“DO YOU think you’ll have the time to call on a potential new client today?” Annette asked through the speakerphone as Peter ate his breakfast cereal. “Jerry’s been trying to get Café Belgie’s business for almost a year now, and they actually gave him a call. He figures he’ll only get this one chance, and it would make his day if we could get them as clients. He might even be willing to cough up a bonus.”
Peter coughed and nearly sprayed half-chewed Grapenuts all over his table before he managed to swallow. “Pigs don’t fly,” Peter replied with laughter, and he heard Annette’s devious laugh through the speaker. “He’s the cheapest bastard I know, and that’s probably why he already has more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime.”
“Me too,” Annette chimed in. Picking on Jerry was a pastime for both of them, and Jerry sometimes made it so easy. “So I can tell Jerry you’ll do it?”
“Sure. Could you call and reschedule some of my morning appointments? Tell Jerry I’ll stop by Café Belgie late this morning, and remind him that he owes me. And you too, for that matter.”
“I won’t let him forget,” Annette told him, and Peter had no doubt Annette would hold this favor over Jerry until he coughed up something, maybe even a lung. That woman was tenacious in the best way possible as far as Peter was concerned. “Have a good day and be careful. They’re calling for heavy rain today.” Annette hung up, and Peter pressed the disconnect button on the phone. He finished his breakfast, placing his silverware and glass in the bowl before setting it on his lap and wheeling himself over to the sink. After rinsing the items off, Peter placed them in the dishwasher, looking around the room to make sure everything was clean. Once he was satisfied he hadn’t forgotten anything, Peter wheeled himself to his bedroom and over to the closet, where he picked out a dress shirt and tie. Peter had learned a while ago not to put his shirt on before breakfast. He had a habit of spilling on it or getting it wet when he leaned over to work at the sink. Since it was summer and humid as all get-out, he decided to forego a jacket, and after checking himself in the mirror, he left the bedroom.
Peter double-checked that he had all his client information in his bag and fastened it onto his chair. Gliding through the ranch-style house, Peter made sure everything was locked up before wheeling himself to the back door and out into his garage. Locking the door behind him, he carefully made his way down the short ramp to the driver’s side of his car. Peter opened his car door, getting his chair into position so he could slide into the driver’s seat. Over the years, he’d gotten very good at taking care of himself, and after he was in place, Peter folded up the chair, maneuvering it behind his seat. He pressed a button and the back door closed. Peter pulled his own door closed before pressing the button to open the garage door and backing the car out.
Rain pelted the windshield as soon as he cleared the garage, and Peter groaned at the thought of getting around in this downpour, but it couldn’t be helped. Reaching up to the visor, Peter pressed the button to lower the garage door and drove to his first appointment. Thankfully they had an awning out front, and Peter was able to get inside without getting too wet. After meeting with the restaurant owner, Peter left with a good-sized order for all-new fine restaurant china and flatware. “Thank you,” Peter said at the doorway of the restaurant, shaking the restaurateur’s hand. “Call me if you need anything, and I’ll stop by in a few months otherwise.”
“Of course,” Ian said with a smile and sparkling eyes. Peter knew Ian was gay, and he tried not to let himself read anything into the expression. The man was drop-dead gorgeous. Ian’s Pastiche restaurant had been a good customer for Peter ever since he’d gotten this job three years ago, and if the truth be known, Peter had had a slight crush on the man since he’d first met him. However, their relationship was strictly professional. Once, about a year ago, Peter had tried to move their relationship to a more personal level, but Ian had shown no interest.
Peter had gotten used to that. But just because he was in a wheelchair, that did not mean everything below the waist had stopped working. Peter had found out quickly after his accident that very few people he met ever looked beyond the wheelchair to actually see him, and those who did, never seemed to think of him in any sort of sexual way or as someone they might consider a relationship with. Not that Peter could necessarily blame them. Building a life with someone who couldn’t walk would be a difficult proposition for most people. Hell, it had been a difficult proposition for Peter when he’d first found out he would never walk again. But he was a survivor, and he made the best of his situation.
