LINCOLN MERRIWEATHER leaned over the counter, scrubbing at a particularly stubborn spot. It might have been dried egg from Gary, seeing as how he could be kind of a slob, and he’d sat there earlier in the morning. Either way, he tipped well, seemed to love the food, and was always good for a story about the good old days, back before the gentrification of the surrounding area brought in the yuppies, preppies, and according to Gary, other undesirable elements.
It didn’t matter to Lincoln. He loved the place. It was a balm for his battered soul. He got a great sense of accomplishment every day he opened, and it carried him through until close, when he dragged his tired ass upstairs and crawled into the tub.
A quick check of the sunrise chicken clock on the wall told Linc that the lunch rush should be starting soon. He finally got the gunk off, pleased that the counter gleamed enough to show the fading mottled yellow bruise from where the tweaker had punched him after coming in just before closing. Linc had put too much faith in his chances to talk the guy down, which got him a vicious right hook in the face. He’d gotten back up, ready to show the hopped-up guy why the Park View wasn’t the place to start a fight, but was saved from an assault charge when Greg came in, hoping to snag a cup of coffee before his shift. He’d arrested the asshole and dragged him out of the diner, kicking and screaming all the way.
Oh, and Greg had earned himself free coffee for life.
The ancient brass bell above the door gave a melodious ding, and Linc stood, ready to welcome his first customer of the afternoon. He wasn’t prepared for the young man who entered. The air rushed from Lincoln’s lungs, and he found himself temporarily speechless.
“Hi….” The man’s eyes darted around the place, taking in the checkered booths and wooden tabletops. Lincoln prided himself on the authentic ’70s feel of the place, right down to the little jukeboxes on each table.
Lincoln had to pull himself back to business mode. “Welcome to the Park View. Table or booth?”
A frown marred the man’s delicate features. Lincoln decided a face that pretty should never be sad. The hazel eyes and shoulder-length blond hair framed a soft face with rich, full pink lips that needed to be kissed until they were puffy and swollen with passion.
When an answer wasn’t forthcoming, Lincoln peered at the man. He guessed the guy was in his midtwenties. The clothes he wore weren’t anything special, and they did seem a little tattered. Especially the faded blue jean jacket he wore. The cuffs were frayed, and a tear in the sleeve showed pale skin. The worst of his outfit, though? His shoes. A large, gaping hole in the right one allowed Lincoln to see the big toe poking out of it.
Lincoln waved his hand in front of the guy’s face. “Sir?”
“I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t come to eat. I was hoping you might….” The guy swallowed, and Lincoln was fascinated by the lean curve to his neck as his Adam’s apple bobbed. Was the guy a panhandler? If so, Lincoln would be happy to give him all the money in his wallet, because everything in him screamed that this man needed to be wrapped up and cared for. The thought surprised Lincoln, as it had been years since he’d had a similar one. He’d had more than his fair share of bed partners, but they were one-night things, no strings attached. He wasn’t a romantic by any means—unless romance meant slapping your partner’s ass and telling him to lift it higher—but this guy? He wasn’t someone to fuck and forget.
“Hoping I might…? Go on. What were you hoping for?”
The man sighed and balled his fists. “I need a job.” Before Lincoln could say anything, the man continued, speaking so fast, Linc leaned against the counter just so he could hear the gentle voice. “I can wash floors, do dishes, maybe serve food. I can do anything you need.”
“Can you cook?”
The man’s chin dipped to his chest. “No, sir.”
Lincoln liked the way the sir sounded coming from this guy. He was deferential to the point of obsequiousness. Lincoln wondered what the man would be like in bed, all spread out, his wrists secured to the bedposts, giving Lincoln permission to do what he wanted.
“What’s your name?”
The guy looked up, and Lincoln could see the hope in his eyes. He’d probably expected to be dismissed immediately. “Noel Simmons.”
Lincoln stepped forward and held out his hand. “Lincoln Merriweather. You’re welcome to call me Linc or Lincoln. I answer to either.”
Noel’s grip was firm, his hand warm and just a tad damp. He must have realized it, because he pulled back and wiped his hand on his pant leg. “I’m sorry. I—”
Lincoln chuckled. “Relax. It’s not a big deal. Why don’t you sit down and we’ll talk about you working for me.”
“Really?” A red tinge crept up Noel’s neck. “I mean, thank you, sir.” He took a seat at the counter, his gaze darting around. Lincoln liked the fact that even after being told he could call him by name, Noel still used sir.
Lincoln picked up a copy of the laminated menu and held it out to Noel. “This is our lunch menu.”
Without a word, Noel took it and began to read.
Lincoln stepped into the kitchen and did a little prep work. He glanced over at Noel through the large, open serving window. He seemed nervous, twitchy.
