Mending the Cracks by Alice Crane

Chapter One

front door shut behind him with his heel. He placed his palm against the wall as he toed off his rain-soaked boots. He left a trail of oil-and-blood-streaked hi-vis clothing in his wake as he headed for his en suite.

His main bathroom currently resembled a construction site since he was renovating it, so the bathroom connected to his bedroom was the only one fit for use. He was barely halfway through fixing up the old house, but he didn’t mind; he was only one person, and all the necessary rooms—kitchen, bedroom, and a bathroom—had been completed.

He made sure the water was scalding hot before he ducked under the shower spray. He braced himself with his hands as he bent his head forward, letting the water soak into his messy brown hair and trail down his neck and back. He barely felt the heat of it.

Echoes of the night replayed in his mind like a morbid loop. Screams and crying nicked at his soul like the finest cuts of a sharp blade. He’d had worse callouts during his time as a volunteer with the State Emergency Services, but this one was definitely in the top ten. He had spent hours cutting a family from a small Suzuki sedan. All but one had been declared deceased at the scene; the surviving member had been airlifted to the nearest hospital. Whether they would last the rest of the night was anyone’s guess. An entire family wiped out, all because of one bad decision. It didn’t make sense, but when it rained people seemed to become more reckless on the road rather than more cautious. Accidents like that could so easily be avoided if people were more careful when driving on slippery surfaces.

Sometimes he really hated wet weather.

Kellan squirted shampoo directly into his hair and scrubbed hard. He closed his eyes so he couldn’t see the red wash down the drain. It wasn’t his blood, and while outcomes like this were burdens he chose to bear, he tried not to dwell on them.

He stayed under the stream until it began to run cold. He stepped out and pulled on a pair of black silk boxers, not bothering to dry himself. The cold winter air was coming in early, despite it still being autumn, but Kellan barely felt it with the way his skin was burning so hot under the surface.

Bypassing the kitchen completely since he couldn’t stomach any food yet, he ventured into the lounge/storage area. He wasn’t sure it could truthfully be called a lounge at all, though. There was a couch against a wall, but his TV had been put in his bedroom for the time being, and the rest of the room held only boxes. Some of them were open, and others had been gathering dust for a long time. The only part of the room that got regular use was the beautiful mahogany bar set up in the corner. It, and the range of alcohols filling it, would migrate into the dining room when he was ready, but for now, it was as good a place as any.

His phone vibrated from somewhere down the hall, indicating a message had come through. Kellan made himself a whiskey on the rocks before he went in search of it, taking a few sips each step.

He found the phone in his pants on the floor in the middle of the hallway. There was a text waiting for him from one of his younger brothers.

Lucas: We’re on the way. Pour us one too.

Kellan knew that the “we” meant Lucas and the brother born between the two of them, Peyton. Kellan headed back to the bar with his phone firmly gripped in his palm. He set it on the wooden surface and poured two more glasses. Kellan would have been drowning his sorrows at Dante’s townhouse instead of his own house, but his closest friend was currently out of town for a veterinary convention and wasn’t due back until tomorrow. His brothers would know he was at home and not at Dante’s.

In the kitchen he grabbed the dog bowl from the cupboard next to the stove and filled it with water. He set it beside the bench and went back to the bar, sliding onto one of the four stools lined up in front of it. He hadn’t bothered with any of the lights except the one directly under the bar. The glow was soothing, as was the way it made the whiskey look like liquid amber.

It reminded Kellan of Dante’s eyes, that warm, lazy-afternoon feeling of contentment and happiness. He picked up his phone and dialled the familiar number. He hoped Dante would pick up. It would be roughly eight in the morning in his location, and his conference sessions didn’t normally start until at least half past.

When Dante answered, his voice was tired but alert. “Hey, talk to me, big guy.”They both knew there were only a few reasons why Kellan would call him this late.

Rumbles of background conversations almost drowned him out, but Kellan knew he would be able to pick out Dante’s voice in any environment. He closed his eyes and pressed his glass against his forehead. Something about his best friend’s smooth, buttery voice calmed him in a way that nothing else could. If he was having a bad day, he could always count on Dante to find a way to make it better.

“Three dead,” Kellan said, his voice hitching. “Maybe more, we don’t know yet.”

“Fuck, I’m sorry, Kell. You at home now? Got your whiskey?”

