One of my favorite couples began as a Story Orgy Prompt, where I tried to piece together all sorts of random clues into a story that made sense. What I came up with was Simon Harris and Alexi, the man who'd had a crush on him in high school and the prompts threw weekly challenges into their path to HEA.
The Man Trap
Try as I might, I couldn't keep my gaze from straying to the slender, dark-haired man resting on his heels on the faded green carpet in the third aisle. He kept sliding his pale fingers along the bindings of the books on the shelves, and I swear every time he did I felt the touch as a caress on my own skin. Jeannie, damn her, noticed my inattention immediately.
"Who is that, Simon?" My blonde sister-in-law demanded nosily, peering intently at the man I had discreetly eyed since he crossed the threshold of my bookshop that morning. He'd actually become a Saturday morning regular at my shop during the past month. He wandered in and browsed the cookbooks, the classics, and the science fiction section. He always bought something, but never when I stood at the register. I swear he waited till I turned my back before he’d buy his books. Today was going to be different. I planned to stay at the register until he checked out or hell froze over, whichever came first.
She snorted, par for the course. Despite her delicate blonde appearance, Jeannie made no pretense at being ladylike, or even mannerly. Her blunt attitude was both refreshing and disgusting all at once. If family pressure hadn't assured me she'd make an admirable assistant, I never would have trusted her around the customers. I needed someone to man the shop while I visited estate sales, sure, but usually shop keepers prefer to have assistants who treat customers nicely.
"The remarkably pretty, vaguely familiar guy in the cooking section who comes here every Saturday morning. The man you're watching out the corner of your eye like a poor imitation of Mike Hammer. That's who."
Oh yes. Thank you, Jean, for pointing out my lack of subtlety and discretion. I shuffled a stack of shipping invoices from the printer to the corner of the counter and dumped the cardboard box I'd carried from the storeroom in their place. "That, Jeannie, darling, is the reason—other than an insane crush on Brad Pitt and unrequited lust for Johnny Depp—I can say with absolute certainty I am bisexual, not straight."
Jeannie scoffed at me as the rest of my family and friends always did when I made the claim. I'm not sure what they thought, that I was trying to be cool or something with my claim to bisexuality. Only people who aren't gay think being gay is cool. When you've thought about your sexuality and agonized over why you like men, it's enough just to accept it. They never believed me. The skepticism could, I suppose, have something to do with the fact I'd only ever dated women. Could I help it if Brad Pitt never returned my calls?
Jeannie nodded dubiously, continuing to print shipping labels and eyeing the man in aisle three, absorbed in perusing cookbooks. I smacked her in the shoulder swiftly. "Stop staring; he'll see you looking at him."
"I don't get it. Who is he? And what's all this crap doing on the counter?" She waved a manicured hand at the battered brown cardboard box of high school memorabilia.
My used bookshop, specializing in rare and antique editions, does a thriving e-business and we reserve the front counter with its glass display cases for the books, orders, and wrapping materials comprising that business. Random stuff gets in the way, so we have an unstated rule nothing goes on the counter unless a customer makes a purchase. I had visited several estate sales that week, and a few customers brought in boxes of books for exchange value. Books lay in tottering piles on my desk, the floor and the shelving in the area around the counter. The new material needed logging into inventory, pricing, and shelving. What this meant in the long run was there was no place else to put my "crap," as Jeannie so lovingly labeled the mementos of what I cherished as the best moments of my life. Simon Harris in a box, that's what I'd just put on the counter.
Some people claim high school is hell, and the premise sure seemed accurate while I attended the local one. Classes started too early, teachers made too many demands, classmates were jerk-offs or punks, and sports were a huge waste of time. I hated teachers telling me what to read and what to think. I lived to party and school interrupted my fun. Of course, the man in the cookbook aisle had been a big part of my high school days, and a big part of why I cherished the memories in this box.
Alexi Manetas had been a grade below me in school, but because he was an overachiever and I an underperformer, we ended up in the same classes a lot during high school. I couldn't miss the fact that the boy with the big gray eyes and ink-black curls was infatuated with me. I swear he never even attempted to hide how he felt.
