BERNARD JENKINS took a deep breath at the sound of the front door opening, then closing.
How is he going to smell?
“Hey, kid. You shouldn’t leave the door unlocked.” Tomas Rodriguez’s deep voice came from behind him.
“I’m not a kid. I unlocked the door when you called to say you were on your way here.” The familiar refrain was always his reply to Tomas’s admonishment.
Bernie stirred the stew, then set down the spoon and turned to face him. He bit his lip to stifle a moan. Tomas was bent over, looking in the fridge. His dusty jeans perfectly hugged his round ass. From the state of his clothing, Bernie knew he had come straight from a job, which meant he would smell like a mixture of sweat, musk, and all man. Tomas straightened, holding a bottle of water. He opened it with long, thick, blunt fingers.
How would they feel against my skin?
Tomas leaned his head back as he drank deeply from the bottle. The buff, well-defined muscles of his arms stood out as he held his drink. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. Lowering his head, Tomas rolled his neck. His deliciously colored warm butterscotch skin tone had a light coating of sweat. He removed the band holding his hair. The slightly curling, inky-black waves fell down, framing his face. The sharp cheekbones, full nose, and hard, dimpled jaw came together to make him very handsome. Dark, smoky-brown eyes met Bernie’s as Tomas smiled that infuriating smile that was a mixture of confidence and arrogance. Bernie wanted to kiss that wide mouth with its fuller bottom lip. As soon as it formed, Bernie pushed the thought away. Tomas walked toward him in long-legged, confident strides. Bernie returned his attention to the pot bubbling on the stove. Tomas leaned against the counter by the stove where Bernie was standing. His scent filled Bernie. It was the mixture he expected, with an underlayer of earth.
“Still not safe to leave the door unlocked. Anyone can walk in.”
“Don’t you need to go shower? The food will be ready shortly.” Bernie shifted, gritting his teeth.
“Yep. I do. Smells good,” Tomas said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Bernie saw Tomas move. Bernie glanced at him just in time to see Tomas lifting a bag from by the door. Since most of the time Tomas came directly from whatever landscaping job he was working on, he’d started bringing clean clothes with him and showering before they ate. During the winter months, Tomas hadn’t come to dinner dirty from a job as often. To himself, Bernie admitted, he had missed the earthy scents from Tomas. With the arrival of spring the month before, there had been an increase in Tomas’s work. Tomas had mentioned that was what usually happened and that they were extremely busy right up into fall. Bernie for one was very grateful for spring coming to Mapson, California. From now on he would equate the season arriving with Tomas smelling so very tempting. Tomas looked back at Bernie and winked, and then left, whistling.
Bernie lowered the heat under the stew. He sat on the stool by the island, reaching for his glasses. At the last moment he stopped as he remembered that since his recent laser surgery, he didn’t wear them anymore. Tapping his finger on the table, he tried to regain his control. Months ago when he’d accepted the offer from his friend to rent the condo and moved in here, he had also agreed to Tomas’s arrangement to provide groceries if Bernie would cook for them both. He knew what it really was. Robert Berkus—his friend as well as the professor he worked for as a research and teacher’s assistant at Mapson University—had put Tomas up to it. Robert and Miguel, one of Tomas’s brothers, were a couple who lived together. Initially Robert worried because he knew Bernie didn’t have much money. Of course, Robert denied he had set up the situation with Tomas. Robert tried to convince Bernie that it wasn’t charity; it was helping out a poor, starving bachelor who didn’t know one end of a stove from another. Thinking of all Tomas’s well-developed muscles and his brawny frame, Bernie believed calling him “starving” was an overstatement.
“Don’t go there, Bernie,” he whispered to himself.
There had now been more than ten months of almost nightly dinners. The only times he didn’t cook for Tomas was on their weekly poker-game nights, the monthly Rodriguez family gathering, or his own weekly movie nights. At first, it hadn’t been a big problem feeding the pain-in-the-ass Tomas. The man was an aggressive, arrogant ass who liked to push Bernie to see what he would do. When he did push back, Tomas got a pleased grin that baffled Bernie. As time had gone by, he’d realized Tomas wasn’t as he seemed. It galled him to even admit it to himself, but Tomas was a good man. He was the first to offer help without anyone asking, and loyal and loving to his family and those he called friends. Since the initial arrangement with Tomas, Bernie’s situation had changed. Although he wasn’t rolling in funds, money wasn’t as much of an issue now with the stipend he had received. When he had mentioned it to Tomas, Tomas had adamantly stated they would go along as they had been. Bernie hadn’t put up much of a protest. He actually enjoyed Tomas’s company even though he couldn’t figure out how Tomas felt about him. That was what bugged Bernie the most. He wondered if Tomas saw him as some sort of project, and whether, if he wasn’t trying to help Bernie, Tomas might take him more seriously. Maybe he would see Bernie as more than a “kid,” as he called him.
