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Authors: Amy Lane

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BOOK: Bitter Taffy
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“You can hear that dog breathing from two blocks away,” Derek said, grinning. “I
love
dogs—my parents have five of them. I just got my house finished to where I could get a dog, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

“He’s been mackin’ on your dog,” Adam said tersely. “How they hangin’, Derek?”

“Low and inside, Adam.”

Adam grinned and looked at Rico triumphantly. “See? Even Derek thinks baseball’s a good idea! Does Janine have my check?”

“Yeah—there’s a bonus there because you finished early—”

Adam looked horrified. “No—no, that’s not why I—”

“Yeah,” Derek said, his voice taking on the long-suffering tone of someone who’d had this conversation before. “But you did good work before the deadline. So the client paid you extra. It’s what people do.”

“I was just trying to get done before Easter,” Adam muttered. “I didn’t want to spend Easter Sunday—”

“Did you and Finn have a nice time at his parents’ house?” Derek asked kindly, winking at Rico.

Adam shook his head and narrowed his eyes. “Yeah. Sure. They’re trying to make me fat. Let me go find Janine. Thanks, Derek.” And then he stomped off, muttering to himself, Rico’s dog in tow.

Rico couldn’t stop the smile twisting his lips.

“He’s a tough nut,” he said fondly. “It’s good to see you’ve cracked him.”

Derek grunted. “You think that’s cracked? That’s barely softened. God, we had to pull Finn in here to get him to sign a decent contract.” Derek shook his head and turned, taking in Rico’s best spring suit and his dazzling emerald green tie.

“Nice,” he purred, and then he made the once-around gesture with his finger.

Rico rolled his eyes, but the suit had been one of his last purchases before he’d left New York, and he was sort of proud of it. He held his briefcase out at his side and did a smart little pivot, his dress shoes sliding easily on the short pile of the carpeting.

Derek laughed and clapped his hands. “Very nice,” he said, and then, to Rico’s amusement, he did the same.

His trim form was
very
nicely accentuated in something Hugo Boss, gray linen, with a melon-colored tie. Rico obliged him by clapping.

“So, that’s something we have in common,” Derek said, eyes twinkling.

“We’re both clothes whores? Call the news.” But it was hard not to look appreciatively at Derek—the suit fit him well. And one of the things that had first turned Rico’s key about Ezra—and had first made him let his guard down, when it had been cranked up tightly from pretty much the moment he had been born—was seeing Ezra, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, tie undone, hair rumpled, as they’d been up late working on a campaign.

“Hey, we’re almost the same size. You’re nice to me, I might let you borrow my suit!”

Rico laughed. God, the incorrigible flirt was back with a vengeance. “Well, I got my own, but that’s sweet. Are we going to do this orientation thing?”

Derek suddenly sobered, the flirt gone. “Okay. Yeah. But I need you to be sure.”

“Sure?” Rico frowned. “Yeah. It’s a good setup. I approve. Why you gotta ask again?”

“’Cause I want you to know your own mind going in,” Derek said, and for a moment his face was unreadable, the face of the seasoned business negotiator.

And because he wasn’t laughing or flirting, Rico suddenly understood that he was talking about exactly that. “If I don’t like something, I can walk away,” he said, throat dry. “You haven’t twisted my arm.”

Derek nodded. “Good. Because all… all kidding aside, I
did
take a look at your résumé and the portfolio you sent me, and you really are big time for my little business. If you’re not here for the guy in the suit, I’m wondering what you’re here for?”

Adam appeared on the other side of the glass door he’d disappeared through, tugging on Clopper’s lead with exasperation. For his part, Clopper was chewing more of those white-chocolate-dipped dog treats—and Rico could tell that because big bits of them were coming out of his giant maw as he gobbled.

“I’m here to work somewhere I feel good about,” he said seriously. “And because my cousin vouches for you. And you’ve apparently bribed my dog.”

Derek’s customary smile threatened to return. “Well, I’m not going to quit bribing your dog.”

“Rico, you gotta make them stop!” Adam complained as Clopper dragged him out on the walkway. “And Jesus, you two, stop flirting and get in there. You’re
talking
in front of the
elevator
. It’s like you’re little kids or something.”

The elevator opened at that moment, and they had
to move out of the way so the person inside could get out and let Adam in.

