Monday, September 25, 2017

Monday Morning's Menu: Of Love by Andrew Grey

A Taste of Love #1
The lunch rush at Darryl Hansen's restaurant, Cafe Belgie, is getting to be too much for one man to handle, and Billy Weaver is a young man in search of a job-any job-to support his family. Billy gains Darryl's respect with his earnest nature and willingness to work hard, but Billy's admiring looks resurrect pain and shame from Darryl's past. Until Darryl stumbles across Billy's secret, Billy is suffering in silence: his father died a few months earlier, leaving him struggling to raise his twin five-year-old brothers. Darryl takes Billy and the boys to the restaurant, where they'll stand together to face the smorgasbord of troubles in their future... while Davey, Donnie, and Billy all worm their way into Darryl's heart.

A Serving of Love #2
Sebastian Franklin has waited a long time to prove himself as front of the house manager at Cafe Belgie, but his first night in charge while Darryl, his boss, is on vacation is less than a success. The restaurant is robbed at closing time, and the Good Samaritan who foiled the robber comes with his own complications.

Robert Fortier is the county’s newest judge, and a reluctant one at that. He is well aware that a public life is not always easy, especially when your personal life makes you the target of a media frenzy. Still, Robert enjoys Sebastian’s company, and Sebastian is never without a serving of happiness and flair for his favorite public figure. But Sebastian is not without his issues either—family chaos and an ex in trouble will put the pressure on as they struggle for even footing in this new romance.

A Helping of Love #3
If Peter Christopoulos has learned one thing from his last three years in a wheelchair, it's that people have a hard time seeing past the hardware. When he asks out Russ Baker after giving him a quote on equipment for a new Greek restaurant, he's disappointed but not surprised to be turned down.

Russ has been covering for his abusive boyfriend for so long it's almost automatic, but with a little help from his friends, he finds the courage to break it off. To his surprise, Peter is still interested, and soon they're falling hard and fast. But then their world is thrown into turmoil: Peter finds an old letter indicating he has a half sister he's never met, and Russ's past interferes when his ex makes it clear he'll do anything to get him back.

A Slice of Love #4
To make a small fortune, start with a large fortune and open a bakery. That’s the advice Marcus Wilson has heard. Unfortunately, Marcus doesn’t have a large fortune—just a bakery, A Slice of Heaven, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the determination to make it successful. He needs more help than he can afford, so when he hires accountant Gregory Southland, it’s for hours in the shop as well as on the books.

Gregory takes a second job at the bakery to help pay the bills now that his health is improving. Soon he’s looking forward to spending time with Marcus, but as the business—and their relationship—grows, so do the complications: First Marcus’s stepmother involves him in a cause that could give the bakery a reputation it doesn’t need. Then Marcus and Gregory disagree over whether to involve A Slice of Heaven in a civil rights dispute. To top it off, Gregory’s ex-boyfriend makes an appearance just when he is at his most vulnerable. But the greatest complication by far is Marcus and Gregory’s struggle to learn to trust each other and themselves, especially when it comes to baking up matters of the hear.

A Taste of Love #1
Darryl loved spring, and it was definitely in the air. Pulling his front door closed, he looked up at the blue sky and inhaled deeply. The air smelled of pear blossoms, and as he walked toward the car, a breeze filled the air with white floating petals. Deciding it was too nice to drive, Darryl turned and began walking down the sidewalk, turning onto the main street of town. Heading toward the business district, he passed stately Victorian mansions, most turned into apartments, but many retaining the opulent look of a bygone era. As he continued walking, Darryl couldn’t help looking between the buildings to catch glimpses of the old cemetery and its bronze statue marking the grave of Molly Pitcher. God, he loved this town. Carlisle, Pennsylvania, had been founded by William Penn in the mid-eighteenth century. As Darryl approached the square, he looked at the large church on the corner with its cherry tree in full bloom behind the sign that reminded everyone that George Washington had worshipped there in 1794.

He let his gaze travel around him as he waited for the light, looking up past the immense columns with scars from the Civil War, duly marked, to the clock on the old courthouse. As the light changed, he crossed the street and walked the remaining half block to his restaurant, pausing outside to look a few seconds.

Café Belgie was his dream. Darryl had spent almost a decade working in other people’s kitchens until he’d managed to scrimp and save the money to open his own place. He’d chosen a Belgian-themed restaurant because that was what he loved. Good, simple food with a certain flair. Besides, it gave him an excuse to carry the most wonderful selection of beer. Stepping to the door, he gazed one last time up the street at the trees filled with blossoms that rained down on the sidewalk.

Reaching for the door, he tugged lightly, not at all surprised that it opened easily despite the closed sign in the window. His pastry chef, Maureen, was already at work-like always, the first one there.

“If you think I’m going to take that shit, you’re crazy, woman!“ Sebastian, one of his servers, was upset, and his voice carried out into the street and drowned out the sound of traffic. “I’m not working the lunch shift alone. Darryl will just have to call someone in to help.“ God, the man could wail, and Darryl felt it like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Darryl stepped inside and let the door close with a thud as he saw Maureen throw her hands up and walk back into the kitchen. “It’s a Wednesday and lunch is always slow, so what are you bitching about?“ Darryl said, raising his voice, his good mood from the walk vanishing in an instant. “Quit being such a drama queen and get ready for service.“ He walked to the server’s station. “You’ll need more napkins folded, and make sure all the tables are ready.“ Darryl glared at the tall, almost elegant young man. The customers loved him and he was a great server, but his attitude sucked. “You’re not going to slough off the work on someone else so you can make all the tips.“

Darryl watched as Sebastian put on his innocent face, pushing out his lower lip in a pout that would have been cute if Darryl hadn’t already known it was completely fake. “But Darryl, we’ve already got a reservation for a party of ten.“

Fuck, he was adorable when he did that. And if Darryl hadn’t already experienced a Sebastian tantrum at least once a week for the past three months, he might have been tempted to take the man home and fuck him within an inch of his life. Darryl had no doubt Sebastian was very talented, if even half of what he said was true, but it just wasn’t worth the aggravation. “Then you’d better get the table set up and ready.“ He checked his watch. “We open in less than an hour, and you’re going to move your ass.“ Darryl looked down his nose. “That is, if you want a shot as the front-of-house manager.“ Without another word, Darryl walked through the dining room, looking at everything as he did, checking that the tables were straight, floors clean, even that the pictures on the wall weren’t crooked, before entering the kitchen, his domain.

Maureen was still fuming as she walked back to her workstation, slamming one of the cooler doors. “The little shit,“ she muttered as she cut butter into one of the mixers and turned it on.

“What’d he do now?“ Darryl asked as he took off his shirt and shrugged into his chef’s coat before getting to work making the sauces and turning on the grill. He had a lot to do in an hour. Checking that the fryers were clean, he turned them on to get up to temperature. He heard the kitchen door open and close. “Morning, Kelly,“ he said without looking up.

“Morning, Darryl.“ She got her coat on and went right to work. “I’ll get the fries cut and precooked. I made curry ketchup and the mayonnaise last night just before I left, so we should be good.“

“Wonderful.“ Sometimes he wondered what he’d do without her. He gave his prep cook a smile, then turned his attention to Maureen. “You gonna tell me what’s eating you or make me guess?“

“He“-she tilted her head toward the dining room-“tried to sweet-talk me into filling the salt and peppers for him. Seems he forgot to do it at the end of his last shift, and when I told him no, he got all pissy. Damn queen.“ Darryl glanced up and saw her shake her head. “If he wasn’t otherwise good at his job, I’d kick his ass into traffic.“

“I know,“ Darryl said. He continued working, wishing Sebastian would show the rest of the staff the same courtesy he showed the customers. The kid was like a switch, throwing himself on “happy“ whenever he smelled a tip.

But Sebastian was no match for Maureen. The woman might be small and slight, but she didn’t take crap from anyone. She’d been Darryl’s best friend for years. Maureen had worked at the bakery that supplied the desserts to the first restaurant he’d worked in all those years ago, and when he decided to open Café Belgie, there was no one else he’d wanted making his desserts, particularly since she had the flair to make authentic European-style desserts that complemented his food. “There are times I want to wring his neck“-Darryl looked up at his kitchen staff-“but if he’d tone it down just a bit, he’d be fantastic.“ Darryl knew it was true, he just wasn’t sure Sebastian was capable of doing it. That was what the young man needed to prove to him as well as to the rest of the staff.

“Are you really considering giving him the front of the house?“ Kelly asked as she fed potatoes through the cutter while the first batch was cooking. They were known for their traditional pommes frites; anywhere else they might have been called French fries, but not in Darryl’s restaurant! They were cooked twice-once to cook them through and once to crisp them-and nobody, including Darryl, could do it as well as Kelly.

“Only if he steps up.“ Darryl continued working, finishing the preparations for lunch. “And only if you agree as well.“

The kitchen got silent as the other two stopped moving. “Are you kidding?“ Maureen asked as she went back to filling chocolate cylinders with mint mousse. “You want us to decide?“

“We’ll all decide.“ Darryl had just hit on this idea, and it just might get Sebastian to change his attitude. “You can feel free to let him know that as well.“

“Damn, boss,“ Kelly said, laughing over the crackle of the fresh oil, “you’re one smart cookie.“

The sound of another screech from out front made all of them laugh, and Maureen set down her pastry bag. With a smile of sheer delight, she left the kitchen to have a talk with Sebastian. The door swung outward and then back in, and Darryl heard a “What!?“ at the top of Sebastian’s lungs. The door settled to a close before banging open, hitting the stops and swinging back toward a glaring Sebastian, who dodged it easily. “You’re letting them... you’re not serious?“

“Of course I am, so drop the diva act and step up.“ Darryl checked his watch. “We open in fifteen minutes, so make sure you’re ready.“ Darryl almost laughed when he saw the pout again, followed by a tilt of the head. “Flirting won’t help, either. It’s time you put up or shut up.“ Darryl glared at him and saw Sebastian’s face firm and his back straighten. “You need to prove you can do the job.“ Letting his expression soften, Darryl stepped from behind the line to where Sebastian stood near the doors. “I know you’ve got what it takes, you just have to prove it to all of us.“

Sebastian looked at him, and then his eyes traveled to Kelly and Maureen, who, to their credit, looked serious and businesslike, even though Darryl knew they were both delighted as hell that they had something that would keep Sebastian in line, if only for a while. “I will, Darryl.“ With nothing more, Sebastian turned and left the kitchen.

Just before opening, Darryl made one final inspection of the dining room. Every table looked perfect. Utensils and glasses set, menus ready, and the vases filled with fresh flowers. It looked great-up to the standards he set. “You ready?“ he asked Sebastian, before propping the door open and putting out the specials board. Walking back through the restaurant, he turned and saw the first customers already walking in and sitting down.

