"So," Adrian drawled playfully, "what have you been up to, J? I can feel it in your voice."
Jared straightened up and winced at the dull ache in the lower part of his body while adjusting the phone to his ear. "Are you a psychic now, Adrian?"
"Hey, you sound sleepy but pleased. You either landed a job with National Geographic, or you got laid."
"Yeah, right. I'm already on my way to Alaska, to take photos of ... what do they have there? Reindeers? You know I'm more of a portrait guy."
"Yeah, I know," Adrian replied, sure of himself. "And that leaves us with my second guess. You got properly laid."
Jared laughed. Damn, he was giggling now? Geez, good sex had some serious side effects. "Yeah, I guess I got laid," he said and stretched like a lazy cat.
"Wow. Nice. So, who was it?"
"Just a one-night-stand. No one important."
"I thought you didn't want one-night-stands anymore."
"Usually, I don't. But this one hit the spot just right."
"I guess so. You're giggling."
"Yeah. So, what are you up to later? I'll call Mike, too."
"Sure. I just wanted to check on you. You seemed down lately and all."
Jared cleared his voice. "I know. I would never want to make you, guys, to feel down, too."
"You could never," Adrian assured him. "So, that means you're over that scumbag, right?"
"I might be. I guess it only took a cowboy and a proper ride to get him out of my system."
That was not entirely true, but Jared didn't want to linger on those thoughts by telling them all to his friend. As soon as his mind took that path, there was a mix of anger and sadness threatening to take over his sanity. He didn't want that. He wanted to be strong.
"Wow, a cowboy, nice. Like a real cowboy, though?"
"I don't know. He definitely looked the part. Hat, and boots, and a charming drawl."
"So, are you going to see this guy again or what? He sounds swell."
"No," Jared said with conviction. "It was just a one-night-stand."
"Does he know it?" Adrian joked.
"Sure thing, he knows it." A discreet ping let him know he had a call in waiting. "Hold on, Adrian, there's someone else trying to call me."
"It's all right. See you later, J. And you'll tell us all the juicy details of your one-night-stand."
Adrian said goodbye, and Jared took the other call right away without checking the caller ID. It could be Sam with some work. Getting buried in some new project sounded like a good idea to take his mind off things.
The sexy twang made him stop. "Oh, hi," he replied, without hiding his surprise.
"I was wondering what you might be doing tonight," Shane said, without any other preamble.
"Oh, just hanging out with friends," Jared replied.
"Mike and Adrian, right?"
Shane remembered the names of his friends. Jared was even more surprised. "Yes, they're my homeboys."
"Would you mind if I hanged out with you and your friends, too?"
Now that was a straightforward question. Jared wasn't prepared for it. "Don't you have friends you like to hang out? So sorry, that came out wrong."
"No worries." Shane chuckled. "My friends like to hang out in the same places. It gets boring after a while. I want to see new places, new people."
Jared realized that moment that he knew very little of Shane and what he was doing. "You're new to the city, right?"
"Yeah, you read me right."
"Then, I guess I could introduce you to some venues. And to my friends, of course."
Hanging out wasn't hooking up. Plus, Mike and Adrian would be present. But what if they didn't like the idea of having an outsider with them? Ugh, he should have started with that.
"So, tonight? When and where?" Shane asked directly.
"We kind of have the same routine." Jared recited the bar address and hour. Could it be that he was making a mistake? But Shane seemed so easygoing; he would read the signs correctly. Plus, bringing a guy like that to the bar where he liked to hang out with Adrian and Mike would surely work out in Shane's favor. Jared could bet that, by the end of the evening, Shane would have enough numbers in his pocket to fill a phonebook.
"So, what were you doing?" Shane asked, the teasing in his voice obvious from outer space.
"Just some work," Jared replied, trying to be evasive.
"What do you do?"
"I'm a freelance photographer."
"Wow, that's so cool. That's why you were looking at the pictures last night, right? What did you think of them?"
Jared stopped to think for a moment. "I'm no critic, but I'd say they're pretty good. What am I saying? They're stunning. Whoever took those pictures must really love horses. Do you happen to know the artist?"
"Yeah. My brother," Shane replied.
"He has a gift; I'd say," Jared said.
"What do you like to take pictures of?" Shane asked, cutting his words with a sudden urgency.
