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    Mrsgnomie
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

Faithful to the Cause - 1. Chapter 1

PART ONE
JENSEN

PRESENT DAY

Kids are inquisitive. It’s only a matter of time before they ask how their parents met—what events led to their great love story. Makes me glad we don’t have kids. Our story would be a hard one to sugarcoat, too many X-rated details to make it a true fairytale.

“Well?” Her inquisitive blue eyes watched me with rapt attention. “Are you going to tell me how you and Uncle Nolan fell in love?”

Leave it to our quasi-niece, Anna, to bring it up during our anniversary party. I don’t have to look at Noe to see his humored smirk. He loves telling our story because it makes him look good and makes me squirm like a vegan being force fed a hotdog from a street vendor. Twenty years we’ve been married, and I still dread retelling the tale.

I put my arm around Nolan’s waist and squeeze. He amazes me, the way he gets more beautiful every day. The laugh lines and the sprinkling of gray take my breath away. I press my nose to the side of his head and breathe, then I look at Anna and sigh. “Just remember it was love at first sight—”

Nolan whacks my chest playfully. “No, it wasn’t.”

I bat his hand away and continue. “The first time I saw Noe, my heart stopped.”

****

LATE SUMMER 2002

Glendale wasn’t your everyday down-home diner. Silverware didn’t come rolled in a napkin and secured with adhesive paper, nor was your water served in a plastic Coca-Cola cup. Linens hung from tables like fresh silk, and the sun setting over the Rogue River made each water glass sparkle as if made of crystal.

I tugged my stiffly-starched shirt collar. “I didn’t realize I’d be choked to death all night. Damn.”

I was seventeen and a real pill. Looking back, I was a bit entitled, something that came naturally when the stars aligned: a combination of good grades, natural athleticism, and popularity. I wanted for nothing. My dad was an entrepreneur through and through. He’d built a large profile from which I’d profited and would continue to do so.

His hands placed carefully behind his back, Dermot smiled politely as his gaze scanned the restaurant. A freshman in college and back for summer break, Dermot was my trainer. He was also my best friend. He’d helped me make friends on the baseball team when I was the sole freshman on varsity.

“It’s your dad’s restaurant. Don’t act like you didn't know the dress code.”

“I knew I’d look like Jeeves, but I didn’t know it would be so uncomfortable. Maybe I should stop working out so much. It’s probably tight cause I’m so swole and all.”

I was not ‘swole’. I was seventeen and cocky. In reality, I was five-ten and one-hundred-sixty-pounds. Granted, I was in great shape. Genetics were also in my stars.

“You weigh less than one-sixty.”

“Fuck you.”

“You can’t talk like that here, even if you think we’re out of earshot. That’s a write-up.”

“No one’s going to write me up.”

Dermot shot me his ‘I’m the team captain’ look, making me shiver. “Just ‘cause your dad owns the restaurant doesn’t mean you get to be a—” he leaned in close, as to not be heard by anyone, “—a prick. If you’re not doing it correctly, they’ll have John train you instead.”

I stopped fussing with the collar and put my arms behind my back. I’d rather go to Dad with my tail between my legs than work one-on-one with John. Talk about a pompous ass.

“Remember to serve drinks on the left side. You served the last table from the right. That’s where they’re cleared from.”

“I didn’t realize there were so many rules.”

The corner of Dermot’s lip curled. “’Cause you’ve only ever been served. There’s a lot that goes to the finest dining experience in Bend.”

“I thought we were the finest in Oregon?”

“Depends on who you ask.”

I didn’t really give a shit if it was the best in Bend or the best in Oregon or the best at all. It was an established restaurant with a hefty waitlist, and it made my father happy.

I stared at the front doors, which were taller than most buildings, with brass handles that only Kawhi Leonard’s hands could grip. The weathered wood slabs opened, letting the low-hanging sun fill the dimly lit restaurant with intense light.

I shielded my eyes with my hand.

Once the door closed, my jaw dropped. My breath hitched. My heart stopped. “Oh my God.”

Dermot chuckled and pushed my mouth closed with his fingers. “Unfortunately, he’s not in our section. And he’s—”

“So hot.”

Dermot laughed. “I was going to say old.”

Pssf. He wasn’t old. Late twenties, maybe? Which, okay, yeah, it was significantly older than me, but hardly old. He was posh as fuck. His heathered, olive-green sweater complemented his end-of-summer tan and perfectly coiffed honey-brown hair. He smiled at the hostess and casually slid his hands into the pocket of his chinos, framing his hips and ass like a glove.

Dermot grabbed my arm, physically stopping me from following the beautiful man and his guest to the bar where they were being seated.

“We’re not working the bar,” he reminded me.

I chafed at the reminder. Oh, how I wished I was. If I had been, maybe I wouldn’t have been so useless the rest of the night. I couldn’t stop staring his way, hoping for a glimpse. I was completely smitten.

To my luck, he and his friend had a standing reservation every Thursday. They sat at the bar in the same spot each week.

My obsession was no secret. The entire restaurant was aware. I have never been one to pussyfoot around. I went after the things I wanted, and I usually got them. It was the first time I’d wanted a guy. I knew I liked guys, but he was the first one whose hook I bit. Once I knew his schedule, I made it my sole duty to walk past the bar no less than one hundred times while he was there.

Until the staff took pity on me.

Kalani crossed her arms. A transplant from Hawaii, she took shit from no one. The bar was her domain, and even I knew it was her way or the highway.

“You’re not old enough to serve alcohol, but you can take them water. Be cool, Jensen. I don’t care what your connection is, it doesn’t give you a free pass to be disrespectful to customers or to make them uncomfortable. Don’t forget, you have to help with all the tables, not just Nolan’s.”

Nolan.

Nolan with the diamond-cut ass. Nolan and his soft sweaters. Nolan who pulled off a blazer like no one's business. Nolan whose wavy hair I was desperate to touch.

Kalani snapped her fingers in front of my face. “Am I making a mistake here?”

I straightened up. I might’ve thought the guy was cute, and I might’ve done anything to get closer to him, but the restaurant was my future. There was nothing and no one who could make me jeopardize that.

She studied me, analyzing my risk factor. Realizing it wasn’t much, she explained my tasks, which I did diligently. When I said this was my future, I was not lying. My father wasn’t forcing me to work. I was working because I wanted to know everything I could. I had already spent the entire summer landscaping, now I was bussing at Glendale. When I turned eighteen in another month, I would learn how to serve before moving to the next endeavor. Once all the nuances were mastered, there would be no stopping me.

When the day came that I stood next to my dad, no one would say I got handed anything for free.

I busted my ass, studying Kalani until I knew what she wanted before she had to ask.

She reached for the house sour mixer and, as she tossed the bottle into the air, her brows furrowed in irritation. The bar was busy. She didn’t have time to refill. Kalani spun the bottle in her hand and squirted the last of the liquid into the tin cup.

I held up the fresh bottle I’d just nabbed from the back stock. “Need this?”

She caught it easily, barely sparing me a glance as she shook the drink, then poured it into the glass and garnished it. But I saw her smile.

Kalani loaded the drinks onto the tray and walked past me. “Take two waters, a diet cola, and Lemon Spezi to table three.”

“Lemon Spezi?”

“Half Diet Coke and half lemonade.”

She hadn’t let me make anything but water since I showed up, but this seemed doable. Part of me wanted to sling cups around like she did, but I wasn’t there…yet. I lined the glasses up and got to work. I loaded them onto the tray and headed to table three, feeling proud.

Who knows, maybe I’d pick up some bartending skills before leaving Glendale, I thought to myself.

First, I needed to master the tray. It wasn’t hard to balance, but I accidentally grabbed the tray with no cork liner to stop the cups from sliding around, which made getting the drinks to the table fucking difficult. I felt like a five-year-old carrying Kool-Aid across the living room carpet.

“Welcome to Glendale—”

Nolan had his arm slung over the back of a barstool. He turned in slow-motion, still laughing at whatever his friend had said. His eyes met mine, the most intense green I had ever seen. It was like driving through the Cascades in the spring as a dozen shades of the forest whizzed by, highlighted by splashes of bark. They were stunning.

Bend might have been one of the fastest growing cities, but it was still in the backwoods of Oregon, and I was a seventeen-year-old gay kid. What I lacked in sexual experience, I made up for in confidence, something I needed in spades while navigating the hierarchy of high school politics. My orientation might’ve been a secret to some, but everyone close to me knew the truth. Still, I had a lot to prove. But in that moment, with Nolan looking at me with his Oregon woodland eyes and his just-got-done-laughing smile highlighting his picture-perfect teeth, my brain flatlined.

Absolutely fucking flatlined. No signs of life here. The brain that was on track to become valedictorian of the Class of 2003 was now a desolate wasteland.

“Ah, fresh meat.”

A pulse of brain activity, then another. I blinked. My gaze shot to his friend, who was smirking at my paralysis.

“You don’t look familiar. Are you new?” he asked.

“First day in the bar.” I cleared my throat and unloaded their drinks and couple of waters. “Who ordered the Diet Coke?”

The friend lifted his hand. “That would be me.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat, grabbed the Lemon Spezi, and set it in front of Nolan. “This must be yours.”

He smiled kindly, unlike the conspiring gaze of his friend. Nolan spun the glass a few degrees, as if there was a certain way he liked to hold it.

I stared at his drink. “I haven’t made that drink before. It’s my first.”

“A virgin.”

Nolan elbowed his friend and gave me an apologetic look. “Ignore him. He enjoys being extremely inappropriate. The more he can embarrass someone, the better.” He lifted the drink to his lips and took a testing sip. “It’s good. Heavy on the lemonade, but drinkable.”

‘But drinkable.’ Not exactly a glowing endorsement. I wedged the tray under my arm, ready to sprint to the bar. “I can make you a new one.”

His gorgeous green eyes narrowed to a cute squint as he chuckled. “Oh no. This is fine. Just an FYI for the next one.”

“What’s your name?” the friend asked, breaking my moment with Nolan.

“Jensen.”

“Nice to meet you, Jensen. I’m Mark and this” —he showcased his friend like Vanna White would highlight the next puzzle, THINGS THAT MAKE JENSEN DROOL— “is Nolan.”

I stared at Nolan. I had been at their table way too long. Kalani was drilling holes into my back. I cleared my throat. “I’ll bring you another Lemon Spezi when I finish with the other customers.”

He lifted his class, saluting the future of a better tasting drink. As I left, I heard one of them call me adorable.

My seventeen-year-old self thought ‘adorable’ was a workable term, that I could take it and turn it into something hot and sexy. It didn’t occur to me they might be referencing my childlike bumblings. Hello, I was seventeen! Basically eighteen. The lone freshman who’d made the varsity baseball team. I drove a badass truck. If you were to ask anyone at Mountain View High School, there was nothing bumbly about me. I was revered, envied, and emulated.

Adorable? Hmpf.

As I worked the bar, I kept a careful eye on their drinks. As Nolan’s disappeared, I made a fresh one, careful of my cola vs. lemonade ratio. I carefully replaced their old drinks with the new ones, working quickly so as not to interrupt their conversation.

It wasn’t until they were getting ready to leave that they acknowledged me. Nolan caught my eye and smiled as they departed their table. “That second drink was—” He signaled that it was perfection.

Mark pushed between us and patted my shoulder. “Maybe we’ll see you next week.”

“Have a good evening.” My words came rushed and desperate, but too late. They were gone. Not even a glance my way before they turned the corner and disappeared.

****

I wished I could say that interaction was the beginning of a tidal wave, but the reality was very different. If anything, it was an ebb current. Whatever ground I thought I’d made was soon swept back to sea.