You can imagine how that went for the kid. And me—I had nothing against Alexi—but I wasn't up to being into guys. Plenty of girls wanted to date me and I found them attractive enough. If Alexi's gray eyes and black curls snuck into my dreams at night, well a man can't control his dreams. Who I ate lunch with, who I took to the dances—those choices I made consciously. I played it cool, and Alexi didn't create drama, so everything was all right. I didn't encourage him, but to my shame I didn't discourage him, and I never had the guts to tell the others in the crowd to lay off the kid and cut him some slack, either. Hormones are hell, but peer pressure is even worse.
So all through high school, I had this ego boost. No matter what chick dumped me or rejected me, or how low my grades dropped, there was always this knowledge in the deepest recesses of my mind. Hey, I couldn't be all bad if Alexi could love me, right?
So I had my emotional security blanket all wrapped around me throughout years of torture, and when graduation day arrived, I hit the high road and never thought I'd ever look back.
Like a lot of dumb kids, I enrolled in a school as far away from my hometown as my budget would let me. High school doesn't prepare you for college. Don't let anyone fool you that it does. No matter how smart you are, there's going to be someone smarter. No matter how hot you are, there's going to be someone hotter. And no matter how popular you were in high school, you're going to be fucking lonely in the freshman dorm.
I was. And you remember those dreams about silky dark curls and big gray eyes? That's what I missed. Not the fluffy blonde cheerleader I dated exclusively senior year or the succession of girls who'd preceded her. I missed Alexi.
When Christmas break arrived, I determined to man up and talk to Alexi, but got the shock of my life to discover he'd apparently gotten over his infatuation and moved on—to no less than the star quarterback of the varsity football team, the biggest culprit when it came to teasing Alexi about his crush on me. I guess jealousy motivated him.
In a mind-boggling fit of desolation, jealousy, and self-pity, I wrote Alexi a letter I intended to send to him before I left town. Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you choose to look at the situation, reason prevailed and I never sent it. Or maybe cowardice prevailed. I didn't send the letter, but I kept it. Now my bitter outpouring of teenage angst lay in this box right in front of me on the counter of my bookstore, along with the Christmas gift I'd bought and intended giving to Alexi that long-ago holiday.
The gift, wrapped in unimaginative blue snowman paper, was a sweatshirt from my alma mater. Alexi hadn't changed much since I'd last seen him strolling across campus hand in hand with the jock. He still barely reached my chin; I'd have to bend down to kiss him. The gift, wrapped in unimaginative blue snowman paper, was a sweatshirt from my alma mater. The navy blue shirt should fit just fine. I'd bought the smallest size available at the campus bookstore, and had planned to ask him to wear it for me. Now, the opportunity had come to pass the letter and the gift along to their rightful owner.
At the very least, giving him these belated tokens of my esteem would force Alexi to acknowledge me—that he recognized me—that if I was right, he wandered into my shop every Saturday because of me, not a selection of ancient cookbooks. I tugged a yearbook from the box and flipped to the photo I recalled, then settled against the counter to outwait my prey.
It scared me a bit how fortuitous his reappearance in my life had been. I mean, I only even have a shop for storage. Random foot traffic brings in some money of course, but I make the big bucks on eBay, Amazon, and my website.
And thanks to that random foot traffic, I had a second chance with the only man I'd ever truly wanted. Johnny and Brad were only fantasies. Alexi was very real and approaching the counter right in front of me. Time to spring the trap.
He pretended not to see me as he placed a copy of Colorado Cache on the counter and acted like the magnetic bookmarks my sister-in-law insisted I sell engrossed him.
"Hi, Alexi." I demanded he acknowledge the past connection between us, admit he recognized me. Since he didn't meet my eyes, I let my gaze roam across the very familiar planes of his face. Fine pale skin, the faintest hint of beard shadow, and those same enticing plump bee-stung lips that had haunted my high school dreams.