"I'm not that big of a nature lover. I prefer portraits. And they pay well because let's face it, a lot of people love to look good in photos," Jared said with a small chuckle. "You wouldn't believe some of the stories - But I shouldn't keep you. You must have work to do. I know I do."
"Sorry for bothering you," Shane said politely. "I'll see you tonight, then?"
"Can't wait to see you again."
Jared managed a small nervous laugh. Was it customary to invite your one-night-stands to meet your best friends? He let out a sigh. Maybe not, but Shane would find someone to go home with tonight, without a doubt. He was charming, handsome, and polite—just the kind of guy to bring home to mom and dad.
"Sure," he replied. "See you. Bye."
Shane sounded a tad surprised at his abrupt manner, but he replied to his goodbye without another word. Jared put his phone on the nightstand like it was a grenade. Now he needed to tell Adrian and Mike that they would have someone else with them tonight.
"So, let me get this straight," Adrian said as he brought the beers to the table, "Mike already knows the guy? How come I don't?"
"We went to a bar where they danced in line like in those cowboy movies," Mike tried to explain. "And this guy just couldn't take his eyes off Jared. And Jared kept eyeing him, too."
"I did not," Jared protested.
"Right. You knew right away that he danced with some girl."
"True," Jared admitted. "What can I say? He's nice to look at."
"So when did you two get together?" Mike asked. "I thought you were adamant about not getting, you know, back into the saddle so fast."
Jared sighed. "It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. Chris's husband came to see me -"
"Chris's husband?!" Adrian and Mike asked at the same time, expressing their surprise out loud.
"Yeah. Imagine my surprise. I was at this event, displaying some of my work, and he came straight at me."
"That must have been one hell of a conversation," Adrian said, his eyes never leaving Jared.
"You think?" Jared replied with a snort. "Can you believe that he's all right with his husband's sleeping around? He also put me through some lecture about how I don't know shit about how the world works. And low-key insulted me, because, hey, why not, right?" Jared kept his eyes on the bottle of beer in front of him, trying to peel the label with the nails of his thumb fingers.
Adrian placed a comforting hand on his back. "J, just screw them. They're nothing to you. If they like to fool around, that's their business. And you have nothing to worry about. You're cool, man. You're sexy, funny, and an awesome guy all around."
"Ditto," Mike added and raised his bottle. "Don't let some douchebag bring you down. You're much better than them."
"Thank you, guys," Jared said and hooked his arms over his friends' shoulders for a group hug. As he enjoyed having his best friends close, he noticed Shane walking into the bar and looking around.
"And here comes Shane, and I hope you, guys, don't mind having a forth with us tonight."
Adrian was the first to notice Shane. He whistled appreciatively. "What a hunk, J. Good job, man."
"He's here only to hang out," Jared said quickly.
As he suspected, Shane's presence in the bar didn't go unnoticed. A guy approached Shane, obviously trying to make conversation. By body language, Jared could tell the guy was getting shut down, but gently. Shane tipped his hat to him, and then, he noticed Jared, who quickly raised one arm to wave at him.
Even from a distance, Jared could tell that a bright smile had lit Shane's face. He smiled, too, but his lips became strained. What could he do to stick to being polite, while making it clear that he wasn't up for another one-night-stand?
Why was he thinking in such convoluted ways? Shane wanted to hang out because he didn't have many friends he could hang out in gay bars like this one. That was all.
"Hey," Shane said warmly.
To his surprise, Shane leaned in, and before Jared could react, he placed a quick peck on his cheek. It landed there only because Jared was quick enough to move his mouth out of the way. The moment of awkwardness was gone soon.
"Hi, Mike," Shane said and shook hands with Mike. "And you must be Adrian. The best friend who doesn't cry when cutting onions."
Adrian took Shane's hand and shook it vigorously. Jared eyed them carefully and pursed his lips when Adrian winked at him. "Cutting onions? I wonder what crazy stories Jared told you about us."
"Not that many, unfortunately," Shane said.
Mike moved to another seat and gestured for Shane to sit next to Jared. At the same time, he clearly ignored Jared's pointed look. Shane sat and hooked one arm over the back of Jared's seat like it was the most natural thing in the world.
"I don't know what you're drinking, but we all got beers, so we thought you wouldn't mind," Adrian said.
Shane took the beer bottle in front of him and held it up. "It couldn't be better. To new friends and beginnings."
Adrian and Mike followed his example, and Jared did the same. His eyes couldn't leave Shane. He was really handsome. Too bad none of that was for him. He just wasn't in a good place.
