became difficult when I thought about the past or the future. One came with pain and guilt, and the other brought uncertainty. But as long as I let myself live in the moment, I could do this. I could be with Lark and enjoy myself and his company, and I could let myself relax.

I stroked his hair as he told me about some of the other ideas he’d had for dinner. After a while, he looked up at me with vulnerability in his wide, dark eyes and asked, “Will you spend the night with me, Dylan?”

Before I could even think about it, I said, “I’d love to.” There was definitely a risk of us getting too serious too fast, and I knew I wasn’t ready for that. But I couldn’t say no, and not just for Lark’s sake. The idea of spending the night with him in my arms sounded like total bliss, and I didn’t want to deny myself.

“Awesome!” A gorgeous smile lit up his face.

“Is there someplace nearby where I can pick up a toothbrush and a few toiletries?”

“There’s a cute little bodega just a few blocks from here. Want to go for a walk?” When I told him that sounded like a good idea, he got up and grabbed his shoes. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said, before dashing out of the room and up the stairs.

He returned wearing his red glittery sneakers and an oversized rainbow tie-dyed hoodie, which was so long that it covered his shorts. Lark handed me another hoodie and told me, “It’s a little cold out, so I thought you might want this.”

I lifted the hood on the black and white jacket and saw it was decorated with eyes, a nose, and three-dimensional ears, to make it look like a panda. He seemed so enthusiastic that I didn’t have the heart to turn it down and tell him I had a jacket in my truck. Instead, I pulled it on and said, “Thank you. That was very thoughtful of you.” He beamed at me, and I indicated his bare legs and asked, “Won’t you be cold, too?”

“I’m trying to look cute for you, and my legs are my second-best feature, after my ass. Besides, all I have to do is run around for a minute, and then I’ll be perfectly warm.”

“You don’t have to try to look cute. You’re already adorable.” It probably sounded like I was just tossing out random compliments, but I really meant it.

The night was definitely on the cool side, so Lark did exactly what he’d said he was going to when we got outside. He raced ahead to the corner and swung around a street sign, then dashed back to me and took my hand.

It was a little before nine, and the neighborhood was pretty quiet. This part of the Mission was all residential, but in just a few blocks it shifted to small businesses with apartments on the second and third floors.

When we reached a neighborhood bar called Garcia’s, Lark pressed his hands and face to the picture window and exclaimed, “Oh wow, they’ve started doing karaoke! And look, no one’s up on the stage!” He turned to me with wide, pleading eyes and asked, “Can we go in, just for a few minutes? Pretty please?”

There was no way I was going to say no to that and crush his enthusiasm, so I said, “Sure. Why not?”

The bar’s attempt to boost business with weeknight karaoke seemed less than successful. Only about a third of the tables were filled, and as Lark had mentioned, the little stage stood empty. I told him I’d get us some drinks, and he kissed my cheek before dashing to the back of the bar, muttering, “Please have ABBA.” Then he began scanning the song list. Even from clear across the bar, I knew he’d found what he was looking for by his delighted squeal. That made me chuckle.

He tossed his hoodie on a chair at an empty table right in front of the stage. Then he picked up the mic and shifted excitedly from one foot to the other while he waited for me. Once I sat down at the table with a bottle of beer and Lark’s sprite and grenadine, he flashed me a big smile and pushed some buttons on the karaoke machine.

There were some groans from the other patrons when the first few notes of “Mamma Mia” began to play, so I made up for it by cheering enthusiastically. He began with his back to the audience, shaking his cute little ass through the instrumental, and then he whirled around and began belting out the lyrics.

Of course, being Lark, he didn’t just sing—he performed the hell out of that song, then two more. He was so fun and high energy that people began to take notice. By the time he launched into “Take a Chance On Me” in his trio of ABBA’s greatest hits, almost everyone was engaged. Some people were even singing along.

When he stepped from the stage onto our tabletop, I quickly grabbed the drinks so he didn’t kick them over. I laughed as I leaned back and looked up at him, just because his joy was contagious. I’d never seen anyone so radiant, so effervescent, so unapologetically themselves. It reminded me of what I already knew—that Lark was truly something special.

Once the song concluded, most of the bar gave him a standing ovation. He curtseyed, then bent down and planted a kiss on my lips. Now I felt special, too. Then he grinned and winked at me before jumping from the table to the stage and returning the microphone to its stand.

When Lark sat down with me, he was absolutely beaming. “That was so fun,” he gushed. “You need to do a number with me!”

“Maybe.” I handed him his drink and clinked my beer to it as I said, “Cheers, Lark. You killed it.”

It amazed me how he could turn from bold to shy in an instant. He lowered his gaze and tried to deflect the compliment by saying, “I’m not a very good singer.”

“Yes, you are, and you’re also a great performer. The crowd loved it, and look what you started.” Two women in their thirties were stepping onto the stage, and a straight couple lined up behind them and studied the song list.

Lark said, “Aw, that makes me happy,” and scooted his chair around so he was facing the stage. He polished off his drink, then fished out one of the extra cherries I’d asked for as he whispered, “Thank you for this, it’s exactly what I would have ordered.”

The two women on stage performed a drunken and off-pitch rendition of Britney’s “Baby One More Time,” and when they finished, we applauded and cheered. Then the bartender brought us a repeat of our drink order, introduced himself as the bar’s owner, and told Lark, “Thanks for getting the ball rolling. Any time you want to come back for mid-week karaoke, Shirley Temples are on me. Maybe don’t climb on the tables next time, because you almost gave me a heart attack and made my insurance premiums flash before my eyes. But I appreciate the positive energy.”

We ended up staying for close to two hours. Several people took the stage during that time, and whenever there was a lull, Lark would jump up and perform. He ran out of ABBA songs pretty quickly, so then he switched to late seventies disco. With each song, he put his all into it. Every other person who got up to sing just stood there, but that wasn’t in his nature.

Eventually, Lark convinced me to get up on the stage and sing a duet with him, and somehow we decided on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” He sang Elton John’s parts and I took Kiki Dee’s, which made no sense in terms of my vocal range, but the crowd loved it. We also busted out some impromptu dance moves that completely broke down into campy pantomime. At one point I mimed casting a line and catching Lark like a fish, and he made it hilarious by exaggeratedly leaping into the air and wiggling around while I reeled him in. Throughout all of that, he didn’t miss a single lyric.

When the song concluded, we took a bow as the other patrons applauded. Then we made the unspoken decision to end on a high note, so we grabbed our hoodies and left the bar.

Once we were out on the sidewalk, Lark grabbed me in a hug and exclaimed, “That was so fun! Thank you!”

“I can’t quite believe I did that. I never thought anyone could get me to do karaoke, but I had a great time.”

“It’s awesome that you tried something new.”

“I need to do more of that—trying new things, I mean. I’ve been in a rut for a long time, and it feels good to shake things up a little.”

Lark flashed me a huge smile and said, “If your goal is to shake things up, I’m sure I can help you come up with some ideas.” I didn’t doubt it.

A few minutes later, we finally reached the bodega. While I collected some toiletries, a toothbrush, and stuff for breakfast, Lark grabbed a box of colorful cereal, gummy worms, a carton of fruit punch, and a multipack of bubblegum. When I joined him, he was staring at a row of piñatas strung across the ceiling. He muttered, probably to himself, “I don’t need that.”

I knew exactly what he was referring to when I looked up. There was one tiny, rainbow-fringed donkey piñata in among all the full-size ones, and I plucked it from its string and said, “Yes, you do.”

After I bought it for him, along with the rest of his sugary treasures, he threw his arms around me and whispered, “Thank you for being so nice to me.” For some reason, that made my heart ache.

We walked back to his house hand-in-hand. I carried the shopping bag, while he cradled the little piñata in one arm and assured me he’d never, ever smash it with a stick.

Four of Lark’s housemates were seated in the living room when we got home. There were introductions all around, and we chatted a bit while Lark put some of the groceries in the refrigerator. They were all very friendly and welcoming, and I liked them right away.

When Lark returned to the living room, JoJo invited us to play cards with them. “Next time,” Lark said. “I want Dylan to myself tonight.” He turned to me and added, “I mean, if that’s okay with you.”

I told him that was perfect, and after we all said good night, I followed him upstairs. His room was exactly what I’d expected—cheerful, colorful, and pure Lark. I’d glimpsed a little of it that first night when he’d been on camera, but that hadn’t quite prepared me for the full effect.

In many ways, it was the exact opposite of my loft. The walls were a sunny shade of yellow, there were rainbow-striped curtains on the large window, and every single surface was covered with stuff, including a lot of hats and other accessories that went with his costumes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know this place is a cluttered mess, but I don’t have any place to put my stuff. The closet’s tiny, and the armoire is already overflowing.”

“I need to build you some shelves. They could fill that entire wall, and then you could get all of this stuff organized.” I gestured to the far side of the room as I said that, but then I turned to him and added, “I didn’t intend that as a criticism. You can obviously do whatever you want with your room, and I’m probably overstepping.”

“You’re not. It’s sweet that you want to help, and I’d love some shelves in here. Is that really something you’d want to do, though?”

“I’d love it. My dad and I used to build stuff all the time at our old house. Once, we even built a little studio in the backyard for my mom, so she’d have a quiet place to read.”

Lark smiled at me. “I’ll ask Yolanda if it’s okay in the morning.”

“Great. If she says yes I’ll take some measurements, and we can plan out what we want to build.” I was really excited about this idea, not just because I wanted to do something nice for Lark, but because it’d been a while since I’d had a project to look forward to.

After we took turns in the bathroom and got ready for bed, we slipped under the covers in our underwear. He was cradling the little piñata, but when I told him it would probably get crushed during the night, he placed it on the nightstand. We shifted around and got comfortable, and as he rested his head on my bicep, he sighed contentedly.

“This has been a perfect night,” he whispered. I had to agree.

We spent a long time talking about any random thing that came to mind before he fell asleep in my arms. As I kissed his forehead, I was struck by an overwhelming need to take care of and protect this sweet, precious person.

Not that Lark wanted that from me. I got the impression he kept trying to show me he could take care of himself. But it didn’t change how I felt.

17

Lark

Even though I loved the fact that our last date was pure sweetness, by the next one I was a man on a mission. I needed Dylan to fuck me. Like, it had to happen. I was so horny that failure to get dick was not an option.

Since that fantastic but very chaste night he’d spent at my house, Dylan had worked another shift and was once again on his first of two days off. He’d wanted to cook me dinner that evening, but I’d managed to talk him into taking it easy by getting something delivered instead. I didn’t want anything burning on the stove while I threw myself at him.

Our date was at six, and my ride share pulled up in front of his building with two minutes to spare. When Dylan buzzed me in, I rushed into the lobby and juggled my unicorn backpack as I stripped off my red, oversized sweater. The outfit underneath was anything but subtle. I was wearing a skin-tight sheer tank top and satin shorts with my high-heeled glitter ankle boots, all in black. The only way I could have been more obvious about what I wanted would have been to arrive naked with “do me” written on my ass cheeks.

Dylan answered the door looking as effortlessly sexy as ever in jeans and a form-fitting dark blue T-shirt. He laughed when I tossed my things aside and flung myself into his arms. Then I kissed him, and he returned the kiss just as passionately before picking me up and carrying me to the couch.

We fumbled with each other’s clothes, stripping them off as he kissed my lips, my throat, and each part of my body as he uncovered it. There was no question he wanted me—not just because of the obvious erection pressing against me as I straddled his lap. I also saw it in the way his hands trembled, his breath caught when I licked his earlobe, and his heart pounded when I pressed my hand to his chest. I was already wildly turned on, but seeing and feeling the way he reacted to me was like gasoline on a fire.

As soon as we were naked, I grasped his cock and mine with one hand and jerked us off together, which made him throw his head back and moan. Then he leaned forward so his forehead was resting against mine and rasped, “I need to be in you.” I climbed off his lap, and as I dashed across the apartment he asked, “Where are you going?”

All I could manage was, “Rubbers.” I quickly retrieved my backpack, then emptied its contents onto the coffee table and sorted through the stuff I’d brought with both hands.

He chuckled and said, “You came prepared.” Besides a huge box of condoms and three types of lube, I’d also brought several sex toys.

“Damn right I did,” I told him, as I climbed back onto his lap with some supplies.

I tore off the wrapper and tossed it aside before unrolling a condom down his length, and then I slicked it with lube before positioning myself with his cock pressed against my hole. “We didn’t prep you,” he said, as I started to lower myself onto his hard-on.

“I already took care of that before I came over.”

He grinned and asked, “And you didn’t let me watch?”

I grinned, too. “Next time. Today, I was in a hurry. I needed your cock in my ass ASAP.”

Dylan chuckled at that. It turned into a moan as I sat down on his lap, impaling myself on his length. I exhaled slowly as I draped my arms around his shoulders. After giving myself a moment to adjust to the feeling of fullness and the way his thick cock stretched me, I began to move.

I rode him slowly at first, then harder and faster, straddling him and bouncing on his lap. At that angle, his cock slammed into my prostate with each down-stroke. I jerked myself off at the same time, chasing my orgasm as jolts of pleasure shot through me.

When I looked into Dylan’s eyes, the connection between us was surprisingly intense. I didn’t know what to do with everything it stirred up in me, so I looked away. But he took my chin and gently turned my head until I met his gaze again. There was raw emotion in his eyes, and I wondered if he was feeling the same things I was.

I forgot about trying to make myself come and kissed him as I laced my fingers at the back of his neck. As I rested my forehead against his, he said, “You feel so good, baby boy.”

He started jerking me off, and I whimpered as I kept driving myself onto his cock. I’d never felt so vulnerable during sex before, but at the same time every part of this was just so unbelievably good.

Before long, I cried out as I came, clinging to Dylan and thrusting into his palm while I slammed myself onto his cock. All of it was overwhelming. Then he started coming too, thrusting up into me as he bit back a yell. Everything blurred together in that moment—him, and me, and all that pleasure and sensation.

I was pretty out of it by the time that huge orgasm finally ended. I curled up against Dylan’s chest, gasping for air and shaking, and he covered me with his T-shirt and held me securely. He was saying something—sweet, comforting words that I barely heard, but the sound of his voice was soothing.

When I was slightly more coherent, Dylan gently placed me on the couch and tucked the shirt around me before saying, “I’ll be right back.”

He returned from the bathroom soon after, dressed in plaid pajama pants and carrying a pair of washcloths. He moved me onto his lap and cleaned the come from my chest and stomach with a damp cloth, and then he dried me with the other. It was awfully nice, being cared for like that.

Then he got up and cradled me in his arms as he carried me across the apartment. At the foot of the ladder, he said, “This is less than romantic, but I only know of one way to get you safely up to my bed.” With that, he draped me over his shoulder, then climbed the ladder effortlessly.

I chuckled and told him, “Normally this would worry me, but since you’re an actual firefighter and this is called a fireman’s carry, I feel pretty confident you won’t drop me.”

He climbed into bed with me and said, “You seemed too wobbly to climb up here on your own, but this is a lot more comfortable than the couch.”

“There was no way I would have made it. I’m way too floppy.” While I was talking, I burrowed deeper into his arms, until I was pressed against him. When he kissed my forehead, a goofy grin spread across my face.

We stayed like that for a long time—content, comfortable, and all wrapped up in each other. After a while, I said, “I hope I wasn’t too forward earlier.”

“What do you mean?”

“I practically threw myself at you, the moment you opened the door.”

“No, I really liked that.”

“Okay. I wasn’t sure,” I said. “Since we hadn’t gone there yet, I didn’t know if there was a reason you were waiting. I probably should have asked, instead of showing up here totally thirsty.”

“You’d told me before that all most guys want from you is sex. I wanted you to know I wasn’t that kind of guy, so I decided to hang back and let you decide when we went this far.”

“I know you’re not. You’re the nicest guy I’ve ever met, Dylan.” He made a little sound in the back of his throat, kind of like he was fighting back a groan, and I asked, “Did I say something wrong?”

“No. I know you meant it as a compliment. It’s just that I’ve always been called a nice guy, and…well, that’s not very sexy or exciting, is it?”

“You’re sexy and exiting too, but calling you a nice guy was meant as a huge compliment. Do you know how many jerks I’ve been with over the years? I used to have a real gift for attracting them, starting with the first guy I ever dated, back when I was eighteen.”