“Yeah. And Aurora is with Sally and Joel,” Kellan said, talking about Dante’s seventeen-year-old adopted daughter/sister. His mother had fostered Aurora at six years of age but had passed just after Aurora’s ninth birthday. Kellan had been unbelievably proud of the way Dante had stepped up and done everything he could to keep her under his roof, and he’d been raising her ever since. Kellan did his best to make it easier for him, considering Dante’s high-paced career as a veterinarian.

“I never doubt that you’ll look after her,”Dante said. A door closed, and the background noise around Dante disappeared. “Luc and Peyton there?”

“Not yet. On their way.”

“Put on some music. Some of that disgusting jazz you love.”

Kellan snorted but didn’t have the energy to argue musical taste with him right then. He reached over and flicked on the small radio at the end of the bar. It was old school, but Kellan loved it. It was already tuned into the right station, so the soothing vibrations of a saxophone filled the air straightaway.

“What are you wearing?”Dante asked, the leer in his voice unmistakable.

Kellan couldn’t hold back the laugh that shot out of him. Fuck, he was so glad he’d called. Dante was like a breath of fresh air, always.

He stayed on the line with Kellan until the familiar sound of Lucas’s Ford Mustang GT Premium roared into the driveway. Kellan could pick out that sound a mile away. His ear for the engines of different cars was well honed from years of owning his own auto repair shop, but he had built that particular car from the ground up with Lucas. He knew it better than he knew the back of his own hand.

Lucas came through the door first. He was still wearing his firefighting tunic, bushfire jacket, and boots, though they were covered in all manner of fluids both organic and nonorganic. His short, dark brown hair was wet from sweat and who knew what, and his lanky six-foot frame was hunched in on itself.

He was followed by Peyton and Peyton’s black German shepherd, Xena. Peyton and Lucas had been mistaken for twins all through their childhood and sometimes even now. The only differences between them were that they had been born a year apart, Lucas had a once-broken nose that hadn’t healed properly when he’d been nineteen, Lucas had brown eyes where Peyton had green, and Peyton had bright pink streaks in his hair. Peyton always seemed taller because he held himself straighter than Lucas did, but they were the same height.

Peyton’s pink streaks almost blended in with the brown at that moment, and the hi-vis vest he wore over his long-sleeved, grey Henley shirt and beige cargo pants had lost its shine.

They were all filthy.

Xena gave Kellan’s leg a quick sniff before she trotted off.

Lucas and Peyton made a beeline for the alcohol. Lucas emptied his glass in one go while Peyton sat beside Kellan and sipped at his, his eyes sliding closed as he swallowed.

“I’m taking this to the shower,” Lucas muttered. He grabbed the bottle and took the entire thing with him.

Kellan heaved a sigh and went back behind the bar to grab another bottle. Peyton lifted his glass, and Kellan filled it along with his own.

Peyton fiddled with his glass, staring at the liquid within. “She didn’t make it,” he said quietly. “Died on the flight over.”

Kellan had expected it, but it still hit low in his gut. They had done their best, and there hadn’t been anything more they could have done. They raised their glasses and then quickly emptied them. “How are you holding up?” Kellan asked.

“The faces blend together.” Peyton placed his elbows on the bar and hunched his back. “Sometimes I can’t work out which ones are real and which ones are memories.”

Kellan coaxed Peyton into his arms and soothingly stroked his back as the tears came. He wished that he could do more, but the demons that Peyton held in his soul would live there forever. Most times it was easier, but the night had been a long one, and the tragedy had been severe. “I’ll carve out some time tomorrow, and we can have a session, all right?” he said in a low voice.

Peyton just nodded, continuing to cling.

There were a lot of reasons why Kellan had moved on from his career as a psychologist who specialised in PTSD and war veterans, the biggest being the toll it had taken on his own mental health. It was moments like this that he was grateful for the years he had spent trying to help veterans carry their scars. He was much happier and better adjusted as a mechanic, indulging his lifelong passion for cars, but he didn’t regret taking the longer path there. If there was one good thing that had come from the experience, it was his ability to be able to help Peyton through his darkest moments, and he would do it all over again just to give his brother a single moment of peace.

Peyton straightened when they heard the thud of footsteps coming towards them.

Lucas came through the doorway, wearing nothing but a pair of grey sweatpants hanging over slim hips. The alcohol level left in the bottle that he’d taken was considerably lower. “You used all the hot water, you fuck,” he said, slurring slightly.