A young Hispanic man with straight black hair cut with feathered bangs came out, pausing to pet Clopper on the head. “How you doing, Adam?” the guy asked. “You still working for Darrin?”

“Yeah, Miguel. It’s getting busy again, but Darrin says the right employee hasn’t showed up yet.”

Miguel shook his head. “Well, the last person he was waiting for was you, so I’d have faith. Whoever it is will be right for
someone
.”

“Yeah, well, I think he had a dream about my cousin, so maybe
he’s
right for someone,” Adam said sourly. He smiled, though, and waved as he tugged Clopper into the elevator and away from the young man’s attention.

The elevator doors closed and Miguel stayed there for a moment, gazing wistfully at his shiny reflection, before turning back around to Rico and Derek.

“You didn’t ask about Finn,” Derek observed mildly.

“Give it time,” Miguel replied, equally mildly. “I’ve finally realized his nose is crooked and the tattoo on the neck was a bad idea.” He swung to Rico, regarding him with thick-lashed brown eyes, a standard smile of greeting on full lips. His eyes widened like he recognized someone. “Oh for crap’s sake. You have
got
to be Rico.”

Rico sighed and extended his hand. “And you have
got
to be getting over my cousin.”

“I never stood a chance,” Miguel said philosophically. “Derek didn’t either.”

Derek rolled his eyes. “I asked him to dinner. He said his boyfriend would object. I got nothing on Miguel’s level of unrequitedness.”

Miguel groaned. “It’s stupid. He worked at Candy Heaven for a week and
still
didn’t know my name.”

Rico smiled at him as Derek opened the glass door to the offices to let them pass. “That’s Adam,” he said, telling God’s honest truth. “He’s pretty sure most people will reject him, so he doesn’t let them register unless they’re aggressively nice.”

“It comes off as badassery,” Miguel said, self-deprecation in every syllable. “And it’s deadly attractive.”

“I guess, if I’m the only guy here who isn’t pining after him!” Rico said sourly. They walked into a white-carpeted waiting area with oxblood corduroy couches and antique end tables. A pretty receptionist wearing a black suit and pristine white shell underneath it waved at them and then went back to something she was doing on the computer in front of her. She had three bowls on top of the shelf surrounding her desk—one with mints, one with chocolate, and one with the dog treats Derek had given Clopper. Rico would like to bet that Clopper wasn’t Derek’s only doggy visitor—or the only person to take advantage of Derek’s goodwill, either. The end tables sported a copy of almost every craft magazine known to man, from
Quilting
to
Knitting
to
Gardener’s Weekly
to
Woodworker’s Digest
, and Rico wondered who in Derek’s family sold magazine subscriptions.

Miguel waved to both of them casually, saying, “Meeting in your office, Derek?”

“Yeah,” Derek said. “Take fifteen, check out your schedule. We’ll orient Rico here and all go out to lunch, deal?”

“Deal.”

Miguel disappeared down the hall and to the left, and Derek ushered Rico down to the very end of the hall, where the boss’s desk sat in regal silence.

“Hope, do me a favor and send my messages to my computer, yeah?”

“No worries, Mr. Huston—already done!” Hope sang, and then Derek reached around Rico and closed the door.

Rico stopped for a moment, arrested by the warmth of his body and his smell—Polo? Obsession for Men? Rico had never been good at that game, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t liked to smell Ezra’s neck and guess. Now, just as strongly, he wanted to smell Derek’s neck, and that urge sent him stepping sideways, away from Derek’s body, while he looked around.

“Your furniture is top-notch,” he said, making conversation and truly admiring as well. He saw nothing standard, nothing Ikea—Queen Anne chairs with embroidered seats and sturdy legs were ranged around a heavy-duty oak desk with scars around the front and the sides to testify that it had survived the business wars.

Behind the desk sat a classic ergonomically designed computer chair, but Derek’s guests were supposed to feel like this was a comfortable visit and not a down-and-dirty deal, and Rico appreciated that.

“Thanks. Family of woodworkers, remember?” And then, before Rico could respond, “And I didn’t have a crush on your cousin. I asked him out, he said no, and then I saw him with Finn. You don’t get in the way of that sort of thing. It’s bad karma.”

