Happy Valentine’s Day! This turned out to be the absolute perfect day to post this particular segment of Better Than Engagement. Love is in the air..LOL! Thank you all for your lovely messages about this story. I truly appreciate hearing from all of you. <3
Just a quick reminder, Book 1 in my next series, Leaning Into Love (with a bonus chapter) is available now on Amazon KU for 99 cents. This is my first self-pub! I’m very excited to introduce you all to this new group of friends from San Francisco. Book 2 is a full-length novel and will be out in mid-March. Woohoo! I’m working on Book 3, but I’m pretty sure A Kind of Home will be out sooner. 😉 Lots going on!
In the meantime, there are a couple more parts left in Matt & Aaron’s story. Here’s part 7 now… Enjoy! <3 Lane xo
Better Than Engagement – Part 7
Aaron set his hand on my shoulder as he leaned in to pour more coffee into my cup.
“Are you feeling okay? You barely touched your breakfast,” he observed with a frown.
“Huh? No, um…I’m fine.”
I swallowed hard and tried to crack a smile but I could tell it wasn’t convincing. My face felt tight and my heart was beating a little too quickly. I had to mellow out or I’d have a hard time making it through a day at the office. My mind was already on my after-work plan.
“You don’t look fine. You look…preoccupied. Are you sure you have time to take me to the office? It’s okay if you changed your mind. I promise I won’t be late tonight,” Aaron said as he skirted the island and took the barstool next to me.
He narrowed his gaze. “Something is up. Did your mom call again? If your parents are arriving any sooner than Saturday at noon, I need to know now so I can mentally prepare myself. No surprises, Matty.”
I chuckled and rolled my eyes. “They’re still coming Saturday. Nothing’s changed and nothing’s wrong. I promise. I’ll pick you up at five.”
“And then what?” he asked, cocking his head and giving me a suspicious once-over.
I shrugged and silently congratulated myself on finally pulling off convincing nonchalance. “Dinner?”
“Okay. What do you feel like having? I can take out some chicken to defrost or we can swing by the market and pick up ingredients for turkey meatballs.”
“Uh…” Fuck, what were we talking about? One second I was in control and the next, I was close to breaking out in a cold sweat. If I made it through nine hours at the office without coming unglued, it would be a minor miracle.
“Dinner?” he prompted, squeezing my hand sweetly.
“Fabulous choice!” Aaron kissed my cheek then stood and danced around the island.
I let out a relieved rush of air when his happy chatter about side dishes morphed into humming. He swayed his hips seductively and sang in Spanish to a song I recognized but couldn’t name for sure, which was relatively normal. I knew more Spanish now than I did when we first met. Just like I also knew intense emotion was usually the catalyst for Aaron’s abrupt language shifts. Anger, joy, sadness were accompanied respectively by slamming doors, contagious laughter or sorrowful tears. My favorite was when he sang in Spanish and danced around the house for no particular reason than because he was happy and content.
As funny as that seemed, Spanish was my ticket to the inside. Extreme displays of emotion were simply part of who he was, but to be given access to the unguarded pieces of him was the true gift. Aaron didn’t speak Spanglish with anyone but his family. And me. Everyone else was treated to his version of a Rihanna, Adele or Madonna classic when he was happy, but I got the favorite Puerto Rican songstress his sister told me he adored since he was a kid. I got salsa, merengue and everything in between. I got the real Aaron. Inside and out.
I rested my lower lip on the rim of my coffee cup and stared at his ass in his perfectly-fitted chinos. He spun around with a cocky grin as though he’d sensed my gaze and knew where my dirty mind was going. Damn, he took my breath away. I may have been nervous as hell and most likely would be all day, but it wasn’t because I was afraid I was about to make a hideous mistake. It was because I wanted to get this right. I wanted to create a memory worthy of him. One that made him smile when no one was around and move his hips to a song only he could hear. I wanted him to know without doubt he owned my heart. And he always would.
Details were my forte. At least they were in my work. If you needed a contract outlining transfer of ownership or termination or continuation of services at a high governmental level or for a complex business deal, I was your man. I was known for my ability to crank out thorough, concise documentation in half the time it took other experts in my field without forgetting a single thing. In my personal life, not so much.