Kellan could already feel the headache they were all going to have tomorrow.

“My turn,” Peyton said. The way he hid his pain from everyone but Kellan was far from healthy, but Kellan would never betray his trust and just hoped that eventually Peyton would allow others to help him.

Lucas sat in Peyton’s vacant seat, taking a swig from his bottle. “It never gets easier,” he said dully.

“Nope.” Kellan tapped his glass against the stem of Lucas’s bottle and lifted it to take a drink. He pulled it back, frowning. Who the fuck had drunk his drink? He grabbed the bottle on the bar and poured himself another one. Some of it sloshed and spilled onto the bar. He mentally shrugged; it could be cleaned up in the morning.

He swirled the liquid in his glass, wishing that Dante was there.

KELLAN WALKED THROUGH HISauto shop, his boots thudding on the concrete floor. He flicked on the overhead lights as he went.

“No,” he said emphatically into the phone receiver. As though that were going to deter Lucas in any way. Kellan wasn’t sure when his “older brother” voice had stopped working on Lucas, but he clearly needed to come up with a new tactic.

He opened his office door and kicked the doorstop under it to keep it from closing again. When he’d bought the building, the room had been a small storage area, and reception had been a small desk on the shop floor. He’d removed the reception desk and turned the room into a small office. He’d hired a contractor to knock out a hole in the wall between the shop floor and the room and installed a roller shutter to allow privacy if required.

Since Kellan’s administrative skills were less than abysmal, and the large desk that took up half the office was a fire hazard from all of the loose paperwork piled on top of it, the shutter doors were closed more than they were open. It was easier to convince potential clients that he was an excellent mechanic when evidence of his poor organisational skills wasn’t on display.

“If we fixed it up, we could sell it for double what I would pay for it,” Lucas said.

“Are you still drunk?” Considering how much they had put away last night, Kellan wouldn’t have been surprised. Luckily, Lucas got mandatory time off after a call like that, and Peyton was a dog trainer, so he made his own hours. Kellan was the only poor idiot who needed to be at work. He might own his own business, but since it was just him, he could hardly afford to take any time off. Not to mention, he’d needed to pick up Aurora from Joel and Sally’s and get her to school that morning. It was afternoon now, and school was out; she was currently ensconced in Kellan’s staff room with her headphones and her homework. It was pure dumb luck that one of the school buses passed right by his shop, and she had been able to get herself there without any trouble.

“I am not still drunk,”Lucas said, offended. “I’m not even hungover anymore.”

“Neither of us have time to be fixing up another car. You take too many double shifts at the station, and I eventually need to finish renovating my house.”

“You’re a mechanic,”Lucas said, as though Kellan was unaware of his own profession. “So no labour costs.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Kellan said firmly. “Even with calculating only the cost of parts at wholesale prices, we would still be forking out more than we’re going to make on it. The guy who’s trying to sell it to you saw you coming a mile away, Luc. I wouldn’t pay that for one in mint condition, let alone one as run down and rusted as the one you sent me pictures of.”

“It has character.”

“Do not buy the car, Lucas,” Kellan said, putting a growl into his voice.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. You coming over for poker tonight?”

“I’ll see what time I finish up.” He moved some of the papers on his desk, watching absently as a few of the loose sheets fluttered to the floor to join others. The desk was stacked so high with so many of them that he always lost a few when he disturbed the piles.

“All work and no play makes big brother a dull boy. I thought Dante was getting home today? I like him better than you.”

Kellan looked out through the opening in the wall as a white Mazda CX-3 came up the drive, stopping just short of coming onto the shop floor. Speak of the devil, and he shall come. “He is,” Kellan said. “I gotta go. Don’t buy the car.”

“I already said I won’t,”Lucas said, and Kellan could practically feel the eye roll. “Catch you later, loser.”

Kellan sighed as he hung up. Lucas was going to buy the stupid car, and it would sit in his garage at home for six years while they slowly did it up and lost their sanity in the process.

“Aurora!” Kellan yelled out as he headed through the office door to greet his friend. “Your brother is here!” Whether she’d heard him through her headphones was a mystery.

