Cherry Pop (Mercury Rising Book 3)

BOOK: Cherry Pop (Mercury Rising Book 3)
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Cherry Pop
Mercury Rising
Cherry Pop
Mercury Rising
Samantha Kane

T
his book is
for my husband, who always listens patiently to my plot twists, character descriptions and writer’s angst; my kids, who are patient when I have work to do; my critique partner J.D. Allen, who always gets the first read; my editor Mackenzie Walton, who is a firm believer in Mercury and its power to change lives; my marketing assistant Kimberly Rocha, who does all that other “stuff” I forget to do when I’m writing; and the loyal readers in my Kaniacs street team, who inspire me to keep writing.

I
t was supposed
to be for fun. But his kiss said forever…

B
en Heston followed
his job from California to Mercury, North Carolina after his boss fell head over heels, crazy in love. Ben welcomes the change at first, still reeling from a bad breakup. The move is meant to be temporary. That is, until he meets Tripp Lanier.

Tripp was born and raised in Mercury. His family owns a local construction business and he’s next in line to take over. But as much as he loves his family and his job and his little hometown, there’s something missing in his life. When he meets Ben, he realizes what that something is.

Tripp is ready to embrace his newfound sexuality with the object of his desire. Ben, not so much, because he doesn’t believe Tripp is really gay. But Ben can’t resist the chemistry that explodes between them when they’re together.

Ben begins to love all the things Tripp loves about Mercury: night trains and tall trees, family, friends and sweet Cherry pop. Just when Ben begins to think he might be Tripp’s Mr. Right his past comes calling and old hurts and new fears might be the one thing that could keep them apart.

W
arning
: Contains Good Old Boys, NASCAR references, a reluctant computer programmer, an enthusiastic gay virgin and gallons of sweet cherry pop. 9 out of 10 dentists agree it could be dangerously romantic.

One
Labor Day Weekend

B
en Heston looked
around the backyard and shook his head, amused at the strange mix of guests at the party. It wasn’t unusual to find a party here at his friends’ house. John Ford and his boyfriend Connor Meecham attracted guests like flies to honey, as the locals in Mercury, North Carolina would say.

Today they were hosting an engagement party for the town’s Unitarian minister, Evan Michaels, and Ben’s boss, tech billionaire bad boy Brian Curland. Ben had been in Mercury for several months and thought he knew everyone, but today proved him wrong. There were locals here he’d never seen before, which was pretty hard to find in a town of about three hundred people. The crowd was spectacularly diverse, a result of the opposites-attract background of the lucky couple. In a brief glance around the yard, Ben spotted a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees; action movie star Trey Barlow, who was Brian’s ex-boyfriend; local scion Ms. Priscilla Jones; and Kari Barefoot, a waitress at Wren’s Diner, Evan’s favorite place to eat.

Ben looked down at the food spread out on the buffet before him. John had gotten some place out of Wilmington to cater. He picked up a toast point with foie gras, pomegranates, and dates and put it on his plate. He loved Wren’s Diner as much as the next guy, but he wasn’t going to complain about today’s menu.

“Anything look good?” a man asked from beside him.

Ben turned and nearly dropped his plate. The guy next to him was smiling at him in a friendly, inquiring way. From his accent Ben could tell he was local, or at least from North Carolina. He was drop dead gorgeous, enough to give Trey Barlow a run for his money, tall with blond curly hair—long enough to be carelessly sexy. His grin was wicked as he realized Ben’s consternation. Lean and fit in a pair of casual pants and a plain navy blue T-shirt, he had one arm with a colorful tattoo sleeve that Ben was trying very hard not to stare at.

Too bad he also looked young. Very young.

“I’m having the foie gras,” Ben managed to say while he debated the merits of running away or staying. Either way he was guaranteed to make a fool of himself, and if he stayed he’d at least be able to get more food. He was hungry.

“I’m going to sound like an idiot,” Ben’s new food table friend said, “but what’s foie gras?” He picked up one of the appetizers and sniffed it suspiciously.

Ben chuckled. “It’s duck liver.”

“I’ve had duck liver, and it didn’t look like this.” The stranger put it on his plate, but Ben wasn’t sure he’d eat it.

“They force feed certain ducks to fatten up the liver,” Ben said. “It’s cruel, really, and I suppose I shouldn’t eat it.” He was eyeing the foie gras distastefully. Now he was having an existential crisis.
Thanks, John.

“Sounds like a lot of work to get a duck fat,” the stranger agreed. “What are our other options?”

“How about salmon and cucumber?” Ben suggested, pointing.

“Did they force feed the salmon?” Ben looked over, about to answer, when he noticed the smart-aleck smirk he was getting.

“Yes,” Ben said, straight-faced. “They fed it fois gras.”

With a laugh his new friend shook his head. “Cross that one off the list, too, I guess.”

With a look over Ben’s shoulder, the stranger sighed. “Got to go,” he said ruefully, setting his mostly empty plate down. “Nice talking to you. Thanks for the tips.”

