A Right and Wrong Story
Successful owner of an upscale boutique in fabulous West Hollywood, Brandon Good swears by his personal edict to “live in the present.” After a bad breakup, he agrees to dog-sit to keep his mind off his ex. Never did he expect the dog to belong to a man from his past, the only man to ever truly break his heart.
When Jake Westley relocates to join the WeHo fire department, the last thing he anticipates is reuniting with his secret high school love. Thrilled with the prospect of reconnecting with Bran, Jake feels no guilt in using his charming old dog as an unwitting matchmaker. As he and Bran rekindle their friendship, it becomes clear the intense attraction they once felt is stronger than ever. But as hard as they try to leave the past behind, painful memories resurface. Bran will have to confront his fears and consider the possibility that the man he swore was absolutely the wrong one might be perfect after all.
Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.—Buddha
IT ISN’T possible to be happy all the time, but I’d recently decided contentment was a strong second option. I looked around my store fifteen minutes before closing and noted the shelves of knickknacks and pillowcases I needed to restock. The floors should be swept, the mirrors could use a good cleaning, and someone had left an empty coffee cup on an antique entry table. In spite of the additional hour or more it would take to get BGoods ready for business the next day, this store was my reason for contentment, and it certainly was one of my greatest sources of happiness. However, it was getting harder to ignore I was feeling slightly restless and less than content in my personal life.
I picked up the lip balm I kept next to the register and gave myself a mental smack upside the head as I applied the waxy substance liberally. Nothing positive ever came from sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. The best thing to do was clean up, head home to change into some sexy club wear, and treat myself to a night out. Maybe I’d go dancing, or maybe—
“Brandon, did you hear me?”
I glanced sideways to find Lizzy, one of my employees, staring at me expectantly. Her big blue eyes and long, strawberry blond hair gave her a sweetly innocent look I bet a majority of straight men found attractive. Me? Not so much. However, I admired her effortless style and friendly nature. Both were a major plus since her job was to sell high-end home accessories to my eclectic clientele, which ranged from movie stars and rock stars to yoga moms and Hollywood execs. My store’s West Hollywood location had a wonderfully diverse population. It wasn’t merely a mecca for all things rainbow-colored and fabulous.
“Sorry, sugar. Replay. What did you say?”
“I’m dog-sitting for my hunky new neighbor. He’s a firefighter. Dee-licious! His name is….”
I tuned her out. Lizzy could gab for hours nonstop about inconsequential details. There were days I was charmed, but others I wished she’d shut the hell up. Today she’d been particularly chatty, and it was grating on my every last nerve. I was anxious to send her home so I could take care of the cleanup on my own.
“Anyway the poor guy is thirteen years old, and he doesn’t want to leave him alone while he’s at work. Isn’t that the sweetest?”
“Huh? What thirteen-year-old kid wants a babysitter? You better watch it, Lizzy. If the man is looking for a nanny, I sense trouble. Steer clear.”
“I knew you weren’t listening! Mack is a dog, not a teenager. Any-who, Jake the dreamboat asked if I’d watch him till he got back from work tomorrow. So… is it cool if I bring him by for a quick hello?”
“Who? Jack or Mack? Dreamboats are always welcome. Drooling sidekicks… not so much.”
“It’s Jake not Jack. And never mind. I can tell you’re in a mood.” Lizzy cast her eyes skyward and sashayed toward the front of the store to retrieve the errant coffee cup.
I reached for the lip balm again but quickly put it back and stepped out from behind the counter. I walked toward the white contemporary-style sofa and armchair anchoring the midsection of the store and started fluffing the countless colorful pillows before addressing my employee’s cryptic dig at my “mood.” I wasn’t moody. I didn’t do moody. Whatever was she talking about? Sure, I had my moments like anyone else, but I was better at leaving my grievances behind than most people.
I adopted a pleasant attitude of indulgent curiosity when I looked at Lizzy and asked, “Whatever do you mean?”
She waltzed to the counter, tossed the empty cup in the trash, and turned to confront me with both hands on her hips.
“Ever since you broke up with Trevor, you’ve been cranky. I’m sorry, but it’s true. You’re still you, don’t get me wrong. You’re as fabulous as ever, but—”
Oh, thank God, I thought sarcastically. As if. The day I started worrying about what Lizzy thought about my fabulosity, I’d be in big fucking trouble. I snorted as I adjusted the design books on the leather-upholstered ottoman.
“…what could it possibly hurt to say yes once in a while?”
