A GROMMET OUT OF WATER
What the heck am I doing here?
After two days and nights spent working in a florescent-lit motel room, already exhausted from the red-eye flight that had come only hours before that work had begun, Griffin Parks let his brand-new, part-time writing partner drag him through a beachfront bungalow to the back of the home.
“They’re not going to care that I brought a friend,” Charlie assured Griffin. “They’re not just my roommates. They’re my friends.”
Sputtering, already feeling on display even though he had yet to see anyone, Griffin protested, “But you didn’t even call them to say I would be with you.”
Charlie chuckled and gave Griffin the side eye. “It’s a barbecue, Griffin. And I live here. I don’t have to ask permission to have people over. Don’t sweat it. They’ll be cool. I swear.”
Then, Charlie pushed some gauzy curtains aside, stepped through an open sliding glass door, and Griffin’s protest that he didn’t want to intrude on a family-type gathering didn’t matter.
Night having settled over the Oceanside community, lit paper lanterns surrounded the large square back patio of this home, casting a warm yellow glow on the scene. A long table with a dozen chairs took up one side of the space, and the other had cushioned outdoor seating and a couch for lounging. Farther down, by a white-picket fence, a grill smoked. Two people stood in front of it, a lovely tall woman with long blonde hair and an even taller, intimidating-looking dark-haired man. California natural beauties, both of them. Pair that with Charlie’s inviting manner, and the way his thick black hair always fell to stylishly mussed, no matter how often he tunneled his fingers through it, in addition to his quirky handsomeness, and Griffin knew his Midwestern stock, his auburn hair that leaned just a little too much to red, and the Milky Way Galaxy of freckles marring his face and body didn’t measure up at all.
Jeez, Louise. In a lineup with these people, Griffin, and his ratty sneakers and faded jeans and garage sale Jurassic Park T-shirt, would stand out like a sore thumb. This place is not for me.
The blonde suddenly looked up, and her face lit with a huge smile. “Hey, Charlie! You’re back.” Stunning in a flowing, flowery strapless dress, she rushed to Charlie and gave him a fast hug. “How did work go?”
“Really good.” Giving the woman a quick hug in return, Charlie said, “This is Griffin.” He then turned and shouted, “Hayden!” to the man at the grill. “Come meet Griffin. He’s the graphic novelist I’ve been working with long-distance.” Once the guy joined them, Charlie put his arms around the man and the woman and his pure blue stare danced with sapphire sparks. “Griffin, these are two of my roommates, Melanie and Hayden.”
Hayden grabbed Griffin’s hand and shook it hard. “Good to meet you. I hate to be rude,” he pointed back toward the smoking grill, “but I have to get back to the meat.”
Not the best in social situations, Griffin murmured, “No problem,” to a retreating Hayden.
Pushing her wavy hair behind her ear, revealing a blue tinted streak within the locks, Melanie linked her arm in Charlie’s but kept her focus on Griffin. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Griffin. Charlie’s been driving us all crazy with this story idea.” She bumped her shoulder with Charlie’s, clearly comfortable with him. “He texted me earlier that getting together in person with you has been incredible for focusing your concept. Do you feel the same?”
“Definitely,” Griffin answered, in his wheelhouse now, once again comfortable in his skin. “I’m excited. I’ve never collaborated on a story before, and I’ve never written or sketched anything that featured aliens, so working with Charlie has been a new but invaluable experience. His knowledge with alien lore that’s already out there, and what does and doesn’t make sense in that realm, has me pretty pumped about what we can produce together.”
“I’m happy as all get out for him,” Melanie replied. “After all, we’ve known each other since we were little kids. But I’m a little bit jealous that you got a whole weekend with him.” A teasing note lilted her voice, but Griffin noticed when she looked up at Charlie a shadow crossed her amber gaze too. “Charlie’s becoming so popular with his websites and podcast and consulting that I’m starting to worry we’re never going to get him for ourselves anymore.”
