You're expecting me to wake up with a hangover, aren't you? Bet you're expecting paragraphs of tortured prose describing the erupting volcano that is my skull, the abject misery of morning-after dehydration, the spinning rooms and tilting floors andoh god make it stop I have to puke.
I'm not going to indulge you, you sadist. But know this: I was begging for something as sweet and pleasant as the above paragraph in comparison to how bad my hangover actually was. Are you happy now? Are you not entertained?
I stumbled out of Logan's bedroom, blinking sleep and pain from my eyes. The curtains were drawn and sunlight spilled into what was definitely a single man's apartment. A sofa, a bare coffee table, and a mostly empty Ikea shelving unit supporting a huge 4K TV were the only notable pieces of furniture. Didn't seem like Logan spent much time here.
"And my prince awakens," a man's voice called from the kitchen.
I turned, smelling coffee. While I was still in my disheveled clothes from the night before, Logan stood by the coffee pot wearing only red plaid boxers. He was hairier than I expected, with dark fur matting his broad chest and rippled, defined stomach. His legs were thick with muscles, strong and hairy. His whole body spoke of a man who worked himself hard. The sight was intoxicating - I found myself both desperate to look away and eager to absorb it all at once.
Logan handed me a mug, too preoccupied with his own early morning drowsiness to notice my beet-red face. His sleep-rumpled hair was a mess across his tanned forehead. Dare I say, it was a pretty adorable look.
"Last night might've been the first time in my storied history that I brought home someone and didn't sleep next to 'em."
I tried to say something but it came out as a labored croak.
"May I risk asking how the prince is feeling this morning?" His accent sounded stronger than than it had last night. I think, maybe, his guard had been up around me. Strange, considering just how tall of a fortress I had built around myself to deal withhim. We have different ways of protecting ourselves, I guess.
(Mine just so happened to be getting blackout drunk.)
"I'm..." I sipped the coffee. Strong and rich with notes of cocoa and dark cherry. Just what I needed. "...alive. Barely."
Through the bleariness of the miserable morning air, Logan smiled. Slow yet eager, the grin of a pirate stumbling across a hidden cache of golden coins. I couldn't help but notice his stubble, which was black with a hint of silver around the edges of his jaw. I wondered briefly what it would feel like against my own skin. I bet it scratched.
Nope. Stop. Return those thoughts to sender. Please and thank you.
I took a seat by the kitchen bar counter and drank coffee with him in silence. I thought Logan would be avoiding my gaze but he was... staring. Or examining. Something between concern and wonder guiding his eyes. Why wasn't I uncomfortable? Why didn't I want to look away?
Every time I tried to say something, I stuffed it back down inside me. Reliving last night made me want to yak even more than that horrible beer did. I cringed thinking about my pathetic, drunken confession, how I told him,yeah, you're right! I'm totally lonely!It's to Logan's credit that he didn't laugh in my face right then and there.
And then the silence seemed unbearable.
"Thank you," I finally managed.
He was really going to make me say it, huh? "For last night."
"It's nothing." He scratched his chest hair. The sound it made against his fingers tickled me.Scrrchhh scrrchhh scrrchhh.
"No, really. You could have just left me back at Lola and Lilah's. Or even just dumped me on the street, which would have been less of a health hazard."
"I was being an asshole. Was a bit nervous. Tried a little too hard not to let it show."
"What did you have to be nervous about?"
Logan seemed very interested in the contents of his coffee mug all of a sudden. "Ever look in a mirror?"
Heat rose in my stomach and into my chest. I channeled all effort into keeping my pulse from pitching a fit in my veins. I matched his smile - or tried to, anyway - and played it off with a laugh."At least wait until the coffee sets in before you make fun of me, dude."
Logan looked up, unsure what to say. I know a bullshitter when I see one, but... just how sincere was this man being? The thought that his flirtations could actually be serious made the room spin. Or maybe that was the hangover.
He turned to the oven and started arranging dishes and pans, his muscular back flexing with effort. "How about some french toast to go with your misery?" Logan broke a couple of eggs into a bowl and added a dash of milk. As he whisked he shot me a quick, playful wink. "My nan says it's best hangover cure. Swears by it."
