Sunshine and Happiness: Book Two
How can you lose one dream and still find another?
Owen King is a lonely history teacher who wants to be braver. So when Owen learns about the deceased brother he never met, he breaks free of his safety net and risks answers. Despite his loving, adopted family, Owen wonders if there are missing pieces inside of him. Visiting the seaside town of Ocean Vista, where his brother lived and died, will be no vacation.
Andrew Teagan wants to be a winner. After being dumped by his last boyfriend, Andrew is through letting others dictate his life. To prove that dreams are possible, he’s going after his ambitions full force. Having signed on for a cooking reality show, Andrew’s ready to make his small café into a sizzling success.
When Andrew aids Owen on the beach, what starts off as an act of kindness turns into a hot temptation. But can a sweet budding romance survive when the time comes for Owen to leave town? Both men must learn to trust each other if their love will conquer the miles between them.
Yeah, it’s me again. Here to bother you with another letter. I know you’re busy with your job and your family in Georgia, but how can I persuade you to visit us? I didn’t mention it in my earlier letters, but there have been a ton of changes here. For one thing, I moved out of the house and in with my boyfriend, Ian. Mostly, this was due to loving Ian like a crazy lunatic, but if I’m totally honest, living in the house without Brendan there was too hard for me. The other guys remain, but again, I’m not sure how long they’ll stay. Especially River, who is more elusive than ever. Although you and Brendan never met, I can tell he’d have loved you… quite a lot. And maybe meeting you would have made him less broken inside. Eased his struggles with his family. I don’t know. All I ever wanted to do was be his best friend and protect him, but I failed.
I’ve always believed a person can make his own family. I did it too, for a time. Before Brendan’s senseless death, I had that with him and my other housemates.
I admit, meeting you is another chance for me. You’ve said you will come to visit us “someday,” but as the months fly away, I wonder if someday is “never”?
We are all still grieving here. The guys are a great group with giant hearts, and not an asshole among us. I know you’d be glad if you came and met them. And most importantly, Brendan is here—in every room in our little house, he’s still here. Take a chance and visit, won’t you? I’m not above begging.
IT HAD been Owen’s idea to ask for his contract a week early. St. James Academy usually delivered them in the faculty mailboxes a day before spring break, but he had been eager to see if he would be offered an increase in salary. The students had voted him teacher of the year, and Owen had single-handedly slaved over the new schedule that would rotate their classes more like a college and create a more flexible day for students and faculty alike. Everybody had been excited and full of praise for his suggestions. It wasn’t mere ego to think he’d earned the 5 percent that more experienced faculty received. Owen tore open the manila envelope and quickly scanned its contents, his heart thumping hopefully.
Instead of an increase, though, he found something else entirely.
A morality clause.
Owen had spent years telling himself all of it mattered: awards, student reviews, hard work. But did any of it? Because more often than not in this world, one misstep resulted in wiping out all the rest of the path.
Son of a bitch.
Now he was blindly heading down the highway in his beat-up Honda, and Owen had the words playing over and over in his head as he drove to the outskirts of the small coastal town of Ocean Vista, Florida. He pulled off to the side of the road to think. Ahead of him was the town and behind him the highway. The day was without the mercy of the slightest breeze, and Owen felt a hot trickle of sweat at his neck.
He’d come to learn about his biological brother’s life. Each time his brother’s best friend Cole wrote to him, it had torn at Owen’s heart until he finally couldn’t ignore the need to visit. If he’d also come to avoid possible threats to his career as a teacher and hide out in a place where nobody knew him or expected anything from him—well, that was a fact he could keep to himself.
His stomach growled. First things first. He needed a good meal. Owen was normally of solid build, but he’d lost some weight. Bone-tired most nights, it was too much bother to cook. If his mama knew how he’d let things slide with his meals, she’d be all over his ass. Cooking good food and teaching manners were the cornerstones of his mama’s parenting skills.
