Nothing To Lose

An Out To Sea Novel

Chapter Eleven

 

© 2022 E.M. Lindsey

 

All rights reserved.

 

 

This serial novel is not meant for sale or distribution without the express permission of the author. These chapters are not authorize to appear on any other site except emlindseyauthor.com

 

 

Text is unedited and is subject to change before final publication. This book will be released on amazon after the completion of the serial novel.

 

Content Warning: This chapter contains microaggressions in the form of ableism and racism, as well as a character acting aggressive after a date.  No violence occurs, but please take care if these things are triggering for you.

***

Reaching for the door handle to the little restaurant, Peyton momentarily wished he’d taken Taylor up on his offer for a bite of his edible.   The last thing Peyton needed was to be stoned out of his mind on the first date he'd had in God only knew how long.  But with the way his stomach was churning, he wasn’t sure he’d manage to get a single bite of food down, let alone make coherent conversation.

 

Austin had been sweet over text, if not a little pushy, which had Peyton finally cracking on the idea of meeting up.  They had a long phone conversation where Peyton got to listen to Austin’s low rumble tell him there was nothing to worry about because he wasn’t interested in just a hook-up.  Peyton had waffled between keeping his stoma a secret and just having it out right then, but Taylor and Linden had both reminded him that only he got to choose when he was comfortable enough.

 

And if his date couldn’t understand why he didn’t tell him right away, he wasn’t the right man.

 

It all sounded good.  It was all the right words and all the right actions, but Peyton wasn’t a fool.  He knew life was more complicated than a set of black and white standards.

 

But he kept that thought to himself.

 

Now, he wasn’t sure he was regretting that or not as he walked to the host stand and gave a tense smile at the young woman behind a little computer screen.  “Hi.  I’m…I have a date?  It’s kind of a blind date, and…”

 

“He’s already here,” she said with a kind smile.  She leaned in close and dropped her voice.  “He’s pretty hot, so whoever set you up did a good job.”

 

It was mostly nerves that made Peyton laugh as hard as he did, but he still appreciated her for her words and the little wink she gave him after.  She kept her pace slow as they made their way through the busy dining room, and Peyton saw Austin before the hostess pointed him out.

 

He was attractive.  Even seated he could tell the man was tall.  His shoulders were broad, his hair was a light brown and expertly styled.  He looked like some sort of high-powered CEO or attorney or something so far above Peyton’s little baker status that he had no business being there.

 

When Austin looked up at him, his face was unreadable.  There wasn’t a twitch in his lips, or a flicker of his brow.  He just gave him a steady stare and then rose when Peyton was close enough.  He extended a hand with thick fingers and a tight grip, and he squeezed gently when Peyton offered his own.

 

“Glad you could make it,” Austin said.  His voice didn’t entirely match his face.  It was deeper on the phone, and Peyton had to wonder if maybe the guy was using an affect.  Not that it mattered, but it was a little odd.

 

He smiled anyway and took his seat as Austin dropped back down into his chair.  “Sorry I’m late.”

 

Austin quickly waved him off.  “No.  I was early.  I got nervous so I decided to come in and have a drink.”  At that, he lifted his hand and made a sharp gesture in the air which Peyton realized was him calling their server over.

 

It wasn’t…rude, necessarily, but it still made Peyton’s skin crawl a bit because who did that?  Why not just be patient?

 

Before he could decide whether or not he wanted to say something about it, the server appeared.  He looked barely nineteen with clear braces that wouldn’t let his lips close, and an ill-fitting button up.

 

“Good evening, sirs.  What can I get you to drink?”

 

Peyton hadn’t been called sir in a goddamn long while, and he almost laughed, but the serious look on Austin’s face had him holding it back.  “Uh…just water’s fine for me.”

 

Austin finally reacted.  He lifted a brow and leaned in toward him.  “Order a drink.”

 

Peyton shook his head.  “I don’t drink.”

 

Sitting back, Austin gave him a look, then turned to the server.  “I'll take a whiskey sour.  And surprise him with something non-alcoholic.”

 

“Water,” Peyton cut in, then smiled at the server who now looked terrified.  “Seriously, please.  Just water.  And some lemon on the side if you don’t mind.”

