THE FIRE called him. The fryer grease landed on the gas burner and flared toward the ceiling, and Aaron felt it, felt the slight wrongness of it in his orderly kitchen. His pyrokinetic Gift was damn handy in a bakery, and Aaron Flores knew how to make the most out of what he’d been given.
Right now, making the most of his Gift meant putting out that fire. Aaron sprinted in from the back courtyard where he’d been shooting the shit with the delicious new driver from Petrov’s Creamery. Skidding to a halt just inside the kitchen door, he saw his two employees ducking for cover. The white-gold flare of the grease fire licked hungry flames up from the gas burner like tongues after his chocolate cream. Hot oil from the donut fryer lay splattered in a wide swath.
Aaron snatched a wide round lid from a hook on the wall and raced across the room toward the big range top. It should have been a simple matter to move the saucepan of maple butter sauce off the fire and slap the lid over the burner, smothering the flames. Unfortunately, before he reached the range the fire flared higher, reaching past the big stainless steel hood toward the exposed beam above. Shit! No time for conventional methods now. Even as he crossed the room, Aaron reached out a hand toward the aggressive flame and damped it. The fire, right down to the pilot light of the gas burner, flickered and died a split second before he was able to shift the saucepan and drop the lid over the mess on the range top. He switched off the gas to the burner.
Whew. Disaster averted. Aaron’s ability to control heat and flame helped make Sweet Nothings’ reputation as the best gourmet bakery in Spokane County, perhaps even the best in Washington State, but being Gifted in this time and place was perilous. He could have done without the audience.
“Holy crap, boss! That’s some skill you got there!” Shit squared.
Jaqui Robson, his first assistant and office manager, climbed to her feet behind him. Too much to hope that they were both too busy ducking to watch me, or that Jaqui would shut up.
“You want to tell me how you were able to do that?” Jaqui stepped up beside him and gazed down at the range top with wonder.
“You want to tell me what the hell happened here and why my kitchen was on fire?” Maybe she could be diverted.
Jaqui turned to glare at the bakery’s second employee, a big man climbing to his feet with a sullen scowl and a mostly empty coffee cup.
“Simon tripped and spilled his coffee into the deep fryer.”
Well, fuck! Coffee, being mostly water, would sink to the bottom of the hot oil and become instantly superheated, expanding in a steam ball that would send oil (and half-cooked donuts) flying everywhere. Simon had been cooking maple glaze for the donuts on the gas range. Open flame + flying oil = fucking mess.
“Dammit, Simon!” Aaron stopped himself and drew in a deep breath of donut-scented air. He really worked at not being a raving bitch to his employees, but this one passed by honest mistake and strolled right into dangerously stupid. He lowered his voice anyway. No matter what his RuPaul reruns implied, queening out and shrieking was so not cute.
“Coffee is for coffee breaks, Simon, to be taken in the break room or, worst case, sitting at the corner of the prep table. You know that. It’s not for standing over the cooking surfaces or carrying around the kitchen. You’re damn lucky that hot oil didn’t land on you or Jaqui when it blew.”
The thought of either of his employees covered in third degree burns from boiling oil sent a stab of fear through his gut, and he turned from the range with a shudder. His cell phone signaled him before he could lay into Simon again. He worked it out of the front pocket of his jeans, glanced at the screen, and headed back out the back door. As he pushed the button to answer the call, he waved at the messy kitchen and pointed dramatically at Simon.
“Clean this mess up.”
THE DELIVERY van was gone when he got back out to the yard, but it was just as well. The small screen on his phone said “Unknown Caller,” but he had a good idea who this might be. He didn’t want to share the call with the delivery guy, no matter how dishy. He keyed the video app on just in case.
“Sweet Nothings, Aaron speaking.”
Once his caller confirmed his voice on the line, his screen lit up with an image of a familiar face. His cousin Alexandra was as gorgeous as ever, her bright smile a far cry from the mess she’d been when he last saw her almost four weeks ago.
“Hey, beautiful. I assume you have a secure line?” Last month Aaron had helped her man out with some righteous ass-kicking, rescuing Alex and another cousin from a secret Homeland Security sponsored lab that was experimenting on Gifted people. This was the first time he’d heard from her since her relocation. Clearly her trials hadn’t dampened her cheerful personality for long.
