Icy winter wind swirled dry leaves around Zach Jensen’s feet as the first fat snowflakes drifted down from the bleak February sky. Shrugging deeper into his jacket, Zach pushed open the door of Bean Readin’, the bookstore/coffee bar he’d owned for the past twelve years. He could still remember when the time and effort he and Jay had put into the place had been more love than labor. But those days were gone. Jay was gone, and now it was just him.
After closing the door against the cold, he paused and inhaled the rich aroma of coffee mingled with the scents of ink and paper and glue, the smell of books, a smell he’d come to love and loathe in equal measure.
He looked around at everything that was so familiar. Part of him still expected Jay to come walking out of the back of the store or to appear from around the end of the biography section. His lips parted, Jay’s name on the tip of his tongue when the realization, and with it the grief, hit him like a freight train. He gasped and, closing his eyes, gripped the edge of the front counter to keep from staggering under its force.
How was it even now, two years after Jay’s death, the memories could still hit so hard and so unexpectedly, triggered by something as familiar as the scent of good French roast? Wasn’t grief supposed to become easier to bear with time?
He didn’t know.
“Are you okay?” A strong hand gripped Zach’s arm, steadying him. A quiet voice, filled with concern, spoke next to his ear.
Before he had time to think, Zach reached out and gripped the hand. “Jay?”
His eyes snapped open. Except it wasn’t Jay; of course it wasn’t.
Idiot. Jay is dead.
Zach found himself face-to-face with a slim blond man in his early twenties, a stranger.
Customer, Zach realized with the part of his brain not addled by grief and confusion. He dug for the friendly but professional veneer he wore here in the store, his game face. He’d just about managed to drag it into place when he realized his mistake. This guy was no customer. It was still way too early for customers.
“Sorry, not Jay.” The blond held out his hand, a long, slim hand that, only a moment before, had been gripping Zach’s arm. “I’m Keith Harte. And you must be Zach.”
This must be the new kid Rhonna had been threatening to hire. Looked like she’d gone ahead and done it.
Great. So now he’d made an idiot of himself in front of his new employee. Way to make a first impression, man
Zach stared at the hand. Civility dictated that he take it, so he did. Keith Harte’s grip was firm, the hand warm and dry, a fine handshake. And a good-looking guy too, Zach’s brain piped up.
That part of his brain, the part that still noticed the way tight pants hugged a particularly fine ass, would not be so easily silenced.
Look at those gorgeous eyes, it went on, and those pretty, pouty lips. Imagine how they would feel wrapped around your -?
So much for the idea that he’d successfully muzzled that voice in his head, only letting it out on the rare occasions when the company of his right hand wasn’t quite enough. Clearly, he’d been wrong.
“Um, if you don’t mind me asking, who’s Jay? I don't think I've met him yet.”
Shit. Not only had he been staring at the man’s mouth, but he was also still holding his hand.
He dropped the hand and stepped back, putting some much-needed space between them. “Nobody. Forget it. I was having a senior moment.”
Keith laughed, a warm, sexy chuckle. “I don’t think you’re allowed senior moments at...what, thirty-four? Thirty-five?”
Keith’s gaze slid down Zach’s body, appreciation clear in his eyes.
“I’m thirty-eight.” And too old for you.
Even if, and maybe because, that look had made his belly flutter.
“Even so, I think the rule is you have to be at least forty before you’re allowed senior moments.” Keith’s gaze settled on Zach’s mouth.
Zach licked his lips. Just a reflex, he told himself.
“Rhonna didn’t tell me you were starting today.”
Or at all
Of course he remembered the conversation they’d had, the one where Rhonna said they needed to hire someone full-time now that the two part-time college kids had returned to school. The same conversation during which he’d said they could manage just fine with only the two of them. She hadn’t agreed, and here, standing in front of him, was the result.
“Oh. Well...I am. I’m going to be running the coffee bar mostly, I think.” He paused. “Barista boy at your service.” He made a ta-da gesture with his hands and smiled. That smile took his all-American good looks to something close to angelic.
Zach’s cock stirred and began to fill. “Oh, well, that’s fine.” He shifted his stance, but apparently not in time. Keith’s gaze dropped from his face to his crotch, then just as quickly slid back up. “Guess I’ll let you get to it then.”
“Okay. Sure.” Another pause. “Can I maybe get you some coffee? A latte? Anything?”
Anything? Yeah, anything would suit me just fine.
“Coffee would be good.”