“You didn’t date until you were eighteen?” I sat up and nodded, and he said, “I guess I assumed your parents found out you were gay because you got involved with someone.”

“No. They found out because my older brother Jonathan found my secret journal and went running to our parents with it. It was all perfectly innocent. I’d been using it as a way of trying to work through my feelings and come to terms with the fact that I was attracted to boys instead of girls. Anyway, they confronted me, and when I admitted I was gay—well, you know the rest of this story.

“Most of it, anyway. I didn’t tell you how I started sneaking around when I turned eighteen. I was afraid to do it sooner, in case Gran found out and kicked me out, too. But the summer after I graduated, I met a guy I thought was worth the risk. I was wrong though, and he ended up using me, cheating on me, and dumping me.”

Dylan said, “I’m so sorry.”

“Nah, don’t be. It was a long time ago, and he’s barely worth mentioning.” I shifted around a bit, adjusting the blanket as I asked, “So, how old were you when you started dating?”

“Nineteen.”

I shook my head. “There’s no way! A hottie like you? I assumed you were the most popular guy in your high school—unless you weren’t out yet and felt like you had to keep it a secret for some reason.”

“I came out to my parents when I was twelve, but believe me when I say, nobody wanted me in high school. I was a huge dork. I was as tall as I am now, but I was also super skinny with acne and a mouth full of braces.”

He laughed when I exclaimed, “Holy makeover, Batman! What happened?”

“Well, the braces came off, and I outgrew the acne. Plus, I knew I had to get a lot stronger if I was going to pass the physical portion of the firefighters’ exam. So, the year after I graduated from high school, I got really serious about working out and building muscle.”

“And here I was picturing you as the captain of the football team and the homecoming king,” I said.

“Nope, not even close. Besides being self-conscious about my appearance, I was pretty shy, too. I only had two close friends, and we spent most of our time playing Dungeons and Dragons.”

“I don’t know if I should believe you. You’re just so different now.”

“I’m not really. I might look different because I grew up and filled out, but deep down I still see myself as that same awkward dork.”

“You know what? This actually explains a lot,” I said. “No wonder you’re so kind and accepting of all my quirks. You have first-hand experience at being an oddball, like me.”

He grinned at that and asked, “Is that how you see yourself? As an oddball?”

“Oh, for sure, and I don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. I fly my oddball flag proudly. It’s huge, 3-D, and shaped like a round, glittery unicorn. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s less like a flag and more like a giant balloon in a Thanksgiving Day parade.”

Dylan adjusted his pillows and leaned against the dark wood headboard as he said, “That sounds about right.”

I shifted around and sat cross-legged facing him, with the blanket over my lap. “I just thought of something. If you were nineteen, does that mean the first person you ever dated was your husband?”

He nodded. “The first and last, until I met you.”

“So…wow. You lost your virginity to the man you ended up marrying.”

“I did.”

“Were you his first, too?”

“I was his first time with a man, since he’d dated women in high school.” Dylan lowered his gaze to the dark blue comforter and smoothed out a wrinkle as he said, “We were so young and naïve. When we first tried to sleep together, we barely knew what we were doing. Then later on, we realized there was a reason things weren’t working out very well…”

His voice drifted off, so I guessed, “Was it because you were both tops?”

He met my gaze with a look of surprise. “How did you know?”

“Everything I’ve heard about him makes me think you two were very similar.”

“You’re right, that’s exactly what was wrong, but it didn’t really change anything. We loved each other and wanted to be together, so that wasn’t going to stand in our way. Instead, we just adapted, I guess, and found ways to be intimate that didn’t involve anal.”

I didn’t say it out loud because it probably seemed petty, but I was glad to find out there was one way I was more compatible with Dylan than his husband had been. Even so, it still felt next to impossible to compete with the memory of a man who sounded so perfect—not just for Dylan, but in general.

Dylan thought about what he’d just said and added, “Maybe that was why I was able to start hooking up with people less than three years after I became a widower. Since it wasn’t really a part of our relationship, it didn’t make me feel guilty. Those hookups were nothing special either, just quick, anonymous sex, never with the same guy twice. There certainly were no bells and whistles, if you know what I mean. They just fulfilled a basic need. And that’s it, now you know the sum total of my sex life BL.”

“What’s BL?”

He grinned at me. “Before Lark. Just about everything you and I have done has been new and different, and I really like that. I feel like I finally have a chance to explore and learn about myself.”

That made me grin, too. “Any time you want to explore more of those bells and whistles, I’m totally down for that. In fact, you know what we should do? Visit a sex shop and pick out some toys together. As you know, I brought some along, but you might enjoy seeing what’s available and finding things that turn you on.”

“I like that idea. I’ve never been to a sex shop, and I’ll admit I’m curious.”

I asked, “Really? You and your husband never went to one?”

He shook his head. “We were both pretty private when it came to our sex life, especially Travis. I suggested it a couple of times, but he always said he’d be too embarrassed.”

“Well, you’re going to have fun. I know the perfect place.”

“That’s good,” he said, “since I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“Want to go tonight? Maybe we can grab some dinner while we’re out.”

“Isn’t it kind of late?”

I grinned at him and pointed out, “It’s barely eight p.m.”

“Sure, we could do that, even though it’s awfully cozy here in bed.” He reached over and tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear. Then he apparently got distracted, because he lightly ran my earlobe between his thumb and index finger as he asked, “Are these new?” One earlobe was pierced twice, and I hadn’t worn earrings in a while. But today, I’d put on two tiny, silver hoops.

I nodded and whispered, “Thank you,” before leaning in and kissing him.

“What are you thanking me for?”

“For noticing.” That actually meant the world to me, so much more than he probably realized. I kissed him again before asking, “So, was that a no to going out? If so, that’s fine. We can go to the sex shop another time.”

Dylan pushed back the covers and said, “No, let’s go. I don’t want my young lover to think I’m a boring old homebody, even though that’s exactly what I am.” He smiled at me, then kissed my bare shoulder as he slid past me.

18

Dylan

About twenty minutes later, I slid into a corner booth with Lark at my favorite neighborhood restaurant. I was glad I’d agreed to drag my ass out of bed. It was worth it just to get to watch him experience this.

There was such an amazing sense of wonder about him. Lark’s big, brown eyes were wide as he took in absolutely everything, from the candle and white daisies on the table to the mural of the Italian countryside on the wall across the small dining room. It was nothing fancy, just a cute mom and pop Italian restaurant, but you’d have thought it was the most special place in the world based on his reaction.

The waiter handed us thick menus bound in leather folders, then asked what we’d like to drink. “There are some house specialties on the back cover,” I told Lark, and he flipped his menu over and scanned the list.

“There are too many choices. I don’t know what to get.”

I still wasn’t used to this part of him, the shy, uncertain part that brought out the protector in me. He could be so bold and seemingly fearless when he was performing for an audience. It was easy to forget he could also be timid and incredibly vulnerable when he was out of his element.

I asked, “Would you like me to order for you?”

He was still completely wide-eyed as he met my gaze and nodded. I requested a virgin strawberry daiquiri for him and a glass of red wine for myself, and he whispered, “Thank you.” Then he pulled up his soft, red sweater, which kept slipping off his shoulder.

He was clearly feeling self-conscious. I could see it not just in the way he kept covering up, but in the way he kept trying to make himself smaller. He sat hunched over with his arms wrapped around himself, as if to try to become less noticeable.

To make him feel better, I slid closer to him and draped my arm along the back of the booth. When he snuggled against me, I moved my arm to his shoulders and held him as he put down his menu and read mine with me.

I held the menu while he flipped the pages, and after a while he said, “This menu’s huge. I don’t know how I’ll ever decide.”

“I can help you pick. I’ve been here a few times and know the menu pretty well. Do you like pasta?”

“I love it.”

I directed him to the stuffed manicotti and said, “That’s particularly good.”

He muttered, “It’s kind of expensive.”

“This is my treat, Lark. Please don’t give the prices a second thought.” I actually didn’t think it was very expensive at all, certainly not by San Francisco standards, but maybe he didn’t go out very often.

I felt a pang of guilt at that idea. Lark was an absolute angel who deserved the world on a silver platter, and I resolved then and there to start stepping up and taking him more places. Actually, it would also do me good to leave the apartment sometimes, for more than just some quick errands.

When the waiter came back with our drinks, Lark took a sip of the daiquiri and told me, “It’s yummy.” Then I ordered the manicotti for both of us and asked Lark if he wanted the soup or salad, which came with it. “Soup,” he said. “I don’t like eating leaves. It’s weird.” If the waiter found that odd, he did a great job not showing it.

As tiny as he was, Lark surprised me by polishing off a cup of minestrone, the entire dish of manicotti, two strawberry daiquiris, and three pieces of garlic bread. He looked so sad when the waiter asked if we wanted dessert, and he had to admit he was too full. “We’ll get it to go and have it later,” I told him, and his face lit up.

When the bill came, I slipped my card into the leather sleeve and handed it right back to the waiter without looking at it. I didn’t want Lark to see the total, just in case some misguided part of him felt bad about the money I’d spent. While we waited for the waiter to return, Lark snuggled close to me and whispered, “Thank you. That was an absolutely incredible meal.”

I kissed his forehead and said, “I’m glad you liked it.”

A few moments later, the restaurant’s owner brought us a white paper bag with our desserts, along with my card and the receipt. He was a short, round man in his seventies, and he exclaimed, in his thick Brooklyn accent, “Dylan, my man! I saw your name on the bill and had to come say hello. Tell me, how’s your lovely mother and the rest of your family?”

The last time I’d been here, I’d brought my parents and sister and her family to celebrate my mom’s birthday. “They’re all doing great, Mr. Antonelli. Thanks for asking.”

“Wonderful, wonderful. And who do we have here?”

“Gino Antonelli, please meet my date, Lark Genardi.”

I’d never brought a date here before, and it was nice to see Mr. Antonelli didn’t flinch at finding out I was gay. He was all smiles as he shook Lark’s hand and exclaimed, “Genardi, an Italian boy! I always knew Dylan had good taste. Tell me, son, how was your dinner?”

Lark was perfectly sincere when he told him, “It was the best meal I ever ate, sir.”

Gino puffed up with pride, but he tried to act modest by saying, “Oh now, I appreciate the compliment, but I bet your mama or granny’s cooking could give me a run for my money.”

“No, sir,” Lark said. “I grew up on mac and cheese in a box, not gourmet stuff like this.”

Gino still had a hold of his hand, and he patted the back of it before he finally let go. “Well, you come back any time you like, you hear? There’s plenty more where that came from, and a skinny little thing like you needs all the good food he can get.” He turned to me and added, “It was great to see you, Dylan. Be sure to bring your boyfriend back soon. By the way, I comped your desserts, a little something from me to you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Antonelli,” I said, “but you didn’t have to do that.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “For a brave firefighter like you, putting your life on the line to save others? Least I could do.”

After Gino went back to the kitchen, I pocketed my card and added a huge tip to the bill. Then I asked Lark, “All set?” He nodded, so we both slid out of the booth, and he picked up the bag holding our desserts and clutched it with both hands, like he was afraid to drop it.

We’d left my truck in my building’s parking garage and walked the two blocks to the restaurant, and on the walk back Lark asked, “Does that happen a lot?”

“Which part?”

“People giving you things for being a firefighter.”

“Yes and no. It’s not like I usually announce it or wear my uniform when I go out to dinner. The only reason Gino knows is because my mom told him. But people do bring us things at the firehouse occasionally.”

“Like what?”

“Cookies and muffins are most common. There’s a little old lady who brings us flowers from her backyard every spring, which is very sweet. The best one, though, was when this incredibly cute guy brought us rainbow cupcakes with lots of festive sprinkles. My pee was kind of purple after I ate one, but it was worth it because the cupcake was delicious.”

“Do you mean me?”

I grinned at him and said, “Yes, Lark. I mean you.”

He grinned, too. “I told you I used too much food coloring.”

“I’m not complaining. The purple pee was kind of a bonus.” That made him laugh.

When we reached my building, I said, “I’m going to run up and put the desserts in the refrigerator. Want to come with me, or wait in the lobby?”

“I’ll come along. Just keep me away from the couch. I’m feeling super lazy after eating all that food, and if I sit down it’s game over.”

Once we boarded the elevator, Lark asked, “Did you ever bring your husband to that restaurant?”

The question caught me off guard. “No. I moved to this neighborhood and discovered Antonelli’s after he died.” I glanced at him and said, “Why do you ask?”

“I was just curious.” There was more on his mind though, and as I unlocked my door and we went inside, he asked, “Do I look like him?”

“Like Travis?” When he nodded, I told him, “Not even a little. He was six-two, Black, and built like I am.”

Lark grinned a little. “So, you basically married yourself.”

“We definitely had a lot in common, but we had our differences, too.”

“Like what?”

He followed me across the apartment, and I thought about that as I took the bag from him and stuck it in the fridge. Then I turned to Lark and said, “There was some superficial stuff, like the fact that he loved sports and I could take them or leave them. He also had the worst taste in movies, and we could never agree on what to watch. But the main thing was that he was an only child from a very wealthy family, and that shaped the way he looked at the world. He tried really hard not to be a spoiled rich kid, though. I think that’s actually why he became a firefighter, because he felt he had something to prove.”

Lark seemed to mull that over before saying, “Thanks for telling me all of that. I didn’t know if it was okay to ask about him.”

“You can ask me about anything, Lark. Nothing’s off limits.”

“It doesn’t hurt to talk about him?”

“A little,” I admitted. “It probably always will. But talking about him brings up good memories too, and that’s important. It reminds me to be grateful for the years he lived, instead of just focusing on the fact that he died.”

Lark looked up at me with a lot of emotion in those big doe eyes. “I think I understand.”

I brushed a lock of hair out of his face and told him, “If these questions are coming from a place of insecurity, let me say this. I didn’t let you into my life because I wanted another Travis. I let you in because you’re an amazing individual, and there’s no one in the world like you. You make me happy, and you shake things up, and wow, did I need that. I’d let my world sort of fold in on itself and become really small these last few years. But meeting you has felt like throwing open the windows after a long winter and letting in a burst of fresh air.”

He gave me the most beautiful smile and said, “I like that.”

“Come on.” I took his hand and led him toward the door. “Let’s get out of here and go to that sex shop, before the couch tempts both of us into flopping down on it and staying there all night.”

I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but it sure as hell wasn’t Buckingham Phallus. It wasn’t just the puntastic name that took me by surprise. The sex shop was big, clean, well-lit, and more than a little kitschy—not at all the dank, dimly lit, and regrettably sticky pit of depravity some part of me had been picturing.

Just inside the clear glass front door—no tinted windows here—were two male mannequins dressed like British palace guards…kind of. They wore the tall, traditional black hats, but their uniforms consisted of black patent leather thigh-high boots, along with jock straps depicting the Union Jack in sequins. One mannequin held a Pride flag, and the other held a small pink flag with a crown and the saying, “God Save the Queen.” That was all so…festive.

We made it all of five feet into the shop when someone shouted, “Lark!”

A huge, muscle-bound, and strikingly attractive blond guy was rushing toward us, and as soon as he reached my companion, he scooped him up in a bear hug. Okay, so what was with the instant pang of jealousy I felt?

I expected Lark to be all bent and mangled after being crushed in that massive embrace, but he seemed no worse for wear when the blond finally let go of him. “Dylan, meet Seth,” he said. “He’s my housemate Casey’s brother, and he works here. Former housemate, I mean. I have to stop calling him that.”

Seth flashed a toothpaste commercial-perfect smile at me and stuck out his hand as he said, “Good to meet you, Dylan. Or have we met before? You look kind of familiar.” When we shook hands, I tried not to act like an alpha asshole and crush his hand, but I also made sure my grip was nice and firm.

“You know some of the same people,” Lark said, as Seth met my grip with one just a hair firmer. “Nana Dombruso, for one.”

“That must be it,” Seth said, as he released my hand. “Maybe we’ve been to some of the same parties.”

I muttered, “Could be.”

He looked at me curiously before turning his attention to Lark and asking, “So, can I help you find something?”

“No.” That came out louder than I’d intended, and I knew I was being ridiculous. Why did I feel threatened by this guy? He probably meant nothing to Lark. This was just his former roommate’s brother, not my competition. I tried again, softening my tone as I said, “I mean, no thank you. We’d prefer to look around by ourselves.”