After a few moments, Lincoln called out, “What’ll you have?”
Noel’s eyes went wide. “Oh, I don’t have any—I mean, I’m not really hungry.”
Lincoln grabbed the spatula and came back to the front. “Okay, here’s the first thing you need to know. I don’t like being lied to. As long as you work for me, if I ask you a question, I expect an immediate and honest answer. Do I make myself clear?”
Noel swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
“Now, what would you like to eat?”
Noel dropped his gaze. “I can’t afford it.”
Lincoln figured that was the reason. “Meals come with the job. You get something for each shift you work. Also, we pay twelve dollars an hour for bus help and dishwashers. If you’re a server, you make six bucks, plus you keep your tips.”
He realized he didn’t need the help. Katy came in to cover mornings, Josh handled lunch, and Tyler worked the evenings, plus there was Jesse, who filled in shifts so the rest could have days off. Lincoln did all the cooking, and he washed the dishes before he finished for the night. The diner could get crazy busy but was pretty easy to handle. True, it was worse on some nights, especially if there was a block party or something going on in the area, though generally it wasn’t too much to handle. But Noel needed a job and was obviously pretty desperate. So if Lincoln could help out, he would.
“Could I have a grilled cheese sandwich?”
Lincoln smiled. “Sure. With french fries or onion rings?”
Noel’s eyes went wide. “I love onion rings.”
“Then you should like these. I make them myself.”
Lincoln left Noel with the menu and went back into the kitchen. He buttered two slices of Texas toast, laid them out on the grill, and put down a piece of cheddar, a slab of Monterey Jack, and a thick slice of tomato.
His head bobbed up. “Yes, sir?”
“Do you like bacon?”
“Oh, I don’t….”
“If you do, you’re going to love this stuff. It’s peppered, and cooked up nice and crisp. It’ll take your sandwich to a whole new level.”
Noel licked his lips. “Okay, if you have extra, I could try it.”
Lincoln chuckled and added four strips to the sandwich. While that grilled, he threw a few handfuls of onion rings into the fryer, loving the sizzling sound they made as they cooked.
In no time at all, Linc had plated a beautiful golden brown grilled cheese and a double portion of onion rings, garnished with a dill pickle spear. He picked up the plate, ready to take it out, when the bell went off, making Lincoln aware of new customers. He was surprised when Noel’s voice rolled in, clear as a bell.
“Welcome to the Park View. Would you like a table or a booth? If you prefer, you’re welcome to sit at the counter.”
Lincoln smiled at the enthusiasm in Noel’s voice. He stepped out front and found a woman with two teens taking a booth near the window. Noel grabbed three menus, took them over, and handed them out with a flourish. He turned and froze when he saw Lincoln, plate in hand, and his eyes went wide.
He hurried back to the counter and sat down. “I’m sorry.”
Lincoln put the plate down. “For what? Taking some initiative?”
“I should have asked first.”
“Don’t worry about it. Eat. It’ll make you feel better.”
Noel glanced at the sandwich, then pushed the plate away.
Lincoln cocked his head. It seemed like Noel was going to cry. “What are you doing?”
“I should… I should go.”
“Your shift hasn’t even started. How are you going to go? Or, better question, why do you want to leave?”
“I forgot about my clothes. I’m not dressed to be any help at all.”
It wasn’t exactly true. With the torn jeans and the tattered shoes, Noel might look scruffy, but he could help bus tables or wash dishes. Despite the fact Noel appeared rather scruffy, he’d stepped up and been proactive. Lincoln had no reason to hold his overzealousness against him. Noel could simply pick up some new—
Then it hit him.
“Noel, would you have money to get new clothes?”
Noel shook his head, his hair rustling. “It’s why you probably don’t want me to work here.”
Linc chastised himself for not thinking about it until after he’d told Noel he could have the job. It wouldn’t keep him from hiring Noel, though. It simply meant they needed to address the problem.
Linc reached into his pocket and withdrew his wallet. He pulled out two hundred dollars and handed it to Noel, who eyed the money with an incredulous expression. “Buy yourself some clothes. Nothing flashy, because they won’t last. You’re going to be dealing with a lot of greasy food and will probably need new gear in a few months. Get at least four pair of pants, socks, definitely shoes, and probably eight shirts. You’ll have to make sure you wash them, because they…. Shit. Noel, where are you living?”
Noel swallowed and scuffed at a spot on his shoe. “I’ve been staying at the shelter over on Tenth. I do some odd jobs for them in exchange for them letting me sleep there and giving me a place to wash up.”
The idea that Noel was sleeping in a shelter didn’t sit well with Lincoln at all. He wanted to ask more questions, but the bell rang again, and Lincoln knew it was about to get busy. “Eat. You’re going to need your strength.”
