“Tanner, Mike’s on the phone for you.”
“Thanks, Miranda.” I set down the knife I was using to julienne peeled broccoli stems, wiped my hands on my apron as I walked into the tiny office off the kitchen, and then picked up the phone handset. “Hi, Mikey.”
“Hey, Tanner. Did I catch you at an okay time?”
“Yeah.” I dropped into the beat-up leather chair. “Lunch crowd is gone and the dinner rush won’t start for another couple hours yet.”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Your pop’s broccoli coleslaw. Jared McFarland had a great crop this season so he gave us a bunch.”
“Still using Pop’s recipes at the diner, huh? You know you don’t have to.” He paused and lowered his voice. “Same with his name.”
Mike’s father had opened Jesse’s Diner thirty years earlier and everyone in our small town of Hope, Arizona had loved the food almost as much as they’d loved the man. Jesse had been a father figure to half the town, myself included, and a year and a half after he died, we all still acutely felt his loss.
“This will always be Jesse’s Diner,” I said firmly. “I’m just taking care of it for him.”
“He left the diner to you, Tanner. No conditions or strings. He wanted you to run it, not turn it into a mausoleum.”
Unsure of how to respond to the reminder that Mike’s father had left his business to an employee instead of his son, I cleared my throat and wriggled uncomfortably.
“I’ve told you a million times that I have no issue with it. My pop knew I’d never move back to Hope to run the diner and my dad has more than enough money to put me through school.”
Both true statements. Shortly after high school graduation, Mike had moved to Las Vegas for college and immediately proclaimed Sin City as his forever home. His fathers weren’t surprised because Mike had always wanted to live in a big city, and frankly, they were just thankful his new home was only a three and a half hour car ride away. Plus, while the diner had brought in enough money for Jesse to get by, his partner Steve Faus had been the primary bread winner in their family.
“Don’t go silent on me, Tanner. The whole town knows you love that diner as much as my pop did and they’re glad he left it in your hands. Quit feeling guilty about it and doing everything exactly like he did. He would have wanted you to make it your own.”
“I, uh, changed the way we deliver the checks,” I admitted quietly.
After a pause, Mike asked, “The way you deliver the checks?”
“Yeah. You know how we had those black plastic trays?” I rubbed my lips together.
“I replaced them with old books.”
“Old books.” I nodded even though Mike couldn’t see me. “I picked a couple dozen of them up at Second Hand. Now we tuck the check into the book, bring it over with a pen, and encourage the customers to write a note inside. Everyone’s been having fun sharing comments and reading what other people wrote. It’ll get even better as the years pass and the pages get filled. People can see what they said when they were younger. Kids can see what their parents wrote, someday even their grandparents.”
I loved the idea of ongoing connections through generations. It was something I’d missed in my own life, that sense of being part of something. Living in Hope helped because the community was exceptionally tightknit, but I’d moved there as a teenager so I didn’t have the same ties as many others.
“That’s a…charming idea. Very Hope.”
“What else do you have planned?”
“What do you mean?” I clenched my jaw.
“Come on, Tanner. I’ve known you since you were sixteen. You have other ideas for the place.”
Intentionally misunderstanding, I said, “Your pop was a great cook. His recipes are perfect.”
“Yes, he was.” Mike sighed wistfully. “And you make them really well. But I meant the diner itself. You can’t let all those hours you spend watching HGTV go to waste.”
“Six years, Tanner. We’ve been friends for six years.”
Which meant he knew me better than anyone. I’d met Mike in high school when I was a scrawny junior trying to get away from a couple of seniors who loved to tease and torment me, and Mike was a giant freshman who had no trouble stepping in front of them and putting a stop to the problem. I had been equal parts grateful and surprised. Grateful because nobody had ever stood up for me before then. Surprised because Mike nonchalantly told me he had two dads and anyone who had a problem with gay people would have a problem from him.
I knew I was gay before I reached my teens, and the school bullies probably picked on me because they suspected it, but nobody had ever said it out loud until that moment. And I’d reacted to Mike’s casual proclamation with the same knee-jerk, shame-fueled fear as I did to his observation that I enjoyed decorating shows.
“Fine. I like remodeling shows. So what?” I said defensively.
Admitting I watched television programs marketed toward women played into a stereotype I wasn’t quite willing to embrace and yet couldn’t escape. My mannerisms were too effeminate, my voice too soft, and my body too underdeveloped. Jesse had always said men came in all shapes and sizes and there was nothing wrong with how I looked, but that was hard to believe when I was attracted to guys with larger, hairier bodies, deeper voices, and more rugged features. For that matter, so was Jesse if his partner was any indication. I had nearly swallowed my tongue the first time I’d seen six foot, five inch, two hundred twenty pound former college football player Steve Faus, and six years later, my reaction to the older man was only slightly less humiliating. Thankfully, Steve either didn’t notice my obsession with him or he was too polite to mention it.