My pulse went wild every Thursday when Nolan came through the doors. He was so posh, so hot. Kalani always let me take the lead, kind of. She was their server, and they laughed with her, but I got their drinks. Mostly, though, I was invisible.

Mark was the social one of the two. He asked occasional questions about school starting, sports, grades, stuff like that. Rarely, and I mean rarely, Nolan would acknowledge my existence.

Mark took his water. They’d order wine from Kalani in a minute. “We missed you last week.”

I smiled. “It was my birthday.”

“Is that so?” Mark’s brow arched like I’d said something fascinating. He was in a perpetual state of amusement where I was concerned. “Well, happy birthday. Eighteen?”

I straightened my shoulders and preened. “Finally an adult and all that.”

Nolan leaned forward on his elbows, his blue Lacoste button-down stretching against his shoulder, and smiled. “Happy birthday.”

But that was it. If I thought eighteen changed anything, I was wrong. I worked and worked, and on Thursdays, I obsessed over Nolan.

Dermot IM’d me. I sat down at my computer, pulled up Messenger and laughed. I didn’t stare at him, I typed back.

Dermee: uploaded a photo. I clicked on it only to find a fellow employee had nothing better to do than snap a photo of me staring at Nolan.

Jentz11: I was checking to see if he needed a refill

Dermee: You can’t serve alcohol

Jentz11: brb my real friends just showed up

Dermee: LMAO

****

Senior year ticked by. I worked when I could. Picked up extra shifts during Christmas break. Got my permit to serve alcohol. Tried and failed to flirt with Nolan when I had the chance.

****

It was six a.m. I had just finished working out, pre-conditioning for baseball season, and was drinking the last of my protein shake when Dad walked into the kitchen. I could usually tell what his plans were for the day based on what he wore. Today was Carhartt duck pants and a plaid button-down, which meant he was heading to Fox’s Equipment Rental, where I’d be spending a chunk of the summer before heading off to college.

Dad squeezed my neck as he walked past me to the coffeemaker. “Trash needs to go out.”

“Already done.”

“And recycling.”

I smirked. “That’s next week.” He always tried to trip me up.

He turned around, coffee mug in hand, and smiled. “You’re one-of-kind, Jentz. If I could handpick my kid, I’d pick you all over.”

“What can I say? I learned from the best.”

“I don’t know that I can take credit for all your goodness. Bob Haiser is a good man, works hard for what he has, yet his three kids are entitled twats. I’ve given you free rein since you were young, and you’ve never taken it for granted. You don’t talk back or argue, never have to be asked twice. You’re top of your class and the top of your sport. You’re more than an amazing, son, you’re an amazing man.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know, Dad, you tell me all the time.”

He laughed, then leaned down and kissed the top of my head. “And I’ll keep telling you until my last breath.” Before he left the kitchen, he stopped. “Have you told Glendale you’re done working?”

“I can work one day a week during baseball season. They want to train me as a server.”

“Jentz….”

“It’s one day, Dad. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I could manage.”

Dad’s sigh was heavy as he came back into the kitchen and sat next to me. “I’m so proud of the interest you’ve taken in work. There is no doubt you’re passionate and driven. You’ll be an excellent boss one day. But right now, you’re still a kid. I want you to enjoy school, joke with your friends, make mistakes, and dread house chores. You don’t need to worry about work so much. When baseball is over and you’ve taken the state title, you can go train as a server.”

“But—”

“This isn’t a request.” He stood and ruffled my hair. “Go shower. You stink.”

I did as Dad told me, both showering and giving my notice at the restaurant.

The worst part was, when my last day came, I waited and waited for Nolan, but he never showed.

****

SPRING 2004

Dermot took a drink of his beer and nudged me, nodding toward the other side of the frat house. “Hottie eyeing you at two o’clock.”

I brought the beer to my lips, careful not to be obvious about checking him out. It took a second for me to find the target in the packed house. “By the front door?” I asked. Dermot nodded. He was right, the dude was fine as hell and giving me the eye.

“Just your type,” he teased.

“I don’t have a type.”

Dermot smirked. “I know. But really, he kinda looks like your boi, Nolan.”

I smiled wistfully. “Now there’s my type.”

“Shit, then forget that guy there. He’s way too young.”

Cutie across the room leaned against the wall, holding eye contact as he took a long pull of his red cup. The guy resembled Nolan the way a Chinese Crested resembled a King Charles Spaniel.

That was rude. The guy was cute, but he was no Nolan.

I didn’t want to play easy to catch, so I broke eye contact and turned to Dermot. “Don’t be an ageist. One day when you marry a cutie ten years your junior, I’m going to bite your head off about it.”

“It’s not weird at all?”

“What’s there to be weird about?” I asked. “He’s not a pervert. He hasn’t looked twice at me in the last two years. I don’t exist to him.”

“So, it’s not weird, just impossible.”

Nabbing Nolan was unlikely. I knew that. I was not going to say he was out of my league. I didn’t believe anyone is out of anyone’s league, but he was kind of untouchable.

I had served at Glendale when I was home on breaks just to see him. During my first shift back after my freshman year in college, I thought he might say something, but no. I even saw him around town a few times and nothing. We landed at the same coffee shop once. I about had a heart attack when I saw him in line ahead of me. I cut, very disrespectfully, just to say hi. It’s a moment I’d rather not replay. It had taken me saying ‘I’m Jensen, from Glendale’ for him to recognize me.

Oh, but he remembered by the end of summer. Kalani took pity on me and let me serve them on my last shift before returning to college. I made quite the impression when I dumped the entire tray of drinks on him.

He was kind about it, smiled the whole time, while I panicked. I was close to passing out from embarrassment when he grabbed my shoulder, looked at me with those green eyes, and smiled. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, kid.”

Kid? Ouch!

I looked at Dermot and grinned. “Nothing is impossible. As far as I see it, I have nowhere to go but up. I’ve sunk as low as possible. There is no way I can do worse. And there lies the hope.”

I learned a valuable lesson that night. Never assume you can’t do worse.

You can always do worse. So much worse.

****

JUNE 2004

I pulled up to the gatehouse, ready to punch in the code when Hank popped his head out.

With the biggest smile I’d had all week, I stuck my hand out the window. “Hank, what's up, my man?”

Hank stepped out of the gatehouse and proceeded to complete our signature handshake, the one I begged him to learn when I was seven and spent every year since perfecting. When we finished, he looked at the space between my head and the ceiling of my truck and frowned.

“Get out here,” he demanded.

I slid out of the truck and stood up.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Hank said, his voice a bit mystified as he looked me level in the eyes. It was the first time he wasn’t looking down. “You went off and grew half a foot.”

Hell yeah, I did. I flexed my arms. “Gained forty pounds as well.”

Hank flashed his familiar smile, the one that made you feel loved. “I can tell.” He put his hands on my shoulders and studied me. “Look at you. No longer a kid.”

“Better late than never,” I told him. “I was worried for a while.”

Hank waved me off. “A lot of guys grow up after high school. I can’t believe how much you look like your old man.”

“Shit, could be worse people to look like,” I said with a laugh. “Anyway, I was planning to swing by your house the day after tomorrow, if that’s all right with you?”

Hank’s haggard and sun-beaten face softened. “You don’t have to do that.”

“And yet I always do.”

“You’re a good kid. One in a million.”

A car pulled up behind us, so Hank ducked back into the gatehouse and let me through with a friendly nod. I navigated the narrow road, passed home after home, each tucked away, hidden behind large ponderosa pines. At the end of the road was our house. A taupe custom-built lodge-style home Dad built when I was five.

I stopped short of the driveway, crossed my arms over the top of the steering wheel and stared at the disheveled yard. “What the fuck….”

Annoyed at the reckless condition of the house, I marched straight to the garage, leaving all my crap in the back of the truck. I pulled out the lawn equipment and got to work. I half-expected an HOA violation stuck to the door. There wasn’t, and there wouldn’t be when I got done with it either.

****

I was sorting through my freshly-laundered clothes, folding them into piles, when Dad came into my room. He grabbed a hoodie off the bed and started folding it.

“You’ll fold my hoodie, but leave the yard a barren wasteland?”

The folding slowed, and his lip curled. “Barren wasteland?”

“It was terrible, Dad. I was embarrassed.”

“It wasn’t terrible, nor a barren wasteland. I appreciate you jumping in, though. The team has been shorthanded. They haven’t swung by in a few weeks.”

“Obviously.”

“I'll note that barren wasteland yards rank next to improper merging and the sound of styrofoam rubbing against styrofoam as your biggest irritants.”

I shivered at the mention of styrofoam rubbing on styrofoam. Yuck.

Dad sighed, then, in an unexpected move, swept his arm across my bed, sending my clothes flying across the room.

What the hell?” I leaned down to grab the clothes, but he stopped me.

“Leave it. You’re on summer break, now act like it. Let's go.”

Dragging me out of the house and to his truck, we pulled up to Glendale twenty minutes later. I grinned. I wasn’t working there anymore and I hadn’t been there for leisure in years.

Also, it was Thursday.

Despite not turning twenty-one until October, we sat at the bar. Dad stole the good spot at the table, the one that oversaw the entire restaurant and the river. The only benefit from where I sat was seeing Nolan when he came in. He walked past me without a care in the world, smiling at something Mark said. I followed him with my gaze until he was out of view.

I thought I’d been discrete, kept the rubbernecking to a minimum, but Dad was staring at me like I was the funniest thing he’d seen all week. He said nothing, taking a bite of bread instead, but his eyes told a different story.

“It’s not a big deal.”

He nodded and winked. Mm-hmm. No big deal.

“I’m serious. He’s cute. That’s all.”

Dad stared, judging me while he ate his bread.

A bead of sweat dripped down my neck. “His name is Nolan. He comes in here every Thursday with his friend Mark. He orders wine or a Lemon Spezi. That’s all I know.”

Another bite of bread. More staring.

“I don’t know what he does, where he works, or if he’s single. I just think he’s cute!”

Dad finally smiled and shoved the rest of the bread in his mouth. “You’re too easy.”

Har har har.”

Kalani brought us food, and we spent the afternoon catching up. Even though our new cell plan had free nights and weekends, which made keeping in touch easy, I missed talking face-to-face. Once the plates were cleared, Dad eyed me, trying not to smile. It wasn’t uncommon for him to look at me affectionately. It’s how he was. He glanced behind me, and his smile widened. It was the same shit-eating grin he wore when he bought Uncle Rick dissolvable swim shorts and then let him go wakeboarding.

So, when Dad got up and headed to Nolan’s table, I reached for him, trying to pull him back, but it was too late. My fingers snatched at the air.

I’ll say this, I would take my swim shorts disintegrating at the seams in front of everyone to whatever my dad was about to do.

My heart thumped loudly inside my chest as I slid from my spot and bolted to the kitchen, hiding around the corner where the linen station was. My head banged backwards, hitting a cardboard box. After a minute, I peeked out but saw nothing. I couldn’t believe him. He’d just gotten up and walked over to Nolan. How embarrassing.

I stayed where I was, moving only when someone needed to grab linens to change a table. I knew the second Dad was looking for me because a dozen sets of eyes glanced in my direction. Tattletales.

Ten seconds later, Dad’s head poked around the corner. He smiled brightly, like he didn’t just do whatever he did. “Ready?”

I glared. The entire way to the truck, I drilled a hole in his back.

“Seems like a nice fella.”

I sat in the passenger seat with my arms crossed.

“Oh, c’mon. You can’t blame me. I haven’t seen you take a genuine interest in anyone, well, ever. I just wanted to see what the fuss was about.”

“There’s no fuss.”

“Is that why your eyes did that thing when he walked by?”