 

“Of course.”  The kid gave Austin a nervous look, but when Austin didn’t argue further, he hurried off.

 

Peyton turned his irritated gaze on the man.  “I can order for myself, you know.”

 

At that, Austin laughed, totally unfazed.  “I know.  But you should treat yourself tonight.  I asked you out so it’s on me.”

 

Peyton choked a little, then cleared his throat.  “I didn’t order water because I’m broke.”  Austin pinned him with a look of disbelief, and Peyton fought the urge to defend himself because this man had no business making any kind of assumptions about him.  He let himself crack just a little bit—not enough to give anything away, but at least he could set the tone because it was already obvious Austin was the kind of man who wasn’t going to deal well with Peyton shitting into a bag.  “I have a medical condition and I have to be careful with what I eat and drink.”

 

Something flashed in Austin’s eyes, but it was gone before Peyton could get a good read on it.  He sat back and crossed his arms, but the tension in Austin's shoulders had melted away.  “You should have said something.”

 

“Normally my dates don’t try and order for me,” Peyton fired back.  “I didn’t think it was going to be an issue.”

 

At that, Austin laughed like what he’d said was a joke.  “What can I say?  I’m a little old school.”

 

Not as charming as you think it is, bud, he thought to himself, but he decided not to voice that.  The date was already going weird and he wasn’t sure there was anything to be saved.  But…he owed it to himself to try.

 

 

*** 

 

 

Austin kept his mouth shut while Peyton was ordering his food—choosing the special that night with chicken and potatoes because he wouldn’t have to worry about that fucking with his digestion and causing a blockage.  He caught Austin watching him with a little frown once or twice, but the conversation eventually turned to normal things like hobbies, and Peyton’s baking, and Austin’s job.

 

They were reaching the end, Peyton turning down dessert when Austin suggested they share something.  “It’s nothing personal,” Peyton insisted.  “It’s just…ever since I started my bakery, I’ve turned into a total snob.”

 

Austin blinked, then threw his head back and laughed, holding up his hands in surrender.  “Alright, I’ll give you that one.  I’m having fun though, so do you mind if I order a coffee?”

 

Peyton was a little surprised the guy wanted to extend the date.  Yes, the weirdness from earlier had passed, but he wasn’t feeling any kind of spark.  And maybe that was just him being some kind of pathetic, hopeless romantic, but he wanted more than pleasant conversation.

 

Still, he wasn’t going to tell the guy no.  It wasn’t like he had to rush home and it was nice being out of the house again—and with a guy who seemed somewhat interested in him.

 

“Go for it,” Peyton said just as the server approached with the dessert menu.

 

Austin ordered his drink, then when the server walked off again, he leaned back and Peyton felt a shoe touch his calf for a brief second as the man stretched his legs out.  Austin grinned and didn’t apologize or even acknowledge that he’d done it.

 

“So, should we get into all the taboo stuff now?” Austin suggested.

 

Peyton felt his cheeks heat.  “Taboo stuff?”  Yes, Peyton liked to get a little creative in the bedroom, but he didn't think they'd be having that discussion there, right after dinner with a guy he probably wasn't going to see again.

 

“You know, awkward relationships with family, exes…”  He trailed off with a dark stare.  “Unless you had other ideas in mind?”

 

Peyton tried not to choke.  “Oh.  Ah.  I mean, my relationship with my family is pretty average.  I don’t talk to my parents much, but I’m really close with my brother.”

 

Austin’s brow quirked.  “Is it the cultural homophobe thing?”

 

At that, Peyton couldn’t decide if he wanted to laugh or scream because of course this man was assuming that Peyton’s birth parents would be homophobic, and it was so damn frustrating.  It had to be some kind of irony that the worst prejudices he'd felt were from the self-proclaimed, all-loving religious community his parents raised him in.

 

He shook his head and thumbed the rim of his now-empty water glass.  “My brother and I were adopted.”

 

Austin’s eyes widened.  “Oh! One of those…Chinese baby international things?”

 

Peyton had been asked that before—in more ways than one.  Usually with the person assuming he was, like, found naked and screaming in some village street or something.

 

But, as far as invasive questions went, Austin’s was on the milder side.  He just felt a pulse of disappointment because he’d been hoping the guy would be different.

 

“I’m not Chinese,” he said quietly.

