Chapter One

 

“WOW, THIS place is hopping today.”

Forrester Giordano nearly dropped the box of books in his hands.

The angle of the afternoon sun cast a glare across the front of his bookstore café, forcing him to squint. His favorite customer—and the most beautiful man in the world—stood before him, backlit by the sun, the light glinting golden off his blond hair like someone opened the door on a dream.

Startling hazel eyes captured his, and for a solitary moment, Forrester couldn’t breathe. “Look at you,” he whispered.

Then Kyle Benson moved out of the glare, and Forrester saw the man’s grin, and his knees went to jelly. Kyle had the most adorable dimples when he smiled.

Forrester had always loved dimples. They spoke of innocence in need of serious corruption.

“Um, do I have spinach in my teeth or something?” Kyle asked.

Idiot!

But one glimpse of a man who belonged on the covers of romance novels always turned Forrester into the biggest dork in all of Northwest Ohio. “Oh, uh, I mean your helmet and jacket….” He fumbled, grasping for anything to cover up his faux pas. “You ride motorcycles?”

“Yup, a Harley.” Kyle set his helmet on the coffee bar counter. “First nice Saturday of the year, so I thought I’d take her out for a spin.”

“Oh, cool.” Forrester shuffled the box in his hands.

“It’s busy in here today.” Kyle tugged off his riding gloves and put them inside the helmet. “You having a party?”

Forrester glanced around his shop, A Novel Idea. The majority of customers today were a handful of gay men and squealing fangirls—mostly middle-aged women. They sipped coffee or lingered in the comfy chairs tucked in cozy nooks between tall bookshelves full of new and used books. He’d bought most of the shelves when the big bookstore he used to manage at the mall closed. Forrester and his brothers built the rest. The shop had most recently been a local tavern, but now customers bellied up to the long wooden bar with cappuccinos rather than beers. The customers were there to meet S.D. Howe, a gay romance novelist who lived right here in Gilead.

“Guest author,” Forrester explained. “He’s a local.”

“Oh yeah? Anyone I know?”

Forrester squirmed at the open way Kyle stared at his face, waiting for an answer. “I’m not sure. Do you ever read S.D. Howe? He’s pretty popular in certain circles.”

Translation: Are you gay, because I’ve been dying to know.

Kyle lived in one of Gilead’s quaint bungalows, and he’d become a frequent customer at the bookstore. While it felt like they were flirting, Forrester didn’t want to say anything stupid. He’d already made an ass of himself asking Kyle if he was from New Zealand or some other “exotic place,” because of his accent. Kyle had laughed and explained he was deaf. Forrester had stumbled over himself to apologize, but Kyle assured him it happened all the time.

Kyle’s brows rose. “Oh yeah? The guy who wrote the Shi Knight books? He’s here today?”

You read those?”

Shrugging, Kyle said, “Yeah. You know I love sci-fi.”

“Oh, um, okay. I’m just a little surprised.” His face heated and his blood raced.

Kyle’s gay! He has to be, right? Those books were loaded with gay sex.

He cautioned himself not to get too excited. Kyle was totally out of his league, always dressing so stylishly. Forrester had put on his “fancy clothes” for the signing—new khakis, a white Buckeyes jersey, and flip-flops. But Kyle was into all the same sci-fi and fantasy stuff Forrester was. The day he learned Kyle loved Doctor Who, Kyle had officially taken the role as Forrester’s dream man. Of course, the way he styled his shaggy blond hair—like he’d crawled out of bed after a good fuck—didn’t hurt either.

Kyle chuckled. “You’re surprised because of all the sex.”

Oh my God, he just said the word sex! Forrester nodded and shifted the box he held. “Well, um… yeah?”

“That was the best part of the books, don’t you think?” Kyle looked back and forth from his eyes to his mouth, waiting for Forrester to reply.

The way Kyle openly studied his face had unnerved Forrester at first—it felt so intimate—but now he understood Kyle was reading his lips. Sometimes it seemed he could hear, but Forrester had the decency not to ask him when or how well his hearing aid worked. Forrester wanted to have a cute, witty reply now, but he could only nod.

Smiling, Kyle leaned in closer, and Forrester found himself leaning in too. “Have you read the one about the green alien with the three cocks? So hawt!”