I glanced at my watch for the third time in one minute. There was no way I could go home to grab my guitar then drive back downtown to get Aaron after work without being really late. He’d be fine if I called to tell him I’d be another half hour, but he’d also probably suggest getting a ride and meeting me at home. Then he’d wonder why I insisted on picking him up. He’d get suspicious and I’d get more anxious than I already was. Fuck. I might even lose my nerve. I wanted this to be perfect, but I was already a basket case.
I dipped my hand in my pocket and ran my finger along the edge of the velvet ring box as I peered out the window at the tree-lined pathway leading to his office building’s main entrance. I adjusted the volume on the radio and beat my thumbs against the steering wheel to a Tom Petty classic before glancing at the time again. He was two minutes late. That couldn’t be a good sign. Maybe he knew what I was doing. Maybe he was nervous too and decided to get a ride after all. Maybe he—
“Lucky me! My very own chauffeur!” Aaron slid in to the passenger and threw his arms around my neck before sealing his mouth over mine.
He tasted delicious…like peppermint and mocha. I licked his bottom lip and glided my tongue over his, caressing his stubbled chin before pulling back to smile at him. This was going to be fine. He was here. That was all that mattered.
“How was your day?” I asked, loving the dazed look in his eye.
“Uh…good,” he said.
He recovered quickly and flashed a brilliant smile before changing the music to an electronic dance song. Then he launched into his version of the daily shenanigans at his elite DC fashion magazine. I turned the volume down and smacked his hand when he tried to commandeer it again. He chuckled but didn’t miss a beat. The photo shoot was a success, the new designer was a doll… and on he went. I hummed or grunted every so often to let him know I was listening, but I didn’t interrupt. His nonstop chatter soothed my nerves. It anchored me to the moment and to him.
“…Marsha actually touched my arm when she congratulated me on a job well done. And she made eye contact. I may have won her over!”
“No flirting with the art director,” I huffed in mock censure as I navigated the BMW down a quiet alley a few blocks from our Dupont address.
“I’m a professional. I never flirt… unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he added, bursting into laugher.
“Oh Matty, you know I’m kidd—where are we going?”
Aaron glanced out his window then at me. There was enough daylight to see his confusion on his face, which meant he’d see through me in seconds flat. I had to pull off an Academy award winning performance… starting now.
“I have to pick up some legal documents from a new client,” I answered in a casual tone I thought sounded very reasonable.
“From a dark alley behind a bar after work hours?” he asked incredulously.
Okay, so I sucked at this. I parked the car closest to the back entrance and swiveled in my seat. I grasped his head between my hands and crashed my mouth over his to stop the questions and to keep myself from saying anything stupid. Aaron moaned into the kiss, encouraging me to soften the pressure and make it right. I complied and let him take over until he nibbled my bottom lip and made a purring sound that went straight to my dick. I pulled back with a strained half-laugh.
“Cool it. I’d rather not meet a stranger sporting an obvious boner.”
Aaron snickered then sat back in the passenger seat and made a shooing motion with his left hand. “Go on. I’ll think of what we need at the market while you’re—”
“I need you to come with me.”
“Why? You said you just had to pick up some paperwork. I’ll wait here.”
“No. Come on.” I unbuckled my seat belt then leaned over to do his, noting the stubborn set of his jaw. “Please. I don’t think it will take long but I don’t want to leave you in the car.”
“Fine, but this is a perfectly safe neighborhood, you know,” he groused as he opened his door.
I put my right arm over his shoulder when he met me on my side of the vehicle, mindful of the small box in my left pocket. I willed the swarm of butterflies in my stomach to subside as we traversed the stairs leading to the back entrance of a nondescript brick building. There was no signage to give away our location, though the large trash bins along the alley indicated we were in a commercial zone.
“Do you know where we are?” I infused my voice with conversational curiosity to take any significance away from the inquiry.
“Sure. We’re at a bar somewhere close to home. Are you going to buy me a drink or is it closed?”
