“C’mon, Badgie!” I whistle, jingling his collar, and Badger comes running. Well, limping. He’s not the young pup he used to be, but he still gets around okay. Some day in the not too distant future, we’ll probably have to cut back on our evening walks. But he still loves them, and my fat ass needs them, so off we go.
Badger’s always been good on a leash—well behaved enough that I can check the hookup app on my phone for any potential action as we walk. I don’t meet many people—especially not gay men—in my work for the school system, and I’ve never been really comfortable in social situations. You’d think apps specifically designed to help me get laid would be a godsend, but not so much. The grid of icons is familiar but depressing. Abs, abs, far as the eye can see, the thumb can scroll, whatever. And it’s not like there’s much scrolling to be done tonight. Not so many guys online, and half of them I’ve already chickened out of contacting after seeing their profiles.
Dating apps—where guys can make you feel like shit about yourself before you even say hello.
I shove my phone back into my pocket and walk a little faster, hoping to get my heart rate up. I lost a little weight back when Badge was younger, and we could run, but he needs me to keep the pace down now. I’ve gained most of it back, anyway.
At the entrance to the dog park, I unclip his leash and let him go hang with his friends. There’s the usual after-work crowd, and I nod and wave to the couple with the springer spaniel, and to the black guy with the miniature dachshund named Kafka. Little Kafka’s dad looks like a football player, and he loves to talk sports, which isn’t my scene at all—aaaand my favorite bench is occupied by a pair of young women I’ve never seen before. Great. To give myself an excuse to avoid sports night with Kafka’s dad, I pull my phone out again.
Oh, hey. Six-pack abs within 100 feet. Probably on the soccer field next to the dog park. I think about checking out his profile, but I don’t because I already know what I’ll find:
When guys say that, they’re talking about me. And it breaks something in me every time I see it. That part of me that believes I deserve to be touched, to be seen, to be loved—it gets pretty worn down sometimes.
Badger whines from over by the pond, interrupting my pity party. A little puppy, maybe three months old, is running circles around my geriatric Newfie, who just swats away at it like an old man shaking his cane.
I look around for the puppy’s owner, but it’s hard to tell if it’s the guy on his phone over by the poop-bag station, or one of the girls chatting on the bench behind me. Annoyed, I turn to glare at them. Isn’t anyone going to stand up and take care of the situation? No one makes a move. The girls are laughing, and the guy is texting or something. Damn. I’ll have to get Badge and take him home. He can’t be chasing puppies at his age—the last thing we need is an emergency hip replacement.
Just as I start toward him, everything sort of happens at once: the puppy pounces, Badger snaps his jaws at the puppy, and the hookup app—still open on my phone—chirps a notification.
I look down, momentarily distracted by those six-pack abs again. Lousy timing. I put the phone to sleep and shove it in my pocket.
“Whoa, Rudy!” The guy by the bag station rushes forward, moving in a liquid, graceful sort of way, finally noticing his fucking dog now that Badge has him pinned under one big paw. “I’m so sorry, he’s still just learning—”
“So you should keep a better eye on him and not let him terrorize other animals!” I snap, clipping Badge’s leash to his collar.
He rears back at my angry tone.
“He wasn’t terrorizing anyone, he’s just a puppy. Your big brute is the one who pinned him.” He glares at me, tossing his head to clear his hair from his eyes, and two things strike me at once—he’s beautiful, for one, and the words “big brute” for another. I flinch as if he’d said those words about me instead of my dog.
“Badger’s the gentlest dog I—”
His brown eyes, rimmed in black liner, widen in alarm as Badger limps around to sit at my side. “Oh shit—your dog is limping. Oh my god. I’m so sorry. I didn’t see what happened.”
He’s practically vibrating in distress and his apology takes the wind out of me a little bit.
“He’s fine,” I say gently. “Rudy didn’t hurt him; he’s just old.”
The pretty boy drops to his knees and scoops up his puppy, who, oblivious to the drama he’s caused, licks the guy’s face and makes happy pig-like snuffling noises. I smile in spite of myself. The little mutt is almost as cute as his owner—who grins up at me, shy-like and sweet.
“I’m Ezra.” He stands, looks me right in the eye, and holds out a hand. “And you’ve shaved your beard.”
“My beard?” For some reason, I keep shaking his hand—which is strong and rough, in contrast to the makeup and the lilt to his voice—longer than is even remotely normal.
“Yeah, your beard.” He smiles again and raises a carefully-groomed eyebrow. Is that—is he wearing lip gloss? “Unless that wasn’t your phone chirping right before hurricane Rudy—”
“Get out—you’re Six-Pack?” I drop his hand like it burned me.
