Authors: Kelly Wyre and HJ Raine
Tags: #Gay Romance
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
Hearts Under Fire
An imprint of Torquere Press Publishers
PO Box 2545
Round Rock, TX 78680
Copyright 2011 by Kelly Wyre and H.J. Raine
Cover illustration by Alessia Brio
Published with permission
All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law. For information address Torquere Press. Inc., PO Box 2545, Round Rock, TX 78680.
First Torquere Press Printing: July 2011
Printed in the USA
Hearts Under Fire
By H. J. Raine and Kelly Wyre
For L. and D. Because they never do it the easy way.
Maxwell you-can-just-call-me-Clark squinted down at the empty shelf behind the dark oak bar and sighed.
The towels were missing. Again.
“Heather!” Clark bellowed in a beleaguered baritone and waited for the other participant in this long-standing game to appear. The girl knew Clark was obsessive about the placement of the towels he used to wipe the bar, and he swore Heather moved them sometimes so she could tell him yet again of the joys of anti-anxiety medication.
“I’ve got ‘em, I’ve got ‘em!” came the reply, and Heather burst through the swinging door that led into Glow’s kitchen. Tonight was a modest night for Heather. She wore leather leggings and a mod-tuxedo top, and her midnight blue nails matched her short, spiky hair.
Clark eyed the ensemble and the new dye job as Heather approached with an armful of terrycloth towels. “Are we going for winter fairy or midnight mistress?” he asked mildly. Heather put the towels on their shelf.
“Gothic Smurfette, actually,” she retorted. “There. You have your damned towels, O Compulsive One.”
Clark grunted. “Why do I employ you again?”
Heather stood up and grinned at him. In her heels, she was nearly eye-level with Clark’s even six feet. Her lip rings glinted at Clark as her mouth moved. “Because secretly you adore me and hope to father my alien lovechild.”
Eyes rolling to consider, Clark hummed. “Me? Father a child upon my Gothic Smurfette? Not likely. Alien, however, I could be.”
“I’m thinking you’re from Pluto,” Heather said solemnly.
“I don’t even get a real planet for a home?” Clark shook his head and leaned on the bar, mouth twitching as he suppressed mirth. “You’re so cruel to me, O Mistress of the Deep Blue.”
Heather winked. “You say the sweetest things, Admiral.”
Now Clark smiled. “Still just Sergeant. And still most definitely retired.”
“Well, you’ll always be Admiral-Able to me.”
Clark finally laughed, and Heather grinned in triumph. “Do you plan these bad puns somehow? Or are you just naturally talented?” Clark asked as he watched Heather fill one of the sinks behind the bar with soap and water.
“I’m all sorts of talented. Jeffrey, however, is not. He forgot to do the order last night.”
Groaning, Clark squeezed by Heather to head toward the kitchen. “I have got to fire that kid.”
“You say that every week,” Heather reminded Clark sweetly.
“I mean it every week. It’s my damned bar. Why do I have to do all the work?”
Heather made some suitably sarcastic comment, but Clark was already in the kitchen. He nodded at the cook, Ken, who stood at the back door of Glow smoking like an inmate on death row.
“You see the new blue?” Ken asked.
“She makes it look good,” Clark replied.
Ken snorted and dragged on his cigarette.
Clark walked into his office to sit at his desk. The chair creaked as he pulled up the inventory system and put in the standard weekly order. It took ten minutes, and the system sent the request to various supply houses automatically.
God bless technology.
Clark had just pulled up e-mail when a lithe, panting figure appeared in the doorway. The boy had stylishly shaggy black hair, was dressed in a t-shirt and skinny jeans, and leaned dramatically against the metal frame, one hand fluttering at his neck.
“Oh God. I did it again.”
“Yep,” Clark replied.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Yep.” Clark said again.
“Am I fired?”
“For real fired or just, like, the ‘You’re kinda pissed but forgive me ‘cause I have a really good excuse, and I’ll share the details if you let me work’ fired?” Jeffrey bit his lip, and he braced his shoulder on the doorframe.
“Is this excuse tall?” Clark asked.
“Oh yeah,” Jeffrey replied, hips rolling forward.
“Mm-hmm. Blue eyes, barely legal, barely dressed -- hell, barely spoke English.”
Clark sighed and swiveled a level gaze to Jeffrey, who was, Clark knew, a good kid in need of a steady environment and steadier income to support himself and his mother. Jeffrey hesitantly smiled.
“You stay ‘til close every night you work this week, obey Heather without whining, and I expect a drawing of Mr. Tall, Dark, and Non-Multi-Lingual on my desk before close.”
“Done deal, boss,” Jeffrey said, fidgeting. The boy never stayed still, which was amazing, considering he could paint and draw like no one Clark’d ever seen, and that required quite a bit of focus, Clark knew.
“And thanks,” Jeffrey added softly.
“Everything okay?” Clark asked.
Jeffrey shrugged and crossed his arms, head down. “Mom’s out of the seventy-two-hour observation and back home. Taking her meds again like she should, and she tells me she’s not going to see Nate The Drunk-Ass Boyfriend Number 431 ever again, but we’ve all heard that before.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve, and Clark’s heart ached for the innocence in the gesture. “What can I say? Schizophrenic parents for the loss, man.”
Clark nodded, familiar with Jeffrey’s dance of denial, belittlement, and escape. “Do what you need to do. Don’t worry about the order.”
Jeffrey’s entire body relaxed with those words, and he was about to say something when Clark heard the swinging door into the bar hit the kitchen wall with a bang.
“Jeffrey!” Heather caterwauled. “Get out here and get the soda machines ready or
“Goddamn, woman,” Jeffrey called back. “Calm down and get the leather out of your blue-haired ass!”