“As if T would let me get anywhere near one that wasn’t secure.” They both laughed at the thought of her overprotective boyfriend doing anything of the sort. The man was crazy in love with her, and now that he had her back, was no doubt hovering over her like a hen with one chick. Aaron’s throat ached just a little with envy for what Alex had found.
“How you settling in, honey? Still enjoying that studly man?”
Alex laughed again. She really was happy. “You know it. That’s never going to change.” She paused for a minute, tossing a sweet smile over her shoulder, no doubt at Tyler, out of range of the phone.
“Listen, Aaron. I wonder if I can ask you a favor.”
“You know better than to wonder that, girlfriend. What do you need?”
“I haven’t dared call my old EMT partner. I guess certain friends of ours gave him a hard time when I left, and I don’t know how close they might be watching him still, maybe even monitoring his communications. I’d appreciate it if you would pay him a visit. Just let him know we’re safe and find out how he’s doing. I can’t stand the thought of what he might have gone through for me, ya know?”
Aaron shivered at the thought of anyone trapped in the hands of those Homeland Security pricks, let alone someone Alex cared about. HOMSEC used the Patriot Act as a piss-poor excuse to recruit or arrest Gifted people all the time, and most were never seen again. Hopefully we won’t have to organize another damn rescue. I hate that shit. Aaron did his best to smile at his cousin. She was worried enough already.
“Of course I’ll follow up with him. Can you send me his info?”
Alex’s pretty face disappeared from his video screen, replaced by that of a beautiful dark-skinned man. Roman nose, thick black hair lying back from his forehead in soft curls, and an easy smile showing even, gleaming white teeth. Positively edible.
“Oh, sugar, you should ask favors more often.” Aaron’s dark eyebrows shot up into his hair. “That piece is priiiime.”
Alex snorted. “That piece has a name, Ramón Del Rio, and as luck would have it, he bats for your team. Don’t get your heart set, though, lover-boy. I don’t think you’re his type.”
Aaron sniffed, deeply affronted. He was everyone’s type.
“Yeah, yeah, girl. You never know. My happily-ever-after could be right around the corner.”
It was good to hear Alex giggle after such a long time. “I hope so, honey. I’ll text you the rest of his info. I need to go—more sun and sex to be had! But you take care of yourself, you hear? And go see Del!”
Aaron waved as Alex signed off and sighed. That girl had found her own happily-ever-after and had no idea just how jealous Aaron really was.
Ramón “Del” Del Rio grinned and braced himself even as he turned around and, sure enough, got hit by a Barbie-pink freight train. His niece Victoria wasn’t very big, but the kid never did anything halfway. He laughed with her as he swung the nine-year-old in a fast circle. Children poured down the sidewalk in front of the school, parting to flow around them like a stampede of wild horses. Nothing like an elementary school at 3:00 p.m. for a mass exodus. Finally the crowd thinned out, and they started together down the sidewalk, Victoria skipping along beside him. She chattered at him in both English and Spanish as they headed home.
“How’d you get off work in time to pick me up?”
If that isn’t the $20,000 question. Ramón ground his teeth and tried to smile at his bouncing niece as he thought about how to answer that question. She hardly needed all the sordid details.
“I switched my work shift so I could pick you up after school.” Had it switched for me. “Makes it easier for your mom and Aunt Rosa.” Makes it easier for my bitch of a new partner. He forced himself to cut out the mental grumbles. This really did make things easier on his sister, and spending time with her two sweet-natured girls wasn’t exactly a hardship. It was tough to stay grumpy in the face of such persistent goofiness.
The walk was a long one for a fourth grader, nearly a mile, but Ramón enjoyed the cool fall weather and watching Victoria chase after blowing leaves and stomp on them in triumph when she caught them. Kids are so weird. He wished Sophia could have bought a house a little closer to the school, or far enough away that the kids could ride a bus. Five years ago they’d been so grateful she was able to find such a good place after her divorce. It was in a decent neighborhood with a basement apartment that Ramón could move into to help with expenses and babysitting. He’d been new to his first job as an EMT for Valley Hospital and needed a place too. They’d considered themselves lucky, bus or no bus.
