Page 9 of Eight Dates

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Now, trying his best to be somewhat pragmatic about his spending, it was just easier to toss something in the microwave at home and pretend like he was satisfied with his situation.

Life was so different now. It was another reminder of how good things had seemed when he was young. How his parents had tried to make his life feel full, whether they had a lot or a little. He and his brother had been different then—best friends who understood each other in ways they didn’t anymore.

For a long time, Ben always thought he’d grow up to be the man his parents wanted him to be, just like Aaron had.

He had no regrets that he hadn’t, but he could see the disappointment in his dad’s eyes whenever they visited, and he knew he’d never quite shake the guilt of not living up to their expectations. Love was fine, but it wasn’t always enough. And he realized one of the reasons his brother’s so-called gift tasted so bitter was because they all still saw him as the fuckup.

As the one who fell apart.

And it was hard not to see himself that way sometimes, especially when it was constantly reflected back at him every time they spoke.

“Water for you,” came a voice to Ben’s right, and he startled before glancing over at a tall, very skinny man with pale blond hair.

“Thanks. Could I also get—”

“I’m not your server,” the guy said with very little inflection in his voice. “Your server will be over when your party has arrived, but you can order a drink from the bar.”

Fantastic. But he wasn’t in the mood to argue. Ben nodded and stood, pushing his chair in before walking over to the long, dark marble bar top. There was no one there, so he traced gold lines and flecks along the stone until he heard someone clear their throat, and he looked up.

Then his heart was in his throat.

“You’re not homeless,” he blurted.

The guy behind the bar was the man who had his coat. He was even better-looking all warmed up and not running for his life. He was wearing a grin so wide Ben could see dimples in his cheeks, and his smile deepened the lines beside each eye. “No. I’m not homeless.”

“Why did you say you were?”

The guy threw his head back and laughed, the sound not mocking, which, for Ben, was new and different. “Uh, I’m pretty sure I didn’t. I said I was sleeping in my car. You’re the one who had an attack of Good Samaritan, assumed, forced me to take your outerwear and your cash. Which was really nice of you, by the way.”

Ben flushed hotly along the tips of his ears and nose. He probably looked like a goddamn cherry. “Uh. Thanks, I guess?”

“No, seriously. It was sweet. And I actually have it, so please don’t leave before you can take it back.”

Oddly, Ben found himself wanting to argue, but it was obvious this man didn’t need his charity. “Uh. Thanks. Saves me a trip to buy a new one in this god-awful weather.”

The guy reached into the small apron tied at his waist, and then he set folded bills on the table. Ben could tell it was the same cash he’d handed over. “This is also for you. I did get a warm meal, but I didn’t need your money.”

Ben bit his lip, then grabbed it and shoved it into his pocket. He wasn’t flat broke, but it would at least buy him some coffee or tacos later. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he said after a beat.

The guy laughed, the sound sweet and sending shivers down Ben’s spine. “I’m okay.” The man’s grin softened. “Can I get you a drink?”

“What’s your name?” Ben blurted, then slapped his hand over his mouth. “Sorry. That was so rude. I’d like a Seven and Seven but just a splash of Seagram’s because I might have to drive really soon if things go badly.”

The bartender leaned his elbow on the bar and rested his chin in his hand. “You’resoweird. I love it. My name is Nova, and I’d really like to know why you might have to drive really soon if things go badly. What things? Are you dumping someone?”

Ben laughed and shook his head. “No. I’ve been set up on a blind date by my brother, who is very, very straight and probably thinks the only thing I need to have in common with someone is that they’re a man.”

“Wow,” Nova breathed out. “I think I’d literally die if my sister tried to set me up. But you get it. You met her.” Nova’s grin widened when Ben frowned in confusion. “The barista at the café. The one who threw me out.”

Ben’s eyes widened. “Oh. She was…”

“Lovely, I know,” Nova said from behind a sigh. “I’m five years older and practically raised her, so I only have myself to blame.” He gave the counter a tap, then backed up and made Ben’s drink with only a little impressive flourish of his hands and spinning bottles. With a wink, he set the drink on the counter. “I hope you have good luck tonight.”

“I’m not sure I want it,” Ben said. “This is the weirdest Chanukah gift ever.”

Nova’s eyes went very wide. “Isn’t it actually Chanukah?”

Ben snorted and shrugged. “Yeah.”