Ben looked behind to see someone waving at them. Before he could say anything the stranger had walked off into the crowd, heading toward whoever had hailed him.

Ben sighed with regret and turned back to the table. It was for the best. Number one, he probably wasn’t gay. And number two, which was even more important, Ben was not looking for a guy. He was still trying to get over the last one, who’d backed over his heart a couple of times before driving off into the sunset.
No thanks
. Not going there again.

“Are you having a good time?” John asked, walking up on Ben’s left.

Ben lowered his plate to the table as he nodded. “Yes,” he said, turning away from the buffet. He wasn’t hungry anymore. “But I wish Connor had made his famous cherry pie.”

“Stick around,” John whispered. “He’s got a few hidden inside for special guests. We’re going to pull them out and devour them after everyone else leaves.” Ben laughed.

“Then I’m not going anywhere,” Ben told him. He gestured out at the yard. “This is quite a spread.” There were two huge tents near the house and tables set up all around the yard. Even so, it was standing room only.

“I had no idea what I was getting into when I offered to host this party.” John didn’t sound particularly upset about it. “Evan, of course, refused to leave a single name off the guest list. I think we invited everyone he’s ever met in his whole life. And Brian…well, you know Brian. What Evan wants, Evan gets.”

“Did you ever think you’d see the day?” Ben asked in wonder. “Brian Curland, in love. And I mean, like,
in love
. Whipped. Over the moon. Crazy about someone. He’s actually become sort of…I don’t know. Nice?”

It was John’s turn to laugh. “I know. It must be freezing in hell.”

“You both know I’m behind you, right?” Brian asked drily as he came up on Ben’s other side.

“Yep,” Ben said, grabbing a beer from the tray of a passing waiter.

“We smelled your cologne when you were still about twenty feet away,” John told him. “It’s nice, but overkill. You had sex right before the party, didn’t you?”

“Keep it down,” Brian said. “And yes.”

“La la la,” Ben sang off key. “I’m not listening. I told you before, I absolutely do not want to hear about your sex life with the reverend.”

“That’s because you have no sex life,” Brian said. “You’re jealous.”

“As hell,” Ben admitted. “But still not looking.”

“Thornburg left you over a year ago. And he wasn’t that great,” observed Brian. “Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”

“Technically he kicked me out,” Ben corrected him. The familiar ache was burning in his chest at the memory. “And I am moving on. Wasn’t that what this—” he held up his hands and made air quotes, “—great opportunity in Mercury was all about?”

“Don’t be a hater,” John said. “This
is
a great opportunity in Mercury. Being project manager of the new Turnstiles data center is a huge step up from Managing Director of Programming in L.A.”

“Says the man who gladly handed over the project manager position as soon as I showed up,” Ben said wryly. “And I was California manager on this project already. And when this job is done, I’m going back to being California manager. That was the deal.” At the time it had seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a break from his real life and re-evaluate what he wanted to do after this.

“A mere technicality,” Brian said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You’re needed here. Now more than ever, with my focus on the new charitable foundation.”

“You want me here because I give good entourage,” Ben joked. “Don’t think people aren’t commenting on the fact that you’re importing all your homeys.” This wasn’t the time or place to tell Brian there was no way in hell he was staying in Mercury for the long term. He may have gladly run away from L.A. to get away from the lingering effects of his breakup, but he had never meant it to be a permanent move. He hadn’t even sold his condo. He was California born and bred, and he had no plans to say goodbye to Hollywood.

John did a spit-take. “I have never, nor shall I ever be, anyone’s homey,” he said after he stopped laughing. “And I was here first.”

“Again,” Brian said, “a technicality. I’m marrying into the family.”

“I can’t believe you’re going to live here,” Ben said skeptically. “What does your security detail say about that?”

“There has been a great deal of cursing over the lack of privacy and security at Evan’s house,” Brian admitted. “Changes are being made, but we’re insisting that they not make any major structural changes. At least not yet. It is Evan’s family home, after all, and there seem to be some limitations on what we can do because it may fall under the guidelines for restoring historic buildings. But Evan also knows that he can’t expect to live the way he has been when he’s married to one of the world’s richest men.”

“I’m surprised everyone around here is so gung ho on you marrying Evan,” Ben said. “I didn’t think they were that supportive of gay marriage down here.”

“I don’t know about that,” John said, “but they are all supportive of Evan. What makes Evan happy, makes everyone happy.”

“How on earth did you manage to land such an incredibly well-liked, well-adjusted, decent human being?” Ben asked Brian.

“Charm and a huge…personality,” Brian said, straight-faced.

“Ben!” He glanced over to see Evan waving at him. “Come here,” Evan called. “I want you to meet someone.”

“Oh God,” Ben said under his breath while waving back at Evan and smiling. “He’s not trying to fix me up, is he?”

