Authors: K. Sterling
The Guarded Heart
I fell in love with a boy and he inspired me to write a book. He let me turn him into a character and build a story around him. Clint’s humor and patience are his but his story is mine.
Thank you, Clint.
“You don’t have to keep justifying it, Jonathan,” Clint said as he held the door open. “If Marco is that big of a dick and no one enjoys working with him, we stop booking at his club.” He stepped onto the sidewalk and gave Jonathan’s shoulder a reassuring shake.
“You’re sure? He’s going to chew you out as soon as he realizes we’ve taken those clients someplace else,” he warned and Clint shrugged.
“Let me worry about that,” he said and Jonathan looked beyond relieved and Clint shook his head as he pulled his phone out of his back pocket.
“It’s pretty simple. Marco’s an asshole and doesn’t create a positive working environment. We’re in this because we love the music and want to support our friends. It’s supposed to be fun and no one’s having fun around Marco. So, we take Marco out of the picture.” Clint waited for Jonathan to nod in agreement then smiled as he looked for the nearest cab. The door to the coffee shop opened and Clint’s lungs locked before the man stepping out even looked up. When he did, it was like being hit in the chest with a heavy ball of heat and Clint stumbled back a step as a swell of incredible longing and joy filled him.
God, please let me touch him,
Clint begged as his hands shook.
“Clint? Is something wrong?” Jonathan asked and Clint shook his head.
“No. Give me a minute.” It was barely words and he wasn’t sure if Jonathan understood as he staggered forward. Clint exhaled loudly as he started to move faster. He couldn’t let him leave. “Ryder!” He called as he raised his hand and he saw Ryder shut his eyes briefly and knew he was hoping Clint would pretend they didn’t see each other. He couldn’t do that and his eyes greedily drank in as much of Ryder as they could. Clint’s heart was slamming into his eardrums and the sounds of the street were muffled when he reached Ryder. He looked so beautiful. So the same but different in a hundred ways that Clint was quickly cataloging as he waited to catch his breath. He filled his lungs and his knees almost buckled as the scent Clint spent months clinging to as it slowly faded from his pillows and clothes rushed through him. “It’s so good to see you.” It wavered and rasped and Clint didn’t give a single fuck as he reached for Ryder and pulled him into his arms. Tears flooded Clint’s eyes as more heat and joy spread through his body and the muscles in his throat strained as he reveled in the feel of Ryder’s body against his. It was the most perfect thing Clint had felt since the night he let Ryder walk away.
“Clint…” It was so wary and distant as Ryder patted Clint’s back weakly. “It’s good to see you too,” he said as he gripped Clint’s shoulders and stepped back. It was summer but everything felt cold and an ache settled in Clint’s chest as he fought back a tidal wave of words and feelings and pulled his face into a relaxed, happy grin.
“Are you back?” He asked and Ryder nodded jerkily as his eyes jumped around Clint’s shoulders, avoiding contact with Clint’s.
“I’m at…a school,” he murmured before he finally offered Clint a tight smile. He didn’t want to share that and Clint resisted the impulse to push.
“I’m glad you’re back. Can I call you?” He asked carefully and Ryder’s jaw twitched as he studied the coffee cup in his hand.
“I don’t think…” His head snapped up and Clint cursed silently.
“Well, who’s this?” Jonathan asked loudly as he elbowed Clint. Clint’s cheeks puffed out as he waved toward Ryder.
“Jonathan, this is Ryder,” he said before he tilted his head toward Jonathan. “Ryder, Jonathan,” Clint said wearily and Ryder ducked his head as he reached for Jonathan’s hand.
“It’s nice to meet you but I’m afraid I have to get going. I haven’t even started unpacking and I have to get my classroom ready for Monday,” he explained and Clint started to shake his head as panic bloomed. Ryder ignored it and offered a stiff nod. “It was nice seeing you. Take care of yourself, Clint,” he said before he raised his hand and turned for the curb as a cab stopped. Clint froze, paralyzed and helpless as Ryder shut the door and the cab drove off.
“Oh, my God!” Jonathan whispered excitedly. “Was that
Ryder?” He asked and Clint nodded and his vision blurred as he stared at the cab’s taillights as they slipped farther away.
“How many Ryder’s do you think I know?” He asked. “He’s gone,” Clint whispered as the strength left his body. He spent every day of the last sixteen months wishing he had one more chance to talk to Ryder and tell him everything and he just blew it. “He’s gone,” he mumbled then gasped as Jonathan grabbed his arm and hauled him toward a cab.
“I know, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Jonathan insisted as he pushed Clint through the open door and Clint frowned as he scooted along the seat.
“I don’t know if I’m in the mood to talk about Marco. Or anything right now,” he admitted and Jonathan snorted as he pulled the door shut.