Charlie frowned and rubbed the small of Melanie’s back. “I would never walk away from you, Mel.” His gaze slid back to Hayden, and his voice dropped to a murmur. “From any of you.” Hayden looked up from his grill, glanced between Melanie and Charlie, and Charlie ripped his focus back to Griffin. “Where’s—”
Right then—Oh my God—Griffin looked up and his throat closed tight and his stomach flipped in a somersault and then fell into his feet. If Charlie said anything further, Griffin didn’t process it. Coming from the shadows of the beach, crossing a bike path that bisected the sand from the bungalow, walked the most magnificent man Griffin had ever seen. Zipped into a black wet suit, the guy had to be at least six-foot-one inch tall, maybe more. Water glistened on his tan skin and sparkled like diamonds in the moonlight in his dark hair, and the strong, angular cuts of his jaw and cheekbones make him so very masculine yet utterly beautiful at the same time. The wet suit might as well have been skin; it showed every thickly sculpted muscle to maximum effect, not too bulky, but not streamlined by any means either. The guy held a surfboard against the side of his body as if it were an extension of his hand.
Just with looking at this man, Griffin felt his heart race and he had trouble breathing. Griffin hadn’t questioned his sexuality since he was sixteen; he hadn’t done much about his interests, but he knew he was gay. If he’d been the slightest bit unsure, though, this moment would have confirmed his very real interests for him. Griffin did not even know this person, but he wanted him. On a visceral, organic level, Griffin wanted to open himself for this man. He wanted to mate; he wanted to taste and learn and touch. And I want him to do the same to me too.
Right where Griffin stood, his cock warmed with a fast rush of blood, and his ass channel awakened and fluttered with need for a specific man for the very first time. Then Griffin caught his own reflection in a window; the image of a too-ordinary face and too-ordinary body bounced back to him, plus all the hated freckles. The sight instantly withered every ounce of secret hope within Griffin and shrank it back into the shadows, retreating into his core.
“Drew!” With that shout from Charlie, the surf god acknowledged Charlie with a wave, leaned his board against the side of the house, and trotted to Charlie’s side. The moment he reached them, Charlie said, “What the hell, man?” He glared up at the taller man. “You’re surfing at night again?”
The guy rolled his eyes. “I’m fine. There’s enough light from the bungalows and streetlamps to reflect off the waves to see what I’m doing.” Wet hair dripping water down his face, the man swung his focus from Charlie to Griffin. “Hi.” He slid his gaze back to Charlie for a moment, raised a brow, but then returned to Griffin and stuck out his hand. “I’m Drew.”
As Griffin clasped Drew’s big, warm hand, he prayed with everything in him that Drew’s wet state would conceal his sweating palms.
Just as Griffin started adding to his prayer that Drew not notice the shiver racing through him or the awkward silence, Charlie muttered, “Sorry. Drew, this is Griffin. He’s the graphic novelist I’ve mentioned before. Griffin, meet Drew, my final roommate.”
Drew whirled dramatically on Charlie. “And how about adding good friend too, jackass?” His tone scolded, but he slung his arm around Charlie’s shoulders and looked to Griffin with mirth twinkling in his silver eyes. “He’s getting so popular with these sci-fi and fantasy fan websites that he’s already forgetting the little people he grew up with and who know all his secrets.”
Laughing, Charlie tried to slap his hand over Drew’s mouth while Drew bobbed and weaved out of his reach. “Don’t listen to him,” Charlie told Griffin. “I’m not interested in being famous, but even if I was, living on the coastline in California the way we do, this guy will always be more famous than me.”
All the light humor slid from Drew’s features. “And now I’m going inside to change.” He bowed slightly, but didn’t make eye contact this time. “Nice to meet you, Griffin.” He did an about-face, throwing over his shoulder, “I’ll be back in a few.”
Watching Drew walk away, Griffin couldn’t suppress the sudden pang in his chest. He wanted to go grab the bigger man straight into his arms. “Famous?” The word, the question, the need to know more, slipped out of Griffin before he could stifle it.
“I’m sort of messing with him,” Charlie explained. “But Drew was a pretty big deal, up-and-coming surfer for a few years a little bit ago. He did a lot of traveling for competitions and was growing in the ranks. Then he got hurt, and it took a long time to recover, and his perspective changed. He’s—”
Melanie slipped back in next to them right then and tucked her hand in Charlie’s elbow. “Hey.” She gave him a not so subtle tug. “You want to help me get some stuff from inside?”
