Once upon a time, a fabulous gay prince moved to the tiny castle town of Blissville to help care for the ailing king so that the older man could live in his castle for as long as his health permitted. The evil Duke and Duchess of Goodville were eager to shove the old king in a home for aging monarchs, but the dashing young prince joined forces with the king to thwart their attempt to take the crown.
“Dare, maybe you should stay home today. It looks pretty slick out there,” my grandpa, Ralph, said shakily. “I don’t want my best boy to get hurt.”
I briefly closed my eyes and wished I could spend the day with him. I thought of all the snowy days I stayed at his house when school was canceled due to severe snow or ice storms. We played card games or board games and drank hot chocolate. Grandpa made grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch because it was my favorite then we watched The Price is Right and soap operas or cartoons until my mom or dad came to pick me up. I’d give anything to turn the clock back to simpler times when Grandpa was vibrant and healthy, and I was oblivious to the fact that our time with the people we loved was limited.
Okay, you’ve figured out by now this isn’t really a fairy tale, but if it were, I would be the dashing gay prince and my grandpa would be the king. That meant that my parents were the evil, callous duke and duchess ready to throw my grandpa into Shady Acres, or whatever “the home” was called. I’d toured that place with Grandpa and saw the light leave his eyes. Knowing he wouldn’t live long inside those walls, I moved in to look after him. Of course, I made it seem like I needed his help and not the other way around.
Grandpa thought I was working two jobs to pay off my college debt, which was partially true, instead of using the money to pay for his companions and private nurses that stopped in several times a week to help him bathe and check over his vitals. Medicare and his supplemental policy only paid for so much, very little to be honest, and I picked up the leftover balances, including his life-saving medicine.
“I wish I could stay home with you, Grandpa, but Josh needs me today. It’s going to be busy at the salon with everyone using the gift certificates they received for Christmas. There’s no better way to kick off the year than with a new hairstyle, manicure, pedicure, or a massage.”
“If you say so.” I could hear the frown in his voice.
Grandpa slumped a little further in his recliner by the big picture window where he watched the activity on our street in comfort. I looked forward to spring and summer when he could sit in our rocking chairs on the front porch, but his recliner would do until then.
“Don’t pout,” I said teasingly. “Maren will be here in a little bit to hang out with you. Wendy or Jill will be stopping by for bath time.” I waggled my eyebrows at him suggestively, but he waved me off. It was better for him to be irritated with me than upset for his loss of dignity. “Jamal from Meals on Wheels is coming at noon to deliver lunch. You’ll have a lot of company until I get home this evening. I’m not working at O’Dell’s tonight.”
I’d grown to hate working at the furniture store as one of their in-house interior designers, but it was the only place I could use my degree. I just never felt like I fit in there and knew that I never would.
“I’d rather spend time with you.”
God, it was like a dagger to the heart. Why couldn’t I just win the lottery so that I didn’t have to work so many jobs? How much longer did I even have with him? He looked more frail every day. Hell, he even stopped pretending he could take care of himself. I wasn’t ready to let him go.
I left the kitchen and squatted down beside his recliner in the small living room. “I’d much rather spend the day with you too, Grandpa. Playing cards with you would be an awesome way to spend a snowy day.”
“But you’ve got obligations.” Did he mean himself? Was he more aware of what was going on than I realized?
“I do,” I agreed. “I wouldn’t change a single thing about my life.” Not regarding him, anyway. “I’m going to walk the few blocks to the salon rather than drive. I think it would be safer.”
“Bundle up, Dare. Don’t skip on the hat just because you don’t want to mess up your hair.”
The walk to Curl Up and Dye wasn’t too treacherous since a layer of snow had fallen to cover the slick, icy sidewalks. It was so cold that I only saw a few kids playing in the snow to celebrate their extra day of freedom. I figured inside the houses, parents wept for the loss of freedom they’d expected to have that day.
