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Authors: Amy Lane

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BOOK: Bitter Taffy
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“You got a big house or something?” Derek asked. It sounded like a “getting to know you” question, not a flippant one.

Rico petted the cat and watched him purr motorboat-drool across the pillow. “I’ve got a tiny apartment, but Adam was watching it when I was out of town.”

“So….”

“So I got back early, and him and Finn have, like, a family here.” Rico swallowed. He didn’t want to say,
Like the family Adam and I never had
, but that was exactly what he’d been thinking. “It’s nice,” he finished simply.

“You and Adam not get a lot of that?” Derek asked, the pleasant looseness fading from his voice. He suddenly sounded like a man in a dark room too.

“We got each other,” Rico said, not wanting to talk about it. “What time do you want me there tomorrow?”

“I want you here tonight,” Derek said, his voice brightening to the standard flirt.

“Yeah, but I just finished unpacking and I’m not putting on a suit at seven o’clock Sunday night.”

“That’s a shame,” Derek said, and Rico could hear the smirk in his voice. “But who says you gotta put a suit on?”

“You want me to come naked?” Rico asked, suddenly wary and a little bit confused.

“You never heard of shorts and a T-shirt to come have a beer on a guy’s couch?” Derek half laughed.

“That sounds a little, uh, informal,” Rico hedged.

“Well, unless I’m at work, I can be an informal guy.” He was back to teasing, and Rico felt comfortable with that. “I like going… casual.” He put some playful flirtation into the word, but Rico couldn’t respond.

Instead he remembered the pristine refrigerator, the strictures on his grades, the claustrophobia of not being able to talk, run, or breathe after his father got home.

The implicit knowledge that he had to be perfect to be loved, otherwise he’d end up like Adam, under the bed, hearing people curse his name.

“I….” Oh man. This conversation was suddenly
just
as personal as Derek had planned for it to be. “Adam and I were used to… uh, heavy-duty social limits.” He chose his words carefully, because he didn’t want to get into the cold silences, or Adam crying under the bed. “We’re, uh, sort of testing them now.”

“Huh.”

“Huh what?”

“That’s interesting. You and your cousin are testing your limits by having family time and rooming together and being all… happy and warm. That says… interesting things about what your life was like before.”

Rico groaned. “Look, when did you want me there tomorrow?”

“That depends on when we get off the phone tonight,” Derek responded pertly.

“Don’t you have a wedding or something?”

“Nope. Wedding all done this morning. Sister on honeymoon with a doofus who deserves way better than her but pretends he can’t pick his own ass without her help, caterers have left and filled my parents’ freezer with a trucking fuckload of uneaten barbecue because Renee can’t estimate for shit, and entire family—including extended family, mind you—have helped clean up the mess left when you hold a wedding decorated with acres of fucking crepe paper on a wind plain.”

Rico couldn’t help it. He laughed. “Sounds like… a fucking disaster.”

“Hence, alcohol,” Derek agreed, but he sounded happy too.

“So, your new brother-in-law—does he have a backup plan for pretend ass-picking, or is he going to be a boil on your family’s for a while?”

“Well, he was going to be an actuary, but now he’s helping my dad and my brother at the store. I’ll get to hear my dad bitch about him for the rest of my life.”

Rico laughed. “He must be a friend.”

“Yeah—he is. And my sister doesn’t deserve him.”

“Hence alcohol?”

“It’s not a broken heart,” Derek said, sounding 100 percent sober. “It’s just… well, Renee isn’t my favorite relative. Hale was in my top-ten friends.”

Rico had to laugh there. “Understood. Who
is
your favorite relative?”

“Everyone
but
Renee,” Derek said promptly.

Rico laughed more. “Explain that!”

“Okay, I will,” Derek said, and now he’d gone from sober to wily. “But when I’m done, you have to answer me one question.”

“What question?”

“I’ll decide when I get to it.”

“That’s—”

“C’mon, Rico—I’m not gonna tongue you from the phone, okay? I tell you happy family story, you answer me a question. That easy.”

“Shoot.”

