JASE Emery felt ridiculous for being so ungrateful, so unappreciative of the sights he was taking in. Not one other twenty-one-year-old—hell, not many forty-year-olds—from his town got to see the things he’d seen. And here he was, too concerned with bullshit to enjoy the magnificence of Neuschwanstein Castle. He was too lost in matters he could do nothing about; angry words from back home in Texas.
He was usually good at dismissing things. He’d been away most of the four years he’d been enlisted and looked forward to ending his final tour of duty before being finished with the U.S. Army and all of Uncle Sam’s rules altogether. He’d kept his head down, left the personal shit back home, and done his job. Of course, now it was all for naught. And he was too upset to think about anything but going back to his hotel room in Munich, leaving his phone there with his bags, and finding distractions in the city. This was his last vacation, his last bit of freedom with no family, no drama, no rigid schedules. He damn well intended to enjoy it.
Of course, getting back to Munich would require another two-and-a-half-hour bus ride, and he’d traveled all this way to see this damn castle, spent the money for the tickets and the tour, so the least he could do was enjoy himself.
He’d already missed half the information about the Palast because he’d been staring at his cell phone or lost in thought. He scowled as he pushed the Do Not Disturb option on his touch screen. No more distractions.
He followed the guided group outside and took in the beauty of the “nineteenth-century Romanesque revival palace”—according to the tour guide—with its white walls and pointed towers. It really was like a fairy tale castle. He felt a faint smile crease his face as he tilted his head up, soaking in the mild warmth of the springtime sun, enjoying the view of the majestic castle against the backdrop of lush emerald trees and clear blue skies. He’d been in cities or in the Sand Box so long he’d missed clear views and mild days like the one he basked in at the moment.
Most of the tour group dispersed, taking photos and chatting quietly. Their respect for the surroundings was nice, as no one raised their voices above a conversational level, a quiet laugh heard every once in a while.
He was enjoying the solitude and the peace of the moment enough to give in to the small twinge of homesickness. The temps here were much closer to what he experienced back home and the wide expanse of open sky more familiar to him than so many things he’d seen over the last three-and-a-half years. But the homesickness wasn’t enough to drown out the fact he loved each experience he was having on this trip. He was definitely glad he’d finally listened to his friends and struck out on a two-week tour of Europe.
He wasn’t sure why the clicking of a camera shutter got his attention. That shutter in particular could easily have been lost to the gentle winds or the tittering laughter around him. Listen to you being all fancy. He laughed at himself, remembering how much it annoyed his dad and younger brother when he used his “ten dollar words.” They hadn’t, neither of them, gone to college and were the type to think you were speaking down to them if you showed you were better educated than they were. Thankfully, Jase’s mother was proud of him, even if he was a snob in everyone else’s eyes. He was just a simple soldier who’d taken a few college credit courses.
Jase glanced over to where the camera shutters went off once more, spotting a man with what looked to be a pricey camera held up to his face. Jase frowned at the man. He could very well be taking photos of the castle, but for some reason Jase thought the man was photographing him.
“Sorry,” the man said, lowering his camera. Wow. He was one beautiful man. His skin was a shade too brown to be Italian, but Jase couldn’t tell exactly where he was from. He worked around every ethnicity from Greek to Hispanic, and Munich was no less diverse than the military as far as that went. The man’s black eyebrows were a bit thicker than average, lashes thick and ebony that set off soft, but beautiful almost-black eyes. The man’s high cheekbones, sharp, dimpled chin and pouting, super-full lips were enough to make him beyond model-pretty. Jase found himself tripped up by the stranger, even if the creep was taking photos of him.
Wait. That was weird. He continued frowning at the man whose timid smile morphed into a wide, friendly grin. “I get carried away.” The man stepped toward Jase, who eyed him back warily.
“Yeah, that’s weird.”
Jase didn’t expect the amused laughter that spilled from the handsome stranger. The guy couldn’t be much older than Jase. And where Jase was built solid like a soldier, the stranger was solid, but lithe. He wasn’t too thin; just on the far side of too muscular and masculine to be a twink, but not a meathead. Like Jase.
“You speak your mind. I like it.” Jase felt a shudder go through him at the not-too-deep, warm tone of the man’s voice. The stranger’s English was clear, obviously also American, though it had that lilt that Jase’s dad—rudely—called the hombre accent.
The stranger’s laughter died as Jase got lost in thought, still eying the man. “Oh, sorry. Do you not speak English?” The stranger pantomimed something that Jase couldn’t fathom would ever translate to the question he’d just asked, so he just raised a brow at the stranger. “Ay,” the stranger mumbled to himself, his tan cheeks coloring. “Perfect. Scare the foreigners, why don’t you?” The stranger continued talking to himself, smiling and putting his hands up as if to show, I mean no harm.