Ian held the front door of the restaurant open, and Peter wheeled himself outside, thankful that the rain had nearly stopped and that there weren’t any stairs to contend with. Peter got himself in the car and began the ten-mile drive from Mechanicsburg to Carlisle and Café Belgie.
The rain began again as he got close to the historic town, and by the time he parked in front of the Belgian restaurant, the rain was coming down in sheets. Peter decided to wait it out. Reaching around the seat, he pulled his bag onto his lap and began doing paperwork until the air in the car got so steamy he couldn’t stand it anymore. Thankfully, the rain appeared to let up again, and Peter used what was probably only a temporary respite to get himself out of the car and down to the street corner where there was a ramp so he could get onto the sidewalk.
The sky opened up as Peter made his way down the uneven sidewalk. He picked up his pace so he wouldn’t get totally soaked. Looking up, he saw a man hurrying in his direction carrying a huge umbrella. To Peter’s relief, he stopped next to him. “Let me help you,” the man said, and to Peter’s surprise, he didn’t try to take control of the chair the way most people did. Instead, he stood next to Peter and held the umbrella over both of them. “Are you Peter from Gold Restaurant Supply? Darryl said you were coming and asked me to watch for you because you were in a wheelchair.” The man gasped and clamped his hand over his mouth. “Sorry.”
“Why?” Peter shrugged. “I am in a wheelchair.”
“It’s not polite,” the man responded, embarrassed, and Peter stole a look up at him, watching his face turn beet red.
“Most people don’t talk about my chair. But then, most people ignore the chair and me along with it. So don’t be embarrassed, and you weren’t impolite.” Peter smiled before continuing toward the front door of the restaurant. The man opened the door, and Peter wheeled himself inside the restaurant, pleased to be out of the rain. As he always did when he entered a new restaurant, Peter took in the surroundings so he could get an idea of what they might need. But Café Belgie had Peter stumped. Every table was impeccably set with bright, clean tablecloths. The dishes he could see looked nearly new, and even the floors were clean enough to eat off of.
“Are you Peter?” A tall man in a chef’s uniform came out of the kitchen, crossing the dining room in huge strides. “I’m Darryl Hansen.”
“Peter Christopoulos,” he responded, and they shook hands. “This is a beautiful dining room,” he complimented, once again looking around the space.
“Thanks,” Darryl said with a smile. “You have to be wondering why we called you.” Darryl motioned Peter to a table in back, and Peter noticed that one of the chairs had been removed. Peter took that place, and Darryl took one of the other places while the man who’d helped him with the umbrella sat across from him. “Before I forget, this is Russell Baker. He’s going to be the chef of our new restaurant.”
“Please call me Russ,” was added in a soft voice, and Peter found himself smiling at him before turning back to Darryl.
“I have half an hour before we open for lunch, so if it’s okay, I’d like to get right to business,” Darryl prompted. “I called you because Jerry has been pestering me for a year to give his company a try. We’re opening a new restaurant on Pomfret Street here in town, and the quote I got from our usual supplier was astronomical, so I decided to see if you could do better for us.”
“I’ll certainly try,” Peter said, turning around to pull his bag off the handles of the chair. “What sort of restaurant are you opening? Do you need the standard equipment or something special?”
“My partner, Billy, and I were in Chicago a few months ago and found all of these small restaurants and stands selling gyros and other Greek food. We loved them, and when we got back, he tried to find a place like that here, but everyone makes a gyro with preformed patties, which are disgusting. We’ve decided to open a Greek restaurant, and Russ is going to be the chef and general manager.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Peter said excitedly. “They roast the meat on a vertical roasting spit, and it cooks as it’s needed.”
“Exactly. We’ll also have Greek salads, souvlaki, spanakopita, moussaka, and of course baklava. We’ve developed and tested the menu here with some of our loyal customers, and we believe we have the recipes down, so now we need an estimate on the equipment as well as installation,” Darryl explained.