The lunch service was unexpectedly busy, to say the least. The kitchen filled with the sounds of work: orders being called, questions answered over the sounds of cooking, and banging dishes. To the uninitiated it might look and sound like complete chaos, but to Darryl and his staff, it was nearly as graceful as a ballet. “That’s the last order,“ Sebastian called as he stuck his head inside, and Darryl could hear his server’s breathlessness. The few times he’d had a second to peek, he’d seen the customers running Sebastian ragged. Leaving Kelly to finish the last order, he walked out front and saw Carter, one of the bussers, clearing the tables as Sebastian helped him. The dishwashing area would be busy for another hour, but everything had gone well.

“Darryl, we really need to think about hiring another server at least part time,“ Sebastian said as he approached him. “Lunch is getting busier, and I can’t handle it alone.“

Darryl smiled. “I think so, yes.“ Sebastian looked shocked, and Darryl let his smile increase. Maybe he could turn this into a lesson. “See, you get what you want when you ask, not shout.“

“So you’ll do it?“

Darryl nodded. “But you’ll need to train them and take them under your wing.“

“Then I have the job?“ Sebastian’s eyes widened hopefully.

Darryl let his smile fall. “I didn’t say that. But training and managing wait staff, bussers, and even the dish room are all part of the job.“ Darryl softened his face. “You did good today, but waiting tables is what you know. Let’s see how you learn new things.“ The front door opened, and more patrons entered. Darryl cut the conversation short and returned to the kitchen.

“I’m heading out,“ Maureen called as she gathered her things. “The desserts for tonight are all set, and you just need to sauce and plate them.“ Maureen opened the cooler door, the smell of mint wafting out as she showed him the trays of dessert and the squeeze bottles of sauce.

“They look marvelous and smell even better.“ She smiled at the compliment and bumped his hip.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.“ She closed the cooler door and smacked his shoulder. “Get out of here for a while and enjoy the sun,“ she called as she hurried out the back door.

“Yeah, boss,“ Kelly piped up with a smile. “I can handle things for a while. I just have to finish the orders for that last table.“ Darryl knew she’d been itching to show him that she could do more. After taking a peek to make sure there weren’t many people out front, he turned back to her.

“Okay. The show’s yours.“ He noted her smile. “But call me if you have any problems. I won’t be too long.“ She agreed, and he left the kitchen, walking through the dining room, out the front door, and into the spring sunshine. He needed this desperately; so many of his days were spent inside, arriving before the sun was up and leaving long after dark. The restaurant required long hours, but he loved it. Turning around, he looked up at his baby. The brick looked clean, and the windows sparkled. Sitting down on the bench in front, he turned so he could watch people walking along the sidewalk. He waved at the man from the men’s clothing store who was also taking a break, enjoying the sunshine. Darryl thought he was going to come and say hello, but a young man entered his store, and Darryl watched as he followed.

A few minutes later, the young man walked out again and walked into the next store, coming out again a few minutes later and repeating the process. Again and again, the man walked from business to business, and as he got closer, Darryl saw his face fall a little more each time. He must be looking for a job, and Darryl knew that in this market, they were hard to come by. As the man got closer, Darryl could see that he was younger than he’d thought, and he knew that eventually it would be his turn to be asked.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, he saw the young man walk past him and go into the restaurant. He really was young, but Darryl had to admire his determination. He came out a minute later and walked over to him. “Sir, the man inside said I needed to talk to you.“ The voice was soft and rhythmic, and damn young. “I’m looking for a job, and the man inside said you might be hiring.“ The hopeful look in his deep eyes tugged at Darryl’s heart.

“We might.“ Darryl looked the young man in the eye and felt as though he’d been punched in the gut at the jolt that went through him. “What experience have you had?“

“Not much, I’m afraid.“ Darryl saw him shuffle from foot to foot. “We moved here a few months ago, and I need a job real bad. I’ll work hard, real hard.“ The earnestness in his voice caught Darryl’s attention, even as the eyes bored into him with a pleading look. “I’ll do anything you need, wash dishes, sweep floors, clean tables.“

“The only position I have open right now is for a part-time server,“ Darryl replied, and saw the hope in the man’s eyes lift, but it was the fear tinged with desperation that made Darryl curious.

“I can do that. I’m a fast learner!“ His eyes brightened, and he bounced slightly on the balls of his feet. “All I need is a chance.“ God, the energy and excitement were catching, and the kid’s enthusiasm was encouraging.

“Okay. I’ll give you a chance.“ Hell, enthusiasm and energy had to count for something. “Come inside and you can fill out an application.“ Darryl stood up and the kid followed him like a happy puppy, his feet barely touching the ground. Darryl felt eyes on him and turned around. “By the way, how old are you?“

“Twenty-one,“ the young man answered quickly, and Darryl breathed a sigh of relief. At least serving alcohol wouldn’t be an issue.

He went right to his small office off the kitchen, fishing through the files for the proper forms. “Fill these out, and I’ll need to see your identification and social security card.“ Darryl handed him the forms and the kid’s hand shook, he had so much excited energy.

Darryl sat back and watched as, looking at the top of the form, William filled out the application. “Do you go by Will?“ he asked, trying to make him a little more comfortable.

“Everybody calls me Billy.“ He looked up and a smile split his face, radiating through the room. Damn, the kid was adorable, and as Darryl watched, he leaned forward in the chair and shrugged off his jacket. Long black hair flowed from beneath it, shimmering in waves to his shoulders. If he were a girl, he could have been a supermodel. The man was stunning with that long hair, big eyes, and lips.... Darryl dragged his eyes away and concentrated on the forms that Billy handed him.

“I’m Darryl Hansen.“ He held out his hand, figuring introductions were in order. “I’m the owner and chef.“ He glanced at the form. “And you’re Billy Weaver.“ Darryl checked over the form, and everything looked in order. Checking over his identification, Darryl smiled. “We’ll try you out tomorrow during lunch. Be here at ten and I’ll introduce you to Sebastian. He’ll show you around, and you’ll work with him for a few days until you get a feel for how we do things.“

Billy grasped Darryl’s hand, breaking into another smile as he pumped it vigorously. “Thank you. I won’t let you down. I promise.“ Billy grabbed his worn jacket and turned around, treating Darryl to a peek at the kid’s stunning backside. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Hansen.“

Darryl swore Billy’s feet never hit the ground as he rushed toward the door to the dining room, turning around to wave before disappearing. Darryl found himself watching the door, completely lost in thought.

“Darryl!“ Hearing his name, he turned to Kelly, who was standing in his doorway. “Geez, where were you?“ She didn’t wait for an answer, putting a plate in front of him before plopping into the only other chair. “I think we’re done for a while, so I made you something to eat.“ Darryl barely heard her, his mind still on the kid-er, Billy. “Earth to Darryl, are you there?“

“Sorry.“ He pulled his mind back to the present. “What’s this?“

“I made it for you. Tell me what you think.“ Kelly looked pleased as Darryl examined the plate. The presentation was good, and he sniffed at the food. The aroma was enticing without being overpowering. Picking up the utensils, he cut a bite and tasted it. “Very nice. A variation on veal Milanese.“ The breading was crisp but not too heavy, thin with a nice mouth-feel.

“Yes, except I breaded it, and instead of frying it, I sautéed it in a very little oil to keep it lighter.“ Kelly watched as he cut off another bite. Popping it into his mouth, he let the flavor run free. “Do you like it?“

“Yes. We’ll need to refine the process, but this could definitely work on the menu as a special. Let’s talk about it tomorrow; you can think about what you’d like to serve with it.“

Kelly practically squealed with delight as she hopped out of the chair, and Darryl smiled as he continued eating, his mind returning unbidden to a vision of Billy. Jesus, he needed to stop that. Yes, the kid fascinated him. He had energy and was absolutely adorable, but he was way too young. And besides, Darryl had a hard and fast rule: he never dated anyone he worked with. He was the boss, and that could open a kettle of worms he wasn’t interested in exploring. But damn, the kid seemed to push all his buttons. “Maybe it’s just been too long,“ he muttered to himself. Darryl tried to remember the last time he’d spent time with anyone and he realized he couldn’t. “Fuck, it’s been forever since I had any kind of sex that didn’t involve my right hand.“

He heard a soft knock and looked up to find himself looking again into Billy’s big, expressive eyes. “I forgot to ask how I should dress.“ Billy looked nervous, and from the look of the clothes he was wearing, Darryl surmised that he probably didn’t have much.

“Wear black pants, and I’ll give you a few Café Belgie shirts that you can wear when you’re working.“ Billy looked relieved and flashed Darryl another smile that raced through him.

“Okay, thank you.“

Again, Darryl watched him go and had to remind himself of his rule. The kid looked so young and innocent. Darryl usually liked his men more experienced, but there was something about Billy that got his attention, and it scared the fuck out of him. Shaking his head, he forced himself to finish his lunch. Nothing was going to happen, no way, no how. Besides, Sebastian was going to train him, and Darryl intended to keep as far away from the kid as possible. His first job had been in a kitchen with a very talented chef who had dated all the women who worked for him. What a mess that had been for everyone. No, he wouldn’t put himself in that position, even for a man as attractive as Billy. Jesus, I’m doing it again. Finishing his lunch, he took the plate to the dish room and got to work. That would take his mind off that bright smile, radiant hair, and tiny, tight butt. “Jesus Christ!“ He swore at himself.

“Is something wrong?“ Kelly asked, concerned.

“No,“ Darryl lied, forcing his mind onto his work.

A Serving of Love #2
Chapter One
SEBASTIAN hated going in to work when it was dark, because that meant it would be dark when he left as well. Not that there was anything unusual about that—it was a fact of life with his job—but it was the one thing he didn’t like about it. Restaurant hours were horrendous. Whenever everyone else was off for a holiday or on weekends, that’s when the business was best, so that was when you worked. Not that he really minded. Sure, it would be nice to have one of those nine-to-five jobs, but he was good at what he did, and Café Belgie was successful in part because of what he did, or at least he’d like to think so.

Shivering slightly in the early morning air, Sebastian pulled his jacket a little tighter around him as he pressed the button to activate the walk signal at the square in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a chilly autumn breeze blowing and rustling the leaves at his feet. Cars and trucks zipped by even at this hour, and Sebastian looked around to make sure everything was okay. The light finally changed, all traffic coming to a stop, and Sebastian crossed the intersection diagonally, walking briskly across the street and then down the sidewalk to the front door of the restaurant. Inserting his key, he opened the door and stepped inside, making sure not to track dirt inside with him or else he’d have to clean the rug, and today he didn’t need any extra work, much less work he’d made for himself. Closing the door behind him, he threw the lock and carefully weaved his way around the tables, already set for lunch, toward the back where he flipped a single switch to turn on a few lights.