She was still talking? I glanced up and saw her smug “you didn’t hear a word I said” look. I should fire her for insubordination, I mused. Of course I wouldn’t. I liked her too much. Lizzy was irritating at times, but the fact she was willing to stand up to me when I was a smidge temperamental was refreshing.
“Yes. There. Happy now?”
“Oh, Brandon!” Lizzy clapped her hands and jumped up and down like a schoolgirl. What did I say yes to? “You’re the best! Want me to start sweeping in the back while you take care of Mrs. Hirschfield?”
I inwardly groaned at the sound of my name being sung out to the accompaniment of a dozen golden bangles jangling around my client’s wrist. Dora Hirschfield was a prominent Hollywood producer’s wife and one of my most loyal customers. She had a fortune to spend and I was grateful she chose to spend quite a bit of it at BGoods. She claimed to love my sense of style, but I knew she also loved me. I entertained her with a campy fun-loving gay man schtick that had become part of our traditional repartee over the few years I’d known her. Most days I slipped with ease into that role, but today I was going to have to dig deep and work through the resentment of having to play a stereotype to please my wealthy customer.
I pasted a wide, welcoming grin on my mug and sternly reprimanded myself. This was Hollywood, baby. Everyone was an actor, though the stage might vary from person to person. My stage was this store, and I owed it to my audience—my clients—to give them the Brandon Good they expected. The guy who would entertain and fawn over them as they meandered around the spacious floor perusing the newest fashions in home design. If I played my part well, my client left BGoods with a smile and a huge bag stuffed with expensive pillows and accessories.
“Mrs. H! How are you? Please tell me you came to see the brand-new Gabe Marston prints. They are divine. I’m not exaggerating either. Come with me. How is Mr. Hirschfield? And Sasha?”
“Brandon, you’re a delight! Mr. H is the same. The man works too much, but my poor Sasha has been through the wringer. Shots and antibiotics! The vet said my little pumpkin is doing well, but I worry.”
“I know you do. She’s so lucky you’re her mama. Let me show you something to cheer you up.”
MRS. HIRSCHFIELD’S late appearance delayed closing time, but I didn’t mind. She’d spent two grand on the prints and given me a referral for a showbiz connection who wanted to redo his master bedroom. I wasn’t sure I had time for additional design projects, but I’d happily talk to her friend. You never knew what might come up. Networking in this town was a must. I’d learned early on to cherish “friend of a friend” relationships. They’d proven to be some of my most lucrative connections.
Lizzy cleaned mirrors and straightened accessories while I tended to my customer, but I sent her home when Mrs. Hirschfield left. I wanted to turn on my tunes, get in a zone, and do my thing. I wanted to keep my hands busy and the music too loud for coherent thought. I hated feeling out of sorts, and Lizzy was right. I hadn’t been myself since Trevor left.
It made no sense. Trevor had not been the love of my life. I’d always known we weren’t destined to have a long romance. The man was too self-absorbed and too caught up with how things looked. Perhaps that sounded a bit hypocritical. After all, like every West Hollywood gay man, I had bought into the idea image was everything. But in a lasting relationship, I was pretty sure you needed to look beyond the superficial. You should be able to be yourself, and he should love the real you, warts and all. Just like in the movies.
So why was I sad? I didn’t love Trevor, and he didn’t love me. The sex had been great. I’d miss that for sure. But let’s face it, the conversation had been dull. If we weren’t discussing his next audition or how fantastic his abs looked (they were impressive), he lost interest quickly. It was time to move on. He made it easy to do when he admitted he was “kinda hot” for a fellow out-of-work actor. Some guy he’d met at the bistro where he worked until he was “discovered.” My big mistake was letting him move in, because it took him a full week to get his shit out of my house after he’d come clean. A whole week of looking at his crap and willing myself not to give in to the overwhelming desire to throw his stuff on the lawn. I couldn’t do it to my neighbors, though. It wasn’t their fault my judgment had been impaired by a hunky, well-hung man.
A month had gone by since I’d said adieu to traitorous Trevor. It was April now. Spring had officially come to Southern California, and Los Angeles was experiencing the kind of weather the rest of the nation could rightfully be jealous about. Seventy-five degree sunny days with only a ten-degree drop at night. Perfect. I should be breathing in the fresh air and a sigh of relief, not wallowing in an uncharacteristically maudlin state.
I reminded myself each lover since my very first faux pas at age seventeen had taught me something about myself. About what I needed in my life and what I would never put up with. Those past lovers were simply handsome placeholders until the real deal came along. However, I wasn’t one to waste any time waiting on a man. I was better off alone for now, and thankfully I liked my own company. I shook my hips to an up-tempo Beyoncé song as I restocked one of the barren shelves. This pity party was officially over.