 

Austin shrugged.  “So, what are you?”

 

Fuck’s sake. Spoke too soon.

 

“I’m a baker,” he shot back.  His palms were sweaty but his frustration had been higher than he realized because normally he didn’t snap that quick.

 

“I didn’t mean…”

 

“Yeah.  No one ever means it.”  He pushed his chair back and stood up.  “Thanks for dinner.  I can Venmo you my half if you want.”  With that, he turned on his heel and hurried out toward the front, his stomach sinking when he heard footsteps behind him.

 

He had his keys out when a strong arm grabbed his own, and panic with a hefty dose of adrenaline gave him the strength to rip himself away from Austin and take several steps back.  “Dude, didn’t anyone ever teach you not to be a fucking creep?”

 

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you that you should let people apologize when they fuck up?”

 

At that, Peyton laughed.  He was tired of letting shitty men like Austin get away with being dickheads all for the sake of being polite.  He shook his head then turned and started toward his car, freezing when he heard Austin start to follow him again.

 

“Read the fucking room, man,” he shot over his shoulder.  “Stop following me.”

 

To his credit, Austin did, and when Peyton finally got to his car, the guy was gone.  He slipped in behind the wheel and let out a trembling breath, then realized he was on the verge of crying.

 

He hated that the asshole had gotten to him that way.  He hated that he let everything take him right to that edge.  He’d just wanted to have a nice night out with someone who wasn’t a total weasel, but apparently, it was too much to ask.

 

Swallowing against the lump in his throat, he started his car and told himself that while the night was totally shot, he did have a cute kitten to come home to, and a ton of bakes that would let him eat deep into his feelings.

 

 

***

 

 

Peyton sat in his driveway long enough that it started to get cold.  Just before he started shivering, he let himself out and started toward the door, going stock-still when he heard a gruff voice call out, “You okay?”

 

His heart thumped until he realized that the voice was way deeper than Austin’s, and it was familiar.  He peered around the edge of the sidewalk and saw Hudson in his chair watching with dark eyes.  Peyton scrubbed both hands over his face as he walked a little closer.

 

“Do I look that bad?”

 

Hudson snorted a laugh without smiling.  “You sat in your car and stared at the wall for like twenty minutes.”

 

“Shit,” he breathed out, glancing around like maybe somehow the position of the moon would confirm Hudson’s words.  “Was it really that long?”

 

“Near to it.  Bad night?”

 

Peyton’s heart gave a little flutter because he definitely didn’t expect his neighbor to give a shit enough to ask if he was okay.  Yeah, they’d made progress the other night, but this was like alternate universe levels of weird.

 

“Forget I asked,” Hudson grumbled when Peyton was quiet for too long.  He grabbed his wheels and started forward toward his ramp, and Peyton’s heart sped up.

 

“Bad date,” he blurted.

 

Hudson froze, then turned slowly.  “How bad?”

 

“Pretty fucking bad,” Peyton said with a shattered laugh.  “The guy was an asshole, and he totally followed me to my car like a creep.”

 

“I have friends you know.  Who are okay with being a little morally grey, if you need someone to take care of it,” Hudson offered with a low growl.

 

Peyton laughed again, this time a little lighter.  “Okay, not that much of a creep.  He just…”  Peyton didn’t want to tell Hudson exactly what the guy said because a lot of people didn’t get what the big deal was, and he just didn’t have the energy to explain it one more fucking time.  “He said some shit, so I left the date, then he tried to follow me out to the parking lot.  I think I’m cursed.”

 

Hudson stared a good long moment, then jerked his head toward the door.  “Come inside.  You can meet my bird.”

 

Peyton blinked in surprise.  “Is that…literal?  You have a bird?”

 

Hudson scoffed as he gripped his wheels and rolled up the ramp.  “I have a bird.  And he’s also a total asshole.  Parting gift from my ex-husband who said he didn’t want me to be lonely.”

 

Peyton grimaced because on the outside, it seemed like a sweet gesture, but he could see it for the dig it was. It was hard to argue, considering that Hudson was abrasive and rude on his best days, but everyone deserved to have people who cared about them.  And the more he was getting to know his neighbor, the more he realized that Hudson did have a soft center.