“Yeah. Fuck all of that,” he said before giving the driver directions. “We have more important things to do right now,” Jonathan said as he swiped at his phone and Clint’s brows pulled together.
“Like what?” He asked and Jonathan shook his head in disbelief as he quickly tapped out a message.
“We have to find out where Ryder’s working and where he lives. We have to get you two back together,” he announced and Clint fell back against the seat as he blinked rapidly.
“How…?” He ignored the wave of hope and fear that crashed into him and tried to think.
“It can’t be that hard to find out which school has a fine as fuck new teacher named Ryder,” Jonathan said as he typed and Clint’s eyes fell to his phone.
“Who are you texting?” He asked and Jonathan gave him an impatient look.
“Shannon. She has to know where he lives,” he said and Clint shook his head.
“She’s not going to tell you,” he said and Jonathan raised a brow. “I begged her for four months after Ryder left but she wouldn’t tell me where he went or give me his number,” Clint said and Jonathan rolled his eyes.
“She won’t tell you but she might tell me. I’m your assistant and I have a box of his things. It’s just too painful for you to take them to him so you asked me to drop them off,” he announced silkily and Clint wished his conscience would protest a little bit more.
It took twenty minutes to reach the bar, the club was at capacity and it wasn’t even midnight. Clint nodded and smiled at random faces as he slipped between damp, cologne doused bodies. The heavy pulsing beat of the music and the collective energy of hundreds of bodies moving in unison never failed to heighten his senses and lighten his mood. His eyes swept around the space slowly, cataloging various aspects of the lighting, sound system and the traffic of the crowd. It was an excellent venue and he was already identifying which of his clients would be best suited to the audience as he finally leaned against the bar.
As soon as the bartender spotted Clint, he stopped what he was doing and reached for the vodka. A few moments later, he set a vodka and soda with a lime twist in front of Clint and offered a bright smile before returning to preparing what looked like a Long Island iced tea. The owner was clearly trying to impress Clint and instructed the staff to make him a priority. He shrugged as he raised his glass and let his eyes wander along the bar.
They stopped when they settled on the square peg. There was always at least one. They could be found alone at a table or the corner of the bar, cowering as they did their best to stay out of the way and go unnoticed. This particular sore thumb looked even more out of place than usual as Clint casually assessed his appearance. His hair was wavy and long on top and lacked any evidence of styling products or effort. He was good looking but was being held back by a mustache and beard that were a few weeks past due of a good trim. Clint noted the generic, ill fitting white shirt and black trousers and shook his head. Cheap rental tux. His overall demeanor screamed Hipster as he stared in confusion in the direction of the DJ and occasionally wrinkled his nose in disapproval. But there was something about him and Clint couldn’t help but smile at his discomfort as he edged his way around the bar.
“Was it guilt or did you give in to shut someone up?” Clint asked and nodded at the bartender for another drink. He watched as full, soft lips grinned and his body tightened at the warm, deep laugh and the long, graceful fingers that pushed through that careless hair.
“Jared dragged me here,” he explained as his head jerked toward the dance floor and Clint’s eyes followed until they reached a petite, slender blonde sandwiched between two beefy guys. It was the basic white dress shirt and tuxedo pants that linked him to the man next to Clint. If they hadn’t been similarly dressed, he never would have guessed they were together. The guy on the floor was in his element while the guy at the bar was in his own private hell. “He got bored at the wedding reception and wouldn’t stop begging. He’s been trying to get me to come out with him for years,” he said and Clint leaned closer as he reached for his drink. He smelled like soap and starch and for some reason, it made the hair on the back of Clint’s neck stand and his nerves wind tighter.
“I’m Clint,” he said as he offered his hand.
“Ryder,” he said as he took Clint’s hand. Heat slid up Clint’s arm and he held his breath as it spread through his chest. “Do you come here often?” He asked and Clint shook his head, mostly to clear it.
“I’ve never been here before but it’s all pretty standard, compared to most of the clubs I’ve been to,” he said and Ryder nodded as his eyes clung to Clint’s.
“They’re all pretty much the same,” he agreed and Clint laughed as Ryder’s nose wrinkled.
“It’s not that bad and most of the people here are having a good time,” he said and Ryder’s lips pulled tight.
“You’re not friends with the owner, are you?” He asked and Clint laughed again as he shook his head.
“No,” he said and Ryder looked relieved.
“I do that,” he said and Clint noticed a hint of a slur. He was on his way to being drunk. “I’m good at saying the most awkward thing possible,” he admitted and Clint waved dismissively.
“It’s my job to hang out in places like this but I get that it’s not for everyone,” he said and Ryder’s eyes narrowed.