BY FRIDAY afternoon, I was ready for the weekend. There was no such thing as time off in retail, but as the boss, I was generally able to schedule my time as I pleased. I was fortunate to have trustworthy employees to help out when needed… like Fridays at closing. It was the one night I liked to be out the door by six o’clock so I could relax and wind down before I wound myself back up for a night on the town. I looked at my watch mournfully. I wasn’t going anywhere early tonight. Lizzy was out for the day, Josh had an appointment at four, and Lorenzo was leaving as soon as he finished flirting with Mr. Gowan, a seventy-year-old regular who had a thing for hot young Latino men. I smiled cheerfully as I rang up the young mother balancing a drooling toddler on her hip.
“Let me help you take these to your car. Where did you park?” I grabbed the bags and hastened around the counter before she could protest.
“Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much. I’m just out front,” she gushed as she struggled to manage the baby and steer the stroller toward the entry.
She led the way to a white Range Rover parked nearby. I hefted the bags into her trunk while she situated the baby. We chatted about her daughter and the perils of teething. I really had no idea what we were discussing, but I made an effort to nod sympathetically when her worried tone gave me the cue to do so. The ability to talk about anything from baby teeth to the best sushi restaurants in town was an ideal skill set in the interior design biz. I’d honed my craft well over the years, though I doubted anyone really thought I knew shit about teething toddlers.
I waved good-bye and turned toward the large square topiaries flanking either side of the glass entrance to BGoods, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk with one hand on my hip. The sight of Lizzy pulling a large dog behind her on a leash made me smile. I didn’t know much about dogs, but I could tell this one was old. I shielded my eyes from the late afternoon sun and waited as the duo neared the store.
“Lizzy, are you walkin’ that dog or are you draggin’ her?”
“Ha-ha. And it’s him,” she said with a grin as she bent to scratch the top of the dog’s head. “He’s such a good boy. Aren’t you, Mack?” Her voice took on a syrupy quality as she addressed the canine, who amazingly enough seemed to grin at her. Did dogs do that?
“This handsome old man is Mack. My neighbor’s dog. Remember? I told you I was watching him while he was at wor—”
“Yes. The hunky firefighter. I remember.”
“Exactly. He’ll be here to pick Mack up by six thirty at the latest. I really appreciate this, Brandon. I can’t wait to get to Palm Spr—”
“Whoa! What are you talkin’ about?”
Lizzy lowered her sunglasses and scowled at me. I noticed for the first time she was carrying a small overnight bag on one shoulder. Her long hair was pulled back in a high ponytail, and she was wearing form-fitted aqua-colored pants, a cute T-shirt with some funny calligraphy, and a smart pair of Tory Burch flats. She definitely looked like she was going somewhere… not just out to walk a dog.
“I knew you weren’t listening! I asked you the other night if you minded if Jake came to pick up Mack from the store today. Tracy is picking me up here to go to Palm Springs for the weekend. We still have to get Lori and traffic is goi—”
“Hold up!” I put my hand in the air and gave her a scowl of my own. Was she trying to pull a fast one on me? I looked down at the old dog, who was now panting heavily at my feet. “What do you want me to do with a… dog? He’ll get hair everywhere, run around wagging his tail, knocking knickknacks off shelves. BGoods is a fine home-accessory boutique, Liz. And I am not a dog sitter. I don’t know anything about dogs! I’ve never had a dog in my life. What am I supposed to do with Jack?”
“Not Jack. Mack. Like the cosmetic store, but with a K at the end.” Lizzy bit her bottom lip, and much to my horror, it trembled. She took her glasses off and daintily wiped at the corner of her eye. “I’m sorry, Bran. I shouldn’t have asked you when you were distracted. I swear I’m not trying to take advantage of you, but I…. The reason I asked you in the first place is that you’re so good with animals and—”
“Me?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, you. You’re always so sweet to all the little dogs that come into the store.”
“Dogs don’t come into my store, Liz. They are carried in pretty designer bags. Your friend Mack here is supersized. No offense, big guy.” I looked down at the dog sitting patiently between us as we discussed his fate for the next hour or so.
“I know. Please, Brandon. He’s really the sweetest thing. He’s just an old Lab. Jake doesn’t like leaving him for long stretches, but I promise it’s not because he tears up furniture or eats trash… well, not much trash. Mack’s thirteen. He doesn’t have the energy to get into mischief like he used to. Right, Macky?”