His mama could also pack a suitcase like nobody’s business, having followed Daddy’s career from one place to another. She folded with military precision. Not so Owen, who haphazardly tossed in three pairs of khaki shorts, one pair of jeans, and some random polo shirts. He packed white socks, sensible underwear, and toiletries. At the last possible second he remembered a nicer outfit and a bathing suit, but he had little occasion for other clothes beyond school functions.
Owen gave all of himself to his job at St. James Academy. Hell, he lived at his job. The private school encouraged the faculty to use their tiny campus apartments or be in their dorms as a “parent.” He’d had a plan, mapping out his entire future. He was going to be head of the history department, then assistant headmaster. He’d move into the headmaster’s big sprawling house by the lake one day. Nothing had changed. Only….
Faculty could be dismissed for any reason deemed “immoral” or “unacceptable” behavior not reflecting the values of the school. Private schools sometimes did this, but this was new for St. James Academy. A pushy member of the board of trustees, Mrs. Wilma Temple, or “Mrs. Moneybags,” as the staff secretly referred to her, insisted on it. “The world is more and more filled with degenerates,” she warned as she pointed a bony finger. “We all need to protect the St. James Academy proper way of life.”
Although nobody defined the morality clause to specifically include sexual behavior, Owen could easily imagine their reaction to his arriving with a boyfriend for a student basketball game or theater performance, or even a faculty Christmas party. They’d say he was “flaunting his lifestyle” and “endangering the minds of impressionable, minor youths.” Since this was a private school, not a public one, there was nothing protecting Owen’s job.
He’d been sick when he’d gone back to his small apartment.
Not that Owen had a boyfriend to bring to a school event. He’d been alone and dateless for a long time, at least six months. His family complained good-naturedly that Owen did not make enough time for a proper social life, so busy was he with his lesson plans and textbooks.
For that reason, it had been easy not to share his personal life with his coworkers. He just couldn’t bring himself to sign a contract vowing to uphold Mrs. Temple’s idea of how he should live his life, but neither had he marched into the headmaster’s office and torn it up. He had until vacation ended to decide what to do.
Owen did not want to stay where his behavior would be so monitored and weighed. No, thank you. The ballsy thing to do would be to leave. To be brave like his parents. Like his sister was every day. But it wasn’t as simple for him as that.
St. James Academy was his lifeline. Owen had gone there as a student since sixth grade, when his family moved to the Buckhead area, when he’d craved stability desperately, and he’d thrived there. Owen’s mama, a successful television reporter, and his daddy, the ex-jock who now owned one of the largest sporting goods stores in Georgia, allowed their geeky, dreamy boy to attend St. James, even though they had reservations, but Owen had loved St. James Academy from the first. He loved the big brick buildings and the shade of the dogwood trees, could sit for hours in the immaculate gardens filled with fragrant jasmine and azaleas. He could spend every day with a good book and be perfectly happy. His favorite part of the day had been discussing battle strategies with old Mr. Hewitt, the very history teacher whom Owen had replaced a year or two ago.
Mr. Hewitt—cranky, heavyset, food in his beard—had been the most amazing teacher Owen ever met. He made history come alive. Owen wished for even half his success in the classroom. In those days the school motto was Honor Above Everything. What would it be now? Be Careful, I’m Watching You?
Owen sighed to himself as he drove through the little South Florida town. He’d have to sign the contract and make the best of it. All he’d ever wanted was to be needed by somebody, and his students needed him. The school was his life. He’d have to hope he was never outed on the Internet or questioned too closely by Mrs. Temple. If he ever did find love, he’d have to hope the guy would be willing to spend most of their time in private places. It seemed like the best solution, the most logical one. The one that would keep all his planning on track.
So why did he feel like such garbage?
He needed this temporary change of scenery. Ocean Vista was tiny, but it had a long main street filled with cutesy shops and restaurants. Perfect. It was early morning, not many cars around, and Owen had no trouble parking. He headed toward the nearest place with a sign that promised a meal.
