Brayden Clare never wanted to return to small town life. Blond, athletic, and struggling with his sexual identity, a casual relationship on the beach in Florida suits him much better. When a family emergency calls him home, he is forced to trade his personal freedom for a job as a bartender in a town where everybody thinks they know who he is, and nobody has a clue—including Brayden. Jenner Parrish is the owner and operator of Parrish Pub, the social hub of Robertsville, Pennsylvania. Jenner is charming, dominant, and popular since they were both in high school together. Brayden finds his new boss intimidating, and is daunted to find that turns him on. Jenner finds his new recruit intriguing but mustn’t dare to ask an employee to submit to him. The two men find what they’re seeking at a masked BDSM ball in the next town over, and are startled to discover their desires rest much, much closer to home. (M/M)
Gripping the bar’s edge, leaning forward against it, a switch gets flipped in Jenner. He goes into predatory mode as his target, his prey, comes steadily closer, their eyes locked. Everything in Jenner screams at him to take, to plunder, to fuck, and it does so with such force that he gets lightheaded with the strength of the need.
But as Brayden approaches, something strange happens to his expression. Briefly, upon seeing Jenner, heartache so profound and poignant crosses Brayden’s face, it makes Jenner feel like he must have just murdered Brayden’s dog or something. He can’t remember the last time he saw someone so distraught. It also makes Brayden look more like the boy he was in high school—forever grieving, tucked away in corners, trying to disappear.
Does he remember me? Did I do something to hurt him back then? Jenner frantically scans years of foggy memories, but can think of nothing specific linking him to Brayden.
With a sense of vertigo, Jenner witnesses Brayden replace the heartache with hope. The boy becomes the man. Sadness lingers behind green eyes, but it’s infused with wisdom and resolve.
It takes Jenner’s breath away.
“Hey, I know you,” Brayden says with a grin that changes his face even more, softening the rougher edges. Captivated by the beauty of that brave smile, Jenner is more drawn in by the stubborn remnant of pain. “Varsity football, right? You were quarterback, I think.”
Of all of the things to say in greeting, that it’s high school Brayden mentions first makes Jenner smile. It’s part reflex, part relief that he’s not the only one still thinking on those terms. “Oh wow. Yeah, I guess I was. That was decades ago. Or it seems like it anyway.”
Jenner can’t stop staring at the rich caramel hue of Brayden’s skin against the crisp, stark white of his button-down shirt, tucked neatly into dark jeans, adorned with a black leather belt. He tries to draw his gaze away from the exposed areas of skin at his guest’s neck and along his bared forearms where the shirt has been rolled up to the elbow. Jenner’s mouth waters at the idea of sealing his lips around the warm flesh, feeling the pulse beating under the skin.
Clearing his throat, Brayden raises and traps Jenner’s gaze. The sweetness of his green eyes draws Jenner in and holds him. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”
“Parrish,” Jenner blurts, offering a hand from over the bar. “Jenner Parrish. And you’re?”
Cry Baby Braydy.
The secretly-treasured mental image of Brayden in the locker room at the Y—and his bare ass—fills Jenner’s mind, uncalled for, sending a bolt of heat directly to Jenner’s cock. He forces it away. Hard.
“Brayden Clare. I was a year or two behind you in school. You probably have no idea who I am,” Brayden says, giving Jenner’s hand a firm shake.
Oh, you’d be surprised, Jenner’s inner voice provides. He tells himself, Keep playing dumb. Don’t lump yourself in with the assholes you’ve always hung out with. The best way to ruin your chances is to become the bad guy.
But it’s probably useless, you know. He remembers you. He knows you were on the football team. Those were the guys who gave him that nickname. Those were the guys doing most of the laughing.
You’re already the bad guy.
He resists, with effort, the urge to stroke the soft skin of the back of Brayden’s hand with his thumb before releasing him.