“The issue is that the space is small,” Russ continued, his voice barely carrying across the table, and for a second Peter wondered how he could survive in a kitchen and be heard over the din. “So we have a tight budget for furnishing the restaurant in order to keep overhead under control.” Russ stood up and moved to the chair next to him, pulling a small notebook out of his pocket. “Here’s a list of the things we feel we’ll need, along with an approximate cost estimate, as well as the space allotted in the kitchen.”
Peter looked over the list and their budget, thinking for a second. “Are you making standard frozen French fries?”
Both Darryl and Russ looked appalled. “Absolutely not. The fries will be fresh,” Darryl answered. “It’ll be a variation on the recipe we use here, except with a slight seasoning to give the fries a kick.”
Peter nodded and continued looking over the list. “I think I have some ideas for you. I assume you are not opposed to used equipment as long as it’s in good condition and clean. The vertical gyros grills will need to be new, but I believe I can get much of the other equipment for you at a good price.” Peter looked at Darryl and then at Russ. Both men seemed pleased.
“I have to get ready for lunch service,” Darryl said as he stood up. “You can work out any details with Russ, and once you have a proposal, the two of you can run it by me for my approval.” Darryl shook his hand and left the dining room.
“I really think I can make this happen within your budget,” Peter supplied.
“Cool.” Russ’s face lit with excitement, and Peter couldn’t help smiling in return.
“I’m pretty excited myself. With a last name like Christopoulos, it would be nice to finally have a place to get good Greek food. Since my mother passed away a few years ago, I haven’t had much good home cooking. Maybe you could try your recipes out on me?” Where did that come from? God, am I actually flirting with Russ?
Russ smiled, and for a second Peter saw pleasure and interest in Russ’s eyes, something Peter hadn’t seen in a while, but it quickly faded, and his expression turned wary and fearful. “I usually try out all my recipes on my boyfriend Barry,” Russ explained, smiling slightly.
Peter felt like a bit of an idiot and tried not to let it show on his face. For a second he’d thought that smile on Russ’s face might have been for him, but it was just Russ’s general excitement about the restaurant. He should have known better. No one ever saw him that way. “Would you like to see the restaurant?” Russ asked, pulling him out of his thoughts. “It’s stopped raining, and that way you could see the space.”
Russ sounded so excited that Peter shrugged off his discomfort. “Sure. That would be helpful. Is the location accessible?” In older towns like Carlisle, some of the stores still had stairs, and while new businesses had to be accessible, some of the older buildings had yet to be converted.
“There aren’t any stairs,” Russ said before giving Peter the address.
“Good. Then I’ll meet you there.” Peter wheeled himself toward the front door as the restaurant was opening for business, and after saying goodbye and thanking the waiter who opened the door for him, Peter glided down the sidewalk and then back up to his car.
The clouds were still very low and heavy as he pulled up in front of the building that would house the new restaurant. Peter was almost reluctant to get out of the car, but he was curious, and seeing the kitchen would help him make sure he got the right equipment for his customers. Opening the car door, he transferred himself to the chair as quickly as he could, making his way to the front. Russ opened the door, and Peter glided inside.
“As you can see, we still have some work to do out here, but the dining room is beginning to come together,” Russ explained as he led Peter toward the back. “Darryl and Billy brought back pictures of some of the places they ate at, but they were diners with Formica tables and old booths for seating. We wanted to take it upscale just a little and make the food authentic.” Russ held the door, and Peter rolled into what would be the kitchen. “At Café Belgie, the average bill is approximately $25 to $40 a diner, where here at the Acropolis, we expect the average check to be $12 to $18 a diner. That’s the reason for the need to keep the overhead low, so we can still keep the food quality where it needs to be.”
Peter listened as he looked around the space, envisioning where all the equipment, prep tables, and workstations would be. “Have you been working in restaurants long?” Peter asked as he continued to build the picture in his mind.
“A few years. I started out as a server and then moved into the kitchen as a prep cook before getting promoted to line cook. I’ve sort of done it all. Darryl is giving me a chance to do what I’ve always wanted, to run an entire restaurant, and I don’t want to let him down.”