"I'm sorry?" Vacant gray eyes met mine.
Right. Now, I may be thirty–one and not eighteen anymore, but I don't look much different than I did in high school. I still keep my brown hair in the same longish skate boy cut, still carry my summer tan year round, and former classmates swear I haven't aged so much as a day since graduation. My brother swears I haven't matured emotionally either, but I know better. At sixteen I was a taker, and I'd taken Alexi's affection for granted. The intervening years had taught me a thing or two about appreciating the finer things in life. Alexi was the finest life had to offer.
I leaned on the counter, stared straight into his eyes, and tapped the yearbook photo between us. His eyes followed the direction of my finger and widened, as they landed on the picture of the Chess Club we'd both—briefly—been members of. "That's you," I said, smiling in amusement. I dragged my finger over the picture. "That's me you're staring at." That's me you're worshipping with your eyes, adoring with your posture. Don't tell me you don't remember!
"Umm, yeah—okay—you got it, that's me, Alexi Manetas. That would make you—" he pretended to read the caption under the photo upside down, "—Simon Harris."
Jeannie's interested gaze never left us, and Alexi sneaked peeks at her as he fumbled with his wallet and nudged the cookbook toward me.
I smiled at him, "Yes." I rang up his purchase and shoved the book in a bag as he passed me a credit card.
He nodded, swallowing. "I remember you."
"I thought you might. I have some things that belong to you." I dug through the box again to retrieve the package and the letter.
I read the confusion in his eyes as he stared at me. He blinked, breaking the connection and picked up his bag, shaking his head. "Those aren't mine. I don't understand what you're talking about."
He stepped away and pivoted on his heel to leave, but I lunged across the counter, sending stacks of invoices and their matching books flying. "Oh, but they are yours." I tilted the articles so he could see his name clearly written on each, the envelope and the package. The trap couldn't close if he didn't take the bait, now could it?
Clear gray eyes met mine again, his cheeks flushed the delicate shade that had haunted my high school fantasies, and I released a breath I didn't realize I held. His hand trembled as he touched the letter, and something in the involuntary response caused the light to glint off a gold band on his ring finger.
That glint of gold sent me reeling backward and gray eyes stared in confusion as Alexi shoved the unopened letter and package into the flimsy white plastic bag with his book.
Unthinking, I grabbed his wrist to get a closer view of the gold band. He jerked away almost before I registered the tingle of sensation touching Alexi brought. He clutched the hand in his other, his beautiful face flushing. I barely noted his response to my touch as the heat of our brief contact seared a path straight to my cock. I stifled the groan threatening to escape as an awkwardly stacked pile of coffee table books toppled over. The top book, a hefty volume on the cathedrals of Rome, crashed to the floor, narrowly missing my bare feet. I jumped a bit further back, conscious all the while of Jeannie's mocking blue gaze. Awkwardly bending to retrieve the book, I strained to keep an eye on Alexi to make sure he didn't take advantage of the opportunity to make an escape. That is, until a vinyl record album sans jacket slid out of the cover of the book and landed on edge right across the top of my left foot. Then my attention focused primarily on my pain and Jeannie's raucous laugh.
I dropped the book again and grabbed my foot, standing there like an idiot for a few moments while Alexi eyed me in concern and Jeannie laughed her ass off next to me.
"I told you," she couldn't seem to resist adding. "You should wear shoes in here. There are OSHA rules about all that stuff."
Dropping my foot and wincing, I noticed Alexi putting down his bag and then restacking the other oversize books in a neat orderly pile. I bent and picked up the cathedral book and the LP. Humph, “Sympathy for the Devil”. Hidden inside the cover of a book on cathedrals? The irony wasn't lost on me.
On the plus side, the pain in my foot distracted me from my cock, which had thankfully responded to the pain stimulus by conveniently forgetting about Alexi on the other side of the counter.
Searching for my flip-flops, I scowled at Jeannie, who made no attempt at all to hide her broad grin. "I'm taking a break."
She nodded, smirking, and continued printing and sorting and watching.