“Sure thing.” As Melanie pulled Charlie inside, he laughed and shouted, “Be right back.”
Standing alone suddenly, Griffin crossed his arms against his chest and then immediately switched to pushing his hands into the pockets of his jeans, not sure what to do. He could amble over to Hayden, but the giant of a man had his attention fully on the grill. Griffin had trouble making small talk under the best of circumstances, let alone a situation where he didn’t know a single thing about the person with whom he was supposed to converse.
Slowly, Griffin turned in a circle, feeling eyes on him even though only Hayden remained outside. When he found a water feature tucked in the corner of the lanai, he breathed a sigh of relief. Rushing over to the heavily planted, rocky display, Griffin then dipped down to search for small fish or frogs or turtles in the homemade pond.
A few minutes later a shadow crossed the concrete and wall. “Feeling abandoned?” The smooth, male voice cut across the cool evening air and sliced straight into Griffin’s chest.
Griffin jerked upright and looked into the beauty of Drew’s warm stare. “I don’t…” His mouth too dry too fast, Griffin got his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. “It’s not…” Crap. Damn it. Say something. He licked his teeth to get some moisture back, but his brain and tongue still tripped him up, and he blurted, “I think maybe I should head back to the motel.”
“Don’t do that.” Drew dipped his head, as if they were conspirators, and softly said, “I saw you avoiding Hayden a minute ago. Don’t worry about him. He’s big, and he has that booming voice, but he’s not as intimidating as he seems. Besides, what are you going to have for dinner at a motel? Some stale peanut butter crackers? Stay for a steak.” Drew’s forehead suddenly pulled tight. “Unless you’re a vegetarian?”
Griffin, mesmerized, shook his head comically fast. “No; definitely not.”
“Then it’s settled.” His tone declaring the topic over, Drew clasped Griffin’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “You’re staying.”
Then, before Griffin could protest, Drew strode over to a cooler, grabbed two beers, and handed one to Griffin. After Griffin murmured his thanks, Drew asked, “Where are you from, Griff?” Suddenly, Drew pulled the can of beer from his lips, stricken. “Sorry. Is it okay to call you that?”
“Yes.” His heart fluttering so stupidly, Griffin stood up straight, unable to wipe a sudden grin off his face. “Please.”
“So if you’re staying in a motel that means you don’t live here. But I don’t think I’ve heard Charlie say where you’re from.”
“A small town in northern Indiana.” Basking in Drew’s interest—Griffin didn’t care how casual it was—Griffin found himself relaxing within the welcoming glow. “But Charlie’s been talking up Oceanside, and he even arranged a meeting with a friend of his looking for a roommate.” A thought that had bubbled within Griffin for a few weeks—ever since Charlie had offered to arrange that meeting—rose to the surface again, and this time Griffin couldn’t push it back down. “If I can swing it financially, I think I might make the jump to the West Coast a permanent one.” Officially letting the wish out into the world, Griffin swore fifty pounds flew off his shoulders, and he even bounced a little bit where he stood. “I’m pretty sure I want to move.”
As soon as Griffin’s confession left his lips, Drew smiled as big as anything Griffin had ever seen, and it turned his stunning good looks into something so very inviting and approachable. “Then you should. I grew up here, so I’m biased, but I think you’d love it. And you already have a friend in Charlie. And now you know the rest of us too, so it wouldn’t necessarily be such a blind, scary-type move.” Drew clinked his beer can to Griffin’s and added, “Plus, if you move, I can teach you to surf, if you want me to.”
“Oh.” Griffin’s smile fell. Too many memories of his klutziness and too much knowledge of how inadequate he would look next to Drew sucked all of Griffin’s insecurities back to the surface. “I don’t know.”
Before Drew could reply, Hayden bellowed, “Food is done!” from across the patio, a large, full platter in his hands. “Let’s eat.”
