TRISTAN WAS not running away.
He was driving. At the speed limit. In a rental car that he’d picked up at the airport under his real name and everything. And he was going to a cabin on a lake. That was totally, definitely, one hundred percent the opposite of running away. Besides, he left a note for Christopher, so it wasn’t like he just vanished on the guy. He did the responsible thing because he was a responsible guy. Not the sort of person who would do something heinous like send a breakup text. Even if he had been really, really tempted.
Tristan definitely didn’t sigh with relief when he passed the Welcome to Lake Balmoral—trout fishing paradise! sign, and he certainly didn’t turn up “This Year” when it came over the car’s weak stereo system. And he didn’t keep glancing at his left hand where, until very recently, an engagement ring he never wanted used to be. Nope.
And heck, since he was now single and heading to a vacation rental and in control of his own life and finances and person again, he made an executive decision. He flicked on the signal and pulled the little rental rocket into Ollie’s Super Market and Farm Equipment Emporium. It had been a long time since he’d set foot there. They probably hadn’t painted the lines in the parking lot since he left town, and the whole place—from the big farm-produce crates that held watermelons and bushels of corn and tumbling peaches just outside the doors of the market to the maroon-and-brown color scheme of the place—looked just like it had when he ran down there, flip-flops slapping the hot tarmac, the smallest of the Love children trailing after six older brothers on hot summer evenings.
They took their pocket money down every weekend and hunted for freezer pops and ice cream sandwiches and Drumsticks. Being the youngest and smallest of six brothers had been an educational experience, and one of the things he’d learned was that candies his brothers liked would soon go missing. So he cultivated a taste for things like black licorice. And while Ollie’s might be your average small-town grocery store, it had one other rare and precious thing—it carried the incredibly elusive and unbelievably delicious tiger tail ice cream.
He grabbed a plastic shopping basket from the stack by the doors, snagged a little watermelon on the way in, and made a beeline for the frozen food. Just like the exterior, the interior was exactly as it had been all those years before, including the ice cream selection. Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, Neapolitan, butter pecan, and best of all, tiger tail. He sighed happily at the sight of it—orange and black licorice flavor, swirled together. What could be better? And how better to celebrate getting out of a screwed-up romance and getting your life back on track?
He dropped the container into the basket and paused for a moment to consider. The website said the place was outfitted with a kitchenette. He might as well stock up with good things. It had been a long time since he was in a position to have whatever he wanted, and that night would be a love letter to all the delicious things he’d longed for the last few years.
Being the son of chefs, brother to foodies, and a baker himself, the tiger tail ice cream would be the best/worst thing he bought. He might be hard up for kitchen space, but frozen pizza was not on the menu. Besides, it was high summer in the countryside—fresh peaches that smelled like candy when he lifted them to his nose, sprigs of damp green mint standing near knobby cucumbers. Who could resist? He picked two—one to slice and put on toast with cream cheese, and another for watermelon salad. Thinking of which, he took himself to the dairy and grabbed a carton of feta and then a pot of ricotta to smear on toast and top with honey and peaches. He’d have to content himself with whatever bread the grocery store had, but that would be fine.
Once he got settled, he’d be a bakery owner, and there would be plenty of time to eat good bread again. He found himself in the baked-goods section, stunned to find a sourdough loaf that, judging by the browning pattern on the crust, might have been brick-oven baked. “No way,” he said, turning it over in his hands. “Amazing.”
Someone laughed softly.
He looked up. Across the aisle somebody was watching him—a cute guy with messy dark hair and a basket of his own stuff, mostly boxes of add-water-and-slurp things. Nosy though Tristan was about the food people were eating, he didn’t care about what was in the basket. The guy, on the other hand, was another story. Dressed in a pair of tattered old jeans and a gray sweatshirt, the guy could have come from work or been a tech millionaire or just rolled out of bed. Hard to say. But one thing was for sure—that messy brown hair and cute grin were worth looking at.
“Sorry,” the guy said. He shrugged shoulders that seemed to be trying to escape the confines of his sweatshirt. “You just make it sound like it’s a treat, not a chore. It’s… cute.” He grinned right at Tristan. It had been a heck of a long time since anybody had looked at Tristan like that and a heck of a long time since Tristan felt good about it instead of trapped and frantic.
“Well, I—” Tristan started. Everyone does not want to hear about your accidental engagement and your crappy breakup. “Uh… it kind of is for me. I’m a… food nerd,” he finished lamely.
“Food nerd?” the guy echoed slowly, as though he were tasting the words. “I’ve been away for a bit. Is that what the kids are calling foodies these days?”
Tristan made a series of noises that weren’t exactly coherent. “Yes,” he blurted finally. The guy was still smiling at him, a softer smile, amused but not mocking, and Tristan started to feel warm all over, but mostly in the southern region. It had been a long time since he’d been really interested in anybody. After Christopher’s latest string of stunts, he’d gone from not interested in his boyfriend to flat-out repulsed.
But this? This was great. He hadn’t felt like this in a long time, and he loved it. And if tonight was going to be a love letter to all the things Tristan had been unable to have for so many years, well…. This guy fit the bill pretty nicely.