 

Maybe not like marshmallow fluff, but at least a little bit like salt water taffy.

 

He scoffed at his own internal monologue and quickly followed Hudson inside, hoping the man would distract him so he wouldn’t lose his filter and say all that shit aloud.

 

Hudson’s place was exactly the way Peyton imagined it would be.  It was organized clutter with low tables covered in papers—some of them printed on, others drawn on.  He didn’t have any bookshelves or art, but he had plants and in the far corner next to a massive TV was one of those architect drawing tables he saw in the movies.

 

“What do you do?” he blurted.

 

Hudson half-spun his chair. “What?”

 

Peyton slapped his hand over his face and dragged it down.  “Sorry.  I mean for work.”  He gestured weakly at the drafting table.  “You design stuff?”

 

For whatever reason, that made Hudson’s cheeks pink and his mouth twitch.  “Yeah, you could say I design stuff.  Did you really come in here to talk about my job?”

 

Peyton shrugged and let out a nervous laugh.  “Considering you, like, never really talk about yourself, yeah.  I guess I kind of did. It sounds better than talking about my crap date.”

 

There was a flash of something like sympathy in Hudson’s eyes and he sighed, gesturing to the sofa.  “Beer?”

 

“Water?” Peyton suggested instead.  He could drink more since his surgery, but it still always made him feel like crap.

 

Hudson shrugged like he didn’t care, which was unusual since Peyton’s friends usually gave him shit about not drinking, and he wheeled away, leaving Peyton alone.  He glanced around the room for another moment, then flopped onto the sofa which was the strangest mixture of stiff and comfortable.

 

Hudson returned a second later with two bottles of water between his thighs, and he rolled up toward Peyton and held one out.  “I’m not really a fan of the bottled stuff, but I’m still working on mastering multiple drink transport without making it look like I pissed myself.

 

Peyton snorted a laugh, then flushed lightly.  “Sorry. That’s not funny.”

 

“It doesn’t bother me,” Hudson said, waving his hand at him before setting his own bottle down on the table.  Peyton tried not to stare as Hudson locked the brake on his chair, then deftly transferred himself to the sofa.  “You can ask,” Hudson said gruffly after a beat.

 

Peyton shook his head.  “No.  I mean, not that I don’t…I’m not saying I don’t care.  I just…that’s not…”

 

“Breathe,” Hudson ordered.

 

Peyton sucked in a lungful of air, then let it out slowly.  His pulse started to normalize as his anxiety dropped into it’s usual quiet simmer. “This is probably why that guy was kind of a douche.  I just can’t seem to fucking function in social situations.”

 

“You were fine before. Obviously he got you worked up,” Hudson pointed out.

 

Peyton licked his lips, then cracked the top of his water and took a long drink.  The last thing he wanted to do was give this man ammunition to use against Peyton the next time he fell into a bad mood.  But there was also something about Hudson that felt inherently safe.

 

He had no idea why, but his gut rarely ever steered him wrong.

 

At least, not when it came to trusting friends.

 

Relationships, well… That was a work in progress.

 

Peyton finally just breathed out a sigh and sat back.  “When I first got to the restaurant, he tried to order for me, like I was a fucking toddler.  Then when I told him I had medical issues he got…”

 

“Weird?” Hudson offered.

 

Peyton’s mouth twitched at the corners.  “Yeah. He kept watching me like he was trying to figure out what it was.  The rest of the meal wasn’t so bad, but then he called me Chinese and when I told him I wasn’t, he, uh…”

 

“Said what are you?” Hudson asked.

 

Peyton blinked at him.  “Familiar with that?”

 

“I have enough people of color in my company that I’ve seen it more times than I care to,” Hudson said quietly.  “Also, my mom is one of those people.”

 

His mom.  The one who’d been responsible for that gut-wrenching phone call Peyton had overheard.  “Fuck her,” he blurted before really thinking, then he went bright pink because he knew that wasn’t his place.

 

Hudson stared at him for a long moment, then burst into quiet laughter, hanging his head almost like he was trying to hide how amused he was.  “Yeah.  Pretty much.”

 

Peyton rubbed at his eyes.  “Sorry.  I’m usually a lot nicer than that.”