Lark took my hand and told his friend, “This is Dylan’s first time in a sex shop, and I think he’s a little nervous.” Oh, great. Why’d he tell him that? It made me sound naïve and sheltered. “I’ll come find you if we have any questions.”

Seth gave Lark’s shoulder a friendly squeeze, which made me feel like stepping between the two of them and puffing out my chest, like a fucking penguin claiming a mate or something. What the hell was wrong with me? Lark wasn’t my property, and I obviously wasn’t the only man he knew in a city of well over eight hundred thousand people.

The blond said, “Sounds good. I’ll be at the register,” and shot me another curious look before walking away.

Lark seemed oblivious to all of that, and he tugged my hand and said, “Come on, let’s start at the sample table.”

On the way to the back of the store, we passed a display labeled “Big Ben,” which featured an alarmingly large dildo on a pedestal with a spotlight on it, surrounded by inch-high plastic royal guards. What a weird place.

The sample table was in three tiers, like a giant, Lucite wedding cake covered in every size, shape, and color of dildo, vibrator, butt plug, and some things I’d never even seen before. Lark picked up a big, hot pink dildo and flipped a switch. Then he started laughing when its top half began buzzing and rotating in a circle. He said, “That seems a little too…”

“Vigorous.”

“Exactly.” He swapped out the pink dildo for a purple, sparkly one with an overall scale pattern and read the label. “Dragon dick,” he said with a grin. “That’s new.”

“Maybe coming here was a mistake,” I muttered, as I tugged at the cuffs of my dark blue jacket. “We could find all this stuff online, and it would be a lot more private.”

Lark looked disappointed, and I instantly regretted saying anything. “I’m sorry. I thought you’d like this place, and that you’d laugh at the name, and Big Ben, and the mannequin guards.”

“I enjoyed all of that.”

He watched me for a few moments while he tried to work out what could be wrong. Finally, he came up with, “It’s because of Seth, isn’t it? That’s why you want to leave.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just shrugged. It made no sense that I was jealous, not when I was the one insisting I wasn’t ready for a relationship. I had no right to get territorial around him.

He interpreted my response a different way, though. “If you’re worried about seeing someone here who knows a lot of the same people that we do, I promise you Seth will be discreet. That’s a huge part of his job, actually. No matter what we buy, even if it’s the wildest thing in the whole store, I promise he’ll keep it to himself.”

“Okay.” I needed to get a grip. Since when was I even a jealous person? I took the sparkly purple dong from Lark and tried to lighten the mood by asking, “Is there really a market for dragon dick dildoes?”

“Probably. The size is all wrong, though,” he said with a smile. “It should be as big as my leg.”

I chuckled at that and returned the dildo to the table. “Show me what else this store has to offer.”

He led me to a room at the back of the building, which was more like what I’d imagined a sex shop to look like. It was windowless, the floor was black, and the dark red walls were lined with all types of leather items. There was a bench in the center of the room, and I took a seat while Lark did a show-and-tell.

“Let’s see if any of this floats your boat,” he said, as he picked up a pink collar and looped it around his neck.

“That’s not bad.”

“How about this?” He returned the collar to the shelf and picked up some sort of black harness, which he held up to his chest.

“That’s even better, but I think I’d have to see it on.”

He grinned at me and put it on over his sweater, then buckled it in the center of his chest. As he held his arms out to the sides, he asked, “What do you think? Imagine holding onto it while doing me from behind.”

I adjusted the front of my jeans as my cock showed me it had an opinion. “That sounds very hot, but don’t you already have something like that? You wore it with your angel wings when you were on camera.”

“This is the real deal, though. I made the other one out of three belts from Goodwill, and it’s all just hot-glued in the back. It wouldn’t hold together if we got wild with it.” He took it off and looked at the price tag. “Oh. Never mind. Now I remember why I made a harness, instead of buying one.”

I stood up and took it from him before he could put it away. “Do you like this?”

He nodded. “I’ve always wanted one.”

“Then I’ll buy it for you.”

“You haven’t even looked at the price.” I glanced at the eighty-nine dollar price tag and said, “That’s not a problem. Is this the one you like best? It looks like there are several options.”

“I don’t want to keep spending your money. You already bought me an expensive dinner.”

“I bought us dinner, which wasn’t that expensive. We’d both enjoy this, too.” He still hesitated, so I added, “I just really want to buy you something, not because I’m trying to impress you, but because it matters to me. Most of my income gets squirreled away into savings, and I’m tired of being so practical all the time. Let me splurge for once.”

I could tell he was thinking about it. When he reached out and ran his fingertips over another harness with two straps across the front instead of one, I asked, “Do you like that one?”

“Yeah, but more straps mean more money.”

“Will you please try it on?”

He took off his sweater before putting on the harness over his sheer, black tank top. “You have to picture it with bare skin,” he said, as he fastened the two buckles in the center of his chest. When he had it secured, he stepped back and held his arms out again as he asked, “What do you think?”

I ran my gaze from his sparkly boots up his strong, smooth legs to his little shorts, then up to the harness and past it to his cute face. Finally, I looked into his eyes and told him, “You’re so beautiful that you take my breath away.”

He grinned and ducked his head. “Thank you. But I was asking what you thought of the harness.”

I came up to him and skimmed his shoulders with the palms of my hands. Then I traced the straps across his chest as I said, “I love it, but the real question is, do you?”

“I think it’s perfect. Did you notice that extra strap in the back, the one between my shoulder blades? That’s the part you hold onto while you’re fucking me.”

I ran a hand around his ribs and up his back before wrapping my fist around the strap. When I pulled, just enough to tighten it against his chest, a purr slipped from him. I tipped his chin up with my other hand and searched his eyes as I said, “Tell me what you like about this.”

“It makes me feel sexy, and when I wear it while we’re fucking and you hold it like that, it’ll show me you’re in charge. That’s a huge turn-on.” Every part of that was undeniably appealing.

“It’s settled. We’re getting this one.” When I let go of the harness, he pulled me into a kiss. I picked him up, and he deepened the kiss as he wrapped his arms and legs around me. I nuzzled his hair and asked, “Is there anything else you’d like while we’re here?”

He shook his head. “This is already too much.”

“There’s nothing wrong with letting me spoil you a little.”

He tucked his face into the curve of my neck and shoulder and whispered, “Thank you, Dylan.”

“You’re welcome, baby boy.”

I plucked the price tag off the harness and picked up his sweater. Then, because neither of us seemed inclined to let go, I carried him through the store to the register.

If Seth thought there was anything odd about the fact that I was carrying his friend, it didn’t show. He just smiled at me and said, “Looks like you found something you like.”

I handed over the price tag and nodded. “Yes, I did.”

“The harness is nice, too,” he joked, which made me smile.

There was a display box beside the register with cherry lollipops, and I put one on the counter while Seth rang up the harness. On second thought, I grabbed as many as I could with one hand and piled them with the first one. Then I asked, “Do you have anything else in here that’s edible?”

I’d meant candy or other treats Lark might enjoy, but Seth said, “We do carry a few things that are technically edible, including underwear, lube, and body paint, but I don’t really recommend, like, chowing down on them if you’re hungry. I took some samples home for my fiancé and me to try, and the best I can say about them is that they won’t kill you.”

“I’ll stick with the lollipops, thanks.” After a moment, I asked, “They’re just plain old candy, right?”

“Yes, but anything can be kinky with a little imagination.” Seth flashed me a smile as he said that. Okay, so he was actually a nice guy with a fiancé. That just made my earlier jealousy seem even more off-base.

After I signed the receipt and returned my wallet to my pocket, I rubbed Lark’s back and said, “It’s cold out, so you might want to put on your sweater.”

He uncoiled his arms and legs from me, and once he was standing, he pulled on the sweater over the harness. As Seth handed me a bag with the lollipops, he told Lark, “It’s good that you’re wearing something underneath the harness. I wore mine over a T-shirt for a week before I tried it against bare skin, to break it in and soften up the leather. Chafing’s not really my jam.”

Lark exclaimed, “Now I have an excuse to wear this every day for a week!”

“Not that you needed an excuse,” I said.

Seth nodded in agreement. “Exactly. Good to meet you, Dylan. And Lark, it’s always a pleasure. I hope to see you both again soon.”

We said our goodbyes, and once we were back in my truck, I handed Lark the bag of candy. That brought a huge smile to his face, and he kissed my cheek and thanked me.

On the drive home, I asked, “Will you spend the night with me tonight?”

“I’d love to. I brought along a toothbrush and some PJs, just in case you asked.”

I knew it was unusual to end every date with a sleepover. It definitely didn’t fit with most definitions of casual dating, either. But I enjoyed it too much to overanalyze it, and it seemed like he did, too.

It started raining a minute or two later, and Lark said, “Our sleepover is going to be extra cozy now.” I loved the way he instantly turned it into a positive.

He’d forgotten about the desserts, and when we got back to the loft and I took them out of the refrigerator, Lark was delighted. I changed into pajamas while he insisted on making me a cup of tea. Then he went to change and use the bathroom while I made him some hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream and marshmallows.

I brought a soft blanket, the drinks, and our desserts to the couch and got comfortable while I waited for him. I’d gotten a thin slice of plain cheesecake, and he’d selected a great big slab of chocolate cake that made my dessert seem lackluster.

In the same vein, I’d put on a plain white T-shirt and gray plaid pajama pants, and he joined me wearing pink flannel pajamas with rainbows and unicorns. He’d put on the harness over them, presumably to keep breaking it in.

It was hard to imagine two things that went together less than those pajamas and a leather harness, but in an odd way, it suited Lark perfectly. He was both of those things, somehow—sexy and sexually adventurous, but still utterly sweet and innocent. The word innocent shouldn’t have fit, given the first part of that, but it just did somehow.

He ate the chocolate cake slowly, enjoying every bite like it was the best thing he’d ever eaten. That was another thing I thought was amazing about Lark—the way he savored not just food, but experiences, and life in general.

It was so different than the way I’d just sort of been coasting along, barely noticing what I was doing or truly enjoying myself. Maybe that was why I admired him so much. Lark reminded me what it meant to truly be alive.

Once every bite of dessert was gone and we’d finished our drinks, I put my feet up on the coffee table, and he curled up on my lap. He made sure the blanket covered both of us before settling in.

We were quiet for a while, as we listened to the rain and watched the raindrops on my windows turn the city lights into an abstract bokeh work of art. I felt so good, so peaceful and comfortable. That sense of peace was a rarity for me, and I savored it the same way Lark had savored his cake.

Finally, he said, “I love the rain. It makes wherever I am feel twice as warm and cozy. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever felt cozier than I do right now.”

“Same.” I idly began to stroke his hair, and after a pause, I told him, “I need to confess something.”

He tilted his head back to meet my gaze and grinned as he said, “Let’s hear it.” The only look in his eyes was amusement. There was no suspicion or worry about what I might say, although with that lead-in, it could have been just about anything.

“I felt jealous when you introduced me to Seth.” I hadn’t planned to tell him that because it sounded ridiculous, but it was still wearing on me so I decided we should talk about it.

“Why?”

“Because he’s a very attractive man, and I didn’t know what he was to you, apart from being Casey’s brother. I also didn’t know he had a fiancé until later on.”

“Is that why you seemed like you were on edge at the sex shop?”

I nodded. “Sorry I almost ruined our shopping trip.”

“It’s okay. I still had fun, and if you want to, we can just go back and see the rest of the store some other time.”

“I feel bad about it. I’m not usually like that.”

“It’s hard to believe you’d be jealous of anyone,” he said, as he returned his head to my shoulder. “You’re literally the most handsome man I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“Thank you for the compliment. Inside though, I’m still that same scrawny dork with braces and acne.”

“You’re really hard on your former self,” Lark told me. “Even if he didn’t look like you wanted him to, teenage Dylan was still a great guy.”

“How do you know that?”

Lark looked up at me again and grinned. “Because he’s you, silly. That means he was kind, generous, and a genuinely good human being.” His grin turned teasing as he added, “I probably would have had a massive crush on you if I’d known you when you were about sixteen. But I would have been, like, eight or something because you’re way older than me, so that’s kind of gross.”

I burst out laughing. “That started out really sweet, and then it turned painfully awkward.”

He looked like he was proud of himself. “It did! That’s a special skill of mine, ruining touching moments with almost no effort.”

“You really don’t do that. Well, except for just then, but you did that on purpose.”

“I did. I couldn’t help myself.”

After another pause, I asked, “Does our age gap bother you?”

He picked up my hand and kissed it, and then he held it to his chest. “Absolutely nothing about us bothers me, Dylan. I think we’re perfect.”

As the rain came down outside and this gorgeous man snuggled on my lap, I had to agree.

19

Lark

I was super nervous and sweating in weird places as Dylan drove us over the Bay Bridge. We were on our way to his parents’ house for brunch, but it wasn’t a “taking my boyfriend to meet Mom and Dad” kind of thing. At all.

We’d been dating for almost a month at this point. Even though we spoke every day and saw each other on Dylan’s days off, it was still just that—dating, and I didn’t expect it to change any time soon. He’d made it perfectly clear he needed to take things slowly, and I respected that.

Since this wasn’t the next step in our relationship or anything, meeting his parents shouldn’t be a big deal. The only reason this was even happening was because of those shelves he’d promised to build for me. After a lot of measuring my room, sketching out different designs, researching stuff on the internet, and visiting the hardware store several times to assess various types of lumber, he was finally ready to begin construction. He was such a planner. Now all that was left was a trip to his parents’ house so he could borrow his dad’s tools and table saw.

So, since this wasn’t about me meeting my future in-laws or anything, why was I about to hyperventilate, and why were the backs of my knees sweating? This shouldn’t be sending me into a near-panic, because it didn’t really matter.

Except it did—to me, anyway. I desperately wanted Dylan’s parents to like me, but I really didn’t know why they would. It was super intimidating that they both had PhDs and taught at a prestigious university. Meanwhile, there was no way to dress up who I was or what I did for a living. Not that I was ashamed of it, but I could only imagine what two straightlaced professors would think of me.

To make matters worse, Dylan gestured at a white SUV when we pulled up in front of the house and said, “Looks like Diane’s here.” Great, another family member to fail to impress.

From everything I’d heard about her, his sister was every bit as intimidating as his parents. Apparently, she had two masters degrees and ran a nonprofit organization that helped homeless women learn job skills and find careers and housing. In other words, she was basically a saint. Then again, so was Dylan. What else could you call someone who’d spent the last fifteen years as a firefighter, literally saving people’s lives? Compared to the members of this family, I was basically a potato who’d never done a single thing that mattered.

His sister was the first to greet us when I followed Dylan into his parents’ picture-perfect home. She was tall and gorgeous with cheekbones to die for, and she wore her hair in a lot of long, thin braids, which were gathered into a low ponytail and tied with a silk scarf. She kind of reminded me of Angela Bassett in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. She was elegant like Angela too, even in yoga pants and a track jacket. Some people just had a classy air about them.

“Diane, I’d like you to meet Lark,” Dylan said, as he shifted the big box of muffins he’d brought along. His sister smiled warmly as she shook my hand. Then he added, “We’re dating, but I’m begging you, please don’t make a big deal out of it.”

Her eyes went wide, and she blurted, “Oh!” She was still gripping my hand, and she ran her gaze up and down me curiously. I’d dressed down for this visit in jeans, a red hoodie, and sneakers—no glitter or unicorns in sight. Even so, it still took her a minute to fully take me in. Finally, she said, “I hope this isn’t a rude question, but do you mind if I ask how old you are, Lark?”

Before I could say anything, Dylan told her, “He’s seventeen, but he’ll be eighteen this summer.” Her mouth fell open, and then her brother burst out laughing and exclaimed, “Oh, come on! He’s twenty-six, Di. Why would you even ask him something like that?”

She chuckled and said, “Because I was curious, you ass. I didn’t think he was in high school, but I did wonder if he was old enough for the mimosas Dad’s making.”

Dylan rolled his eyes, and then he put his arm around my shoulders and guided me through the house. Diane fell into step with us, and along the way, he asked her, “Did you bring your hubby and kids?”

“No. They’ve all become obsessed with this giant, indoor rock climbing gym. I went with them once, which was more than enough. They’ll be there for hours, so I decided to come over and help Mom with her photo project.” She turned to me and explained, “We’ve been digitally scanning old family photos so we can preserve them. There are some awesome shots of Dylan from his awkward period, which I’ll be happy to show you after we eat.”