“What does it matter? He’s straight.”
Liar. He’s bi. Bernie pounded his fist on the island counter. Tomas might be bi, but from what he had seen the last few months, the man probably only dated women. Whenever they went to grocery shop or for Sunday brunch with Robert and Miguel, Tomas’s brother, women seemed to be drawn to Tomas. They flirted with him outrageously, and Tomas flirted right back.
“You need to get over this thing for Tomas,” Bernie said out loud.
Bernie jumped up, startled at Tomas’s voice. Tomas looked at him in question. Bernie blushed as he hurried to the stove. He tripped. Firm hands grabbed him before he could hit the ground. Warm, dark, smoky-brown eyes met his. Tomas straightened, setting Bernie on his feet.
“What am I going to do with you, kid?” His tone was affectionate as he ruffled Bernie’s shaggy brown hair.
Kiss me. Bernie stiffened and jerked away.
“Sit. Let me share dinner.” He walked over to the stove.
“I’ll set the table.”
Bernie flushed. He had forgotten to do it. Tomas patted his back, then placed a plate on the counter next to him. He took napkins and utensils out of the drawer and went to set the table.
Way to go, Bernie. Tripping over your feet. Real graceful. What a way to impress him.
“I don’t want to impress him,” Bernie reminded himself.
“You say something, kid?” Tomas asked.
“Um… no,” Bernie replied.
He finished serving the food and picked up the plates. Turning, he bumped into Tomas, losing his grip on the plates. Tomas’s hands went under his, steadying them.
“Whoa.” His eyes narrowed. “You seem off. Are you okay, kid?”
“I’m fine. Put these on the table,” he snapped, pushing the plates into Tomas’s hands.
Tomas took them, studying Bernie. Turning away, Bernie opened the stove and got out the bread. Grabbing a knife and another plate to set the bread on, he walked over to the table, noting Tomas had already poured some of the iced tea Bernie had made earlier for him and gotten himself a glass of juice. Taking his seat across from Tomas, Bernie focused on his food.
“This is good. Don’t remember it from the family recipe book,” Tomas said.
“Not from there. It was something I made when I was a teenager.” Bernie shrugged.
“You should show Mami the recipe.”
Bernie didn’t respond. Tomas ate, not saying anything for a bit. Once they were done, Tomas took his plate and other dishes. He turned on the water in the sink. Bernie stood and went into the living room. He picked up his bag and laptop. Going back to the table, he set it down and booted up. Opening his bag, he pulled out some papers.
“Don’t forget that you don’t need to cook tomorrow. Be ready to go at six, so we can avoid getting caught in the crowd.”
“Huh. What?” Frowning, Bernie raised his head.
Tomas continued to wash the dishes, answering as he did. “We’re going to Bacchus Sloan’s live-music night. From the way this has been talked about, and it being the first one, Robert and Miguel are getting there early to make sure no one takes our booth. I’ll be by at six for you. The rest of the guys are saying we might make it a weekly thing if it’s any good. Probably on Thursdays, so it won’t interfere with your movie night. Oh, yeah. Hector said to let you know Simon said he would be back next week, so count him in for movie night.”
Bernie nodded as he remembered what Tomas was talking about. Ever since Bacchus Sloan announced they were adding a dance area with live music Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, people had been excited.
“I’m not going.”
Tomas stopped and looked back at him. “You are.”
Bernie didn’t appreciate his tone. He crossed his arms over his chest.
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
Tomas wiped his hands on a dish towel and came toward him. He gripped the top of the chair closest to Bernie.
“Don’t make me tell Mami on you.”
“Like your mom gives a shit about me going to Bacchus Sloan.” Bernie rolled his eyes.
“She does. Even though you don’t seem to like her or Papi, Mami cares that you work too hard and don’t relax enough. Hell, they both do.” Tomas’s face was serious.
“It isn’t that I don’t like them. It’s too complicated to explain.”