“So nothing,” Mike said. “Watch whatever TV shows you like, man. I’m just pointing out that the diner walls probably haven’t been painted in thirty years and the booths are just as old. Don’t pretend you’re fine with the duct tape holding the tears in the vinyl together. You keep that tiny guesthouse you rent from the sheriff shiny enough to do surgery on the floor so I know you’re itching to update the diner and I say go for it.”
I squirmed again, this time because he was right—I wanted to fix those problems and more. “I might freshen a few things up. We’ll see how the money pans out at the end of the year.” And if I had the nerve to push aside Jesse’s memory and truly take his place. “Anyway, I doubt you called me to talk decorating tips. What’s up?”
“My dick,” Mike said and then immediately snorted and giggled.
“That joke wasn’t funny when you were fourteen, and it’s gotten progressively less funny over the years,” I said dryly.
“I think it’s hilarious.”
“That makes one of us.”
“Whatever, dude. You’re too uptight. You need to get laid.”
“I can’t believe girls are actually willing to go out with you when you talk like that.”
“I’m hot.” He lowered his voice and suggestively said, “Besides, I do other things with my mouth they really enjoy. Like Naomi, this girl I’m seeing now, she goes wild when I—”
“Don’t tell me about your sex life, Mikey. I don’t want to know.” It was the truth. Mike was the closest thing I had to a brother, so I’d never had so much as an ounce of attraction to him. Or maybe that was because I’d used up all my attraction tickets on my unhealthy obsession with his dad.
“Hey, man, I’m doing you a favor. Hearing about my action is as close as you are to getting any.”
“For all you know, I’m getting plenty of action but I’m too much of a gentleman to talk about it.” Lies. My sex life was embarrassingly non-existent and my personal life was just as lonely.
Mike scoffed disbelievingly.
I didn’t bother to push the point because, frankly, there was no way he’d buy it. “What do you want, Mikey?”
“I need you to do me a favor and check in on my dad.”
“Your dad?” I squeaked. Lovely. Now Mike would either think I was going through a second puberty or notice my inappropriate reaction to the mention of his dad. Hoping he hadn’t been paying close attention, I cleared my throat and spoke again. “What’s, uh, going on with your dad?”
“The vice president of his company called me. She said he isn’t himself and they’re making him take time off.”
Jesse’s death had come as a shock to all of us—pancreatic cancer that hadn’t been detected until Jesse lay in the hospital unconscious. Two days later, he was dead at the age of sixty-seven.
“He’s mourning the death of his partner. Of course he isn’t his old self,” I said defensively. “And by the way, calling someone’s kid to talk about his job issues is completely unprofessional.”
“My dad’s worked for that company forever and they’re worried about him. His boss and I get along. She didn’t have anyone else to call.”
When Mike still lived in town, I hadn’t known Steve as well as I’d known Jesse. Some of that was because of how frequently he traveled for work—the man was an unrepentant workaholic. But I’d also limited our interactions because I’d been uncomfortable with my reaction to him. After all, it takes a special kind of pathetic sleaze to not only lust after a friend’s father, but also the partner of a man who had taken me under his wing. But now that Mike had moved away and Jesse had died, Steve lived alone, so when he wasn’t traveling, he stopped by the diner for dinner and I always made sure to say hi to him and chat for a little while. That meant I now knew Steve well enough to realize how much he enjoyed his work.
“If they’re so worried, they should talk to him, not you. And your dad loves his job! Why would they take that from him when he already lost…” I didn’t need to finish that sentence because Mike knew exactly what his dad had lost. The whole town mourned Jesse’s passing but only Steve had shared his home and his bed for decades. I couldn’t begin to imagine his pain.
“Arguing with me won’t change anything, Tanner. I’m not his boss.”
Realizing my reaction was over the top, I drew in a deep breath and said, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, but a company doesn’t bench its star sales guy and lose tons of money unless something’s wrong. I have classes and tests, but I’ll drive down there if you can’t help my dad.”
“Of course I’ll help him,” I snapped. After everything Jesse and Mike had done for me, I’d never turn my back on their family. Even if this particular family member had fueled countless inappropriate fantasies and guilt-inducing dreams.
“Cool. Call me after you see him and let me know what’s up. If he needs me, I’m there.”