Lizzy scratched behind Mack’s ears playfully. He made a blissful mewling sound as he leaned into her touch. His tail swished from side to side happily. He didn’t look like trouble. He looked… sweet. I sighed heavily and shook my head. God, I was a sucker.
“Oh, Brandon, you’re the best!” Lizzy threw her skinny arms around my neck and kissed my cheek. “I owe you one. I’ll text you Jake’s cell number in case of emergency, but of course there won’t be one. This will be super easy-peasy!” A car honked and Liz turned toward the sound. “That’s Tracy. I have to go. Thanks again! Be an angel for Mr. Good, Mack.”
She pushed the leash into my hands and offered me another winning smile before skipping toward the waiting car.
“Wait! Am I supposed to feed him? How will I know who Jake is? Instructions?”
“He doesn’t need any food, but please give him water. And Jake is dreamy. Trust me, you’ll know him the minute he steps in the store. Toodles!”
I starred after the departing car for a long moment before looking down at my new charge. He gave me a barely curious glance and picked up his right paw to itch his ear. In other words, he wasn’t impressed.
“Listen, Mack. I’m fairly easy going, but I have to lay down a couple rules.” He spared me another brief look. “No monkey business in my store. I run a tight ship. Don’t knock anything over. Don’t run. And if you can help it, don’t shed. I understand you can’t control everything, but manners are a must. Are we clear?” I waited a couple beats before tugging my canine companion toward the entrance. “I’m going to take your silence as a yes. C’mon.”
Mr. Gowan pushed open the door to BGoods just before I got there. He was wearing a wide happy grin and carrying three large bags. Nice job, Lorenzo. The old man waved a cheery farewell in my direction. I grabbed the door before it closed and bustled Mack inside. Lorenzo greeted me with an enormous smile, which quickly morphed into a puzzled frown.
“Who’s this?” he asked as he presented his right hand to Mack to sniff. I hadn’t thought to do that. It was easy to tell I was a novice dog sitter.
“Mack, who is waiting for a guy named Jake.” I rolled my eyes theatrically. “I’m the sucker who agreed to keep him company until he gets here.” Lorenzo stooped in front of Mack and petted him gently, murmuring sweet nothings to the regal Lab.
“He’s a beauty. I love the color of his coat. His white face isn’t quite as noticeable because of the light yellow fur, you know?”
“I wouldn’t know. We struck a bargain. And all I care is that he sticks to his end until his supposedly hot owner comes to pick him up. Right, Mack?”
The dog’s ears perked up, giving him an almost puppy-like look. Lorenzo noticed and instantly melted, cooing over and over “such a pretty boy.”
“Is that what Mr. Gowan said to you, Lo?”
Lorenzo giggled good-naturedly. “Well, he might have if I’d thrown in a blow job, but my man wouldn’t appreciate me selling my services along with three thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise. Yes, you heard me!”
He jumped up and spun in a circle to do an impromptu dance. The guy was fit, lean, and moved like a pro. Lorenzo, or Lo as he was known to his friends and coworkers, was five feet seven tops with olive skin, dark eyes, and chiseled features. He was a bona fide Latin cutie. I laughed as I led Mack behind the counter. I couldn’t think of where else to keep him, and it was apparent Lizzy hadn’t been exaggerating about the dog’s low energy. Maybe this wouldn’t be so terrible after all.
“I’ve got to run. Tony’s waiting for me. You can tell me how much you appreciate my mad sales skills tomorrow. How about a latte? Make it an extra-large and hold the foam. Take care of the store, Mack!”
Lo blew me a kiss as he left.
“Looks like it’s just you and me.” I glanced down warily at my charge. “I should probably get you some water, eh? Even the little pipsqueak pups who come into the store want a drink every once in a while. I’m guessing larger guys need more. And no, I’m not suggesting you need to lose weight. You’re fabulous. At least that’s what Lizzy tells me. Now sit like a good boy. Better yet, lie down. I’ll find a bowl and bring you some refreshment.”
I dropped the leash and backed away slowly. He seemed docile but what did I know? I found the blue porcelain bowl I used for my canine visitors. It was small but Mack wasn’t staying for long, so I thought it would do the trick. When I returned to the register with the water, there was no sign of my new guest. My eyes widened, and my heart skipped a beat. What the fuck? I’d left the room for seconds.
“Mack? C’mere, boy. That’s a good—Mack!”