He was rarely the first person to arrive, but it appeared that this morning he was. Knowing what to do, he walked into the kitchen, turning on the lights before opening the back door and getting to work. Today was Friday and they were going to be swamped, especially with the colder fall weather and the holiday season just around the corner. Walking into the dishroom, Sebastian got tubs of clean flatware and grabbed some napkins that needed folding. There was plenty to do, and he needed to get it done.

Sitting at one of the back tables, Sebastian had begun folding the napkins when he heard the back door open and close. “Morning,” Kelly called, her voice carrying through the kitchen.

“Morning, Kelly,” Sebastian called back as he continued his work, the door to the kitchen swinging open.

“You’re here early,” Kelly commented with a smile. “I expected I’d be the one opening this morning.”

“I noticed last night that we’re almost out of everything out here, and I didn’t want to stay last night. I was too tired, so I came in a little early this morning,” Sebastian told her as he continued folding the napkins. “Besides, with Billy and Darryl on vacation, I want everything to go well.”

Kelly grinned. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Darryl entrusted you to run things while he was gone?” She winked at him before laughing. “You’re going to do a great job,” she encouraged.

“What do you think?” He held up one of the napkins for her to see. “I thought I’d try a new fold. I found it on the Internet.”

Kelly smiled as she looked at it. “Nice, sort of fluted like the wine glasses.” Kelly slipped off the jacket she wore over her white chef’s uniform. “I’m going to start some coffee. I’ll holler when it’s ready.”

“Thanks,” Sebastian answered, needing coffee to wake himself up at this hour of the morning. Kelly brought him a mug a few minutes later, setting it on the table as he finished folding the napkins, replacing the ones on the table with the fresh ones before refolding those and placing them in the bin behind the serving station along with the extra flatware. Picking up his mug, he sipped it before looking behind the bar to make sure everything was full and set there, then checking the rest of his morning items off his list.

Once everything appeared ready, he walked into the kitchen. Maureen had arrived at some point, getting her desserts together before they would open the doors for lunch. This afternoon, she’d be Kelly’s sous chef during the lunch service. Darryl’s vacation meant that everyone in the kitchen needed to double up and help out. Sebastian was doing the same thing out front, but they could do this. It wasn’t often that Darryl and Billy went on vacation, and they both deserved it, so Sebastian intended for everything to run as smoothly as possible while they were gone.

The servers began trickling in an hour before opening, and Sebastian put them to work making sure everything was sparkling clean and ready for opening. “Hey, Peter,” Sebastian said as the young man finished sweeping beneath the table, “check in the kitchen to see if they need any help. We’re ready out here.”

“Sure thing,” the dark-haired man said with a smile, putting away the broom before heading through the kitchen doors. He didn’t come right back out, so Sebastian figured Kelly was able to use the help.

Making one more check just before opening, he called into the kitchen as a final warning before opening the doors. The first customers came in a few minutes later, Sebastian seated them, and their day began.

Lunch went smoothly, to Sebastian’s relief, and he spent part of the afternoon getting the dining room ready for dinner as well as preparing the records that Darryl had shown him. “I’m going to the bank for a few minutes,” he told Kelly and Maureen. “I’m taking Peter with me. We won’t be gone long.”

“Sure thing,” Maureen said. “I’ll keep an eye out front. Kelly’s got things in hand here.”

“Thanks,” Sebastian said with a smile, getting Peter before walking outside and down the sidewalk.

“I love this time of year,” Peter commented. “The sun is still warm, but it’s not all sticky and hot.” Leaves rained down from the trees as the bright sun warmed the air. It was a great time of year. The only thing Sebastian hated about it was that it portended the coming of winter, with its slush, snow, and cold.

“I take it you don’t have to rake the leaves,” Sebastian said as he looked at the younger man.

Peter shook his head with a smile. “That’s one of the beauties of going away to college—no yard chores. My little brother has to do the raking now,” he said with a grin as they crossed the street, turning the corner before stepping into the bank.

“Thanks, Peter. I’ll see you back at the restaurant,” Sebastian told his companion, and Peter hurried back down the sidewalk while Sebastian got in the teller line. It took awhile, but he made the deposit and got the change they needed before heading back. It was truly a gorgeous day, and he hated going back inside, so he took a few extra minutes on the sidewalk, breathing the fresh air before walking inside and getting back to work.

The afternoon was quiet as they got the dining room ready for the dinner service. Customers trickled in all afternoon, keeping them reasonably busy, but by the time the dinner service was ready to start, the restaurant was clean and ready. They were nearly booked solid, and the customers kept Sebastian and the servers busy for hours. Sebastian was never so happy as when he checked his watch and saw it was already nine o’clock. He felt sweaty and exhausted.

Walking to the front to lock the doors, the last customers lingering, servers already cleaning up, he saw a man in a hooded sweatshirt hurrying in, and Sebastian approached him to see if he wanted a table. Instead, the man pulled a knife, and Sebastian backed away. “Where’s the cash?”

Sebastian felt his legs shake. “In the server’s station,” he answered, taking a deep breath, looking around the nearly empty dining room.

“Don’t move,” the man growled, grabbing Sebastian’s arm, nails digging into his skin, dragging him toward the register. Sebastian opened the drawer and backed away while the man grabbed the larger bills from the drawer. “Is that all?” the man asked, voice rushed and throaty. Sebastian nodded slowly, and the man let him go, hurrying back toward the restaurant door. Sebastian didn’t move, hoping no one else did, either. Darryl had told everyone if they were ever robbed to let them have the money. Watching the man go, Sebastian tried to memorize any details he could.

As the thief reached the front door, it seemed to open for him, and then he seemed to fly through the air, and Sebastian heard a loud thunk. “Call the police,” Sebastian told the nearest server, not even stopping to see who it was before hurrying to the door. Sebastian saw the sweatshirted man lying on the sidewalk with another man kneeling near him.

“I’m sorry,” the kneeling man was saying. “Are you okay? I didn’t see you coming.”

“That man robbed us,” Sebastian said, pointing, and the other man immediately backed away. “We’ve called the police,” Sebastian explained as sirens could already be heard, getting louder and louder. The thief started to move, and as Sebastian backed away further, the other man scrambled to his feet, and Sebastian’s eyes widened as the man towered over him. The sirens got closer, and Sebastian backed further away as the man on the ground began to move, groaning more loudly. Police officers hurried up the sidewalk, and Sebastian backed up even further.

“No one move!” the first officer commanded.

Sebastian froze and began explaining. “That man robbed the restaurant,” Sebastian exclaimed as the man on the ground actually tried to get on his feet. One of the officers forced him back onto the ground and cuffed him while the second walked to where Sebastian and the other man stood watching.

“He pulled a knife and made me give him the money from the register,” Sebastian said in a rush of words as he started to shake.

“It’s okay, sir, just take your time. He’s not going anywhere,” the police officer said before turning to the other officer. “Did you find a knife?”

“Yeah, already secured it, and I found the money as well. Backup’s on the way too,” he added before tugging the guy to his feet, helping him into the back of the police car, none too gently. Another car arrived, as did a third.

“If you gentlemen could step inside, I’ll be with you in a few minutes,” the police officer told them, and Sebastian nodded, now feeling the cold. Opening the door, he held it for the other man, who walked inside. Sebastian noticed that he had to duck slightly so he wouldn’t hit his head on the overhead door closer.

The dining room still had a few customers lingering at their tables, watching the happenings outside. “Would you like anything?” Sebastian asked when the man had settled at a table.

“I was coming in to get some dinner, but it looks like you’re closing,” he said, looking around.

Sebastian handed him a menu. “Order what you like. Dinner’s on the house.”

The tall man smiled, his face changing instantly from ordinary to incredible. “That’s not necessary,” he answered, looking over the menu. “Can I have the steak frites, medium, and a cup of coffee?”

“No problem. I’ll be right back.” Sebastian hurried to Jane, who was clearing a table. “Bring a cup of coffee to the gentleman near the door.” She nodded, and Sebastian hurried to the kitchen. “Kelly, I need a steak frites, medium.”

She paused in her cleaning. “What the hell happened?”

“We were robbed,” he answered, heaving a deep breath to try to calm himself. “The police have the guy, thanks to a customer.” Sebastian forced himself to slow down. “That’s his order, by the way, and could I get one of the special salads too? Oh, and set aside one of Maureen’s mousses for him.” Excitement coursed through him, and he tamped it down, regulating his breathing.

“One thing at a time.” Kelly started going to work with practiced ease. “We were robbed?”

“Yeah.” He gave Kelly the abbreviated version as she finished the salad. “He tripped the guy or something, and the robber hit his head on a parked car. There was a dent this big in it,” Sebastian said, demonstrating with his hands before picking up the salad. “I’ll probably need to meet with the police because I saw the guy.”

“Then take the salad out and meet with the police. I’ll bring out the order when it’s ready.”

“Thanks, Kelly, you’re the best.” Leaving the kitchen, he carried the salad to the table, where a police officer was seated along with the tall man. Sebastian set the salad in front of the man before asking the police officer if he’d like anything.

He declined and motioned Sebastian to a seat. “I’m Officer Cloud. I’d like you to tell me what happened.”

Sebastian told the officer what happened, doing his best to keep his voice level and remain calm, but his heart still pounded in his chest. “It happened so fast,” he added at the end, “I barely had time to think.”

“You did the right thing, sir,” the officer said. “Just give them the money and call the police. Your life isn’t worth a few dollars.” The officer consulted his notes. “We’ve had a few of these snatch-and-grab-type robberies in the last few weeks, and I’m hoping we’ve got our culprit,” the officer said before asking for Sebastian’s name, phone number, and address, as well as the address and phone number of the restaurant. Kelly joined them at the table with the steak frites, placing the plate on the table, along with the mousse, and thanking the man for his help before returning to the kitchen. “Thank you both,” the officer said, pushing his chair back. “I’ll be in touch in the next few days. We’ve got the money he stole and should be able to get it back to you in the next few days. I’ll drop by a receipt for it tomorrow.”

Sebastian stood up as well, shaking the officer’s hand. “Thank you for all your help,” Sebastian said, walking the officer to the door, then closing and locking it behind him before returning to the table. “Is everything okay?”

The tall man swallowed before answering. “It’s perfect, thank you. You really didn’t need to do all this,” he said again, setting his utensils on the plate before taking a sip of his coffee.

“It’s the least we could do after all your help.”

“I really didn’t do anything except trip over my own feet and manage to unbalance him as well. The car he hit his head against did the rest.” The man smiled again, chuckling lightly. “There are some things in this world that were definitely not designed for someone as tall as me. Like doorways,” he added, his smile brightening.

“Please let me know if you need anything,” Sebastian said, his eyes raking over the room to make sure everything was being cleaned up.

“I could use some company, if you don’t mind. I know it’s late, but it’s definitely no fun to eat alone.”