The sidewalk in front of the salon was the only clear one I encountered because Josh Roman-Wyatt knew damn well that people didn’t give up their hair appointments in his salon for anything less than the death of an immediate family member. He, or his husband, must’ve arrived at least an hour early to clean off the sidewalks and steps leading up to both entrances to Curl Up and Dye. It was possible they hired a company to handle snow removal, but I doubted it since Josh was such a control freak.
“Good morning,” I said to Josh when I came through the rear entrance that led into a small kitchenette. My boss had both hands wrapped around a coffee cup to warm them. His red cheeks and nose told me that he was the one shoveling snow and salting the pavements around the salon. The grand old home used to act as Josh’s private residence and his business. He and Gabe bought a new house and dedicated the second floor of this one to expanding the massage services.
“Who goes there?” Josh asked dramatically, squinting to see beneath all the layers of outdoor gear I wore. I had dressed in one of those puffy down coats that dwarfed my body, a fucking knit hat, and wrapped a scarf around my head so that only my eyes were visible.
“It is I, the court jester,” I replied, keeping with my fairy-tale-kingdom theme from earlier in the day. “At your service.” I dipped into a flamboyant bow.
“Oh, Dare!” Josh said excitedly. “I’m happy you’re here before everyone else. I’d like to talk—”
His words cut off when the back door opened again. I knew without looking who had arrived because every hair follicle on my body came to life and goose bumps pebbled my skin.
“Good morning, Wren,” Josh said cheerily. “Coffee?”
Wren grunted in response as he walked by both of us on his way to the coat closet.
Josh just shrugged and refocused his attention on me. “As I was saying, I’d like to talk to you about your future here at Curl Up and Dye.”
“Are you firing me? If so, please do it now before I peel myself out of these winter clothes.”
“Of course not,” Josh said, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hand. “I wanted to promote you to salon manager. You’re a real asset to the team and capable of doing more than receptionist duties. It would mean more hours and longer days, but maybe it would be enough for you to get away from O’Dell’s. I know that you’re not happy there, but I understand if you’d rather focus on pursuing design work so you can establish your own design company someday.”
“Oh wow!” I said, thrilled that Josh was happy with the work I did for him. “I’m truly flattered.”
“It would come with a pay raise, but I’m not sure it would be enough to replace your secondary income,” Josh told me. “Are you willing to consider it?”
“Secondary income?” Wren asked when he returned to the kitchen. Josh pulled Wren’s favorite mug off the rack next to the coffee pot. “Thanks.”
I could tell Josh was waiting for Wren to take his butch coffee to his station so that we could finish our conversation in private. Instead of leaving us alone, Wren turned around and leaned his hot ass against the counter and settled in like he was part of the conversation. The mysterious, broody man avoided conversation like the plague, so you can imagine my confusion right about then.
“Go take that stuff off,” Wren said after he sipped the hot, strong brew. “I can’t take you seriously when you’re dressed like the little brother in A Christmas Story. Andy or something.”
“Randy,” Josh and I said at once.
“Whoever,” Wren said dismissively.
“You’re such an ass,” I told him but stomped to the closet anyway.
When I returned to the kitchen, Wren was making my coffee for me. I should’ve been happy that he was doing something so thoughtful, but it only made me mad.
“What are you doing?” I asked bitterly. Why pretend he cares about my happiness now?
“Making you a cup of coffee,” Wren replied in a voice that questioned if I was too dumb to live. At least he hadn’t added, “What does it look like?” I would’ve launched myself onto his back and grabbed two fistfuls of his long, luxurious dark hair and…kissed him until he begged me to forgive him for being such an asshole.
My bitterness faded until all I felt was self-loathing that I continued to let the man affect me so strongly. I opened my mouth to respond, but no words came out. I snapped my lips closed again.
“That’s a first,” Wren said, grinning crookedly.
