Love, served behind the stick.
Kyle McKee lives a charmed life. He co-owns Under, an uptown speakeasy, where he is chief mixologist. Friends poke fun at Kyle’s tiny one-bed apartment in Chelsea, but they’re the best support system a man could ask for. Unfortunately, Kyle’s lackluster love life has led him to take a break from dating.
Harlem resident Luka Clarke is a lieutenant with Engine 47, the Pride of Morningside, where he carries on his father’s legacy with the FDNY. Luka, who is mixed race and bisexual, has his eye on Kyle, whom he met at a local burger joint and he just needs to make time to visit Kyle’s bar.
Before work one evening, Kyle is trapped inside the luncheonette when a fire breaks out. Luka’s firehouse answers the call and he connects with Kyle again under the most unexpected of circumstances. When Kyle gratefully invites Luka and the firehouse squad to Under, the flirting between the two men leads to a date.
Kyle and Luka quickly grow close, but Luka’s mother and sister distrust Kyle for being both white and gay. Luka believes his family will come around and accept Kyle in the end, but Kyle is not optimistic and hides his disquiet as attraction blossoms into love.
Kyle and Luka’s near-idyllic bubble is shattered one evening after a hate crime leaves them scarred, inside and out. Shaken, they put on a strong front but struggle inwardly against fear and personal demons. As the emotions seething beneath the surface finally come to a head, both men must decide if they have the strength to find love enough to conquer hate.
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Kyle McKee set down his gym bag and yoga mat and pulled up a seat at his gym’s juice bar. The class he’d taken had warmed his skin and stretched his muscles and joints to their limits. He felt like the world’s most relaxed slab of single New York man, which was good for Kyle’s state of mind. He’d been stressed lately, about his love life in particular. Because damn if every guy he’d been out with in the last two months hadn’t turned out to be a shitheel of epic proportions. So much so, Kyle had decided to stop dating entirely.
Eyes closed, Kyle forced away thoughts of dating catastrophes. He rolled his neck from side to side but peeled his lids open again when the chair on his left slid back and his friend Malcolm Elliot dropped into the seat. Malcolm gave Kyle a lazy grin. At six-three, he stood a few inches taller than Kyle, and he looked rosy-cheeked and loose limbed, his blue-gray eyes shining.
“I am a man-sized untwisted pretzel,” Malcolm said. “I’m not sure what that means, so don’t ask.”
“You’re yoga-stoned, dude.” Kyle smiled at Malcolm’s laugh.
“Is that a thing?”
“Totally a thing.”
Malcolm narrowed his eyes at Kyle. “You’re the one with the bloodshot eyes—what did you do after class?”
“Ugh, nothing but itch from allergies. Ragweed is my kryptonite.” Kyle pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers, then nodded at the menu on the wall behind the counter. “What are you drinking?”
“I’ll do a Kale Storm with protein,” Malcolm said.
Kyle held up a hand when Malcolm reached for his wallet. “I’ll grab these—you paid last week.” He smiled at the barista who’d stepped up to take their order. “A Kale Storm with a protein powder shot and a Peanut Butter Baby with chia, please. You headed home after this?” he asked Malcolm.
Malcolm shook his head. “I’ve got errands to run. My kitchen has mysteriously emptied itself of food since my brother and his girlfriend came back to town. What about you?”
“I’m opening tonight, so I’ll just head to the bar. I have extra clothes at the office I can change into.” Kyle co-owned a speakeasy called Under with his friend Jesse Murtagh and, while he loved his job, the commute uptown from Chelsea to Morningside Heights could be a pain in the ass. He welcomed the option to skip extra stops when he could.
Malcolm ran his gaze over Kyle’s gray Henley and dark jeans. “You could always serve in what you’re wearing, you know. You’d blow Jesse’s mind.”
Kyle covered a theatrical gasp with one hand. “I would never!” His preference for black or dark gray clothing while working was a source of gentle teasing among his friends. “Seriously, I don’t feel like I’m working unless I’ve got my blacks on. I’ve done it for so long it’s just part of how I do my job.”
A thoughtful expression fell over Malcolm’s face. “I think I get it,” he said. “The black clothes are your uniform. I’ve got one too, though it’s a lot less hipster bartender.” He grinned at Kyle’s snicker. “When I worked in advertising, I wore a suit or a good jacket with dress trousers. It took me a while after I started at Corp Equality to feel okay about not dressing formally.” Malcolm waved at his hoodie and joggers. “I wouldn’t go into the office dressed like this unless I was working on a weekend even now.”
Kyle nodded. Malcolm worked as a social organizer at the headquarters of Corporate Equality Campaign, an organization dedicated to defending the rights of LGBTQ people in the workplace. While a non-profit, the CEC maintained a business-casual culture, and Malcolm always dressed with understated chic.
“Did you start wearing black at work on purpose?” Malcolm asked him. “Definitely seems like a smart idea given you mix drinks all night and could get splashed with booze.”
“I only get splashed when Jesse is mixing drinks,” Kyle replied, his tone dry. “But it was more an accidental habit. I got a job at a nightclub right after I moved to New York, and everyone on staff wore black,” he explained. “Not like that’s out of the ordinary—unless a club has a gimmick, staff usually wear black so they don’t stand out. Can’t have the clientele feeling like they’re not as pretty as the guy schlepping booze behind the bar.”