Oh my dear God in heaven, Kyle said the word cock.

Forrester’s entire body heated from head to toe.

“It’d be fun to read that one together sometime, eh?” Kyle said, shocking Forrester further.

His head moved, and he realized he was nodding. Then he flinched. “Wait… with me?”

The confidence in Kyle’s demeanor faltered, and he tipped his head to the side. “Um, am I reading this”—he pointed between them—“wrong?”

Forrester’s head moved side to side and all he could do was stare.

“Frankie!” a woman’s voice startled him out of his stupor.

He snapped around and curled his lip at his best friend and store manager, Holly. “Don’t call me that.”

She laughed, knowing how much he hated the nickname his family had given him. He’d been named after his non-Italian grandpa, but his family had taken it upon themselves to call him Frankie since childhood because it sounded more Italian.

Forrester hated it.

“Well, I’ve been saying your name for two minutes, but you’re too busy making googly eyes at customers.” Holly smirked. “I needed to get your attention.”

Now Forrester knew his face glared beet red.

Kyle chuckled as though he enjoyed Forrester’s embarrassment.

Grinning, Holly leaned across the bar to wipe it down. “What can I get you, Kyle? The usual?”

With a wink, Kyle turned toward her. “Yup, black coffee.”

Good Lord, Kyle winked at me!

“Coming right up.” She got down one of the red mugs hanging from the hooks. “And, Forrester, when you go into the back room, I’m out of vanilla syrup.”

“Yeah, okay.” Clearing his throat, he hurried into the storage room/office—and often a place to crash when he didn’t want to go home. He didn’t get any peace and quiet living at home with Ma, Nonna, and his baby brother, Joey. Gilead was a sweet up-and-coming historical town on the muddy Shiloh River, but Forrester couldn’t afford to live here. Hell, he couldn’t afford much after he sank everything into his dream of opening a bookstore café.

When A Novel Idea started turning a profit, then he’d get his own place and start living his life again.

The small back room was pleasantly cramped with haphazard piles of books on the floor, shelves, and in boxes. He set the box of books down on Gramps’s old rolltop desk, and his hands shook.

“Did Kyle just ask me out?” he muttered. It had been a while since he’d been legit asked out and not just hooked up through an app or with some dude in a bar.

A byproduct of moving back home after college—and straight back into the closet.

Actual dating wasn’t easy with his nosy family around.

Taking quick inventory of himself, he glanced in the small mirror in the employee bathroom and ran his hands through his hair, attempting to flatten it. His dark hair curled over his ears and skimmed his collar. He needed a haircut, and his face was all red. Instead of sharing his brothers’ olive complexions, Forrester had inherited his mother’s fair skin, which flushed way too easily from exertion or heightened emotions, and unfortunately the blush lingered. His ruddy glow wouldn’t fade anytime soon.

Dammit.

When he left the back room, syrup in hand, Kyle had situated himself in the cozy armchair in the display window up front, a cool feature from back in the twenties when his shop had been a general store and connected to the space next door. Lips puckered as he blew on his coffee, Kyle was already immersed in his book.

Double dammit.

For almost nine weeks—not that Forrester was counting—Kyle had been coming into A Novel Idea a couple of times a week, and like clockwork every Saturday morning, sometimes with his laptop and sometimes just to read. He ordered his coffee black, no sweet stuff, and stayed a few hours. It was the highlight of Forrester’s day and the biggest letdown when Kyle went home—like Forrester’s best friend in the whole world was leaving for summer camp and what if he never saw him again?

That was the only way Forrester could explain how Kyle made him feel.

Putting his mind back on work, he went behind the bar and handed Holly the vanilla syrup. He didn’t know how he would’ve managed to run this shop without her. They’d been best friends since forever and making her his manager had been a no-brainer.

“Did you ask him out yet?” she whispered over the sound of the milk steamer as she made coffee drinks with expert efficiency for the four young women at the counter.

“No.” He almost told her what Kyle had said, but he couldn’t be sure whether Kyle had been serious or not.

“He’s totally into you. He’s in here all the time. Last Friday he came in, asked me if you were here, and when I said no, he got his coffee to go.”