The crowd parted and Ben got a look at the men standing next to Evan. He had second thoughts about saying no if that was Evan’s intent. The one on Evan’s left was his new food table friend. The man on Evan’s right was twice Ben’s age. Been there, done that, no deal. Plus, Ben recognized him as Dean Lanier, the president of the construction company subcontracting a lot of the work around the new Turnstiles site. They’d met once or twice.

“Not unless Tripp has started batting for our team,” John observed. “But just in case you should be so lucky, go say hello.”

“Tripp? The one on the left?” Ben clarified. “He’s not gay?” Ben turned to set his beer down on the table behind him.

“Not that I know of,” John said. “I only met him a few times before he left to do some work in Myrtle Beach, but my impression was straight. And that’s his dad with them.”

Ben hesitated when he saw Evan, Connor, Dean and Tripp walking their way. “I wonder what he wants.”

“A job?” Brian shrugged, unconcerned. “Whatever it is, we’ll soon find out. They’re on their way over.”

Ben pasted on a smile. He hoped John was right. He hadn’t been lying when he said he wasn’t in the market for a relationship. He’d been burned badly, and he wasn’t too proud to admit it, either. He was only thirty. Despite his Jewish mother’s lamentations, he still had plenty of time to find a partner and get married and adopt beautiful babies. That wasn’t going to happen here in Mercury, North Carolina. Certainly not today if he could help it, not even with the drop dead gorgeous Tripp. But just in case, he started inching his way toward the house.

“Freeze,” Brian said under his breath. Damn it if Ben didn’t freeze on command. Brian was a friend, but he was also his boss, and Ben wasn’t about to offend his newly minted fiancé if he could help it.

“Ben,” Evan said as soon as he reached them, “You know Dean Lanier. And I want you to meet his son, Tripp Lanier. You and Tripp actually have a lot in common.”

Ben shook Dean’s hand first. “How are you?” he asked, playing it cool. When the two Lanier men were standing side-by-side, Ben could see the resemblance between them. Funny, he’d never noticed that Dean was that good looking before.

“Fine,” Dean said. “Great party. Good to see Evan so happy,” he added, slapping Evan on the shoulder.

Dean’s son held out his hand to shake Ben’s. Ben couldn’t possibly see what they could have in common. Tripp Lanier was tall, handsome, and clearly charismatic. Ben was average in every way. Average height, average body type, average brown hair, and a forgettable face. He wasn’t a troll, but his physical appearance didn’t garner a lot of second looks.

“So this is Ben Heston,” Tripp said with a smile. “Who loves duck liver, but hates himself for it.”

“That’s me in a nutshell,” Ben said, feeling awkward as he took Tripp’s hand.

“So you two already know each other?” Evan asked, brow wrinkled in confusion. Ben felt all eyes on the two of them, everyone no doubt speculating furiously.

“We met at the buffet just a few minutes ago,” Ben said, feeling more uncomfortable by the minute.

“We shared food recommendations but not names,” Tripp added with a laugh.

“Wait,” John said, frowning. “What’s wrong with the fois gras?”

“Nothing,” Ben said through clenched teeth as Tripp laughed again. “Are you a programmer?” he asked, trying to change the subject. Dean laughed.

“No, sir,” Tripp said. “Not in this lifetime. I’m in construction, just like Daddy.” His grip was firm, his palm callused, the handshake nothing more than a handshake. No secret hookup codes, which Ben didn’t know anyway. Suddenly Ben realized he’d been holding Tripp’s hand for too long, although Tripp didn’t seem to mind. Ben let go immediately and took a step back.

“I can hardly keep this boy inside the office,” Dean said with a huge grin. “Can’t stand computer work.”

“I haven’t seen you around Turnstiles.” Ben had seen workers wearing the Lanier logo around the construction site for the past few months. “Okay, I give,” he said with a polite smile. “What do we have in common?”

“Apparently we’re both into extreme sports, or so Evan says,” Tripp explained. “Although I’ve got to warn you, folks around here think mountain biking is an extreme sport.”

Ben was delightfully surprised. “No kidding? Do you bike?”

“Every chance I get,” Tripp said. “I can show you all the trails around here.”

“Tripp knows damn near every way to get out of town,” his dad joked, shaking his head.

“What else are you into?” Tripp asked.

“Nothing too wild,” Ben warned. “Just waterskiing, and motorbikes, mud runs. That sort of thing.”

“Oh, Lord,” Dean said. “Another one.”

“Sounds just like my kind of things too,” Tripp said with a big grin, punching his dad playfully in the arm. “All right, then. It’s about time I found someone to play with around here. I’ve been going solo at it for too long.”

“Amen to that,” Brian said drily as he grinned at Ben from behind his bottle of beer.

“Just to be clear,” Ben said, ignoring Brian, “this isn’t an attempt to fix us up, right?”

Tripp’s eyes went wide. “Shit, I hope not. No offense, but I don’t date guys.” His dad’s eyes were as wide as Tripp’s as he looked between him and Ben.

BOOK: Cherry Pop (Mercury Rising Book 3)
7.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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