Rico let out a breath. “Is the gay community in Sacramento really that small?” he asked almost dryly. “I mean, I’ve been back and gay for five minutes and the whole world’s in love with Adam.”

“I was
never
—”

“I know.” Rico sent him a crooked smile. “I was trying to joke about it. I don’t know what to say.”

“How about tell me why you lived here for six years and don’t know what the community is like?”

Derek had a big window surrounded by spring green drapes, with blinds to keep out what would probably be brutal afternoon sun. Rico stepped over and raised the blinds, delighted to see a view of the tree-shrouded street. “I didn’t come out until I went to New York,” he said. “What did Miguel say, fifteen—”

“Why not?” Derek asked, leaning against the front of his desk and crossing his arms.

“You’re out to your family?”

“Yeah.”

“They throw you a parade?”

“They didn’t disown me, and only my mom’s sister stopped talking to me. Mom doesn’t like her much anyw—”

“Did you see that scar on Adam’s forehead?”

Derek’s defensiveness dropped a little. “Yeah.”

“Our grandmother slammed the door in his face before he had a chance to take that final step out of her life. Broke his nose too. Made it through two tours in the Middle East unscathed, but that bitch split open his forehead and broke his nose. I came out to myself in New York. Adam’s the only family I’ve talked to about it. Isn’t there some sort of code about not telling people unless you want them to know?”

“I didn’t see the bylaws. I’m sorry about—”

Rico swallowed. This man could make business personal like no one he’d ever met, not even Ezra. “Can we sign contracts today?” he asked, voice broken and a little desperate. “And talk about nothing except the job? And maybe where we eat for lunch?”

“Yeah,” Derek said softly. “Sure. I hear you. Just business today.”

“Thanks,” Rico said, relieved on so many levels. For starters, he’d just said his first no—and Derek had done just what he’d promised.

It sort of made Rico want to confide in him—but not today.

 

 

T
WO
HOURS
later Rico had signed all the contracts, double-checking to see the language Derek had promised was there, and then he’d gone through the orientation binders Derek provided.

He liked the business more by the passing minute.

Miguel had come in and quietly and competently led him through the steps of securing a job on his own if he wanted, and the pros and cons—mostly pros—of referring a potential client to Derek’s business.

“Derek protects the client too,” Miguel said earnestly. “But generally his lawyers—he’s got two of them—keep everything clean and legal. And I’ve seen him go after people trying to welsh on a deal a couple of times—he’s relentless. If his people do the job, he goes to the mat for them.”

“That’s good to know,” Rico said, feeling better and better about this deal as they went on. “My last boss, not so much.”

“What was it like?” Miguel asked, stars in his eyes. “Working in New York?”

Rico smiled, remembering that
he’d
felt the same way less than a year ago. “You know how you look outside that window and you look down on all those trees?”

“Yeah?”

“Not so much.”

Miguel thought about it. “How’d that feel?”

“I really missed the sky.” But he would have been willing to stay there, chafing under Kellerman’s boots and eating the old guy’s shit, if only for Ezra. Now he asked himself, when would that have started to pall? When would he have needed to break out of there because being trapped in that job was almost as bad as being trapped in the closet, and he finally wanted to know what it felt like to be all the way free?

“Yeah,” Miguel said, face falling. “I’ve visited before. I’m not sure I could live there.”

“I thought I wanted to,” Rico told him, gaze straying to the window again. “But you know? It’s been a good five days back.”

Miguel nodded. “I’ll say, if you landed in Derek’s lap.”

Rico looked at him, young and bright-eyed and a little bit… unseasoned, maybe, for what he thought Derek might want in a partner. He had to ask. “So, you and Derek….”

Miguel shook his head. “No. No! That would be taking advantage,” Miguel said earnestly. “That’s not something Mr. Huston does.”

Rico felt his lips twist in an unfamiliar smile. “You’d be surprised,” he said.

“Yeah, but if he’s hitting on you, you know he’s in earnest,” Miguel told him. “Otherwise I might have blown him in the first week just out of sympathy. You’ve got to admit. He’s pretty cute.”

Rico grinned, because
Miguel
was pretty cute. “Cute would not be my word,” he mused. “Not for Derek.”

Miguel shot him a look and rolled his eyes. “Oh
man
.”

BOOK: Bitter Taffy
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