Despite looking scraggly and jet-lagged, the man who jumped out of the car was a sight for sore eyes. Dante had only been gone a week, but it had felt more like a month, and Kellan was glad he was home. It was rare for Kellan to have a day that he didn’t see or speak to Dante. They still spoke when Dante was out of town, but somehow knowing that he wasn’t sitting in his townhouse the next suburb over or at his clinic in the city made it feel less real.

Dante raised two fingers in greeting as he came inside, flicking his sunglasses to the top of his head. “Hey, good looking.”

The wrinkles in his clothes told Kellan that Dante had come straight from the airport. His tracksuit pants were well-worn, the black fabric thin and fraying in sections, and Kellan recognised the oversized hoodie he wore as his own. Years ago, Dante had been pushed into the pool at Kellan’s parents’ house—by Lucas—and their mother, Theresa, had given it to the vet to wear while his clothes were in the dryer. Dante had never given it back.

“Did you even sleep on the plane?” Kellan asked with a crooked smile. Dante’s amber eyes were as weary as his hair looked. The long black plait that hung to his waist, with the always-present green ribbon, was trying its best to get out of the hair tie.

Dante rolled the sleeves of the hoodie up to his elbows, exposing his forearms. “I got a whole twenty minutes I’ll have you know.”

“Twenty minutes out of a fifteen-hour flight is not exactly something to brag about.”

As soon as Dante got within reach, Kellan pulled him into his arms, cradling the back of Dante’s head with his large hand as Dante buried his face in Kellan’s shoulder. The scents of stale air and airport peanuts hit his nose, and he inhaled until he got to the lingering smell below, the one that was all Dante: a mixture of citrus and fresh summer.

“Missed you,” Kellan said into his hair.

“You too,” Dante mumbled into Kellan’s shirt.

Kellan remembered the first time he’d met Dante, almost ten years ago, when Peyton had started training dogs, and they’d needed to find a reliable vet. They had settled into a comfortable friendship almost instantly and had been inseparable ever since. Dante had been there when Kellan had gotten to his breaking point as a psychologist and made the drastic move of switching careers because he’d had no other choice if he didn’t want to drown in it. Kellan had been there for him in return when Dante and Dante’s ridiculous friend Joel had decided they were sick of working for other people and had pooled their funds to establish their own vet clinic. When Dante’s mother had passed and left Aurora in his care, all the Sinclairs had banded around him, but Kellan had been the one who Dante had turned to.

“Dante, I love you, man,” Kellan said, moving his lips to Dante’s ear. “But you desperately need a shower because you fucking stink.”

Dante laughed and shoved Kellan away. “Thanks, asshole. If this is how you sweet-talk all your ladies, no wonder you’re still single. Where’s the kidlet?”

“I am nota kidlet,” Aurora said stiffly, appearing as though summoned. “And I was doing homework, thank you very much.

“I don’t think we’re related,” Dante said with a sombre, pitying look. “I think you might be adopted.”

“You’re such a dork!”

Dante chuckled and pulled her into a one-armed hug. “Go pack up your stuff. If you’ve been good, I might let you drive.”

“Really?” Aurora beamed and took off, the door that led to the small hallway where the staff room and toilets were located slamming in her wake.

Kellan had always found it fascinating how alike the two of them looked despite the fact there was no blood connection. It wasn’t just the physical appearance, though they were both striking that way. It was in the way they held themselves, their expressive faces, and the way they tackled every problem head-on and with a smile. Dante’s unwavering positivity and confidence were both awe-inspiring and downright frightening.

“I could take her for another day,” Kellan said. “If you want to catch up on sleep.”

Dante waved him off. “I plan to pass out on the couch with a beer in my hand the second I get home. She’s old enough and ugly enough to amuse herself.”

Kellan laughed as he grabbed the sleeve of his stolen hoodie and tugged it, dragging Dante closer. He played with the fraying edge. “I dare you to say that to her face.”

“Are you challenging me?” Dante asked, settling his hand on Kellan’s hip.

Kellan knew better than to take that bait. “How was the trip?” he asked instead.

“Long. Next time they ask me to talk at one of those things, I give you permission to slap me and tell me it is a terrible idea.”

“I’d slap you for free, but sure.”

Aurora came rushing back, her backpack only half zipped in her haste. She stretched up on her tiptoes to give Kellan a kiss on his cheek with a quick, “Bye,” before making a beeline for Dante’s car. She opened the back door and threw her bag in before stopping short. “Eww, Dante, is that a condom?”