“Are you sure? I can go if—”
Lincoln crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Noel. “Eat your damn food. If I wanted you to leave, I would have told you. I’m not one to give you mixed messages. I will tell you exactly what I want you to do and when it needs to be done. Do I make myself clear?”
Noel’s spine straightened. “Yes, sir.”
Lincoln reached out and ruffled Noel’s hair. “Good. Now, hurry up. It’s going to be wall-to-wall people in a few minutes, and I’m going to need you to bus the tables as soon as they leave. There’s a tub under the counter. You grab it, go to the table, put all the dirty dishes in there—stacked neatly so nothing breaks—then wipe the table down so it’s ready for the next customers. If you have any questions, you can come to me. Josh should be here in a few minutes to serve, so I’ll be in the back cooking. Got it?”
Lincoln turned and washed his hands, then grabbed a paper towel from the roll over the sink and dried them. He picked up the menus and went to get lunch started. From the corner of his eye, he saw Noel finish his sandwich, then place his plate and fork in the bin before he wiped down the counter. Lincoln smiled to himself at Noel’s enthusiasm. This could work out just fine.
LUNCH HAD been hell. Josh never called, never showed, and Lincoln was done with him. He’d pulled that shit too many times, always with the excuse of oversleeping or not feeling well. When he came back and acted as though he’d done nothing wrong, Lincoln would ask why he hadn’t called to let Lincoln know, and Josh would just grin and shrug. Well, no more. He left a message on Josh’s cell to let him know that he would need to talk to his sponsor and he’d receive his last check in the mail.
Noel had been amazing. He stepped up to help, no questions asked. No table sat empty for more than a minute or two before he rushed over and cleaned it off. He even took the napkin holders, sugar caddy, and salt and pepper shakers off before he wiped it all down. When lunch ended, he grabbed a broom and swept the floor. The kid was a dervish, seemingly everywhere at once. Lincoln was tired from simply watching him.
“I’m done with the floor. What else can I do?”
Lincoln turned to find a smiling Noel standing beside him. As he had been warned, his clothes were even worse than when he’d come in. He looked adorable, though. His hair was mussed like he’d been woken up, but his eyes were bright, and Noel was practically bouncing on his heels.
“You can sit down and take a break. We probably won’t have too many people showing up until dinner. Did you have a good first day?”
“Yeah, it was great. I put your tip money in a cup under the register.”
Lincoln wasn’t surprised by Noel’s honesty. He was taken aback when Noel’s brows furrowed.
“Can I ask you something?”
Lincoln scrubbed at the grates on the grill. “Of course. You can always ask me questions if you’re confused about something.”
The crease in Noel’s forehead deepened. “How did you know I wouldn’t just take the money you gave me and run away?”
That wasn’t a hard thing to answer. “You’re not the type. Everything about you says you’re honest and hardworking. Was I taking a chance giving it to you?” Lincoln shrugged a shoulder. “Maybe. But I like to think I’m a good judge of character.”
“I wouldn’t ever screw you over.” Noel sounded so sincere, Lincoln’s heart ached.
“I know, pup, believe me.”
The word was out of his mouth before Lincoln could take it back. He wasn’t sure if Noel was as submissive as he seemed, but Lincoln didn’t want to make any assumptions. Still, the word suited Noel, who appeared exceptionally eager to please.
“So, listen. About your living arrangements…. What if I offered to let you stay here?”
Noel went pale. “Here? But I can’t—”
Lincoln put down the abrasive brick he was using to scrape the grill and held up a hand. “We’d call it room and board. You’d still get paid, but you get a safer place to sleep. Plus, you’d be there if I needed help like I did today. You were a godsend. With Josh blowing me off again, I’m going to need someone to serve tables at lunch.”
Noel gaped. “You want… me?”
“Why not? You’re enthusiastic, smart enough to learn the menu, you take initiative, and you listened to the customers when they asked you questions. It’s not an easy job. You’re going to be on your feet most of the day, and by the time you’re done, you’ll be so dirty, you’ll want to go crawl into the shower to sleep.”
“But where would I stay?”
There were underlying questions that Noel wasn’t asking, Linc was certain. “There are four apartments above the restaurant. One of them is mine. The others are sitting mostly empty and being used for storage. We could clean one of them out and you can live there.”
“But I can’t…. You can’t….” Noel’s hands fluttered, his looks of disbelief evident.
Lincoln grinned. “Too much?”
Noel shrugged and his cheeks pinked. “Maybe a little.”
“You don’t have to. It’s not a requirement of working here. I just thought you might want something more than a place to stay. You know, a place you can call home.” He swept an arm out toward the dining room. “And, as you noticed, I need the help.”
Noel bit his lip in a charmingly uncertain way. “Can I think about it?”