“My sister Renee is the biggest frickin’ airhead on the
planet
.
And not in the ‘Oh crap, I lost my keys for the five-hundredth time’ way, because my little brother Kevin does that all the time, but he means well; and not in the way of ‘oh hell, did you really say that,’ because
that’s
my older brother Dillon’s territory.”

“So in what way—”

“Is she an airhead? As in, she spent hours—and I mean frickin’
hours
—on this wedding, picking the right centerpieces, right? And the right color crepe paper, and the right color flowers, and the perfect antique railroad lamps for this outdoor wedding. But in all that picking, not once did she think about who was going to dish the food or the cake or play the music, or even about hiring a sound system, so, this wedding that she’s been planning for like the last six months? Happened this morning because her
entire family
ran in to pick up the slack. So she’s shortsighted and inconsiderate, and she pisses me off, and
that’s
why she’s an airhead.”

Rico found he was laughing in earnest. “Wow, uhm, Derek, tell me how you
really
feel!”

Derek grunted. “I feel
irritated
because it was a hardship on my parents and she took advantage of me. So there you go. Now you know something about me.”

“Your family means a lot to you.”

“Yes, yes, it does. Even when they piss me off and I am forced to ramble drunkenly on the guy I was trying to impress.”

“I’m no one to impress,” Rico said softly. God, he hadn’t
begged
Adam and Finn to stay, but then he hadn’t had to. Here he was, twenty-eight years old and just now figuring out what living with a
real
family was like.

And what recovering from a
real
broken heart was like.

It was a sobering realization, here in the intimate lighting of what used to be his bedroom.

“Well, you impressed the hell out of me.”

Rico swallowed, suddenly wanting to fall into his joyous flirting like he’d fallen into Ezra Kellerman’s eyes.

Except unlike
that
fall, he knew where this fall ended.

“Did you have something you wanted to ask me?” he asked, his voice sounding small and stony, even to his own ears.

“Yeah,” Derek said huskily. “Lots of things I wanted to ask you. But we’ll take it one thing at a time.”

“You’re making a lot of assumptions about how much we’ll be—

“Rico, I’m not flirting now. I’m just genuinely curious, because I’ve known your cousin for months now, and I met you on Thursday, and I just want to know.”

Oh awesome.

“Fire away.”

“If you could describe your family in one word, what would it be?”

Rico thought about it. Thought about Adam under the bed, and his own mother, afraid to violate the rules of the house carved in blood, stone, or water. Thought about his grandmother, who could shriek about how her favorite children could do no wrong and her least favorite child (Adam’s mother) could do no right.

Thought about Adam hauled out of Easter dinner by the ear and having the door shut in his face.

“Bitter,” he said.

“Yeah,” Derek said softly. “I got that impression. You know what?”

“What?”

“I go to that store where your cousin works like three times a month. Do you know why?”

“You’re missing out on the joyride of early diabetes?” Because that store—yikes! Once a year, and Rico would have an ass that bounced off walls.

“’Cause everyone—from the employees to the owner to the sugar in the barrels—is sweet. I think you’re going to do really well here, Rico. I hope you give us a real taste.”

Rico swallowed, suddenly wanting a lemon drop or a chocolate boner truffle with ferocity. “Thanks, boss,” he said, licking his lips. “What time am I showing up?”

“Ten. We can get you the orientation, and then you, me, and Miguel can go out for lunch.”

“Who’s Miguel?”

“My IT professional and business intern. He’s a nice kid, but he’s going to be starting his own business in a month up in Roseville. Free lunches and lots of informal in-servicing for the guy so he gets a good start.”

“That’s nice of you, boss,” Rico said, meaning it. “Just don’t….” Oh God. He was going to say,
Just don’t give him the boot if he sleeps with your family
, but suddenly he couldn’t talk about that. “Just don’t spoil him with kindness, right?”

Derek snorted. “Not possible. Especially not this kid. This kid’s like your cousin. Drinks it in and gives it back in spades.”

“Oh.” Rico had nothing to say to that. “So, uhm, tomorrow. Ten o’clock, at the address on your card.”

“Yup.”

“I can do that.”

“See you then.”

Rico hit End Call and flopped sideways on the bed so he could pet the drooling adolescent cat on Finn’s pillow.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he mumbled to the cat, who was looking at the back of its eyelids, mostly. “He’s nice, but seriously, another workplace romance?”