Victoria’s erratic forward progress stopped suddenly, and he nearly walked into the back of her as they stepped up on the curb in front of their house. She leaned against him, her suspicious stare locked on the stranger leaning indolently against the stair rail watching their approach. Ramón stepped around Victoria as the man pushed himself off the railing and walked forward to meet them with an easy smile.
Well, isn’t that a pretty picture? Ramón’s gaydar wasn’t all that well developed, but it didn’t take an expert to sort this one out. Long and lean, late twenties perhaps, the man was a bit twinkier than his usual target. The stranger wore a collection of leather bracelets on his right wrist and black jeans tight enough to cut off all circulation to his lower body. The bit of eyeliner looked good on him and went well with the short brown/blond/calico-cat thing he had going on up top. The callused hand he stretched out to Ramón and the battered black cowboy boots gave him a masculine touch as well. Very nice indeed.
“Aaron Flores.” The handshake was warm and held on perhaps just a little longer than necessary. A faint aroma of sugar and vanilla swirled in the air, and Ramón thought suddenly of cookies.
“Oh… I…. Ramón Del Rio.” Damn, since when do I stutter like a shivering virgin from a handshake? Get a grip, man.
“I thought so. Your former partner is my cousin, and she asked me to look you up. I wonder if we could chat for a minute.”
Alex. Oh, Christ. “Yeah, of course. Just a minute.” He glanced around quickly to find Victoria standing close behind him, eying Aaron with a speculative gleam in her eye that reminded him all too much of her mother. He handed her his house keys.
“Go on in and ask Tía Rosa to rustle up a couple of glasses of her special lemonade for us, will you, sweetie?”
Victoria took the keys and darted up the steps, daring to shoot them a sly glance and a giggle over her shoulder. Ramón was glad his dark skin hid any flush as he gestured for the handsome man to have a seat in one of the Adirondack chairs on the wide front porch. Ramón was not letting some complete stranger, no matter how hot, into his sister’s house, especially if said stranger had something to do with his Gifted ex-partner.
“Aunt Rosa’s special lemonade has more than a passing acquaintance with good vodka, and I’m thinking I may want some of that just now.” Ramón drew a steadying breath and forced himself to relax into the chair.
Aaron laughed out loud at that, and something in that breathy chuckle sent a shiver of lust up Ramón’s spine in spite of his anxiety.
“Relax, man. It’s good news. Alex and Tyler are fine. They’re in a safe place with new IDs, like witness protection only without any federal marshals to fuck it up. They wanted me to let you to know they’re okay and to find out what’s become of you since they left.”
“You’re in contact with them?” Shit. Ramón shot a quick glance up and down the street. It hadn’t been that long since the Homeland Security goons stopped watching the house. Happy as he was to hear his partner of three years was safe and out from under those assholes, the last thing he needed was to come back under their radar himself.
“Only sort of. They have a secure line, and they called me to ask me to follow up with you. I won’t talk to her again now unless and until she calls me back. You know Tyler, right? There’s no way in hell her man is going to let her take any risks.”
Ramón couldn’t help his own snort of amusement. He was a paramedic, so he knew a bit about most of the Spokane Valley beat cops, if only in a worked-together-off-and-on kind of way. He’d made it his business to find out more about Kincaid months ago when he figured out that his partner was crazy about him. He could totally see the guy going all cop and overprotective of his girl.
“I can see that. HOMSEC was on me for a while, but eventually they figured out I didn’t know anything and let me go.” Ramón shivered, suddenly chilled in spite of the afternoon sun warming the porch. Put that way it seemed innocuous enough, but the reality had been far worse. It was not, however, something to discuss with a stranger on his sister’s front porch with her girls right there in the house.
As if thinking about her had conjured her up, the front door opened and Victoria appeared in the opening. Balancing a small tray with two overfull glasses of lemonade, she stepped as carefully as if she was carrying dynamite across the porch to set the tray on the wide railing. She started to scramble into Ramón’s lap in her usual fashion, but he stopped her with a gentle hand.
“Thank you, honey. Go on back in the house now, and we’ll check out your homework when I’m done here. Aaron and I have grown-up things to talk about.”