Dante looked at her in surprise. “What? No!”

“It looks like it,” she said. The judgement in her voice was enough to make a grown man cry. “You are not allowed to have sex in a car that we both use!” she said, putting her hands on her hips.

Kellan smirked at Dante and tugged on his plait. “I thought you left your car at the airport?”

“I did!” Dante spluttered. “It’s not a fucking condom. What are you even talking about, Aurora?”

“Did you sweet talk a flight attendant and get a quickie in before you came here? For shame, coming to me smelling of another man.”

Dante smacked Kellan in the gut and left his hand there. “Fuck off.”

Aurora put up the L-plate on the back window before slamming the door shut and hopping into the driver’s seat. “Hurry up, it’s time to go!”

“It’s time to go,” Dante said wryly, shrugging at Kellan with both his shoulders and his eyebrows. “The teenager has spoken.”

“Sounds like it. Call me when you get back to the land of the living. I’ll catch you up on what you missed and get your car booked in for that adjustment we were talking about before you left.”

“If you bring that pizza from around the corner from your place, I’ll even suck your dick.”

“How tempting,” Kellan said drolly. One of Dante’s sleeves was trying to sneak its way back down to his wrist, and Kellan rolled it back up for him. “I might bring the pizza, but I think I’ll cash it in for a favour instead.”

Dante winked and flicked his sunglasses back down. “Your loss. But if that favour is going to be something to do with manual labour on the rundown shack you call a house, I’m going to pass,” he said as he headed for his car.

“That’s not how favours work!” Kellan called out.

Dante laughed and waved as he hopped in.

Kellan watched with a smile on his face as the siblings bickered while Aurora reversed. He took one look at the desk in the office and closed the shutters, deciding to leave it for now. It had been like that for seven years; it could wait a few more hours.

lips to stop from laughing at the sad sight before him.

“Don’t laugh, you dick!”

Dante couldn’t hold it in any longer. He bent forward and rested his hands on his knees as he burst out laughing. “You-you-you look—” he wheezed, trying to finish the sentence but unable to due to restricted air.

Joel Weston, one of his closest friends and with him part owner of Paws and Claws Pet Clinic and Hospital, glared at him. It was not as effective as it could have been since he looked like a drowned rat, covered in water and soapy bubbles. Lucy, the beagle he had been attempting to wash, had her paws up on the rim of the metal tub, her tongue drooping out of her mouth as it lolled happily. Her tail was wagging violently, soap flying from it.

At least one of them was having the time of their life. Well, two of them if Dante counted himself. He couldn’t get better entertainment than this. He wished he had his phone on him, so he could record it for Joel’s wife, Sally, and Kellan. Unfortunately, the rule was that they kept their phones in their offices during work hours. It was a lot less hassle all around. Anyone who needed to get a hold of them in an emergency knew the clinic’s numbers.

“You’re supposed to put her in the harness,” Dante said, some lingering snickers sneaking out as he straightened.

“I did! She got out.”

Dante scratched her soapy ear. “Clever girl,” he cooed.

“Don’t praise her! Whose side are you on?”

Dante leaned forward, uncaring that Lucy was rubbing against him and getting his white shirt wet. That’s why they kept spare clothes there. If all he got on him today was water, he’d be happy. It was far more likely he’d finish the day with vomit, snot, faeces, and anything else gross that he could think of all over him. They had installed a staff bathroom with shower stalls, and Dante was grateful for it every day because it meant he didn’t have to drive home smelling disgusting and in filthy clothes.

His plait fell forward, and she latched on. He gently tugged it out of her mouth. “That’s not for playing with, little lady.” Well, not for herto play with anyway. It had interesting uses when he was in bed with a guy, though.

“You talk to all your men like that?” Joel asked snidely.

“Only the ones I like,” Dante said. “It’s why you’ve never heard it before.”

“Does Kellan mind sharing you?”

“Loves it,” Dante said, sarcasm dripping from his voice. It wasn’t like he hadn’t heard variations of the insinuation multiple times over the years that he and Kellan had been friends. It was difficult for people to comprehend that he and Kellan were just friends. Even if Kellan were gay or bisexual—which he wasn’t—neither of them had ever been tempted to go there. Kellan, for obvious reasons, but Dante because despite cherishing everything about Kellan, there was zero spark there sexually. It would be like sleeping with Joel. No, thanks.