“What thing?”

“You know…woo woo woo,” he said, motioning that my eyes had come out of my head like a cartoon character.

“Like I said, I don’t know anything about him. We could sit down for coffee, and I could find out he bores me to death. Plus, it’s been brought to my attention that he might be more suited for you than for me.”

“I have no clue what you mean.”

“Because he’s soooo much older.”

Dad made a face. “He’s older, but I don’t know about sooooo much older. A girl his age would be way too young for me.”

And that only proved the point, I guess. The age between Nolan and myself was about the same as Nolan and my dad.

When we left, instead of driving home, Dad took the Bend Parkway.

“Where are we going?”

“I’m going to show you what you’ll be doing this summer.”

Ten minutes later, we pulled up outside a brick building surrounded by a construction fence. I followed Dad through a maze of building material and into the building. It was completely gutted.

Dad put his arms out. “It’s going to be a gym.”

“A gym?” A thousand ideas ran through my head. There wasn’t much in the area at the time. “You should think about a specialized gym. You can have regular memberships for people who want to workout, but there should be options for others: classes like kickboxing, cycling, and yoga. Maybe an area to focus on sport-specific training like marathons and triathlons. Market it as a whole fitness center, not just a gym.”

“Whatever you want,” he said, grinning. “I thought this might be a great first project for you.”

“For me?”

“Yep.”

I looked around at the blank space, incredulous. “You bought me a gym?”

“I bought us a gym.”

That’s what I spent the rest of my summer doing. Every day, six days a week, I worked with the contractor, building Fox’s Fitness Center from the ground up. Once a month, on my day off, I did other things like maintaining Hank’s yard. I came back as much as I could once school started, to keep building the dream. By Christmas, it looked fantastic. We wouldn’t open until summer, when I was back from school, but there was a lot to organize before then.

Dermot was home for Christmas, so I dragged him to the work in progress. I couldn’t help it. I was excited. I unlocked the door and ushered him through. He was a gym junkie like me, and his excitement matched mine. We walked around the building.

“And this will be the sauna room.”

He spun around in the future steam room, awestruck. “I’m officially jealous.”

We didn’t need much to warrant a celebration. I’d just turned twenty-one. Dermot took me out, and we had a few drinks at this pretentious, but kind of awesome, bar downtown. We were two drinks in when this guy sat at the bar a few seats down from us. I hadn’t noticed him until Dermot nodded his way.

“He’s been givin’ you the scope.”

I assumed guys were straight because they almost always were. Dermot, for some reason, had a keen eye for spotting every gay guy in a one-hundred-mile radius. Crazy, since he was straight as a pencil and recently engaged.

It was one thing to hook up at college, but I didn’t do it much at home, never interested in muddying the waters. But things were going well with the gym, so I threw caution to the wind. I thought, what the hell?

It’s just once.

Trusting Dermot’s gaydar, I grabbed my beer and slid into the open spot next to him. He was tall, six feet, just a hair shorter than I was. Classically handsome, with dark hair and dark eyes, and wore a business suit. He was older, in his mid-to late-thirties.

He turned and scanned me from head to toe, then covered his victorious grin with a sip of his beer. “I’d like to offer you more than a free drink if you’re interested.”

I straightened my shoulders. “I’m interested.”

He got up, dropped a fiver on the bar top, and walked out. I followed, tossing my truck keys at Dermot He held up his Motorola Razr, signaling for me to call him when I’m done.

He, whose name I didn’t know, drove a newer Mercedes sedan with beige interior. It was impressive.

“I don’t know how much time you have,” he said as he started navigating the back streets, “but I’ve had a hectic quarter at work. I’d like to shower with a smoking hot guy, give a blow job, get a blow job. If time allows, maybe rinse and repeat.”

He watched me from the corner of his eye as I palmed my dick.

“I have no plans.”

A moment later, his hand slid across my thigh. “Perfect.”

We turned into an older but upscale area of Tudor-style mini mansions. It was apparent as soon as he pulled into his driveway that the house was undergoing extensive remodeling.

“The inside is worse,” he told me as we walked along a path of plywood laid out over the snow. “Hoping to have it done by summer.”

Fresh off six months of remodeling the gym, the scene was familiar. If he wanted to talk shop, I could, but he didn’t. We entered through the front door and went straight upstairs, bypassing a mess of dust and debris. He led me to a room, simple, clean, but outdated.

He slid out of his jacket and started unbuttoning his shirt. “The master bath is out of commission for now.”

I stood there for a second, then started laughing. We weren’t about to undress ourselves. This wasn’t a business transaction. “OK, stop.” I knocked his hands away. “What’s your name?”

“Bryan.”

“Hi, Bryan.”

Bryan let his hands fall to his side and smiled a little standoffishly. “Hi.”

I unbuttoned his shirt and slid it off his shoulders, then unlatched the clasp on his slacks. When his pants fell, I put my hands on his shoulders and pressed him down. On his knees, he watched as I undid my jeans, pushing them down until my dick popped out.

He didn’t make a move, just stared at me, so I fisted the back of his head and helped him along, feeding him my dick. “That’s what you wanted?”

Bryan’s eyes rolled back as he sucked and tongued my cock, getting it harder in his mouth. While he did that, I took my shirt off, pushed my pants down, stepping out of them until I was naked. He sucked my dick for a couple of minutes before I fingered his hair again, bringing him back up, and kissed him. We made out as we walked across the hall to the shower. I stroked and kissed him while he fumbled blindly with the shower until the water was ready. Once inside, he dropped back to his knees where he sucked me like a man starved until I came on his chest.

Then I was on my knees. He came hard with two fingers in his ass. I wanted to fuck him, and I think he would have let me, but I hadn’t done that yet. I wasn’t sure I wanted to fumble my way through anal with a stranger for the first time. The thought kept me hard, though, and soon he was back on his knees.

Bryan liked it on his knees. Liked it when I was rough. I gripped the back of his head and used him, held his head while I fucked his mouth. “You want to make me cum again, don’t you?” I said. “You’re already thinking about it.”

He nodded. His arm was moving quickly as he brought himself close to the end.

“You’re gonna let me fuck you, aren’t you?”

He moaned and nodded.

“Whenever I want.”

I doubted I’d see him again, but it was hot as fuck in the moment, knowing he’d come running anytime I got the hair.

Bryan let my dick fall out. “Whenever you want. As much as you want. Fuck, this is good.”

“Uh-huh.” I grabbed his head and put him back on my dick. “I didn’t tell you to stop.”

Is this shit for real?”

Remember when I said things couldn’t get worse than spilling a tray of beverages on Nolan? That I was on my way up? Well, this was when it got worse. A hell of a lot worse.

Nolan stood in the bathroom with his arms crossed, his face flashing a myriad of emotions.

Only then did I noticed the rings. I knew instantly I was fucked. I shoved Bryan off my dick and scrambled out of the shower. I grabbed a towel and covered my crotch as I chased after Nolan. Once I was out the front door, I threw myself in front of his Range Rover. It was freezing cold, but I didn’t care if my toes fell off or not.

Nolan! I didn’t know he was married—or that he was your husband!”

He glared at me from the other side of the glass, then revved the engine.

I didn’t know!

The Range Rover lurched forward. I scrambled off the hood and tried to open the driver's door, but the lock clicked a second too fast. I chased him for half a block in the snow before I gave up.

Fuck!

I stormed back into the house. Bryan was dressed in clothes and guilt.

“Fuck you!” I grounded out. “Fuck you! I never would’ve come back if I knew you were in a relationship.”

“He’s just a roommate!”

I pulled my clothes on as quickly as possible and ran downstairs. I grabbed the photograph I saw on my way back in. I shoved it in Bryan’s face. “This doesn’t look like roommates. It looks like a goddamn wedding photo!”

Everything in me wanted to chuck the frame and its photo across the room. I was so angry. Enraged. I wouldn’t have done anything if I knew he was married, but of all the married guys in the world, it had to be Nolan’s husband? Fuck my life from now till the end.

As I left the house, I flipped my phone open and called Dermot. “Get your ass here right now. I’m on—” I looked around. “—West Hamby Rd. I’ll be on foot.”

Five minutes later, my F150 came bombing around the corner. He screeched to halt, and I got in.

Dermot looked panicked; his eyes lit with fear. “What the fuck happened?”

“That prick was married.”

“Shit.”

“And his husband came home.”

“Fuck.”

“His husband was Nolan.”

Dermot looked at me, his mouth open in shock and dread. “Double fuck.”

****

JUNE 2006

As far as the conference rooms went, this was a nice one. Not that I was experienced in legal conference rooms, but the table was custom-made, high-quality, and surrounded by leather chairs. The big plant in the corner was a pleasant touch, as were the aerial shots of Bend on the wall in lieu of generic motel-like art.

The lawyer and the notary flipped through a thousand pages of documents as Dad and I carefully signed each one. The entire process took a few hours, but when we left, I was smiling.

Dad grabbed my shoulder as we walked outside. It was hot, a scorcher for June. “How does it feel?”

I lowered my sunglasses and smiled. It felt pretty damn good.

“College graduate with a master,” he continued. “Years early thanks to your dedication in high school. And now business partner. I’m proud of you. Proud of how hard you worked and of the man you’ve become. I’m excited to see what you do with your new power.”

We drove to Glendale. This time, I had no illusions. Nolan wouldn’t be there. Wouldn’t matter if he was. That fantasy had been torn to shreds. Hadn’t seen him in the eighteen months since he walked in on us, my dick down his husband’s throat.

Despite the odds, I looked at the bar as we passed by. Nothing. What a shame. It would have been the perfect day to run into him. I wasn’t some puny but overconfident seventeen-year-old with a Justin Bieber haircut. I was a successful business partner, and I was dressed for the role. No starchy Jeeves outfit and no high school popped polo collar. At twenty-three, I was an adult.

Dad frowned when we sat. A nice seat overlooking the Deschutes. He unrolled his silverware and put the napkin in his lap. “I thought maybe that cute guy would be here. Anything ever come of that?”

“Nope,” I lied. No way would he learn the truth. Not for many, many years. “Too busy to worry about dating, anyway.”

“Don’t say that. I know it’s a foreign concept to you, but there is more to life than working. What’s the point of success if you can’t share it with someone?”

“Explain why you’re not remarried.”

Dad laughed and his brown eyes sparked. “It’s not for lack of trying. I want to meet a woman and be stunned silent. There’s no better feeling than having someone you want to work hard for. I’ve spent the last twenty-five years building this empire, and it overjoyed me to give it to you today because I love you. One day I want to find someone else to share it with. And I want that for you, too.”

I leaned back so the server could fill our table with a few appetizers and a couple of beers.

“I want that, too, Dad. I want that, too.”

****

Clubs weren’t my scene, but the guys insisted on it. It was loud and packed. Who used strobe lights anymore? The line at the bar looked less than inviting, considering the drinks were grossly overpriced.

Dermot shoved me toward the line. “Drinks are on you, Mister Entrepreneur. We’ll save the table.”

I looked at my friends as they huddled around a small standing table and smiled. Then I stood in line for ten minutes, waiting for my turn. As soon as I made it to the actual bar top, the crowd thinned and several seats opened, filling quickly with new people. I leaned my elbows on the bar, then stood up and frowned at my wet sleeve.

I never drink beer. What’s your recommendation?” a voice asked from beside me.

I glanced at the guy, then did a double take. Nolan. Nolan was next to me, ordering a beer. His brows furrowed as he studied the menu, trying to calculate the HOP, IPU rating, malt, and flavor.

He bit his lip. “Is the Royal Fresh Imperial any good?”