A flutter of excitement went through his middle, and he felt his cheeks turn brighter red. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Holly’s blue eyes widened, making them more prominent than usual. “I’m telling you now. Just ask him out. I know you want to.”

Grinning, he kissed the top of her head. At six four, he towered over the little brunette. “Look who thinks they know so much.”

“I think I know you pretty well, Forrester. Are you forgetting who gave you your first hand job in the eighth grade?”

“Jeez, tell the whole world, why don’t ya?” He darted a look toward Kyle, unsure how powerful his hearing aid was, but hoping the customers waiting for coffee hadn’t heard her crass comment either.

Holly had been Forrester’s first kiss, his first sexual experience, his prom date, and one of the first people he came out to. She pretty much knew everything about him.

Some days it was a real pain in the ass.

Relentless like a dog with a bone, she pressed her point. “Go ask him out.”

Forrester’s gaze lingered on Kyle. Unaware of being their current topic of conversation, the man leafed through his book, handling it as if it were more than mere paper and binding.

The jingling bells above his shop door drew Forrester’s attention. His guest author S.D. Howe and a tall bald guy were walking in.

The girls waiting for coffee whispered excitedly.

“Isn’t that him?”

“I think it is.”

“Oh my God….”

Forrester hurried out from behind the bar—ignoring his buttinski friend and the fangirls—to greet his guest. “Thanks so much for coming, Mr. Howe.”

“Call me Scott.” Scott had lots of muscles and was kind of cute. “This is my husband, Phin.”

Though about the same height as Forrester, Phin seemed ten times wider. Like a giant Mr. Clean. But when Forrester accepted his handshake, he did not get a vicious knuckle-crunching grip. Phin’s hands were calloused but gentle.

Behind him, Holly and the fangirls whispered excitedly. Holly was a huge fan of gay romance novels and had been beside herself over today’s visit.

When Scott blushed, Forrester gestured for his guests to follow. “Let me show you where I set everything up.”

A small table sat at the end of the bar and in front of the open café area. In addition to the nine barstools, the middle of the shop had four tables where customers could linger and read. Two bearded guys in skinny jeans sipped lattes while working on one of the jigsaw puzzles Holly had set up. Clever girl knew how to make customers stay and buy more coffee. Forrester had moved a few things to set up a small podium and a ring of chairs for today.

“This is perfect,” Scott said with a smile.

Forrester helped Scott and his Mr. Clean husband set up poster boards with blown-up versions of the obviously gay book covers. Seeing the erotic book Kyle had mentioned, Visitor in the Wood, Forrester was glad his family rarely came to the bookstore. That book cover was totally not PG.

And Kyle wanted to read it with Forrester?

Unbelievable!

His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he slipped it out. His oldest brother, Dino.

I got a line on a freezer, you still interested?

Heck yes! Forrester sent back. U got measurements?

Already ahead of U Lil bro.

He smiled as several pics came through with the measurements. He excused himself from his guests and slipped behind the bar. After grabbing the tape measure out of the small toolbox he stashed back there, he measured the space to see if it would fit.

“That for the gelato?” Holly asked.

“Yeah, Dino found a freezer for me.”

“Nice.”

It should fit, he sent back.

Ok, I’ll take care of it. Prolly run two hundred, ok?

It’s great! Thank you!!

Now A Novel Idea would have italian gelato to cool off hot customers this summer. Once the local Amish bakery, Millie’s, got back to him about having a case to sell their baked goods on consignment, he’d be as close to full service as permits would allow his little bookstore café to be.

I can prolly be out there to install it next week, Saturday good for you? Dino asked.

His brother could fix anything, from refrigerators to cars. Living the American dream, he was a proud card-carrying member of the Local 50 plumbers union. He had three kids and one more on the way with his high-school sweetheart, a beautiful blonde beautician named Amanda. Forrester never had to pay for an oil change or a haircut because every three thousand miles, he popped over to their house for one of each. Forrester could change his own oil, but Dino had a bigger garage and a better setup, especially since Dad’s Fastback took up all the real estate in Ma’s garage.

Saturday will be great, thanks.

No prob, C U at the game later. Luv ya!

Excited about the gelato freezer, Forrester updated the store’s Facebook about today’s event with some pics, then did a loop around the store, mentioning to his customers they had a guest author doing a signing and a reading later.

