When Angel walked into the bar the very first thing he saw was the bear of a man standing behind three feet of wood while he slung drinks. He had nearly a foot on Angel, shoulders that looked about a mile wide and a broad, furry chest visible through the vee of his tee shirt’s neck. Angel could easily envision snuggling into lovely that rug on a cold northern night. Hell, he could easily envision melting all over those big muscles on a steamy hot New Orleans night exactly like tonight.
The bartender glanced up. Still slinging drinks to customers on every side of the roughly triangular bar with a rapid fire accuracy which could only stem from what had to be many years in the business, he flashed a smile of surprising sweetness Angel’s way and growled out a generic welcome to the bar.
Entranced by both the gravelly voice and the sure, strong motions of the man’s broad palms and meaty, square tipped fingers, Angel failed to notice him moving closer. When the man spoke right next to Angel’s ear, therefore, it was quite a shock.
“Hey there gorgeous, what can I get for you?”
Angel jerked back, heart hammering. He glanced to his left and then to his right. Everyone around him had drinks already, so this man, this big cuddly bear who surely looked like every one of Angel’s teenaged wet dreams brought to living, breathing, oh mama-pulsating life was talking to him.
Angel had no idea where the friends he’d come out with had wandered off to, or he’d take off with a muttered apology. He wasn’t shy. Not exactly. In fits and startsyes, of course he knew he was wonderful…just. No one else ever seemed to get that. Especially men that looked like this.
“Sweetheart, do you want something to drink?”
A glint of mischief had entered the big bartender’s pale blue eyes. His glance roved across Angel’s body, skating over his collarbones like a physical touch, ghosting across his pecs to barely scrape his nipples.
Angel sucked in a breath.
“I w-want. Um.”
Angel cleared his throat.
“I’ll take a cosmopolitan. That sounds good.”
The sweet grin stretched a little wider across the burly man’s stubble covered face. He winked at Angel and didn’t say another word. Angel knew he was thinking a lot of things might sound good falling from Angel’s lips. His gaze had zeroed in on Angel’s lips, flitted up to his eyes and then—
Why had he let Sam talk him into wearing eyeliner? That girl got him into more trouble. Here he was, wandering around the French Quarter on his own, and probably doing it looking like a high priced rent-boy.
No wonder the hot bartender—
“Here’s your drink, baby.”
Angel’s eyes jerked up from where they’d been stuck on those thick fingers.
He could almost feel them trailing down his back.
And heaven above they felt good, but—
“Angel. My name is Angel.”
The bartender tipped his head to one side, his eyes sliding half-shut. A smirk tipped one corner of his mouth up.
“Pull up a stool then, Angel, baby. I’m Gem.”
Angel bit his lip.
Not a moniker he liked applied to him.
Just because he was a little short they all wanted to call him baby.
Angel realized he was talking with his hands again when Jim’s eyes dropped to the top of the bar. The bartender started shaking his head.
“No. Not J-i-m.”
He finger spelled slowly.
“It’s G-e-m. Now, don’t you go laughing at my momma. She said I was too precious for an ordinary name, and that I wasn’t common like gold, so she named me Gem.”
Gem’s deep voice resonated right into Angel’s chest, slipping in like shards of sunfire, melting in through his flesh and winding round his bones, branding him from the inside out. A shiver grabbed the base of his spine, shaking until it felt as if his vertebrae clacked against one another. Angel squeezed his eyes shut.
“Angel, baby, are you okay?”
One big finger tapped gently against the back of Angel’s right hand. His eyes eased open, and he fell into the cool blue depths of his future.
“Yeah, Gem, I’m okay. It’s just been awhile since anyone knew what I was saying with my hands. You caught me off guard there.”
A shout from across the bar tore Gem’s attention away. A sweet faced brunet with the most pinchable cheeks Angel had seen in some time was waving his glass at Gem. His big brown eyes were limpdly imploring as he mouthed the words “another round” while discreetly pointing to his companions nearly empty glass.
Angel smiled. His girl Sam had pushed those two together a few minutes ago, if he wasn’t mistaken. Yep. There was her curly blond mass of hair bobbing out of the back of the bar, a cheesy grin on her face as she made a hooking motion with her fingers. The grin faltered for a moment as she wobbled on her tall heels.
He’d told her not to wear those shoes. Sam caught him making a face and shook her finger at him as she rounded the corner of the bar.
“No making fun of my shoes mister!”
Angel rolled his eyes.
“Sam. Honey. Why would anyone mock you for wearing four inch heels out for a night of drinking in the French Quarter—with their famously uneven streets and sidewalks?”
Angel asked the question in his very best deadpan voice. He could not, however, prevent the corners of his eyes from crinkling up. Sam sniffed.
“Fine. Be that way. I was going to invite you upstairs to lick the yummy strippers with me, but if you’re going to make fun of my beautiful red pumps…”
They both paused to glance down at what they affectionately referred to as Sam’s “fuck-me” pumps. Fire engine red with ridiculously high stiletto heels, they were truly works of art.
