“HEY, THERE.” A petite Hispanic girl in a bridesmaid dress parked herself before Nate and smiled, her pretty face and bright red lipstick a picture of appeal. “You want to dance?”
“Oh.” She looked very sweet. She did. God knew that was what one did at weddings. Dancing. Still, Nate shook his head. “Thanks, honey, but I don’t dance.”
Her face fell, but she gave him a head-tilt and a wiggle anyway. “You sure?”
“I am. Sorry. Really.” He put extra wattage into his apologetic grin.
The smile worked. She winked. “No problem, man. A girl has to try.” When the conga line came by, she joined the end and held on to some guy in a gray suit who looked like an accountant.
Nate hadn’t even known his buddy Kyle knew any accountants.
Then again, he’d never believed Kyle would settle down with one woman either. He glanced at the dance floor where Kyle was cutting a stylish rug in his black tux, his redheaded bride doing some sort of funky chicken.
You had to love a woman who would do the funky chicken in a Vera Wang.
“You blew that chance, buddy.”
Nate glanced sideways at his best friend in all the world. “What, the girl? You know I don’t dance, Dusty.”
He, Kyle, and Dustin had been at Fort Bliss together, had all managed to be deployed at the same time, even though they had one officer, one sniper, two medics, and two total fuckups out of the three of them. Of all the guys in the garrison, these were the two Nate kept in touch with, the two who could ask him to come to a tacky wedding reception at a VFW.
“I know, but she was okay.”
“She was pretty. Seemed nice too.” Too bad he didn’t get hot for women. Hell, the only person he’d gotten hard over in the last year was the man standing next to him, and Dusty might as well live on the moon as far as that was concerned.
Shit, Dusty lived out in space where everyone was concerned. Nate had never seen him date anyone.
“So, why didn’t you buy her a drink?”
“Because she might have gotten me drunk and made me dance.” He grinned before glancing sideways again. “Surprised you’re not wearing scrubs.”
“Fuck you. I do own other clothes.” Dusty flipped him off, which made his grin widen.
“Yeah, but we never see them.”
Nate did love the look, though—starched, dark gray button-up, creased jeans, ostrich-skin boots. There was a Stetson somewhere hanging up too. It suited Dr. Lowry to the bone, even if the man’s dark hair was getting long enough to curl around the edges.
“Shut up and buy me a drink.” Dusty elbowed him in the ribs. “We need to mourn our impending loss.”
“What?” Nate frowned, trying to figure out that statement.
“Kyle. He’s an old married now. We’ll never see him.”
Nate checked the dance floor again, where he thought maybe Kyle was doing a dying penguin dance. “I think he needs your medical assistance.”
“Nah, he’s just really bad at the hustle. Come on. Drink.”
“Sure.” Nate led the way to the bar, Dusty on his heels. “So, why do you think we’ll never see Kyle? Liah is a doll, and she actually seems to like us.”
“She does now. Wait until they have kids. Then we’ll be a bad element.” Christ, in Dusty’s voice, “bad” had forty-seven syllables and took the man ten years to drawl it out.
“Yep,” Dusty agreed, utterly unrepentant.
“You want a beer?” Dusty wasn’t much on the hard stuff, always talking about liver problems and kidney flushing blah-blah.
“Yeah. Uh, Dos Equis, please.”
The bartender nodded, and Nate glanced at Dusty. Man, Dusty never touched a dark beer unless he was in a mood. “I’ll have a Corona,” Nate added.
They waited in silence until they got their drinks. Then Nate wandered off to the back of the room so he could grill his buddy. “So, what’s with you?”
“Huh?” Dusty’s gaze slid away from him, which was a shame, because Nate really liked those bright blue eyes, the gleam of mischief always present in them. “Nothing.”
“Are you really that worried about Kyle dumping us?”
“No.” Dusty tilted his head back, long, tanned throat working when he chugged his beer. No looking. No lusting. Lusting over your incredibly not-interested pal was deadly.