A crack of thunder brought Peter’s thoughts back to more immediate concerns. “I appreciate you showing me the space, but I should get back to the car before the sky opens up again. I’ll see what I can put together, and I should be in touch with an estimate by the end of the week.” Peter glided through the empty restaurant space, and Russ hurried past him, holding open the front door. Peter wheeled outside to the driver’s door of his car just as the sky opened up like someone had turned on a faucet. Pushing the button on his key, Peter opened the driver’s door and hurried to slide himself into the seat and get his chair in the back before it was completely soaked.
“I’ll get the chair for you,” Russ said, and Peter saw him pull his bag off the handles, placing it on the back seat. Peter lifted himself with his arms, transferring himself to the driver’s seat. Lightning flashed and thunder vibrated around him. Peter tried to hurry, and the chair moved from under him. Grabbing for the steering wheel, he got a grip and held on, hanging out of the car, legs he had little control over sliding under the car. He tried to pull himself up, but his legs caught between the car and the curb and Peter couldn’t pull them out. “It’s okay, I have you,” Russ said near his ear, and Peter wanted to close his eyes and die of total embarrassment. Who cared that he was now drenched to the skin, the very thing he was trying to avoid by rushing.
Russ’s arms around his waist tugged him up and away from the car. Using his arms, Peter was able to pull himself onto the seat in a sopping wet, mortified mess. “Thank you,” Peter said and turned toward Russ, trying his very best to be gracious rather than doing what he wanted, which was to close the door, drive away, and never see Russ again for as long as he lived. Peter fought a constant battle for his independence, and this only served as a reminder that no matter how much he tried, he was still dependent on others.
“Are you all right?” Russ asked, water running down his face, black hair plastered to his head.
“Yes,” Peter responded breathlessly. Peter turned toward Russ to thank him again, and he gasped before he could stop himself. “What happened to your arm? Did I do that?” Russ’s shirtsleeve had ridden up, and Peter saw black-and-blue marks going up Russ’s arm that looked nasty and painful. That couldn’t have just happened.
Russ yanked his sleeve down his arm. “I fell at the house the other day and tried to catch myself.” Russ stepped away from the car. “I’ll talk to you later in the week.” Peter could tell Russ was trying to keep his voice light to cover up something. He knew, because it was the same tone he’d used in physical therapy when he was hurting like hell and didn’t want the therapist to know. Russ closed Peter’s car door and waved before hurrying into the restaurant. Sopping wet, Peter used the Bluetooth connection in his car to call Annette.
“I’m heading home,” he told her once she answered. “I got caught in the rain, and I’m soaked.” He left out the totally embarrassing part. “Could you please call my appointments and tell them I’m running late?”
“Of course, hon. How did it go at Café Belgie?”
“I think I can get the business if I can get some good used equipment. I already know we have some of the things they need.” He rattled off the things he could remember. “And I’ll check into the others. I’ll forward the bid tonight, and you can do your magic. They already have a quote from their regular supplier. If we can beat it, the business is ours, and Jerry will completely platz.” At least that made up for squishy underwear.
“I’ll look for it in the morning. Get dry and call if you need anything.”
Peter promised he would and hurried home as fast as the weather would allow. Once he arrived, he spent nearly an hour getting out of his wet clothes, drying off, and getting into dry things. He also dried off his wet chair and got on the road again. Thankfully, the rest of his day went better, and by the time he’d made all his calls, the skies had cleared. Peter decided he needed some exercise, so he stopped at home to change and get a different chair. He drove to the local high school and parked near the running track, getting out his chair—this one sleek and sturdy, custom made for him. Peter slid into it and wheeled himself toward the running surface.
Getting into position, he began moving forward, his arms propelling the wheels on the racing chair. As he picked up speed, his chest, shoulders, and back came into play, and he zoomed around the banked oval. The chair was weighted for him and could turn on a dime. As he picked up speed, Peter’s blood raced through his body, heart pumping life through him. After a while, it felt as though he were flying around the oval, arms and chest throbbing, letting him know they were being worked. He passed a runner in a blur and continued moving, staying in one of the middle lanes, out of the way.