She started to sulk. Then a smug expression crossed her pretty little face.
“Grown-up things, Uncle?” (Nudge, Nudge. Wink, Wink.) “Riiight.”
Very subtle, Victoria. That looked more like a seizure than a hint. Damn kid anyway.
Once again he was glad no one could see him blush. “Yes, grown-up things. Get back in the house, brat.”
She dodged his playful swat and ran giggling back inside.
Only slightly mortified, he turned back to his guest to see Aaron with a flaming blush of his own going on, chewing his bottom lip as he took the full glasses carefully off the tray. He handed one across to Ramón without meeting his eyes. Interesting.
He cleared his throat and tried to get back to the original subject. “Anyway, tell Alex ‘hi’ for me when you talk to her again. How did she sound when you talked to her? Is she really okay?”
“Yeah, she’s gorgeous as ever and very much in love. A damn sight better than she looked the last time I saw her. That was right after we snatched her and our cousin Niko out from under those HOMSEC bastards, and she was pretty messed up then.”
Ramón’s blood chilled right down, and suddenly cold lemonade didn’t sound so good. He set his glass carefully on the deck next to his chair.
“You say ‘we.’ You personally went after her?” Somehow he had a hard time picturing this guy as some sort of hard-core commando, out there taking on evil federal agents. In any case, he was getting more anxious about having the guy here at all. This was not someplace he wanted to go again.
Aaron must have read his thoughts right off his face, at least his initial ones. He laughed again, gesturing at himself like a diva in an old black and white movie.
“I know, right? I’m more at home in my bakery than on some covert rescue mission, believe me.” He lowered his voice. “I am pyrokinetic, though, and that comes in handy for more than baking cakes.”
Oh hell. We are so done here. Ramón pushed himself to his feet, startling Aaron, who had been leaning forward in his chair. When he spoke, his voice sounded flat and harsh even to him.
“Thanks for bringing me the word about Alex. I’m glad she’s okay.” He stepped back to the other side of the stairs, trying to make it very clear that the other man needed to leave. Aaron stood up slowly, confusion plain on his handsome face.
“Gee, I thought we were getting along so well too. Did I say something wrong?”
Ramón knew he was being a complete ass, but he couldn’t help himself. He found he suddenly couldn’t look Alex’s cousin in the eye.
“My friendship with my Gifted partner cost me three days in hell at the tender mercies of Homeland Security, and it damn near cost me my job. That’s not an experience I care to repeat, and I won’t risk the safely of my family either. You’re trouble, Mr. Flores, that I absolutely do not need. You have a good day now.”
Since he didn’t know how to get Aaron to leave, Ramón did the next best thing. He turned and walked into the house. He closed the door firmly and twisted the lock, knowing the man would hear it. There, that should be clear enough.
He watched through the gap in the curtain as Aaron set his lemonade glass carefully on the porch railing and walked away without a backward glance. He knew he’d done exactly what he had to do to protect himself and his family. So why did he feel like shit?
“TROUBLE, AM I? You don’t know what trouble is, you pompous ass.”
Aaron grumbled under his breath as he strode briskly down the sidewalk toward the Spokane Transit stop, his gut churning with embarrassment and anger. It was a good thing he loved his cousin, because her favor turned out to be a real pisser. Too bad too, because Mr. I Don’t Want Trouble was just about the hottest piece of man-candy Aaron had seen in a long time, maybe the hottest ever. Big, buff, and beautiful, with deliciously smooth copper-brown skin that he just wanted to lick. Yum.
Standing at the bus stop, Aaron relived the moment when Ramón and his niece walked up to the house. Aaron had enjoyed the little eye stroke he got as he stepped up, and for a few minutes, he thought there might be something cooking there, especially when Ramón got just a bit flustered over the kid’s insinuation. Very cute, and that answered the question as to whether Mr. Hotness was out to his family. What a damn unfair world it was. He met the most beautiful man ever, who was by some miracle gay, single, and out, and the man thought he was attractive. All the stars aligned for him, and then the guy turns out have a problem with Gifts. Fuck. Whatever they did to him must have been really bad. Alex would have warned me if he’d been such a dick before. As the bus pulled up that would take him back to work, Aaron rolled his shoulders and let the aggravation go with a sigh. When something seemed too good to be true, it usually was. That didn’t mean it didn’t suck, though. It sucked a lot.