Eventually, he found his way back to Kyle. “Excuse me?”

Immersed in his novel, Kyle hadn’t heard him.

He cleared his throat and said a little louder, “Um, Kyle?”

That time Kyle looked up. When he saw Forrester, he grinned wide. “Hey, what’s up?” he asked in a voice so soft and bedroomey that for a moment Forrester forgot what he’d planned to say.

“Oh, um, if you’d like to meet Scott, I mean S.D. Howe, he’s here. I can introduce you.”

“I’d love to meet him.” Grinning, Kyle stood and closed his book. He set it next to his helmet on the table beside him.

“Leave your book in your chair. It’s an unspoken rule of savzies around here.”

His face scrunched as he repeated the word like it was new to him, “Savzies?”

“Yeah, savzies. You call savzies on your seat when you leave the room so no one can steal it. Didn’t you ever do that with your brothers and sisters?”

A sad expression crossed his face. “I’m an only child.”

Not sure where the darkness in his eyes came from, Forrester joked, “If you want brothers, mine are all up for sale, and I’m willing to sell cheap.”

Kyle smiled. “You have a big family?”

Forrester let out a laugh. “I have a huge, obnoxious family. Brothers, so many cousins I can barely keep track. Aunts, uncles. You name it and I have a dozen of each.”

“Sounds great. I’ve always wanted a big family.”

“You can have some of mine. But I’ll warn ya, they’re all loud know-it-all Italians. Ma’s like a walking stereotype, just like her mom, my nonna. Cleans your face with spit, pinches your cheeks. Asks you embarrassing questions in front of everybody. When I was a kid, Ma, Nonna, and my zia would make pasta and dry it all over the kitchen. On the chairs, the tables. Nonna would give us the evil eye if we touched it.”

“Evil eye?”

“Yeah, it’s, like, a crazy Sicilian thing,” he explained. “When you get it, you know. Nobody crosses my nonna’s evil eye if they know what’s good for them.” Feeling stupid for oversharing, he cleared his throat. The evil eye? Really, Forrester? “Well, enough about me. C’mon, I’ll introduce you to Scott.”

Kyle moved his book to the chair and followed.

“Um, excuse me,” Forrester said to Scott and Phin. “Can I introduce you to, um… my friend?”

Why did you have to make it weird? Friend was a generic term people used all the time.

But Kyle didn’t seem to notice as he extended a hand. “Hi, I’m Kyle Benson, big fan of your books. I was so glad you did a fourth Shi Knight book.”

“Really?” Scott seemed skeptical, pleased, and awkward all at once.

“Yeah,” Kyle assured him. “It was great.”

“Told ya.” Phin had a box of small canning jars with Visitor in the Wood tags.

“What are those?” Forrester wanted to know.

“Mint jelly,” Phin replied. “Giveaways for his fans, to go with the book.”

“My husband’s idea of humor,” Scott said with an amused shake of his head. “Green aliens, green jelly because, you know….” He made a quick jerk-off gesture.

Forrester laughed.

“Oh man,” Kyle said. “That’s fabulous.”

Phin held out two jars, still grinning at his cleverness.

“Thanks.” Kyle took one.

The jars were the same kind Ma used for canning. So not store-bought jelly. “Did you make this?”

“Sure did,” the big man said. “Even grew the mint myself.”

“That’s cool,” Forrester said, impressed. “My mom cans tomatoes. I’m thinking of growing some on the patio out back for her.”

“If you need plants, lemme know,” Phin offered. “I always start too many.”

“Thanks, I just might take you up on that.”

When Phin held out the second jar of green alien jelly, Forrester shook his head, getting his thoughts back on work. “No, thanks. Save them for the customers.”

Phin put the jelly back on the table, and Scott smiled. “Alien jelly. You’re such a goof, Phin.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Kyle said. “That story was great too. I just told Forrester he should read it.”

Forrester flushed hot but managed to smile and look directly at Kyle so there would be no doubt, no chance that part of his statement might get lost in the clamor of customers. “Yes, we should read it together.”

That counts as asking him out, right?

“Careful reading it in public,” Phin warned, looking back and forth between the two of them. Did he think they were a couple?

“That’s why I’m reading from my new book, not Visitor,” Scott said with an embarrassed smile.