“I’VE ENTERED Café Battles,” Andrew said, licking orange frosting off his finger.
“Café Battles? That reality show?”
“You watch it too?” Andrew grinned impishly at Marc. Admitting you watched reality shows was a little like admitting you only changed your underwear once a week. Come to think of it, he hardly ever saw Marc doing laundry.
Andrew wiped the rest of the frosting off his fingers. He’d been baking a new recipe: poppy seed tea rolls. Last night he’d chilled the dough, brushed on the french egg wash, and then filled it with brown sugar and poppy seeds. This morning he’d topped it with the orange cream cheese frosting. It was almost perfect. He only needed to get the flakiness right to serve it.
Andrew felt positive about his life these days. All right, he no longer had a boyfriend and there were no signs of a hookup on the horizon, but he spent his days doing what he loved and he lived near the ocean in a house full of guys. Luck was on his side, no need to stress over what he did not have. He was determined to focus on things he could control. When he’d opened the Busy Day, his goal had been simple: have a warm and welcoming little space to feed people in. He’d managed to get it. Was it wrong to want a little more? That was life, after all, the constant search for further possibilities.
Since these contestants baked their buns off, Andrew considered baking research more than anything else. He knew Marc would get that part. It was good to have somebody else in the house who could also appreciate cooking shows and freshly baked goods. His other housemates, Tomas, Sandy, and River, barely distinguished boxed or microwaved food from fresh foods, but Marc was a culinary student and Andrew owned a café, so they both savored the touch of spices on their tongues: ground ginger, cardamom pods, and star anise.
“I’ve watched it. It’s pretty cutthroat.”
“Uh-huh. But I have a shot at winning.”
Marc’s eyebrows arched. “Yeah? Even though you have to cook mystery meals from ingredients they surprise you with and build a display of all your food?”
“Even though,” Andrew said, trying to remain patient in the face of Marc’s skepticism. He counted to ten silently. “It’s on the Food Network. It’s all the rage. Great publicity. Best of all, the winner gets $12,000. They’re coming to South Florida and advertised last month for local talent, so I signed up to be in it. I should hear any time now.” He thrust his chin out, adding, “And why not me? Why not my place?”
“Relax. I’m not insulting you or the Busy Day Café. I’m surprised, that’s all.” A slightly evil smile crossed Marc’s handsome face. “We should have our own mini battle. You’ll need to practice, right? They only give you an hour to whip up the meal.”
“A bake-off between me and you?” Andrew could barely suppress a grin as Marc got closer into his trap. He needed Marc if his plan was to succeed. He’d counted on his housemate’s love of a fight to lure him in. “Are you saying you want to have a go at each other right here and now?”
“Yep, right here and now. A cooking battle. Want to give it a try?”
“If you insist,” Andrew murmured.
“Don’t do it,” Tomas warned as he wandered into the kitchen. “Competing with Marc is always a bad idea.”
“I’m fair.” Marc glared at Tomas, ready to defend himself. Andrew had to stop his own glare of annoyance. He loved Tomas, everybody did, but he needed to keep his giant nose out of his plans for Marc. “What? You don’t think I’m fair?”
“Maybe. But you’re also a sore loser and a bad winner.”
“You’re menacing.” Tomas took the sting out of his remark with a tender smile, as if “menacing” were an endearment.
Marc didn’t answer. Andrew didn’t know the story between them exactly. When he first moved in, he’d assumed they were ex-lovers, but Cole, the housemate Andrew replaced, told him that wasn’t it. “They’re best friends who are so in love with each other it’s painful to watch,” Cole had told him. “But something ugly from their past has kept them apart.”
“What?” Andrew had asked.
“No idea.” Cole had looked sad. “And ever since Brendan died…. Let’s just say all the festering is reaching a crisis point between them.”
Brendan was their housemate who’d died the summer before Andrew moved in. It had been a horrific accident. When Andrew first arrived, the sadness in the house was palpable. Cole had left to live with his new boyfriend, Ian, and those left were grieving. Andrew had debated whether his decision to join them was a wise one, but he’d just broken up with John. At least here he didn’t have to pretend to not be sad.