!” Clark bellowed, several decibel levels louder than both of them and roughly six times more commanding.
Jeffrey scampered out front, Clark heard more playful banter between the two kids, and Ken remained stoically silent while removing fresh rolls from the kitchen ovens. The bar would open to the Wednesday evening crowd in fifteen minutes, and Clark knew he could rely on Heather to manage that. At the moment, Heather seemed to be making a career out of Glow, which was fantastic in that it eliminated a lot of the busy work for Clark, but worrying in that Clark thought she deserved better in life.
Stretching out long, denim-clad legs, Clark reached up and heard his back pop. He sighed, thinking that he was tired and cranky and had no right to be. The bar was doing great, the kids were coping with their lives, and Ken’s bread smelled amazing as usual. Clark had weekend plans over at a good friend’s house, and he had even remembered to pay his damned cell phone bill on time.
Nothing was wrong, but nothing was particularly
either. Clark rubbed at one arm beneath the short sleeve of his sky blue t-shirt.
Huh, need to get laid.
Clark thought that was an easy goal. At thirty-two, Clark remained in special-forces-standard condition. Actually, he was probably healthier overall now; he cared more about what he ate these days. His thick shock of gray hair stuck out in odd directions, but at least it looked like Clark did that on purpose now that he shelled out obscene amounts of money for some critical man to cut his hair. The same man looked appalled at the thought of dyeing it, telling Clark it was a nice, even color and made him look distinguished.
Which was another way of saying the hair made him look less boyish, but Clark didn’t really mind the boyish or the distinguished; neither seemed to slow down the parade through his bedroom.
A parade that came complete with a random contortionist or two, Clark mused to himself.
Top the appearance off with a set of scars and a pair of mismatched eyes -- one blue, one brown -- and he got more than a few intrigued looks from men and women alike. Clark didn’t really think getting laid tonight or any other night (or afternoon, or morning) would be a problem.
It was good to have constants in one’s life.
Grinning and feeling better now that the night seemed more of a hunt and less of a drudgery, Clark got up and made his way out front. Jeffrey was helping Ken in the kitchen, and Heather waited on customers. People were already sitting at the tall tables near the front entrance. Outside it was a clear, spring night, and Clark watched Heather nod to a group of college kids and lead them out to the patio. There was no live music or DJ tonight, but Jeffrey would come out in a moment and start up the sound system to provide bass-beat background noise.
As yet, no one was sitting in Clark’s realm of control, so he took a moment to be thankful that this was his place, these were his employees, and this was his crazy life turned somehow stable. Serving drinks and interacting with patrons always soothed Clark. He liked most people in the short term, and he definitely liked hearing them talk when they thought he wasn’t listening. Clark enjoyed telling dirty jokes, flirting, and dispensing wisdom as part and parcel to his life’s second career.
Whistling, Clark grabbed a towel from the designated shelf and began to idly wipe at the wooden surface. In a matter of moments, a couple approached the bar, holding hands.
“Linda, Frank,” Clark greeted them and stopped polishing. “What can I do you for?”
“The usual, Clark,” Linda said, “but make Frank’s a double. We’re leaving for our second honeymoon tomorrow!”
Clark laughed his rehearsed, happy laugh because such mirth was expected. “Coming right up,” he said with a wink and the practiced, casual toss of a glass. Clark glanced around the bar and set to work.
Two hours later, Clark shook his head when Frank raised bushy brows and tilted his empty toward the bartender. “Sorry, Frank, I’m cutting you off,” Clark said. “Planes and hangovers? Never fun.”
“He’s right, Frank. As usual,” Linda said, with a smile at Clark.
“Okay... fine... can we get some more of that bread and --” Frank stopped speaking when Clark put a tall glass of water in front of him.
“Coming right up,” Clark said with a nod to Heather, who waved to show she heard the order and disappeared into the kitchen. Clark sighed, stepped away, and paused as movement caught his eye. His considerable focus narrowed to the newcomer making himself at home at the end of the bar.
Dark hair, (curly, on the long side, terrific mental images of wrapping it around fingers), dusky skin tone, (some sort of mixed heritage going on there), tall, nicely dressed, with an armload of packages sporting the James insignia (gay, good taste, not hurting for cash), and a slight crease of brow that made Clark think the man was tired. Probably from shopping, from the looks of things.
Clark quickly walked over and offered his most soothing, in-charge-and-happy-you’re-here smile. “Hi there,” he said. “You look like a man who needs a beer.”
The brunet finished settling on the stool, looked up, and gave Clark the once-over. Clark left his towel on the bar and reached to shove his hands in his back pockets, letting his chest expand, the snug t-shirt stretching. He saw the newcomer lift an eyebrow and smile in return.
Oh yeah, Clark thought. This could go quite well, indeed.
“Do all bartenders read minds?” the brunet asked, and Clark liked the timbre of his voice. “Yes,” the man continued. “I am. I do want a beer. Guinness if it’s on nitrogen, anything local, fresh and as hoppy as you can find, if not. And a menu, too, please. Forgot to eat lunch, so I’m starving.”
Clark didn’t bat an eye, though something low in his gut reacted to the smooth voice enumerating such specific wants and needs.
And that smile might be lethal.
Clark nodded. “A natural inclination toward the psychic is required in all bartenders, but I’m also just that good.” He chuckled to show he was teasing. Mostly.
“You need a Happy Daze. Bad name, but it’s rich enough that you feel like you’re licking the inside of a barrel. In that good way.” Clark manifested a menu and slid it toward the man. “And I recommend the Philly cheesesteak. Unless you don’t like meat.” Clark smirked.
The man rolled his eyes. “I’ll go with the recommendations and see just how good you are.”