Everything seemed to be in good hands, so Sebastian got a mug of coffee and returned to the table. “By the way, I’m Sebastian Franklin,” he said as he pulled out a chair.

“Robert Fortier,” the tall man said as he extended his hand, and Sebastian shook it. “It’s nice to meet you, Sebastian, and thank you for the terrific meal. It really wasn’t necessary, but most appreciated.”

“You’re welcome,” Sebastian added, scanning the room once again, wondering what to talk about. “Is this your first time dining with us?”

“Yes, it is, actually. I’ve heard wonderful things about the restaurant, but never had a chance to stop in before tonight.” Robert finished his dinner and pushed the plate back before reaching for the cup of mousse. “I usually don’t eat dessert,” he added before taking a bite, sighing softly.

“I know. Maureen, our pastry chef, makes the most incredible desserts. This is one of her specialties,” Sebastian said proudly. He wasn’t the chef or the owner, but he was proud of Café Belgie and not ashamed to show it. Finishing his coffee as Robert finished his mousse, Sebastian pushed his chair back, standing up before picking up the dishes. “I’ll be right back. Would you like any more coffee?” Sebastian asked.

“If it’s decaf. It’s getting a little late for the high-octane stuff.”

“Of course. I’ll be right back.” Sebastian left the table, carrying the dishes to the dishroom, where the cleanup for the night was nearly complete. Returning through the kitchen, Sebastian smiled at Kelly as he passed by, seeing that she, too, was almost done for the night.

“I’m going to head out soon,” she told him.

“Of course. I’ll lock up. See you tomorrow afternoon,” Sebastian said as he waved before leaving the kitchen, grabbing the decaf coffee carafe on his way to the table.

“I’m not keeping you, am I?” Robert asked as Sebastian refilled his cup. “It looks like everyone’s leaving.”

“I have a few minutes,” Sebastian answered, refilling his own cup before letting people out the front door, locking it behind them again. Sitting back at the table, he sipped his coffee while Robert did the same. Now that he got a good look, the man was really quite attractive. Medium-length, wavy auburn hair brushed his shirt collar, and he had bright blue eyes, nice lips, and a pleasant face. For a second Sebastian couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t found Robert attractive right away. Then his eyes shifted to his clothes. They hung on the man like they were two sizes too big. As tall as he was, it must be very difficult finding clothes that truly fit. “So what do you do?” Sebastian asked, lifting his cup to his lips.

“Right now, I work for the county,” Robert said. “How long have you worked here?”

Sebastian let his eyes scan the room once more. “Since we opened a few years ago. I was one of Darryl’s first hires. He’s the chef and the owner. Anyway, I was one of his first employees, and he made me front-of-the-house manager about a year ago. I run everything outside the kitchen, and he runs the kitchen and the business. His partner, Billy, is one of the waiters, as well. In fact, he’s probably our best waiter.” Sebastian saw Robert go a little pale. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

Robert set his cup on the saucer. “You didn’t. It’s just that I didn’t expect to find people so open like that in Central Pennsylvania. Maybe in Philly or Pittsburgh, but not here.”

While Sebastian had noticed the man, he really hadn’t given any thought to the fact he might be gay, but the reaction, the startled look, the hard swallow, all helped confirm the notion. “Do you live here in town?”

“Yes, I have a small house on Louther Street, just a few blocks from here.” Robert looked at him quizzically like he was trying to size Sebastian up or something, but then the look dissipated, and Robert picked up his cup again, drinking the last of his coffee. “I should let you go home. It’s getting late, and I’m keeping you from leaving.” Robert stood up and put his napkin on the table.

“It was nice to meet you, Robert, and thank you so much for your help tonight. We really appreciate it.” Sebastian extended his hand, and Robert shook it firmly.

“It was no problem, I assure you,” Robert said with a self-deprecating smile as he walked toward the front door. Sebastian unlocked it and held the door for Robert as he left. Closing it behind him, Sebastian smiled as Robert shrugged on his coat, walking down the sidewalk. Without appearing to, Sebastian watched out of the corner of his eye, and sure enough he saw Robert turn to look at him just before he disappeared from view. Smiling to himself at the confirmation of his hunch, Sebastian walked through the restaurant, making sure the register was closed and everything put in the safe before turning out the lights. Leaving by the front door, he turned the key in the lock and began his short walk.

HOME was a row house on Pomfret Street, one of the oldest streets in town. It had been his parents’ house, and when they passed away, he couldn’t bear to sell it, so he’d stayed. On his days off, he worked on the old place trying to get it fixed up. There was one certainty when you owned a house approaching two hundred years old—you always had plenty to do. But he loved living there, and his mom, who had been a lover of antiques, had insisted the house be furnished with antiques from the period the house was built. She and Sebastian’s dad had collected pieces the entire time they were married, and the house was beautifully decorated. Unlocking the front door, Sebastian walked into his entrance hall with the case clock his mother had purchased and his father had lovingly restored as a present for their thirtieth wedding anniversary, picking up the mail from the floor.

After setting his keys in the bowl on the small stand, he walked through to the dining room with its large Empire sideboard. Hanging his coat over the back of one of the chairs, Sebastian thumbed through the mail, setting aside what he didn’t want before picking up the small local newspaper he’d taken inside that morning. Taking it with him, he walked through the rooms to the very back of the house, where a small sitting room had been added on years ago. His mom had lovingly restored much of the house over the years, but this room and the kitchen and baths were modern, thanks to his dad.

Turning on the light, Sebastian sat in his big, comfortable chair, put his feet on the ottoman, and opened the paper. He loved this time of day. Sebastian knew most people thought he was a little flamboyant and a party boy, but in actuality he led quite a quiet life. Thumbing through the paper, he didn’t see anything of interest and was about to throw it away when a picture caught his eye. Looking at it again, his eyes widened, and he began to read the article.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Sebastian said with a smile, shaking his head slowly. The title read, “Cumberland County’s Newest Judge,” and beneath the headline was a picture of Robert Fortier. Sebastian read the entire article with a smile on his face before putting the paper aside and turning on the television. He tried to watch the program, but found himself picking up the newspaper again and again to look at the picture of Robert. The man had been nice, really nice, and it had been a long time since Sebastian had met someone like that. When he first started working at the restaurant, he’d developed sort of a crush on Darryl, but those feelings weren’t returned, no matter how much Sebastian had tried to catch Darryl’s interest.

Turning off the television, Sebastian clicked off the lights before heading through the house and upstairs to his bedroom. Who knew? Sebastian didn’t want to get his hopes up, but Carlisle was a small town; he’d probably run into Robert again. Heck, he hoped he did. After getting cleaned up, Sebastian climbed beneath the covers before turning out his light. He tried his best not to think about Robert… too much.

A Helping of Love #3
Chapter One
“DO YOU think you’ll have the time to call on a potential new client today?” Annette asked through the speakerphone as Peter ate his breakfast cereal. “Jerry’s been trying to get Café Belgie’s business for almost a year now, and they actually gave him a call. He figures he’ll only get this one chance, and it would make his day if we could get them as clients. He might even be willing to cough up a bonus.”

Peter coughed and nearly sprayed half-chewed Grapenuts all over his table before he managed to swallow. “Pigs don’t fly,” Peter replied with laughter, and he heard Annette’s devious laugh through the speaker. “He’s the cheapest bastard I know, and that’s probably why he already has more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime.”

“Me too,” Annette chimed in. Picking on Jerry was a pastime for both of them, and Jerry sometimes made it so easy. “So I can tell Jerry you’ll do it?”

“Sure. Could you call and reschedule some of my morning appointments? Tell Jerry I’ll stop by Café Belgie late this morning, and remind him that he owes me. And you too, for that matter.”

“I won’t let him forget,” Annette told him, and Peter had no doubt Annette would hold this favor over Jerry until he coughed up something, maybe even a lung. That woman was tenacious in the best way possible as far as Peter was concerned. “Have a good day and be careful. They’re calling for heavy rain today.” Annette hung up, and Peter pressed the disconnect button on the phone. He finished his breakfast, placing his silverware and glass in the bowl before setting it on his lap and wheeling himself over to the sink. After rinsing the items off, Peter placed them in the dishwasher, looking around the room to make sure everything was clean. Once he was satisfied he hadn’t forgotten anything, Peter wheeled himself to his bedroom and over to the closet, where he picked out a dress shirt and tie. Peter had learned a while ago not to put his shirt on before breakfast. He had a habit of spilling on it or getting it wet when he leaned over to work at the sink. Since it was summer and humid as all get-out, he decided to forego a jacket, and after checking himself in the mirror, he left the bedroom.

Peter double-checked that he had all his client information in his bag and fastened it onto his chair. Gliding through the ranch-style house, Peter made sure everything was locked up before wheeling himself to the back door and out into his garage. Locking the door behind him, he carefully made his way down the short ramp to the driver’s side of his car. Peter opened his car door, getting his chair into position so he could slide into the driver’s seat. Over the years, he’d gotten very good at taking care of himself, and after he was in place, Peter folded up the chair, maneuvering it behind his seat. He pressed a button and the back door closed. Peter pulled his own door closed before pressing the button to open the garage door and backing the car out.

Rain pelted the windshield as soon as he cleared the garage, and Peter groaned at the thought of getting around in this downpour, but it couldn’t be helped. Reaching up to the visor, Peter pressed the button to lower the garage door and drove to his first appointment. Thankfully they had an awning out front, and Peter was able to get inside without getting too wet. After meeting with the restaurant owner, Peter left with a good-sized order for all-new fine restaurant china and flatware. “Thank you,” Peter said at the doorway of the restaurant, shaking the restaurateur’s hand. “Call me if you need anything, and I’ll stop by in a few months otherwise.”

“Of course,” Ian said with a smile and sparkling eyes. Peter knew Ian was gay, and he tried not to let himself read anything into the expression. The man was drop-dead gorgeous. Ian’s Pastiche restaurant had been a good customer for Peter ever since he’d gotten this job three years ago, and if the truth be known, Peter had had a slight crush on the man since he’d first met him. However, their relationship was strictly professional. Once, about a year ago, Peter had tried to move their relationship to a more personal level, but Ian had shown no interest.

Peter had gotten used to that. But just because he was in a wheelchair, that did not mean everything below the waist had stopped working. Peter had found out quickly after his accident that very few people he met ever looked beyond the wheelchair to actually see him, and those who did, never seemed to think of him in any sort of sexual way or as someone they might consider a relationship with. Not that Peter could necessarily blame them. Building a life with someone who couldn’t walk would be a difficult proposition for most people. Hell, it had been a difficult proposition for Peter when he’d first found out he would never walk again. But he was a survivor, and he made the best of his situation.

Ian held the front door of the restaurant open, and Peter wheeled himself outside, thankful that the rain had nearly stopped and that there weren’t any stairs to contend with. Peter got himself in the car and began the ten-mile drive from Mechanicsburg to Carlisle and Café Belgie.