The barista appeared with their smoothies, and Malcolm quirked an eyebrow at Kyle.
“I get what you’re saying, but that doesn’t work, does it? I mean…it’s not like anyone forgets you’re a good-looking guy whether you’re wearing black or not.”
Kyle shrugged. “It’s more about fading into the background than anything else. Staff in any bar or club are supposed to keep the customers happy without their noticing the hard work going on.”
He sipped his smoothie and let out a satisfied sigh. He’d need something more substantial to eat before he started his shift at Under, but for now, his taste buds and stomach were happy with the combination of banana, peanut butter and chocolate almond milk.
Kyle ran a thumb over the moisture on his cup. He’d given Malcolm a pat answer, and though he could leave it at that, he didn’t want to. Compared with other friends in their shared circle, Malcolm was reserved to the point of appearing introverted. He’d become very close with another of their mutual friends, Carter Hamilton, who also worked at the CEC, and he’d also formed a connection with Kyle in the last several months.
Initially, being single among so many coupled-up friends had brought Kyle and Malcolm together, but Kyle had found he liked hanging out with Malcolm. Malcolm had introduced him to Sunday afternoon yoga classes, and Kyle had ushered Malcolm into the world of Fallout, an event Malcolm sometimes rued, particularly after an all-nighter of playing hard. Malcolm had listened while Kyle grumbled about men, and Kyle had taught him to mix killer drinks and cook fish tacos, and now, as the weather turned autumnal, Malcolm shared the occasional personal detail. Kyle knew those overtures were a sign of Malcolm’s trust, and he wanted Malcolm to know he trusted him in return.
“The real reason I stuck with the black clothes at work is because I was broke,” he said. “I moved here with fifteen hundred dollars total and a bus ticket back to Vermont, and I kept the ticket and most of the money in a safe deposit box at a bank in Midtown. Jesse jokes that I had more interest in buying food than clothes back then but he’s not wrong. Even if I’d spent my cash on clothes, I didn’t have a place to store them.” Kyle gave his friend an easy smile, but Malcolm’s expression sobered.
“You stayed with friends, right?” he asked.
“Friends and acquaintances, yeah. Guys I dated if they were okay with it. I’d kick in with extra food and I’d cook to help out, and people were cool about it. Sometimes, I’d take over a room if someone left, and if that wasn’t an option, I moved every couple of weeks to keep from wearing out my welcome.”
Kyle ran a hand over his dark hair. “Couch surfing meant keeping my stuff in one duffel bag so I could pick up and move at a moment’s notice. I bought three changes of blacks for work, and I’d do laundry every couple of days to make sure I had something clean. The pattern worked for what I needed at the time, but the habit stuck even after I got my own place and unpacked my duffel bag.”
Malcolm smiled. “Did you burn the bag?”
“No way, babe. I kept it! What do you think I used the last time we went to Southampton and stayed with Carter and Riley?”
Malcolm furrowed his eyebrows as he considered Kyle’s words, then his eyes went wide. “Your big green bag is the bag? Where the frock did you even buy that thing?”
“It belonged to my dad,” Kyle replied. “He served in the army and the sea bag is standard issue.” He wrinkled his nose. “Topic change, dude, because what is up with the ‘frocks’ and the ‘darns’ and the ‘back that truck ups’? Why are you talking like a summer camp counselor all of a sudden?”
A flush crept up Malcolm’s neck. “I might have let loose a bunch of f-bombs in front of Carter’s kids.” He held his hands up when Kyle’s jaw dropped. “Before you give me crap, I didn’t know Sadie and Dylan were within earshot. Carter’s ex brought them by on her way out of town with her boyfriend, and the kids set up a fort in the closet in Car’s office. They were supposed to be in the employee lounge, though, so Astrid and I didn’t check when we ducked into the office to talk about an event that started going pear-shaped.”
Too late, Kyle tried to smother his laugh and failed. It bubbled up out of him even as Malcolm’s expression shifted from contrite to aggrieved.
“It’s not funny, Kyle.”
“Oh, yes, it is.”
Malcolm scrubbed his forehead with one hand. “I swear a lot when I’m stressed.”
“You know, I’d never have guessed that about you.”
“That’s because I don’t usually do it out loud in front of people!” Malcolm exclaimed. “I was in the middle of a full-on rant when the kids started laughing, and of course, Carter walked in at that moment. Sadie told him I have an ‘even bigger potty mouth than Jesse,’” he grumbled, and the air quotes he drew with his fingers made Kyle laugh harder.
“Oh, man,” Kyle got out. “Car wasn’t mad, right?”
“I don’t think so. He told the kids they weren’t allowed to use the grown-up words, but I could tell he was having trouble keeping a straight face. I didn’t dare ask about it because I want him to forget it ever happened.”
Kyle leaned over and ruffled Malcolm’s light brown hair, still damp from the shower. Malcolm normally wore it cropped short, but he’d been growing it out, and his hair spiked up in soft peaks under the playful touch.
“No offense, but I’m pretty sure Carter won’t forget if you keep up with the soft swearing. He knows you didn’t mean it, and he’d have told you by now if he had a problem with it. Just be yourself and don’t worry about it.” Kyle sipped his smoothie. “Maybe keep the ‘what the frock,’ though. That shit is funny.”
Malcolm’s lips twitched up into a smile. “Okay.”