“Of course.” Lincoln returned to scrubbing the grill. “You can say no. Like I said, it’s just an offer.”
“I appreciate it. I just… I don’t want any more problems and… I mean….”
Lincoln dropped the brick again, washed his hands, then crooked his finger. “Come with me.”
Noel swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
They walked out to the front of the restaurant, and Lincoln pointed to the counter. “Sit.”
Without a word of protest, Noel sat.
“Chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry?”
Noel’s eyebrows went up. “Excuse me?”
“What kind of shake do you like?”
“Oh, I don’t want—”
Lincoln narrowed his gaze, and Noel grinned.
Several scoops of vanilla ice cream, some heavy cream, and strawberry puree went into the blender. As he mixed the shakes, Lincoln tried to figure out how he would broach the subject he had in mind. He didn’t want to scare Noel off, but he also needed some answers. He poured the shakes, then topped them off with some sweetened whipped cream, which he garnished with chocolate shavings. He put one glass in front of Noel, then popped a straw into it. Lincoln drank his straight from the glass, earning himself a pink mustache.
“Okay, like I said, I’m not one to beat around the bush. Are you in trouble?”
Noel reared back, but he also wouldn’t meet Lincoln’s gaze. “What? No. Why?”
“You said you didn’t want any more problems. So I have to ask, are you running from something?”
“No, I… I….”
Noel’s face told Lincoln everything he needed to know. Whatever happened, it was bad. He could see that Noel was on the verge of bolting from the restaurant by the way his eyes shifted toward the door and his breathing became rapid and shallow.
Noel flinched from the volume and command in Lincoln’s voice.
“What did I say about me asking you a question.”
Noel flinched like he was afraid of being struck. “I stole money.”
Lincoln believed Noel, but it seemed so antithetical to the person he’d met. “Go on.”
“My parents found out I was….” Noel looked up, his eyes pleading. His skin flushed, and he turned away. “Gay.”
Lincoln clutched at his shirt. “Oh my God! You’re gay? Holy shit. How did I not see that coming? Now I have to wonder if my virtue will remain intact once you move in here.”
Tears slid from Noel’s eyes when he looked up, and Lincoln felt like an absolute bastard for not being serious. He grabbed a tissue and dabbed at Noel’s cheeks. He hated the fact that his teasing had upset Noel at all.
“You do know I’m gay, right?”
Noel reared back. “You? But you’re so….”
Lincoln grinned. “Choose your next words carefully. Remember, I’m your boss.”
“You’re so… manly.”
Hands on his hips, Lincoln frowned at Noel. “So gay automatically means you can’t be manly?”
Noel shrugged. “That’s what my father said.”
“Your father is an idiot.” Lincoln tucked a knuckle under Noel’s chin. “Look at me.”
Noel lifted his head slightly, and Lincoln could see he was peering from under his lashes.
“You’re every bit of a man as I am.”
Noel barked a laugh. “I’m not.” He waved a hand in Lincoln’s direction. “You have muscles, a deep voice, and you’re not… girly-acting.”
“Stop right there.” Lincoln suppressed a growl. He hated when people were made to think they were less than who they were. “First off, is it wrong to be girly-acting? And can you tell me what that means? Because I know plenty of women, and not one of them is what I would call girly-acting. The way you’re saying it, it’s like they should be ashamed of how they behave. They are all women, so no matter how they act, that would be considered girly-acting.”
“My dad said he could tell from the way I walked, the way I talked, how I never went out with girls. He said he knew I was a f….” Noel’s cheeks went scarlet. “Gay.”
“Would you like to know what it sounds like to me?”
“It sounds to me like you’re very Noel-acting.”
Noel lifted his chin and cocked his head. “What do you mean?”
Lincoln leaned over, palms flat against the counter. “You’re whoever you decide to be. No matter what, you’re always going to be Noel-acting. I don’t like labels. Straight-acting, fem, girly, mannish…. They’re all words to bring people down. I hate that. You’re Noel-acting. I’m Lincoln-acting. Who we are is defined by how we behave toward other people, not by whether or not our hips sway when we walk, or if our voices are softer than others. There’s no one else like Noel. He’s special, and he needs to believe it.”
Noel looked down at his hands. He fidgeted, twisting one finger around another. “If you say so.”
Lincoln gritted his teeth. Keeping his anger in check over how anyone could make Noel doubt himself wasn’t easy. From the few hours they’d spent together, Lincoln could tell that Noel wore his heart on his sleeve. What you saw was what you got. And from Lincoln’s point of view, Noel wasn’t the person he thought he was. He figured he should be someone else. Someone who was worthy of being appreciated. But Lincoln didn’t believe a word of it.
It was time to start rebuilding Noel.