I ignored the heavy weight of her eyes as I turned to Alexi.
"Could we get coffee and talk?" I slipped my feet into the plastic excuse for shoes, wincing again as the strap slid into place across my injured foot.
He seemed reluctant, checked his watch. His gaze skittered away from mine, and then, as though he arrived at some conclusion, he nodded. Picking up his bag, he waited for me to join him on the other side of the counter.
"Be nice to the customers," I warned Jeannie as I held open the shop door, pointing to the refrigerator magnet on the cash register. I'd had dozens of the things printed, and whenever Jeannie conveniently lost one, I had a replacement available. The magnetic rectangle said simply, "Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless. Mother Teresa".
It might seem like a nasty jibe at Jeannie but was really all part of a little game we played where I pretended I was her boss and she pretended to give a fuck.
I followed Alexi out into the bright
sun, letting the door swing shut behind me with its muffled swish. He waited
for me, glancing up the sidewalk in the direction of the Tropical Fish Emporium
and the Tae Kwon Do studio, so I risked touching him again, drawing his
attention to the coffee shop at the other end of the strip mall. The tingle of
awareness preceded the rush of arousal as I came in contact with the warm, firm
muscle of his bare arm. California
He didn't pull away, so I kept my hand there. I wiped the trickle of sweat from my brow with my other hand. The sweat owed more to Alexi's presence than the still air and heat of the
afternoon sun. I brushed my hair out of my eyes and tilted my head to look over
at the man who'd starred in my teenage dreams, right in time to see his tongue slide
across the plump curve of his lower lip. I nearly groaned aloud. I wanted to lick
that lip, damn it! California
I'd had the chance to do so once before, and I'd grabbed it enthusiastically, so to speak. My friend Brad had the misfortune of having a younger sister, a freshman addicted to kissing games and other foolishness. Apparently, they also adhered to a household rule that if Brad had a party, Melanie was invited. At this particular party she'd devised some absurd hide-and-seek type game where the boys would hide and the girls would find them. Of course, when you found someone, you got to kiss them until the next couple showed up at the "safe" spot.
Sobriety stood me in good stead that night as I observed Alexi hiding inside a closet off the back porch. I waited a few minutes to make sure none of the other drunken hiders noticed me, and then I slipped into the closet after him. I've no idea why at that moment I decided being alone with Alexi in a closet was a good idea. I just followed him. Impulsively, unthinkingly, I stepped inside and closed the closet door behind me.
I heard the rustle of movement as he became aware of my presence, heard his whispered protest to go hide somewhere else, but I ignored it. I could only remember the dreams that had tormented me for over a year, of warm firm lips and dreamy gray eyes. I couldn't see his eyes in the darkness, but—
I dragged him quickly into my arms and before common sense could prevail, bent and pressed our lips together. It wasn't my first kiss. I'd been kissing girls since my first party at twelve, and even at seventeen I had acquired some skill in the department, but...this kiss felt different. The textures of Alexi's mouth enthralled me, the flavor of his response was addictive, and I had no idea where the experience was going to end. Instead of seducing, sampling, or even plain enjoying the kiss, I was flung headlong into a maelstrom of emotion and confusion. Alexi's kiss was the best kiss of my life, and the most terrifying.
We broke off the kiss to breathe, and that's when the fear overwhelmed me. I pushed the door open, slipping out without ever saying a word. I wanted to kiss Alexi, yes—all the rest of the shit that went along with kissing? Being gay? I didn't need that. Alexi made me doubt myself. What scared me most was that kissing him made all the bad things seem worthwhile.
I'm pretty sure Alexi had no idea who had kissed him in that closet at the beach cottage, but I was damned sure I'd like to kiss him again. His tongue slicking his lips like that tempted me to repeat the experience right here and now in the bright light of day where he couldn't possibly mistake me for some stupid football player.