The bartender took an annoyed breath. He was too busy to teach about beer so I leaned in. “The Imperial is strong. I recommend the Catharina Guava Sour.”

Nolan looked at me, not unkindly. His eyes moved from my chest and arms, where my button down stretched tightly across my frame, showcasing every minute spent at the fitness center, then up to my face.

The heat in his eyes turned to ice as recognition flashed like lightning during a summer storm. He looked back at the bartender. “I’ll take the Royal Fresh Imperial, thanks.”

The bartender glanced between us, picking up the tension. “Oh-kay.”

I sighed. It had been a glorious moment of attraction before Nolan realized where else he knew me from.

Without looking at me, Nolan took the beer from the bartender and swigged it carelessly, then tried not to cringe at how bitter and nasty it was.

I smiled. It was kind of cute.

Nolan turned the bottle in his hand and without looking at me, he said, “Hardly recognize you without Bryan’s dick down your throat.”

It was actually the other way around, but I didn’t feel it was a good time to remind him it was my dick down his husband throat.

Mark, who was eavesdropping on the other side of Nolan, lost balance and fell backward. Without losing a beat, he scrambled up, catching sight of me. “That was you?! Nooooo,” he cried out in amusement.

I sat down next to Nolan, facing him straight on. All I wanted to do was get him to understand that I didn’t know what was happening when everything went down. I opened my mouth to explain, to reason, to claw my way to a spot in his life I only fantasized about holding.

His hand shot up, stopping me dead in my tracks like a landmine. His Oregon green eyes flared. “Do not talk to me.”

Okay. Ouch. His anger had my stomach feeling queasy. It was one thing to never ping his radar and another to be straight out rejected. I looked past him to his friend. Maybe he would listen. “I didn’t—”

Nolan inserted himself in direct eyeline, cutting me off from his buddy. His eyes were still ice cold. “Go fuck yourself.”

Ohhhhh,” Mark jeered. He was likely cupping his mouth like a frat boy at a college football game.

I straightened up. Nolan had every right to hate me for what I’d taken part of, even if it was unknowingly. I didn’t blame him.

I bit my lip, ordered our drinks, and sulked my way back to my friends. My mood had sobered. I spent the evening watching Nolan from the comfort of our table. My stomach in a knot as Mark tried and failed to pull his friend from the cliff I had pushed him off of with my presence alone.

When I got up for the second round, I covered Mark and Nolan’s tab for the evening.

I would have left, completely hopeless, if it hadn’t been for Dermot’s friend, Stephen.

Anyway, Stephen, my beacon of hope. He kept glancing between Nolan and I and biting his lip as he contemplated his move.

“There is this great coffee shop on Minnesota Ave,” he said. “I hit it every morning. It’s only a block from work. Great scones. Best part is, it has a Cheers, everybody knows your name vibe. I’m always there at 7:30, and it’s always the same familiar faces.” He looked at Nolan with purpose, then at me, carefully placing the breadcrumbs.

Oh. Ohhhhh. Okay. I could work with that.

****

Thump Coffee was a trendy, urban coffee shop on the corner of Minnesota Ave. I just so happened by around seven, ordered black coffee, and took a seat in a worn velvet corner chair. At seven-twenty, Nolan strolled in, looking as posh as ever with his hair neatly combed. Today he wore a navy V-neck sweater with red and white stripes on the cuffs and olive-green chinos. His hands were in his pockets as he laughed at something his companion said.

Nolan had this weightlessness about him. Every time I saw him, he wore an easy smile. He never seemed to dwell on his surroundings, and he almost always had his hands in his pockets. Beautiful and worry free…until he saw me.

He did a double take, his eyes narrowing into a beam of death. The woman nudged him to get his attention. He leaned over and whispered something into her ear. Her eyes immediately found me and studied me to within an inch of my life. Oddly, there was little judgment, mostly curiosity and some sadness.

With me near, his affable demeanor was gone. Nolan ‌purposefully kept his back to me. When he finally broke and peeked my way, I smiled and waved. There was enough negativity between us. I would not add to it. He huffed and turned away with his arms crossed. But his friend kept her eye on me. Every now and again, he’d say something, and she’d look at me then nod.

I ducked out before they finished ordering to give him space. Stephen came around the corner. He took one look at me and laughed. “Mornin’, Jensen.”

I raised my cup. “Mornin’, Stephen.”

He shook his head and disappeared into the cafe.

And so it went.

Each morning I went to the cafe. I stayed long enough to be present, but not long enough to press my luck. I inched closer every day until I was in line with him. I waited until he looked at me.

“Good morning.”

Shockingly enough, he smiled. But when he passed me with his coffee in hand, he narrowed his eyes. “Eat dirt and die.”

At least he was talking to me.

I kept saying hi and, in return, he listed all the things I could eat before I dropped dead. Ironically, dick was never one of them. It was real progress.

One morning he held eye contact as he put two-hundred-dollars’ worth of gourmet sauces and cooking oils on the counter. Once they were bagged, he walked past me and lifted his coffee and his bag of goods. “Thanks for this.”

Seems he caught on. The barista looked worried when it was my turn to pay, like maybe that shouldn’t have been allowed.

“I did say anything he gets, goes on my tab.”

By August, we had a real back and forth going. I said hi and paid for his order every morning at the coffee shop and then again, every Thursday at the restaurant. In return, he found colorful and imaginative ways to tell me to fuck off. Only his smile was becoming less hostile and more humored as the weeks passed.

It was the end of the Deschutes County Fair and Rodeo, and the town was slammed. The late afternoon heat had everyone ducking for cover, and Glendale was only five blocks away. I had to park like an asshole in a no parking zone. It wasn’t city-regulated, just a sign the restaurant put up. My dad did it all the time, so I figured…when in Rome.

The ramp leading to the entrance was packed with people waiting for a table. I barely squeezed through the front door, bypassing at least a dozen people who glared at me with contempt as I ‘cut’ in line.

I looked around the bar. Not even a lone spot at the counter was free. I leaned against the bar while Kalani made drinks. “Need help?”

She usually told me no, but this time she pushed a tray of drinks at me, then winked. “Table three.”

I grinned and slid the tray off the counter. “My pleasure.” I was still smiling when I arrived at table three. “Good afternoon,” I greeted as I delivered their drinks. I put the tray under my arm and smiled at Nolan. “Before you offer any more of your lovely suggestions, know I’ve had a lot to eat today. No room for, what did you say? Rotten dino eggs?”

Nolan’s lips curled as he hid his amusement. He snapped his fingers. “That is a shame.”

“Yes, maybe next time.”

“I think the whole point is there won’t be a next time.”

“Because I should drop dead.”

Nolan smirked. And, as much as Mark enjoyed his front-row seat, he elbowed his friend to chill, then turned to me. “I didn’t realize you still worked here.”

“I haven’t since my freshman year in college, but I’ll jump in when needed.”

Mark tilted his head and studied me, then his eyes widened as he connected the dots. “Oh my God. You’re the little kid that dumped water all over Nolan. Hot damn, you grew.”

“That’s usually what happens over a four-year period.”

“I see you got rid of your Justin Bieber haircut.”

I ran my fingers through my hair and let the blush of embarrassment consume me.

“You’re hardly recognizable. Even at the bar, I had no clue who you were. I just thought you were—”

The guy who broke Nolan’s marriage.

I was waiting for things to lighten up a little more before trying to have a real conversation about what happened, but now was as good of a time as any. I took a deep breath and looked at Nolan. He stared at me. The contempt and anger were back.

“I swear to you, I didn’t know he was married. If I had, I never would have left the bar with him. I’m not that person. He never would’ve gotten a second glance from me. Honestly, the offer wouldn’t have made it to the table.”

Nolan sighed. “You can stop worrying. I was never mad at you, just mad at what you represented. You’re a child, too innocent to take the fall. It’s not like you knew what to look for.”

I scoffed and stood back, vexed. “I’m almost twenty-four.” Far from a child.

His mouth opened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. Of course you’re not a child. I just meant—” he cringed apologetically. He was floundering, feeling guilty for insulting me. He reached out and touched my arm. “When you're in your thirties, you’ll understand. Being in your twenties is amazing, but there is still a lot of growing up to do.”

“You’re always growing up, no matter how old you are.”

Nolan smiled. “There is no lie there. And really, I didn't mean anything. I mean, look at you, you’re in your prime! You get to be young and dumb. No cares in the world—”

I crossed my arms and raised my brow.

He cringed and took a drink of his wine. “I’m going to shut up now.”

“No, keep going on about how young and dumb I am.”

He pinched his lips closed and shook his head, making his friend laugh.

“Maybe a little respect for the guy who's been picking up your tab for three months,” I said, letting a little sass show.

“That’s not exactly fair. I never asked you to do that.”

“Oh, so the two hundred dollars in gourmet sauces was just a fluke?”

Mark’s mouth dropped, and his eyes widened in shock and disbelief. “Two hundred dollars?!”

Nolan shrugged. “Consider it restitution.”

“Restitution?” I barked out in laughter. “Wow, okay. How much restitution should I expect?”

He bit back another smile. “I think we can call it even—”

The table rattled, and Nolan flinched, his brows furrowed in confusion as he rubbed his leg. Mark gave him what-the-fuck eyes. After a brief back and forth, Nolan rolled his eyes and then turned his attention back to me and smiled placatingly. “I’ll need to get back to you on that restitution, apparently.”

“Just let me know. I’m sure you’ll find me around.”

He laughed, and oh, what a sweet sound it was.

I took the tray back to the bar. I could hardly stand still. My body was vibrating. That was the most progress made with Nolan since I was seventeen. I’d only ever had the opportunity to be attracted to his looks, but now I had a glimpse of the sweet and saucy personality simmering underneath. The attraction was finally growing into something more than just physical, and I wanted more. I had a feeling I would get more.

The hardest part was not planning things out. I wanted to fabricate a meeting so we could hang out for real, but I was nervous. When you make considerable advances into enemy territory, any gain becomes a greater potential for loss.

So, I continued working the angles which yielded results. Over the next two weeks, Nolan stopped suggesting things I could eat in exchange for my early demise. Instead, he said hi every time he came in, then smiled and lifted his free coffee as he left.

Then the day came when everything changed.

I was sitting at the bar, chatting with Kahani while she simultaneously made eight different drinks without batting an eye. I was also helping her wait on table three. Not that she needed my help. I think it was to keep me out of her hair. I chose not to question the motives as they benefited me greatly.

“Stop flirting with me,” Kalani teased, then nodded toward my table. “Table three is trying to get your attention.”

Sure enough, Mark motioned for a to-go box, his movements rushed and hurried. I quickly grabbed a couple from the bussing station and ran them to their table.

“Can you call a cab?” Mark asked Nolan as I put his food in the box. “I didn’t know Emile was going to show up, and I have to get to the office asap. I don’t have time to drop you off.”

Nolan stopped me when I grabbed his plate, then turned back to Mark. “Emile is the worst, but go. I’m going to finish my meal, and then I’ll catch a taxi home. Don’t worry about me.”

Mark sighed, grabbed his jacket, his to-go box, and kissed his friend on the cheek. “I’ll let you know how it goes once I’m home. Sorry for bailing. I’ll make it up to you.”

Then he was gone, and I stood there awkwardly. Nolan took a sip of his drink and pointed to the newly vacant seat. “Sit.”

I dropped into the seat like a fifty-pound bag of potatoes. Pride be gone. Nolan chuckled and took a bite of his grilled chicken. When he finished, he set his fork down and wiped his mouth. “Why don’t you tell me why you keep popping up everywhere?”

“Honestly?”

“I wouldn’t have asked if I wanted a lie.”