Peter kept moving, passing a few more runners and staying in the groove. Breathing through his nose and mouth, he reveled in the exercise, trying not to think about how he’d been before a drunk driver changed his life forever. But that was a while ago, and Peter pushed it away. It wasn’t hard, not out here in the evening air, passing runners like they were standing still. Twenty minutes, half an hour, forty-five minutes, each milestone passed with a small beep of his watch. Once he reached his goal, he slowed but continued moving to cool off. “Hey, dude, that was cool,” one of the runners called as he caught up with Peter, running as Peter kept pace with them.
“Thanks,” Peter said with a smile.
“Do you compete?” a familiar voice asked, and Peter glanced to the side to see Russ running along with the other guys.
“I want to, but I’m not sure I’m good enough yet,” Peter answered truthfully.
“I’d say you were. You looked like you were flying,” Russ told him, and as Peter slowed, he noticed that Russ did as well, the other guys getting ahead of them. “When I saw you, I wanted to make sure you were okay. I didn’t hurt your legs, did I?”
Peter shook his head. “I have a slight bruise, not from you, but nothing worse than that. It’ll heal in time, but I have to keep an eye on it. How’s your arm? Does it hurt?” Peter noticed that Russ was wearing a pressure bandage on each arm to cover his wrists.
“No,” Russ said, touching one of his wrists. “I’m a bit clumsy, I guess.”
Peter didn’t argue, and they came to a stop off to the side of the track. Russ was as covered in sweat as Peter, his white T-shirt almost translucent, small nipples almost visible.
“Russ, are you ready to go home?” a man called as he strode across the grass, dressed in what looked to Peter to be a tailored suit.
“Almost,” he answered before turning back to Peter. “I’ll talk to you later in the week, and I think you’re good enough to compete.” Russ smiled before turning and walking toward the man who Peter assumed was Barry. The large man looked impatient, and as Russ approached, Barry hustled him toward a white Corvette, where Barry appeared to throw a shirt at Russ, obviously afraid to get the seat of his “compensating for my small penis” sports car dirty. Curious, Peter watched Russ strip off his shirt, and he stifled a gasp at what looked like black-and-blue marks on Russ’s shoulder.
“The man’s an asshole,” one of the runners said from behind Peter. “If he got anywhere near me, I’d shove that Corvette up his ass.” Peter laughed at the other man’s joke and looked away after Russ pulled on the fresh shirt and got into the car. Barry started the engine, revving it as loudly as he could before pulling out, tires squealing.
Peter rarely hated someone on sight, but Barry fell into that category. His very demeanor screamed self-righteous, sanctimonious asshole. Well, that was none of Peter’s business. Russ seemed like a really nice guy, but he was taken. Not that he’d looked at Peter twice. No one seemed to. “You like him,” the kid next to him said. “It’s okay, dude, I like guys too.”
Peter turned away from watching where Russ and Barry had left. “Do you know Russ well?” Why couldn’t he stop thinking about Russ? He had someone already.
“Not really. He runs with us sometimes. The big dude always picks him up and acts like a superior asshole, but Russ is cool, always nice, if a bit quiet.” The kid said goodbye and walked back to where his friends had gathered, still recovering from their run. Peter held up his hand to the group, and they returned the gesture before turning as a group and walking across to the far side of the oval. Peter rolled to his car and drove home. He’d had a profitable day business-wise, but once again he was coming home to an empty house.
After his accident, Peter had lived with his parents, but he could see the burden of taking care of him was falling to his mother. And as her health deteriorated, Peter fought hard and long to become more and more independent. He got a job, bought himself a small house, and moved out on his own. Both his parents worried about him, but Peter needed to be self-sufficient. Before the accident, Peter had been an athlete, a track star with high hopes and dreams. All that ended when he’d opened his eyes in the hospital, unable to move his legs. Peter hadn’t given up, and he’d channeled his athletic discipline and drive into his recovery. When it became evident there was no hope for him to walk again, he threw himself into becoming as independent as possible. That independence had come with a price, and living alone seemed to be it.
In his bedroom, Peter undressed and wheeled himself naked into the bathroom. After transferring himself to the toilet to take care of business, Peter wheeled himself into the shower, moving himself to the built-in seat using a series of bars.