Drew glanced at Hayden, but quickly gave his full, sober attention back to Griffin. “Think about it. You might have fun.” He backed up to the table, but didn’t look away from Griffin. “It’s an open invitation.” A lopsided smile revealed itself then, something utterly endearing. That half grin wound its way into Griffin more completely than even that first glance of him coming out of the water had. “You can get back to me whenever you want.”
Charlie and Melanie returned with trays full of side dishes, saving Griffin from having to find his voice again.
Voices in Griffin’s head implored him to sit as far away from Drew as possible and try to disappear into the woodwork for the rest of the night, but Griffin ignored them, the pull to be near Drew too great to deny. With a few quick steps Griffin reached the table and sat down right next to the too-sexy surfer.
With the warmth and that smile Drew had shown—something the guy probably did so naturally it wasn’t even a big deal—Griffin realized a very basic truth: he was more than sexually attracted to Drew. By the end of one conversation, Griffin had all the makings of developing one hell of a crush on the man. He liked this guy; he liked him a lot. Drew, a straight man, while Griffin himself was still hiding his truth. All of those things together were so much more dangerous than simple lust.
Shoot. This isn’t good.
Still, against all logic, Griffin remained seated next to Drew, lulled by the easy conversation between the four roommates and best friends, and dug into his meal.
* * * *
Early the next morning, Drew Lynch shuffled into the kitchen, yawned, scratched his chest, and smiled at the sight of Griffin Parks in the den beyond the kitchen slumped, fast asleep, half on and half off the couch. Over the past month or so Charlie had mentioned this graphic novelist he’d met online and was thinking about working with, but Charlie met a lot of people via the Internet so Drew hadn’t thought much about this Griffin in particular coming to visit. Last night, though, right away, Drew had read the deer-in-the-headlights nerves and fear in Griffin’s eyes, and Drew’s instinct to put the kid at ease had guided his initial attempt to start a conversation with Griffin. But holy mother, not after that.
Once Drew had directed Griffin toward his graphic novels and asked a few questions, Griffin had opened up like a pristine wave on a gorgeous summer morning and had sucked Drew into his excitement for his work. Through Griffin talking about his passion for creating stories and using his artistic skills to bring characters to life through words and drawings, the younger guy had visibly settled into his evening spent in someone else’s home, got comfortable, and began sharing and offering thoughts and opinions on topics beyond his craft and speaking with incredible insight for such a young guy.
At only twenty-one years old Griffin had already published seven graphic novels, with the one he intended to create with Charlie being number eight. Melanie had teased Griffin about being even more of a rock star than Charlie. Griffin had adamantly protested her claims, blushing redder than his hair the whole time, and that was when Drew looked a little closer and noticed how cute Griffin was.
Drew looked at the guy again now, took in the absurdly long auburn lashes brushing against Griffin’s cheeks, the strong bridge of his nose, and his surprisingly full mouth, and Drew’s belly pooled with heat in a way that warmed him all the way up into his chest.
Maybe I’ll see if he wants to eat breakfast with me.
Right then Drew stepped wrong on the cold kitchen tile, his knee and calf shrieked a quick line of fiery pain up his thigh, his leg buckled, and he muttered a litany of foul words.
Instantly Griffin bounced up into a seated position on the couch and swung his focus to where Drew gripped the back of a barstool. “What?” He frowned as he wiped sleep from his eyes. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Drew snapped and then pursed his lips and cursed at himself under his breath. “Sorry.” He raised his hand in Griffin’s direction, as if signaling an apology for cutting him off in traffic. “It’s not you. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I step wrong and the nerve endings in my heel and leg get wonky.” Jogging in place for a moment, Drew raised a brow at Griffin. “See? It feels perfectly normal now.”
Still frowning, Griffin got up, moved closer to Drew, and looked down at the scars marring Drew’s knee and calf. “Charlie said you got hurt a while back, and that the accident ended your surfing career.”
With a twist of irritation coiling through his middle, Drew corrected with a snap in his tone, “No, I did something stupid and brought about the end of my competitive surfing career.”
Instead of beating a hasty retreat, Griffin pulled out two chairs at the table, nodded at one to Drew, and took the other for himself. The gesture knocked at Drew’s heart, and before even thinking he took the second seat.