Slowly, over the past months, Andrew had returned to his normally upbeat self. When he thought the breakup with John lately, his only emotion was relief. He and John had fought all the time, and it wasn’t that hot sort of fighting that led to great makeup sex either—no, their fights were the cold, bitter kind that left Andrew sleeping most nights alone. They had begun to let each other drift apart: going through the motions of a relationship, but not truly connecting. Andrew was helpless to fix it because he couldn’t figure out what he’d done wrong. In the end, John was a decent guy, but they failed to make each other happy. Maybe they never had. John had resented Andrew’s hours at the café, his family time—anything that wasn’t focused on John. Who needed a boyfriend like that? Andrew planned to put himself first for once.
“I can take some competition,” he said. “And it would be good practice for Café Battles.”
“Just don’t tell me where you’ll put his body”—Tomas gestured to Andrew—“and I can’t testify at the trial.”
“No problem. I planned to grind him up in the blender.”
Tomas didn’t answer, but the sides of his mouth quivered, suppressing amusement.
“Hey, I’m sitting right here,” Andrew complained. “Listening to you two discuss my murder by kitchen appliance.”
“What can I say?” Marc winked. “Tomas had it correct. I never back down from a fight, especially one that involves buttery scones and croissants. I might get violent.”
“If there’s one thing you suck at, it’s losing gracefully,” Tomas agreed. “Or losing at all.”
“Well, you’ll lose this morning,” Andrew replied.
“Have you been snorting the sugar? Because that is the only way to explain your misplaced confidence.” A gleam appeared in Marc’s eyes. “Be ready to admit defeat.”
Tomas shook his head in warning.
Andrew didn’t care. It was going exactly the way he’d wanted. Besides, he was not afraid of competition. He was confident. Oh, he knew Marc outdid him in the general cooking areas. Marc made a port wine sauce and brisket to die for, and he was extremely talented with meats and pastas, but Andrew could bake. And if he won that prize money, he could expand his café the way he’d dreamed about for years. He needed this. But first he had to assemble a team. Since the show used café teams and not just single chefs, he needed a team to compete. More importantly, he needed a good team behind him to win.
“Let the contest begin,” Marc said. He nodded at Tomas. “Come back in an hour. You can be our judge.”
“And get my ass kicked by one of you? No thanks.”
“No chance of that,” Andrew chuckled.
Tomas, the biggest guy in the house, with biceps like bowling balls, would hardly get his ass kicked by him, Marc, or anybody. He worked as a bouncer at night and was a nursing student by day. Usually he wore scrubs on his nursing days or dressed in jeans and his beloved futebol moleque T-shirts to support his Brazilian roots on the weekends. He was hardworking, strong, and often quiet, which made him hard to get to know, but what Andrew did know of Tomas, he liked. Tomas had a calm and sweet personality that was the exact opposite of the volatile Marc. In fact, the only person Tomas ever bickered with was Marc, which Andrew found rather telling.
“Besides, I got to go to class. I have no time to rule over your baked goods.”
“Chicken,” Marc mocked.
“No, smart. Get Sandy or River to be your judge.”
“Sandy’s in New York at some cousin’s wedding, remember?”
“Who knows where he went.” Marc shrugged. “He took off early this morning looking as if somebody pissed in his coffee.”
“As usual. I don’t know which is getting worse, his constant disappearances or his new habit of hookups. It disturbs me how many of them are Brendan look-alikes.”
“Whatever gets him through the day.” Marc’s face was expressionless.
Tomas ignored that. He looked to Andrew. “He’s lost, poor guy. That’s all I know for sure.”
