SEBASTIAN hated going in to work when it was dark, because that meant it would be dark when he left as well. Not that there was anything unusual about that—it was a fact of life with his job—but it was the one thing he didn’t like about it. Restaurant hours were horrendous. Whenever everyone else was off for a holiday or on weekends, that’s when the business was best, so that was when you worked. Not that he really minded. Sure, it would be nice to have one of those nine-to-five jobs, but he was good at what he did, and Café Belgie was successful in part because of what he did, or at least he’d like to think so.
Shivering slightly in the early morning air, Sebastian pulled his jacket a little tighter around him as he pressed the button to activate the walk signal at the square in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a chilly autumn breeze blowing and rustling the leaves at his feet. Cars and trucks zipped by even at this hour, and Sebastian looked around to make sure everything was okay. The light finally changed, all traffic coming to a stop, and Sebastian crossed the intersection diagonally, walking briskly across the street and then down the sidewalk to the front door of the restaurant. Inserting his key, he opened the door and stepped inside, making sure not to track dirt inside with him or else he’d have to clean the rug, and today he didn’t need any extra work, much less work he’d made for himself. Closing the door behind him, he threw the lock and carefully weaved his way around the tables, already set for lunch, toward the back where he flipped a single switch to turn on a few lights.
He was rarely the first person to arrive, but it appeared that this morning he was. Knowing what to do, he walked into the kitchen, turning on the lights before opening the back door and getting to work. Today was Friday and they were going to be swamped, especially with the colder fall weather and the holiday season just around the corner. Walking into the dishroom, Sebastian got tubs of clean flatware and grabbed some napkins that needed folding. There was plenty to do, and he needed to get it done.
Sitting at one of the back tables, Sebastian had begun folding the napkins when he heard the back door open and close. “Morning,” Kelly called, her voice carrying through the kitchen.
“Morning, Kelly,” Sebastian called back as he continued his work, the door to the kitchen swinging open.
“You’re here early,” Kelly commented with a smile. “I expected I’d be the one opening this morning.”
“I noticed last night that we’re almost out of everything out here, and I didn’t want to stay last night. I was too tired, so I came in a little early this morning,” Sebastian told her as he continued folding the napkins. “Besides, with Billy and Darryl on vacation, I want everything to go well.”
Kelly grinned. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Darryl entrusted you to run things while he was gone?” She winked at him before laughing. “You’re going to do a great job,” she encouraged.
“What do you think?” He held up one of the napkins for her to see. “I thought I’d try a new fold. I found it on the Internet.”
Kelly smiled as she looked at it. “Nice, sort of fluted like the wine glasses.” Kelly slipped off the jacket she wore over her white chef’s uniform. “I’m going to start some coffee. I’ll holler when it’s ready.”
“Thanks,” Sebastian answered, needing coffee to wake himself up at this hour of the morning. Kelly brought him a mug a few minutes later, setting it on the table as he finished folding the napkins, replacing the ones on the table with the fresh ones before refolding those and placing them in the bin behind the serving station along with the extra flatware. Picking up his mug, he sipped it before looking behind the bar to make sure everything was full and set there, then checking the rest of his morning items off his list.
Once everything appeared ready, he walked into the kitchen. Maureen had arrived at some point, getting her desserts together before they would open the doors for lunch. This afternoon, she’d be Kelly’s sous chef during the lunch service. Darryl’s vacation meant that everyone in the kitchen needed to double up and help out. Sebastian was doing the same thing out front, but they could do this. It wasn’t often that Darryl and Billy went on vacation, and they both deserved it, so Sebastian intended for everything to run as smoothly as possible while they were gone.
The servers began trickling in an hour before opening, and Sebastian put them to work making sure everything was sparkling clean and ready for opening. “Hey, Peter,” Sebastian said as the young man finished sweeping beneath the table, “check in the kitchen to see if they need any help. We’re ready out here.”
“Sure thing,” the dark-haired man said with a smile, putting away the broom before heading through the kitchen doors. He didn’t come right back out, so Sebastian figured Kelly was able to use the help.
Making one more check just before opening, he called into the kitchen as a final warning before opening the doors. The first customers came in a few minutes later, Sebastian seated them, and their day began.
Lunch went smoothly, to Sebastian’s relief, and he spent part of the afternoon getting the dining room ready for dinner as well as preparing the records that Darryl had shown him. “I’m going to the bank for a few minutes,” he told Kelly and Maureen. “I’m taking Peter with me. We won’t be gone long.”
“Sure thing,” Maureen said. “I’ll keep an eye out front. Kelly’s got things in hand here.”
“Thanks,” Sebastian said with a smile, getting Peter before walking outside and down the sidewalk.