The rain began again as he got close to the historic town, and by the time he parked in front of the Belgian restaurant, the rain was coming down in sheets. Peter decided to wait it out. Reaching around the seat, he pulled his bag onto his lap and began doing paperwork until the air in the car got so steamy he couldn’t stand it anymore. Thankfully, the rain appeared to let up again, and Peter used what was probably only a temporary respite to get himself out of the car and down to the street corner where there was a ramp so he could get onto the sidewalk.

The sky opened up as Peter made his way down the uneven sidewalk. He picked up his pace so he wouldn’t get totally soaked. Looking up, he saw a man hurrying in his direction carrying a huge umbrella. To Peter’s relief, he stopped next to him. “Let me help you,” the man said, and to Peter’s surprise, he didn’t try to take control of the chair the way most people did. Instead, he stood next to Peter and held the umbrella over both of them. “Are you Peter from Gold Restaurant Supply? Darryl said you were coming and asked me to watch for you because you were in a wheelchair.” The man gasped and clamped his hand over his mouth. “Sorry.”

“Why?” Peter shrugged. “I am in a wheelchair.”

“It’s not polite,” the man responded, embarrassed, and Peter stole a look up at him, watching his face turn beet red.

“Most people don’t talk about my chair. But then, most people ignore the chair and me along with it. So don’t be embarrassed, and you weren’t impolite.” Peter smiled before continuing toward the front door of the restaurant. The man opened the door, and Peter wheeled himself inside the restaurant, pleased to be out of the rain. As he always did when he entered a new restaurant, Peter took in the surroundings so he could get an idea of what they might need. But Café Belgie had Peter stumped. Every table was impeccably set with bright, clean tablecloths. The dishes he could see looked nearly new, and even the floors were clean enough to eat off of.

“Are you Peter?” A tall man in a chef’s uniform came out of the kitchen, crossing the dining room in huge strides. “I’m Darryl Hansen.”

“Peter Christopoulos,” he responded, and they shook hands. “This is a beautiful dining room,” he complimented, once again looking around the space.

“Thanks,” Darryl said with a smile. “You have to be wondering why we called you.” Darryl motioned Peter to a table in back, and Peter noticed that one of the chairs had been removed. Peter took that place, and Darryl took one of the other places while the man who’d helped him with the umbrella sat across from him. “Before I forget, this is Russell Baker. He’s going to be the chef of our new restaurant.”

“Please call me Russ,” was added in a soft voice, and Peter found himself smiling at him before turning back to Darryl.

“I have half an hour before we open for lunch, so if it’s okay, I’d like to get right to business,” Darryl prompted. “I called you because Jerry has been pestering me for a year to give his company a try. We’re opening a new restaurant on Pomfret Street here in town, and the quote I got from our usual supplier was astronomical, so I decided to see if you could do better for us.”

“I’ll certainly try,” Peter said, turning around to pull his bag off the handles of the chair. “What sort of restaurant are you opening? Do you need the standard equipment or something special?”

“My partner, Billy, and I were in Chicago a few months ago and found all of these small restaurants and stands selling gyros and other Greek food. We loved them, and when we got back, he tried to find a place like that here, but everyone makes a gyro with preformed patties, which are disgusting. We’ve decided to open a Greek restaurant, and Russ is going to be the chef and general manager.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Peter said excitedly. “They roast the meat on a vertical roasting spit, and it cooks as it’s needed.”

“Exactly. We’ll also have Greek salads, souvlaki, spanakopita, moussaka, and of course baklava. We’ve developed and tested the menu here with some of our loyal customers, and we believe we have the recipes down, so now we need an estimate on the equipment as well as installation,” Darryl explained.

“The issue is that the space is small,” Russ continued, his voice barely carrying across the table, and for a second Peter wondered how he could survive in a kitchen and be heard over the din. “So we have a tight budget for furnishing the restaurant in order to keep overhead under control.” Russ stood up and moved to the chair next to him, pulling a small notebook out of his pocket. “Here’s a list of the things we feel we’ll need, along with an approximate cost estimate, as well as the space allotted in the kitchen.”

Peter looked over the list and their budget, thinking for a second. “Are you making standard frozen French fries?”

Both Darryl and Russ looked appalled. “Absolutely not. The fries will be fresh,” Darryl answered. “It’ll be a variation on the recipe we use here, except with a slight seasoning to give the fries a kick.”

Peter nodded and continued looking over the list. “I think I have some ideas for you. I assume you are not opposed to used equipment as long as it’s in good condition and clean. The vertical gyros grills will need to be new, but I believe I can get much of the other equipment for you at a good price.” Peter looked at Darryl and then at Russ. Both men seemed pleased.

“I have to get ready for lunch service,” Darryl said as he stood up. “You can work out any details with Russ, and once you have a proposal, the two of you can run it by me for my approval.” Darryl shook his hand and left the dining room.

“I really think I can make this happen within your budget,” Peter supplied.

“Cool.” Russ’s face lit with excitement, and Peter couldn’t help smiling in return.

“I’m pretty excited myself. With a last name like Christopoulos, it would be nice to finally have a place to get good Greek food. Since my mother passed away a few years ago, I haven’t had much good home cooking. Maybe you could try your recipes out on me?” Where did that come from? God, am I actually flirting with Russ?

Russ smiled, and for a second Peter saw pleasure and interest in Russ’s eyes, something Peter hadn’t seen in a while, but it quickly faded, and his expression turned wary and fearful. “I usually try out all my recipes on my boyfriend Barry,” Russ explained, smiling slightly.

Peter felt like a bit of an idiot and tried not to let it show on his face. For a second he’d thought that smile on Russ’s face might have been for him, but it was just Russ’s general excitement about the restaurant. He should have known better. No one ever saw him that way. “Would you like to see the restaurant?” Russ asked, pulling him out of his thoughts. “It’s stopped raining, and that way you could see the space.”

Russ sounded so excited that Peter shrugged off his discomfort. “Sure. That would be helpful. Is the location accessible?” In older towns like Carlisle, some of the stores still had stairs, and while new businesses had to be accessible, some of the older buildings had yet to be converted.

“There aren’t any stairs,” Russ said before giving Peter the address.

“Good. Then I’ll meet you there.” Peter wheeled himself toward the front door as the restaurant was opening for business, and after saying goodbye and thanking the waiter who opened the door for him, Peter glided down the sidewalk and then back up to his car.

The clouds were still very low and heavy as he pulled up in front of the building that would house the new restaurant. Peter was almost reluctant to get out of the car, but he was curious, and seeing the kitchen would help him make sure he got the right equipment for his customers. Opening the car door, he transferred himself to the chair as quickly as he could, making his way to the front. Russ opened the door, and Peter glided inside.

“As you can see, we still have some work to do out here, but the dining room is beginning to come together,” Russ explained as he led Peter toward the back. “Darryl and Billy brought back pictures of some of the places they ate at, but they were diners with Formica tables and old booths for seating. We wanted to take it upscale just a little and make the food authentic.” Russ held the door, and Peter rolled into what would be the kitchen. “At Café Belgie, the average bill is approximately $25 to $40 a diner, where here at the Acropolis, we expect the average check to be $12 to $18 a diner. That’s the reason for the need to keep the overhead low, so we can still keep the food quality where it needs to be.”

Peter listened as he looked around the space, envisioning where all the equipment, prep tables, and workstations would be. “Have you been working in restaurants long?” Peter asked as he continued to build the picture in his mind.

“A few years. I started out as a server and then moved into the kitchen as a prep cook before getting promoted to line cook. I’ve sort of done it all. Darryl is giving me a chance to do what I’ve always wanted, to run an entire restaurant, and I don’t want to let him down.”

A crack of thunder brought Peter’s thoughts back to more immediate concerns. “I appreciate you showing me the space, but I should get back to the car before the sky opens up again. I’ll see what I can put together, and I should be in touch with an estimate by the end of the week.” Peter glided through the empty restaurant space, and Russ hurried past him, holding open the front door. Peter wheeled outside to the driver’s door of his car just as the sky opened up like someone had turned on a faucet. Pushing the button on his key, Peter opened the driver’s door and hurried to slide himself into the seat and get his chair in the back before it was completely soaked.

“I’ll get the chair for you,” Russ said, and Peter saw him pull his bag off the handles, placing it on the back seat. Peter lifted himself with his arms, transferring himself to the driver’s seat. Lightning flashed and thunder vibrated around him. Peter tried to hurry, and the chair moved from under him. Grabbing for the steering wheel, he got a grip and held on, hanging out of the car, legs he had little control over sliding under the car. He tried to pull himself up, but his legs caught between the car and the curb and Peter couldn’t pull them out. “It’s okay, I have you,” Russ said near his ear, and Peter wanted to close his eyes and die of total embarrassment. Who cared that he was now drenched to the skin, the very thing he was trying to avoid by rushing.

Russ’s arms around his waist tugged him up and away from the car. Using his arms, Peter was able to pull himself onto the seat in a sopping wet, mortified mess. “Thank you,” Peter said and turned toward Russ, trying his very best to be gracious rather than doing what he wanted, which was to close the door, drive away, and never see Russ again for as long as he lived. Peter fought a constant battle for his independence, and this only served as a reminder that no matter how much he tried, he was still dependent on others.

“Are you all right?” Russ asked, water running down his face, black hair plastered to his head.

“Yes,” Peter responded breathlessly. Peter turned toward Russ to thank him again, and he gasped before he could stop himself. “What happened to your arm? Did I do that?” Russ’s shirtsleeve had ridden up, and Peter saw black-and-blue marks going up Russ’s arm that looked nasty and painful. That couldn’t have just happened.

Russ yanked his sleeve down his arm. “I fell at the house the other day and tried to catch myself.” Russ stepped away from the car. “I’ll talk to you later in the week.” Peter could tell Russ was trying to keep his voice light to cover up something. He knew, because it was the same tone he’d used in physical therapy when he was hurting like hell and didn’t want the therapist to know. Russ closed Peter’s car door and waved before hurrying into the restaurant. Sopping wet, Peter used the Bluetooth connection in his car to call Annette.

“I’m heading home,” he told her once she answered. “I got caught in the rain, and I’m soaked.” He left out the totally embarrassing part. “Could you please call my appointments and tell them I’m running late?”

“Of course, hon. How did it go at Café Belgie?”

“I think I can get the business if I can get some good used equipment. I already know we have some of the things they need.” He rattled off the things he could remember. “And I’ll check into the others. I’ll forward the bid tonight, and you can do your magic. They already have a quote from their regular supplier. If we can beat it, the business is ours, and Jerry will completely platz.” At least that made up for squishy underwear.

“I’ll look for it in the morning. Get dry and call if you need anything.”