He turned to give me a bored stare before he went back to sniffing the handblown glass vase on a low table. When he lost interest in the pricey inanimate object, he moved on to the next vignette. I caught on he was getting the scent of his surroundings but I still hovered like a protective parent, ready to throw my body between him and my expensive collection of knickknacks if needed.
The store wasn’t as busy as it normally was on a Friday before closing. I had a few customers but not so many I couldn’t handle them on my own while keeping an eye on the old yellow Lab. Those who did come into the store immediately noticed Mack and seemingly fell into insta-love. He received so much attention, it was kind of funny. He took the sometimes over-the-top adoration in stride, but other than wagging his tail enthusiastically, he wasn’t doing any tricks. He spent most of his time sitting or lying in front of the register so he had a clear view of the door. I tried to coerce him behind the counter, but he seemed very particular about his spot.
At closing time I flipped the sign on the front window, locked the door, turned on some happy dance music, and began the nightly chore of going through sales receipts. Mack watched my movements but lay passively nearby. When one of my favorite songs came on, I impulsively set the paperwork aside and danced around the counter. I threw my hands in the air and shook my ass in time with the happy pop tune thinking I may as well start getting in the mood now for a night on the town. Mack lifted one brow and tilted his head to the right as though he worried about my sanity. The gentle sway of his tail told me he didn’t mind if I was slightly batty though. I turned in a circle, clapping my hands and singing aloud to the upbeat lyrics. I was finishing up the bridge and moving back to the chorus when Mack startled me with a bark. He stood and wagged his tail incessantly as he made his way to the front door. I turned to see who my competition was and gave a sheepish grin and wave at the figure standing outside. Must be the hunky fireman come to rescue his poor pup. I rushed to turn the music down, then headed back to unlock the door and usher Mack’s daddy inside.
“Hello! You must be here for—”
The old dog who’d barely had enough pep to walk from one end of the store to the other suddenly barreled past my legs, almost knocking me over. Though I was on the thin side, I wasn’t easily upended. Mack, however, was on a mission. I chuckled at his exuberance and got out of the way as man and dog greeted one another like long lost friends. The man knelt on one knee and let him shower his face with loving licks. I couldn’t help smiling widely at the sight. It was cute. A little gross, but cute.
“Well, someone is happy to see you.”
The man glanced up at me briefly and grinned. “I guess so. It’s been a whole eight hours, right, buddy?”
Mack’s owner had wavy dark blond hair. I noted his brilliant blue eyes when he’d glanced up at me, but I’d yet to get a good look at him. I could tell he had broad shoulders and a muscular build. And was that a tattoo on his left bicep, peeking out under that snugly fitted black T-shirt? Hmm. I had a feeling I was going to agree with Lizzy’s assertion the fireman was delicious.
When he stood up, he wiped his right hand on his jeans and chuckled as he extended it for me to shake. I looked at his hand and then up at him as if to say “not necessary,” but I stopped. In fact everything stopped. Including my heart.
“Sorry. He gets a little excited somet—Brandon? Is that really you?”
No way. No fucking way. This was not possible. When my heart decided to resume beating, it was at a fast and furious pace. I felt lightheaded as I struggled to find words. So unlike me. I opened my mouth and closed it a moment later. Nothing. I was at a complete loss.
Lizzy had said Mack’s owner was a man named Jake. What were the odds Mack’s Jake had once been my Jake? I shook my head to clear the fog and bring my thoughts into focus. That was a long time ago. A lifetime ago. I licked my lips nervously and stepped back.
“Wow. This is a surprise.” I offered a small smile but was pretty sure it didn’t translate as a sincere gesture.
Jake took a step closer like he wanted to greet me properly with a hug. I sidestepped him and walked over to the register to strike a leisurely pose against the concrete countertop. I was working hard to give the vibe that running into my very first everything wasn’t the slightest bit of a bother to me. Why did he have to look so damn gorgeous after all these years?
He swallowed hard as though he was suddenly nervous too. For some reason that leveled the playing field a bit. I sighed and finally found my voice.
“How’ve you been?”
“Uh. Um… good. You? I haven’t seen you since—”
“Yeah. It’s been a while.” I interrupted.
We were not going there. The past was done. Over. It was never to be brought back out to chat about like the fucking weather. Live in the moment and move forward. That was my motto, and I wasn’t making any exceptions for an old flame. Particularly not this one.
“Lizzy told me you’re a firefighter?”
“Yes. I just transferred to the West Hollywood station on San Vicente a few months ago. I’ve been living in Oxna—”
“Wonderful. Welcome to the neighborhood. Mack was very well behaved, and it was a pleasure having him around this afternoon. Let me grab his leash for you.” I turned away but was stopped by a hand on my arm.