I shrugged. It was ballsy to tell the truth, but I had nothing to lose. If the truth doesn’t set you free and all that. “The thought of you hating me for something out of my character pains me. So, I’m doing what I can to change your opinion.”

“What’s my opinion?”

“Judging by the thousand death suggestions you’ve given me? It’s not a high one.”

“I’ve already told you it’s water under the bridge. I blame Bryan, not you.”

“Maybe, but you can’t look at me without seeing what you saw.”

He nodded slowly, his eyes blank as his mind recalled that fateful and earth-shattering event. “I suppose some things get burned into one’s memory.”

“Then my work isn’t done.”

PART TWO
NOLAN

PRESENT DAY

“Honestly, this story is really pathetic.” Anna looks at her Uncle Jensen and crosses her arms. “So far I’ve learned you’re a grave digger—”

My jaw drops. “I resent that.”

Jensen nuzzles his nose against the side of my head. “Where’s the lie?”

“Okay, first off, gross.” Anna shakes her head, feigning great disappointment. It might be believable if she wasn’t biting back a grin. “I can’t believe you were a slut.”

“I wasn’t a slut!” Jensen cries. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you this story.”

“So when does it get good?” she asks, then turns to me and rolls her eyes. “I mean, Uncle Nolan, you clearly weren’t interested, right? So, what changed? How did Uncle Jensen go from being the other man to your man?”

“Ahh—” I pat Jensen’s face a little harder than necessary, making him wince. “It wasn’t easy. He was a kid—”

“I was almost twenty-four.”

“Yeah, but you were fifteen when we met.”

“I was seventeen,” he corrects. “And you know it.”

“But you looked fifteen.”

“I didn’t look fifteen when I drove you home after lunch….”

I look at Anna. “He definitely didn’t look fifteen—or seventeen—when he drove me home from lunch.”

AUGUST 2006

Jensen insisted on driving me home in an effort to change my opinion. I wasn’t inclined to accept, but it was better than calling a cab, and honestly, I wasn’t flush with funds at the time.

I expected him to drop me off and leave, but he opened his door and got out, then walked toward the house like he had every right to. I would’ve been embarrassed about the state of things, but he was so young I didn’t care.

“What is all this?” he asked, gesturing at the plywood on the ground and the mostly cleaned up debris from the halted remodeling. He looked shocked. Which was strange. I remember thinking that was strange. Why would he care?

I pointed to the house where half of the Tudor style home was barely weathered in. “Remodeling.”

“I see that but why? Why does it still look like this? It hasn’t changed at all since I was—”

Foot in mouth.

“Since you were here, blowing my ex?”

“Unfortunately, yes. And the progress hasn’t changed since then. Why? This is barely to code.”

I punched the code to the garage. The doors opened, slowly revealing a small fortune of lumber, sheetrock, and the rest of the building materials needed to finish the project. “I got the house in the divorce. No mortgage, but I can’t refinance because I barely make money. So I have all the stuff, but I can’t afford the labor to get it done, and I can’t swing a hammer. Last time I did, I broke my finger.”

He looked at the house and shook his head. “If you don’t get the siding up, you’ll risk serious damage over the winter.”

I looked at the house in all its disarrayed glory. My grandparents built it after they got married. It’s one of those houses with amazing bones. If only they could see it now. “It made it through one winter already.”

Jensen navigated his way through the packed garage. “I’m guessing the inside is the same as last time?” It was a courtesy question; he was going to find out in a moment.

The current state of my home, my grandparents' home, the one I had big plans for, was a sore spot in my life. It hurt more than Bryan’s betrayal. I didn’t want some cocky twenty-something in my space. He’d already made me face the shortcomings of my marriage, and now my house? Who did he think he was?

I ventured into the house behind him. He helped himself, poking and prodding around the construction zone, which was most of the house. Bryan and I had planned to just tear it down to the studs and rebuild before things got interrupted and the money disappeared.

I half-expected him to lecture me, tell me to watch YouTube and figure out how to finish this. I resented it. It’s easy to pass judgment when you’re twenty-three and haven’t personally been torn down. The world is still ripe with possibility. What would he know, anyway? He wasn’t a contractor.

When he finished invading the depths of my depression, he looked at me with a soft expression. “I’m sorry you haven’t been able to finish this. I bet it kills you, that you can’t bring this house back to life.”

“What’s worse? Getting a divorce, or getting this house in the divorce and not being able to do anything to it?”

“Knowing what an asshole your ex is, definitely the latter.”

OCTOBER 2006

My sister, Jenn, leaned in close, pretending to obsess over which pastry she wanted from the pastry case when really, she was trying to be sly. “Remind me why you haven’t gone out with him?”

Him was Jensen, who was perched at his normal spot on the other side of the cafe, watching us with a cocky grin as we spent his money. I will be honest, part of me felt bad about that. The other part couldn’t afford to be prideful.

I hadn’t worked much during my seven-year marriage. Bryan made more than enough money, and it prided him greatly that his husband could pursue matters of the heart. I happily spent those years volunteering my time and skills coordinating fundraisers for non-profit events. The divorce settlement left me house rich, but cash poor. A decision I didn’t regret. The other option was selling the million-dollar house and splitting the assets in half.

I couldn’t bear the thought.

“Him is twenty-three. That is embarrassingly young.”

“It’s young, but not embarrassingly young. Besides, I’m pretty sure he mentioned a birthday coming up soon. Anyway, he’s hot enough to make up for the age. I bet he’s a great lay.”

“Bryan seemed to enjoy him well enough.”

She shoved me with her elbow and ordered a pastry. “Let it go.”

“Ugh. I don’t really care about that. I don’t have time to entertain being his sugar daddy, since I have no sugar. These part-time gigs are really great and help me scrape by, but I need something more. I’ve never been broke. It’s very annoying.” I frowned. “I had to check my bank account before telling the gas attendant to fill up.”

“Oh the travesty.”

“I’m not trying to sound like an entitled asshole—”

“I know, it just comes natural to you.”

I ignored my bratty sister and took my coffee and breakfast sandwich. As I did every day, I raised my cup to Jensen as I left. I really was grateful for his generosity. He could rescind it at any point. He owed me nothing. Definitely didn’t owe me coffee every morning and happy hour every Thursday.

“The guy is clearly smitten with you,” she resumed once we were walking down the sidewalk. “He’s never encroached on your space or pressured you. He’s never even been a jerk or a creep. And, you know? He’s got a good smile. It’s genuine and warm.”

“Yes, he is all those things. He’s also really young. Or do you conveniently forget that?”

“You know what’s more annoying than being broke?” she asked hypothetically. “You. You’re more annoying than being broke. God, Noe. What does he have to do?”

We crossed the street. Her car was parked behind mine on the curb. I quickly opened my door. “Oh look, we’re at the cars, gotta run.” I gave a two-finger, toodle-ooo wave as I got in.

I had a busy day ahead. I’d been tasked with coordinating lodging, events, and transportation for a large family reunion. With one week until their arrival, I spent the entire day confirming details and emailing the eldest daughter, who was spearheading things from her side.

Before I knew it, it was time to go home. It sounds terrible to even contemplate, but I hadn’t worked that hard in a long time. There was a bottle of pinot calling my name, and I was desperate to pour a glass. I’m sure that made me a terrible person. I’d get used to being a full-time working man, but I wasn’t there yet.

I did a double take as I pulled up to my house. There were two work trucks, neither of which belonged to the neighbor, parked in the way. I pulled along the curb and got out, perching my sunglasses on the top of my head.

I followed a trail of tools to the side of the house, where a gigantic piece of equipment was parked. One of those lift things with the box on the end, like a personal elevator the power company used all the time.

Puzzled, I looked up. “What are you doing?”

Jensen was all the way at the top, shingling the gable of my house. “Getting the exterior done. There’s only a month of decent weather left.”

I couldn’t believe it. The entire side had been resided.

“My question remains. What are you doing?”

He waved me off. “I’m almost done, and I’ll come down.”

I was stunned. Jensen had come and spent the entire day siding my house while I was at work. I wanted to hate him for it, but I was beyond relieved to see the progress on my house, especially before summer ended.

A grinding noise caught my attention. I followed it around the house, where I found two guys doing brickwork.

Shaking my head, I went back and watched Jensen work. He was quick and efficient and seemed to know what he was doing. The gable was finished in no time, and then he was lowering himself to the ground. He unlatched the safety harness and stepped out with a beaming smile.

“What do you think?” he asked as he gestured to his hard work.

“I—” Had no words.

His smile dimmed into understanding. “Don’t make this a big deal. I had some free time, and this really needs to be done by the end of the month.”

“And the two guys back there, doing the brick work? They just happened to have some free time also?”

“They did, and they owed me a favor I would have otherwise been unable to collect.”

I wanted to argue, but I swallowed my pride. “As long as it’s not a big deal….”

He crossed his heart. “The guys are almost done. We’ll clean up and get out of your hair.”

After they left, I opened a bottle of wine and went and sat in the yard so I could stare at the progress. It seemed like such an undertaking. I wouldn’t have known where to start, yet Jensen showed up and busted out an entire wall. Granted, it was the smaller side of the house, but it was a mountain to me. For the first time in a year-and-a-half, I felt a little less overwhelmed.

If he never showed up again, I would’ve been happy and thankful for what he’d done, but he kept coming. Not every day and not even for full days. It didn’t matter what I was doing. Didn’t matter if I was home. Jensen never asked if it was okay. He just swung by when it worked for him.

One day I was in bed, trying to find motivation to get up. I had a meeting for an upcoming fundraiser, but not until the early afternoon. I probably would have stayed in bed for another hour, procrastinating, if I wasn’t jolted to my feet by the sound of an air compressor firing up, followed by the dut-dut of a nail gun outside my bedroom window.

I shot across the hall and showered in record time, got dressed, did my hair, then ran downstairs. I took a second to collect myself, then walked outside like I hadn’t been running around like crazy.

Jensen was in his lift, scaling the wall. The house had shingles, brick, stucco, and half-timbering. His friends had finished all the brickwork, and Jensen had done most of the shingle work and some stucco. Now he was working on the half-timbering. It looked impossibly complex to me, but he didn’t have any issues.

Jensen stopped what he was doing when he realized I was outside and smiled down at me. He waved, and I waved back, and because I couldn’t stand there watching him work, I walked around the yard. It was a mess. The grass was dead because the irrigation had been turned off for the remodel. The shrubs had grown out of control, and my poppies and hostas were wilted and sad.

I ran my finger over the dried leaves and sighed. I’d really let life get out of hand.

****

“So….”

I didn’t like Mark’s tone or the way he was looking at Jensen, like he was a snake and Jensen was a little field mouse. His ice blue eyes were trained, something devious on the tip of his tongue. I loved my friend, but he had a vivid imagination and a world without theatrics was a world he didn’t want to live in. Which meant he often saw things that weren’t there.

I took a drink of my wine and dug the toe of my shoe into his shin.

Mark ignored my attempt at a cease and desist. He took a sip of his drink and continued to study Jensen, who he’d invited over despite me telling him with my eyes that our friendship would be over.

“What does a twenty-something, who used to be a busser at this very restaurant but now finds himself widely available to finish the siding a forty-five-hundred square foot home, do for a living?”

I tipped my head back, downing the rest of my wine, and wished the toe of my shoe was a knife.

Jensen smiled easily, unaffected by the questioning. “I co-own Fox LLC.”

Mark narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “And what exactly is Fox LLC?”

“A holding company.”

“For?”

Jensen continued to smile. He might look like a man, but he was still a child. Guileless brown eyes looked as if he didn’t find Mark’s questioning offensive and rude.