Seeing Steve Faus meant I’d be up. That much was certain. I mentally smacked myself for using Mike’s bad humor. “I have to go, Mikey.”
After getting through the bulk of the dinner rush, I filled takeout containers with the daily special, broccoli coleslaw, and a wedge of chocolate cake, and left the diner in Miranda's and Joe’s capable hands. Founded in the late 1800s, Hope was a mix of new and old construction sprinkled in an area just under eight square miles in size and, as always, I enjoyed strolling through town. I used the quiet time to remind myself that I was doing my friend a favor by helping my mentor’s partner; I was not going to ogle a hot guy.
Unfortunately, the half-mile walk from Main Street to Steve’s mint green Victorian didn’t take long enough to accomplish what six years of the same internal lecture had failed to do. So with a resigned sigh, I adjusted my dick in a way I hoped would hide my inevitable arousal, held the bag of food in front of myself for the same reason, and rang the bell.
The house was two levels, each a decent size, so I patiently waited for Steve to answer the door, but as the minutes ticked by, I began to wonder if Mike was wrong about his father being on a break from work. I walked across the wraparound porch and peeked into the windows, not quite sure what I was looking for, but unwilling to abandon Steve if he needed help. Everything looked the same as it had when I’d last been there, which was before Jesse’s death. No lights were on, no shoes or jacket left out, nothing to indicate someone was home.
I stepped off the porch, walked backward across the lawn, and peered at the upstairs windows. The drawn curtains prevented me from seeing much, but the master bedroom light was on and I caught a flash of a silhouette through the glass. If Steve was home, why wasn’t he answering the door? A pang of worry hit me. Maybe Mike was right to be concerned. With a deep breath, I squared my shoulders and marched back up the porch steps.
“Steve,” I said in a volume I hoped could be heard through the wood door but not by the neighbors. “It’s Tanner Sellers.” I rang the bell and knocked. “I brought dinner.” After waiting for a full minute, I knocked again. “Steve, I know you’re there. Can you open the door?” I swallowed thickly. “Please?”
A few beats later, the lock clicked and the door swung open, revealing a disheveled, but still gorgeous, Steve Faus. “Hi, Tanner.” He sighed and dragged his fingers through his thick, black, and currently unruly hair. “Sorry. I was on a work call. What’s going on?”
A string of thoughts raced through my mind.
How do you always manage to look so damn hot?
I know you’re not working right now, so you couldn’t have been on a call for work.
Do you bite your lips or are they naturally full like that?
What happened at work?
Can I bite your lips?
Are you wearing underwear under those sweats?
Mike’s worried about you.
Please don’t be wearing underwear.
Thankfully, I had years of experience curbing my brain-to-mouth reflex when it came to Mike’s dad so instead of any of those things, I said, “I brought dinner,” and pushed the bag forward.
“Lasagna.” I bobbed my head. “It was today’s special. Broccoli coleslaw too.”
“Thanks, but I have a ton of work so—”
Not wanting him to brush me off, I said, “And chocolate cake. You love chocolate cake.” Which I knew because it had been served at Mike’s fifteenth birthday party, and when Steve had taken a bite, closed his eyes in bliss, and moaned, I had nearly ejaculated in my pants.
“Chocolate cake?” Steve flicked his gaze to the bag.
“Uh-huh. Just made it this morning so it’s still fresh.” I glanced down to make sure the bag still blocked my groin, the memory of those moans and that expression still affecting me five years later. “Do you have milk? I forgot to pack some but I can run over to Smitty’s and—”
“You don’t need to go to the store. My fridge may be bare, but I keep the essentials on hand.” Steve reached for the bag and then stepped to the side to make room for me to enter. “That pretty much consists of salt and vinegar chips, coffee, and because I can’t drink my coffee black, milk.”
I blinked, my surprise over that statement eclipsing my concern about having a noticeable hard-on. “That can’t be enough for a guy your size.” I cringed at my own comment, bit my lip, and hoped the heat in my cheeks wasn’t visible. “It’s a, uh, good thing I brought you dinner.”
“That was nice of you.” Steve put his hand on my back, urged me forward, and then closed the door.
The touch was simple, casual, fleeting, but it still set me on fire. Being around Steve without Jesse, Mike, or a diner full of people as a buffer gave me nowhere to escape. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, willing myself to calm down. So what if Steve Faus tripped every single one of my buttons? I was twenty-two, not sixteen, and a hot guy shouldn’t scramble my brain into oblivion. Not even a guy with a tall, muscular body, thick black hair, piercing blue eyes, and a deep soothing voice.
Oh, who was I kidding? I was sunk.