“What do you do?” He asked as his eyes finally dropped to Clint’s clothes. Clint got the feeling a person’s clothes were usually the last thing Ryder looked at.
“I promote and book artists and DJs and do some DJing now and then,” he explained and Ryder cringed.
“I’m sorry. But I don’t get this house music or whatever you call it,” he said and Clint shrugged again.
“I noticed. But to each their own,” he said and Ryder nodded in agreement. “What do you do?” Clint asked and Ryder’s lips pulled into a wide smile.
“I teach the second grade,” he said and Clint grimaced as his head pulled back.
“Oh, no. Why?” He asked and Ryder laughed.
“I love teaching and I love kids,” he said as he stepped closer. Their arms brushed and another current of heat rushed through Clint.
“I don’t get that. Little kids make my teeth itch,” he mumbled and he stared at Ryder’s lips as he fought to keep them straight.
“I have a blast and I feel like I’m making a positive difference in their lives,” he explained and Clint’s brows pulled together as he swayed toward Ryder.
“I hate when little kids talk too much,” he said and Ryder shrugged.
“I love it. You never know what they’re going to say next. They’re like little comedians or walking and talking middle fingers,” he said and Clint’s eyes flicked to the ceiling.
“They’re kind of obnoxious,” he said and Ryder shrugged again.
“I don’t mind. I need to go to the bathroom,” he said abruptly and Clint frowned.
“I think it’s there,” Clint said as he pointed to the wall behind Ryder and he nodded.
“I know. Come with me?” He asked and Clint blinked as he watched Ryder turn and take a few stumbling steps toward the bathroom door.
Clint shook his head again and followed. Maybe Ryder was uncomfortable and felt less out of his depth with Clint tagging along. Ryder had a laid back, unpretentious vibe that was totally at odds with just about everyone else in the club. He was right behind Ryder as they passed through the door and Clint was nodding at a bouncer exiting the bathroom when he was pulled into a stall.
“What the fu…” Clint’s eyes flared as his back slammed into the door and Ryder’s mouth covered his.
Heat and lust exploded in Clint’s chest and groin as Ryder’s tongue swirled around his. He grunted into Ryder’s mouth as their bodies crushed against each other in the cramped stall and Ryder ground against him. Clint’s nerves flickered and tightened at the feel of Ryder’s tall, slender, hard body pressed against his as a hand slid down his chest. Clint pushed his fingers into Ryder’s hair and hummed as they slid through silky, cool strands and his eyes became heavy. They snapped open as he felt fingers frantically tugging at the fly of his trousers and he pulled his head back on a gasp.
“What are you doing?” He asked and Ryder’s lips curved goofily as he went for Clint’s lips. Clint dodged the kiss and pushed against his shoulder and Ryder laughed.
“Trying to give you head,” he whispered loudly as his hand wrapped around Clint’s hard-on and Ryder’s eyes widened. “Holy shit,” he slurred as his fingers searched for the zipper and Clint shook his head as he grabbed Ryder’s wrists.
“No thanks,” he said firmly as he pushed Ryder’s hands away. “I’m not really into that,” Clint stated and Ryder’s brows rose as he swayed back and forth.
“You’re not into getting your dick sucked?” He asked in disbelief and Clint gave him a hard look.
“I prefer to have a few drinks and decide I’m into someone before I let them grope me,” he explained and Ryder rolled his eyes.
“Pffftttt…” He waved dismissively. “This is what we do, right? Find guys to hook up with in bathrooms,” Ryder mumbled and Clint’s face twisted.
“Is this your first day being gay?” He asked as he pushed Ryder back a step and Ryder’s eyes were unfocused as he looked in Clint’s direction before he held up his finger. Clint waited as Ryder rocked back and forth then jumped when Ryder swung toward the toilet and a torrent of brown fluid rushed from Ryder’s mouth. Unfortunately, Ryder’s aim wasn’t great and it washed over the toilet and flooded the floor around it. Clint pressed himself to the door and his lip curled in disgust as he tried not to notice the chunks of pale yellow and green. “Quiche?” He asked flatly and Ryder nodded as he blindly grabbed a handful of toilet paper and mopped his face.
“I don’t eat meat and Jake and Lisa think salmon is a vegan option,” he mumbled and Clint groaned impatiently as Ryder backed into him.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Clint complained under his breath as he reached behind him and turned the handle. The door swung open and he filled his lungs with slightly fresher air before inspecting his clothes. Thankfully, there were no traces of the contents of Ryder’s stomach. The front of Ryder’s trousers were splattered with wet spots and Clint jumped back as Ryder stepped closer.
“Is your place close by?” He asked and Clint snorted as he grabbed Ryder by his sleeve and pushed him toward the sink.