Guilt filled Bernie. He did keep Tomas’s parents at a distance. It wasn’t them personally, but what they represented. He refused to go into the reasons why. Pushing it away, he focused back on Tomas.
“Okay. I’ll go,” he said.
“I figured you would.” Tomas was smug.
“Go away,” Bernie said.
“I guess that means you’re not going to watch TV with me.” Tomas laughed as he straightened.
“As if I ever do,” Bernie replied.
“True. But I have faith that one day you will.” Tomas walked out of the room.
It was always the same when Tomas came for dinner. They ate, Tomas asked him to watch TV with him, and Bernie refused because of work. He was already way ahead in his course assignments, and the work he did for Robert in the lab could sometimes wait. Yet he used them both interchangeably as excuses to keep Tomas at a distance. Tomas was always ragging on him that he needed to loosen up and not work so much. Tomas could go to his own house to watch television, but as Tomas had stated on numerous occasions, he stayed to watch hoping to entice Bernie to join him. If only Tomas knew how tempted Bernie was.
“Dinner is bad enough. No way I could sit next to him watching TV too.” Bernie ran his hand through his unruly hair. “The man has you so addled you’re talking to yourself. You need to stop it.”
“You say something, kid?” Tomas called from the next room.
“No!” Bernie called.
The sound of the TV came on. He recognized the sounds of Big Bang Theory.
Let it go, Bernie. Focus on what will never disappoint you—work. Bernie focused back on his papers.
“Night, kid. Come lock up after me.”
Bernie glanced up, startled. Tomas leaned against the doorframe of the kitchen. Noting the time on the wall clock read eleven, Bernie stood, stretching. He followed Tomas to the door. Tomas picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. He opened the door.
“Don’t work too hard, kid.” He ruffled Bernie’s hair and went out the door.
“I’m not a kid!” he called behind Tomas.
Tomas raised a hand, then went down the steps and the drive to his blue Chevy Avalanche. He got in, honked his horn, and drove away.
Bernie closed the door, locking it. Going back into the kitchen, he turned off the lights and went back to the living room, shutting those lights off too. After he made sure the condo was locked up for the night, he went down the hall into his bedroom and got ready for bed. Lying down, he looked out the bay windows at the dark night sky.
“You’re just an obligation to Tomas, nothing more. So let it go.” Bernie sighed, then grinned. “And get ahold of this talking-to-yourself thing.”
He rolled over and went to sleep.
TOMAS glanced over at Bernie, who was sitting by Alex Hayes. Bernie blushed, and Tomas stifled a smile. Although he was too far away to hear what Alex had said, Tomas figured it was something inappropriate. Alex liked nothing more than making Bernie blush. Tomas knew Alex and Bernie were only friends. Alex was as protective of Bernie as he was. Tomas looked around at some of his brothers and poker buddies. In actuality, all of them were protective of Bernie. Something about him brought out those kinds of feelings. Bernie’s shy demeanor, clumsiness, and innocence combined to make him one of a kind. Yet for the past few weeks, Bernie had seemed to have something bothering him.
Tomas shifted. The thought of Bernie being out of sorts didn’t sit well with him. Bernie looked at him. His pale skin got redder as his blush got deeper. He lowered his lids over pale green eyes and ducked his head. Brown hair shielded his features. Not that Tomas needed to see his face. He’d memorized Bernie’s features, which were a mix of innocence and sexiness—broad forehead, sculpted cheeks, thin nose, angular jaw, and Cupid’s bow lips. Bernie pushed back his hair over an ear with slender fingers.
A hand slapped Tomas on the shoulder. “Stop ogling Bernie.”
“Quit it.” Tomas glared at Hector.
His brother pursed his lips. “Why? It’s true.”
“Nah. He’ll say it’s to make sure Bernie is okay,” Malik, another of his brothers, said.
“He’s eating,” Alejandro, his oldest brother, interjected.
“Make sure he’s relaxing,” Miguel added.
“Robert should stop spreading gossip,” Tomas retorted.
Miguel grinned. “You should come up with better excuses.”
“Or at least stop using the Mami card. Too much use, and it won’t work as well,” Robert, Miguel’s partner, pointed out.
“Mind your own business,” Tomas said.
“This is all of our business. That’s what family is for,” Miguel said cheerfully.