Andrew handed Tomas a tea roll, unsure of what to say. River was extremely quiet when he was home. The first months Andrew lived in the house, River barely spoke or left his room—the room that used to be Brendan’s. River claimed to be tired all the time, and he didn’t want to do much of anything, saying it was too much trouble to bother. His grief was a cocoon. All of a sudden, though, he was going to Swanky’s and other bars and bringing home guys constantly. He acted as if he had to screw as many of them as possible. As if that sort of desperation would help exorcise his grief. None of those guys ever stayed the whole night. None of them made River any happier. He remained a mystery to Andrew.
“It’s a tragedy,” Tomas said. “He’s doing himself and those guys he brings home a wrong.”
“No, what’s a tragedy is that River gets laid more than all three of us together,” Marc retorted. “He attracts guys like tuna fish attracts alley cats, and we stand here analyzing it and getting no action at all. That’s the goddamn tragedy.”
“Speak for yourself,” Andrew joked, although it had been some time for him.
Tomas ignored Marc altogether. He busied himself with some of the food. Andrew saw a flash of regret cross Marc’s face before he hid it. It didn’t take a love expert to see how these two always hurt each other when they wanted so much more.
“Jesus. This is good!” Tomas declared, biting into Andrew’s roll. He let out a deep groan. “Really good.”
“Let’s get this thing going, Andrew.” Marc hurled down a sack of flour and ripped it open. He began to make fresh dough in mere moments, punching and kneading it. His speed and skill would definitely help Andrew on the show.
“See?” Tomas said. “One compliment to you and Marc wants to kick my ass already.”
They all knew it went beyond the compliment to Andrew, though. Marc might be regretting his earlier words, and things had certainly gotten uncomfortable since he’d mentioned their lack of sex lives. With a heavy step, Tomas opened their pantry and got out a Ziploc, packing some treats to go. “Guess I’ll let you guys get to your bake-off thing.” Tomas headed toward the door with a wistful smile, his gaze still on Marc, who remained silent. “Take care.”
Marc only grunted, but as soon as Tomas disappeared, he let out a deep sigh.
Andrew had trouble understanding it, but it was none of his business, so he turned his mind to cooking. He wanted to be on Café Battles to win the prize money and redo the café from top to bottom. His throat tightened just imagining it. He’d been searching for a way to scrape together enough money to make his dreams come true, including working another job if he had to while running the café. Who needed days off or sleep, right?
Andrew had been scanning the want ads for a night job when he’d seen the advertisement in the Sun Sentinel. The timing could not be more perfect, and Andrew had immediately figured out his path to certain victory. Marc on his team was step one. Well, that and actually getting selected for the show. Since that part was out of his hands, Andrew decided to think positively and proceed as if he’d already been chosen. If you bake it, they will come. As a kid, Field of Dreams had been one of his favorite movies, after all.
An hour later, the air, warm from the oven, smelled of sugar and cinnamon. They were both coated in flour. The kitchen was a mess. Marc slathered the warmed butter across a thick slice of banana bread and let out a small “Ahhh” as he chewed a bite.
“Is that a sound of surrender?”
“No, never.” Marc pulled a face. “But damn, man, you delivered the goods.”
Andrew popped one of Marc’s lemon and wild blueberry squares into his mouth. He shut his eyes and breathed deeply. “So did you.” Andrew thought his sticky buns were better, but he had to admit Marc’s bacon-crusted quiches kicked ass.
“Gosh, I’m getting stiff.” Andrew laced his fingers over his head and stretched. “Do you want to take a short break?”
“Not even a small one?”
“No.” Marc arched his eyebrows. “Are you giving up?”
“Aw, hell no. Don’t get excited there. I’m all in until one of us wins. I’ve cooked in the café with a swollen ankle, the flu, oven burns on my hands. I can ignore my stiff back.”
“Then let’s go.”
Afterward, they surveyed the stack of dishes and pans, and then the plates of croissants and muffins and quiches and scones. They’d made quite a mess in the space of a few hours.
“Wow. Um…. What will we do with all this food?” Andrew asked.
“I guess we did get carried away.”