See, he didn’t mean to sound like a dickhead, and he was telling the truth. I was the kind of person who started talking the minute I hit the salon and didn’t stop until I left. But you know what? It was my happy place where people accepted and loved me for who I was. Yes, my grandpa loved me unconditionally, but seeing his continued failing health broke my heart. I needed my job at Curl Up and Dye to remember that life is more than gut-wrenching heartbreak. No one would know my deep sorrow by the way I acted at work. They saw a vivacious man who laughed, joked, and smiled like he didn’t have a care in the world. That’s exactly the way I wanted it.
“My brain is still half-frozen,” I said, choosing not to engage Wren in a battle of wits that morning.
“What’s this about a second job?” he asked like he had the right.
“I’m a go-go boy at Drinks and Twinks,” I stated calmly. Okay, all systems were a go for battle.
Josh turned and spat his coffee into the sink. When he looked at me, his eyes were bulging out of his head. He once gave me some pointers about earning Wren’s affection. He’d recognized some of Wren’s standoffish behavior since he used to act the same way with the man he later married. It was something like: be honest, be patient, and don’t play games. I had taken Josh’s advice, I had vowed to stop trying to make Wren jealous, and even confronted the man about it. People would have varying opinions on whether I was successful, but to me, it was an epic failure never to be repeated. I had nothing to lose by poking the hornet’s nest because I already knew I could survive the sting.
“Drinks and Twinks?” Oh dear God, the deep, scratchy timbre of his voice made my dick instantly hard. I’d heard that same voice the one and only time I’d been brave enough to try to tame the beast.
“It’s a new club,” I said nonchalantly. “It’s all the rage, and I enjoy working there. I get to dance in a cage wearing sexy, little, barely-there underwear.”
“Cages?” Wren asked. “Barely-there underwear?”
“Oh fuck,” Josh muttered, looking back and forth between us like he needed to intervene.
“Oh yeah,” I said, stretching the words out long and sexy. “The see-through ones are a real crowd pleaser, so I need to keep things—”
“I’m out of here,” Josh said holding up a hand to stop me long enough for him to escape. “You’re on your own now. I have two babies at home that need both their fathers. I can’t be caught up in this.” He gestured between Wren and me. “If you survive this little conversation, then we’ll chat more about your promotion.”
Neither of us acknowledged him. Wren was breathing hard like a bull, and I knew fucking well he was busy imagining what I looked like in skimpy underwear, or maybe nothing at all. My heart pounded hard in my chest as I waited to see what happened next. I should’ve stopped while I could, but I was too revved up to just go to my desk and power up my computer to start the day.
“Where were we?” Wren said once we were alone again.
“I was telling you about how I keep my boys smooth as a baby’s butt so that they look amazing in mesh undies,” I said.
“Cut the crap,” Wren snarled.
“You doubt that I keep my balls smooth?” Did he want to see? Fuck, I wanted to show him.
“That I don’t doubt at all. It’s the go-go dancer part. I just don’t see you shaking your ass in a giant, gilded birdcage.”
“Birdcage?” I scoffed. “Honey, these are industrial metal. Fierce and sexy.” I lowered my voice and leaned closer. “I don’t just shake my ass.”
Wren narrowed his eyes and crossed one leg in front of the other. That’s right, try and hide how you respond to the images. “What does that mean?”
It was cruel and unkind, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from goading him. It was like I wanted to see what happened once I pushed him past his breaking point. I came close once, and I wanted to do it again, but instead of stopping at the precipice, I wanted to shove us both right over the edge.
“I give private dances too,” I said, loving the way his eyes widened in shock. “Those out-of-town, closeted businessmen pay extremely well and—”
“Not another fucking word out of you unless it’s the truth,” Wren gritted out. “Quit trying to push me, Dare. It’s not going to work.”
“Your hard-on says differently.”
“My dick isn’t in charge,” he refuted. “Tell me the truth about why you work two jobs.” His voice sounded gruff, but his eyes showed concern.