“Wait! Um… look. This is crazy… running into you like this. I’m….” He swallowed again and looked down at Mack as though he might offer inspiration. “Brandon, I… can I… are you free to—”
“No. I’m sorry. I’m not.”
“Sorry. You’re busy. I get it but—”
I rushed over to grab the leash and handed it to Jake. He thanked me but didn’t turn away.
“Yes, um… busy. I’ll see you around.” I grinned with false cheer and moved toward the front door. Obviously I was going to have to shove him and the dog out of the damn store.
He stopped to stare deeply into my eyes for a long moment. I was a respectable five ten, but I was lean. Jake easily had me by three inches and twenty pounds. I doubted I could shove him out the door if I tried, so I waited patiently for him to say his piece and get the fuck out.
“Okay then. Thank you for today. Thanks for looking after Mack. I know it probably seems funny to worry about a grown dog needing a sitter but he’s had some health problems recently and—well, I appreciate it. See you, Bran.”
I nodded and this time, I think my smile made it to my eyes. I liked Mack. Spending an hour or so with him hadn’t been a problem at all. I bent to rub behind his ears and whispered a brief good-bye as Jake opened the door. He halted and turned to give me a heart-stopping grin. One I recognized immediately. It used to make me weak at the knees. Not good.
“By the way, nice moves,” he said with a wink. “Mack loves music. Don’t you, boy?”
I stood staring at the space they’d vacated until a passerby waved at me cheerfully. I returned the gesture, relocked the door, and willed myself to stay in the moment. I couldn’t begin to make sense of Jake Westley’s unexpected reappearance after twelve years. It was like a cameo appearance in the sitcom of life, I thought. But why him? Why now? On television, those comebacks were made for a reason. Real life made no fucking sense.
SATURDAY MORNING dawned too brightly. Sunlight reflected off of every possible surface, making it difficult for me to see without sunglasses. Even inside my store. Obviously I’d had one too many rum and cokes last night. Ugh. Today was going to be rough.
I took a careful sip of my coffee as I perched on the edge of the stool behind the counter and surveyed my store. Even on a weekend morning when it was difficult to leave my big heavenly bed, I had to admit there was no place I’d rather be than here. BGoods was my oasis. It was a large space with wide plank, light wood flooring. The concrete and distressed wood register counter with glass pendant lighting above was situated along one side with a faux fireplace and generous seating area flanking the opposite end. Toward the front entrance, there was a beautiful farmhouse dining table set for a party of twelve with the latest designer linens and place settings. A huge wrought iron chandelier embellished with dainty crystals hung over the space. A large bed made with a lush and comfy-looking duvet and strewn with designer pillows sat at the back of the store in front of a wall of ample shelving, which I used to showcase fabric and textile samples, as well as pre-made pillowcases. There were side tables, sofa tables, and ottomans throughout the store, piled high with lighting, knickknacks, and the latest books in home design.
A lot was packed into the space but visually it was proportionately and rhythmically perfect. My goal had been to create a comfortable “home” atmosphere. I didn’t want my customers to feel intimidated by their surroundings. I wanted them to fall in love with the ever-changing color palette, the fine accessories, and the brilliant open space. I hated going into cramped, ill-lit stores and being overwhelmed by overzealous sales people. If anything, I hoped my clients wanted to visit with me as much as they wanted to peruse the latest in home design trends.
Although not necessarily today.
Today I couldn’t wait for my reinforcements to arrive and the caffeine to kick in. I heard the rattle of a key and glanced up to see my best friend, Luke, letting himself in the front entrance. He called out a hello and relocked the door before making his way to the register.
“Good morning, honey. Happy Saturday! I’ve come to help you sell, sell, sell!” Luke sounded too fucking cheerful. And he looked it too.
Life at the beach with his soccer-star boyfriend definitely agreed with him. Luke was a quintessential California kid with short-cropped blond hair worn stylishly longer in the front, gorgeous blue eyes, and golden skin. He had a lean physique and moved with a graceful, elegant air. Luke liked to say we looked alike… one light, one dark. He could be correct except for tiny differences like eye color—mine were hazel—and hairstyle; I kept mine close-shaved. Either way, Luke was a beautiful man. And my oldest, dearest friend.
