Jem went to the bar in the Apollonia, one of the most expensive hotels in Salt Lake City, situated between Temple Square and the Salt Palace Convention Center—in other words, the perfect place to stumble across closeted gay Mormon businessmen who had some extra cash to burn. He timed his entrance so that he collided with a stout, middle-aged guy in a Jazz jersey. They exchanged apologies, and Jem made his way to the bar. He ignored Stef, who was drying glasses behind the bar and rolling her eyes. Her hair was red now, and the sides of her head shaved.
It only took a moment to scan the sheep at the bar: four men, two in conversation, two sitting by themselves. Jem immediately crossed off the guy on the right; he was engaged in a loud phone call with someone he kept calling princess. The guy on the left, though, had looked over when Jem collided with the other man at the bar’s entrance, and he’d already glanced at Jem a second time. He was a nice looking, blond, late thirties, probably really starting to feel the pinch of a wife and two and a half kids. Between his hands, he cupped a tumbler—so maybe he wasn’t the nice Mormon daddy he looked like. Jem counted three stools over and sat.
Stef was rolling her eyes again.
Ignoring her, Jem asked about local whiskey and bourbon.
“We’ve got High West.” Stef had her lines pretty much perfect by now. “They do a traditional, Old West blended whiskey: rye, scotch, and bourbon. Do you want to try it?”
Jem made a face.
“It’s pretty good,” the guy to Jem’s left said. “I tried the Campfire.”
“Yeah?” Jem said. “Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing.” He laughed. “I’m not much of a drinker, but, I don’t know. Tonight I was feeling a little reckless.”
“Get him a Campfire neat,” the guy said, and then he swiveled on the stool, his legs spread, studying Jem openly.
Jem had never really mastered blushing on demand, but he could do a pretty good job of combing his fingers through his beard, biting the corner of his mouth, looking away and looking back. The guy’s grin got bigger, more confident. When Stef came back, setting a tumbler in front of him, Jem patted himself down and lurched off the stool.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jem said. “Hold on.”
He made his way back to the entrance, studying the floor, squatting near the door. After about a minute, the guy from the bar came over.
“Somehow I dropped my money.”
“You lost your wallet?”
“No, I left my wallet in my room. I just brought cash and my ID.” He flashed the Montana driver’s license, one of many fakes. “Dang it. Never mind. This is like a sign, you know? I should have just watched Rocky and gone to bed. I cannot believe I dropped that money. It was the rest of my per diem.”
“You know what?” the guy said. “I don’t think you dropped it.”
Jem worked on his quizzical expression; he was getting pretty good at quizzical. “What do you mean?”
“That guy who ran into you on the way out? That’s a classic pickpocket move. Crash into a guy, take his wallet while he’s recovering, and he doesn’t realize until you’re long gone. A hotel like this, with a lot of people from out of town? Perfect venue.”
“Oh my gosh,” Jem groaned. “Are you serious? That actually happens?”
“All the time. Don’t worry; you’ll learn these things.”
“No way,” Jem said. “I’m going back to Missoula tomorrow, and I’m not leaving again.” He chuckled. “Would you believe I was so proud of myself for getting around the last few days? I thought I was street smart.”
The guy laughed a little too, touched Jem’s shoulder, and tugged him toward the bar. “Come on, have a drink. On me. Don’t beat yourself up about it; guys like that, they prey on people who are just a little too confident.”
“Gosh,” Jem said, trying hard to ignore Stef pretending to stab herself in the ear. “That’s crazy.”
This time, they sat next to each other. The guy introduced himself as Patrick; he had a whole story about working out of San Francisco, but when he put his phone and keys on the bar, his keychain had a loyalty card for a sandwich shop that only operated in the Salt Lake Valley—Jem recognized the logo—and his ring finger showed a lighter patch of skin where he normally wore a wedding band. Jem spun him a story back, something about ranching in Montana, keeping the details light. When Patrick spread his legs, Jem spread his legs. When Patrick leaned on the bar, Jem leaned on the bar. Jem asked questions, always tagging on Patrick, Patrick, Patrick, working the name into conversation as much as he could. Nothing too personal, because he didn’t want Patrick to spook and think Jem might have realized Patrick was local and not a California tycoon, but he asked business questions, then questions about whiskey, questions about life. Questions about women, Jem unspooling his doubts: why couldn’t he find the one? Why didn’t it feel ‘right’? Anything to make Jem look naïve and inexperienced; anything to make Patrick feel worldly and sophisticated.
When Stef brought sliders, nachos, and a draft beer, Patrick’s hand moved to Jem’s thigh.
Deer-in-the-headlights was a Jem Berger classic, and Patrick ate it up like candy.
Patrick smiled. He was in control, the mature guy who was about to make a contest and also provide a moment of sexual awakening. Jem focused on the sliders so he didn’t throw up a little inside his mouth.
“I think maybe you want to keep talking,” Patrick said. “Do you want to go back to your room?”
Jem gulped. It might have been a little over the top, based on the face Stef made, but it worked a surprising amount of the time. “My buddy’s here with me.”
“But we could go to your room,” Jem said, and then he played with his beard and stared at the food, mumbling, “If, you know, if you want to.”
“Yeah,” Patrick said. “I definitely want to.” He laughed, squeezed Jem’s leg, and excused himself to go to the bathroom.
“You are a bad man,” Stef said.
“Fuck that,” Jem said. “This asshole probably lives fifteen minutes from here,” the words emerged between bites as he shoveled the remaining food into his mouth, “and he’s going to get a room right now because he thinks he’s going to get his dick wet. My bet is that he’ll try to get me to leave right after, and if I won’t, then he’ll make up an excuse and jet. The little wifey will miss him if he’s gone too late.”
“You are a very bad man,” Stef said, and then she drifted away as Patrick came back.
“Hey, cowboy,” Patrick said, his hand light on Jem’s shoulder. Jem tried, again, not to throw up a little. “Ready?”
Jem licked the last of the nacho cheese off his finger, grinned, and nodded.
A nice-looking guy, the first good meal all week, some decent whiskey, a soft bed, and a room that had honest-to-God heat. Jem whistled “Home, Home on the Range,” while Patrick groped him in the elevator.
Teancum Leon, who goes by Tean, is a wildlife veterinarian. His life has settled into a holding pattern: he loves his job, he hates first dates, and he only occasionally has to deal with his neighbor Mrs. Wish’s cat-related disasters.
All of that changes, though, when a man appears in his office, asking for help to find his brother. Jem is convinced that something bad has happened to Benny, and he thinks Tean might be able to help. Tean isn’t sure, but he’s willing to try. After all, Jem is charming and sweet and surprisingly vulnerable. Oh. And hot.
Then things get strange: phone calls with no one on the other end of the line; surveillance footage that shows what might be an abduction; a truck that tries to run Tean and Jem off the road. As Tean and Jem investigate, they realize that Benny might have stumbled onto a conspiracy and that someone is willing to kill to keep the truth from coming out.
But not everything is as it seems, and Tean suspects that Jem has been keeping secrets of his own.
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