Peter promised he would and hurried home as fast as the weather would allow. Once he arrived, he spent nearly an hour getting out of his wet clothes, drying off, and getting into dry things. He also dried off his wet chair and got on the road again. Thankfully, the rest of his day went better, and by the time he’d made all his calls, the skies had cleared. Peter decided he needed some exercise, so he stopped at home to change and get a different chair. He drove to the local high school and parked near the running track, getting out his chair—this one sleek and sturdy, custom made for him. Peter slid into it and wheeled himself toward the running surface.

Getting into position, he began moving forward, his arms propelling the wheels on the racing chair. As he picked up speed, his chest, shoulders, and back came into play, and he zoomed around the banked oval. The chair was weighted for him and could turn on a dime. As he picked up speed, Peter’s blood raced through his body, heart pumping life through him. After a while, it felt as though he were flying around the oval, arms and chest throbbing, letting him know they were being worked. He passed a runner in a blur and continued moving, staying in one of the middle lanes, out of the way.

Peter kept moving, passing a few more runners and staying in the groove. Breathing through his nose and mouth, he reveled in the exercise, trying not to think about how he’d been before a drunk driver changed his life forever. But that was a while ago, and Peter pushed it away. It wasn’t hard, not out here in the evening air, passing runners like they were standing still. Twenty minutes, half an hour, forty-five minutes, each milestone passed with a small beep of his watch. Once he reached his goal, he slowed but continued moving to cool off. “Hey, dude, that was cool,” one of the runners called as he caught up with Peter, running as Peter kept pace with them.

“Thanks,” Peter said with a smile.

“Do you compete?” a familiar voice asked, and Peter glanced to the side to see Russ running along with the other guys.

“I want to, but I’m not sure I’m good enough yet,” Peter answered truthfully.

“I’d say you were. You looked like you were flying,” Russ told him, and as Peter slowed, he noticed that Russ did as well, the other guys getting ahead of them. “When I saw you, I wanted to make sure you were okay. I didn’t hurt your legs, did I?”

Peter shook his head. “I have a slight bruise, not from you, but nothing worse than that. It’ll heal in time, but I have to keep an eye on it. How’s your arm? Does it hurt?” Peter noticed that Russ was wearing a pressure bandage on each arm to cover his wrists.

“No,” Russ said, touching one of his wrists. “I’m a bit clumsy, I guess.”

Peter didn’t argue, and they came to a stop off to the side of the track. Russ was as covered in sweat as Peter, his white T-shirt almost translucent, small nipples almost visible.

“Russ, are you ready to go home?” a man called as he strode across the grass, dressed in what looked to Peter to be a tailored suit.

“Almost,” he answered before turning back to Peter. “I’ll talk to you later in the week, and I think you’re good enough to compete.” Russ smiled before turning and walking toward the man who Peter assumed was Barry. The large man looked impatient, and as Russ approached, Barry hustled him toward a white Corvette, where Barry appeared to throw a shirt at Russ, obviously afraid to get the seat of his “compensating for my small penis” sports car dirty. Curious, Peter watched Russ strip off his shirt, and he stifled a gasp at what looked like black-and-blue marks on Russ’s shoulder.

“The man’s an asshole,” one of the runners said from behind Peter. “If he got anywhere near me, I’d shove that Corvette up his ass.” Peter laughed at the other man’s joke and looked away after Russ pulled on the fresh shirt and got into the car. Barry started the engine, revving it as loudly as he could before pulling out, tires squealing.

Peter rarely hated someone on sight, but Barry fell into that category. His very demeanor screamed self-righteous, sanctimonious asshole. Well, that was none of Peter’s business. Russ seemed like a really nice guy, but he was taken. Not that he’d looked at Peter twice. No one seemed to. “You like him,” the kid next to him said. “It’s okay, dude, I like guys too.”

Peter turned away from watching where Russ and Barry had left. “Do you know Russ well?” Why couldn’t he stop thinking about Russ? He had someone already.

“Not really. He runs with us sometimes. The big dude always picks him up and acts like a superior asshole, but Russ is cool, always nice, if a bit quiet.” The kid said goodbye and walked back to where his friends had gathered, still recovering from their run. Peter held up his hand to the group, and they returned the gesture before turning as a group and walking across to the far side of the oval. Peter rolled to his car and drove home. He’d had a profitable day business-wise, but once again he was coming home to an empty house.

After his accident, Peter had lived with his parents, but he could see the burden of taking care of him was falling to his mother. And as her health deteriorated, Peter fought hard and long to become more and more independent. He got a job, bought himself a small house, and moved out on his own. Both his parents worried about him, but Peter needed to be self-sufficient. Before the accident, Peter had been an athlete, a track star with high hopes and dreams. All that ended when he’d opened his eyes in the hospital, unable to move his legs. Peter hadn’t given up, and he’d channeled his athletic discipline and drive into his recovery. When it became evident there was no hope for him to walk again, he threw himself into becoming as independent as possible. That independence had come with a price, and living alone seemed to be it.

In his bedroom, Peter undressed and wheeled himself naked into the bathroom. After transferring himself to the toilet to take care of business, Peter wheeled himself into the shower, moving himself to the built-in seat using a series of bars.

The water felt heavenly, and Peter let it run over him before washing and using the hand-held sprayer to rinse himself. One of the things that had been hardest for him to get used to was the amount of time it took him to do almost everything. Activities he used to take for granted, such as a quick shower, now took time and a great deal of effort to accomplish. But he was doing it on his own, and he kept reminding himself that was a win. Turning off the water, Peter reached for the towel and realized he’d forgotten to place it on the hook before he got in the shower. Transferring himself back to the wheelchair, he opened the closet door and pulled out two towels and began drying both himself and his chair before moving into his bedroom to dress.

He made himself dinner, carrying his plate and utensils to the table on a tray he placed on his lap. As he ate, he began completing the proposal details for the Acropolis. Pushing his plate aside when he was done, Peter retrieved his laptop and began sending order and proposal details to Annette. He’d just finished when his phone rang.

“Hi, Dad,” Peter said cheerfully. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” his father answered, sounding down. “I’ve been cleaning out more stuff from the house, and I came across some things your mother had wanted you to have. I’ll give them to you when you come over this weekend.”

“Okay,” Peter answered, concerned about the way his father sounded. “What’s going on?” His father had been on a kick to clean out the house lately. Peter knew part of it was his father finally moving on, but he was curious why now.

“I’ve made some decisions, and I don’t want you to be angry. I’m going to sell the house and move into assisted living. It’s getting harder for me to keep up with things. Some friends of your mother’s and mine have moved into Luther Manor, and they seem to like it.” His dad sounded unsure, but Peter felt relief more than anything.

“That’s good,” Peter told his dad. “You won’t have lawn to mow and a house to take care of. Can you still keep your car?”

“Yes, and I’ll have my own one-bedroom apartment.” The relief in his dad’s voice rang through the line. “I thought you’d be mad at me for selling your mother’s house.” That was how his dad always thought of the house Peter had grown up in. They hadn’t had a lot of money, but Peter’s mom had worked with her own brand of energy and motherly magic to create a home filled with love. Peter missed her each and every day.

“Not at all, Dad. Do you need help going through things?”

“No. I’ve already been through most everything, but we can talk about anything you’d like this weekend. The house will go on the market next month, and I’m scheduled to move into my apartment in October.”

Peter’s head swam. He hadn’t expected his father to move so fast or to do all this without talking it over with him. “Isn’t this kind of sudden?” Peter swallowed hard, because he didn’t want to come off sounding like a dick.

“Kind of.” Peter’s dad sounded unsure again, and Peter cringed; he knew he had to be positive. “I applied, and they had an unexpected opening, so I took it.”

“Good. You’ll be in by winter and won’t have to worry about having snow to shovel or slippery sidewalks.” Yes, this was a bit of a surprise, but it would be good for his dad. Peter had offered to have his dad move in with him, but that had problems of its own. In assisted living, Peter knew there would be people to look after his dad in ways that he couldn’t. Their conversation turned to more normal subjects, and they got caught up with each other. After talking for nearly half an hour, they said good night, and Peter went back to work. Once his paperwork was done, Peter went into the living room and watched television for an hour until it was time for bed.

Peter brushed his teeth and went to the bedroom, sliding himself from his chair to the bed. After making sure the chair was in its place, should he need it, Peter turned out the lights, but couldn’t fall asleep. He thought about turning on his small bedroom television to watch his favorite video, but decided against it and instead rolled onto his side. Just because his legs no longer worked, didn’t mean his heart didn’t, or that other parts of his anatomy weren’t just as vital and healthy as the next man’s. But all he’d had was his hand for three years, and he wanted more. “I’m tired of being invisible.” Peter couldn’t get comfortable and continued to toss in the bed. Finally, he lifted his body, shoving pillows under his back so he could sit up. Reaching to the nightstand, he grabbed the book he’d been reading. When he’d bought it, he hadn’t realized it was a romance, and the ending left him both happy for the characters and sad, because he wanted what they had, but Peter wasn’t sure that was even a possibility for him.

A Slice of Love #4
Chapter One
MARCUS WILSON closed his jacket around his slight body as he walked through the dark, streetlight-lit streets of Carlisle from his small apartment toward downtown. He drank from his large travel mug of coffee, the same mug he’d carried along this same route each morning, regardless of the weather, for the past six months. Taking another gulp of the cooling but still potent brew, Marcus tried to stop the yawn that threatened, but couldn’t. It was four o’clock in the morning, and he was already on his way to work. Everyone else in town was still asleep, the way normal people should be. A car passed him on the street, and Marcus watched it go by. At this time of the morning, in a small town like this, it was unusual for him to see any cars at all. There were times when he wondered why he’d even bothered to rent the apartment. He was never there, except to shower, shave, and occasionally sleep. Marcus took another swig of his coffee and turned onto Hanover Street, walking past the old courthouse, the tower with its clock all lit up to remind him it was some ungodly hour of the morning. Yawning again, he continued on his way.

Even though the sun hadn’t come up yet, Marcus could already tell it was going to be a glorious late-spring day. All the trees he passed were in bloom and smelled sweet and heavenly. He knew by the time he arrived at work, he’d need to shake the petals off his jacket, but that was as close to seeing the blooms as he was going to get. If he were lucky, he’d be able to stumble home at seven or eight that evening, take a shower, and fall into bed, only to start the whole process all over again in the morning.

Marcus crossed the empty intersection at the square in the center of town and then continued walking north for another block. His store was just around the next corner, tucked in between a small clothing store and a karate studio. A Slice of Heaven had been his dream, and six months ago, he’d managed to make his dream come true. Now he was beginning to wonder if it wasn’t closer to a nightmare. After unlocking the door, Marcus opened it and went inside, turning on a light as he made his way to the back room. He didn’t have time to think about all his problems right now. There was bread dough to be made and set out to rise, and doughnuts to be made, and, as he checked his book, Marcus thanked the powers that be—who’d been looking out for him—he had to bake the layers for two wedding cakes to be delivered tomorrow. Granted, that meant he had to make them, but at least it was an order that would bring in a reasonable amount of money.