Luke and I met in high school our freshman year. I was the gawky new kid from Alabama. My Southern accent, tall lanky frame, and skin color made me an instant standout. Not exactly what the average teenager wants when trying to navigate a new system and hopefully make friends. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy. Thankfully I found a kindred spirit in Luke Preston. He was petite, fine boned, and pretty. Luke sat next to me in American Literature. He used to sit with his hands tucked under his chin, giving the teacher his rapt attention while the rest of the students kept an eye on the clock. Luke was bookish and did his best to stay under the radar. I was the opposite.
I was smart enough, but my true talents were of an artistic nature. Oh… and a social one. The move to Southern California gave me the second chance I needed as a teenager. I couldn’t change my tendency to lace my conversation with effeminate gestures and phrases, but I did my best to lose my country twang. I’d tried very hard to conform in Birmingham, but my movements and speech ended up sounding contrived. Phony. I decided to give the real me a go at age fourteen. The result wasn’t an overnight success by any means. Most kids stayed clear. They weren’t sure what to think of me and didn’t want to be associated with a weirdo. Except for Luke.
He invited me to sit with him at lunch and offered to help me study for literature quizzes. I realized later part of him wanted a reason to recite poetry. Whatever his motivation had been, he became my first true friend in California. And when I met his mother, Mara, I knew I’d do anything to remain in their orbit. She was… magical, larger than life, beautiful and eccentric in the most fabulous ways. When she entered a room, everyone turned to see the gorgeous platinum-blond bombshell bedecked and bejeweled in strands of faux pearls and rhinestones. She wore brilliant color combinations most women would never be brave enough to try, and yet she always looked amazing. However, it was when she spoke you knew you’d met someone special.
My mother had been an absentee parent at best. The only thing she and Mara had in common was they were single mothers. Unfortunately, mine cared more about men, booze, and drugs than she did about her kids. She was never home. Supposedly she was working two jobs. After all, the move to California was for the sake of opportunity. Oh yeah… and to follow her latest boyfriend. Mandi Pettigrew Good had a thing for men. Black men in particular. My older sister, Trish, and I were mixed race. Who cared, right?
Well, I’d agree except for the glaring fact I was a standout in grade school. An anomaly amongst the blue-eyed, blond-haired white kids and the dark-skinned, dark-eyed black ones. The thing about being different from everyone else was I didn’t know I was until it was pointed out to me. All the fucking time. When my fellow elementary-aged peers asked the stupid question for the umpteenth time about why I looked nothing like my blond-haired, green-eyed mother, their opinion about the color of my skin was clearly written in their expressions. I was an outsider. Maybe things would have been easier if I’d been athletic. Sadly, I wasn’t. At least I had my mother and sister.
But as I grew and morphed into a fabulous gay teenager, I was no longer so sure my mother and sister liked having me around either. I learned to steer clear of home as much as possible during my first couple years of high school when it became apparent they didn’t approve of the real me I was trying to embrace in California. My “gayness” embarrassed them. And when I came out… well, let’s just say an already uncomfortable environment got downright hostile. I was given ten minutes to get my crap and get the hell out.
Luke and his mother were my lifeline. They accepted me, no questions asked, and gave me a home when my family turned me away. Fast-forward almost fourteen years, Luke and Mara were my family. They were the two people on the planet I trusted with my life who inexplicably loved the real me.
I adjusted my sunglasses as Luke approached the counter and gave him a weak smile. It actually hurt to move. I hoped the caffeine worked its magic soon.
“Uh-oh. Someone had too much fun last night,” Luke singsonged. He kissed my cheek in greeting before leaning against the counter with his arms crossed to give me a good once-over.
I grunted by way of reply, which made Luke chuckle. Loudly.
“Shh. Quiet. I need a few minutes,” I groused.
“Okay, we’ll whisper.” Luke’s eyes twinkled merrily. At least one of us was having a good morning, I mused. “What did you do or who did you do last night?”
“Ha-ha.” I lowered my glasses for a moment, but my eyes weren’t ready for the glare. “I… I think I had fun. Honestly, it got a little hazy at the end but alas, I went home alone.”
“Hmm. Better that way.” Luke observed primly. “Are you still celebrating Trevor’s departure? Or was it something else?”
That was why I loved Luke. He knew me. He’d allow me the excuse of wallowing in a breakup he knew I was over if I wasn’t ready to share. The reprieve would only last until the caffeine and aspirin took hold. I didn’t want him worrying about me all day, so I cleared my throat and took a sip of coffee before taking off the sunglasses.
“Lizzy asked me to watch a dog yesterday.” I chuckled at Luke’s incredulous expression. “Don’t make me laugh, please. It hurts.”