I looked out the window at the river. I didn’t want to be part of this, even though I was curious. What did a twenty-three-year-old with all this free time do? And what businesses could he possibly own?

“GroundFX Landscaping, LumberPlus, Fox’s Equipment Rental, DieselPro, Fox’s Athletic Center, and this very fine establishment that we’re currently residing.”

I would have reached across the table and lifted Mark’s chin off his plate, but I was too busy with my own. Every town has businesses which represent the heart of the community. The ones he listed were the epitome of Bend. You could find the name Fox in the school's gym, on the community field, and the high school baseball field. They donated to every fundraiser I’d ever been a part of. You trusted their service, and you cherished their generosity.

Mark gathered his wits quickly and sat up straight. “You’re telling me you own all those businesses?”

“Co-own.”

“Same difference,” Mark scoffed.

“It’s not really....”

Mark ignored Jensen and raised his hand at the waitress. “I’d like to order the most expensive dessert, thank you.”

My gaze snapped to my best friend. “Mark!

“What?”

I turned to Jensen with wide, apologetic eyes. “He’s joking. He’ll be paying for his own food.” I turned and narrowed my eyes at Mark. “And he’ll be getting his own ride home.”

“I drove us here.” Then Mark smirked. “But you’re right, shame on me.” He grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair. “I’ll see myself out as punishment. And Jensen, I’m assuming you can give Noe a ride home? Since I’m being sent to the corner and all.”

Jensen looked at me with this cute expression, half furrowed brows, because he didn’t know what was going on, and half curious excitement. “Sure, I—”

But Mark didn’t bother waiting for a response. He was gone. There was a time in high school when I wanted to throttle him for something similar, and now I regret not following through. I caught Kalani’s eye and held my wine glass up, then looked at Jensen. “I’m sorry. Mark was dropped as a child, and I’m starting to think it was intentional on his parents’ part.”

Jensen’s eyes sparkled as he laughed. “He’s always been nice to me. Even when I was younger, he was always asking me questions about school and sports.”

“Yeah, because he thought you were in love with me.” I froze and wished I hadn’t said that. I wanted to slap myself.

His face flushed. “I wasn’t in love, but I was infatuated. You were my first crush,” he admitted. “I thought you were the sexiest person I’d ever seen.”

Stunned, I squeezed the wine stem between my fingers. I set it down before I snapped it in half. “Oh. Well, you were just seventeen.”

“Maybe, but I wasn’t blind. I’ve always thought you were cute. Plus, you’ve always treated the people around you with kindness, which is also hot. Also, you have a brilliant smile.”

I couldn’t stop myself, I smiled. Not to show it off but because the entire exchange was rather stupid.

“What?” he asked, smiling brighter now that I was smiling.

“It’s weird to think some little seventeen-year-old was pining after me.”

“Well, I haven’t been seventeen for a while….”

Oh my god. I covered my face and laughed. This young and attractive guy, who seemed to know how to do everything, was blatantly hitting on me. If that wasn’t bad enough, I had never been good at taking compliments.

“Maybe you should take me home,” I said.

“I’ve always wanted you to ask me that.”

I almost stumbled out of my chair. “I meant—oh god, no, you’re like, soo young—”

“Calm down.” Jensen patted my arm. “I was teasing. I’d be happy to drop you off at home.”

If I had the stamina to run home, I would have.

Jensen followed, looking smug and happy as he unlocked the truck. “You’re cute when you get flustered.”

“Oh god. Stop.”

He chuckled as he buckled up. “Okay, I’ll leave you alone.”

Most of the drive home was quiet. I was a knot of anxiety. As we neared the house, Jensen cleared his throat. “I should be done with the exterior next week. I still need to paint it, but that will have to wait until late spring when the weather warms back up.”

“Oh, you don’t have to come back and do that,” I said, mostly out of obligation. In reality, I prayed he would come back. Unless things changed quickly, I wasn’t sure how I’d afford to get the house done.

And I knew that made me a terrible person—using him like that.

He pulled behind my SUV and put the truck in park. “This kind of thing is therapeutic for me.”

“I feel bad that you’re doing all this work. I’d offer to pay, but the whole reason it’s not finished is because I don’t have the money.”

“Nah, it’s all good. I like to keep myself busy, so this works out.” He shifted in his seat and ran his hands over the steering wheel. “You could invite me out to dinner sometime.”

“Oh.”

“You don’t have to,” he amended quickly. “I just—you know what, nevermind—”

“No. No—I mean yes, that sounds good.”

He looked shocked. “Really?”

“Once you're done and all. It’s the least I could do.”

“Of course. Once I’m done.” Jensen’s voice was even and serious, but his lip curled in a cute, teasing way.

“I should go.”

“Yes, and I should hurry to get the siding finished.”

I walked to the house, smiling. Jensen was an enigma. He was ten times hotter than Bryan ever was, without being cocky or arrogant. He seemed genuine, kind, and selfless.

I grabbed the cordless phone on my way through the house and dialed Mark’s number. “Hey, asshole.”

“How was the dessert?”

I headed to the washroom to swap my clothes out. “We didn’t have dessert, and I can’t believe you abandoned me like that.”

“Oh, c’mon. There’s definite chemistry there. He’s totally into you, and it’s obvious you’re into him, too. You needed a little push.”

“He’s so young.”

“You know the saying ‘age is just a number’?”

I leaned my hip against the dryer and sighed. “Yeah…”

“Jensen proves that statement's validity. When he was actually young, too young, I thought his crush on you was funny, so I kept tabs on him for the hell of it. Even then, he was mature for his age. He carried himself differently than most teenagers. Was he still an idiot? Oh god, yes. It was painful listening to him talk sometimes, but even I could see he had a good head on his shoulders. Now he’s twenty-three and a business owner. Beyond that, he’s tasked himself with fixing up your house. Let's face it, he’s more mature than Bryan ever was—more mature than a lot of men our age are. Hence, age is just a number.”

“I don’t even know if I want to date.”

“Sure, if you really feel you’re not ready to date, that’s fine.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Just spit it out, Mark—or I’m hanging up.”

“That’s hardly a threat.”

I ended the call and put the phone under my arm while I carried clean laundry to the bedroom. The clothes hadn’t even landed on the bed when the phone rang again. Mark. There was no point in answering. I knew what he was going to say. It’s easy for him to tell me I have a lot to offer someone, but the truth was, I had nothing.

There wasn’t much I wanted out of the divorce besides the divorce itself. Not after what Bryan did. No, scratch that, especially after what Bryan did. The house was a no-brainer. My grandparents built it. I also wanted the Range Rover. It was my dream car, and there was no point in selling it because they depreciated so fast. We wouldn’t have gotten much for it. On paper, I came out ahead, though the things I fought hard to keep were beginning to feel like concrete weights tied to my neck.

Even if Jensen finished the outside of the house, the inside was mostly studs. And the second something went wrong with the Range Rover, it would become an expensive lawn ornament.

Jensen wanted me to take him out to dinner, which was more than fair considering what he was doing for me, but—

God, I didn’t even want to pull up my bank account. I had to remind myself that I had forwent alimony payments to ensure property taxes were paid for the next five years.

It was embarrassing to admit, but I had never worked. And really, that wasn’t true. Even in high school, I volunteered most weekends and sometimes after school. I worked my ass off for every nonprofit there was, and I loved every second of it. When I was younger, my parents happily covered my daily expenses to make it possible. When I was older, Bryan took over.

I couldn’t donate my time anymore, but it didn’t feel fair to ask for compensation either, not when I had done it for free for so long. I couldn’t start a relationship either, not where I was at. Especially not to some young buck who was running circles around me. How humiliating.

I finished ironing my favorite oxford shirts, the ones I could no longer afford, then carefully hung them up…on a bar between two wall studs, above some electrical lines. I laughed as I smoothed the arms out. What a weird paradox, to have so much, yet so very little.

****

It’s possible I avoided Jensen—as much as I could, which wasn’t much. He was at the coffee shop every morning and Glendale on Thursday. I even ran into him at the grocery store. What were the odds?

But it was a good week. I booked a wedding. It didn’t have a big budget, but it was a start. I loved doing weddings. They were fun and joyous occasions, usually. I dreamed of owning a venue. There was this giant prairie-style barn on the outskirts of town, sitting on a couple of acres abutting the river. I hadn’t been inside, but it didn’t look like it would take much to renovate it into a spectacular venue. There was lots of parking, a gorgeous flat spot, perfect for an outdoor ceremony. I dreamed of it frequently. An outdoor gazebo and, oh, the things I could do on the inside. It could be magical. Not just for weddings, but for so many occasions.

I was still daydreaming about the perfect venue when I pulled into the driveway. Jensen was cleaning up the yard. The plywood pretending to be a makeshift walkway for the last eighteen months was gone, leaving a trail of dead lawn in its place. I wasn’t going to do anything about it now, we were going into the winter, but I could already tell spring was going to be busy.

Jensen finished loading a bunch of trash scrap in the back of a utility truck, his muscles, tight from youth, flexed under his shirt. When everything was secured, he turned to me and smiled. “Good afternoon, Nolan.”

God, he really was handsome. His dark brown hair was ruffled and sweaty. Those light brown eyes, oh damn, how his happiness sparkled like crystals. But it was the dimples that got me.

I took a breath to stop myself from staring and clutched my folio. “Afternoon.”

“What do you think?”

I looked at the house. The exterior was finished. I almost dropped to my knees with gratitude.

“Like I said, I’ll paint it this spring when the weather warms up.” Jensen was watching me, his brows furrowed with worry. What? Did he think I was going to tell him it looked like shit, and he needed to re-do it all?

“Jensen, this is more than I can possibly—”

“Ah, it’s nothing.”

We both knew that wasn’t true. Who knows what he passed up to finish the job? A string of men, I’m sure. Jensen was being coy, and it was kind of cute.

“But I am done. All finished up.” He was practically kicking rocks. It was very “oh, shucks” and “gee golly.”

“I guess that means I owe you dinner.”

“Oh, well, you don’t actually owe me anything.” There he went, kicking rocks again.

My arms were already crossed, pressing my folio to my chest. I tilted my head. “Do you want to go to dinner or not?”

“I do,” he said quickly, making me grin to myself.

“Wednesday?”

“Sure.”

“Let me grab a paper from inside, and you can give me your address so I can pick you up.”

“I could just text you?”

“That would require a cellphone.” Without another comment, I went inside and grabbed a paper and pen. Jensen wrote his address and then finished cleaning up, which was completely unnecessary. As was everything he’d done.

****

Of course Jensen lived in Rogue Flats. Ironically, it wasn’t flat at all. Every few feet felt like a new dip and a new bend. Every house was gorgeous, if a bit dated. The neighborhood, as a whole, was nicer than mine, which was saying a lot. As I drove, I wondered if his company did all the landscaping. Probably. Not a shrub out of order.

For a moment, I thought I was lost, distracted by all the perfection, then I saw Jensen. He was doing light yard work in a blue button down and khakis. I knew very little about the guy but getting ready for dinner and then being sidetracked with home maintenance on your way out the door seemed about right.

What did a lazy day look like to him? Was he aware there was such a thing?

He looked up and smiled, his dimples stealing the spotlight. He rinsed his hands with the hose and grabbed a nearby towel and dried them off. Before he got in the car, he dusted a bit of soil from his shirt and pants. There was hardly anything on him, a light dusting that came right off, but he seemed to fret over it.

I bit my lip. Something about it was cute.

“Where are we going?” he asked as I drove out of Rogue Flats.

“Alishan?” Could I afford Alishan? Not really. It wasn’t like I could take him to Nancy Jo’s Burgers and Fries. Alishan was the most comparable to Glendale. I never ran my credit card, but I would for this. Really, it was the least I could do.

