Down the hall, the elevator door dinged open. Chris sprang up as he heard the distinctive sound of a cart being wheeled out. Before he could stop himself, he was out the door and around the corner.
Manu stopped when he saw him. He had a weird expression on his face. Probably because Chris looked like an idiot standing there flushed, awkward as a teenager.
He took a deep breath. “Hey. Hi. Look, I thought… I mean, as an apology for, you know, for being kind of an ass… Well, anyway, do you get a lunch?”
“Lunch?” Manu’s mouth twitched. Chris wasn’t sure if he was irritated or trying not to smile.
Might as well keep going. He’d already made a fool of himself. And if it backfired, he could always quit the late nights at the lab. Get some sleep. “I’ve got sandwiches. If you’re hungry, I mean.” He made a vague gesture in the direction of the lab. “Pastrami. From a deli downtown.”
“From Hornstein’s?” Manu raised his eyebrows.
Chris nodded, then stopped when he realized his head was bouncing up and down like one of those dogs in the back of a car.
“Hornstein’s.” Manu smiled. “I haven’t had a sandwich from them in years. I wonder if they’re as good as I remember.”
“They’re good.” Chris shrugged. “I mean, not like at a New York deli, but this is the Midwest.”
“It sure is.” Manu looked at Chris for a long moment, then glanced at his watch. “I don’t usually take a lunch. It’s hard to get both buildings cleaned in eight hours, but I can’t turn down a Hornstein’s sandwich. Are you sure you won’t be mad if I eat and run?”
Chris shook his head. He knew his grin was out of proportion to the fifteen minutes or so that he was being offered, but it felt like the perfect cap to a perfect day. Maybe things really were looking up.
“Okay.” Manu blew air out between his lips. “I’ll quickly finish this floor and meet you in your lab. Say half an hour?”
“Yeah. Yeah. That’s great.” Chris grinned at Manu.
When Chris didn’t move, Manu raised an eyebrow. “I, um, I need to get going if I’m going to…”
“Oh yeah. Of course.” Chris gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. “I’ll be in there. I mean, whenever you’re ready.” He turned and fled back into his lab, not sure if the fact that Manu really did look like he was about to laugh was a good thing or a bad thing. Social skills. Wouldn’t those be nice to have? Chris had never been smooth around attractive men. And apparently, he’d gotten even more awkward over the past few celibate years.
Chris spent the next half hour clearing equipment and papers from the lab table farthest from the active part of the lab. Although his own nose had gotten used to it long ago, he knew the lab smelled of ethyl alcohol, which might not be the best aroma for dinner. Hard, twirling stools, a cold lab bench, fluorescent lights, chemical smell—not the makings of a perfect first date. Not that it was a date, of course. Just a sandwich he’d gotten for a guy he needed to apologize to. A very nice-looking guy at that. Who he knew virtually nothing about.
What better way to get to know someone than to eat with them? Because this wasn’t weird, not at all. Inviting the janitor to dinner in the lab—people must do it all the time. Cleanliness Appreciation Day. He laid out a sandwich, chips, a pickle, and a warm bottle of water at each of their places. No, not weird at all.
Chris went back to grading, but he didn’t even pretend to himself that he was concentrating. Instead he stared at the same page, with his pen poised and his ears open, waiting for Manu to appear. Good thing his life wasn’t pathetic.
* * * *
That was unexpected. For the next thirty minutes, Manu worked like a trash-dumping, toilet-scrubbing machine. The floor might not be as spotless as usual, but there was no way he was letting that get in the way of his date with destiny, or, if not destiny, then one fucking hot scientist. If Manu had read Chris’s body language correctly, maybe the pull he’d felt before wasn’t a figment of his imagination.
Manu wasn’t the relationship type. Which was good since he wouldn’t be sticking around Bay Valley any longer than he had to. But he wasn’t in the mood to turn down a hot date. And with any luck, Chris hadn’t really brought sandwiches as an apology, but as an invitation.
Not that twenty minutes and a pastrami sandwich added up to much of a date. But that was more than Manu had had in a long time. It had never been easy for him to open up to new men, but between work and his trips back and forth between New York and the Midwest over the past year of his mom’s illness, his social life had taken a serious hit. He should let that drought continue, at least while he was in Bay Valley sitting deathwatch over his mom. It wasn’t like he even had time for a one-night stand. Or even half an hour in the middle of the night when he should be scrubbing toilets. But none of that mattered. It had been so long since Manu had something to look forward to. Even if it was just sandwiches and a short conversation with an attractive man, it was a welcome break from the relentless slog that had been his life lately.