“You watched Lizzy’s dog? I didn’t know she had one. Sorry Bran, but that’s not like you,” he commented with a furrowed brow.
“I know, I know. She bamboozled me. Whatever. It wasn’t her dog anyway. She said he belonged to her sexy new neighbor. A firefighter named Jake.”
I paused and gave Luke a meaningful stare. He didn’t catch on.
“Yeah? So? Was he hot? What’s the story?”
“Luke, it was Jake.”
“You already said that. What are you—” He stopped and quirked his head to the side. His eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Jake? Like from high school?”
I nodded and took another drink. I was starting to feel human again. Thank God. There was a shitload of things to be done before I opened the door. I sighed as I stood and carried my coffee to the back office, inclining my head to wordlessly ask Luke to follow.
“There’s nothing much to tell. It was weird. As in, what the fuck? The chances of him moving to West Hollywood are—”
“Maybe he finally came out. Did he say if—”
“I didn’t ask! I don’t want to know. I don’t want anything to do with him. It was twelve years ago. You know the saying about fish and family after three days. There’s got to be a good one about closeted ex-boyfriends resurfacing after a dozen years.”
“The past is never where you think you left it,” Luke quoted. His love of literature and poetry hadn’t diminished over the years.
“Who said—never mind. I don’t want to know. I have a very strict policy regarding the past. No exceptions.”
“Katherine Anne Porter was responsible for that piece of wisdom.” He paused for a moment. “Bran, I’m not suggesting you get reacquainted. I think it’s weird too. And yes, I know your policy. Live in the present only. I get it. But are you… okay? He was important to you once and—”
“Once. A long time ago. I admit it was odd and out of context, and I took the excuse of it being Friday night to party a little harder than usual to forget about things and people I don’t want to remember. I’m an idiot, but….” I sighed deeply and flashed Luke a reassuring grin. “Give me ten more minutes to recuperate, and I’ll be back to normal. Enough about me! Tell me about your sexy soccer man. What did you boys do last night? Feel free to share details. I’m a single boy again. I’m living vicariously, sugar!”
Luke’s lovely smile lit his handsome features. He blushed furiously as he launched into a somewhat tame story about a restaurant in Laguna, a romantic sunset, and then I tuned out. It was all so sweet and domesticated. I had to laugh at myself though. Isn’t that what I wanted eventually too? Holding hands at the theater and romantic dinners by candlelight with lots of steamy sex in between sounded good. Sure. But so did something a little naughtier. My errant imagination conjured melting wax from a wayward candle enticingly dripped on my bare torso by a fireman in uniform. Well, minus the shirt, who’d come to rescue me from—
“Well, was he?”
I blinked in an attempt to focus on my friend, who was giving me an expectant look. I gave up. I had no clue what he was talking about.
“Was Jake still good-looking, or was he balding with the beginnings of a beer belly?”
“Sadly he’s hotter than ever with a full head of hair and a flat stomach. No doubt his abs are to die for too.” I sighed dramatically and stood up. It was time to get to work.
“I figured as much.” Luke commiserated as he followed me back into the store.
“Help me go through the receipts from yesterday. I didn’t get to them last night.” I stopped suddenly and turned to Luke with a serious expression. “By the way, your writer friend was wrong. I know exactly where my past is and that’s where it’s staying.”
I have to say I love Brandon and Jake … needless to say … I love Mack too ….
The history between Brandon and Jake is one of forgiveness and leaving yours fears behind in order to open your heart back to love and be loved.
Their past was not an easy thing … for any of them …. The rejection they suffered in hands of their own families is a horrible thing … but the friends and new families help them move forward.
The catalyst for the togetherness … a beautiful dog named Mack … love... Love … love …
Book 2 of the series ...
Brandon. What’s not to love about him? Seriously. We were introduced to him in The Right Words (Book 1) He was the voice of reason for his bff Luke. Well, when Luke was giving bran all the info that is. In The Wrong Man, Bran gets his story. He gets his man. And let’s just say, I’m sure he wasn’t expecting it to be the past love of his life. What I loved was that I never hated Jake. I knew he broke Bran’s heart. I knew that Jake’s mistakes is what has kept Bran so guarded all these years from any type of happily ever after. But when we hear about Jake’s life. What it’s been like since Bran left. It’s not the best. It’s not the worst but it wasn’t easy for him. That, right off the bat, made me care what happened to him. Of course his fabulous golden retriever, Mack, helped a lot too.
This was a sweet story. One that shows that your past doesn’t always have to stay there. It can come back and make your future bright.
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