Once Drew sat down, Griffin asked, “The difference being what?”
Drew cleared his throat and picked at the frayed hem of his cutoff sweats. He’d faced his choices and actions from years ago, but speaking them aloud, to this wholly together guy who was five years his junior, broke Drew out in a sweat. Taking a breath, he spilled fast. “The difference being I was drunk, feeling out my ego, and I let myself get egged on into proving how good I was at surfing at night by some other drunks in a bar. It happened north of here, where the beach and water wasn’t lit at all, and my reaction time was already compromised by alcohol. I acted like a bulletproof idiot, crashed, and paid for it. I didn’t hurt myself in honorable competition or in some glorious attempt to better my ranking by challenging a bigger wave; I crashed myself straight out of the sport by being a dumbass.” Old shame swamped Drew, and his skin turned cold, but he stayed seated, facing Griffin, and didn’t tuck his head. “That’s the difference.”
No recoiling, no wide, horror-filled eyes, Griffin nodded very subtly. His stare narrowed, focused on nothing, yet as piercingly clear as anything Drew had ever seen. “So that’s why Charlie gave you the evil eye when you came out of the water last night,” Griffin finally said, making eye contact with Drew again.
Drew nodded. “He doesn’t like that I still surf at night. None of them do. I don’t drink much anymore—you saw that I didn’t get drunk last night like the other three—and I don’t ever take a sip of alcohol before I surf anymore. Plus I took myself out of the competitive surfing world.” At ease again, Drew pushed back in the chair, stretched out his legs, and crossed them at the ankles. “After I hurt myself, I could see how it brought out the worst in me, so I made a choice to let that world go.”
“But you obviously still surf for fun.”
“I didn’t at first,” Drew admitted. With each word he shared with this guy, more old, dead skin sloughed off his body. “When I was recovering, I physically wasn’t able to surf, and there was a part of me that was relieved I had to stay away. But the longer that went on, the more I felt like I had a hole inside me, so once my injury healed I went back to it.” A wash of cool, breezy lightness shimmered through Drew, and the grin that followed struck the sweetest damned spot in his core. “I fell in love with the water and the beach and the waves all over again. Without the competition angle, surfing felt right again.”
Focused entirely on Drew, Griffin put his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand. “And last night you said you’re a lifeguard now, so that must be rewarding.”
“I love it.” Drew’s chest expanded with such incredible fullness he put his hand against his heart, certain the love would pour out of him in some physical manner. “I was lifeguarding during the summers before I even got out of high school, and unlike most kids I really dug going to my job. Now it’s full time and my career.”
Griffin raised a brow. “Have you ever saved anybody?”
“I’ve pulled a few people out of some bad surf.” Maintaining some modesty, Drew knew he’d tugged well more than a few beachgoers out of the water on his shifts. “And my EMT training kept me calm and doing CPR on a lady who had a heart attack on the beach until the ambulance arrived. I found out later she lived.”
Suddenly Griffin sat up straighter, like a pointer dog. “Maybe that’s why you got hurt.” Leaning into the table edge, he jammed his finger against the surface, and a surprising, deep strength filled his tone. “Maybe you were supposed to be a lifeguard at those particular towers at those particular times in order to save the lives of those people. Maybe with even just one of them, if it hadn’t been you, maybe they wouldn’t have survived.” Just as fast as that powerful element took the reins in Griffin, his eyes widened, and he clasped his hands into a tight knot on the table. “I don’t know.” He shrugged and retracted into a slouch. “Maybe that’s the writer in me romanticizing something bad that happened to you. I didn’t mean to offend.”
“No, I like it,” Drew assured Griffin. “If my face was conveying something else, then it isn’t correct.” Griffin’s words tumbled around in Drew’s chest, tagging all kinds of spots nobody had touched in a long time, and finally settled softy around his heart. “I don’t know if what you theorize is true or not, but it feels kind of nice to think it might be.”
Griffin beamed. “Good.” He reached out and squeezed Drew’s hand. Instantly all the nerve endings in Drew’s flesh awakened. “I’m glad.” Just as fast, Griffin looked down to where his hand covered Drew’s. The color drained from his face, and he snatched his hand away. “Sorry.”