"I don't think a man's ever made me breakfast before."
"Sounds like you don't meet too many men of high moral character."
"And you're a man of high moral character, are you?"
"The highest. The moral-est. Don't I seem trustworthy?"
"Hard pass on that question."
He cried out, mimicking a stab to the heart. "So pretty but so cruel."
"Are you adding anything else to the batter?"
"I've got some cinnamon."
"That's a good start, but I think I can make it even better."
"You dare challenge a man in his boxers making you breakfast?"
"I dare! I dare so hard."
"Watch yourself, Iron Chef Junior. French toast doesn't need any bells and whistles to taste good. Eggs and milk, a little cinnamon. Been doing it this way my whole life."
"You sound incredibly sure of yourself."
"Didn't become a firefighter by being unsure."
I joined him by the oven, hands on my hips. "Tell you what. We'll have a little taste test."
"Oh? Thought you'd never ask." He started toward me in the playful, exaggerated way a teenager would approach his first kiss. I held him back, laughing despite myself. Barely eight hours ago I wanted to throttle this guy. My hangover must have been interfering with the part of my brain that couldn't stand him.
"I mean afrench toasttaste test, you cartoon skunk."
"Hear me out. You make it your way, I'll make it mine, then you'll try both. If you still think your french toast is better, I will concede defeat. But if your taste buds are as high functioning as your smart-ass mouth seems to be-"
He laughed at this.
"-and you agree that my recipe is better, then I win."
"What happens if you win?"
I took in the sight of him, bare chest, plaid boxers, hairy legs and all. "You know that dinner I'm making at your firehouse tonight? You have to attend it wearing only what you've got on now."
"Damn. So in other words, 'bring it on, bitch'?"
"If you're man enough."
"Wait, how do you know I'll judge fairly? What if I say I like my french toast better just to see you lose?"
I pressed a finger to his hairy chest, upping the ante. "Didn't you say you were trustworthy? A man of high morals?"
Our eyes locked, his gaze smokey and intense in the morning light. He hooked his thumb around my finger but didn't move it. It felt like a silent promise, forged in a language only the two of us could understand.
"Guess I don't have a choice but to be honest, huh?"
"Not unless last night's chivalry was a one-time deal."
"So prove it."
I knew a man like him couldn't resist a challenge.
For a bachelor, Logan's kitchen was surprisingly well-stocked. It just happened to be tiny as hell.
The two of us jostled for space as we prepared our separate dishes. He was a big man and I found myself crashing into him constantly. An errant elbow to the chest, a bare foot bumping into another bare foot. After a while it all just stopped seeming accidental. I was actually having fun. Yes, grouchy ol' me. Other news from that day: pigs took flight and the citizens of Hell felt a bit of a chill.
Logan stuck with his tried and true recipe and finished it off with a helping of maple syrup. I made good use of his pantry for my batter: pure vanilla extract, nutmeg, cinnamon, a dash of sugar, a pinch of salt. And then my secret weapon.
Orange zest. Really. It sounds simple but it makes aworldof difference. Try it!
Whistling, I grated a teaspoon of zest into my batter. The scent made my nostrils tingle. Fuck, I love that smell.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Logan staring.
"You get a hell of a fightface on when you cook."
"How scary do I look?"
"I didn't say you lookedscary. I've carried training dummies heavier than you."
"And how often do you carry around guys my size?"
The question escaped my lips before I realized what it could imply. I knew next to nothing about Logan's dating life or where his preferences laid. Yeah, he was a huge flirt. But so were a lot of guys I knew! Some men are just more playful than others. 'Playful', more often than not, is where it begins and ends. Trust me on this.
One of his dark brows arched upward. "Not nearly as often as I'd like to."
"Huh," I grunted - quite eloquently, too - as an unexpected heat sparked deep inside me. Before I had a chance to take our exchange to the next level, my nose caught a wisp of something burning.Smoke.
"Shit!" My hands scrambled to turn down the stovetop heat. I'd neglected to keep an eye on my pan and now one side of my toast was scorched.That's a D- minus sear, the voice of my culinary skills professor nagged.