The water felt heavenly, and Peter let it run over him before washing and using the hand-held sprayer to rinse himself. One of the things that had been hardest for him to get used to was the amount of time it took him to do almost everything. Activities he used to take for granted, such as a quick shower, now took time and a great deal of effort to accomplish. But he was doing it on his own, and he kept reminding himself that was a win. Turning off the water, Peter reached for the towel and realized he’d forgotten to place it on the hook before he got in the shower. Transferring himself back to the wheelchair, he opened the closet door and pulled out two towels and began drying both himself and his chair before moving into his bedroom to dress.
He made himself dinner, carrying his plate and utensils to the table on a tray he placed on his lap. As he ate, he began completing the proposal details for the Acropolis. Pushing his plate aside when he was done, Peter retrieved his laptop and began sending order and proposal details to Annette. He’d just finished when his phone rang.
“Hi, Dad,” Peter said cheerfully. “How are you?”
“I’m okay,” his father answered, sounding down. “I’ve been cleaning out more stuff from the house, and I came across some things your mother had wanted you to have. I’ll give them to you when you come over this weekend.”
“Okay,” Peter answered, concerned about the way his father sounded. “What’s going on?” His father had been on a kick to clean out the house lately. Peter knew part of it was his father finally moving on, but he was curious why now.
“I’ve made some decisions, and I don’t want you to be angry. I’m going to sell the house and move into assisted living. It’s getting harder for me to keep up with things. Some friends of your mother’s and mine have moved into Luther Manor, and they seem to like it.” His dad sounded unsure, but Peter felt relief more than anything.
“That’s good,” Peter told his dad. “You won’t have lawn to mow and a house to take care of. Can you still keep your car?”
“Yes, and I’ll have my own one-bedroom apartment.” The relief in his dad’s voice rang through the line. “I thought you’d be mad at me for selling your mother’s house.” That was how his dad always thought of the house Peter had grown up in. They hadn’t had a lot of money, but Peter’s mom had worked with her own brand of energy and motherly magic to create a home filled with love. Peter missed her each and every day.
“Not at all, Dad. Do you need help going through things?”
“No. I’ve already been through most everything, but we can talk about anything you’d like this weekend. The house will go on the market next month, and I’m scheduled to move into my apartment in October.”
Peter’s head swam. He hadn’t expected his father to move so fast or to do all this without talking it over with him. “Isn’t this kind of sudden?” Peter swallowed hard, because he didn’t want to come off sounding like a dick.
“Kind of.” Peter’s dad sounded unsure again, and Peter cringed; he knew he had to be positive. “I applied, and they had an unexpected opening, so I took it.”
“Good. You’ll be in by winter and won’t have to worry about having snow to shovel or slippery sidewalks.” Yes, this was a bit of a surprise, but it would be good for his dad. Peter had offered to have his dad move in with him, but that had problems of its own. In assisted living, Peter knew there would be people to look after his dad in ways that he couldn’t. Their conversation turned to more normal subjects, and they got caught up with each other. After talking for nearly half an hour, they said good night, and Peter went back to work. Once his paperwork was done, Peter went into the living room and watched television for an hour until it was time for bed.
Peter brushed his teeth and went to the bedroom, sliding himself from his chair to the bed. After making sure the chair was in its place, should he need it, Peter turned out the lights, but couldn’t fall asleep. He thought about turning on his small bedroom television to watch his favorite video, but decided against it and instead rolled onto his side. Just because his legs no longer worked, didn’t mean his heart didn’t, or that other parts of his anatomy weren’t just as vital and healthy as the next man’s. But all he’d had was his hand for three years, and he wanted more. “I’m tired of being invisible.” Peter couldn’t get comfortable and continued to toss in the bed. Finally, he lifted his body, shoving pillows under his back so he could sit up. Reaching to the nightstand, he grabbed the book he’d been reading. When he’d bought it, he hadn’t realized it was a romance, and the ending left him both happy for the characters and sad, because he wanted what they had, but Peter wasn’t sure that was even a possibility for him.