Tingles suffused Drew’s skin where Griffin had touched him, and the more he studied Griffin the bigger and more tangible a desire to stay close to him and learn more sparked inside him. “Hey.” He perked up as an idea took root in his gut. “Do you want to go surfing?” Swinging around in the chair, he glanced at the clock on the stove. “I have time for that first lesson right now.”
Griffin’s features fell, and his arms thudded to his sides. “What?”
“You heard me.” Inexplicably Drew needed Griffin, this guy he barely knew, to say yes to spending more time—time in the water—with him.
Spotting a laundry basket on the floor in front of a linen closet, Drew jumped up and started rifling through its contents, bouncing between looking for a wet suit and glancing back at a pale Griffin. “Maybe it was destiny that Charlie got too buzzed to drive you back to the motel last night, and for me to get a leg spasm, and for you to have heard me and woken up, so that you could have a surfing lesson this morning from me.” Drew’s fingers grazed smooth neoprene material. He quickly grabbed the wet suit from the bottom of the basket of clean clothes and returned to Griffin’s side. “Do you want to buck what the universe is telling you to do?” Giving his grom—a newbie to surfing—an exaggerated arched brow, Drew tossed a blue suit in Griffin’s lap. “Here. That’ll fit you. You know where the bathroom is. Go get changed.”
Suit clutched to his chest, Griffin rocketed to his feet. “But…” Looking left and right, his mouth gaping like a fish’s, Griffin moved closer to Drew but just as fast jumped back. “I don’t…I’m not…” Abruptly Griffin stopped. He took a breath, lifted his deep jade gaze to meet Drew’s, and the cutest half smile lit his freckly face. “You know what? Okay. I’ll do it.” Then, as if making conscious choices to move, Griffin made a military left-face turn and did a sweetly strange walk down the hall.
As Griffin walked away, Drew found his gaze drifting down the guy’s compact frame, over his shoulders and down the line of his spine, to his ass. Faded, well-fit jeans hugged the lines of Griffin’s tail end. Drew couldn’t help noticing the softly rounded, pert hills of Griffin’s buttocks and wondering how it would feel to cup those cheeks in his hands.
Throughout Drew’s twenty-six years of life, he’d found himself a little curious about guys every once in a while. The way a particular man’s face looked or how his voice sounded or a perfect specimen of a body, each could sometimes stir a fantasy in Drew to touch, stand closer, or even kiss. Those times Drew had noticed men had never pushed him enough to act on that curiosity, but the occasional interest always lived inside him, and over time he’d learned to accept a little bit of bi-curiosity as part of his genetic makeup.
That little bit of curiosity didn’t account for the extra pace he put in his stride to get to his room in a record few number of steps, though, or how he changed into his wet suit in the least amount of time he’d ever done in his life, or the way his chest expanded with the most perfect damned pull when he came back to the kitchen and found Griffin already suited up and waiting for him. He didn’t tuck tail and run. The tug in Drew’s chest awakened an unexpected flock of butterflies in his belly. Shit.
Griffin lifted his arms wide, looked down at himself, and laughed and rolled his eyes. “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing, so you’re in charge. Lead the way.”
A sudden tightening in Drew’s balls had him biting back a moan. Damn. “Out through the back.” All of a sudden Drew’s voice sounded grittier than usual to his ears. He quickly cleared his throat and pointed toward the sliding glass door. “Go ahead.”
Griffin did as instructed, and Drew shook himself off and followed. The moment Drew stepped onto the back patio the early morning sun kissed his skin and the briny air tickled his nose in a way that woke up all of his senses. Next to Drew, Griffin sighed, lifted his face toward the sky, and Drew swore every line of tension drained straight out of the guy into the cracked concrete, all his worries gone. That’s the way he should always be.
Pumped up now, the morning air filling his lungs, Drew couldn’t remember the last time he’d so looked forward to a morning the way he did the one he would spend out in the water with Griffin today.
Maybe later he would treat Griffin to a late breakfast and play up all the positives to making a move to California.
Somehow, with barely knowing the guy, Drew really wanted Griffin to stay in Oceanside.