The first thing Marcus did was start mixing the batches of bread dough, beginning with the ones that would need the most time to rise. He also got the oven turned on and heating, because it would take a while to get up to temperature. No one else would be in for at least two hours, and he had a lot to get done. Marcus began measuring the ingredients into a mixing bowl, putting them in the right order so they would mix properly without a lot of extra coaxing from him. Once that was ready, he started the mixing process.

For almost an hour, Marcus mixed various types of dough, setting them aside to rise before they could be formed into loaves and prepared for the oven. The ones that took a long time to proof had been made up the night before, and they were now ready to go. He began loading the oven with the loaf pans, spacing them evenly before closing the oven door. Marcus set the timer and then began the next set of tasks, sipping from his mug every once in a while.

With the bread underway, Marcus started on the doughnuts. He didn’t make a million varieties, just basic ones, but his were special in that they melted in your mouth. He also made them fresh and never let them get too old. Doughnuts had quickly become one of his best sellers.

Marcus heard the bell on the front door jingle and knew Angie had come in. “Morning,” he called without looking up.

“Morning, Marcus. I brought you a coffee refill,” she told him happily, like she did every morning. She was an absolute godsend and one of the sweetest people he’d ever met.

“Thank you,” he told her, finishing up the coffee he’d brought with him and then placing the mug in the sink. “There’s bread ready to go out into the store, and the doughnut batter is all ready for you.” Everyone asked him what his secret ingredient was with the doughnuts, and, truth be told, it was Angie. She knew exactly how to make them perfectly each time.

“Excellent. We open in half an hour, and that will give me just enough time to get a few batches done for the early morning crowd,” she said, already checking the batter and then making sure the oil in the fryer was up to temperature before getting to work.

There were certain things that would keep well for a day or so, but most of the items Marcus made were only good for twenty-four hours, so he had to be careful not to make too much. He’d also learned the rhythm of the business. First thing in the morning, his customers were after doughnuts and bread to take to work. The case needed to look good, though, because those same people would be back at lunch or in the afternoon when their sweet tooth kicked in, but only if they’d seen something that caught their eye earlier.

As it got closer to opening, Marcus checked that everything was okay for the next few minutes and then went out front to begin setting up. The cases he’d gotten for the store were basically sealed when the doors were closed to help keep his confections and baked goods from drying out. Marcus switched on the display lights and filled the cases with bread, trays of cookies, and a few of the other confectionary delights he’d made the night before. Marcus had already found a few favorites, like the cinnamon rolls that were just about to come out of the oven, as well as his chocolate brownies and dense chocolate cake. He’d also found that he always had to have carrot cake, because he sold at least six cakes a day. But with other things, he was still trying things out to see what his customers liked.

Once the cases were up to snuff and the items he’d made the night before were all placed and looking as appealing as possible, Marcus wiped down the café tables and began setting them on the sidewalk in the shade of one of Carlisle’s street trees. He left two tables inside, and once he was sure everything was clean, he hurried back inside just in time to hear his timer going off. “How are the doughnuts coming?” he asked.

“Perfect as usual,” Angie answered. It was his usual question, and her usual answer. Marcus smiled as he pulled the cinnamon rolls out of the oven and set them aside to cool. In a few minutes, he could ice them and bring them out front. “I have the first batch of doughnuts ready for the case,” Angie told him, and Marcus went to where she was working and lifted the neatly arranged tray of doughnuts, then carried it out front, set it in its usual prominent spot on top of the case, and placed the cover over it.

There was always a lot of work to do in a short period of time, but that was normal. Marcus had tried coming in even earlier, but it meant that he couldn’t function at the end of the day, so he’d had to get more efficient in the mornings. At opening time, Angie came out from the back room, looking every bit the bakery storekeeper. “I’ll get us open if you’ll put the coffee on,” Marcus said, and she reluctantly agreed. “I set everything up, so all you need to do is fill the pots with water and start them.”

“Thank the Lord. They’ll scream if they can’t have the coffee exactly the way you make it,” Angie told him with a smile, already filling the pots as he hurried to the back. Marcus put the petty cash in the register drawer and carried it out front, where he closed the register and set it up. Checking his watch, he smiled. It was 6:29, and they were ready to open. Marcus turned on all the lights and put out the sandwich board on the sidewalk before walking back inside and looking at his bakery from the perspective of a customer. It looked fresh and inviting, and Marcus had to admit it smelled wonderful too, sweet and warm with a touch of spice.

Angie was wiping down the cases the way she always did, and he decided that he should take advantage of what he hoped was a momentary lull and get started on the cake layers he would need. Angie could take care of things for the next hour or so. The only thing that would pull her away would be if she started running low on doughnuts, and then he would switch places with her while she made more. Marcus began weighing out the ingredients he’d need for his cake orders as he heard the bell on the front door.

Marcus had done his training at a large bakery in Philadelphia, and the head baker had drilled into him how to do things as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Before he’d measured out a single ingredient, he already knew what he needed to make for the entire day, and he mixed the batter he needed for everything all at once. He also checked what he already had, making sure to rotate any extra cake layers.

“Marcus?” Angie called quietly from the door. “Will we be able to complete an order for three eight-inch carrot cakes for this afternoon? She’d like to pick them up at four.”

“Of course,” Marcus answered, “just have her fill out the order sheet, and I’ll have them ready.” Marcus knew Angie didn’t need to be told what to do. He also knew she was putting on a bit of a show for the customer, making them feel special because of the same-day order. Marcus stopped measuring and waited a few minutes before going out front to collect the completed order. Thanking the customer, he went back into the kitchen and adjusted the ingredient amounts, adding what he needed for the additional cakes as well as some for the store.

The bell on the front door jingled almost constantly as he got his pans ready. Once the batter was mixed, Marcus measured out enough for each size cake layer and filled the cake pans. Over the years, he’d gotten very efficient at it, and soon the layers were in the oven. Baking was what he loved to do and why he’d opened the business in the first place. Taking a break, Marcus walked to the front of the store to check on the cases and see if anything else was needed. “What happened?” Marcus asked as he peered into the half-empty cases. “It’s only been an hour.”

“One of the ladies came in for something to serve her guests at a luncheon party and she bought quite a bit,” Angie answered with a smile, as the bell jingled on the door and she got ready to help another customer. Marcus went back into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to pull out more of the chocolate and fruit tarts to replace what had sold. He also made a note to put together more carrot cakes. They’d already sold two—no, make that three, Marcus thought as he saw Angie carrying one back to him. “Can you write ‘Happy Birthday Sarah’ in pink on this cake for the customer?”

“Give me just a minute,” Marcus said, completing his notes before retrieving the pastry bag of colored icing, personalizing the cake, and then returning to what he had been doing.

For the next few hours, he worked to get everything completed and ready. Angie left at noon, and he had to have everything possible done by then because he would be alone for the next few hours, until Becky came in after school. By the time noon came around, Marcus had everything out of the oven cooling, and the cases had been cleaned and filled.

“I’m heading home,” Angie said from the doorway to the store before leaning in and lowering her voice. “You might want to empty the register,” she added with a grin before waiting for him to take off his apron and join her out front. She said good-bye, giving Marcus a hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow, sweetheart, and don’t stay too late tonight,” she scolded lightly before leaving the shop.

Marcus wanted to roll his eyes at her, but he didn’t dare. Angie had been one of his mother’s dearest friends, and when he’d opened the bakery, she had insisted on helping him. She’d put some of her own money into the business and hadn’t taken a dime in six months. There was no way he could ever have made it this far without her. More customers entered the store, and he helped them. It was the lunch hour, and while he still sold pastries and doughnuts, his bread sales also picked up. He and Angie had debated making bread at first, but in a town this size, if they didn’t make some of everything, they weren’t going to survive.

In the afternoon, the store quieted down and Marcus used the time to inventory what he had and get a supply order ready. He was just finishing up when he heard the bell jingle. “Hey, how are my best customers?” Marcus asked as Davey and Donnie walked in, along with their older brother, Billy. Marcus guessed that the twins were about ten or so. Billy was a waiter at Café Belgie across the street, where his partner was the chef and owner.

“Good,” they both answered, hurrying up to the case so they could peer inside. Marcus saw both of the boys lick their lips in delight, the way they always seemed to. “Billy brought us over for cinnamon rolls,” Davey told him, and Marcus looked to Billy for confirmation.

“We need half a dozen,” Billy confirmed, leaning against the counter. “How has business been?” Billy asked. “This seems to be a tough town for bakeries.”

“Sales are picking up,” Marcus answered without adding that he wished they’d pick up a little more. He knew it would take time for word of mouth to get going, but….

“That’s really good. I sometimes get asked about you by patrons at the restaurant, and I always send them over,” Billy told him while Marcus got a box and carefully placed six cinnamon rolls inside. He also reached into the cookie case and grabbed a chocolate chip cookie for each of the boys.

“Thank you,” they both said before taking a bite.

“Can I get you anything else?” Marcus asked, already knowing the answer. Billy and Darryl had a full-time pastry chef who did all the desserts for their two restaurants, so they rarely bought anything other than cinnamon rolls. But Marcus had found out that Billy loved his carrot cake. “Some carrot cake?” he suggested, and Marcus saw Billy hesitate.

“Can I order one for tomorrow?” Billy asked.

“Of course,” Marcus said, quickly filling out an order sheet. Then he rang up Billy’s purchase, and after completing the transaction, they left the store, the boys waving good-bye.

Marcus took a deep breath and got himself a cup of coffee before checking that everything was where he needed it to be. His cake layers had cooled, and he could assemble and ice them later. His work area was clean, and everything had been prepped for what he needed to do later. Marcus took a last look around as he heard the front door open. When he came out front, he found the mail sitting on the counter and the mailman already heading for the door. “Have a good day,” Marcus called just before the door closed. He saw the postman wave as he passed in front of the windows, and Marcus picked up the mail and thumbed through the pile slowly.

His mail was divided into two things: junk and bills. The junk he threw away, and the bills, well, he placed those aside for now as his stomach clenched. He knew he had to spend some time with the books that afternoon, and he needed to go through his finances carefully, but he wasn’t expecting a miracle. He only had a few more months before the money he had left would be gone. There was an old joke about how to make a small fortune in the bakery business—start with a large fortune and open a bakery. Marcus stopped himself from panicking. He needed to get the books done and balance the bank statement that had also come in the mail. Then he’d know where they were. He needed additional business, somehow, and he needed it fast.