 

“You don’t need to do your whole people pleasing shit in my house, okay?” Hudson told him in a tone that was just shy of harsh.  Peyton bristled because while he knew what he was like, being called out on it was always a little hard to hear.  “You can call the bitch a bitch.”

 

He wanted to say that he didn’t know her so that might not be a fair assessment, but he could tell whatever the woman had put Hudson through definitely earned her the title.  So he just nodded.  “And if you ever need to vent about her, I’m here to listen.”

 

Hudson looked at him with a raised brow.  “Is that what we’re doing here tonight?”

 

Busted.  Peyton knew damn well he’d deflected.  “It’s always been easier for me to let someone else take over and put the focus on whatever they have going on.  Every time I get, like, ten minutes away from a situation—no matter how much it bothered me—it feels like I overreacted.”

 

Hudson sat forward a little, leaning on his thigh with one of his forearms, and he gave Peyton a serious look.  “I get that.  Being raised by a person like my mom, I spent a lot of years trying to unlearn all of those bad habits.  None of my hurt was ever as important as her feelings or me doing what she wanted.  I thought it was normal for a goddamn long time.  And I think maybe I went a little too far to the other side because I know what a dickhead I can be…”

 

“I wouldn’t say that,” Peyton told him with a gentle smile.  “More like…grumpy asshole?”

 

Hudson snorted.  “However you want to dress it up, you can rest assured that I know who I am and what I’m like.  She’s the reason I tolerated my ex for as long as I did.  Why I let him walk all over me and convince me that I wasn’t worth…”  Hudson trailed off and glanced away like he hadn’t meant to say any of that.

 

Peyton wanted to reach for him on instinct, but he knew better.  He squeezed his hands tight into fists and waited for Hudson to finish.

 

“Whatever this fucker said to you tonight…well, I’m not going to tell you not to let it bother you because I know how that shit works.  I know that no matter how tough you are, it doesn’t just roll off.”

 

No, it didn’t, though Peyton had never tried to pretend he was tough.  He knew damn-well he was going to lie in bed and over-examine everything Austin had said to him, and all the things he’d done to make Austin feel like he could say the things he did.

 

Eventually he’d come to the conclusion that nothing was his fault, but not until he’d worked his emotions into the ground.

 

Still, talking with Hudson was helping in ways that he wasn’t expecting.  He kind of thought Hudson might just call him a moron for letting a guy like Austin get to him.  He wasn’t expecting Hudson to validate how he felt.  He wasn’t expecting Hudson to understand.

 

“How long have you been divorced?” Peyton asked.

 

Hudson bit his lip and shrugged, glancing away again.  It was obvious the topic of his ex made him uncomfortable, but he also wasn’t refusing to answer and Peyton had no doubt Hudson couldn’t be bullied into revealing anything.

 

“It’s been a good long while.  Long enough that I’m starting to feel like a class-A moron for not being able to move on.”

 

“You still…”

 

Fuck no,” Hudson said in a rush, his bark of laughter bitter.  “Uh, if you were gonna ask me if I still love him, then the answer is fuck no.”

 

Peyton smiled gently.  “I was going to ask if you still talk to him.”

 

“He knew me better than that.  I’m a burn the bridge kind and the town on the other side of it kind of guy,” Hudson said.  He paused to take a long drink, and he rubbed his right eye so hard it looked painful.  “That’s why he got me the fucking bird.”

 

Right, the bird.

 

“I have to say, that might be the weirdest divorce gift I’ve ever heard of,” Peyton admitted.

 

Hudson laughed and shrugged.  “Nah.  Not when you understand what he meant by it.”  When Peyton lifted a brow, Hudson actually blushed and stared down at his hands.  “It was to point out that chances were, after he was gone, the only thing I’d have left to talk to was the animal.”

TBC

Chapter Twelve 

Start At The Beginning

***

Chapter Twelve Preview:

“Do you eat it now?” Peyton had asked.

 

Hudson had given him a look to make it obvious he could tell Peyton was fishing, but he answered anyway.  “No.  I never buy it for myself anymore.”

 

“Would you though?  Like, say a baker moved in next door and wanted to make something nice for his new friend.  Would you eat it then?”

 

Hudson had rolled his eyes and grimaced, but eventually he gave a grudging shrug and Peyton took that for the yes that it was.