“I love this time of year,” Peter commented. “The sun is still warm, but it’s not all sticky and hot.” Leaves rained down from the trees as the bright sun warmed the air. It was a great time of year. The only thing Sebastian hated about it was that it portended the coming of winter, with its slush, snow, and cold.
“I take it you don’t have to rake the leaves,” Sebastian said as he looked at the younger man.
Peter shook his head with a smile. “That’s one of the beauties of going away to college—no yard chores. My little brother has to do the raking now,” he said with a grin as they crossed the street, turning the corner before stepping into the bank.
“Thanks, Peter. I’ll see you back at the restaurant,” Sebastian told his companion, and Peter hurried back down the sidewalk while Sebastian got in the teller line. It took awhile, but he made the deposit and got the change they needed before heading back. It was truly a gorgeous day, and he hated going back inside, so he took a few extra minutes on the sidewalk, breathing the fresh air before walking inside and getting back to work.
The afternoon was quiet as they got the dining room ready for the dinner service. Customers trickled in all afternoon, keeping them reasonably busy, but by the time the dinner service was ready to start, the restaurant was clean and ready. They were nearly booked solid, and the customers kept Sebastian and the servers busy for hours. Sebastian was never so happy as when he checked his watch and saw it was already nine o’clock. He felt sweaty and exhausted.
Walking to the front to lock the doors, the last customers lingering, servers already cleaning up, he saw a man in a hooded sweatshirt hurrying in, and Sebastian approached him to see if he wanted a table. Instead, the man pulled a knife, and Sebastian backed away. “Where’s the cash?”
Sebastian felt his legs shake. “In the server’s station,” he answered, taking a deep breath, looking around the nearly empty dining room.
“Don’t move,” the man growled, grabbing Sebastian’s arm, nails digging into his skin, dragging him toward the register. Sebastian opened the drawer and backed away while the man grabbed the larger bills from the drawer. “Is that all?” the man asked, voice rushed and throaty. Sebastian nodded slowly, and the man let him go, hurrying back toward the restaurant door. Sebastian didn’t move, hoping no one else did, either. Darryl had told everyone if they were ever robbed to let them have the money. Watching the man go, Sebastian tried to memorize any details he could.
As the thief reached the front door, it seemed to open for him, and then he seemed to fly through the air, and Sebastian heard a loud thunk. “Call the police,” Sebastian told the nearest server, not even stopping to see who it was before hurrying to the door. Sebastian saw the sweatshirted man lying on the sidewalk with another man kneeling near him.
“I’m sorry,” the kneeling man was saying. “Are you okay? I didn’t see you coming.”
“That man robbed us,” Sebastian said, pointing, and the other man immediately backed away. “We’ve called the police,” Sebastian explained as sirens could already be heard, getting louder and louder. The thief started to move, and as Sebastian backed away further, the other man scrambled to his feet, and Sebastian’s eyes widened as the man towered over him. The sirens got closer, and Sebastian backed further away as the man on the ground began to move, groaning more loudly. Police officers hurried up the sidewalk, and Sebastian backed up even further.
“No one move!” the first officer commanded.
Sebastian froze and began explaining. “That man robbed the restaurant,” Sebastian exclaimed as the man on the ground actually tried to get on his feet. One of the officers forced him back onto the ground and cuffed him while the second walked to where Sebastian and the other man stood watching.
“He pulled a knife and made me give him the money from the register,” Sebastian said in a rush of words as he started to shake.
“It’s okay, sir, just take your time. He’s not going anywhere,” the police officer said before turning to the other officer. “Did you find a knife?”
“Yeah, already secured it, and I found the money as well. Backup’s on the way too,” he added before tugging the guy to his feet, helping him into the back of the police car, none too gently. Another car arrived, as did a third.
“If you gentlemen could step inside, I’ll be with you in a few minutes,” the police officer told them, and Sebastian nodded, now feeling the cold. Opening the door, he held it for the other man, who walked inside. Sebastian noticed that he had to duck slightly so he wouldn’t hit his head on the overhead door closer.
The dining room still had a few customers lingering at their tables, watching the happenings outside. “Would you like anything?” Sebastian asked when the man had settled at a table.
“I was coming in to get some dinner, but it looks like you’re closing,” he said, looking around.
Sebastian handed him a menu. “Order what you like. Dinner’s on the house.”
The tall man smiled, his face changing instantly from ordinary to incredible. “That’s not necessary,” he answered, looking over the menu. “Can I have the steak frites, medium, and a cup of coffee?”
“No problem. I’ll be right back.” Sebastian hurried to Jane, who was clearing a table. “Bring a cup of coffee to the gentleman near the door.” She nodded, and Sebastian hurried to the kitchen. “Kelly, I need a steak frites, medium.”
She paused in her cleaning. “What the hell happened?”