“Not happening,” he said as he turned on the water and reached for the paper towels. “Wash your face and your hands,” Clint ordered and Ryder’s lip pushed out.
“That sucks. I thought you were into it,” he said as he filled his hands with water and Clint raised a brow as he watched Ryder clumsily splash water on his face and wash his hands.
“We’ve known each other for less than an hour and you got the impression I was into filthy toilets and vomit?” Clint asked as he passed Ryder a handful of paper towels and he laughed drowsily.
“Noooo… I thought you were into me,” he said as he dried off and Clint shrugged.
“I might have been but that’s pretty much over,” he said and Ryder pouted playfully as he stumbled in Clint’s direction.
“It’s cool. Let’s just go someplace quiet and I can change your mind,” he insisted and Clint shook his head as he grabbed Ryder’s elbow and pushed him toward the door.
“I think you definitely need someplace quiet,” he muttered as he steered Ryder toward the dance floor and Ryder shook his head.
“I’m not good at dancing,” he admitted loudly before he threw his arms up and did his impression of one of those giant inflatable waving air guys. Clint winced as he looked around and hoped no one assumed they were together.
“Stop doing that,” Clint demanded as he grabbed Ryder’s arms. “There’s Jared,” he said as he pointed and nudged Ryder toward him.
“Jared!” He called loudly as he jerked in his direction and Clint sighed in relief when Jared paused and stared at Ryder in shock.
“What the fuck happened?” He asked as he reached for Ryder then leaned back and held Ryder at arm’s length.
“I tried to give him a blow-job but he wasn’t feeling it,” Ryder slurred loudly and waved toward Clint. Jared was mortified when he looked at Clint.
“I’m so sorry! He’s not like this, I swear!” He said as he tried to hold Ryder up. “How much did you drink?” He asked as his eyes searched Ryder’s face and Ryder smirked.
“I have no idea,” he admitted and Jared groaned. “I asked the bartender to make me something that doesn’t taste like ass and he made me some kind of tea,” Ryder said and Clint’s lips pulled tight.
“I’m guessing they were long island iced teas,” he offered and Jared rolled his eyes.
“Great. You never drink and tonight you decide to suck down a bunch of those,” he complained as he pulled Ryder’s arm around his shoulder and staggered. Clint shook his head before he took Ryder’s other arm and Ryder mumbled something incoherent before his head flopped forward. A bouncer started in their direction and Clint shook his head faintly. The sooner and quieter Ryder was sent on his way, the better. “If you can help me get him to the car, I can get someone to help me when we get back to the hotel,” Jared huffed.
“Great,” Clint mumbled as the trio angled through the club doors.
“Ryder’s going to be so embarrassed tomorrow,” Jared said and swung his head to the right and they turned. “I think this is partially my fault. I called him the most boring gay man in the world at the reception because he doesn’t drink or go out,” he admitted and Clint snorted. Ryder had done his best to prove Jared wrong. “He’s never had sex with a guy he met at a bar or through a hook-up app and I told him to lighten up and have fun. He got pretty cranky about having to eat eggs because there wasn’t some kind of tofu or shitty sprouts option,” Jared continued and Clint was starting to wonder if they parked in the same state as the nightclub. “He’s been weird since our best friend got engaged. I think he’s a little jealous,” he said and Clint chuckled under his breath.
“He didn’t seem like he’s very good at being gay. Are you sure he’s ready to go all in and get gay married?” Clint asked and Jared rolled his eyes.
“He’s fine at being gay, he just goes about it in a very boring way,” he explained. “I’m completely shocked that he put the moves on you, you’re definitely not his type,” Jared said and Clint’s brows pulled together.
type?” He asked and Jared nodded. Clint didn’t think he was shallow or conceited but he was usually most men’s type. Even straight guys loved him and thought he was attractive.
“He tends to go for the smart stable type,” he offered and Clint’s jaw dropped before he glared at Jared.
“Do you want my help?” He asked and Jared waved with his other hand.
“I’m not saying you’re dumb. I don’t know you,” he said and Clint gave him an impatient look. Jared ignored it. “The last guy was a librarian, the guy before that was a nurse and the guy before that was some kind of lawyer activist. I hated that dickbag,” Jared grumbled. “You’re more VIP section and your watch costs more than Ryder’s car. I don’t think he even owns a watch and his car is barely a car,” he added and Clint nodded in agreement. They were very different people and Ryder definitely wasn’t his type.
“He said he’s a vegan. I hate when I’m trying to eat something and someone has to point out that it had a face or might have had a soul,” Clint said and Jared laughed.
“He’s not one of those vegans. He’s pretty live and let live. But he’ll go on and on about GMAs and Monte Cristo if you get him started,” Jared said and Clint’s brows fell as he looked at Jared.