A squeal echoed in the house, and a moment later Wyatt bounded up to the screen door. “Hi, Dad.” He fumbled with the latch, then eased open the aluminum door. Unlike most kids his age, Wyatt sounded loud and boisterous, but he also acted very reserved. He wasn’t the type to slam doors or to stomp his feet, but he loved to whoop and holler. He shoved his book bag into Ashley’s hands.
“Hi, tot.” He tossed the backpack over his shoulder. “Were you good for Mrs. Learner?”
“Yes.” Wyatt grinned and batted his lashes. “I even helped pick up when I didn’t make the mess.”
“That’s true,” Mrs. Learner said. “You helped me put away the dishes too.”
“I did.” Wyatt grabbed his father’s hand and swung Ashley’s arm. “I’m hungry.”
“Then it’s a good thing we’re going to the diner.” He slid the folded-up money from his pocket and handed the twenty to the babysitter. “Thanks, Mrs. Learner. We’ll see you next week.”
“Bye,” Wyatt called, and led his father to the car. “Why are we goin’ to the diner? We never go out on a school night.”
“I thought we’d do something different.” Ashley opened the car door for Wyatt. “Get into your seat and put on your belt.”
Wyatt did as told and kicked his feet. “I’m goin’ to get a cheeseburger.”
“Oh you are?” He closed the door, then rounded the car and plopped behind the wheel. He glanced up at Wyatt’s reflection in the rearview mirror. His son reminded him of Danica in so many ways. He’d inherited her thick, long lashes and her blue eyes. The kid shared her sense of humor and her blonde hair.
Ashley drove the five blocks to the diner and parked. Before he opened his door, he glanced back at Wyatt.
“What?” Wyatt wriggled in his car seat. “I was good. Promise.”
“I know you were.” He stared at his son. The kid kept amazing him. He wanted to draw the look of wonder on Wyatt’s face. Because of Wyatt, he looked at life with fresh eyes.
“What?” Wyatt asked. He stared at his father. “What’d I do?”
“Nothing. I’m just looking at you.” He pulled his phone from his pocket. “Smile, punk.”
“Dad.” Wyatt rolled his eyes, then cooperated. First a cheesy grin, then one of his normal smiles—the one that brought out the dimple in his left cheek. “Will there be kids there?” He pointed to the diner. “Huh?”
“Gage from the bookstore will be there. You’re friends with him.” He put the phone away and tugged the keys from the ignition. “Right?”
“Yeah. Can I bring my tablet? I wanted to show him my new game.”
“No, leave it with my school stuff so it doesn’t get taken from the car.” He tossed his jacket into the backseat over the bag and the tablet. “Come on.”
“Ugh.” Wyatt climbed out of the car and sulked his way into the restaurant.
“Don’t get snippy with me,” Ashley growled. “I can turn right around and take you home.”
“I’m going to get bored.” Wyatt folded his arms. For being six, he could grump like a kid twice his age.
“You’re going to eat and behave. If you do, you’ll get your tablet back. If not, it’s mine for the rest of the week. Got me?”
“Yes, Dad.” Wyatt lowered his shoulders and head but didn’t complain further.
Ashley led the way across the diner to Steve and Farin. They all had at least one friend at the diner. He nudged Wyatt to the end of the table. Nervous jitters filled him. He’d just been with these guys in the meeting and had been fine. Now, on friendlier terms, he wasn’t sure what the hell he felt. Scared? Worried? Why? They weren’t going to bite him.
He knew. He was in a situation with people he respected but wasn’t convinced he could completely trust. The last time he’d made a solid friendship, she’d died. Danica, although she’d been his most valued co-conspirator, hadn’t been able to go the distance. Damn cancer. Then there’d been Lane. The prick. He should’ve known Lane would be a dead end, but he’d listened to Danica. She kept telling him they’d make a great couple. At first, he and Lane were perfect for each other. Then the shit hit the fan and he saw Lane’s true colors. Lane couldn’t handle sharing Ashley with Danica when the cancer got bad. When she died, Lane walked. He refused to be a dad. So much for happy endings. Ashley massaged his temples. He needed to focus on the present, not the past, so maybe he could find his future. He smiled at the group at the table.
“There’s the man of the hour.” Steve stood first. “I wondered if you’d gotten lost.” He grinned. He might have been a mild-mannered teacher, but Steve could’ve made a killing in modeling. He worked the nerdy-chic look well, although Ashley preferred his friend in the horn-rimmed glasses versus the contacts, but whatever. He wasn’t the one in bed with Steve Moore.
“Colt?” Steve nodded. “We’re ready when you are.” He waved his hand, then settled in his chair. “The service here is fantastic—especially when you know the owner. Farin and I come here way too often.”
Colt? The owner? Ashley sank onto the closest chair and gripped the edge of the table. Colt Harrison. Even thinking the man’s name gave Ashley shivers. When he caught sight of the diner owner, his heart hammered. Unlike most of the guys Ashley knew, Colt wasn’t blatant about his sexuality. He didn’t seem to have tons of female or male friends fawning around him, but he reminded Ashley of a movie star. Where Steve had the boy-next-door good looks, Colt was more like a bona fide sex symbol. From his just-out-of-bed blond hair in the perfect waves, to his blue eyes and that muscled body… Ashley couldn’t expect Colton to be attracted to him, but if there was a chance for miracles, he desired to be with Colt.
Of course he’d have to gain Colt’s attention if he wanted to get together—like that would happen. Colt probably had a girlfriend or boyfriend and wasn’t looking for a replacement. He tucked those thoughts away for now. He wasn’t going to pine for a guy he was pretty certain wasn’t available. Hell, Ashley wasn’t even sure the guy was gay.
Coming out in Cedarwood had become a bit easier, but just a little bit. The coalition against gay people had gotten stronger, but Colin and his small group of unwanteds refused to be driven out of town. Ashley still had his job at the school, despite the district knowing he was gay. Would they let him go? He couldn’t be sure. What he did know was as long as he kept his job, he’d be fine. If the district decided to rescind his tenure, then he’d have to find another job. If he was nothing else, he was a survivor.
Ashley sat at the table with his son, his friends from the support group, and their children, and pondered his future. He’d been asked at group what he wanted from his life. When he looked at the people around him, he knew—he wanted a job that he loved, his son, and a partner. Having friends was right up there on the list, but most of all what he wanted was to be happy. Unfortunately, hoping for happiness wouldn’t warm the chilly nights.