"So, you're a bit of a mystery man," Adrian said. "We only know that your name is Shane, and you have a knack for flannels."
Shane laughed. "We, I mean, Jared and I, didn't have enough time to talk."
"Too busy getting acquainted in other ways, right?"
"Adrian," Jared whispered angrily.
Adrian ignored him completely.
Shane chuckled and ran one hand over his face. "A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell."
"Good thing, Jared is no gentleman. He already brought us up to speed. So, I was just checking."
Jared punched Adrian hard in the shoulder. "Adrian, I swear to God -"
"I'm just joking. He just told us that he met this awesome guy and wanted us to know him," Adrian said.
Jared pinched Adrian's bicep through the shirt, hoping that he would leave a bruise. Adrian just pulled his arm away.
"He did, huh?" Shane looked at Jared, his eyes at half-mast. "Did you really tell your friends I was awesome?"
Jared blushed to the tip of his ears. "You, guys." His eyes thinned dangerously.
"What kind of cowboy are you, Shane?" Mike intervened, saving the situation.
"I think I must be the retired kind," Shane replied with a small laugh.
"So, you are a cowboy!" Mike said excitedly. "Do you know how to ride a horse?"
"Yeah," Shane admitted. "But not only that. I know a lot of things about herding cattle, but I don't think you want to hear me babbling about my life on the farm."
"We don't mind," Mike replied. "You're the first real cowboy I see in my life. Being a city kid and all."
"Guys, stop pestering Shane," Jared intervened. "He's here to learn about new things, see new places, new people -"
"If you don't mind me asking, what is it that you do now?" Adrian asked. "Since you left your wrangling days behind you."
"I don't mind. I had some money saved, so now I'm running a pub. Nothing fancy, just a place where people can come and unwind at the end of a hard day at work."
Jared's eyes grew big. This time, he pushed against Shane's chest to express his annoyance. "That place is yours?"
Shane nodded with a playful grin on his lips.
"I have an open tab, this is not a gay bar, although some guys might be," Jared mocked, transforming his voice to sound annoying.
"You didn't let me tell you anything," Shane said. "And I couldn't tell you 'no', to anything, since you were so hot and worked up."
Adrian and Mike snickered.
"This was just such a bad idea," Jared murmured under his breath. "Even you, Mike?"
"Sorry," Mike said and giggled some more.
"That's a great thing about the pub, I mean," Adrian said. "But it is a tough market. There's nothing this city hasn't seen before."
"I think I got my angle right. I have some authentic tequila suppliers that don't sell their merchandise around here."
"That tequila was awesome," Jared admitted. "You guys should try it, at least once."
"I'll bring you some bottles. No charge."
Adrian smiled and winked at Jared again. "This guy's totally a keeper, J."
Jared rolled his eyes. "Aren't you, guys, assuming too much? Shane is here to make new friends, not to get stuck with whoever happened to -" he choked on his words. What was it that he wanted to say? Whoever happened to jump in bed with Shane? What that what he meant? Adrian and Mike clearly weren't helping. He needed to make things clear. He didn't know how, but he needed to.
"I saw that someone tried to talk to you when you walked into the bar," Jared said and looked at Shane.
"Yeah. A friendly fellow. He wanted to know if I was single. I told him I wasn't."
"I thought you told me you got no boyfriend." Jared frowned.
Shane stared at him and blinked. "I did."
"Then?" Jared asked impatiently. "Some time, between yesterday evening and today, you got one?"
Shane appeared disoriented like a deer caught in the headlights. Mike and Adrian were observing the scene without saying a word. "I thought I did," Shane replied candidly.
Jared pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Are you talking about me?"
"Yeah," Shane said.
"I'm not your boyfriend," Jared said abruptly. "I mean, I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, but we just -" he threw a nervous look at Mike and Adrian, who both wore deep frowns on their face, "we just hooked up. Nothing else."
"Oh," Shane replied, taken aback. "Do you do this often? Hook up?"
"Are you calling me a -" Jared swallowed his words. Shane wasn't entirely at fault. He should have made things clear on the phone, or when he had left in the morning.
"I'm not calling you anything," Shane said, and he appeared hurt. "I just thought, I mean, I thought you liked me. Why else would you call? And then, come to my place and -"
"I get it," Jared put one hand up. He couldn't believe he had that conversation in front of his best friends. "It's my fault. I had no idea you would consider it something more serious than a one-night-stand. I should have made it all clear, so it's my fault. Entirely. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you feel bad and -"
"It's okay," Shane stopped the cascade of words flowing from his mouth. "I misread the situation, is all."