I thought Alishan was a good choice, but Jensen’s face lacked the typical excitement one might express when presented with fine dining.

“We can go anywhere,” I amended. “It’s your pick.”

“Alishan is fine. They’re good. I was craving McKay’s, though.”

“McKay’s is great.” Really great. They were a small, local cafe with some of the best comfort food the high desert offered, with prices that didn’t require a credit card.

Dinner was great, obviously. The food held its own, but the company was top notch. Jensen was easy to talk to and funny in an unsuspecting way. When we finished and I paid, Jensen suggested a short walk. There was a leisurely trail that wrapped around a nearby park. I wasn’t wearing the shoes for it but accepted anyway. The walk was great; I suspect Jensen thought about holding my hand a few times but never did. I’ll be honest, I was thankful for that. I wasn’t there. Despite my runaway emotions, he was just so young.

The second I dropped him off, I took my shoes off and drove home barefoot. Illegal or not, my feet were screaming. It was worth it, probably the best night I’d had in a while. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, I hoped it would happen again and soon.

We would have dinner again but not for a long time. Until then, I had to settle for quick morning greetings and small talk on Thursdays.

I had to settle for a long time. For months. All winter, in fact, and well into the spring. It was painful to the point of agonizing. More than once I made Jenn bail early on coffee. I literally pushed her out the door.

“Sorry you had to run off to work. Maybe we’ll have more time tomorrow! Bye!” Just so I could have a few more moments with Jensen. It was embarrassing, really. I wish I could have stopped myself. I wish I could have stopped myself before telling Mark to stand me up for our weekly happy hour/dinner. I was some kind of desperate. Some might even say pathetic.

I was thirty-two, but every time I talked to Jensen, I found myself concentrating ridiculously hard on mentally convincing him to invite me out again. Like a child. Dinner, a walk, a drive-in movie, walking the trash to the end of the road. I didn’t care.

Alas, telepathy was a joke, clearly. It didn’t work.

****

MARCH 2007

Snow wasn’t uncommon, but the meteorologists were throwing around the term ‘record breaking’. Normally, this wouldn’t be a blip on my radar but as it turned out, a gutted house does not retain heat. I could set my thermostat to one hundred degrees and the only thing that would go up is my power bill. There I was, in a one-point-five-million-dollar house, and I might as well have been sleeping outside.

I had it better than so many, but it wasn’t going to be a comfortable week for me. Hell, it wasn’t a comfortable winter. All those jackets I just had to buy were coming in handy.

The impending weather was something I tried not to dwell on. It was a grin and bear it situation. I did the only thing I could control. I went to the store and stocked up on food.

Truth be told, I hadn’t planned on stopping at the store, but I saw Jensen’s truck in the parking lot and almost sideswiped a car in an attempt to make the turn. I don’t remember what I had in my cart, a little of this from aisle eight, a little of that from aisle nine. Really, there was something from every aisle I passed until I randomly ran into Jensen in the carnivore's corner. He was stocking up on meat and, wouldn’t you know it, I also needed meat. I tossed a couple packs of…something ground up, a pack of chicken, two steaks, and—

“Nolan?”

“Oh, hey, Jensen.” I glanced at his cart and grinned. “Looks like we had the same idea.”

I knew it was stupid. I knew it, and I said it anyway.

“Shelves will be bare in a few days.” His smile was all dimples. “Are you ready for it?”

“As ready as I can be. Hoping some stew will keep me warm. Despite all your work this summer, the inside isn’t exactly airtight.”

“Oh shit.”

“Ehh, it’s not that big of a deal,” I lied.

We slowly pushed our carts through the meat aisle and then walked around the produce section. It looked like I really was making stew. I thought about inviting him over for a bowl but realized it was extra stupid to ask someone to drive in a ‘record-breaking’ storm just for soup. So I didn’t.

The next day, I saw Jensen at the coffee shop. He was sitting at a table with a few guys. A meeting?

“Did you just huff?”

“No.”

Jenn laughed. “Ohmygod. You saw Jensen is too busy to fawn over you, and you huffed.”

“I didn’t huff.”

“You totally huffed. Look, your arms are crossed.”

I uncrossed my arms and then felt weird because I didn’t know what to do with them. I glared at my sister. “I always cross my arms.”

“Not like a whiny child you don’t.”

Lyla looked at me from behind the register. I signaled that we’d have our usual. Jenn was still looking at me with the same look she always had growing up when she held all the power.

I rolled my eyes. “You’re annoying me.”

“Look at his jacket.” She nodded to Jensen. He was wearing the new limited-edition Patagonia down jacket in dark green, and it looked great on him.

“And your point is.”

She just grinned. Her point was, I always got the limited-edition Patagonia jackets; it was my thing, up until the divorce. Now it was a pipe dream. But Jensen had it.

“Soulmates.”

“I do not think you know what that means.”

“Jacket twins.”

Lyla set our drinks on the counter, we took our obligatory sips, to let her know it was perfect, then headed to the door. I was halfway to my car when I heard my name. I turned to find Jensen running after me, his cheeks pink from the cold, his dark hair peeking out from under his backwards hat. The heat of his breath puffed into the air like smoke clouds.

“Are you going to be home today?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m heading back now, actually.”

“Awesome. I’ll meet you there in forty.”

“Oh. Sure. Yeah.”

He smiled then took off back to the cafe while I stood there stunned.

Jenn backhanded my shoulder. “You didn’t tell me he was stopping by the house.”

I blinked at Jenn. “’Cause I didn’t know.”

****

My mind ran through a hundred reasons why Jensen was coming over. I came up blank. I had no idea. Which made cleaning the house difficult. I didn’t know where to focus my energy.

Forty minutes later I opened the door to find Jensen there, smiling. I stood back and watched as he came in. It’s shameful how I watched his ass, how I judged the way his jeans hugged every curve. When he turned around, I quickly averted my gaze, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at the house. He walked through the living room, taking everything in, then the hall, the guest room, the kitchen, the den, and so on.

“How much of the renovation was completed?”

I had no clue why he was asking, but I walked him through as best as I could. I showed him where the new built-ins had been framed in, electrical was updated, walls were knocked down, ceiling opened up, closet opened up and framed in, etc. I knew I missed a lot, but I did the best I could.

“Where do you spend most of your time?” he asked as he helped himself.

“In general?”

“Yeah. If there were three rooms you spend the most time in, which would they be?”

“Oh.” I blinked. “My bedroom, the bathroom, and the non-formal living room where I watch TV?”

Jensen nodded and smiled. “Let's get to work then.”

I followed him through the house like a puppy. “Work?”

He opened the garage door and flipped on the light. It took him a second to find what he was looking for. Sheetrock. He grabbed a sheet and lifted it over his head like it was an inflatable mattress. “We need to get this place insulated.”

There wasn’t much I could say. Jensen came in like a hurricane. He stayed late laying insulation and putting up sheetrock. I wish I could say I was helpful, but I can’t.

“This really isn’t your thing,” he said with a laugh after I put a giant dent in the sheetrock while trying to hit the nail with the hammer. To which I pouted, making him laugh even harder.

By the end of the week, as the weather plummeted, he had put up almost all the sheetrock.

He loaded the tools back in his truck. “I’ll mud and sand it later.”

I tightened my jacket around my torso and followed him to the driver’s side door. “How about I treat you to dinner?”

He smiled again, soft and sweet. “Not necessary. I just wanted to make sure you survived the cold.”

I pressed it. “Let me. I’ll feel guilty if you don’t.”

Jensen studied me for a moment then shook his head. “Just stay safe, OK?”

****

JUNE 2007

June was the calm before the summer wedding season. I spent all winter slowly building my business and was looking at a relatively busy summer. If I couldn’t travel and do fun stuff like I normally did, the least I could do was book myself silly.

It helped to keep my mind off other things. Confusing things.

Jensen things.

I squeezed my eyes shut. If only I could go half a day without thinking about him, but he made it impossible.

He kept coming back after sheetrocking my house. Sometimes I’d come home to him pressure washing my porch and driveway, other times he was doing yard work. It was infuriating because he never let me do anything in return. I tried and tried to repay him in some way. I finally had a little money, and I wanted to treat him.

The answer was always a brush off. Which was confusing. I clearly misread his intentions, which was embarrassing. I became obsessed over this kid who I thought was into me when, in reality, he pitied me.

I knew Jensen was at the house the second I turned the corner. His truck was parked on the street, a little farther away than normal. The windows were taped off, and he was spraying the house with fresh paint. I sat in my car and watched until the last bit was finished. He lowered himself down and cleaned up the paint. He seemed happy to show up unannounced, to do work that wasn’t expected, and leave without so much as a hello.

Confusing as hell, I tell you.

And now I was panicking. Painting the exterior had been the endgame from the beginning. With it done, what else was keeping him around?

I got out of the Range Rover. “I wasn’t expecting you to be done already.”

“What can I say, the weather’s been good. I figured, why not get it done?”

And get out of here. I looked back at the house. It looked better than I ever remembered. “I can’t believe it. I wasn’t sure I’d see the day when the house didn’t look like a trainwreck.”

He finished securing the paint sprayer and smiled. Those damn dimples. Gah. They were stunning and potentially heartbreaking, and they made my stomach do funny things.

“You love this place. You deserve to light up when you see it.”

“Oh, well, that’s…a really nice thing to say. I guess, now that you’re done, I definitely owe you dinner?”

His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You don’t owe me anything. Like I said, you deserve to smile when you see this place. I was happy to help make that happen.”

“C’mon,” I pleaded. “You have to let me do something. It’s the proper thing.”

He shook his head, nope, no way, and walked to the driver’s door. I followed him. I even begged some more. I was still holding on to his window as he pulled away.

Honestly, I was irritated as he disappeared around the bend. Why was he so willing to do this insane amount of work for free but not willing to have dinner? The more I thought about it, the more irritated I grew. I know I commented on how broke I was, and that I had nothing to offer anyone, but I was a catch.

A damn catch.

And sure, he was younger, but it didn’t seem like a big deal anymore. It wasn’t something I noticed like I used to.

But if he wanted to be stupid about everything, two could play.

****

I grabbed ten dollars from my wallet and tossed it onto the counter. She glanced across the cafe where Jensen was sitting, reading a magazine and sipping his drink. “What am I supposed to tell him?”

She could tell him whatever she wanted. I didn’t care.

Except I did care, and as I grabbed my coffee, I kind of wanted her to say something to him so he’d know the score. “He refused my dinner, so I refuse his drinks.”

I was maybe a little smug when I said it, yet as she took the ten and walked it to Jensen, I wanted to run out of the cafe. Turns out I’m not a total coward. I waited until he glanced at me, his brows furrowed as she handed him the ten, then I smiled and slipped out the door.

I walked to the car with my shoulders squared and my head held high.

When Thursday rolled around, I was still riding the high from my metaphorical middle finger. I don’t deny the high was a testament to how incredibly lame my life was. Still, I rode the wave all the way into the restaurant. Jensen was there, sitting at the bar and sipping water. He watched me with a bit of a smirk, his eyes were alight with humor. He didn’t approach us like usual. It’s like he was waiting.

****

“We’re ready for the check when you have a minute,” I said to Kalani as our evening wound down.

“Sure thing.”

I watched as she went to the bar and made a few drinks. She discreetly spoke to Jensen. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but Jensen turned around and shook his head at me, a mix between ‘seriously?’ and a smirk that said, ‘not happening, but nice try’.

Well, I shot him a look of my own. ‘You reject me. I reject you.’