“Or, here’s an idea—don’t do that,” Dylan said.

“Yeah, that definitely needs to happen,” I told Diane, which made her grin.

Their parents stopped what they were doing the moment we set foot in the kitchen. The arm around my shoulders was definitely noted, and I could see their wheels turning as they tried to figure out what was happening. It was pretty obvious he hadn’t told them about me, which drove home the point that to him, we really weren’t in a relationship.

Dylan said, “Mom and Dad, I’d like you to meet Lark Genardi. Lark, these are my parents, Claudia Cadence Hawkins and Darius Hawkins.”

I had no idea what to call them. As I shook their hands, I went with, “It’s great to meet you, Doctor and Doctor Hawkins.”

Dylan’s mom smiled at me and said, “There’s no need to be so formal. Just call us Claudia and Darius.” I nodded, even though that seemed way too casual.

Darius started pouring mimosas into a waiting row of champagne flutes, and Claudia directed me to one of the barstools at the counter and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone named Lark. Is one of your parents an ornithologist?”

“I don’t know what that is,” I told her, “but if it has something to do with birds, then no. Lark is short for Larkin. My mother named me after one of her favorite soap opera characters.”

While Claudia absorbed that, Darius told me, “Our son mentioned he was bringing a friend along, but I’m afraid he didn’t tell us much about you, Lark.”

“Here’s the short version,” Dylan said, as he put down the muffins and picked up a carton of orange juice. “Lark and I are dating, we met online since I’m sure that’ll be your next question, and like I told Diane, I really don’t want anyone to make a big deal out of this. Please don’t grill him with a million questions, either. I really like him, so I don’t want you to scare him away.”

Dylan flashed me a smile that was somewhere between shy and embarrassed. When he filled one of the champagne flutes with orange juice and handed it to me, his mother asked, “Isn’t he old enough to drink?”

Diane barely covered a chuckle with a cough as she sat down beside me at the counter, and Dylan sighed and said, “He’s twenty-six, Mom. He just doesn’t like the taste of alcohol.”

Meanwhile, his dad was looking pretty pleased with himself. He turned to his son and said, “See? I told you to try those online dating sites when you were here at New Year’s, and obviously I was right.”

“I’d already met him when you and I talked about that, Dad. Remember me telling you about a great conversation I’d had with someone I met online?” Dylan tipped his head toward me as he said that. I couldn’t believe he’d actually mentioned me to his father, right after we met.

His face lit up, and Darius exclaimed, “The conversation that made you so happy!”

“Yes. That one.” Dylan stepped around the counter and rested his hand on my shoulder.

“Well, that’s marvelous,” Darius said. “And now here he is, joining us for a nice family brunch.”

Claudia took some kind of salad out of the refrigerator as she said, “So, tell us about yourself, Lark. What do you do for a living?”

I went with the nicest way I’d ever heard my job described. “I’m a content creator.”

Diane chimed in, “Oh, like on YouTube?” Then she thanked her dad when he handed her a mimosa.

“Something like that,” I said.

“So, that part about me begging all of you not to ask him a million questions—I did actually say that out loud, didn’t I?” Dylan raised a brow and shot his family a look.

“This is just a basic, getting-to-know-you conversation. No one’s grilling him,” Diane said. “If we really wanted to get nosy, we’d ask if you’re sleeping together.” She obviously said that just to mess with her brother, and she chuckled when he dragged a hand over his face and groaned.

I really enjoyed seeing the way Dylan was with his sister. There was obvious affection there, combined with the type of good-natured teasing you really only saw between close siblings. It was easy to imagine them doing this all their lives.

“Lark’s never going to want to come back here, because you’re all so excruciating,” he said.

His mother shot him the same look he’d just given all of them and asked, “What did I do?”

“You asked if his parents were ornithologists, which is a very weird question,” he told her. “I know a guy named Ash, but I’ve never once asked him if his parents are volcanologists.” Everyone laughed at that.

While they joked with each other, I sat back and watched them. I really liked Dylan’s family. They all seemed to be genuinely nice people who enjoyed each other’s company. That definitely wasn’t the case with all families.

It was also interesting to see how his upbringing had helped shape Dylan into the man he was today. No wonder he was so amazing—and no wonder I was such a hot mess. I couldn’t even imagine who I’d be now if I’d grown up the way he had, with a family this kind, supportive, and loving.

It made me think I really needed to make more of an effort with my brother Logan, even if he wasn’t at a point in his life where he could give much back to me. He’d always been a shy, quiet kid who tried to fly under the radar, and I really hoped he hadn’t become our parents’ scapegoat once I was out of the picture. I knew they wouldn’t turn on our older brother and sister, because they could do no wrong as far as my parents were concerned. That just left Logan.

That idea started to eat away at me, and it made me really want to reach out to my brother. It would be rude to just start texting in the middle of everyone’s conversation, so I got up and asked where the bathroom was. After I followed Dylan’s directions and found it on the other side of the living room, I sat down on the edge of the tub and sent Logan a message. It said: I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you, and I hope you’re okay.

He wrote back about a minute later, and it made my heart ache: I’m so tired, Lark. I have no life. All I do is work and go to school. I’m still more than a year away from graduating, and I don’t even know if having a degree will even make a difference. I don’t mean to complain, you just caught me at a low point.

I replied: You’re not complaining. It’s good to vent once in a while.

Logan’s next message said: I have to get ready for work, but thanks for checking on me. You’re the only person who does. I hope you’re doing okay, and I hope we can catch up sometime soon. Sorry I’m always so busy.

That was more than I’d gotten from him in a long time. I sent one more text: I’m always here for you, Logan, whenever you need anything. I really mean that.

He wrote: Thanks. I appreciate it.

I really wanted to go down to L.A. and visit him. The last time we saw each other was four years ago, right before I moved to San Francisco. It had been awkward, because it was right after Gran died and we didn’t really know what to say to each other. But he was so busy now that trying to make time for me would probably just add to his stress. For now, hopefully it was enough to remind him someone cared and was thinking about him.

After I returned the phone to my pocket, I got up and checked my reflection in the mirror above the sink. I regretted dressing down for Dylan’s family. I’d really wanted them to like me, but even if I’d shown up in head-to-toe glitter with my unicorn backpack and a bunch of makeup, I felt sure they would have accepted me.

Of course, I didn’t know that when I got dressed this morning, so I’d gone with an outfit that felt safe and let me blend in. It bothered me when I let fear of rejection stop me from being myself like that. Over the years, I’d put a lot of effort into building my confidence and learning not to care what people thought of me. But times like this showed me I still had a way to go.

I started to head back to the kitchen, but I paused to look around when I reached the gorgeous living room. It was like something from a magazine—classy and perfect. It reminded me of Dylan’s loft in that way, even though the style was completely different. I didn’t know what to call it, but this was warmer and more welcoming somehow. The colors were greens and browns, like a forest, and the thing that really set it apart from the loft was that it was much more personal. For one thing, there were lots of framed photos on the big fireplace mantel.

Curiosity made me walk over and take a look at them. They seemed to be arranged in the order they were taken, so as I walked from left to right I could watch Dylan grow from an adorable baby to a skinny teenager to a man.

And of course, there he was with Travis. His husband had been tall and handsome, and wow did they look happy together. I paused in front of what had to be their wedding portrait, since they were dressed in matching tuxedos. Then I moved down to some pictures of him with Dylan and with other family members.

It was odd to finally have a face to put with the name. He’d almost been an abstract concept before, but now he was a real person to me—someone who’d loved Dylan and been a part of this family.

Over the last month, I’d asked myself more than once how I could compete with this man’s memory, but the answer was so obvious now—I couldn’t. I’d never be a perfect match for Dylan, the way Travis had been. Not even close.

What was Dylan doing with me?

Well, passing the time, maybe. “Dating,” that’s what we were calling it now. Was that even a step up from where we’d started, back when we called ourselves friends with benefits? I had no idea. All I knew was that I was developing very real feelings for him. But was I the only one?

His voice surprised me, since I hadn’t heard him come into the living room. “I thought I’d find you here.”

I kept my back to him as I worked on steadying my emotions. This really wasn’t the time and place for me to melt down into a pile of insecurity. “Yeah, this family gallery is really something.”

“My mom loves photos. She has an unreasonable number of albums from when my sister and I were growing up.”

“That’s nice. Lots of happy memories, it looks like.”

“Some bittersweet ones, too.”

I nodded and took a deep breath before turning to him. “I’m glad your mom and sister are working on preserving your family photos. That’s important. I only have four pictures from my childhood. I found them among Gran’s things after she died. There wasn’t much worth remembering, I guess.”

He gently caressed my cheek and said, “I bet you were an adorable child.”

My heart ached as I looked up into his beautiful dark eyes. I wanted Dylan to be mine with every part of me, but right now that felt like more of an impossibility than ever.

Again though, not the time and place for any of this.

I kept my tone light and flashed him a smile as I joked, “Oh, I was.” Then I linked arms with him and changed the subject with, “Let’s go see if brunch is ready. I’m starving.”

The meal ended up being unbelievably fancy and delicious. Was this just a typical weekend breakfast for them? There were three varieties of savory mini quiches on a pretty serving tray, along with six different side dishes—I counted. One of them was colorful fruit salad I couldn’t get enough of. Dylan’s parents probably thought I was fighting off scurvy, given the way I kept going back for more.

Meanwhile, the conversation for the most part went right over my head, even though they made a real effort to include me. Doctor and Doctor Hawkins mentioned something about their jobs at the university at one point, and I made the mistake of admitting I didn’t really know what sociology was. That set them off on a very long, animated discussion about the field of sociology, their areas of interest within that field, the classes they taught—on and on it went, while I made sure to look interested and nod a lot.

I tried not to completely gorge myself on all that wonderful food. I didn’t want to give the impression I was some feral, starving wildebeest that Dylan had just dragged in off the street. Still though, I was pretty stuffed by the time brunch ended.

Then Dylan and Diane insisted on doing the clean-up, and I tried to help, even though I was really just in the way. While Dylan scrubbed the kitchen counters like someone was going to perform surgery on them, his sister rinsed the dishes and loaded the dishwasher. My task was to move the leftovers into a matched set of storage containers, but mostly I just moved the last of the fruit salad into my mouth.

Once we were finished, Dylan said, “I’m going to go find my dad and have him help me get the tools together for our shelf project. Want to come with me, Lark?”

Before I could say anything, Diane cut in with, “That sounds boring. Hang out with Mom and me instead, and I’ll show you those embarrassing photos I mentioned.”

I grinned at Dylan and told him, “That’s a much better offer.”

He shot his sister a wary look and said, “Be nice.” Then he told me, “I’ll be in the garage or backyard if you need me. Just ask Mom, she’ll know where to find me.”

Diane sighed dramatically. “He’ll be fine without you for twenty minutes.”

Her brother didn’t look convinced. “You can also text me, Lark, and I’ll come right in.”

Diane exclaimed, “Just go already! We can’t talk about you behind your back if you don’t leave.”

“Yeah, that’s why I’m still standing here.” His sister stared him down, until Dylan finally said, “Fine, I’m going.” He kissed my forehead, then added, “Seriously, text me if you need me,” as he left the kitchen.

Diane watched him go before turning to me with a big smile. “Come and sit down, then tell me everything.”

We took a seat at the counter, and I asked, “What do you want to know?”

“I don’t even know where to start. This is only the second time in his life Dylan’s brought a boy home to meet the family. He married the other one.”

“He didn’t exactly bring me home to meet you guys. He just needed some tools because he’s building some shelves for me, so he asked me to come along.”

She raised a perfectly shaped brow and shot me a look. “He could have gotten the tools without you. The fact that he brought you along means something.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I know it. This is how Dylan operates. He tries to act like everything he does is casual and no big deal, but there’s usually a bigger picture. I remember when he brought Travis to meet us, Dylan told him they just needed to drop by the house for a minute, so he could change his shoes.” She rolled her eyes and grinned at that.

“You probably shouldn’t compare that situation to this one. I’m very obviously not Travis.”

“No, and who says you have to be?” When I didn’t say anything, she said, “It must be tough, getting involved with my brother while he’s trying to cling to the past with both hands. I really hope you don’t feel like you have to compete with Travis’s memory, or anything like that.”

“Actually, that’s exactly how I feel. And it’s pretty depressing, because I know I’ll never be as perfect as him, or as right for Dylan.”

Diane shook her head. “I loved my brother-in-law, but the man wasn’t perfect, no matter what Dylan says or how high a pedestal he’s built for him. You need to know that. Please don’t feel you have to live up to some sort of impossible standard, because you’re already good enough. In fact, you’re great for my brother, Lark.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because he’s happy. For the first time in years, my brother’s finally starting to seem like his old self again, and I know that’s because of you.”

I perked up a bit and said, “Well, that’s something anyway.”

“It’s everything. You’ve brought Dylan to life again, and he’s obviously crazy about you.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Don’t you see the way he looks at you?”

I asked, “How does he look at me?”

She grinned and told me, “The same way you look at him.”

A smile spread across my face as what she was saying sunk in. Then she climbed off the barstool and told me, “I’m glad we talked, because I had a feeling you needed to hear this stuff. Just hang in there with Dylan and be patient. I’m sure he’ll figure things out, sooner or later.”

“Thanks, Diane.” I really did feel a lot better.

“You’re welcome. Now, speaking of my brother, let’s go join my mom in her office so I can show you some hilarious pictures of him. One year when he was twelve or thirteen, he tried to dress as a knight for Halloween and made his own armor out of cardboard, including a rounded helmet. He was so tall and skinny that he ended up looking exactly like a giant dildo.” We were both chuckling as we left the kitchen.

Dylan and his dad ended up joining the rest of us after they got the tools packed up, and we all spent the next couple of hours laughing over old photos. I loved listening to their stories, not only because they were funny, but because I learned a lot about Dylan’s early years.

Around one, we said our goodbyes and drove back to San Francisco, because Dylan wanted to get started on the shelves. Once we reached the pink Victorian, he set up the table saw and a work station in the backyard, and I helped him move the lumber we’d bought from the garage to the patio.

I was no help with the measuring, cutting, or assembly of the shelves. Those were skills I just didn’t possess. I was perfectly capable of sanding though, so that was my job. I’d also be painting them once they were installed.

Because Dylan was incredibly meticulous and treated shelf building with the precision of a NASA scientist, it was a slow process. I sanded pieces as he finished them, cracked entirely too many jokes about polishing my wood, and ogled Dylan’s muscles in his form-fitting T-shirt, but there was still a lot of downtime.

After a while, I set aside the sanding block and brushed off my clothes as I announced, “I’m going to go make you something to drink. I’m not sure what that’ll be yet because I don’t know what I’ll find in the kitchen, but I’ll be back soon.”

He muttered, “Sure, sounds good,” without looking up from the piece of wood he was measuring for easily the sixth time. He was definitely in the zone.

When I got inside, I searched the fridge and cabinets, but as usual I was lacking in the grocery department. For all my talk about wanting to get it together and show Dylan I was a strong, independent person, I really dropped the ball on stuff like this, a lot.

I pulled my phone from my pocket and placed a quick order from a nearby coffee house. Then, as I started to put together a grocery order on another app, Kel rushed into the kitchen and exclaimed, “Oh good, I was hoping you were home!”

His hair was currently a pretty shade of light blue, and it matched his T-shirt, which had a photo of his pet chinchillas on it.

“Hi, Kel. What’ve you been up to?”

“This.” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and handed it to me.

It appeared to be a printout from a real estate agent, showing a cute white building with big windows on the ground floor. “What am I looking at, exactly?”

“My new business. Remember when you told me I just needed to live my life and make some plans, no matter what Hudson was doing?”

“Yeah, I remember saying something like that.”

“Well, I took your advice. I’m buying an existing doggie daycare and taking over the lease for the ground floor of that building. I spent the last week pulling it all together, and I just signed the paperwork.”

“That’s huge,” I said. “And you’re doing this all on your own?”

“Actually, no. There was another guy looking at the space at the same time when I went to see it last weekend. His name’s Noah and he’s a veterinary technician. Neither of us could comfortably afford the down-payment and the first few months of operating costs on our own, so we decided to pool our resources and be business partners.”

“Wait, you’re going into business with someone you just met?”