“We were robbed,” he answered, heaving a deep breath to try to calm himself. “The police have the guy, thanks to a customer.” Sebastian forced himself to slow down. “That’s his order, by the way, and could I get one of the special salads too? Oh, and set aside one of Maureen’s mousses for him.” Excitement coursed through him, and he tamped it down, regulating his breathing.
“One thing at a time.” Kelly started going to work with practiced ease. “We were robbed?”
“Yeah.” He gave Kelly the abbreviated version as she finished the salad. “He tripped the guy or something, and the robber hit his head on a parked car. There was a dent this big in it,” Sebastian said, demonstrating with his hands before picking up the salad. “I’ll probably need to meet with the police because I saw the guy.”
“Then take the salad out and meet with the police. I’ll bring out the order when it’s ready.”
“Thanks, Kelly, you’re the best.” Leaving the kitchen, he carried the salad to the table, where a police officer was seated along with the tall man. Sebastian set the salad in front of the man before asking the police officer if he’d like anything.
He declined and motioned Sebastian to a seat. “I’m Officer Cloud. I’d like you to tell me what happened.”
Sebastian told the officer what happened, doing his best to keep his voice level and remain calm, but his heart still pounded in his chest. “It happened so fast,” he added at the end, “I barely had time to think.”
“You did the right thing, sir,” the officer said. “Just give them the money and call the police. Your life isn’t worth a few dollars.” The officer consulted his notes. “We’ve had a few of these snatch-and-grab-type robberies in the last few weeks, and I’m hoping we’ve got our culprit,” the officer said before asking for Sebastian’s name, phone number, and address, as well as the address and phone number of the restaurant. Kelly joined them at the table with the steak frites, placing the plate on the table, along with the mousse, and thanking the man for his help before returning to the kitchen. “Thank you both,” the officer said, pushing his chair back. “I’ll be in touch in the next few days. We’ve got the money he stole and should be able to get it back to you in the next few days. I’ll drop by a receipt for it tomorrow.”
Sebastian stood up as well, shaking the officer’s hand. “Thank you for all your help,” Sebastian said, walking the officer to the door, then closing and locking it behind him before returning to the table. “Is everything okay?”
The tall man swallowed before answering. “It’s perfect, thank you. You really didn’t need to do all this,” he said again, setting his utensils on the plate before taking a sip of his coffee.
“It’s the least we could do after all your help.”
“I really didn’t do anything except trip over my own feet and manage to unbalance him as well. The car he hit his head against did the rest.” The man smiled again, chuckling lightly. “There are some things in this world that were definitely not designed for someone as tall as me. Like doorways,” he added, his smile brightening.
“Please let me know if you need anything,” Sebastian said, his eyes raking over the room to make sure everything was being cleaned up.
“I could use some company, if you don’t mind. I know it’s late, but it’s definitely no fun to eat alone.”
Everything seemed to be in good hands, so Sebastian got a mug of coffee and returned to the table. “By the way, I’m Sebastian Franklin,” he said as he pulled out a chair.
“Robert Fortier,” the tall man said as he extended his hand, and Sebastian shook it. “It’s nice to meet you, Sebastian, and thank you for the terrific meal. It really wasn’t necessary, but most appreciated.”
“You’re welcome,” Sebastian added, scanning the room once again, wondering what to talk about. “Is this your first time dining with us?”
“Yes, it is, actually. I’ve heard wonderful things about the restaurant, but never had a chance to stop in before tonight.” Robert finished his dinner and pushed the plate back before reaching for the cup of mousse. “I usually don’t eat dessert,” he added before taking a bite, sighing softly.
“I know. Maureen, our pastry chef, makes the most incredible desserts. This is one of her specialties,” Sebastian said proudly. He wasn’t the chef or the owner, but he was proud of Café Belgie and not ashamed to show it. Finishing his coffee as Robert finished his mousse, Sebastian pushed his chair back, standing up before picking up the dishes. “I’ll be right back. Would you like any more coffee?” Sebastian asked.
“If it’s decaf. It’s getting a little late for the high-octane stuff.”
“Of course. I’ll be right back.” Sebastian left the table, carrying the dishes to the dishroom, where the cleanup for the night was nearly complete. Returning through the kitchen, Sebastian smiled at Kelly as he passed by, seeing that she, too, was almost done for the night.
“I’m going to head out soon,” she told him.
“Of course. I’ll lock up. See you tomorrow afternoon,” Sebastian said as he waved before leaving the kitchen, grabbing the decaf coffee carafe on his way to the table.
“I’m not keeping you, am I?” Robert asked as Sebastian refilled his cup. “It looks like everyone’s leaving.”