I tried to find another witty comeback, but my snark eluded me. I’d carried this staggering weight on my shoulders for more than a year, and here was someone who seemed worried about me, when I was usually the one doing all the worrying. I cracked beneath Wren’s intense stare. One minute I’m trying to seduce him, the next I’m crying against his massive chest, pouring my heart out about my grandfather. Wren stiffened in shock at first. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands and patted my shoulder awkwardly. Wren must’ve suspended his determination to hold me at bay, even if temporarily, because his strong arms held me tight against his chest.
“Just breathe, Dare. It’s going to be okay.”
“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, Wren.”
“What do you mean?”
“He used to supplement his retirement and social security by renting out the apartment over the garage, but he couldn’t physically maintain the property. It needs a lot of repairs before I can rent it out again,” I explained. “Those repairs cost a lot of money that I don’t have. If I could afford to fix up the apartment, I could just work one job and spend more time with Grandpa. I have two jobs to try and save money for those repairs, but then I end up spending a big chunk of the extra money making sure Grandpa has a companion to keep an eye on him while I work the extra hours.”
“Your parents aren’t willing to help you?” Wren asked softly. “Not even sit with him in the evenings?”
“Their solution is for him to move into a nursing home. They don’t care that he’d be miserable and would lose his will to live. Grandpa means everything to me, Wren. I can’t do that to him.”
“I understand,” Wren said, wiping the tears from my face. For a big guy, he sure had a gentle touch. “Tell me what kind of repairs the apartment needs? Does it have heat, electricity, and running water?”
“It’s just cosmetic issues then. How much would you charge for rent?”
“I have no idea how much to charge for a studio apartment that never advanced beyond the seventies.”
“How’s five hundred a month sound? Would that help?”
“Do you know someone who’d be interested?” I asked hopefully.
“It just so happens that I know a guy who’s looking to rent a one-bedroom apartment closer to work. What about the garage? How big is it and does the tenant get to use it?”
I narrowed my eyes. Wren surely didn’t mean himself, did he? “It’s a three-car garage and is mostly empty except for my grandpa’s tools. He used to own a repair garage here in town but retired back in the nineties. He sold a lot of tools and equipment to the new owner and only kept the ones that had sentimental value. Grandpa even has a story to go with each one of them.”
“I bet,” Wren said, smiling gently. “Can I come by tonight and look at the apartment?”
“Wren, you don’t have to do this.”
“I know that I don’t have to, but I want to. I really would like to live closer, especially on mornings like this, and I don’t care if the wallpaper is outdated or the carpet needs replaced. I need a roof over my head, heat, water that also heats, and a place to stash my baby.”
“If this works out you’ll get to see her.”
“Can you just answer my question?” Wren asked. “Are you free to show me the apartment tonight?”
I felt lighter than I had in months, and I should’ve shown my appreciation by giving Wren a straight answer. Instead, I tipped my head to the side and said, “Well, I need to give a few lap dances first, then I—” My voice hit a high-pitched note and squeaked to a stop when Wren grabbed both my ass cheeks with his big, strong hands. “Yes!” I moaned, not so much in answer, but because his manhandling brought me tighter against his erection.
“Oh no,” Wren said, grabbing my hips and gently pushing me back so that our hard-ons were no longer pressed against each other. “Not here.”
“Not ever,” I finished for him dryly. I saw and felt how much Wren wanted me, but he was still fighting it. I’d blown a few of Josh’s rules already, but just maybe I could give patience a try. “You can come by after work if you want.”
“It’s a plan,” Wren said then walked away without another word.
I stood in the kitchenette for a few more minutes to get my composure together. As I walked by Josh’s station on my way to the front of the salon, I said, “I accept your generous offer.” It didn’t matter what he had in mind; I was truly grateful. For the first time in a long time, I had hope that things were finally looking up for Grandpa and me.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into Dare's world. As soon as the book is live, I will post the purchase links here, in my newsletter, and on my social media accounts!