“I know it sounds nuts,” he said, “but it’s going to be great. After Noah and I met, we went to a coffee house and talked for almost four hours about the business, our vision for the future, and so on. He’s super organized and has a much better business plan than the one I’d been putting together. Plus, the fact that he’s a vet tech is a huge bonus, I think.”

I leaned against the counter and said, “Wow, you’re really going for it! Congratulations, Kel, this is fantastic.”

“It is. I’m equal parts terrified and excited.”

After a moment, I asked, “Should I even ask where Hudson falls in all of this?”

Kel frowned and swung a kitchen chair to face me, then sat down as he said, “Do you know where he is right now? In Chicago, interviewing for a job with a sports radio station.”

“Wait, what happened to the broadcaster job in L.A.?”

“Who knows? He was all excited about that one, and I’d more or less made up my mind to move back down there with him. But then this offer came up. They started wooing him, sending him gift baskets, promising him all kinds of perks, so he went to check it out. But did he even once ask if I had any interest in moving to Chicago?”

“He didn’t?”

Kel shook his head. “That’s what made me decide once and for all to go ahead and put down roots here in San Francisco. He completely takes me for granted and puts his career first. Did I mention he’s loaded and doesn’t need the income, at all? He’s just trying to keep himself in the spotlight, not even for his sake but for his dad’s. Anyway, I’m not going to start ranting again. I’m just making plans and building a life for myself, and if Hudson wants to be a part of it, he knows where to find me.”

“Way to take charge of your life and make things happen! I’m impressed. Now if only I could follow in your footsteps and figure out what I want to be doing.”

“You will.” He sounded confident. “And you said you like being a cam boy for now, right? Even if you don’t see yourself doing it long-term?”

“Actually, I shut down my fan page a while back and refunded the subscription fee my followers had paid for January.”

“Why?”

“Because of Dylan.”

Kel looked surprised. “He asked you to take it down?”

“No. He doesn’t even know I’ve done this.”

“I don’t understand.”

I shrugged and said, “I just didn’t feel right about getting naked for other guys, now that Dylan and I are involved.”

“Okay. I think I missed something though, because I didn’t realize you and Dylan were officially a couple. The last I heard, you two were just dating and hadn’t decided to be exclusive yet.”

“As far as Dylan’s concerned, that’s still the case. But I really care about him, Kel, and I don’t want anyone but him.”

My friend raised a brow and asked, “And he doesn’t know that, either?”

“No, and I’m not going to tell him. Not yet, anyway. It might seem like I’m trying to pressure him into more than he’s ready for, and I really want to avoid that.”

“So basically, you’re in a serious, committed relationship, and he isn’t.”

“It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. I know for a fact he cares about me. He shows it all the time.”

Kel asked, “But then, what’s he waiting for?”

“There’s a lot he’s still working through, and I’m in no hurry. It’s only been a month. When he’s ready to make a commitment, I’ll be able to say yes without worrying about that job or anything else.”

“That’s good. But what are you going to do about money?”

“I’ll be fine for the next few months,” I said. “I have a lot put away, because my fan page really did pay well. And then, I’m sure I’ll figure something out.”

“If you wanted to, you could come to work for me in the meantime. It should be fun. We plan to have the doggie daycare open in a month, after we get the licensing transferred, paint it, and fix it up a bit.”

“That sounds great.”

“Awesome! I think you’ll love it. You’ll love Noah, too. He’s a real sweetheart.”

The way he said that made me ask, “Are you interested in your new business partner?”

“No! I mean, he is gay. And single. And cute. But I’m not ready to give up on Hudson yet.”

Why did I see a potential love triangle in my friend’s future? I decided it was best not to bring that up, though. There was a knock on the door just then, and I pushed off the counter and said, “That’s probably Dylan’s iced coffee.”

He got up too and said, “I’m going to go upstairs and start on some research. Noah and I want to sell toys and doggie treats in the lobby, and we’re both supposed to find some options to show each other over dinner tonight.” Oh yeah, Hudson was really going to have to step up, before Kel slipped through his fingers.

When I returned to the backyard a couple of minutes later, I handed Dylan his iced coffee and said, “Come and sit down. You’ve been working hard.”

There was a table with an umbrella on the cement patio, and as we took a seat, Dylan gestured at the overgrown backyard and asked, “Do you think Yolanda and JoJo would mind if I cleaned that up?”

“Mind? I think they’d love you forever.”

“I miss having a yard. I do some gardening with my dad occasionally, but it doesn’t quite satisfy the urge to get my hands dirty.”

“Well, then go for it.”

He grinned at me and asked, “Want to help?”

“You could probably convince me to come out here and dig in the dirt, as long as you fully understand I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“I’ll teach you.” This whole gardening idea made him happier than I would have expected it to.

We chatted about some ideas for the garden for a few minutes while he sipped his iced coffee and I enjoyed my strawberry lemonade. Then we were interrupted by the buzzing of my phone. I pulled it from my pocket, read the group text Casey and Theo had sent to about twenty people, and whispered, “Wow.”

“What is it?”

I handed him the phone, which had a photo of a boxy, yellow building on the screen, and explained, “My friends had this goal of opening a children’s health clinic and community center, and they’re making it happen. They just bought that building and texted their friends to let us know. Theo’s a doctor and Casey’s a nurse, I can’t remember if I already told you that. But this is wild, especially right on the heels of Kel’s news.”

“What’s Kel doing?”

I told him about the business my friend was starting and said, “Everyone’s making their dreams come true.”

“That’s fantastic.”

It definitely was, but at the same time it felt like a huge wake-up call. My life was at a stand-still, and I had no idea what I wanted to work toward, or even what I should be doing. I really didn’t want to make my friends’ successes about me though, so I smiled and said, “For sure.”

Dylan finished his iced coffee, then got up and kissed my forehead. “Thanks for the drink,” he said. “It was just what I needed.” Then he went back to work on the shelves, and I picked up my sanding block and tried to be useful.

By that night, the shelves were installed in my room, with the plan of painting them the next day. Dylan and I admired them as we curled up in my bed, and he asked, “What do you think?”

“They’re absolutely perfect.” I really meant it. They were beautifully made and looked like they belonged there.

Since this was a rental, he’d made them in easily removable sections. If anyone ever wanted to take them down, the only sign they’d ever been there would be a few tiny, easily patched holes, where the earthquake braces were anchored to the studs in the wall.

I couldn’t see why anyone would ever want to take them down, though. In fact, I imagined them becoming a permanent part of this house. That felt good, knowing a piece of Dylan and me would live on here, no matter where life took us in the future.

20

Dylan

I’d forgotten how good it felt to build things, and I was proud of the way the shelves I’d made for Lark turned out. It also felt great to take care of him in some small way.

I spent the night with him—yet again—on Saturday, and on Sunday morning we ordered some groceries and cooked breakfast for the entire household. Afterwards, most of the day was spent alternately painting and gardening. In between applying the primer to the shelves, then two coats of paint and letting each dry in between, we began to tackle the overgrown backyard.

Lark started out a bit iffy when it came to yardwork, but he soon warmed to the task. He liked the fact that the results were so immediate. We pulled weeds and cut back overgrown vines to reveal some existing landscaping, and after we cleared out a large flowerbed against the back fence, I told him, “I think we’ve earned a trip to the hardware store.”

He tipped back the brim of his baseball cap as he looked up at me and asked, “Is that supposed to be a reward, somehow?”

“The one I’m thinking of has an excellent garden center.”

He perked up at the idea of getting to shop for flowers, and after we washed up I drove us to the store I’d been thinking of. I’d been there with Malone last summer because he’d wanted help bringing home some pavers for a patio he was building, and it was as good as I remembered it.

As soon as we set foot in the garden department, Lark’s eyes lit up. I knew right then that he’d caught what my dad liked to call the gardening bug. “Look at all this gorgeous stuff,” he gushed, as he walked down an aisle full of lush perennials.

“Just wait until springtime. The selection will be much bigger.” Not that it was bad at the moment. This was California, after all, so even in late January some things were blooming.

He went nuts for some pretty little violas, with their purple, white, and yellow colors and their cheerful little blooms. We bought all they had, along with a few bags of mulch, and went back home to finish the job.

By late afternoon, the garden was well on its way to a total transformation. Yolanda and JoJo joined us on the patio and raved at the progress we’d made. Then JoJo surprised us by turning to her fiancée and saying, “You know what? We’ve been spending all this time trying to figure out the perfect wedding venue, but what do you think about getting married back here? It just seems fitting somehow to get married in the home we love so much, and after the miracle Lark and Dylan worked here today, I can picture a gorgeous ceremony.”

Yolanda took JoJo’s hand and said, “Whatever makes you happy, angel, that’s what we’ll do.”

They kissed each other as Lark exclaimed, “This is going to be great! We’ll keep working on the yard to make it perfect for your big day, obviously. I’m picturing loads of twinkle lights, and a pretty wooden arch with flowers growing on it.” He turned to me and asked, “You can build something like that, can’t you, Dylan?”

“Definitely.”

He clapped his hands, then climbed onto my lap and kissed me before saying, “I can never thank you enough for all of this—the shelves, the garden, and now for creating a place for two of my favorite people to get married.”

“You don’t need to thank me. This has all been a lot of fun.”

“For me, too. I really didn’t think I was going to like digging in the dirt, but look how pretty it is already.” He gestured at the yard as he said that. It was definitely still a work in progress, but it was much better than it had been that morning.

“Let me take you out to dinner,” I said. “You deserve it, after all that hard work.”

He jumped off my lap and shook his head. “No way. I’m taking you out to dinner, as a way of saying thank you.” I started telling him he didn’t have to do that, but he pressed a finger to my lips and smiled at me. “No arguments. I’m going to run upstairs and take a quick shower. I’ll be right back.”

He darted into the house, and I turned to Yolanda and JoJo and asked, “So, when’s the wedding?”

“We’ve been leaning toward May but had been hung up on where to have it. Now that we have a location, we can make it official,” JoJo said, and they exchanged sweet smiles.

We discussed some ideas for the yard until Lark returned. His hair was damp, and he looked adorable in black skinny jeans, his glitter boots, and a cropped red sweater. I told him that as I got up from the patio table, and then I asked our companions if they’d like to join us for dinner.

“Another time,” Yolanda said, as she laced her fingers with JoJo’s. “We have plans tonight.” By the way they exchanged grins and kissed each other, it was easy to guess what those plans might involve.

We swung by my apartment so I could shower and change, since I’d trashed all the clothes I’d brought along for the weekend. Then Lark asked me to drive us to the Marina. One of the main streets in this upscale neighborhood was lined with a mix of shops, bars, and restaurants, some new and trendy, others long-time San Francisco institutions.

Lark had heard good things about a new Spanish restaurant, so that was our destination. He’d never had tapas before, which proved to be right up his alley. We ordered several small plates to share, and everything was delicious. But the best part of the meal was watching Lark savor not just the food but the entire experience.

I tried to talk him into letting me pick up the bill at the end of the meal, because we’d ordered half the menu and I knew it had added up. He insisted on paying though, and it seemed important to him so I didn’t argue.

We left the restaurant hand-in-hand, and once we were on the sidewalk, I took his face between my palms and kissed him. Then I said, “Thank you for dinner. Both the food and the company were absolutely wonderful.”

He smiled at me, and leaned in and kissed me again. I slid my hands around his bare midriff and nuzzled his hair as he kissed his way along my neck and jaw, and I asked, “Would you like to spend the night at my place?”

“I’d love to,” he said, between kisses, “but what about work?” We usually only spent one night together on my two days off, so I could rest up and transition back into work mode before my next shift.

“We can get up early, and I’ll drive you home before I head to the firehouse.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.” He was doing these amazing things to the sensitive spot beneath my earlobe, and I closed my eyes and tipped my head to the side to give him better access. At the same time, I wrapped my arms around him and slid a hand under the hem of his short sweater, reveling in the feel of his soft skin.

This public display of affection really wasn’t like me, but I was just so happy and relaxed, and Lark felt so good in my arms that I let myself indulge for a few moments. Then I exhaled slowly and opened my eyes.

The first thing I saw was an older Black couple standing a few feet away, staring at us. I thought they were probably a pair of homophobes reacting to two men making out, but then I focused on their faces and my breath caught.

I stepped back from Lark abruptly, and he asked, “What’s wrong?”

For a long moment, I just stood there speechless as I stared at Travis’s parents. I couldn’t quite process what was happening, because they looked stunned and furious, especially his mother.

As a huge wave of guilt crashed into me, Lark asked, “Are you okay?” I heard the worry in his voice, and my gaze shifted from my in-laws to him. By the time I looked back a second or two later, they’d turned and were quickly walking away.

Lark touched my chest, and I focused on him again and gently brushed his hair from his face as I muttered, “I’m fine.”

“What just happened?”

“I saw Travis’s parents, and…I don’t know. I guess I caught them by surprise or something.”

He looked over his shoulder as he said, “They left without saying hi?”

“They looked really angry.”

“Because of me? Why? Did they think you’d never date again?”

“I honestly don’t know what they thought, or why they’d react like that.” Lark seemed upset, so I took his hand and said, “Come on, baby boy. Let’s go home.”

“Do you still want me to spend the night?”

I had to get it together. There was vulnerability in his voice, and the last thing I wanted was to make him feel insecure. “Of course I do,” I said, as I guided him toward my truck. Fortunately, it was in the opposite direction than my in-laws had gone.

When we got back to the loft, I gave Lark one of my T-shirts to sleep in and found him a new toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet, since he hadn’t planned to spend the night. After I put on a pair of pajama pants and a T-shirt, we cuddled up on the couch under a warm blanket, and Lark said, “This has been a great couple of days.”

It was rare that my two days off fell on a weekend, so I’d decided to take full advantage of it. That meant I hadn’t taken the time I usually did to decompress after I got off work on Saturday morning. The odd encounter with Travis’s parents didn’t help either, and I was feeling pretty rattled. I’d have to reach out to them, but not yet. I wasn’t ready to face whatever was going on with them.

I took a deep breath as Lark curled up in my arms, and then I exhaled slowly. He was definitely soothing, but I should’ve taken some time for self-care this weekend. It was just that I’d felt so good lately, and I’d tried to convince myself my anxiety was no longer an issue.

I really should have known better.

I got up early the next morning and made breakfast for us before driving Lark back to his house. When I pulled to the curb and put the truck in park, he unfastened his seatbelt, climbed onto my lap, and wrapped his arms around me. “I know you need to get to work,” he said, “but this is important.”

We hugged for a long moment, and I whispered, “This feels good.”

He sat back so he could look into my eyes, and as he ran his fingertips along my freshly shaved jaw, he said, “Text me when you get the chance. I hope your shift goes well.” I nodded, and he kissed me before climbing off my lap.

We said goodbye and made plans for the following evening before he got out of the truck. When I told him, “I miss you already,” he probably thought I was kidding, but it really was hard to drive away and leave him there.

I managed to get to work with fifteen minutes to spare and went straight to the kitchen. Heath and Malone were already there, and we exchanged greetings as I poured myself a cup of coffee. When I joined them at the table, I asked, “How was your time off?”

“Great,” Malone said. “I’d almost forgotten how nice it was to have the same days off as everyone else. My wife and I decided to make the most of it, so we took the kids to Six Flags. I’m proud to say I failed to puke on the rollercoasters.”

I grinned and said, “Good job. What about you, Heath?”

“I picked up a hot guy Friday night and didn’t say goodbye until Sunday morning.” Even though he was bisexual, it’d been a while since he’d hooked up with a man—at least according to what he shared with us.

“Are you going to see him again?”

“Probably not.” Heath said that with a shrug.

“Oh yeah, careful there,” Malone quipped. “God forbid one of your hookups might accidentally turn into a relationship.”

Heath deflected that effortlessly by saying, “Speaking of relationships, are we allowed to call Lark your boyfriend yet, Dylan?”

I muttered, “I’m not sure,” before taking a sip of coffee.

Malone asked, “What exactly are you waiting for?”

“I don’t know.” After a pause, I said, “Maybe I’m afraid to admit how much he means to me.”

“But don’t you owe that to yourself, and to him?”

“Sure.” I glanced at my friends, then shifted my gaze to the coffee mug. “But losing someone I loved was almost more than I could take, and now…now, I’m right on the cusp of letting someone get that close to me again, and it’s fucking terrifying. If I lost him, too, it would destroy me.”

That was pretty heavy for first thing in the morning, and I regretted going that deep. Fortunately, we were joined by two more members of our crew a few moments later, and the conversation turned to lighter subjects.