Tristan smiled at the guy. He said, “I too have been away,” and then heard the words after they left his mouth. Oh no. I just turned Victorian.
The guy chuckled. “No need to get formal. We’re just talking bread.”
All the lovely heat in his southern region headed north real fast, right into his face. He didn’t remember flirting being difficult. Was it always difficult? Hadn’t it been easy once? Was flirting a thing that went rusty if you didn’t use it enough? “Uh,” Tristan fumbled, “I mean, I grew up here, but it’s been a while. I just got back to town. And I-I need food. So”—he gestured at his basket—“shopping. Hah.”
“Okay,” the guy said. “So, you seem to know what you’re doing. What do you suggest for me?”
Someone asking him to talk about bread. He could have sighed with relief. Bread was easy. Solid footing. Tristan could talk bread until the next ice age and still have stuff to say. “Well, what are you using it for?”
The guy shrugged. “Eating.”
“Toast or sandwiches or…?”
The guy shifted the basket to his hip. Tristan lingered on the hint of skin showing between his jeans and shirt for what was probably too many seconds.
“I’m easy,” the guy said. “I like everything.”
He means bread. That was not an innuendo. “Uh, well….” He dragged his attention back to the display. Bread, right. With a wave of his hand, he discounted the stuff in plastic bags. “Most people just want a sandwich loaf. That’s what I usually go for. I like something versatile.” And once again, his brain pointed out the word he had chosen to use after it came out of his mouth. Tristan absolutely did not look at the cute guy. Instead he picked a brown-paper-wrapped pan-baked bread with a grainy topping. “Get something like this one here.” He handed the loaf to the guy, and absolutely ignored the electric sensation when the guy’s warm, calloused hand brushed his.
“Versatile,” the guy said. “Just like me.”
Really? Did he actually purr those words or was that Tristan’s imagination? Imagination. Get a grip.
“So, you consult on this stuff, I guess?” the guy asked. “Should I give you my contact info so you can send a bill, or…?”
“Actually, I’m a baker,” Tristan answered. It was true. When he was with Christopher he’d just been Christopher’s boyfriend, and then, much to his horror and chagrin, Christopher’s fiancé.
But he was his own guy again. And for the third time that night, he realized he’d missed a seriously important moment. He just offered me his number. “I… look, sorry. I get a bit crazy with the bread, and I’m….” He stopped and took a moment to get himself back together. “And I’m kinda bad at talking to normal humans these days.”
The guy laughed. “Well I think it’s cute.”
Tristan stared. No admonishment, no eye-rolling, no teasing. Just, “it’s cute.” And that came with a sparkle in the eyes and a glance down and then up Tristan’s whole body. He held back a shiver. I’m less than twenty-four hours out of a relationship, and I’m already panting after someone. I’m a danger to myself and others.
“The name’s Jake, by the way,” the guy said.
The smile. It just seemed so easy and natural. Like he was born to wear it. Tristan realized he was staring.
“And you?” Jake asked.
“Oh, yeah. My name.” He was babbling, but what was he going to say? I was staring at you and thinking about sex, and I forgot my own name for a second. “Uh. Oh, umm… I’m Tristan. Fresh out of a bad relationship and a little off balance.”
Jake’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh,” he said quietly. So maybe that was the wrong thing to say? God, how much time does it take for the flirting muscle to get back in shape?
“Just back in town for the first time in five years,” Tristan added, trying desperately to forestall what was sure to be an awkward pause in the conversation.
“Oh yeah? That’s a long time away.”
Jake ran a hand through his hair, and Tristan forgot what he was saying. He opened and closed this mouth and then laughed helplessly. “Honestly, I’m a little overwhelmed. So I should go.”
He turned around and started for the nearest cash register.
“Hey,” Jake said.
Tristan stopped in his tracks, aware that his heart was beating hard enough to make him blush all over and suddenly afraid that if he didn’t get out of the grocery store, he was going to misinterpret something, and things would go sour fast. He turned back to Jake. “Er… yeah?”
“You forgot your bread,” he said. He held the loaf out in one tanned hand that, to Tristan’s astonishment, was striped with small, white scars.
“Oh.” Tristan lurched back over to Jake, grabbed the bread, and then dropped it into the basket, trying not to stare at his hand, but doing it anyway. You’re acting weird. He took a deep breath. “Look, sorry about all this,” he blurted. “I don’t get out much.”
Jake laughed, his green eyes bright. “Too bad.”
“I’m getting out more now.”
Great. Awesome. So you sound like you’re out on a day pass. Hurray.
“Well then I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah,” he answered. Then he shook himself, and hurried toward the nearest cash register.
The clerk said nothing as she zapped labels and weighed the produce. She even managed to deadpan while he made small talk, but when she lifted the bag of groceries for him to grab, she gave him a pitying look. “Not so smooth there, Casanova.”
He groaned. “I know. My God, I’m so out of practice.”
“Well.” She shrugged. “Honestly, you seem like a nice guy. It’s probably for the best.”
He didn’t ask her what she meant by that, but he probably should have.