“I have a few minutes,” Sebastian answered, refilling his own cup before letting people out the front door, locking it behind them again. Sitting back at the table, he sipped his coffee while Robert did the same. Now that he got a good look, the man was really quite attractive. Medium-length, wavy auburn hair brushed his shirt collar, and he had bright blue eyes, nice lips, and a pleasant face. For a second Sebastian couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t found Robert attractive right away. Then his eyes shifted to his clothes. They hung on the man like they were two sizes too big. As tall as he was, it must be very difficult finding clothes that truly fit. “So what do you do?” Sebastian asked, lifting his cup to his lips.
“Right now, I work for the county,” Robert said. “How long have you worked here?”
Sebastian let his eyes scan the room once more. “Since we opened a few years ago. I was one of Darryl’s first hires. He’s the chef and the owner. Anyway, I was one of his first employees, and he made me front-of-the-house manager about a year ago. I run everything outside the kitchen, and he runs the kitchen and the business. His partner, Billy, is one of the waiters, as well. In fact, he’s probably our best waiter.” Sebastian saw Robert go a little pale. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Robert set his cup on the saucer. “You didn’t. It’s just that I didn’t expect to find people so open like that in Central Pennsylvania. Maybe in Philly or Pittsburgh, but not here.”
While Sebastian had noticed the man, he really hadn’t given any thought to the fact he might be gay, but the reaction, the startled look, the hard swallow, all helped confirm the notion. “Do you live here in town?”
“Yes, I have a small house on Louther Street, just a few blocks from here.” Robert looked at him quizzically like he was trying to size Sebastian up or something, but then the look dissipated, and Robert picked up his cup again, drinking the last of his coffee. “I should let you go home. It’s getting late, and I’m keeping you from leaving.” Robert stood up and put his napkin on the table.
“It was nice to meet you, Robert, and thank you so much for your help tonight. We really appreciate it.” Sebastian extended his hand, and Robert shook it firmly.
“It was no problem, I assure you,” Robert said with a self-deprecating smile as he walked toward the front door. Sebastian unlocked it and held the door for Robert as he left. Closing it behind him, Sebastian smiled as Robert shrugged on his coat, walking down the sidewalk. Without appearing to, Sebastian watched out of the corner of his eye, and sure enough he saw Robert turn to look at him just before he disappeared from view. Smiling to himself at the confirmation of his hunch, Sebastian walked through the restaurant, making sure the register was closed and everything put in the safe before turning out the lights. Leaving by the front door, he turned the key in the lock and began his short walk.
HOME was a row house on Pomfret Street, one of the oldest streets in town. It had been his parents’ house, and when they passed away, he couldn’t bear to sell it, so he’d stayed. On his days off, he worked on the old place trying to get it fixed up. There was one certainty when you owned a house approaching two hundred years old—you always had plenty to do. But he loved living there, and his mom, who had been a lover of antiques, had insisted the house be furnished with antiques from the period the house was built. She and Sebastian’s dad had collected pieces the entire time they were married, and the house was beautifully decorated. Unlocking the front door, Sebastian walked into his entrance hall with the case clock his mother had purchased and his father had lovingly restored as a present for their thirtieth wedding anniversary, picking up the mail from the floor.
After setting his keys in the bowl on the small stand, he walked through to the dining room with its large Empire sideboard. Hanging his coat over the back of one of the chairs, Sebastian thumbed through the mail, setting aside what he didn’t want before picking up the small local newspaper he’d taken inside that morning. Taking it with him, he walked through the rooms to the very back of the house, where a small sitting room had been added on years ago. His mom had lovingly restored much of the house over the years, but this room and the kitchen and baths were modern, thanks to his dad.
Turning on the light, Sebastian sat in his big, comfortable chair, put his feet on the ottoman, and opened the paper. He loved this time of day. Sebastian knew most people thought he was a little flamboyant and a party boy, but in actuality he led quite a quiet life. Thumbing through the paper, he didn’t see anything of interest and was about to throw it away when a picture caught his eye. Looking at it again, his eyes widened, and he began to read the article.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Sebastian said with a smile, shaking his head slowly. The title read, “Cumberland County’s Newest Judge,” and beneath the headline was a picture of Robert Fortier. Sebastian read the entire article with a smile on his face before putting the paper aside and turning on the television. He tried to watch the program, but found himself picking up the newspaper again and again to look at the picture of Robert. The man had been nice, really nice, and it had been a long time since Sebastian had met someone like that. When he first started working at the restaurant, he’d developed sort of a crush on Darryl, but those feelings weren’t returned, no matter how much Sebastian had tried to catch Darryl’s interest.
Turning off the television, Sebastian clicked off the lights before heading through the house and upstairs to his bedroom. Who knew? Sebastian didn’t want to get his hopes up, but Carlisle was a small town; he’d probably run into Robert again. Heck, he hoped he did. After getting cleaned up, Sebastian climbed beneath the covers before turning out his light. He tried his best not to think about Robert… too much.