“If you’re gonna be like that—I’ll lick them all on my own!”
Sam winked at him, and pretended to flounce off in a huff. Angel saw Gem approaching just as she made her faux wickedly mad exit, so he knew what she was up to.
She really was trouble on two legs. And had undoubtedly caught him drooling over Gem. Wait a minute. Sam had come here last night. She. Oh, she really was a hussy, and she was in a very deep pot of boiling water. She’d seen Gem and picked him out for Angel.
Angel ground his teeth together.
If that didn’t make him feel pathetic, he didn’t know what would.
He was perfectly capable of finding a man on his own.
Sam stepped onto the first stair leading up to the level where the strippers were performing. She winked at him over her shoulder, gave a little finger wave and scampered upwards on her tip-toes, disappearing in a matter of seconds.
She was a dead woman.
“Angel, baby, what’s put that frown on your pretty face?”
A wave of pure longing swept through Angel at the sound of Gem’s gravel filled growl. Heat pooled low in his groin, and his cock firmed enough to begin pressing against the zipper of his stylish black jeans. Gem turned the heat up farther by reaching out to run a finger along the bike chain necklace around Angel’s neck.
All moisture left Angel’s mouth between one beat of his heart and the next. He raised his martini glass quickly, and slammed back the remainder of his sweet pink drink. Gem raised one eyebrow in an eloquent silent query.
“Ah. My friend is being…difficult.”
Gem’s face pinched up.
“You’re here with someone?”
Angel sighed. This was the other thing that always happened. They always thought he was bi-sexual, and trying to cheat on Sam. Or that Sam was a guy. Well, not when she dressed up, but in normal clothes? With her slim hips and square chin she looked like a really beautiful boy.
“Yeah, I’m here with my best friend Sam. She just went upstairs to lick strippers.”
Angel’s voice couldn’t be any flatter. Sam would be lucky if he ever went out with her again.
Well, okay, that was a lie.
But he might make her suffer for at least two weeks by herself.
Once they got back home to New York.
There had to be some kind of rule about how long you could ignore a bff when they wouldn’t stop screwing with your love life.
Gem shook his head.
“I—I’m not sure I even want to know what just went through your head, but based on that expression it was a doozy of a thought. Do you need another drink?”
A wry smile slid across Angel’s face.
“Yeah, that would be great.”
Gem grinned, a dimple popping up in his left cheek.
Angel’s heart skipped, stuttered and then slammed back into motion. Gem raised his eyebrows high, laughter dancing in the blue depths of his eyes. Angel’s cheeks heated.
“You know exactly what I was just thinking, don’t you?”
Gem’s smile went mega-watt bright for a second, then eased back down into the gentle sweetness that had drawn Angel at first.
“I think I have a pretty good idea.”
Angel’s stomach drew into a tight ball at his center. Damn his expressive face. He felt like a clown among the hearing, and yet somehow always too wooden and closed off at home and with his friends from home. Except Sam.
“Yeah, I bet you do.”
Gem laid his big hand over Angel’s dancing fingers.
“It all looked very good to me.”
Angel glanced up to find Gem leaning in toward him. His stubbled cheek brushed against Angel’s smooth jaw.
“You’re something else Angel, baby. I just met you and I can already tell.”
This close Angel could smell every nuance of Gem’s scent, something sweet, vanilla, and a spicy musk. He clenched his teeth to keep from standing on the rungs of his barstool and biting the big bartenders shoulder. Gem’s voice continued to rumble in his ear.
“God. You make me wish I wasn’t married.”
A beat of time passed where everything seemed frozen, then time crashed around Angel like a tidal wave.
Angel’s gaze narrowed in on Gem’s mouth.
Not only had the sound seemed to go away, but the shapes the big bartender’s mouth was making didn’t seem to make any sense either. Angel half fell off his bar stool. He scrambled for a plausible excuse to leave right then. Then he remembered. He’d just met this man. He didn’t owe him a damn thing except to pay his tab and leave a decent tip.
“Thanks for the Cosmo. It was great. Can I settle the tab up?”
He was so stupid.
He didn’t know this man.
There was no reason to feel as though his chest had a huge hole in it, no reason to feel like he was bleeding all over the fucking floor. Sure the guy was hot. So were at least twenty other guys Angel had seen tonight.
Gem gave him a puzzled look along with his credit card slip.
And then he hauled his ass up the stairs to Sam as fast as his legs would carry him.
For fuck’s sake, did he have slice on the side tattooed on his forehead?
At the top of the stairs Angel paused to gather his overwrought emotions into a tidy bundle before he crushed them into a tiny box at the back of his mind. If he raced over to Sam all flustered she’d go into protective mode and fly back down the stairs to rip Gem a new asshole.
From the way their encounter had ended, Angel would guess that Gem already had plenty of asshole to go around.