Logan's guffaws boomed through the kitchen. "Your toast is no match for the distraction of my rugged good looks."
"No, my prince, not funny." He tapped the side of his head, "Strategic."
I'm used to fucking up dishes, believe it or not, but I wasn't used to fucking up in front of a gorgeous man in his underwear. Working quickly and silently to conceal my embarrassment, I redid a batch of toast, drizzled it with syrup and topped it with fresh raspberries and a dusting of powdered sugar. Upon setting the plate in front of Logan, he gave me a generous but not entirely unsarcastic round of applause.
"You've come a long way this morning, lad."
"Surviving a night with you has taught me a lot about adversity." I patted his arm. The muscles beneath my palm didn't go unnoticed. "Bon appétit."
As he eyed the dish suspiciously, I went to check my phone and was briefly alarmed to find it wasn't in my back pocket.
"I think I left my phone on your bed, I'm just gonna grab it."
"Don't finish the taste test without me."
"No promises, lad."
In Logan's room, I found my phone in the tidal wave of blankets I'd left behind. Not wanting to be a sloppy guest, I straightened the bed and refluffed the pillow where I'd left an imprint of my drunken, sleeping face. I was ready to leave when something on the nightstand caught my eye.
A framed photo of Logan and another man.
I'll admit, I was being nosy. Curiosity is a needy beast. I grabbed the picture to take a closer look. Logan was few years younger, hair shorter and his face smooth, clean-shaven. I'd never seen him without scruff before. Strange.
His arm was slung over the shoulders of someone young enough to be a teenager, or at least in his very early 20s. The second man was handsome, strikingly so, yet baby-faced enough to have probably been teased for it. They were both caught in mid-laugh, mouths agape and eyes lit with a joy that seemed so... so...unattainable. Had I ever been this happy with someone before?
Would I ever be?
Logan appeared at the doorway. He was in the middle of wiping syrup off his mouth. Startled, I jumped.
"Aiden. Find your phone?" His eyes lilted to the photo.
"I - yeah. Sorry. I was curious what you looked like without a beard." (Lame. Bad.) I handed it back as quickly as I could.
"Yeah, well." He scanned the image with a quiet thoughtfulness I hadn't seen from him before. "You weren't missing much."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snoop."
"It was rude of me."
"Forget it. Okay?"
Oh, this was awful.
Desperate to change the subject, I noticed the empty plates in the kitchen just over his considerable shoulder. "Too hungry to wait for me, I take it?"
"What can I say, lad. I've got an appetite. Nothing can get in the way."
"Then what's the verdict? Your dish or mine?"
His shoulders lowered and his ruddy cheeks actually seemed to darken. "Remember what I said about being a trustworthy man?"
"I remember youclaimingto be a trustworthy man, yes."
"Well, I'm invoking that claim now. Your french toast was better. And I mean miles and miles ahead of mine."
"Aha!" Victory escaped my lips before humility could tamp it down. I stopped just short of raising my arms skyward like Sly Stallone climbing those museum steps. "You know what that means, buddy."
"Yeah, yeah. Undies at dinner. You knew you'd win, you just wanted to see me in my boxers again."
"You are so wrong." (He was totally right.) "But if you're gonna be a sore loser, I have an addendum to my victory demands."
"None of your barbed insults while I'm in the firehouse kitchen, okay? I'm making dinner for you and your crew. I respect you guys and everything you do. So please respect me."
He nodded. "Alright. That's fair. But you've got to make sure you're up to the task. Most of these guys are from farms and old coal towns. I know them like brothers. They were raised on meat and potatoes. They like functional over fancy. So if you're really gunning for this job-"
"Bed," I corrected him. "I'm only asking for a bed."
"-then you've got to keep that in mind. That's all I meant the other night."
"You're not one to phrase things delicately, are you?"
He set the photo frame back on his nightstand. "I've never been a delicate man."
"Yet another thing you and I don't have in common."
His faint smile matched my equally faint joke. I wondered if he felt as strange as I suddenly did, slivers of unease sticking between my ribs. But Logan's expression simply idled in neutral, his opaque grey stare cool enough to still the words in my throat.