But Derek had promised to draw up a contract that would keep his interest professional and not interfere with Rico’s job. He’d stated flat-out that Rico could get him to stop by saying no.

And Rico didn’t want to say no.

Because it felt good to have someone interested in him. It was flattering to have a good-looking guy like Derek Huston call him up and talk to him about personal stuff in the guise of setting up an orientation.

The last thing Rico had seen of Ezra had been the good-bye in his face as he’d handed over the blackmail papers that would set Rico free. And here Derek was, promising to back off if Rico asked and making himself human and accessible and…

Kind.

God, what sort of kindness had Rico and Adam known?

Rico stroked Jake’s ears, scratching behind them, and smoothed his wet, drool-coated whiskers back. That’s why he’d gotten animals after he’d settled in—Jake was, after all, Cat 2.0, the reboot, after the late unlamented Gonzo. That was all he had—no pictures, no decorations, hand-me-down Ikea furniture—but a dog and a cat, because if he fed them and petted them and took care of their crap, they would love him back ad infinitum.

He needed to remember that. Jake would love him no matter what.

The same could not be said for Derek Huston.

Working for the Man

 

 

A
DAM
NEEDED
to go in and get a check from a job he’d finished two weeks before, but he didn’t let Rico drive the Crown Vic the five blocks to Derek’s neat little office building in the top of another set of converted Victorian houses.

“But,” Rico protested as Adam put on his khakis and a button-down shirt. Rico himself was in his best suit and a tie. “We can’t just…
walk the dog
to this guy’s office and pick up your check.”

“He works less than half a mile away, Rico. The dog needs to dump, Finn’s already at school—you told me you walked all the time in New York.”

Rico grunted, put out but finding it difficult to explain. “But… but I
like
the car,” he said plaintively. “Why can’t I drive my car?”

“Carbon emissions, global warming, saving for a mortgage—any of that ringing a bell?”

Rico grunted. “But when
can
I drive my car?”

“I don’t know—when you take me and Finn on a road trip to San Francisco on account of us being
outstanding
family members.”

Rico perked up. “Hey—I mean, I’ve got a job, right?”

“Well, you’re still doing that thing for Finn’s dad. And seriously, you weren’t hurting in the money department before, right?”

Rico grunted. In fact, he could probably live off his savings for a year, even without Finn and Adam helping with rent. “You know… just don’t like to….”

“Man, I heard your dad at family gatherings same as you heard my mom. That man didn’t have a dime he didn’t want to strangle or disinfect. I hear you. But I’m saying, it doesn’t have to be Finn and me, but a trip somewhere, in your precious car, before Sacramento remembers who it is again and tries to cook us fucking dead.”

Adam had a point—there was
spring
in the valley, and that didn’t happen often.

“There’s an exhibition game in San Francisco in a couple of weeks.”

Adam grinned. “
That’s
what I’m talking about.” The grin faded, and he clipped the lead around Clopper’s neck. “Uh, how much? I mean, I’ve got money now, but I need to make sure—”

“Like you said,” Rico told him, straightening his best spring suit coat and twitching the collar, “my treat. I’m tired of Windexing dimes.”

The walk to Huston’s office really was embarrassingly short. Three Victorian houses had been converted, then joined together with walkways on the second and third levels. A reception area had been built on, complete with elevator, and Adam took Clopper on the elevator because the dog seemed to love it. He sat down and slowly wagged his tail, looking toward the doors with a lolling tongue, like he anticipated free dog chow at the end when the doors opened.

“What in the hell?” Rico asked, shifting his briefcase to his other hand. He wanted to have a hand free in case whatever the dog was hoping for on the other side of the doors actually materialized.

“Well, one day Derek—”

The doors opened and there was the man himself, crouching down at Clopper’s level and offering him a white-chocolate dog treat.

“He
bribed
my
dog
?” Rico said, scandalized. “Oh my God!”

Derek stood up and laughed, brushing his hand off on the seat of his nice gray suit before reaching out to shake Adam’s hand and then Rico’s.

BOOK: Bitter Taffy
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