“Hi, Becky,” Marcus called as Becky, his afternoon helper, walked into the store. After stowing her purse and school bag in the back, she joined him out front. Marcus gave her a rundown on what was happening before disappearing into the back room. Getting out his carrot cake layers, he put together three eight-inch cakes and skim-coated them with cream cheese icing before placing them in the refrigerator to chill. He then started on the wedding cake layers, doing the bottom layers for both before placing them in the refrigerator. Then he pulled out the carrot cakes again, iced and finished them before carrying them to the pickup portion of the refrigerator. They’d get boxed up to go later.

He then went back to work on the wedding cakes. He needed to get all the tiers built, frosted, and chilling so he could finish the construction and decorating. It took a while, but he got everything ready for final decoration and into the refrigerator.

Marcus was exhausted, and he still had the books to do. Becky came back and got the three carrot cakes, and he went out front to greet the customer. It was a woman who looked about fifty-five, dressed impeccably. “Your carrot cake is amazing. It reminds me of what my mother used to make.”

“Thank you. I use only fresh ingredients, just like your mother probably did,” Marcus explained.

“I’m having a party next week—could I place my order for the cake today?”

“Certainly,” Marcus answered, and he got the details of what she wanted, placed the order in the file, and then thanked the customer as he walked her to the door and held it for her.

“You’re quite the charmer, Mr. Wilson,” Becky commented with a sly grin. “If you decide to bottle it, my boyfriend could use some, that’s for sure.” Becky began wiping down the tables the way she’d been taught.

Marcus smiled and returned to the kitchen. In the far corner, he’d set up a small desk, and he fished in his pocket for the keys to the file drawer. After opening it, he pulled out his ledgers, checkbook, and statements before sitting down and getting to the very unpleasant task. There was never enough money, and while he hadn’t lied to Billy—business had been steadily picking up—he wasn’t yet making enough money to keep from constantly dipping into his dwindling supply of cash. He entered all the bills in his ledger and balanced the business checkbook with the bank statements. The last week or so had been pretty good, business-wise, and Marcus hoped that would turn into a new normal, but it still wasn’t quite enough, and Becky was the only person getting paid right now. When Marcus factored in his rent and meager expenses, he figured he had enough cash on hand for three more months.

He worked at his desk for another hour, making sure he knew everything, and trying to figure out what he could do to make everything work out, but it came down to one thing: he needed to generate more business. But could he actually handle more business? He was already working all the hours he possibly could. In order to make more, so he could sell more, he’d have to hire someone, but without the additional business, he didn’t have the money to hire anyone, let alone keep himself from starving.

“Mr. Wilson, I found this on the floor,” Becky said from behind him, and Marcus wiped some of the fear and desperation he was feeling off his face before turning toward her. “I think it’s from the mail.”

“Thank you,” Marcus said as he took the brochure. “It’s nearly time to close,” he added, glancing at the clock.

“I have everything cleaned up, and we can probably begin removing things from the cases anytime. There are more cake orders for tomorrow. I placed them with your book, and a woman who just left wanted to book an appointment for a wedding cake,” Becky told him.

“You’re an amazing girl, you know that? Most sixteen-year-olds are not nearly as responsible as you,” Marcus said, thankful he had good, honest, caring people to work with.

“Thank you, Mr. Wilson,” she said, shifting from foot to foot.

“Is there something you wanted to ask me?” Marcus asked. He’d rarely seen her nervous about anything.

“I’d like to learn how to bake, and I was wondering if you could teach me,” Becky said. “I know you need me out front, but I was hoping that if… well, maybe on Saturdays, when Gran’s here too, that I could help you.”

He could certainly use all the help he could get. “Why don’t we give it a try on Saturday and see how it goes?” Marcus told her before closing his books and following her to the front so they could start closing up. The whole process didn’t take long, and soon Marcus was saying good night to Becky and locking the door. Then he recorded the orders Becky had taken and marked the wedding cake appointment on the calendar, noting what he had to do in the morning before getting a jump on the day ahead.

Marcus managed to get one of the wedding cakes done and the other nearly finished, as well as some items made for the store, before exhaustion caught up with him. Once he’d cleaned everything up, Marcus grabbed a few papers he wanted to review at home before turning out the lights and leaving through the front door. On his way home, he dropped the day’s receipts at the bank before continuing home on the slightly crisp evening. As he walked, he realized he’d dropped something. Turning around, he saw it was the brochure Becky had given him for the Harrisburg Bridal Show. He shoved it back into the papers he was carrying before continuing on.

He wasn’t in a rush to get home to his empty apartment. The town square was filled with people walking or sitting on benches, enjoying the spring warmth in the evening air. Marcus would have loved to take a seat and enjoy the evening, but he still had work to do tonight so he could go back to the store in the morning and get everything done he needed to.

“Hi, Marcus,” Sebastian called from across the street, and he stopped as the head waiter from Café Belgie hurried to meet him. “Are you headed home?” He and Sebastian had known each other for a while, but it was becoming neighbors that had made them friends.

“Yes. I just closed the bakery,” Marcus supplied as they fell into step, heading one block south before turning onto Pomfret Street. Marcus sighed softly. He was so tired his eyes were closing as he walked. “These days are killing me. Thank goodness the bakery is closed on Sunday and Monday.” He usually spent most of at least one day sleeping.

“When do you have time for yourself?” Sebastian asked, and Marcus groaned softly.

“I barely have time to shower and eat. On my days off, I plan what I’ll be doing the rest of the week.” Marcus yawned and covered his mouth. “I haven’t had a meal with friends in six months, and don’t get me started on the fact that other than customers, I haven’t interacted with another man in so long I’ve almost forgotten what they look like. Even if I could get a date, I couldn’t find the time, and if he took me to dinner, I’d fall asleep in my soup.”

“It sounds like you need some help at the bakery,” Sebastian observed as they approached the next corner.

“I do, but I’m in an impossible situation,” Marcus explained as they crossed the street. “I need the business to grow, but that means more labor than I can afford right now. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to hire some help, but right now I’m stuck.” Marcus knew exactly where he was at, a catch-22 that he didn’t see an easy way out of.

“You know if there’s anything we can do to help, Robert and I will,” Sebastian said. “He’s addicted to your cinnamon rolls, and would probably issue a ruling from the bench to keep them coming.” Sebastian’s partner, Robert, had been elected a judge about a year ago.

“More than anything I need to bring in more business for things like my cakes and cheesecakes. I can make them in larger quantities, and they sell for an amount that really makes the effort worthwhile. I’m just not sure how to do it.” They reached the steps to Sebastian’s place, and Marcus stopped. “There’s a market on the square, and I’ve thought of trying to sell things there, but then I’d be away from the store.”

“I hope you work it out,” Sebastian told him. “Your stuff is the best there is. Even Maureen says so, and she doesn’t compliment anyone else’s baked goods.” He winked when he mentioned the pastry chef at Café Belgie. She’d been in the shop a few times and had seemed pleased. “I’ll see you soon,” Sebastian said as he unlocked his front door, and Marcus said good-bye as well before heading into his building and up the stairs to his apartment in the back.

Inside, Marcus set his papers on the small table and found something to eat. While the microwave heated his dinner, he sat at the table and went through the papers he’d brought home. Most of it was junk he threw in the trash, but the flier for the wedding show caught his eye. That would be a way to bring in extra business. He thought about it, but like everything else, there was a cost and it appeared to be rather high. Also, in order to do the show, he’d have to close the store, so he’d not only be into it for the booth rental, but would lose a day’s business at the store, as well. The timer went off, and he got up, took the plastic container of stir-fry out of the microwave and brought it back to the table. He really wished he wasn’t doing this on his own. That hadn’t been the original business plan, but it was the way things were now. Not letting himself dwell on it, Marcus got one of those individual-serving containers of milk out of the refrigerator. While he ate, he went through the rest of the business mail as well as his own before cleaning up and heading into the living room. He turned on his television, found a channel that worked, and settled down to watch.

It felt amazingly blissful to just sit down for a few minutes. When his phone rang, Marcus nearly didn’t bother answering it, but when he looked at his cell, the display read “The General,” and he knew he’d better answer it. “Hi, Dad,” Marcus said after pressing the connect button.

“Did you just get home from work?” his father asked without a hint of concern about the late hour. He might as well have been asking if Marcus had just finished taking out the trash.

“Yes. I was at the bakery by four this morning,” he supplied, not that his father would care.

“When I took Green Beret training, we regularly spent eighteen hours a day working,” his father said.

“Yeah, I know, and when you were young, you walked to school through the snow without shoes, uphill, both ways. Yeah, I get it.” Marcus was feeling grumpy and not really up for his father’s self-aggrandizing at this particular moment.

“Don’t be smart,” his father snapped.

“Did you call for a reason, or simply to harass me after I’ve worked for sixteen hours and need to get up early tomorrow to do it all over again?” Damn, he sounded whiny, and he hated that. He loved his job, and he loved the bakery. There were times when he wished he had a more normal life, but he’d chosen to do this and he was going to see it through. “What did you need, Dad?” Marcus added, changing his tone.

“I would like you to come to a family dinner on Sunday.” That meant that Katherine, Marcus’s stepmother, had invited her children over for dinner, and his father, not to be left out, planned to have his son there was well. The invitation might have been phrased politely, but it was an order and Marcus knew it. He hated these things. His stepbrothers and even one of his stepsisters were officers in various branches of the military, exactly what his father had hoped for him.

“What time?” Marcus asked, too tired to argue with him. He knew there would be hell to pay one way or another if he didn’t agree, anyway, so he made it easier on himself.

“Drinks are at five with dinner at six,” his father informed him in a tone that said Marcus should very well know that. “I’ll see you then.” His father hung up, and Marcus set the phone by the chair. After turning off the television, Marcus turned out the lights and walked to the bathroom. It was barely eight thirty, but he was exhausted and he needed to get to bed. He tossed his dirty clothes in the hamper and showered quickly before getting into his side of the bed and then turning off the light. Why he still slept on one side of the bed, Marcus wished he knew, but he did. Maybe it was his mind’s way of telling him that somewhere down under the exhaustion, worry, and drive to make his business a success, there was a man who simply wanted to find someone to love and love him back. Marcus sincerely hoped he was out there, but had no idea how he was ever going to find him. Closing his eyes, he let his exhaustion take over.

Author Bio:
Andrew grew up in western Michigan with a father who loved to tell stories and a mother who loved to read them. Since then he has lived throughout the country and traveled throughout the world. He has a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now writes full time.

Andrew’s hobbies include collecting antiques, gardening, and leaving his dirty dishes anywhere but in the sink (particularly when writing)  He considers himself blessed with an accepting family, fantastic friends, and the world’s most supportive and loving partner. Andrew currently lives in beautiful, historic Carlisle, Pennsylvania.


A Taste of Love #1

A Serving of Love #2

A Helping of Love #3

A Slice of Love #4