“Would you like a microphone for the reading?” Forrester asked. “There’s some audio equipment left over from the last tenant.” If Scott was an awkward or quiet reader, Forrester didn’t want Kyle to miss out.

Scott glanced around. “Um, no, I should be okay. Thanks.”

“I miss ol’ River Rats,” Phin said wistfully, then glanced down at Scott. “Used to come in here with your grandma. Too bad Cliff passed away. He was too young for cancer.” A sudden melancholy air consumed the big man, and Scott placed a hand on his arm.

“What did you say?” Kyle asked, shaking his head. “River rats?”

“That was the bar that was here before I opened,” Forrester explained.

Kyle chuckled. “Are there rats in your store, Forrester?”

The slight drawl, the faint slur of the Rs when Kyle said his name made Forrester hot all the way to his toes. He longed to hear it whispered in his ear while they were wrapped up in each other’s arms.

Naked and spent after hours of hot, sweaty sex.

“Locals call themselves river rats because of the blue herons out in the Shiloh,” Phin said, drawing Forrester’s thoughts back to where they should be. “They tend to be a nuisance. So they got the nickname river rats.”

“Oh, I think the herons are beautiful,” Kyle said. “One of my favorite things about living in Gilead is the river and all the wildlife. I work in Shiloh, but every time I cross the bridge and see the water, it’s like I’m instantly relaxed. It just feels like home even though I’ve only lived here three months.”

“Yeah, this little town has a way of doing that to you,” Forrester agreed. Since high school, he loved visiting his best friend Lucas, who lived here with his moms. Forrester never would’ve dreamed of opening his store anywhere else.

“The other day I even saw a bald eagle,” Kyle said, looking right at Forrester.

“Yeah, I heard there’s a nesting pair somewhere upriver,” Forrester told him. “You can’t get that in just any old town.”

“Gilead can lure you in, no doubt,” Phin agreed, draping an arm around his husband with such casual ease it made Forrester’s throat tighten. “When Mouse came down here, he wasn’t sure he’d like it, but now he’s hooked on the place.”

Forrester looked at the two men smiling with genuine love, and he was absolutely and totally jealous. He’d dreamed about someone loving him that hard. But even more, he’d longed for the days when he’d been away at college, free to put his arm around a lover in public without having to look over his shoulder.

Fat chance of that now.

La famiglia was everywhere.

When he’d gone to Ohio State on a partial baseball scholarship, Forrester had been excited to be away from his family’s prying eyes, except when they came to visit for games. For the first time, he’d been able to let people know the truth, to date, to have boyfriends. Of course, a few fistfights with some guys on the team to solidify his place as the only gay player had sucked. But all in all, college had been a liberating experience, even if he did waste most of his time being a player and not forming anything meaningful.

Then two months before graduation, Dad had his first heart attack.

A month later another one took his life.

Forrester’s family had needed him.

So he moved back home.

He finished his exams online, traveling back and forth to Columbus when he couldn’t. His diploma came in the mail, and Ma made lasagna to celebrate—a rather anticlimactic end to a good run.

Tamping down that sad truth, he looked at Kyle, startled to find the man staring at him.

Forrester’s heart pounded. Not vain by any stretch of the imagination—how could he be, with a wardrobe consisting solely of jerseys, slogan T-shirts, hoodies, and flip-flops?—Forrester knew his brown eyes were his best feature. As a kid, he’d hated how adults, women especially, would carry on how his thick black eyelashes created the illusion of eyeliner. But with Kyle staring up at him, Forrester hoped he noticed.

Kyle’s mouth quirked into a smile, and Forrester’s entire body sizzled with excitement. The erotic notion of reading a sexy book together sent a shiver through him. He flushed and licked his lips.

The chuckles from his guests snapped them out of the moment—did we just have a moment?

Kyle coughed and looked at his feet. Embarrassed too, maybe?

“Well, it was nice to meet you, Scott,” Kyle said. “Once you’re all set up, I’ll stop back and get your latest book and have you sign it.”

“Great, thanks.”

Kyle turned and walked away. Forrester wanted to follow him, but Phin asked him to help carry the rest of the books in. Duty called. Time to concentrate on work, making his first official guest-author visit as wonderful as he could.