He clipped Lucy back into her harness. “Stay, prezioso.”

“Stop sweet-talking her.” Joel leaned back with a groan, his knees cracking in a way that made even Dante wince. “Tell me again why we decided to expand?”

Dante flicked him on the ear. “Our client base was getting too big, and we needed to hire more staff. To be able to hire more staff, we needed the room to accommodate them. So, we—”

“It was a rhetorical question,” Joel grumbled, rubbing his ear. “I’m telling Sally you assaulted me.”

“Sally will side with me, she always does,” Dante said. Joel’s lovely wife, Sally, was a no-nonsense businesswoman, and if Dante had been interested in women, he would have fought Joel for her. Sally was far too practical for roses and diamonds, and Dante was sure that without his help, Joel would never have caught her in the first place with his fumbling attempts at romance. Joel had fallen in love with the blue-eyed woman as soon as they’d seen her across the campus courtyard in university. She had been effectively shutting down a misogynistic professor, and Dante swore he’d been able to see the exact moment that his friend had sold his soul to have her.

“At least leave me a pittance when you two elope together,” Joel muttered.

“We have a savings account for you.” Dante clapped Joel on the back. “Besides, you agreed that since we had the room, we should expand into grooming and cleaning as well,” he pointed out. They had made the decision to purchase the old estate and have it remodelled as a large veterinary hospital. It gave them more room to hire three more vets as well as allowing for a better setup for their boarding services. It had been a sound business decision, and Sally had looked it all over before they’d signed anything.

“I didn’t agree to do it myself,” Joel growled. He grabbed the detachable showerhead and turned it on, starting the rinsing process. “This is the third groomer that has up and quit on us. Are we terrible bosses? Is that the problem?”

“If that were the case, we’d have lost plenty of other staff over the years,” Dante argued. Their incredible staff retention was something that Dante had been asked to talk about a lot at the conventions he’d gone to, so that clearly wasn’t the problem.

They’d had a string of bad luck with the groomers, but Dante was confident they’d find someone who worked out. He vaguely recalled there’d been a few other good candidates in the last batch of interviews they’d done and made a mental note to call a few of them later that day. If they got desperate, Dante would ask Kellan and Peyton if they knew anyone who might be suitable.

“I’ll make some calls this afternoon, see what I can do, all right?”

“That all sounds great right now while you’re not the one with dog hair all over you!”

“You’re a vet, Joel. Dog hair is the least of your problems.”

“Get out before I throw something at you.”

Dante smiled indulgently in response as he headed out the door. “You’re doing great,” he called back. Imagining the glare he bet he was getting had him sniggering as he strode into his office.

He unbuttoned his shirt, shrugged it off his shoulders, and draped it over the back of his chair. The white tank top he wore underneath was soaked through as well from Lucy and her shenanigans, so he pulled it up and over his head. The silver cross he wore around his neck flopped back onto his chest.

He sifted through the few spare shirts he had in the cupboard and picked out a light blue one. His favourite part about his work outfit was that ties were optional. He had spent enough Sundays having to wear one at church during his childhood. He preferred not to have to strangle himself anymore; he’d paid his dues.

A flick of his wrist and a glance down at his watch told him he still had ten minutes before his next appointment. He sat at his desk to check over pathology results and to see if there was anything he needed to follow up on from his earlier appointments.

He sent Kellan a string of random emojis before he started sorting through his emails. A text came back a minute later.

Kellan:Drinking on the job is a big no-no.

Dante snapped a picture of his drink bottle and sent it to him without a word.

Kellan: Will it pass the sniff test?

Dante:I’ll bring it with me tonight; we can have a par-tay

Kellan:You need therapy

Dante:We can play doctor. Now go away, I’m trying to work

Kellan responded with the same string of emojis that Dante had sent him first. Dante bit back a laugh as he turned his focus to his emails.

of two things. The first was that whatever beer they served at this club tasted like piss water, and he needed to order something else next time. The second was that letting his new boss take him out to a club had been a terrible idea on his part. It had been a string of terrible ideas, honestly.

The start of the evening had been fine. Normal, even. Nice pub dinner with his new boss, talented defence barrister Sebastian Devlin and Sebastian’s boyfriend, Jayden Petriov. Rohan owed Sebastian everything, and Jay was one of the nicest people Rohan had ever met, so the evening conversation had been enjoyable. When he was in that kind of setting, it was easier to forget how lonely he was, to forget all the people he had lost and the cold empty house he had to go home to. His life was a depressing mess, so it was nice to have reasons, other than work, to forget it was all waiting for him.