Jared sighed. Mike and Adrian were still looking at him like he suddenly grew horns. "Well, then that's that. You're still welcome to hang out with us. Or you can look around, see if that friendly guy is still here. You might want to -"
"No," Shane said shortly. "It was nice to meet you. Adrian, Mike. How much do I owe you for the beer?"
"Don't worry, man," Adrian said. "It's all good."
"It was nice to see you again, Shane," Mike added.
"I'll let you guys enjoy your evening," Shane said and stood up, somewhat stiffly. "Have a good night."
Perplexity was too small a word to describe what Jared was going through. Shane turned his back on him, without addressing him a word, not even goodbye. He watched him walked out of the bar with big, heavy steps.
"Wow, Jared, I didn't know you could be ... what's the word?" Mike struggled. "Callous?"
"A scumbag," Adrian said and crossed his arms over his chest. "What the hell was that, J? Huh? Did Chris's douchebaggery rub off on you or something?"
"What are you guys talking about? I just needed to make it clear to Shane that we only hooked up. There was no point to -"
"What? Be nice to the guy?" Adrian asked aggressively.
Jared was taken aback. "Come on, Adrian. Until yesterday, you were the king of hookups."
"Yeah, I was. Not you," Adrian pointed out. "And what's not to like about this guy? He's totally boyfriend material, and you blew it just because you wanted to be a scumbag for a change, for reasons I don't understand."
"Wow, dad," Jared said. "Since when are you judging me?"
The last time he had gotten into a fight with Adrian, it must have been when they were still in kindergarten. After that, they had both cried so much that their parents had had to force them to make up. Adrian never talked to him like that, never.
"What about you, Mike? Do you think the same thing?" Jared turned his attention on his other best friend.
Mike shifted in his chair. "This isn't you, J. And you like Shane."
"Maybe, but maybe he's a player. You don't believe how shy he acted while we - Ah, what the hell I'm talking about? You guys saw him. He's a total hunk, okay? Tell me he hadn't hooked up dozens of times since he had gotten here? A guy like that? If everyone had left him alone all this time, I don't know what to think of the gay population in this city."
"It doesn't matter if he hooked up before or not," Adrian said. "He's into you, big time. But somehow, because you got hurt, you think you have the right to hurt others, too. Let me break it to you, J. The only guy you'll truly hurt if you keep it like this is you."
Jared moaned and buried his face into his hands. "Come on, Adrian, you can't really think that about me."
"I don't think that about you. I know you're nice, considerate, salt of the earth when the going gets tough, so my question is simple: what the hell is wrong with you?"
Jared felt himself getting small under Adrian's scalding words. "I don't want to be this nice guy everyone is walking all over anymore."
"You got hurt by a scumbag. Don't let him infect you. It's all I'm saying. And, if I were you, I'd hurry to offer Shane some apology. Can you imagine how he must have felt, you doing that to him in front of us? We're strangers to him," Adrian added.
"What do you think, Mike?" Jared asked, his voice meek. "Do I believe Adrian here, or will that just make me the biggest pushover in history?"
Mike was also little in his chair. He didn't like conflictual situations, either, so he was obviously uncomfortable. "I think Adrian's right this time, J. I mean, Shane really likes you. And you must like him, too, since you didn't mind hooking up with him or introducing him to us. At least, he deserves an apology."
"But what am I supposed to say to him? I have no intention of being his boyfriend. A friend, maybe, but -"
"So tell him that," Mike said. "And Adrian here doesn't yell at you because he hates you. He does it because he loves you."
"Damn right," Adrian said through his teeth.
Jared sighed. "I appreciate you guys worrying about me so much. But I'm fine." He paused for a moment. His eyes traveled to the entrance. "Do you really think I hurt Shane? That guy must have really tough skin," he made a poor attempt at a joke.
"I do. I think you hurt him. Just call him and apologize. Don't let him think of you this way. You're not a scumbag, and you don't deserve to have someone like Shane think that about you," Mike said.
Adrian remained silent.
"Adrian?" Jared asked.
"Why do you ask me?"
"You're my friend. Of course, I have to ask you. And I think you were right to tell me what you said. Well, to some degree."