"I'm gonna be late for my shift," he finally said, grabbing a pair of pants from his dresser. "You got somewhere to be today?"
I hadn't been to class since my apartment was flambéed. He agreed to give me a lift to campus on his way to the firehouse.
We didn't really say much of anything once we got into his car. Certainly nothing about that framed photo, who that young man was, or why looking at it managed to soften Logan's rough edges, if only for a moment. Nope. That was his business. Not mine.
(...but really, wouldn't you find it hard not to think about? Was it Logan's friend, a coworker, a...boyfriend? Hah. That's laughable. Not because it was another man, but because it was hard to believe Logan was capable of anything resembling a commitment.)
(To reiterate: this is totally none of my business.)
Once we arrived on campus he dropped me off at the student parking lot. "Go give 'em hell today, my prince."
"That's starting to sound suspiciously like a nickname, Logan."
"Does it?" His cocky grin returned. "I've got a nickname for all my morning after guests."
"Do not go any further than that, I beg you."
"We've only spent one night together and I've already got you begging."
He laughed. To my surprise, I joined him.
"If I'm your prince, what does that make you?"
Logan pondered, stroking his square jaw. "Suppose that would make me your knight, wouldn't it? Escorting you safely back to your castle."
I grimaced. "Please."
"You love it."
"You're out of your mind."
"Did I not come to your rescue?"
I couldn't really argue that. Instead, I gathered my stuff and thanked him again for all his help.
"You're sure you're ready for tonight?" he asked as I left his car. "Remember, my dudes will be tough on you."
"So let them be tough. I can take it."
I didn't have a choice but to impress Logan's firehouse if I wanted to become their live-in cook. The alternative - a cardboard bed on Lola and Lilah's floor - was too depressing to consider.
We said our goodbyes. Casual and quick. As he drove off I caught his face in the rear view mirror, looking every bit like a man capable of breaking anyone's heart.
But notmine, I told myself as he disappeared down the road. I avoided my reflection on the way into campus, rejecting any visual proof that I was lying to myself, not wanting to catch the dumb grin on my face.
Aiden Kashima's pretentious as fuck dinner menu for the fine men of Toronto Fire Station 426:
1. Boeuf bourguignon with pinot noir 2. Green beans almondine 3. Goat cheese, beet and arugula salad with candied walnuts and a dark raspberry vinaigrette 4. Herbes de Provence potatoes with lemon and sea salt 5. Dark chocolate crème de cassis cake with a chocolate mirror glaze
Aiden Kashima's down-to-earth, hearty, blue collar dinner menu for the fine men of Toronto Fire Station 426:
1. Beef stew 2. Green beans and almonds 3. Salad 4. Potato wedges 5. Cake
Yes, they're the same damn menu. 'Fancy' is only a matter of perspective. The second menu will be the one pitched to Logan's crew, the first will only serve as my own reference. I've spent the better part of this morning's classes writing and rewriting the crew's dinner, refining as necessary, ensuring everything paired and complemented each other. I'm taking this as seriously as any assignment or exam. I want these guys to have a good meal. They deserve it.
And, I admit... I want them to like me, too.
Blowing out a hard exhale, I closed my notebooks and joined my classmates at the cook stations for a quick lunch of teriyaki salmon with broccoli sauté. I made small talk with them, exchanging quips about cooking oil preferences (I maintain that anyone who even mentions soybean oil in class should be expelled), but my mind was still on the firefighter crew. Rather, one particular firefighter.
I had fun cooking next to Logan this morning, but shit, I've never burned french toast before. There's no use denying it: I was distracted by him. He's a distraction! A big, infuriating, confusing, hairy distraction. He even admitted to doing it on purpose! Shit. I can't repeat that mistake tonight. That would be a disaster.
Yet I can still hear his deep, confident voice in my head. "My prince."
My stomach turned to iron as I sautéed the broccoli in olive oil and garlic. I hoped Logan never noticed my reaction when he called me that, how my breath escaped me, how I found myself at the mercy of the slow, easy grin on his chiseled face.