Our shift ended up being busy. We went out on three calls, all of which proved to be fairly minor, and in between we worked on a restocking project at the firehouse. One of the calls for a vehicle fire ended up delaying dinner, so it was almost eight by the time we all sat down to a meal.

Malone and I had put together a quick dinner of green salad, garlic bread, and a pot of spaghetti using some homemade marinara sauce I’d had in the freezer. My stomach was growling as I twisted a bunch of noodles around my fork and stuck them in my mouth. Then I almost choked on them when the alarm sounded.

I swallowed down the mouthful of food as I jumped up from the table with the rest of the crew. We rushed downstairs, put on our heavy equipment—for the fourth time that day—and boarded the truck, all in a matter of seconds.

Malone climbed behind the wheel and started the engine as we put on our headsets. A voice from dispatch came over the radio with a three-digit code. That told us we were on our way to an active structural fire—just about the last thing any of us wanted to hear.

My heart was pounding, and as my anxiety began to build I worked on the breathing technique my therapist had taught me. Damn it, why had I set myself up like this? I’d started my shift at less than a hundred percent, and now that I was tired, hungry, and stressed, my ability to keep my anxiety in check was hanging on by a thread.

The more I began to unravel, the angrier I became at myself. I mouthed the words, “Get it together, Hawkins,” but I said it silently, so everyone wouldn’t hear me over the headsets. Of course that didn’t help at all, and I felt my pulse quickening.

By the time we arrived on the scene a couple of minutes later, smoke and fire was streaming out of the broken first floor windows of a three-story residential structure. A police officer, who was clearly a rookie given how flustered he was, rushed up to us and started yelling, “Looks like it was a gas leak. I was the first on the scene. The family on the ground floor reported that they smelled gas, so they evacuated and called 9-1-1. A minute later, it must’ve reached the pilot light on their stove, because the kitchen exploded. A total of three families live here, one per floor. All the families upstairs evacuated by the back fire escape and confirmed there are no civilians inside. The building to the left is a single-family home and they all got out too, but it looks like it’s about to go up next if you guys don’t hurry.”

Loretta was clearly annoyed, because the rookie had taken far too long to convey that information. She snapped, “No shit,” before turning her back to him and joining the rest of us, who’d already gotten to work.

I was part of a three-person team whose job it was to unspool the hose and hook it to the closest hydrant. We’d done this a million times, so I almost operated on auto-pilot. As I pulled the hose hand-over-hand and fed it to Heath, I tried to concentrate on keeping myself together. My breathing sounded way too loud in my heavy, stifling helmet. That and the drumming of my heartbeat in my ears was all I could hear.

I felt like I wasn’t getting enough air, so I started breathing faster. That was when a full-blown panic attack finally took hold of me. I stepped back, tripping over something but managing to remain upright as I pulled off the helmet and dropped it onto the asphalt.

Sweat ran down my face, and I struggled to fill my lungs. I was breathing way too quickly. It was starting to make me lightheaded, but I couldn’t control it. As my anxiety rose, feeding the panic attack and carrying me along like a stick in a rain-swollen river, I silently begged the universe, Please, not now. Not with a fire burning and my crew right here. Not fucking now. It made no difference.

What happened after that was a blur. At some point, Loretta saw what was happening and shouted more instructions, and our crew made some adjustments. I was vaguely aware that someone stepped in and took over my job, while someone else, a stranger, grabbed my arm and led me out of the way.

I realized he was an EMT when he sat me down on the back bumper of an ambulance and performed a quick medical assessment. I was dizzy from hyperventilating, and all I could manage to say was, “Panic attack.” The next thing I knew, an oxygen mask was placed over my mouth and nose, and the paramedic seemed to be trying to talk me through it.

There was a loud ringing in my ears, so I couldn’t really hear him or anything else. It felt like everything slowed down. I looked around but felt a strange sense of detachment from all that was happening. There were a lot of people standing back behind the perimeter, watching. There was the fire, vivid and terrible as it consumed the building and threatened to spread to the one beside it. And there was my crew, working twice as hard with one man down—because of me. Shame and disappointment and a lot of other painful things welled up and left an acidic taste in my mouth.

When the panic attack finally started to ebb, a barrage of unwanted thoughts took over. This was the end of my career. Fifteen years of service, brought to an abrupt end in less than five minutes. They’d never give me medical clearance after this. They shouldn’t. I’d broken down at the most critical time—while I was on a call. If I couldn’t meet the requirements of this job, I didn’t get to wear the uniform. It was as simple as that.

The smell of smoke was sharp. Acrid. Very familiar. While I sat there, trying to regulate my breathing and earning stares from the ever-growing crowd of on-lookers, a second fire crew pulled up, and then a third. The scene played out like a movie in slow-motion, its soundtrack that incessant ringing in my ears. The blaze was right on the verge of raging out of control, so thank god my crew had backup. Maybe it meant my absence wouldn’t result in a total catastrophe. The sense of relief was so great that I wanted to cry, but no fucking way would I let myself. Not here.

In the next moment, my thoughts turned to Lark. I was struck by a desperate urge to run to him and hold onto him and bury my face in his hair. But the urge to hide from him was even stronger.

It would be awful to let him see me like this, so demoralized and defeated. I wanted—needed—him to think I was stronger than this, to think I could take care of him and protect him. That was vitally important to me, somehow. Part of me believed my strength was all I really had to offer him.

Maybe that wasn’t rational. Maybe none of this was. But it was how I felt.

Later on, when the three crews working together got the fire contained, someone made arrangements for me. Loretta found a minute to say, “Go home, Dylan. We’ll talk soon,” as she handed me my discarded helmet. There wasn’t scorn in her eyes. There was pity, and that was worse.

A police officer drove me back to the firehouse while my crew finished the job. We didn’t say anything to each other, aside from the thank you I muttered as I climbed out of her car. Once I got inside, I put my equipment away, neatly and carefully. Then I went upstairs and collected my things.

Before I left, I paused to look around and felt a profound sense of loss. This had been my second home, and these men and women hadn’t just been friends, they’d been family. I knew I wouldn’t be returning here, unless it was as a visitor. An outsider.

When my captain reviewed what happened tonight, he’d conclude I was no longer capable of doing my job. There was no doubt about it. Firefighters needed to perform under pressure, physically and mentally, no matter what. This time, there would be no do-overs, no second chances.

I’d known this was a possibility, ever since my first bout of anxiety. Even so, I’d believed I had it under control, enough to do the job and enough to make quitting a choice, not a verdict that was handed down to me. I should have quit anyway, instead of rolling that dice. But this job was a huge part of me, and it had felt nearly impossible to give it up. Besides, I’d really thought I was capable of doing what was needed from me. My captain, a therapist, and the department counselor had all thought so, too.

I should have known, though. Now this was the culmination of a career that had spanned my entire adult life. That weighed on me like a ton of bricks as I left the firehouse.

When I got to the loft, I paused just inside the door and looked around. I could smell smoke on me, and I wanted a shower. But more than that, I realized as I stood there that I just really didn’t want to be here.

The looks on my in-laws’ faces the night before haunted me—all that anger and outrage. I could see them as clearly as if they were standing right in front of me, so elegant and dressed up, like they’d just come from an expensive dinner. I’d pushed their reaction aside last night, but I was raw now, like an exposed nerve that felt way too much, and that made it unbearable.

They obviously didn’t care that it had been six and a half years, or that I’d mourned and cried and ached. Losing Travis had devastated me. But over time, I’d started to heal. I was supposed to.

I’d caught them off guard, and what I’d seen on their faces was emotion with no filter. Maybe it had been a knee-jerk reaction, but there was truth behind it. Their looks spoke loud and clear—if they couldn’t move on and start the next chapter of their lives, why should I?

They didn’t want me to be happy. They wanted me to mourn their son for the rest of my life, the way they did.

Travis would always own a piece of my heart, but I’d finally realized I couldn’t feel guilty for trying to build a future for myself, or for giving the rest of my heart to someone else. Travis had loved me, and that was why he never would have wanted me to remain frozen in time, consumed by misery. I knew that for a fact, even if his parents didn’t.

Ultimately, that chance encounter with my in-laws showed me I couldn’t stay here anymore, in this place picked out, paid for, and furnished by people who’d never really cared about me. They’d tolerated me at best, for the sake of their beloved son, even though they’d believed I’d never be worthy of him.

That cloud of disapproval had hung over me for years, and this place was just a reminder of it. If I was truly going to start the next chapter of my life, I couldn’t do it here. That seemed very clear to me in this moment.

I hurried to my closet, driven by the conviction that this needed to happen now, and sloppily packed a suitcase. My laptop and tablet got layered in with some clothes for padding. Toiletries were wrapped up in a towel, then wedged in with the rest. It wasn’t everything I owned, but it was enough to keep me from having to come back here for a while.

Maybe twenty minutes later, I glanced at the building in my rearview mirror as I drove down the hill. But where was I going? Right now, I couldn’t face my friends and family with their pity, consoling words, and advice. I wasn’t ready for any of that.

I sure as hell couldn’t face Lark, either. Not like this. I needed to get it together before I saw him, and I needed a plan. It was vitally important to me that I’d come to him as more than a man who’d just lost the only job he’d ever had, a man with no direction and no idea what to do next.

This wasn’t just about pride, it was about my entire sense of self. If I wasn’t a firefighter, then who was I? The job had defined me since the day I turned nineteen and took the exam. It had given me a purpose and a feeling of self-worth. It was the only thing I’d ever wanted to do.

And now it was gone.

That thought made me nauseous. I was all about routine and stability, and right now my whole world felt chaotic and out of control. I hated that so much.

I started to feel panicky, but I talked myself down by focusing on the task at hand. It was late, and driving around all night wasn’t an option. I needed to find a place to stay. That was the one and only thing I needed to accomplish tonight.

After a while, I spotted a touristy chain hotel and pulled into its parking garage. This would do.

I brought my luggage inside with me. When the young woman behind the counter asked how long I’d be staying, I mumbled, “A week,” and handed over my credit card. I had no idea if I’d be here a day, the rest of my life, or something in between. For now, it was just something to say.

As she handed me my credit card with a piece of paper to sign, she smiled at me and asked, “Are you a firefighter?”

I was stunned, until she gestured at my shirt and I looked down at myself. I’d forgotten I was still wearing my uniform. When I muttered, “I used to be,” it felt like a punch to the gut.

As soon as I got to my room, I put up the do not disturb sign, stripped, and shoved my uniform into the back of the closet. After a long, hot shower, I went through the steps to get ready for bed on auto-pilot.

Finally, I climbed under the covers and exhaled slowly. There was no way I was going to fall asleep any time soon, but at least I’d found a place to stay, someplace safe and neutral while I tried to sort out my life.

The bed felt cold and empty without Lark. It would be so easy to pick up the phone and ask him to join me. I knew he’d come without question, and he’d make me feel better.

But I couldn’t just take from him, not when I had nothing to give back, like some sort of emotional vampire. Right now, the best I could do would be to message him in the morning, explain what happened, and tell him I needed a few days to get myself together.

There was every indication my life would still be in shambles at the end of those few days. It felt really important to take that time though, to try to get myself together and figure some things out.

I needed to be better than this before I saw Lark again. Otherwise, I’d just drag him down with me.

21

Lark

Dylan Hawkins was definitely going through some stuff.

He’d texted me almost a week ago to tell me he’d lost his job, was staying in a hotel, and needed a few days to get himself together. Since then, I’d barely heard from him.

I was trying to give him some space, but it went against my natural instincts. Every part of me wanted to go to him and hug him and try to make things better. I really didn’t know what I’d say if I saw him, because words couldn’t fix this. Saying the wrong thing might even make it worse. I wished I could make like a puppy though, and just climb into his lap and cuddle with him until he felt better.

But no. Instead, I was doing the mature thing and giving him what he asked for. I was also complaining about it, a lot, and all my housemates had to be sick of hearing me vent. It was probably a relief to them when Casey and Theo flew off to their Hawaiian vacation and I moved into their gorgeous house for a week.

This place was intimidatingly nice. It was a flawless, pale gray Edwardian in Delores Heights, and given San Francisco’s housing prices, calling it a million-dollar home didn’t even sort of begin to cover it.

My job was simple. I was here to collect the mail, water Theo’s huge number of houseplants, and just generally keep an eye on things. I took my job very seriously, which was why I’d decided to move into the guest room for the week, instead of traveling the measly five blocks between my house and theirs every day. What if something happened while I wasn’t here? I’d never forgive myself.

It was odd to have both this much room and this much solitude. I’d never lived alone before. I tried to turn it into a positive by doing all the things I couldn’t do with roommates, like running around naked, blasting ABBA at all hours, and singing at the top of my lungs. That was fun at first, but by day three I was pretty much over it.

I wasn’t going to abandon my post and go home, though. Theo and Casey had put a lot of faith in me by asking me to housesit, and I was absolutely determined to show them they’d made the right call.

By day four, I was starting to climb the walls. I decided it wouldn’t be irresponsible to take a short trip to Delores Park, since it was only two blocks away. What could happen to the house in an hour? Theo and Casey left it alone for much longer than that every week when they went to their jobs at the hospital. So I went to the park, ran around, and spent a lot of time on the swing, and that helped a bit.

The house was perfectly fine when I got back. Now the question was what to do to pass the time, so I decided to play spa day. After a long shower and a weird exfoliating scrub, I shaved everywhere from the nose down, put on a facemask, and gave myself a mani-pedi, which included a fresh coat of baby blue polish on my toenails.

Then I went with more naked Lark time, because why not? That really was the best part of having so much privacy.

It was early evening by this point, so I decided to start dinner and went into the kitchen. Like the rest of the house, it was gorgeous and fancy, with pristine white cabinets and amazing stone counters. The backsplash was a mosaic made out of tiny tiles in different shades of blue, and it looked like it belonged in a museum, not in a place where someone might get ketchup on it.

I put on an apron, because cooking and dangly bits didn’t mix, turned on some music, and stood in front of the open refrigerator for a while. Theo and Casey had bought me a bunch of food before they left, and I was trying to figure out what to make out of all that healthy stuff.

They’d really overestimated me. Like I knew what to do with asparagus, or—what was that even, a cantaloupe? I’d grown up on boxed mac and cheese, not mystery melons and spiky green things.

I didn’t want all that stuff to go bad though, and all I’d eaten for the last three and a half days were the two boxes of cereal I’d brought with me and an extra-large pizza and its leftovers. So, I heaped a bunch of produce on the counter and went to work. My theory was that everything was better in butter, so I melted some in a big skillet on the stove. Then I washed off the asparaguses—asapragii?—and threw them in whole, since I didn’t recall ever seeing them chopped up.

While they were cooking, or getting ruined, or whatever, I found a cutting board, placed the melon in the center of it, and came down on it like a guillotine with a huge knife. When it split in two, a bunch of seeds in some sort of slimy, thick-looking, and vaguely cum-like goo spilled out. I made a gagging sound and muttered, “It’s like an alien autopsy,” because of course I’d started talking to myself after all this alone time.

I also discovered the melon’s interior was pale green. Did that mean it was an unripe cantaloupe, or not a cantaloupe at all? Given the current jizz-seed/melon-corpse situation, I didn’t think I was willing to taste it and find out.

Instead, I slid the cutting board off to the side and found another. Then I went to work on cutting a cucumber and a carrot into wheels. At least I knew what those were. There was a ruffly head of lettuce in the fridge too, because apparently I’d never told Casey I didn’t eat leaves. I really didn’t know what to do with that, since eating it was just not going to happen.

My carrots and cucumber still counted as a salad though, and I looked for some ranch dressing in the refrigerator. The closest thing I found was something called Green Goddess. I didn’t even know what to make of that, but the bottle told me it was dressing, so I believed it.

I also found some fancy sliced cheese in a deli wrapper. I didn’t know what it was, even after eating a slice, but it tasted pretty good so I decided it would make a decent grilled cheese sandwich.

I got some more butter and two slices of chunky, dark brown, multigrain bread, found another pan, and grilled the sandwich to perfection. At least there was one thing I knew how to make. I also managed to catch the asparagus right before it blackened and rolled the now-shriveled veggie spears onto a plate.

Once the sandwich was done, I plated it too, then carried my meal to the little table just outside the kitchen. Since it was probably tacky to apply my bare ass to my friends’ furniture, I took off my apron and lined the chair with it before sitting down.