“Okay.” Keith hesitated. He seemed on the verge of saying something more, then didn’t. He turned and walked toward the rear of the store, disappearing into the cafe.
Zach’s gaze followed, drawn by that firm, round ass in those black chinos, like iron filings to a magnet.
Once Keith was gone, Zach took a breath. It did nothing to banish the images racing around in his head or quell his growing erection. Okay. Fine. So what if the guy Rhonna had hired had a nice ass, and eyes the color of good scotch? So what if looking at Keith Harte made him think of Jay and all the things that had been missing from his life since his partner’s death?
The two men looked nothing alike, not really. Except for their height, around five-eight or so, Zach guessed. And both had similar body types, lithe and slim with long, lean muscles. Was Keith a runner, like Jay had been?
Then there were the hands. Those graceful hands that Keith used so freely when he talked, just like Jay. No wonder Zach could already imagine those hands on him, the long fingers stroking his prick, teasing the orgasm up from his balls. So what? Zach was not looking to get laid, especially not by one of his employees. So no problem, right? Right.
When Zach heard Keith returning with his coffee, he busied himself with the cash drawer. After breaking open a roll of quarters he didn’t need, he spilled them into the tray, the metallic jingle very loud in the quiet store. Very deliberately he kept his gaze focused on the money.
He. Would. Not. Look. Up.
“Where do you want it?” Keith asked.
Zach looked up.
In one hand Keith held a large white mug. In the other he held a doughnut. There was the smile again, lighting up his whole face. A return smile tugged at Zach’s lips. “I brought you a doughnut. They’re store-bought, but...I hope you like chocolate glazed.”
“Chocolate glazed is good.” Zach heard his own voice as if from far, far away and gave in to the smile.
He was so fucked.
He stayed clear of the cafe for the rest of the morning. His thoughts, however, were not so disciplined.
Twice Keith brought him refills on his coffee. The third time he appeared, Zach knew he had to say something.
“If I drink any more coffee, I think I might have to go out and run around the block a few times. Either that or crawl right out of my skin.”
Keith looked at the mug in his hand. “Oh, would you rather have decaf?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
Keith sipped from the coffee meant for Zach, then lowered the cup and set it on the counter. “It’s pretty quiet back there. I guess it’ll take some time before people realize the cafe is open again.”
“I guess.” Zach straightened a row of books that didn’t need straightening.
“So maybe I could do something else in the meantime, if you want.”
“There’s always a hundred things need doing around here, but you don’t really have to.”
For a moment Zach let himself imagine Keith reaching up to align books on one of the high shelves. Maybe even up on his toes, shirt riding up to show a strip of pale skin, all those lean muscles stretched taut and --
“I’d like to, if that’s all right. I mean, I could read all day long, but that’s not exactly what you’re paying me for.”
“I’m sure Rhonna’s got stuff you can do.” Far away, in the back room, where I can’t see you
. “She’s probably in the back. You could go back and ask her.”
For the next hour and a half, Keith stayed in the back with Rhonna while Zach waited on patrons and tried to keep his thoughts on a short leash. During a lull in the customer traffic, he grabbed a box of books and carried it back to general fiction to be shelved. Just as he set the box down, a burst of laughter drifted out of the back room.
It sounded like Keith and Rhonna were really hitting it off, and why not?
Keith was great. He was pleasant, had a good sense of humor. He loved books and didn’t seem to mind working to earn his money.
He was also hot as fuck and sending out signals all over the place. Signals Zach was picking up in spades, which was what had led to his current dilemma.
Zach lifted a stack of Stephen King paperbacks and slid them into an empty place on the shelf.
Of course, he knew he was being an idiot and totally unfair with it. Just because he was attracted to Keith didn’t mean he had to act on it. He’d been so sure his attraction muscle had atrophied and died ages ago.Looked like he’d been wrong about that.
And he knew himself, how weak he could be in the face of a strong attraction. Hell, not even knowing Jay was going to be a priest had stopped him all those years ago. How much worse would it be with nothing in his way but his own will?
A few more days of Keith Hottie Harte sashaying around the place, bringing him coffee with a generous helping of those come-and-get-it eyes, and Zach would be on his knees behind GLBT studies with Keith’s dick down his throat. He could already see it in his head -- that silky hardness sliding past his lips, the salty-sweet taste of precum on his tongue, Keith’s long fingers in his hair, holding him still while Keith fucked his mouth.
No, Keith Harte had to go.