“It’s closed for now, but yeah…I bet can buy you a drink. Want a kamikaze?”
Aaron chuckled and playfully burrowed his nose under my chin. “I haven’t had a kamikaze in a while. That was my go-to club drink before I realized it was partially responsible for a few epic hangovers.”
I pressed the buzzer next to the industrial-looking door then swiped my clammy palm on my jacket before clearing my throat. “Well, there’s always tequila.”
“Ha! I don’t think that’s a good ide—”
A Grizzly-sized man with a shock of red hair and a scruffy beard opened the door with a flourish just then. “Hi there, Matt! Good to see you again. You must be Aaron. I’m Ted. Come on in!”
Ted shook our hands and then ushered us inside as though our presence was relatively normal. This wasn’t supposed to be normal. Shit. Did I get the day wrong? I hoped not. I’d be back to square one. There was no way to attempt a repeat if I screwed this up. Aaron wouldn’t buy it twice.
I was so engrossed with my thoughts that it took me a second to register the friendly conversation going on a few feet away.
“Have you owned it long? This place looks familiar.”
Ted stopped at the end of the dark hallway. The cavernous space beyond was draped in shadows, making it difficult to see clearly. The only light was from a votive candle on the bar located at the opposite end. And it was ghostly quiet.
“I’ve been here going on three years now. I haven’t done much to the interior but I’m hoping to make some minor changes later this year. The bar could use a few improvements. I’ll show you what I mean.” Ted motioned for us to follow him toward the flickering light in the distance.
Aaron shot me an amused grin and started after him. I grabbed his elbow before he got anywhere and then slipped my hand in his. His smile was incandescent. It made light superfluous. And the warmth in his fingers seemed to spread through me like a slow-growing flame.
We walked hand in hand across the room. Our footsteps echoed and formed a backbeat of sorts to Ted’s voice as he described his grand plans for his business. When we reached the bar, he gestured for us to sit before moving to the other side. He set two glasses in front of us and poured a generous amount of vodka in each then added triple sec and a lime wedge. He was still talking when he pushed the drinks toward us.
“…acoustic tiles need to be replaced too and—oh sorry, here’s a napkin.” Ted picked up our cocktails and set them on tiny white squares.
Aaron thanked him and used the diversion to interrupt our loquacious host. “What’s your club called?”
“Lumberjack,” he replied, plucking at his plaid shirt proudly. “That’s why I need to add more rustic elements. It’s too slick now. It worked for the previous owner but—”
“What was it before? I know I’ve been here. It’s been a while though,” Aaron said.
I studied my man closely, wondering when he’d start putting the pieces together. He squeezed the lime into his drink and reached for a second napkin as though this was any night at any random bar. I licked my lips and looked over at Ted, hoping to signal I was ready. I didn’t really know the guy. I’d met him once before and talked about my plan ad nauseam. He seemed like a sweet man who assured me he was genuinely happy to help me out when the time came.
It was time now.
“Club Indigo. Isn’t that right, Matt?” Ted asked, wiping his hands on a bar towel.
“Right. Uh, do you have that paperwork?” I was mortified but not surprised when my voice rose an octave.
“Sure thing. My office is upstairs. Enjoy your drink.” Ted smiled and then stepped into the shadows.
When we were alone, I turned to face Aaron and tapped my glass against his. “Cheers.”
Aaron sipped his cocktail then pushed it aside and stood with his arms raised like he was checking for rain. Then he grooved his hips from side to side to a soundtrack only he could hear.
“Club Indigo. I remember this place. I liked it. It was always packed on the weekends. No wonder it took me a second. I don’t think I’ve been here since—” He stopped mid-spin and went perfectly still. I could almost see him put the clues together. “—this is where we met. Kamikazes. He made us kamikazes. That’s what I ordered for us that night, right?”
I swallowed hard then took another sip of vodka before moving toward him. I laced my fingers in his and pulled him toward a short set of stairs.
“It’s not a coincidence,” he commented in a low tone.