“Did you not get to sleep before you came?” Dusty could be grumpy if he had to work a double and lost his beauty sleep.
“You’re being a bear, man.” Nate stared, waiting.
Dusty sighed, heading to a little cluster of chairs no one was using any longer. Nate followed, then settled in across from Dusty and slugged back some beer. Patience was key.
They sat there for a long moment or two before Dusty spoke up. “I think I’m jealous. I know that makes me a shitty friend.”
“Jealous? Of Kyle?” Nate raised a brow. “Explain.”
“Pushy.” Dusty smiled for him, though, an ironic little twist of lips. “It’s just that it occurred to me now, I mean, that Kyle found someone. That he was the first one of us to do it, and that I’m not likely to have a relationship at the ER.”
“And you want one?” He thought Dusty was, like, a medical monk or something. Married to his stethoscope and caffeine.
“I didn’t know I did until now. But yeah.” Dusty kept his gaze on the floor, shifting from side to side. “I mean, it’s still an amorphous thing.”
“Listen to you using your twenty-five-cent words.” Wow. Dusty was seriously the least sexually interested dude he’d ever met. He’d never seen the man so much as flirt with a woman at a bar, and God knew they’d spent enough time in bars together.
“Oh, fuck off. I mean, I just never really thought what I might be missing until now.”
“So, get on an online dating site.”
“Shit, is that how you do it?” Dusty asked.
“How many dates have you seen me on?” Nate asked, deadpan.
“None. Doesn’t mean you don’t have any. I work a lot. You work a lot.”
Dusty was the workaholic among them. He’d been a med-school slave, then a medic, then an intern. As soon as he’d finished his residency, he was in the damned ER almost 24-7. Nate was a paramedic, and Kyle worked as a security team manager. When they went home, they were off work. But Dusty? He was always on call.
Nate snorted into his bottle. “Trust me, I don’t date.”
“Why not?” Dusty leaned forward, hands between his knees, lean shoulders rolling like he had a catch. “You’re missing out, man. You need to get out there, see what kind of fish are in the sea.”
Nate frowned, the idea of being with someone who wasn’t Dusty niggling at him. Kyle, well, Nate had joy for Kyle. Liah rocked, and Kyle looked so happy. Dusty, though, Nate still wanted that for himself. He wanted Dusty to look at him someday the same way Liah looked at Kyle.
What a pipe dream.
“You’re all scowly.” Dusty grimaced. “I didn’t mean to kill the mood, man.”
“Hey, no. I mean, I’m just not unhappy as is. I like my job. I have you to hang out with….”
“Oh, wait.” Dusty touched his arm, kind of a slap mixed with a pat. “I didn’t mean I don’t appreciate you and your studly self.”
“I get it.” He did, and it scared him. The bromance was gonna come to an end eventually, and then he’d be in the closet and alone without the damned object of his fantasies.
“No, I upset you. You’re scowling.” Dusty drained his beer. “I’m sorry, Nate. I’ll butt out, let you enjoy the reception.”
“Stop.” He caught Dusty’s arm. “No. Seriously. I’m okay. Hungry, though.”
“Me too. That chicken—” Dusty flapped a hand. “Was that even chicken?”
“Are you two maligning my wedding dinner?” Kyle appeared next to them, bow tie open, top shirt button undone.
Dusty widened his eyes, obviously going for innocent. “Would we do that?”
“Yes.” Kyle chuckled. “I know you don’t dance, Nate, but you should be out there two-stepping with the best of them, Dusty. Liah has some gorgeous cousins.”
“Not up to it, man.” Dusty waved a hand. “Need an attitude adjustment.”
“Well, I want to thank you both for standing up for me. For the speeches too. No one will be any wiser if you take off now. Liah and I are leaving in about half an hour, and we cut the cake and all.”
Dusty glanced at Nate pleadingly. “Can we?”
Nate just looked back at Kyle. “You sure, buddy? We want to be here for you.”