They all laughed. Tomas sighed, ignoring them. He leaned back and listened to the music. It was really good. Mackenzie, the owner of Bacchus Sloan, should be pleased at the huge turnout. Tomas glanced at the couples dancing. Smiling, he stood and walked to the other side of the booth. Putting out his hand, he waited. Bernie blinked, a startled look on his face. He flushed, biting his lip. Tomas leaned closer to him.
“I’ll tell Mami,” he teased.
“You will, huh? Go ahead.” Bernie snorted.
“Come on. Stop being stubborn. I’ll teach you to dance.” Tomas took Bernie’s hand and pulled him up.
Alex chuckled, blatantly watching and listening. There was a look on Alex’s face that made Tomas uneasy. Tomas ignored him.
“What makes you think I can’t dance?” Bernie’s tone was more curious than anything else.
Tomas wasn’t about to admit that, with Bernie being so clumsy, he didn’t expect much from him on the dance floor.
“Just a guess.” He shrugged.
“Assumption based on my less-than-gracefulness.” Bernie sounded amused.
Tomas didn’t answer. He led Bernie to a corner of the dance floor. It had enough space that he could teach Bernie to dance without making Bernie feel self-conscious. Tomas turned to him. Over Bernie’s shoulder, he noticed the men at the table had all moved closer to where they were. He frowned.
Robert and Alex were beside each other. Alex made a twirling motion of his fingers. Miguel, Alejandro, Malik, and Hector leaned next to each other, smirks on their faces. The rest of the poker crew were spread out around them, all staring. Bernie went to turn, but Tomas caught his hands, holding Bernie facing him. He didn’t want Bernie to get nervous. With the yahoos watching them, he would.
“So show me what you can do,” Tomas challenged him.
Bernie stiffened, his pale green eyes narrowing. His lips curled into a sly smile. Uneasiness gripped Tomas. Bernie started to move. Tomas’s mouth dropped open. The gracefulness of Bernie’s movements made it seem as if he didn’t have any bones in his body. Bernie rolled his hips. He exuded sex. Bernie partially lowered his lids over those captivating eyes. In a slow glide, he moved into Tomas’s body. The height of his lanky frame was a match of Tomas’s own six-foot-three, brawny body. A slender finger lifted Tomas’s chin, closing his mouth. Bernie leaned into the side of his face. His slightly curly, dark-brown hair brushed the side of Tomas’s face. Tomas stifled a shiver.
“Aren’t you going to dance?” Bernie’s soft voice sounded much more seductive than Tomas remembered.
Tomas gulped. Bernie’s hands slid around his waist and down his hips. He gripped Tomas and moved against his body. Shaking out of his stupor, Tomas shifted and moved with him. Bernie’s soft sigh tickled the side of Tomas’s face. Tomas’s cock went rock hard. Pulling back slightly, Tomas moaned as Bernie’s hands tightened on his hips, pulling him back against him. Giving in to his silent demand, Tomas moved against him. He felt the movement of Bernie’s cock. It was a delicious friction between them as they danced. The herbal scent of Bernie’s shampoo and soap surrounded them.
With a gulp, Tomas put his hands on Bernie’s shoulders. Through the cotton of his T-shirt against his fingertips, Tomas could feel the muscles in Bernie’s shoulders. It was startling to realize Bernie had muscles. He was so gangly, and wore such baggy clothes, that Tomas hadn’t even realized it. Bernie rolled his hips in a motion that made Tomas’s cock jerk and his balls go tight.
Jerking away, Tomas said in a hoarse tone, “Enough of the lesson, kid.”
“Not a kid. And thanks for the lesson.” Bernie smirked.
He walked away, a sway in his hips. His ass looked fuller in his baggy pants. Tomas licked his lips. Raising his head, Tomas scowled as Robert and Alex slapped Bernie on the back. He turned away, pushed through the crowd, and went to the bar. Leaning on it, he waited his turn. He ordered from one of the bartenders and brooded as he waited for his beer.
“You and Bernie looked good out there,” a melodious voice said.
“Don’t you have something else you should be doing?” Tomas scowled at Mackenzie Hannigan, the owner of Bacchus Sloan.
“Nope.” Mackenzie put a beer on the bar in front of him.
He opened the gate to the bar and came out, leaning next to Tomas. Mackenzie opened his bottle of water and took a drink.
“So what? The kid can dance,” Tomas said.
“He’s not a kid,” Mackenzie pointed out.
“He keeps saying that.”
“And I don’t think others see him that way.” Mackenzie sounded amused.