What had come next was where the bad ideas had started to come into play. After three red wines, Sebastian had decided that dancing was on the menu.

Jay had looked sceptical, but Rohan doubted even he knew how to say no to Sebastian. They’d been together for less than a year, but from Rohan’s understanding, they’d known each other since they were kids. Rohan wondered what it would be like to be that connected to a person. He tried not to think about how close Jay had come to losing Sebastian not so long ago, all because of Rohan. Jay never looked at him like he blamed him, but it didn’t matter; Rohan blamed himself enough for the both of them.

Rohan glanced over to the area of the club he had been studiously avoiding for the last half hour. Sebastian and Jay were on the dance floor, grinding against each other and giving Rohan a visual he wanted to scrub from his brain with bleach. Not only was Sebastian his boss, but he was quickly becoming the only important person in Rohan’s life. There were some things you just shouldn’t share with friends. One of those was how close you could get to another person without taking off their clothes; another was what you looked like when mapping the inside of a person’s mouth with your tongue.

And sometimes it simply hurt to watch them together because Rohan was starting to wonder if they weren’t a figment of his imagination. Their relationship was all too perfect,and the majority of Rohan’s life had resembled a nightmare, not a fairy tale.

Rohan turned away and caught the eye of the nearby bartender. The smile they shared made Rohan’s libido contemplate showing up. Up until a few weeks ago, Rohan hadn’t thought it would ever return. When it had, at a dinner party he’d been invited to, he’d been horrified at the direction it had taken; Kellan Sinclair was so far off limits it wasn’t funny. But when the mechanic had introduced himself and shaken Rohan’s hand, Rohan had felt his knees wobble. Kellan’s warm brown eyes, crazy-wild light brown hair, and that lopsided smile had caused Rohan’s heart to race, and every nerve ending in his body had gone haywire. It hadn’t helped that for the rest of the night Kellan had kept staring at him, and Rohan just knew he’d been as red as a tomato.

The bartender was a much safer option, and one that might end with Rohan getting at least one night of satisfaction to forget the emptiness he felt inside.

“Those real?” the guy asked, indicating Rohan’s curls.

Rohan laughed and pushed his hair back from his forehead. If he had a dollar for every time someone asked him that, he’d never have to work again. His dirty blond curls were extreme. “Yeah, they’re real.” The only thing he did to them was wash them, and the only reason he even bothered with that was because when unwashed they tangled,and tangled curls were no joking matter.

“I like them.”

The interest in his eyes was unmistakable. Rohan wasn’t sold yet on whether or not he wanted to try anything, but his mind hadn’t said a definitive no,and that was a good step forward.

“I like your tattoos,” he said in return. The full-sleeve tattoos that the guy’s short-sleeve shirt showed off were epic, but everything about the guy was sexy, so he could have picked any feature, and it still would have been true.

“Thanks. You want another one?” the bartender asked, indicating Rohan’s empty beer.

“Can I have something that’s not watered down and will guarantee I won’t remember tonight?”

The bartender smirked. “Dealer’s choice?”

“Dealer’s choice,” he agreed.

Rohan turned, leaned his elbows on the bar, and scanned the room while he waited for his drink to be made. Sebastian and Jay were still trying to become one on the dance floor, and Rohan’s gaze flitted right over them. He was definitely going to take a different Uber home because he wasn’t getting in the back seat with any of that.

“Here you go. Guaranteed to put hair on your chest.”

“Thanks,” Rohan said. When he noticed the number scrawled on the napkin underneath the glass, he raised a single eyebrow at the bartender, who returned the look.

Okay, maybe Rohan could get on board with this. He wasn’t interested in anything serious, wasn’t sure he ever would be since letting people into his life only ended up with them regretting it or dead. But a hookup he could do. He couldn’t make the nightmares stop, but maybe losing himself in another person was a good way to forget, just for a little while.

He pulled out his phone and tapped the number in, sending off a quick text, so that the bartender—Nathaniel, according to the napkin—had his number too.

The sound of a message coming through was clear despite the loud bass music echoing in the club and the crowds around them.

Rohan gave the bartender a wicked smile as he sipped at his drink.