“Oh boy…” Mark rolled his eyes so far back he could see his own brain working. “The googly eyes are getting out of hand.”

“I don’t have googly eyes,” I said, even though I was still making faces with Jensen. How could I not? He was funny and had a really handsome face.

Kalani came back with the check holder and set it on the table. Even though I asked for the check, I thought for sure he would refuse.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Mark asked.

I snatched the check off the table before I embarrassed myself anymore. “Of course it is. I don’t want his weird charity anymore.”

“Uh, yes you do. You love his weird charity.”

“It’s creepy.”

“You love that he’s so generous and without a hint of expectation. Bryan rarely did anything without expecting something in return.”

“That is not true.”

“You’re gagging from the attention.”

I grinned when I opened the receipt folio and found a zero balance. I laughed and stuck out my hand. “I need forty bucks.”

“For what?”

“The bill.”

I added my money to his, then marched over and took a seat next to Jensen. “Unless you plan to let me buy you dinner, there was an issue with the bill. In that case, this is yours.” I slid the money in front of him.

Jensen studied the cash with a grin. He was into the back-and-forth. I was sure he was going to give in, but after a moment, he put the bills in his wallet.

I could have strangled him.

I started to get up, then stopped. “I don’t get you, Jensen. You admit you had a crush on me—or did at some point— then you come to my house, unprompted, and do tens of thousands of dollars worth of work, you set up a revolving tab at two separate locations, also unprompted, but the second I try to return the favor, you shut me down. Was dinner so terrible you refuse to put yourself through it again?”

“Not at all. I had a great time. It was probably the best date I’ve ever been on.”

Date? Shit, my heart was about to beat out of my chest. I wiped my hands on my pants.

“But no second date?”

“No. No second date.”

Grr. “At least tell me why.”

“Motives.”

“Motives?” I parroted.

When Jensen looked at me, it was with a fondness I didn’t quite recognize, at least not yet. I would eventually know that expression intimately, with soft eyes, a gentle smile, and a hint of exasperation, but I wasn’t familiar then, so the gaze churned my gut. It made me feel like a child being sent to the corner.

“Motive is everything, Nolan. More important than what you say, is why you say it, and more important than what you do, is why you do it.”

Jensen set money for Kalani on the counter, then left.

The uneasy feeling clung through the weekend like fog in a cemetery. Monday morning Lyla rang me up and asked for $2.50. Dread pooled in my belly as I looked at Jensen, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. In fact, he didn’t show all week, nor was he perched at the bar on Thursday. When Kalani handed us the check, everything was accounted for, and our balance was due in full. I made that sound like a bad thing, and it was, but not for the reasons you'd be thinking.

Mark didn’t say anything when we split the bill, though I could tell he was dying to. He was always an ass like that.

Weeks passed much the same. Little to no Jensen. When I did see him getting coffee, I was rooted where I stood. It felt like there was a line in the sand, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I didn’t know what he wanted me to do about it, if anything at all. Gah!

I was never the most confident person, but neither was I a wallflower. After the divorce, I didn’t go through any weird phases where I blamed myself or wondered what was wrong with me. I was never depressed about the split. I didn’t dwell on it, but the easy departure was telling of many things. Bryan never elicited strong emotion from me, not the way Jensen did. That man turned me into an idiot. He got me tangled up and made me crazy.

Jensen caught my gaze and waved. Just a casual thing, a nod. Very bro. I nodded back, then cringed because that wasn’t me, but then I tripped on a random chair on my way out. So that’s how that ended. Gloriously. Nothing like a thirty-three-year-old being embarrassed in front of a twenty-little-something.

As I crossed the street to my SUV, I contemplated changing coffee shops. It was probably time.

****

JULY 2007

It was early, not quite seven a.m. I took the off ramp toward what was my fifth wedding of the summer, proof I was finally making a name for myself, when my tire blew out. My car thunked as I gripped the wheel and got the Range Rover pulled over safely.

I closed my eyes and took a breath. I didn’t have AAA, and my cheap ass auto insurance wasn’t likely going to cover much. I dialed Mark’s number, but it rang to voicemail. He was probably still asleep. My cell phone didn’t have internet, so I had no way to look up a tow truck, and there wasn’t a business in sight.

With the hazard lights on, I hid a few things under the seat and in the glove box, then grabbed my water and got out. I glanced east and then west. If I remembered correctly, there was a gas station about a mile away.

I’d been walking for about ten minutes when the sound of crunching gravel caught my attention. I turned around to find a familiar white Ford had pulled off and a familiar, good-looking brunette was getting out.

“Everything all right?” he asked, though the sparkle in his eye and the mischief in his grin made it far more a tease than anything else.

“Just going for a morning stroll.”

“Hop in and I’ll give you a lift.”

Obviously, I was going to take him up on the offer, but not so easily. I took a swig from the water bottle and kept walking toward the gas station. “What is it you always tell me? Oh yeah, no thanks.”

“Nolan.”

“No, it’s fine,” I shouted over my shoulder. “Thanks anyway.”

The crunch of his boots on the gravel got louder. “You’re really going to walk another half-mile for help when I’m right here?”

“Just following your lead.”

Jensen spun me, so I was facing his truck, grabbed me by my shoulders, and started pushing me toward it like a child. “I’m not letting you walk.”

“Oh, you’re not, huh?” I quipped, but I let him lead me to his truck anyway. God, I really was a child.

“Exactly.”

“You’re kind of bossy, you know that?”

“I’ve been told. Personally, I think it’s one of my better qualities.”

“I find it annoying,” I lied.

“Mhmm,” he hummed disbelievingly as he opened the passenger door and watched as I got in.

Jensen couldn’t put on the spare. Something about all of my tires being so bald the steel belt was showing. Something else about being shocked that only one of my tires exploded. He handed me his truck keys. “Take my truck. Your car will be fixed when you’re done with your day.”

I held the truck fob in my hand. “The wedding doesn’t even start until six. I probably won’t be done until midnight.”

“We can meet up tomorrow then.”

“And you still won’t let me buy you dinner.”

One of his eyebrows rose questioningly. “Depends. Why do you want to buy me dinner?”

“Aside from the fact you renovated my entire house inside and out? How about—” I held up his keys then gestured at my car.

A bit of the sparkle he usually carried in his eyes died. He opened the door to the truck and waited for me to get in. Once I was seated and buckled, he said, “Maybe one day you’ll want to have dinner with me because you want to have dinner and not because you feel obligated.” Then he shut the door and walked away.

I spent all day thinking about what he said. I finally understood what he meant about motives. He thought I only wanted dinner because I felt I owed him, when in reality, it was only a guise. I was such an idiot.

The next morning, I drove to his house. I was unsurprised to see him pressure washing everything he could. He was always working. When he saw me, he immediately shut off the machine and smiled.

“How’d it go?”

“It was everything a planner could ask for, gorgeous, and everyone was amazing.”

Jensen seemed pleased. He brandished the keys from his pocket. “Well, here you are.”

By this point, I should have known that Jensen “fixing” my car would be more than just a Band-Aid. Not only was it sporting four brand new tires, but he had detailed it inside and out.

I wanted to scream.

“It’s killing you, isn’t it? You want to ask me to dinner, but you know you can’t.”

Now he was being a jerk. I snatched my keys from his arrogant fingers and stormed off. I could hear him laughing as I pulled away.

By the time I saw him again, I was done playing games. He was sitting at the table like he usually did. I ordered a drink, gave him a stupid nod which made him laugh, then I stood with Jenn and waited. When Jensen got up to take his cup to the bin, I stepped outside, closed the door, and used my foot as a wedge. A moment later, Jensen tried to open the door. It took him a second before he realized what was going on.

“What are you doing, Nolan?” he asked through the glass.

“Let me take you to dinner.”

He grinned. “Are you holding me hostage?”

I wasn’t going to humor a response, so I leaned against the door and waited. He pressed on the door a few more times, chuckling at each failed attempt.

“Fine. I’ll go to dinner with you.”

I removed my foot and let him exit the cafe. “Was that so hard?” I asked.

“It was either say yes or cause a fire hazard. If you think about it, I was simply looking out for the good of the people.”

I scoffed. “And you called my motives questionable?”

Jensen took a few steps backward. “Still not sure about your motives, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

I wasn’t keen on letting him change his mind, so I arranged dinner for that very night. At eight, he was getting into the Range Rover, dressed in butt-hugging khakis and a soft polo that showcased his chest and arms. I was nervous as I drove through town. What I was about to do was miles outside my comfort zone.

Traffic was terrible. It took us a while to get where we needed to go since other drivers didn’t care to merge like civilized people.

“C’mon, people,” I mumbled. “It’s left, right, left, right.”

Jensen looked at me and smiled.

As I turned on the country road, Jensen looked around, probably noticing there wasn’t a restaurant for miles. It was still light out, but the solar lights lit up the old barn nicely. I grabbed the cooler from the back and led Jensen to the side, where a worn wooden bench sat close to the river.

“I know a picnic is kind of lame, but this is my favorite place,” I told him as I laid the food out. “And it’s not expensive, so you can’t accuse me of doing this to pay you back.”

Jensen eyed me as he popped a piece of sushi in his mouth, one side quirked up in a half-assed grin. We spent the next hour snacking and talking. The more I learned about him, the faster my heart beat. He was the kind of guy you dreamed up but never found, yet here he was, eating sliced finger food and telling me all about his life.

Without thinking, I leaned across the picnic bench and kissed him in the middle of what he was saying. He choked, floundered a second, then cleared his throat. “Okay, wow.”

Realizing what I just did, I sat back down. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine. I’m just surprised is all. I thought I was too young for you.”

Oh. “Not too young.”

“Are you sure? You make a lot of comments about my youth.”

He was right. I did. It was more my own insecurity than anything else.

I walked around the table, straddled the bench in front of him, and looked him in the eyes. “You’re ‘too’ a lot of things. Too handsome, too generous, too sweet, too kind, too talented, but too young isn’t one of them.”

Jensen bit his lip as he stared at mine. His eyes were dark and hungry. “What do you want, Nolan? Because I’ve liked you for a long time, and I don’t want anything from you unless I get to keep it for a long time.”

I leaned forward and pressed my lips to his.

Jensen ran his hands up my thighs as his tongue slid against mine. When we finally pulled apart, we were breathing heavily. I can tell you one thing, I had never kissed a guy like that before, and I knew at that moment, he’d be the only guy I kissed for the rest of my life.

****

PRESENT DAY

“What happened next?” Anna asks, her eyes wide as she hangs on every word.

“Jensen doesn’t mess around. When he wants something, he gets it. It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, he’s faithful to the cause. He more than proved himself, and after that day, we were inseparable.”

“Life is too short to live any other way.”

“Who proposed to who?” she asks, clinging to the last scraps she can get.

“Remember the barn? The one I dreamed of?”

“Where you two kissed for the first time?”

Nolan gestures around the room. “This is that barn. Turns out it was owned by Jensen’s dad. Jensen talked him down from demolishing it, and we spent the next year fixing it up. Two days after it was finished, he proposed right here where we’re standing. Six months later we were the first couple married here.”

Jensen looks around the rustic yet modern barn. The very barn he once thought was worthless but came to love more than anything else. Not just because we turned it from a pile of crumbling wood into the most sought-after venue, but because—

“After struggling through an ‘impossible’ age difference, infidelity, and pride, this barn was our equal footing. Nolan had the vision and knowledge for the business, and I had the ability to bring it to life. All the good things that happened over the years, happened here, and they happened with Nolan.”

With a tear, Anna smiles and raises her glass. “Here’s to another twenty years of being faithful to the cause.”

“Here, here.”

Copyright © 2022 Mrsgnomie; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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