“Not a problem, guys. You were here. You kicked ass. Go get some rest. I’ll see you when I get back from the honeymoon, huh?” Kyle gave them this blissed-out grin, which made them both laugh.
“You got it,” Nate said, reaching out for a handshake. Kyle gave him a man-hug instead, which never made him feel pervy. Not like when Dusty did it.
Kyle hugged Dusty too, then waved them off. “Go. I’ll let Liah know where y’all went. Promise.”
That was all the encouragement Dusty seemed to need. He headed out at warp speed, tugging Nate behind him, a tugboat and a barge, cutting a swath through the crowd.
“Whew,” Dusty said when they got outside. “We’re safe. What do you want to do, man?”
Honestly, all Nate wanted to do now was eat something and crash. The whole groomsman thing exhausted him. He pulled his mental boots up, though, and found a smile for Dusty. “I dunno, man. What do you want to do?”
“Food and sleep.” Dusty chuckled. “In that order. Look, for once I’m not on call. We could meet the pizza guy at your place, and I can crash in front of your giant TV.”
Nate fought the victory dance that wanted out of him. “That’s not gonna help us meet people, buddy.”
“Bah. I got you. And your TV.”
Dusty had the tiniest apartment on earth, and since he was never home, he hadn’t bothered with any expensive electronics. Nate rented a little house, and he loved his movies and sports, so he had a flat-screen the size of an elephant and all the bells and whistles. Boom. Dusty did obsess about it at times.
Still, it gave Nate a happy that Dusty seemed set on hanging with him.
“Okay. I’ll call Lorenzo’s, and we’ll swing by and get a sausage pie, huh?” Nate got out his phone and called his favorite pizza place, which he had on speed dial. He didn’t cook a lot, really. Okay, not at all. Kyle was the one who knew how to do something other than grill. Nate and Dusty were kinda hopeless, even with both of them having moms to call for help.
“Dude, get me a calzone too. Comes with a side salad, huh?”
“Greedy gut.” He had no idea where Dusty put it all. The man was skinny as the day they’d met in the Army. Nate had to work out an hour a day to adjust to civilian life. All that good food and no daily PT requirements.
“I am. I work a lot.”
Yeah, and Dusty lived on chips and guacamole too. Not much sustenance there. Nate teased him about his damned blood sugar all the time, even though they were really depressingly normal when he forced Dusty to test all his vitals.
Kyle was the one who was desk-sitting more these days, and who had asked them to help him get in shape for the wedding. Man, it had been fun to put him through boot camp all over again.
Nate ordered the food. By the time they got there, the order would be ready for pickup. He got an extra calzone so he could have something to eat tomorrow. His fridge was a ghost town thanks to all the wedding lead-up. Bachelor parties and rehearsal dinners and all made for not very many leftovers.
“Sorry to drag your happy ass down,” Dusty said after a long silence.
“You didn’t. I mean, I worry about you, but I’m not upset.” Much. Okay, he was, but not about anything he would confess to Dusty.
“You’re a good friend, no matter what they say about you down at the jail.” Dusty smiled sideways at him, blue eyes shining with gratitude, and Nate felt a pang of guilt deep in his belly. Dusty needed him to stop feeling sorry for himself and be that good friend, so that was what he would do.
They picked up the food, headed back to his place, and watched some stupid movie while they ate. Big party animals that they were, they both dozed off not long after supper.
When Nate woke up a few hours later, he chuckled at the mess they’d made with plates and boxes. Dusty slept through cleanup, so Nate covered his friend with a quilt his mom had sent him, ready to let Dusty sleep on his couch. He couldn’t resist touching Dusty’s cheek lightly, his chance to feel the man’s skin impossible to resist.
Dusty smiled in his sleep, and Nate let that soothe his soul some.
Then he turned off the lights and the TV and went to his bed alone. He had a feeling he would be doing that a lot, even after both of his best friends settled down for good.