Jase still thought the guy was weird. Who takes photos of perfect strangers? But he couldn’t help laughing at the man’s discomfiture.
“Naw, man. I speak English fine. Just not fluent in stalker.”
The guy’s shoulders relaxed as he rolled his eyes and smiled again.
“I was just—what do the British call it? I was ‘taking the piss’?”
The stranger snorted. “So you were.” He held out his hand for a shake. “This is how your people greet one another, correct?”
“Was that a dig on my accent?”
“Same as takin’ the piss, man. I was fucking with you.”
“Oh,” stranger said. “Yes. It was. Though I assume handshakes are universal in the Western world. Don’t tell my mother I speak white people. She thinks I’m wild enough as it is.”
Weird or not, Jase kinda liked this guy. Jase held out his own hand and they shook. “Jase.”
The stranger tilted his head back and laughed again, exposing the long column and protruding Adam’s apple. Jase wanted to lick it, damn the man. But he didn’t imagine it was any more acceptable to go around licking guys’ throats here than it was back home.
“Well, Jase, my name’s Ase.”
Jase raised a brow again. “Seriously?”
“Indeed. If that’ll be too confusing, you’re welcome to call me Alessandro, though only my mami and tia call me that, these days. Much too ethnic for my friends, and Alé or Alex would have been way too easy.”
“Ah. So you’re from?”
“San Diego. My parents are from Mexico, though. Well, Papi is from Mexico. Mami is from Guatemala.”
That would have been one of Jase’s guesses. The Mexican-American part, not the Guatemalan bit. “I’d tell you where I’m from, but you’re taking pictures of me so I’m not sure I should.”
Ase narrowed his eyes. “Well, I guess it was awkward to do it without asking. Should have known you’d be an American. With that hairstyle and that posture I’d say military of some sort. You probably think I’m a terrorist.”
Jase flailed. “Oh God, I never said that.”
“Lucky I didn’t wear a thobe out; I’d have given you a heart attack.”
“Hey, now,” Jase snapped. “I grew up in Texas. Some of my friends…” He stopped himself as he realized how that sounded.
“You did not just go with the ‘some of my best friends are’ cliche.” Ase sighed, hands on his hips, shaking his head. “Gringos.”
Jase felt heat suffuse his face. “I didn’t mean that.”
Ase reached and patted one of Jase’s shoulder’s amiably. “Taking the piss, again.”
“Touché,” Jase grumbled, relieved he hadn’t offended the man. He didn’t know why it mattered anyways. “And why are we still using Britishisms?”
“You started it.” Ase’s smile dimmed, expression growing pensive. “I really do apologize for not asking you if it was alright to take your photo. I was going to give you a copy. You just looked so very relaxed, and the sun hit you just right…” He seemed embarrassed to have said as much. “Here,” he said, stepping closer to Jase, lifting his pricey camera, showing Jase the digital display. He flipped through the shots until he found one he liked, then tilted it for Jase to see. And damn, was Ase right. The photo was professional quality, so far as Jase knew about all that, and he looked at peace, with a gentle smile, the sun making his blond hair shine. The castle and the blue in the background made the photo look like something from a travel magazine, like there should be an invitation to come visit Bavaria beneath Jase’s still form.
“Wow.” Jase heard the awe in his own voice. He couldn’t believe Ase had captured him like that. He rarely considered himself attractive, but that photo really made him preen inside. He had to look at Ase, whose eyes crinkled at the corners, as if he were smiling even when he wasn’t. The fondness he saw there was breathtaking. Was that how Ase saw him? If so, Ase would be the only one.
He had to fight the urge to kiss this complete stranger.
Instead, he took a full step back, clearing his throat. “That’s great work. Are you a photographer?” He looked anywhere but at the sexy stranger.
“No. It’s just been a hobby for years.”
Jase was relieved when the tour guide started calling for them to move toward the bus that would take him back to the connection that ultimately would get him back to Munich. He didn’t wait to see if Ase followed or if he was getting on the other bus that was going to the museum and gift shops down the way.
He hated how off balance he’d gotten around Ase. He usually was better at covering up his attraction to other men. Yes, he’d slaked his need a few times. He wasn’t a monk. But he’d done it in the confines of a safe place when he needed the company of another man, not the middle of a tour group in Bumfuck, Bavaria, Germany.
Growing up, knowing he liked men had taught him the art of self-preservation, and serving his first couple of years under DADT had made him even more circumspect. Plus, how was he to know if Ase was interested? Maybe Ase was one of those stereotypically homophobic Latin-American men. He’d prefer not to get his ass beaten and have to explain why when he checked back in for active duty in three days.
The shuttle ride to the depot where he’d catch the bus back to Munich was too brief to do much more than dig his return tickets out of his bag. He felt much more at ease once he’d gotten on the return bus to the city, put his phone on airplane mode, and opened his Kindle app so he could settle in for the two-hour ride.