The meal was successful overall, except that I decided only the top inch of each asparagus spear was actually food. The rest was basically kindling. While I ate, I looked out over the rows of houseplants lined up at the windows and enjoyed the view of the pretty backyard, which lit up every night with hidden, automatic lights.

I wondered if Theo, with his love of houseplants, had done all that gorgeous landscaping. He’d inherited this house, so maybe the yard had already looked like that when he moved in. Either way, with my newfound interest in plants and landscaping, I could appreciate the work that had gone into the yard to get it to look that perfect.

When I was almost done with my meal, movement out back caught my eye. Then I spotted a fat raccoon on top of the back fence and gasped with surprise. I’d known there were racoons in San Francisco because I’d seen them once before, late at night, running down the street in a gang before ducking into a water drain. I thought they were real bad-asses for surviving in a big city, not to mention absolutely adorable.

I quickly gathered some food for him. I didn’t know what raccoons were supposed to eat, but I was pretty sure what they actually ate was garbage, so I didn’t think I could really go wrong with what I tried to feed him. I arranged some veggie slices, a piece of bread, the last of my sandwich, and some of my cereal on a paper towel, then placed it outside on the patio. I left the back door open so I could see him if he decided to take the food, then stood back and waited for a while.

After three or four minutes, nothing had happened, and I was tired of waiting. I left the door open so I could check back on the raccoon picnic, then turned my attention to cleaning up the mess I’d made in the kitchen. The goal was to leave it exactly like I’d found it.

I was going to have to deal with the melon/alien spore grossness, but I ignored it for now and focused on the dishes. I’d never lived anyplace that had a dishwasher, so to me this was way more exciting than it should have been.

It was my first time using it, since all I’d done to this point was hand-wash my one spoon and the cereal bowl, and I’d eaten the pizza right out of the box. But now was the time to revel in this marvel of modern living. Okay, so dishwashers had existed for like, the last fifty years or something, but to me it was all new and very cool.

After taking my time arranging the dishes on the racks, then rearranging them a few times, I tried to figure out where to add the soap. Finally, I found a little compartment on the inside of the door labeled “detergent,” grabbed the bottle of green dishwashing soap from beneath the sink, and loaded it up. All the buttons were hidden on the top edge of the door, and I pushed one that said “super scrubber,” because it seemed like the one that would get the dishes the cleanest. As soon as I shut the door, the machine started running with a quiet whir, which made me grin.

The next step was to wipe down all the counters. I’d been left a set of instructions about what I should and shouldn’t use on them. They were made out of some kind of pretty stone, which frankly seemed extravagant and showy. If you lived in a castle in Arendelle, sure. But what average person was like, “To the mines, lads, to fetch me huge slabs of the finest marble! Then bring them forth once you’ve polished them to a high shine and install them here, so that I might stir my boxed macaroni and cheese upon them! Only then shall I have the most glorious kitchen in all the land. Other kitchens will bow down to my kitchen’s vast superiority, and I shall laugh at those mere peasants from high atop my marble countertop!” In other words, it all seemed a little hoity toity to me. And yes, I actually said all of that out loud, because being alone all the time was warping me.

When the song playing from my phone’s speaker ended, I thought I heard something outside. I shut off the music, crept around the kitchen island, and leaned over to look out the back door. Then I had to stifle a squeal of delight, because the raccoon was out there eating the cereal with his adorable little hands.

I retrieved my phone from the counter so I could get a picture, but my first photo turned out too dark. You couldn’t even tell it was a raccoon, it just looked like a bag of trash out on the patio. I tried one with a flash next, but it only lit up the doorframe, so I knew I had to get a lot closer.

I tiptoed toward the open door as quietly as I could. The raccoon either ignored me or didn’t notice I was there. Once I was about three feet from the open doorway, I crouched down to raccoon height, zoomed in a little, and pressed the button.

When the flash went off this time, the raccoon spun around to look at me. Then the flash went off again, and he made some kind of scary hissing sound and reared up on his hind legs. It was news to me that they made any sounds at all, and wow, he was actually a lot bigger than I thought. In the next instant, he charged at me.

I screamed like a victim in a slasher film as I did some awkward combination of staggering backwards and leaping up. Oh man, why was I naked? Dangly bits plus crazed raccoons were a truly awful combination.

As I turned and sprinted past the kitchen, another horrifying sight caught my eye. A huge cloud of white, fluffy foam was oozing across the floor and around the island, like the blob in an old-fashioned horror movie I’d watched once by accident. Sweet baby Jesus, what was even happening right now?

Just to make things even weirder, I had my phone in a death grip and the flash kept going off as I ran, once every second or two like some sort of strobe light. Apparently I was still pressing the photo button, but that was the least of my concerns right then.

The first open door I came to as I barreled down the hall was the guest bathroom, and I dove inside. As I slammed the door shut, I caught a glimpse of the raccoon and exclaimed, “Crap, he’s in the house!”

Wow, things had really taken a turn. I paced around the bathroom while I caught my breath and tried to form a plan. While I realized most people would call animal control to deal with this situation, there was absolutely no way I was going to do that. They’d probably put him down, and there was no way I could live with a dead raccoon on my conscience. I also didn’t need the little jerk haunting me for the rest of my life.

Obviously, I could call my housemates. Yolanda and JoJo were bad-asses and could take care of this situation, and Eliot and Kel also lived there. But they all were friends with Theo and Casey, and that was a problem. I was going to tell them about this after they came back from vacation, but I was also going to down play it and make it seem like less of a horror show than it actually was. My housemates, on the other hand, would find this hilarious and take great pleasure in describing every gory detail, probably for years to come.

That left me with one choice—and really, the only person I wanted here with me at a time like this. Okay, so Dylan was currently taking a few days to get himself together…but five days had actually passed since he told me he’d lost his job, and after he came here and rescued me and we made out for five or six hours, he could go right back to wherever he’d been staying and continue sulking, or whatever he’d been doing.

I sent him a text that said: Dylan, I need help. I was about to follow that up with a second text containing actual information, but this was a man who was used to tackling emergencies head-on. My phone rang in all of two seconds, and when I answered it he blurted, “Are you alright, baby? Are you hurt? I’m headed to my truck so I can come to you, but do I need to call 9-1-1? They might get there faster than I will.”

“No, don’t call anyone.”

“What’s wrong?”

Even though I’d been holding it together up until that point, hearing his voice brought out a flood of emotions. I started crying and rambling at the same time. “There’s a raccoon in the house, and there’s a blob in the kitchen! Casey and Theo put their faith in me. They thought I could do this, and I really wanted to do a good job. It was so important to me to show everyone I could be a responsible adult, but now it’s all gone wrong! Do you know how nice this house is? Like, they could film an episode of Gossip Girl here, even though I realize they’re not filming that anymore, and when they did it was in New York and not San Francisco. But I’m ruining everything, and—”

“Baby, take a deep breath and tell me the part about the raccoon again. Only that part, okay? Is there a wild animal in the house with you?”

“Yes. I didn’t mean to let him in. I made him a picnic, but then I startled him and he chased me.”

“We need to call animal control.”

I started crying harder. “No! They’ll kill him, and that’s not fair! He’s not a bad raccoon. He just got scared, that’s all!”

“Are you somewhere safe?”

“I’m in the downstairs bathroom. He probably can’t get in, although he does have those tiny hands…” I locked the door.

“That’s good,” Dylan said. “We’ll hold off calling animal control for now, but don’t leave the bathroom until I get there, okay? If it’s acting aggressively, it might have rabies.”

“That’s not it. He just doesn’t like me, and I never should have paparazzied him. But I won’t leave the bathroom, I promise.”

“You’re housesitting for your friends, right?”

“Yes, and I feel so bad about whatever the raccoon is doing to their house right now.”

“Where do they live?”

“Delores Heights, two blocks above the park. I’m blanking on the address right now, but I’ll think of it and text you when I calm down a little. It’s gray with white trim, and there are two fancy little topiary trees around the front door.” I wiped my nose with some toilet paper as I thought about that, and then I added, “Actually, I just described half the houses on this street.”

“I’m going to head your way while you figure out the address. How can I get in once I get there? Do your friends keep a hidden key somewhere?”

“There’s no hidden key, but the back door is wide open. You’ll have to climb over the locked gate on the side of the house, but then all you have to do is circle around to the patio.”

“Okay, not a problem. I’m about to start driving, so I need to hang up. I’m clear across town, but I’ll be there as soon as I can, baby.”

“Thank you so much, Dylan. I can’t tell you what this means to me.”

After we ended the call, I decided I should really put something on. By the time he got here, the raccoon could have left and the foamy ooze could have melted away. It might seem like I’d lured him here under false pretenses, so I could throw myself at him.

I’d promised not to leave the room though, and there was nothing in here but one hand towel, which was way too puny to wrap around my waist. I looked under the sink and muttered, “This’ll do.” Then I grabbed a four-pack of double-ply and went to work making myself some toilet paper shorts.

At one point, I finally remembered the house number and texted the address to Dylan. Then I went back to the task at hand. Sometime later, I heard footsteps coming down the hall and shouted, “Dylan?”

“It’s me, baby.”

I unlocked the door and flung it open, pulled Dylan inside, and slammed it behind him. Then I grabbed him in a hug and exclaimed, “Thank you so much for coming to save me!”

He gave me a big squeeze before holding me at arm’s length and grinning as he asked, “Why are you partially mummified?”

“I needed something to wear. I tried for shorts at first, but the crotch was too complicated so I went with a miniskirt instead. Then I had some time to kill, so I made a top and some accessories.”

At first, I’d just wound the toilet paper around myself and tucked the end in to make a skirt and a skinny tube top. But then I’d discovered I could twist it into a pretty sturdy rope, and that opened up a bunch of possibilities. I used it to make straps for my bikini top and tied them behind my neck. Then I made two bangle bracelets, a belt, and a headband. I would have tried for some sandals next, but Dylan got there before I could start them.

He burst out laughing as he pulled me into his arms and hugged me again. Then he said, “God, I missed you.”

“I missed you, too. You can go back to your you-time after this if you want, but I’m hoping you’ll stay for a bit and make out first.”

“I’m done with my me-time. In fact, I was planning to call you tomorrow. We have a lot to talk about, but first we should grab some towels and take care of the kitchen floor.”

He started to reach for the door handle, and I asked, “What about the raccoon? Did you see him?”

“I did. She was on the kitchen counter when I came in, gorging herself on a honeydew melon. The door had actually swung shut so she couldn’t leave, but I opened it for her and attempted to shoo her out. She tried hissing at me when I got too close, but she gave up on that when it didn’t scare me off. Then she jumped off the counter with a chunk of melon in her mouth and ran out the back door, and I closed it behind her. I realized why she’d been acting aggressively when I saw three baby raccoons follow her over the back fence.”

“Aw, she was acting like a mama bear and protecting her babies!”

He grinned and asked, “Why do bears get all the credit? From what I saw, mama raccoons are pretty tough, too.”

“I think it’s the teeth, and the mauling.” I led the way to the linen closet and grabbed an armload of beach towels from the bottom shelf. Then I asked, “So, what’s with the weird ooze in the kitchen? It looked too wholesome for a demonic possession. Bleeding walls, sure. White, fluffy foam? Not so much.”

I’d been trying to make him laugh again with that comment, and it worked. Then he explained, “It looks like you used dishwashing liquid in the dishwasher, so it foamed up and spilled out.”

“Of course I did. It’s right there in the name, dishwashing liquid.”

“That’s for hand-washing. There’s a special detergent for the machine.”

“Oh. I didn’t know that. I’d never used a dishwasher before.” I glanced at Dylan and muttered, “That probably makes me sound like such a hillbilly.”

He shrugged and told me, “I didn’t have a dishwasher either when I was growing up. My parents didn’t think it was worth chopping up the vintage kitchen in our Victorian to make one fit.”

“I just feel clueless and unsophisticated in a place like this. Theo wrote up a whole page of instructions, just on what I should and shouldn’t do to the stone counter. He must have realized I had no idea what I was doing. They left me a bunch of healthy food too, and I don’t even know what some of it is. It seems so wasteful to just let it go bad.”

“I can probably help with that.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

When he’d arrived, Dylan had opened the dishwasher to turn it off. The inside was full of suds, but I’d deal with that in the morning. After we dried the floor, we put the towels in the laundry room. I’d deal with them tomorrow, too.

For now, all I cared about was the fact that my Dylan was back.

22

Dylan

As soon as I got a good look at what Lark was wearing, I burst out laughing. He was just such pure joy. No one else would ever do something like that. It wasn’t just that he’d made himself a toilet paper outfit, he’d even accessorized it.

Right then, after almost a week apart, I knew I couldn’t stay away from him another minute. Life without Lark was barely a life at all.

It made me realize how much I needed him. Now I saw he needed me, too—not to be perfect, or a pillar of strength. He just needed me to be there for him. We both knew he could have handled this mini-crisis on his own, but like so much in life, it felt better dealing with it as a team.

After we cleaned up the foamy kitchen floor and put the towels in the laundry room, I followed Lark to the guest room. It was about as impersonal as my hotel room, but he’d tried to make it cozy by bringing a few things from home. Seeing the little piñata I’d bought him on the nightstand touched my heart. There was just something so poignant about the way he could latch onto something like that, something other people would see little value in, and absolutely cherish it.

There was a pale blue loveseat at one end of the room, and we sat down on it a little awkwardly. I really felt he understood why I’d needed a few days to sort things out, but the time apart seemed to have made him a little uncertain around me.

He sat up straight and crossed his feet at the ankles as he asked, “Is it official? Did you really lose your job?”

“I met with my captain yesterday afternoon. He was very understanding and said I could take another medical leave, like I had when Travis died. He also said we could evaluate where I was in a few months, and if a therapist and the staff counselor signed off on it, I could come back to work.”

“That’s great! So, you didn’t lose it after all.”

“Actually, I chose to resign.”

“Why? I thought that job meant everything to you.”

“That’s the thing,” I said, “being a firefighter meant more to me than it was supposed to. When I thought I was going to be let go, it devastated me. That made me realize way too much of my identity and my feelings of self-worth were tied up in that job. It’s like, I know what it means to be a firefighter, but I don’t really know what it means to be Dylan Hawkins apart from that job.” I met Lark’s gaze and asked, “Does that make sense?”

“Definitely.”

“I’ve had a lot of time to think these past few days. There was literally nothing else to do in my hotel room. Anyway, I realized it feels right to leave the job at this point, on my terms. It’ll give me a chance to discover who I am, while you and I build a life together.”

“Wait,” he whispered. “What are you saying?”

“You’re all I want, Lark. When I think about my ideal future, it has nothing to do with a career. It’s about you and me, together.” He looked stunned, and I said softly, “I can only hope you feel the same way.”

He launched himself onto my lap and grabbed me in an embrace as he exclaimed, “Of course I do! I love you so much, Dylan.”

Hearing him say that was absolutely everything. I took his face between my hands and told him, “I love you, too.” Then I kissed him, and it felt like the first time all over again.

I’d built up that moment in my mind, but when the words finally came out, telling Lark I loved him felt like the most natural thing in the world. I’d known I felt that way for a while now. All I’d needed was the courage to say it, and to open myself to all that came with it.

This was a turning point. In fact, I could picture it in my mind’s eye. The book with the story of my past was closing, finished but never forgotten. At the same time, a brand new book was opening, full of crisp, bright pages to fill with our story.

I wrapped my arms around him, and as he snuggled against me I admitted, “I don’t know what I’m going to do next, Lark. I don’t even know where I’m going to live.”

Then I told him about all the feelings seeing my in-laws had stirred up, and how I’d started the paperwork to transfer the loft to them. When I finished, he said, “Why don’t you move into the room beside mine? Yolanda hasn’t found anyone to rent it yet.”

“Are you sure?”

He smiled at me, and there was no doubt whatsoever in his eyes. “Of course. We don’t have to call it living together if it seems too soon. I mean, you’ll have your own room. But I’d love it if you were right there beside me, all the time.”

“That sounds fantastic. Do you think Yolanda and JoJo would be okay with it?”

He pulled his phone from the back waistband of his paper skirt. “Want me to ask them?”

“Absolutely.”

He sent a text and got a reply less than a minute later. When he turned the screen to face me, I saw that Yolanda had written: We’d love to have Dylan move in! Tell him the room is his as of today. Also let him know it has a bed, desk, and dresser, but we can clear it out for him if he wants to bring his own furniture.