He washed his hands and took a look at himself in the bathroom mirror. Still the same thirty-four-year-old Manu. The beginnings of crow’s feet, but no gray hair, and he could pass for late twenties if the lights weren’t too bright. Except Chris spent his days with twinks. That was a sobering thought.
Manu took a deep breath and let it out. This wasn’t a date, just a getting-to-know-you snack. If he was reading it all the wrong way, he could back out easily and save face. They both could. He finger-combed his hair, squared his shoulders, left the cart outside the men’s room, and walked back toward Chris’s lab for whatever the next few minutes held.
Manu paused just outside the lab door and looked in. Chris sat with his head bent over a stack of papers. He was twirling a pen around and around between fingers and thumb. The man was culturally insensitive, possibly racist, probably arrogant, but absolutely gorgeous. Manu rapped his knuckles on the door frame, and Chris looked up. And beamed. That smile was worth all the effort of running through work.
Manu walked into the lab. “Hey.”
“Come in.” Chris jumped up. He gestured toward a part of the lab bench where he’d set food out at two places. Yeah. Definitely date-like.
“Thanks for this. I’m sorry I only have a few minutes.” Manu waved his hand in the general direction of the hallway and the rest of his work.
“Yeah. Of course. I get that. I just wanted to…you know…say I’m sorry and…” He trailed off as Manu sat down. Chris took the other seat. He looked profoundly uncomfortable. Maybe Manu could cross arrogant off the list.
“This looks great.” Manu picked up the napkin beside his sandwich and unfolded it in his lap. “I’m starving.”
“Good.” The word came out in a rush of air. Chris fussed with his sandwich. Poor guy was nervous. He asked, “So where are you from?”
Shit. Just when it was going so well. Chris just couldn’t keep his foot out of it. Manu put his sandwich back down untasted. “Do you mean where did my immigrant mother come from?”
“No. That’s not what I meant.” Chris closed his eyes and shook his head. After a moment, he opened them and looked at Manu. “I’m just trying to make conversation. I said I was sorry, that I was trying not to be an asshole.”
“Sorry.” Manu picked the sandwich back up. “I’m not usually overly sensitive. I think it’s being back here. Life wasn’t so great for me when I was a student.”
“You’re an alum?” Chris cocked his head and considered him. This time Manu couldn’t take offense. It wasn’t like Chris was catching him at his professional best these days.
“Class of ’06. Took me a couple of extra years to graduate, but I did it in the end.” He took a bite of the sandwich. It wasn’t quite as good as he remembered, but then, since he’d last had a Hornstein’s sandwich, he’d gotten spoiled by Katz’s in New York. He chewed and swallowed. “This is good. Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” Chris picked at the crust of his sandwich. He met Manu’s gaze. Again, there was that unexpected heat. Chris held the gaze for a moment, then looked away. He cleared his throat. “So where have you been the past ten years? I mean, I know you haven’t been working here. I would have noticed.”
Manu raised an eyebrow, acknowledging the compliment. “Mostly in New York.”
“New York?” Chris looked taken aback. He glanced down at his sandwich. “I guess this isn’t up to your standards, then.”
“It’s great. It tastes like home.” He paused. That was true on two levels. For one, nothing said New York quite like a deli sandwich. But on the other hand… He hefted the sandwich. “This reminds me of special occasions. I grew up on these. Hornstein’s was where I always made my mom take me for my birthday.”
“What are you doing working here if you live in New York?”
“Long story.” Manu gestured toward Chris. “Now it’s your turn. Where are you from?” He took a huge bite of the sandwich. It tasted better laced with the memory of sitting in the park with his mom, picnicking on pastrami and rye.
The laugh lines deepened at the corners of Chris’s eyes. “Let’s see. One great grandfather came from Norway, and my mom’s family is mostly Irish.”
Manu smiled. “Touché. How about more recently?”
“I was born in Los Angeles, but my family moved to Colorado when I was six.”
Manu’s grin widened. “That explains your bad Spanish. If you’d stayed in LA, you’d be more fluent.”
“Oh, speaking to you in Spanish.” Chris’s cheeks flamed red. “That was so embarrassing.”
“It got my attention.” Manu put his sandwich down and held Chris’s gaze. Time to see where this was all going. “Although, you had that before you even opened your mouth.”
Chris’s eyes widened. His lips parted as the energy that had been smoldering between them burst into flame.
Eventually Manu broke the gaze. He glanced at the wall clock. He’d already stayed ten minutes longer than he should have. Then he felt the touch of Chris’s hand on his, and he didn’t care. He stared at Chris’s lips.
Which moved enticingly as Chris whispered, “If I’m out of line, please stop me. But can I kiss you?”