First, though, I had to get him to relax a bit and maybe tell me about the wedding ring. He still darted nervous glances around the shopping center, and I finally, reluctantly released his arm as we approached the coffee shop. We ordered at the walk-up window, and as we waited patiently for the barista to produce his basic black cup of coffee and my iced mocha, I strove to achieve casual as I asked, "So, what have you been doing since high school?"
He met my eyes briefly, then twisted about to stare off across the parking lot to the opposite side of the strip mall. His leaned his slim compact body on a hip against the counter, and I couldn't help taking advantage of his lack of attention to look my fill. Tight fitting, faded nearly white jeans molded the firmly muscled legs and flat abdomen. I noted the button fly of his jeans with approval. Yeah, I can't help it. Levi 501s are a trigger for me. I wished I could retrace my visual path physically, with my trembling hands, my tingling lips. A gray short sleeve shirt open over a simple white T-shirt completed his Saturday casual attire.
Once I had finished my survey and my gaze meandered up to his face, he'd apparently had enough of the cars in the lot and I found him watching me instead. His moist lips parted and his eyes sparkled. I nearly kissed him again right then, too aroused to care about observers. I didn't even care about the wedding ring right then. Marriage clearly wasn't on his mind either. It wasn't only that he was still sexy and attractive. He still wanted me. I saw the desire behind the sparkle and it sent me right back to those high school days, only this time without the stupid part of me that didn't want to want another man in my bed.
The barista fortunately interrupted my eye sex with our order and I remembered I was supposed to talk to Alexi, not visually inventory the places I was tempted to kiss. Visibly shaken, Alexi thanked the barista in a soft voice and shifted from his resting place to stroll toward my shop. "The usual. Went to college. Came home, got a job."
Eye roll. Alexi's forte was clearly not small talk. I refused to drop the subject. "What kind of job do you have?"
We stood outside my shop, Alexi tense and poised to run, me alert for any sudden moves, determined to see where this could lead. The foolishness of my actions wasn't lost on me, believe me. I hovered in the doorway of my shop, ready to grab a grown man who clearly itched to make an escape. Icing on the cake? I'm almost certain I saw Jeannie peering through the window at us across the book display arranged there. If I'd had my cell phone with me it would have rung constantly. Jeannie excels at dispersing news. I'm sure she had my brother, mother, and six of her best friends on conference call before Alexi and I arrived at the coffee shop.
Impulse, the same besetting sin that led me into that closet years ago, controlled the moment. I understood myself better now. I was on the verge of the most important moment of my life. Convincing Alexi to give me a chance, to at least meet me again away from the shop and prying eyes, was worth being a fool.
I couldn't claim to understand his feelings, but chemistry sizzled between us, and I wasn't ashamed to use the desire I'd seen to my advantage. I had enough regrets with Alexi's name on them stored away that another wouldn't matter, especially if things turned out the way I wanted. I bent to kiss him—just a light kiss, I swear—an enticement before I issued an invitation to dinner.
"Dad!" A clear, high, childish voice rang out across the parking lot. I'd nearly attained my goal, heart pounding in expectation, but Alexi turned his head at the moment the voice reached us.
What Reviewers said:
"This was a sweet, heartwarming story about two men with a second chance to do things right. It is rather romantic at times. "I've saved up a thousand kisses, thousands of experiences, I only want to share with you, Alexi." Reviewed by Maya at Hearts on Fire Reviews
"Lee Brazil's The Man Trap is a lovely warm hearted tale of love given a second chance with some very interesting nontypical twists. Brazil's characters have that patina of realism that I appreciate in a story" - Reviewed by Melanie at Joyfully Jay
Check out other Excerpts at Laura Harner's Blog & Havan Fellow's Blog
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The dark eyes lit with a glitter of interest. The boy glided forward, strangely graceful, plump ruby lips stretched in a flirty smile. "I'm Caspar Thorpe. People don't usually see me back here. It's nice to meet you, Trevor." He extended a pale hand. Trevor wiped his own damp palm on his jeans and reluctantly took Caspar's hand. It was soft and cool in his grip, oddly soothing and he felt nearly as reluctant to release his grip on the hand as he'd been to take it in the first place.
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