Ezra’s smile falters and he hugs Rudy a little closer.
“So it’s like that? Don’t tell me you’re one of those guys.” He deepens his voice in mockery. “No fems, masc only—” He rolls his eyes “—I may be a dancer, but I’m still a man, you know.”
He goes kind of still, that animated face getting tight for a moment. “And I have feelings.”
Oh god, he mistook my surprise that someone like him would message someone like me—he took it for rejection?
“I’m not.” I hold up my hands, shaking my head. “I’m not one of those guys. I’m…I’m Kevin.”
Ezra straightens up a little and studies my face, and the sun setting behind me turns his dark hair red and gold. Whatever he sees must convince him that I mean what I say, because he smiles shyly and then starts babbling.
“It’s nice to meet you, Kevin. You look good without a beard—you looked good with it too, but I can see your dimples when you smile now. And I like that you put your face in your profile—that’s why I messaged you.” He talks fast and he laughs as he jerks his head away from Rudy’s sloppy kisses.
Wow. Cute level? Expert.
He catches me staring at him, and he blushes a little. “Soooo, if you check your messages, you’ll see I sent you one.”
I reach into my pocket for my phone, dying to know what he said, but he stops me with a hand on my arm.
“But since you’re here, and I’m here, would you like to go get a drink?”
I look down at Badger, who has lain back down at my feet, tongue lolling out in his old-doggie smile.
“The bar around the corner allows dogs on the patio.” Ezra hugs Rudy a little closer, and Rudy swipes the side of his face with a tongue.
“You want to go to the bar with me?” I run a hand over my belly, self consciously smoothing my shirt, as if it could hide the fact that I might as well be two of him.
“Yeah. Maybe get a bite? I taught four ballet classes before my dress rehearsal today; I’m starving.”
Well, we can’t have that. But…
“I’d like that. You think Rudy and Badger will be okay together?”
He sets Rudy down, clipping leash to collar, and Rudy bows playfully and barks once before rolling over and showing Badge his belly. We both laugh.
“I think they’ll be fine. But just in case, we should walk between them.” He puts his hand through the crook of my elbow. “What kind of dog is Badger, anyway?”
To one commenter, a copy of Blueberry Boys—paperback for US only, ebook internationally.
And don’t forget to enter the massive QRM physical book giveaway pack!
Vanessa’s Queer Romance Recommendations
Line and Orbit, Labyrinthian, and Fall and Rising, all by Sunny Moraine. I’ve loved science fiction maybe even longer than I’ve loved romance, and Sunny’s stories are some of the best I’ve ever read. They’re sharp, exciting, and incredibly moving.
Channeling Morpheus (boxset one & two) by Jordan Castillo Price. Vampire road trip! This series examines fear and affection, belonging, sex, and “other” in a really fun, sometimes scary, sexy as hell way. It’s also breathtakingly romantic.
This last isn’t so much a romance—but it’s queer as fuck and one of the best books I’ve read this year, so I’m reccing it anyway. Lost Boi, by Sassafras Lowery, is a queered retelling of Peter Pan—for grownups. It’s dark and sexy and manages to be both dream-like and deeply, deeply true—in that way only fiction can be.
About Vanessa North
Author of over a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories, Vanessa North delights in giving happy-ever-afters to characters who don’t think they deserve them. Relentless curiosity led her to take up knitting and run a few marathons “just to see if she could.” She started writing for the same reason. Her very patient husband pretends not to notice when her hobbies take over the house. Living and writing in Northwest Georgia, she finds her attempts to keep a quiet home are frequently thwarted by twin boy-children and a very, very large dog.
About Blueberry Boys
Connor Graham is a city boy—a celebrated fashion photographer in New York. When his uncle’s death drags him back to the family blueberry farm, all he wants to do is sell it as quickly as he can. Until he meets his uncle’s tenant farmer.
Jed Jones, shy and stammering, devout and dedicated, has always yearned for land of his own and a man to share it with. Kept in the closet by his church, family, and disastrous first love, he longs to be accepted for who he is. But now, with his farm and his future in Connor’s careless hands, he stands to lose even the little he has.
Neither man expects the connection between them. Jed sees Connor—appreciates his art and passion like no one else in this godforsaken town ever has. Connor hears Jed—looks past his stutter to listen to the man inside. The time they share is idyllic, but with the farm sale pending, even their sanctuary is a source of tension. As work, family, and their town’s old-fashioned attitudes pull them apart, they must find a way to reconcile commitments to their careers and to each other.
Available November 30th 2015