“Do you want to eat in the kitchen or the dining room?” Steve asked.
Bedroom, I thought. God, I was incorrigible. “Either one’s fine by me. Wherever you’re most comfortable.”
“I’ve been working so much lately that I’m almost never here, but when I am, I tend to eat on the couch or over the kitchen sink.” Steve smiled softly, his expression at once self-deprecating and endearing. “It’d be nice to sit down for a real dinner.”
My heart ached. “Dining room it is then.”
I nodded, my throat too thick to speak. Resisting Steve was a challenge in any setting, but seeing the normally strong man vulnerable without reaching out to touch him was unbearable.
“I’ll get the plates.”
“Okay,” I croaked. I swallowed hard and walked into the dining room as Steve went to the kitchen.
Closing my eyes, I took deep breaths to calm down. I could do this. I could be Steve’s friend. We’d both lost someone important to us when Jesse passed and we both missed Mike since he’d moved away. There was no reason we couldn’t be there for each other. I was an adult now, a business owner. I was mature and responsible and perfectly able to keep my libido in check.
“Is everything okay?” Steve’s deep rich voice was tinged with worry.
I opened my eyes, ignored my uncooperative libido, and forced a smile onto my face. “Yes, fine. Sorry. I was, uh…”
“Daydreaming?” Steve grinned. “You’ve always done that.”
“I have?” I blinked in surprise.
“Uh-huh.” Steve nodded and set the plates and silverware on the table. “I remember when Mike first brought you around, you used to get this far away look on your face all the time, and when you saw us notice, you’d get embarrassed and blush.”
My cheeks heated. I knew exactly what Steve was describing and they weren’t daydreams. Well, maybe they were, but they were very specific daydreams, the kind people categorized as fantasies, and they were always about Steve.
Needing a change of topic, I said, “Do you want me to dish the food out?”
“Sure. I’ll get placemats.” Steve stepped over to the antique buffet. “Too fancy?” he asked, holding up placemats and cloth napkins.
“No, that’s nice. I can’t remember the last time I used a real napkin.” I opened the bags of food and dished portions onto each of the plates. “It was probably Christmas dinner when my grandmother was still alive.” Which was over three years earlier.
“Same here.” Steve put the placemats down across from each other on the long wood table and then ran his hands over them, making sure they were straight. “Jesse had so many people over for the holidays that we used paper plates and plastic forks. I bought these placemats at least five years ago, but I don’t think we ever used them.”
“I remember those dinners.” I had been one of the many guests at their Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter meals. “Jesse was good about giving us strays somewhere to be.”
“He was.” Steve sighed sadly. “I’ll go get drinks. I have coffee, milk, water, and beer. Pick your poison.”
On the one hand, beer usually helped me relax. On the other hand, I barely held myself in check sober, so combining alcohol and Steve was probably a recipe for disaster.
“I’m good with water.”
Quickly dipping his chin in acknowledgement, Steve left the room. When he returned a couple of minutes later, he had a glass of water in each hand and a Heineken tucked under his arm.
“It won’t bother you if I have a beer with dinner, right?” he asked as he set my water glass down.
He was leaning over my shoulder, his body heat warming my back and his breath ghosting across my cheek. If we had been naked, the scene would have been straight out of my fantasies.
“Not a bother,” I rasped. I bit my lip and held my breath, waiting for Steve to move to his side of the table. Looking at the square-jawed face and crystal blue eyes all night without leaping across the table would be an exercise in restraint, but if I had to inhale Steve’s scent and stay close enough to touch him, I’d pass out from sheer desire.
“The food smells great.” Steve straightened and inhaled deeply. “Did you hear that growl?” He patted his stomach as he walked to his chair. “I must be hungrier than I realized.”
“No, uh, I didn’t hear.” The sound of my heart pounding in my ears had drowned out everything else. “But I brought plenty of food.”
“Thanks.” Steve sat down, picked up his silverware, and arched his eyebrows. “You’re eating too, right?”
I glanced down at my plate and then picked up my fork. “Yes.”
“Good.” He ate a bite of coleslaw and then raised his beer bottle to his mouth. “When I’m traveling, I either eat alone in my hotel room or with a bunch of clients so I’m on all night. One of the things I liked best about being home was having a quiet dinner and just talking. But now…” He loudly breathed out, shook his head, and then took another bite. “Thanks for coming tonight, Tanner. This was just what I needed.”
Right then and there, I made a silent promise to bring Steve dinner the following night. And the night after that. And the night after that too. I couldn’t do much to make up for what he had lost, but a hot meal and company I could provide. And I’d find a way to keep my leering and drooling to a bare minimum.