DINNER IN the little house was a noisy affair, as always. Rosa left at four to prepare dinner for her own family, leaving a pan of her magnificent enchiladas ready to go into the oven. Aunt Rosa, as the girls called her, wasn’t really their aunt, but rather a neighbor hired to help with childcare and household chores while Sophia and Ramón worked. The woman had been with them now for so long she really did feel like part of the family.
They loved her cooking too, and the girls bounced and chattered in their seats while they waited not very patiently for their food. Still dressed in her skirt and low heels from her shift as a teller at a bank, Sophia hushed them while she helped Ramón bring the rest of the food to the table.
“I hear we had company this afternoon.”
Sophia’s voice was amused, and Victoria hid her face behind her napkin with a giggle as Ramón glared at her. He was going to have to tread carefully here. There was no way he was going to discuss Alex’s escape from Homeland Security in front of the girls. He held his sister’s eyes for a long moment. Her sculpted eyebrows rose, but she nodded. He’d still have to fill her in, but it would wait until the girls weren’t around. Too bad Victoria didn’t share her mother’s discretion.
“He was super cute, mama, with fancy hair, and he had sparkles on the pockets of his jeans, just like mine.”
Sophia’s eyebrows rose again. “Really? A cute gay guy comes to visit you, and you didn’t even invite him in? That’s not very good manners at all, brother.”
Both girls laughed hysterically to hear Uncle Ramón getting “told” by Mama, and six-year-old Adelina’s singing was gleeful.
“Un-cle’s in trou-ble.”
“That’s enough of that, Adel. Eat your dinner.” Ramón kept his voice calm. She was being rude, and singing at the table was against Sophia’s rules, but it wasn’t that much of an offense. Most of his aggravation was with himself and the flush of heat that ran through his body at the thought of this afternoon’s visitor.
“We just had to talk about a few things, that’s all. I don’t imagine he’ll be back.” Too bad, though. It’s a damn shame an ass that fine should turn out to be on a Gifted guy. Ramón turned his attention back to his food, but the girls weren’t finished with him yet.
“I think he should come back and you should go out with him. You need a boyfriend.”
Jesus, Victoria. Ramón choked and tried not to spray iced tea across the kitchen table while Sophia cracked up. He never made any secret of the fact that he was gay, but he didn’t rub anyone’s nose in it either. He certainly never brought men around the girls. Victoria eyed him smugly across the table, but Adelina only looked confused.
“Why would you need a boyfriend, Uncle Ramón, instead of a girlfriend?”
Oh, jeez. Here we go. Adel was so cute sitting there with her thick black curls, her mouth covered in enchilada sauce and her perfect eyebrows wrinkled in confusion. Ramón sucked in a breath, stalling for time while his mind raced in circles, trying to figure out just how much to say. Thank heaven, Sophia rescued him.
“Adelina, Uncle Ramón doesn’t like women in that way. He’d rather have a boyfriend.”
Now Victoria choked and snorted milk out of her nose. For a minute he was able to occupy himself mopping up and patting her on the back, but eventually he had to look at Adelina. Sophia’s littlest sat there with her messy little mouth pursed thoughtfully for a long moment. Then her expression cleared.
“I don’t blame you, Uncle Ramón. I’d rather have a boyfriend too. Tommy Adkins says he wants to be my boyfriend, and he gave me one of his cookies at snack time yesterday. Can I watch my princess movie now?”
That’s it? That’s all there is to it? Ramón shared an incredulous smile with his sister. Still grinning, Sophia shrugged and got up to start the movie. I guess that’s all there is when you’re six.
Too bad things got more complicated once you grew up. Ramón got up and started cleaning the table, and he couldn’t help but think how long it had been since he’d had a boyfriend. Since his run-in with HOMSEC, he hadn’t even been to his usual club for dancing or a quick hookup. The image of his hot visitor popped into his head in spite of his best efforts to keep it out. The guy smells like sugar and works in a bakery. I bet he’d give a good “cookie.”