“Please thank them, and tell them I’ll take the room exactly like it is,” I said. “If you don’t mind though, I’d much rather spend every night with you, in your bed.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Lark sent our landladies another text before setting aside his phone and draping his arms around my shoulders. His dark eyes sparkled as he exclaimed, “This is going to be so fun! It’ll be like a sleep-over every night.”

“You’re right, and I can’t wait.”

“Will you stay here with me while I finish housesitting? I’ll message Casey and Theo and ask, but I’m sure they’ll say it’s okay.”

“I’d love to.”

He grinned playfully. “That’s a relief. Now there’s someone to eat all those leafy things in the fridge.”

I chuckled at that as I traced his jawline. After a moment, his brow creased with concern, and he said, “I hope I didn’t just pressure you into moving in with me before you were ready. I know you’ve been through a lot these past few days, between moving out of the loft and leaving the only job you’ve ever known. Maybe it’s too much to also start a committed relationship right now.”

“We started a committed relationship a long time ago,” I said, as I tucked his hair behind his ear. His toilet paper headband had slipped off at some point, and now he looked adorably tousled. “I just wasn’t ready to put the words to it before today.”

He whispered, “Are you sure?”

“The only uncertainty in my future is about deciding on a new career. But I’m absolutely positive about you and me.”

He kissed me before saying, “I’m not that worried about us finding new jobs. We’ll figure something out.”

“Us?”

Lark nodded. “I quit the cam boy gig a while back.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because I only wanted to belong to you, even if you weren’t ready to hear it yet. Getting naked for strangers on the internet really didn’t fit with that.”

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Don’t worry, though. I’ll still give you private shows any time you want.”

“Yes, please,” I said with a smile. “And what can I do for you in return?”

He grinned flirtatiously. “I’m sure we’ll think of something.”

I kissed him before asking, “So, after all of that, did you manage to get a picture of the raccoon?”

“I forgot to check.” He picked up his phone and browsed through his photos. After a pause, he exclaimed, “I actually did!” As he kept scrolling, his eyebrows shot toward his hair line, and he muttered, “Oh my god.”

“What is it?”

“I kept pressing the photo button and taking pictures with the flash on as I ran away from the raccoon. It turns out I—well, see for yourself.” He scrolled back to the start of the series and handed me the phone. After I set it to play like a slide show, I held it up so we both could see the screen.

The first picture looked like it was of a bag of trash out on the patio. The next was of a well-lit doorframe. The third was actually a picture of the raccoon, but from the back. In the one after that, the animal had turned to face Lark and was looking demonic with the eye shine from the flash.

Next, there were two blurry photos that seemed to be of the ceiling, and Lark explained, “That’s when I almost fell over backwards while trying to get up. The next few were taken on accident while I was sprinting down the hall.”

Suddenly, a well-lit side shot of Lark’s junk filled the screen. That was followed by a photo of a wall, then another of his junk. This went on for several shots—junk, wall, junk, wall. In each dick pic, his cock and balls were in mid-bounce and at some truly bizarre angles. I’d never seen anything quite like it.

He muttered, “I guess my arm was swinging up and down while I was running, and the camera kept going off at exactly the right moment in a steady rhythm. Or at exactly the wrong moment, depending on how you look at it. Oh man, check out that shot of my cock and balls flying up in different directions. It’s like, freaky alien dick.”

In the next instant, Lark and I burst out laughing, just because the whole thing was so completely absurd. We laughed so hard that we could barely breathe. I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed like that, and wow did it feel good.

It went on for a long time before finally tapering off. We were still chuckling as we wiped the tears from our eyes and I kissed his forehead. Then he curled up with his head on my shoulder, and I wrapped my arms around him.

I had no idea what the future would hold. No one did. One thing I knew for sure, though? It would never be boring, not with Lark in my life.

Epilogue: Lark

Two Months Later

My boyfriend was completely insatiable. Not that I was complaining.

What I was doing instead was moaning loudly while Dylan absolutely pounded my ass. It was one of those rare afternoons when all our housemates were gone, so we could be as loud as we wanted. And were we ever.

He slid out of me long enough for us to switch positions, and I bent over with my elbows on our bed and arched my back. Then he stood behind me, grabbed my leather harness with one hand, and pushed his cock deep into my ass. I made a sound that was an awful lot like a purr and told him, “That feels amazing.”

Dylan said, “Couldn’t agree more,” as he slid almost all the way out, then plunged back in.

Pretty soon, we found the perfect rhythm. I rocked back to meet each thrust, while he gripped the harness and used it for leverage to drive himself into me. It felt so good. Perfect, in fact. I moaned again as his hips slapped my ass and the tip of his cock teased my prostate.

All that pleasure and sensation was intoxicating. I forgot everything else and just rode along on a wave of pure bliss, listening to the sexy, primal sounds Dylan made as he took me. He’d learned to be completely uninhibited when we fucked, and that was such a turn-on.

When he was close to finishing, he pulled out, spun me around, and kissed me, and I moaned against his lips. Then he lifted me onto the bed, held my legs apart by my ankles, and slid into me again.

This was a thing with Dylan, and I thought it was kind of amazing—he preferred to come when we were face-to-face. He said it made our connection feel electric, and I had to agree.

I grinned at him as he built momentum. The smile I got in return was gorgeous. He grunted as he started to come, filling my ass and thrusting hard enough to rock the entire bedframe. That set me off too, and I arched up off the bed, yelling as I shot all over us.

He stayed in me for a while after we finished, because he knew I loved that full sensation. Doing this was something new, an added bonus that had come with the whole committed relationship/getting tested/permanently retiring the condoms trifecta.

I wrapped my legs around him, and once I caught my breath, I exclaimed, “Three times in one day! Go us!”

Dylan laughed and muttered, “I’m too old for this much sex.”

“No, you’re not. You just proved that. I mean, sure, we had to take an hour-long break in between. Actually, the last break was more like ninety minutes. But do you see me complaining?”

He grinned at me, and I made a disappointed sound as he slid out of my ass. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get cleaned up before everyone comes home.” What he really meant was, let’s get cleaned up while we can still parade around naked.

After I hung up the harness, we ducked into the spare bedroom to grab some clean towels, and then we headed to the bathroom hand-in-hand. Even though we were renting two rooms from Yolanda and JoJo, we lived in my room and used the other to store the stuff Dylan had brought with him when he’d moved out of the loft.

The shower was too small for two people, especially when one of those people was as big as Dylan, but that didn’t stop us. We took turns under the hot water and spent as much time kissing as we did cleaning each other up. Afterwards, we dried off, made a naked trek back across the second floor, and shut the door behind us.

It was raining out but warm and cozy inside, so we got dressed in shorts and T-shirts before stretching out on the bed. When Dylan’s phone chimed, he read the text and told me, “My parents want to know if we can come for dinner on Saturday.”

“Can they make it Sunday instead? Kel and Noah’s grand opening party is on Saturday.” My friend and his business partner had ended up spending the last two months giving their store front and the play yard behind it a complete makeover. They’d been able to do that after bringing in an investor with deep pockets—Kel’s boyfriend Hudson. I still wasn’t quite sure where those two stood. I didn’t think they knew, either. But when Kel had told him he was staying in San Francisco, Hudson had decided to stay too, and that was something, anyway.

“Oh, that’s right. I’ll ask.” More texts were exchanged, and then he said, “Sunday it is. They’re going to see if Diane and her family can make it, too.”

“Want to place bets on how long we’re there before your parents bring up college?”

He chuckled at that and said, “We both know it’ll happen in under fifteen minutes.”

“True.”

His parents meant well with the whole higher education thing, and they’d been very understanding when we told them we both wanted to take a couple of months off before trying to decide what we wanted to do next.

I was pretty sure I’d end up getting a job with a landscaper and also working for Kel part time, and Dylan would probably decide to go back to school, even though he used to think it wasn’t for him. Lately, his eyes had started to light up when he browsed through the course catalogs his parents kept slipping us. There was no hurry though, and I knew we’d both figure out school and jobs and all that stuff eventually.

He rolled onto his back, and I propped up my head with my hand and traced the faded tattoo on his bicep. When he’d decided to retire, Dylan briefly considered covering the vintage firefighters’ helmet and crossed axes with something else. But ultimately he’d decided it was a fitting symbol of his past, so he’d kept it.

A few weeks ago, he’d also gotten a tattoo on his other arm, one representing his future. He hadn’t told me he was getting it done, because he wanted to surprise me. I’d started crying when he showed me his beautiful new tattoo of a lark.

“You know what we should do? Throw a dinner party,” I said. “Your parents and Diane have only been over for coffee. They haven’t even met Theo and Casey yet, and they’ve only had a chance to talk to the rest of the gang for a few minutes. Our families need more time to hang out. We need to invite Malone and Heath too, obviously. It’s been two weeks since your last poker game.”

“Good idea. But do you think there’s enough room downstairs to serve a sit-down dinner to that many people?”

“Let’s hope so, since Yolanda and JoJo have invited way more than that to their wedding next month. Actually, this could be a test run of sorts. Also, I’ve just decided their celebrity couple nickname needs to be YoJo. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner.”

The wedding was only six weeks away, and the brides were remarkably calm, considering how much they still had to do. At least Dylan and I had gotten the garden looking gorgeous, so that was one less thing to worry about.

We started to talk about a menu and possible dates for our dinner party, but we were interrupted by a knock on the front door. I rolled off the bed and said, “I wonder if someone forgot their key.”

“My money’s on Kel. He’s good at that.” Dylan climbed off the bed too and told me, “I’ll come with you, because I want to see what we have for dinner.”

When we opened the front door, we discovered it wasn’t one of our housemates after all. A slender, dark-haired figure was looking out at the street, and when he turned to face us, I exclaimed, “Oh my god, Logan! Is it really you?”

My kid brother was soaked from the rain. He had two tote bags draped on one arm and was carrying another bundle against his chest, covered by a yellow rain coat. “I’m sorry to just show up unannounced,” he said. “I know I should have called first and asked if it was okay to come, but I was afraid you’d say no. I had to get out of our parents’ house, and I didn’t have any place else to go.” His voice was shaking, and he seemed like he was on the verge of tears.

“Of course it’s okay! Come in.” He stepped into the foyer, and as I took the pair of tote bags from him and set them aside, I introduced him to my boyfriend.

After the two men said hello, Dylan told us, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to bring Logan a towel.”

While Dylan hurried upstairs, I guided my brother into the living room and asked, “Did you have a fight with Mom and Dad?”

“Not exactly. I just couldn’t stay there another minute.”

“Honestly, I’m surprised you lasted as long as you did.”

“I thought I could stick it out until I finished college. As long as they never found out I was bisexual, I figured I’d be okay. But everything changed when Owen came into my life.” The part about his sexuality was news to me, but it wasn’t like Logan told me much of anything.

“Is Owen your boyfriend?”

My brother looked confused. “What? No.” My breath caught when he lifted the rain coat off the bundle on his chest, revealing a gorgeous, sleeping baby in a blue carrier. “Owen is my son.”

Dylan returned with the towel just in time to exchange looks of surprise with me. Then I blurted, “You have a child, and you didn’t tell me?”

Logan starting crying as he carefully wrapped his arms around the infant. “I didn’t know. Remember when I told you about Kathy, the girl I dated when I worked at that fast food restaurant?”

“Vaguely. Didn’t you break up about two years ago?”

“More like a year and a half. She moved to Fresno with her new boyfriend a couple of months after she dumped me, and I never heard from her again—until she showed up at my house three days ago, told me she couldn’t handle parenthood anymore, and handed me my son. She also gave me a bag with nothing in it but three diapers, a dirty bottle, a half-empty can of formula, and Owen’s wrinkled up birth certificate with my name on it.

“Then she just left! Who does that? Who abandons a baby like that? I knew she was cold and selfish, but this is just so far above and beyond. She never even bothered telling me she was pregnant, or that she gave birth to our son. He’s almost ten months old, and she never told me any of it! I only mattered when she needed someplace to dump him.”

I whispered, “Wow,” as Dylan sat down on the arm of the couch. He still looked stunned, and I was sure I did, too.

Logan took a breath and continued, “Anyway, I lasted two and a half days with Mom and Dad after the baby arrived. They were horrible. They kept yelling at me, and it was upsetting Owen. Instead of trying to help me, they kept asking how I could do such a thing, and telling me I was a huge disappointment for having a baby out of wedlock, and so on.

“Meanwhile, there I was, just trying to wrap my head around the fact that I have a kid—a tiny person who’s depending on me for everything! I couldn’t deal with our parents on top of that, so I got in my car and drove here. Thank god I made it. The car’s ancient, and I was sure we’d end up broken down on the side of the road.”

“You did the right thing by coming here,” I told him.

The baby stirred a little, and my brother gently ran a hand over his son’s downy blond hair as he said, “I didn’t just leave home because of how our parents were making me feel. I couldn’t let them treat Owen the way they always treated you and me. He deserves better.”

Logan’s short, dark hair was dripping onto his T-shirt, so I took the towel from Dylan and draped it around my brother’s shoulders as I said, “You’re right about that, too.”

There was fear in his eyes as he turned to me and whispered, “What am I going to do, Lark?”

Dylan said exactly what I’d been thinking. “You’re going to move in with us, and we’re going to help you raise that baby. We have a spare bedroom, and our landladies are going to love both of you.” When my brother looked to me for confirmation and I nodded, he began to cry.

I put my arm around him and said, “You’re going to be okay, I promise. You and Owen both.”

He met my gaze and asked, “Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

Two hours later, after Logan had a hot meal and a shower, my brother and his son both fell asleep in what was now their bedroom. Meanwhile, Dylan and I sat around the kitchen table with JoJo and Yolanda and tried to process all that had just happened.

“I’m glad we had that extra room, which you two were barely using,” JoJo said, as she refilled three glasses of wine. “Otherwise, I would’ve given them my jewelry studio, but the bedroom’s a much better space for them.”

Dylan looked up from the shopping list he was making and asked, “In addition to baby gates for the top and bottom of the stairs and baby-proof latches for the cabinets, what else do we need to make this house safe for Owen?” It was so like my boyfriend to step up and help like that, and just one of the many reasons I adored him.

“Covers for the electrical outlets,” I said, and he nodded and wrote it down.

“Way to rise to the occasion, you two,” Yolanda said. “Logan’s lucky to have you. So’s that baby.”

She and JoJo had gotten home an hour earlier and had seemed to take the whole brother-and-baby news in stride. But now that Logan was out of earshot, I had to be sure. I put down my glass of juice and asked, “Are you both really okay with my brother and his son moving in with us?”

“Of course,” Yolanda said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “You and Dylan are family, and that means your brother and your nephew are, too.” Hearing her say that meant the world to me.

A little while later, the pair said good night and went to their bedroom, and Dylan looked up from his list and said, “Logan said he bought a car seat. I should have asked if he got it secondhand, because that’s not as safe as a brand-new model. Do you think I should buy one just in case? And what about a stroller? He could probably use one of those, right?”

“I know you’re planning to go shopping for baby stuff first thing in the morning, but you should probably wait until Logan’s up and ask him these questions.”

Dylan put down his pen and nodded. “I will. I just want to think of as much as I can on my own, so he doesn’t feel too overwhelmed.”

I climbed onto his lap and kissed him before saying, “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For being such a kind, loving man, and for taking care of not just me, but my brother and the baby, too, even though you just met them.”

He tried to shrug off the compliment. “It’s the least I can do.”

“It’s amazing. Just look at that list of things to buy for Owen. The first thing you wrote on it is ‘toys and a teddy bear.’ You have such a good heart and so much love to give, and I’m the luckiest man in the world for getting to be with you.”

He caressed my cheek as he told me, “That’s exactly how I feel about you.”

I wrapped my arms around him and rested my head on his shoulder. After a while, I said, “Logan’s going to need a lot of help raising that baby, and I hope I do okay. It’s not like I have much experience with this.”

“None of us do, but here’s what I know for sure—that little boy is going to grow up surrounded by love. That’s the most important thing. We’ll figure out everything else along the way.”

He was absolutely right, and it made me realize something. Just a few months ago, I might not have known how to give my brother and that baby what they really needed. But today, I did.

The difference was that now I truly understood what it meant to love and be loved unconditionally. Dylan had taught me that.

The End

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