Tomas glanced up sharply. He growled when he spotted Bernie dancing with two men. They were all over him. Tomas took a step. A hand settled on his shoulder. He glanced from it to Mackenzie’s face.
“I don’t want my place to be busted up.” Mackenzie’s tone was mild, but Tomas heard the clear warning.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Tomas said, defending himself.
Mackenzie gave him a look.
“Well, unless you’re with me.” Tomas smiled.
“Those were the days, buddy.” Mackenzie laughed, his dark green eyes twinkling.
“Are you two plotting trouble again?” Alejandro asked.
“Count us in. But not too much. Have to keep up the rep of being a law-abiding citizen,” Hector said.
“Speak for yourself,” Malik replied.
“Whatever it is, I don’t want to know,” Miguel stated.
“Please. You’ll be the one leading the mischief,” Tomas said.
His brothers flanked around them. They watched the dancers.
“What’s up with you and Bernie?” Miguel asked.
Tomas took a drink. “I don’t know what you mean.”
The other men snorted in disbelief. Ignoring them, Tomas watched Bernie dancing with man after man. He slammed his mug on the bar and went over to Bernie. Pushing between Bernie and his dance partner, Tomas glowered at the man. The man backed away. Tomas looked back at Bernie.
“Let’s go,” he growled.
He strode off the dance floor. Tomas waved at Mackenzie and his brothers, heading for the door. He pushed out the door and went to his car. Bernie’s soft tread came behind him. Pushing the button to disarm his truck alarm, he went to the driver’s side. Getting in, he slammed the door. Bernie got in beside him, closing the door softly. Tomas got them on their way. The ride was silent. In a short bit, he pulled up in front of Bernie’s condo. Impatiently, he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.
“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable. It won’t happen again.” Bernie’s voice was soft.
Tomas glanced at him. His head was turned away, a blush staining his cheeks. He got out of the car and went up the drive to the steps. There was a slump to his shoulders. He tripped, then righted himself, rushing up the steps and into the house. Tomas sat a while, looking at the door.
“What am I going to do with you, kid?” Tomas asked.
Shaking his head, he drove automatically to his house.
TOMAS drove the trowel into the dirt. Leaning back on his heels, he wiped his forehead with his bandanna. Although it was only almost the end of April, it was already shaping up to be a very warm spring in Mapson. Rolling his shoulders and neck, he looked down the line of roses he was planting. They were looking very nice. Thankfully, the job wasn’t too complicated, and he was working alone. Malik had tried to change the schedule so they could work together today, pulling the old gambit that he was co-owner of Rodbro—their landscaping business—and thus could change things if he wanted. Tomas knew why he had wanted to switch.
Since Tomas was also a co-owner, he had made sure once Malik left to switch with Allen for this job. He knew Malik and Link, who also worked with them, would be surprised to see Allen when he went to the job. After last night, Tomas didn’t want to hear the ribbing he would get from Malik or Link. His thoughts turned, as they had all day, to Bernie—specifically, to how he had moved on the dance floor. He had been sexy. There seemed to be more behind that geeky exterior than Tomas knew.
Do you even want to go there? Tomas unclipped his canteen from his waist, uncapped it, and drank deeply. He lowered it, recapping it slowly.
“Nah. He’s just a kid,” Tomas said.
He remembered the blush and Bernie’s soft apology. When he saw Bernie on Saturday, he would have to make sure Bernie understood there was nothing to be sorry for.
“Maybe I should go by today.” As soon as he said it, he dismissed the thought.
Friday was Bernie’s movie night with Alex, Robert, and Simon, if he was in town. Tomas didn’t impose on it. Usually, he spent the night at home catching up with things at his house, or sometimes going out with his brothers. The sound of a car coming up the drive caught Tomas’s attention. Frowning, he stood as the squad car pulled up. Striding over to it, Tomas leaned down as the window lowered. Surprised, he studied the man in the car. Immediately Tomas thought something had happened to Miguel, but dismissed the thought as soon as it formed. He would have gotten a call, not an in-person notification.
“Ramirez. What are you doing here?” Tomas was curious why Ramirez had tracked him down.
Gerald Ramirez worked on the police force with Miguel. He was a close friend, although lately he hadn’t been coming to their poker games or any of the other get-togethers they’d had. “We need to talk about Bernie.” A fierce frown was on Ramirez’s craggy face, and his black eyes were furious.