“No, it’s not. I—I know this sounds silly but…this place is like holy ground to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“This was where I was standing the first time I saw you. I was waiting for my friends to get our drinks.” I pointed to the bar as though a phantom group of people might suddenly appear. “The line was long and I was restless and… I wandered here to see what the dance floor was like. All those men dancing with other men. I’d been to other gay clubs with Curt but something felt different that night.”
I gestured toward the area just beyond the stairs to give myself a moment to pull my thoughts together. “You were dancing right there. I liked the way you moved. You were so sure of yourself and you were magnetic. Every guy on that floor watched you. I couldn’t look away. I should have been with my straight buddies at the bar, planning our exit strategy. But I couldn’t go anywhere until I saw you up close. I followed you and holy fuck…you took my breath away. I’d never seen anyone so beautiful in my life. Your face, your body. I had a million thoughts swirling in my brain. I wondered who you were, if you had a boyfriend, where you were from and what your voice sounded like.
“The guy dancing next to you saw me staring. He bumped your shoulder and pointed at me. That’s when you turned around and everything in my world stopped. Maybe even my heart. It was so loud in here. The music was thumping, the lights were flashing but it went perfectly quiet for a moment… like it is right now. Silent. Just you and me in a dark room with a single candle. I knew something was happening but I couldn’t put it in words that made sense.”
Aaron watched me carefully. His lower lip trembled. I wanted to pull him into my arms and let him take over but I had so much more to say. I bit my cheek and tried to gather the right words.
“That wasn’t the day I fell in love with you, but it was the day I recognized a piece of myself I couldn’t ignore. It was the day something elemental, raw and real inside me told me to wake the fuck up or I might miss out on the most important moment of my life. Nothing has been the same for me since that night. I’m upside down, backwards and totally over my head most of the time, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.
“I love you, Aaron. I love your smile, your temper, your passion, your intelligence, your kindness. I love that you accept me as I am but still challenge me to be better. We’ve come a long way since that night. You aren’t the hot guy I couldn’t stop staring at. You’re my everything. You’re my best friend. You’re my beginning and my end. You’re the reason I want to get up in the morning and the only person I want next to me at night.”
“Shh. I’m not finished.” I brushed a tear from his cheek and kissed him tenderly before reaching into my pocket for the black velvet box. “Four and a half years ago, I thought I was someone else. I thought I knew what I wanted in life… a good job and eventually a wife, kids, dogs and a house in the suburbs. But my list has changed. All I want is you. I want a husband, kids and—”
Aaron flung himself into my arms. “Yes, Matty. Yes!”
“Wait. I want to get this right. I meant to bring my guitar and I forgot to call the florist, but I think this is the part that matters.” I gently pushed him back so I could pull the box from my pocket. His breath hitched when I got down on one knee. “I love you, Aar and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?”
He bit his bottom lip and nodded. “Yes!”
I held his left hand and then slipped the ring on his finger before jumping to my feet and wrapping him in my arms.
“I love you, baby. Forever,” I said softly, swaying from side to side.
Aaron sniffled and wiped at his eyes. He rested his arms over my shoulders and gazed up at me with a look of sheer adoration.
“You say I take your breath away, but… you should know it’s the same for me. I love you too, Matty. I always will.”
I kissed his hands one at a time and stared at the shiny platinum band then twisted it around his finger and kissed it again. Then I pushed his bangs from his eyes and caressed his cheek before leaning in to lick his lips and kiss him once more.
“So I had this plan that loosely involved serenading you with some sappy love song, roses and dinner here, but everything went a little sideways. I forgot my guitar, the roses were delivered to our condo and Ted’s been very helpful, but I had second thoughts about the romantic aspect of dining in a bear bar slash club with my very-non bear fiancé.”
Aaron chuckled and gave me one of those stunning smiles that made my heart flip in my chest. “Hmm. I have an idea. Let’s order take-out and have a picnic in bed. You can play guitar for me if you feel like it…but I have one request.”
“Anything you want.”
“I want you naked. Naked dinner, naked guitar, naked everything.”
I gave him a Cheshire cat grin and nodded in agreement. “You got it. Let’s go home, fiancé.”
To be continued…