“I’d take it to the café today and sell it, but it’s my only day off. And my little sister and brother have been begging me to take them out for the afternoon. I bought us all tickets for a late ball game. What should we do with all these leftovers?”
“I’ll swing by Ian and Cole’s and give them some,” Marc said. “Neither of them can cook for crap.”
“How’re they doing?”
“They’re sickeningly in love. Too much PDA, no restraint at all. They give each other these dopey, stupid looks—it’s pathetic.”
“Sounds perfect to me.” Andrew laughed. “I’ll pack up some for my family too.”
“You’re really spending your one day off with your siblings?”
“Yeah, what can I say? With my sister and brother on spring break, I really want to see them, especially Tobey. He’s a little precocious monster. Tomorrow it will be back to the grind.”
Marc merely nodded. He had no siblings. No family at all that Andrew knew about.
“So, without a judge around, who won this thing?”
“We both did.”
At Marc’s sour face, Andrew knew the moment of truth had arrived.
“Actually, all of this competing with you gave me a fabulous idea.”
“Oh yeah? What? We need to pool our money and hire a maid around here?”
“Yes, please. This house is a wreck. And no—another idea. I’m allowed three helpers of my choosing on Café Battles. Some for working with me in the kitchen part, and some for building the display. With you there, we could cook some amazing things.” Although he’d semiplanned this moment, he wasn’t totally sure of Marc, who was moody on his good days. But, man, he was talented. Andrew needed that talent backing him up in the contest. “What do you say? I can’t think of anybody better to have by my side.”
“True.” Marc’s eyes sparkled teasingly. “What’s in it for me?”
“Fans? The show is taped live this time from Miami. That’s why they’re looking for local talent.”
“Naw, I hate people. Who wants them gushing over me?”
“It could go on your résumé? Might be good for when you graduate culinary school.”
“I do need that,” Marc admitted. “Why do you want this so badly?”
“I took a gamble when I opened up the café, and it’s doing good, but it could do better. I’ve sweated my ass off to make the café as successful as it is, but I want some of the reward too. This show can give me that.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I want my younger siblings to see that you can grow up and make your dreams happen.”
“Oh, Christ.” Marc made a stabbing gesture of a knife to his heart. “You’re playing that card?”
Andrew smiled, although he’d meant every word. “Is it working?”
“There’s one more thing to consider. I’ll give you a cut of the money if we win.” Andrew wiped his hand on a dishtowel. “When we win.”
“How much do you think is fair?”
“Aw, shit, don’t ask me that. I’ll totally fleece you.”
“No, you won’t.” Andrew had lived with Marc for several months now, and Marc was ambitious and a hothead, but he always was honest to the point of being blunt. Andrew waited for Marc to reply, pretty sure of his assessment. He had always been good at reading people.
“It’s your café and its reputation on the line,” Marc said slowly, rubbing his jaw. “And I don’t want to be a greedy bastard. I’d like enough to pay off my last classes. How about a thousand out of the twelve?”
Just that easily, they were smiling and shaking hands.
This was actually tricky for me at first. I was given this book to read for a blog tour not knowing it was book 2 of a series. So this review is based on reading this first. I was a bit confused at first about the pain and loss of Brendan. Of course Skylar does a great job of explaining who Brendan was in book 1 and the story there so I got through my confusion quickly. I’d recommend reading book 1 first though. Owen and Andrew are such a stunning pair in every way. Owen is from Georgia and Andrew is from Florida and of course they meet and just click perfectly. This story was about inner strength. Knowing your worth and respecting boundaries. It’s about growth, acceptance, and healing. So much healing. I can feel the pain of Brendan’s loss in every man in this house. I teared up so many times and was blown away by the elegance of Skylar’s writing and passion in the emotion of her characters.
This is fabulous work and highly recommend.
Owen and Andrew’s story is one of perseverance and making it work even when you have to make sacrifices. The love amongst made them try, even long distance, to remain together.
The chemistry was excellent. They knew since the beginning they belong with each other.
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