Chapter 1

Same Job, New Location, And Starting My Life Over

 

“WHO’S THE hottie?” a female customer asked my colleague Jessica. She “whispered” her question in a none too hushed voice, as if it wouldn’t be overheard four feet away in the adjacent teller cubicle. I kept my back turned, pretending to tidy my work area, because I wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t really know Jessica, since I’d only worked in this branch of the bank for a week. I certainly didn’t know the customer who asked the question. I hadn’t seen her in the bank before. I did, however, know enough to understand I was the object of the question.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been referred to as hot, although I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t have the muscle I normally associated with hotties. I guess I was okay looking, and I was kind of tall, but after people got to know me, my looks never mattered. I was pedantic, persnickety, and on some days positively puerile. But even though I knew myself pretty well, that didn’t mean I knew how to change. I guess I was a little too much for most people. I had very few friends, and I rarely got asked out twice by the same man. Actually, I couldn’t remember ever being asked out twice.

I almost threw a pity party for myself in my cubicle, but knocked over my pens instead. When they went rolling everywhere, I stopped stewing over being twenty-six and never-been-kissed. It was more rational to think of my virginity as “saving myself,” but truth be told, I was a loser and no one had ever liked me enough to kiss me. I picked up my pens, set them back in the container, and moved it to a different location.

“That’s Grant,” Jessica answered her customer. “He transferred from another branch when it closed.”

I made the mistake of glancing over and caught Jessica and the woman staring at me. Was this what penguins felt like? No, they probably didn’t notice the humans staring through the glass as they swam at the zoo. Monkeys were more intelligent. Maybe monkeys understood the uneasiness associated with being gawked at. It wasn’t merely the staring, or the compliment she’d given me; my problem was in knowing the remarks never stayed on the complimentary level. Once they got past my dark blond hair and blue eyes, people eventually laughed at me for something.

I turned away from Jessica and headed toward the restroom. Once I locked the door, I took out my phone and texted my mother. I didn’t live with her—I wasn’t completely pathetic—but we texted often.

 

How are you, Mom?

She texted back quickly, as usual. I’m fine, Grant, but you’re supposed to be working. Stop texting me.

I’m on a five-minute break.

Stop ducking into the bathroom every time something stresses you out.

Nothing stressed me out.

Did you pee, or did you lock the door and take out your phone?

“Shit,” I mumbled. I glanced at my reflection over the sink. “I am pathetic.”I texted my reply: I peed.

Liar. Go back to work. You’ll settle in fine. Talk to people, make friends, and then the new branch won’t seem so scary.

But it took me a year to make friends with Laura, and then she moved across the country and left me two months before they decided to close my branch. I feel like my life is in turmoil.

Grant, go back to work. Talk to people. Talk to the ones you work with AND the customers. Maybe one of them lives near you and will turn out to be a good friend. You need friends. It isn’t healthy to text your mother for every little thing. I need to go. I have a massage in ten minutes.

Fine. I’ll try.

Good. You know I love you.

I love you too. Bye. Have fun.

 

She didn’t text back. She probably thought I was ridiculous. I pocketed my phone and washed my hands. I liked clean hands. I also enjoyed the smell of the grapefruit-scented foaming hand soap. Sometimes I washed my hands just so I could smell my fingers while I worked. People may have thought I had an unusually itchy nose, but I only rubbed the tip of it so I could smell the soap scent. I had a thing for smells. Or maybe I had a thing for grapefruit. Either way, I washed my hands repeatedly at work, and it wasn’t always to get them clean. I had an antibacterial pump in my cubical, but the alcohol scent made me sneeze. I should probably look for grapefruit-scented antibacterial gel. Oooh.

When I got out of the bathroom, I returned to my cubicle to discover a line had formed. Banking customers often came in waves. One minute I could be straightening my deposit slips and reorganizing my ink pad and teller stamp, and the next minute fifty people would show up in the lobby at the same time. I put on a bright smile and called a woman over.

“Good morning,” I said to the older lady.

“It’s the afternoon,” she replied gruffly.

I glanced at my computer screen. “Technically, it’s morning until after noon.”

She glared and shoved a check my way. “Cash this. I want it all in twenties.”

I took the check and flipped it over. “Can you please sign the back, and may I see your driver’s license?”

She snatched up a pen and proceeded to scribble her name. “My license is in the car. Surely you can ask one of the other tellers to vouch for me?”

“I could, but then how am I to learn your name for the next time?”

“By memorizing the name on the check,” she huffed.

“Well, I’m new here, and it’s procedure to ask for a driver’s license for all transactions. Even with customers I know, I’m supposed to write the number on the check or at the very least double-check the name.”

She ignored me and fussed at my coworker. “Jessica, can you tell this boy who I am, please? I don’t have time to follow his—” She paused. “—procedures.”

“You can cash Mrs. Caldwell’s check, Grant. I know who she is,” Jessica said. She didn’t seem smug or condescending, but I felt snubbed all the same. I had protocol to follow, and my first customer of the day had sidestepped it.

Rules were rules. Why have them if they could be shirked off willy-nilly? I grinned and nodded politely, but I counted out the twenties begrudgingly. “Will that be all, Mrs. Caldwell?”

“Yes, thank you.” The terse woman put the wad of bills in an envelope before I even had the chance to ask if she wanted one and then stormed away.

The next person to walk up to my window made my breath hitch. I swallowed hard. “Ca-can I help you?”

The man grinned, but only with the left side of his mouth. “Yes. I’d like to deposit this in the account at the bottom, and I’d like to withdraw money from a different account. I’ve written down how I want it back on this slip of paper.” He slid a piece of paper to me across the counter. His hands were soiled and greasy. I suddenly wanted to wash mine.

“Oh, okay. I can do that. I’ll just need to see—”

“My driver’s license,” he said, sliding it across the counter. He lifted the corner of his mouth again.

“Oh, thank you,” I replied. I was slightly startled by his compliance, and half-nervous over his grin. I took his license and wrote the number on the business check for Carr’s Automotive. Tristan Carr. “Is this your company?” I asked.

“Yes. My father started the business, and I took it over before he died. If you ever need an auto mechanic, I’m only fifteen minutes north of here.” He winked.

My mouth went dry. Was he flirting or just being friendly? “Um, okay. I bet you often hear jokes about the name.”

“Sometimes.”

I punched in his account number and clicked the corresponding options on my screen. I ran his checks through the scanning machine and then set them in the correct bin—facing the same direction as the check from Mrs. Caldwell. I handed him the receipt for his deposit. “How did you want that back?” I asked. He glanced down and tapped the counter. “Oh, right, you gave me a list.” After I counted out the appropriate amount and zipped it up in his money pouch, I asked, “Is there anything else I can do to—for, do for you?”

I expected a smirk or a facial tick to reveal he’d heard my slip, but he only paused before answering, “No. Thank you.” He glanced at my name placard. “Grant, I’m sure I’ll see you again. Perhaps the next time you won’t need to ask for my license.”

Why would he say that? He couldn’t know I was checking him out. I’d barely made eye contact. Maybe he was repeating what the previous woman had said. “Perhaps,” I replied. “It was nice to meet Mr. Carr of Carr’s Automotive.”

He grinned again and stuck out his hand. As I went to shake it, I bumped the container of pens, which I’d set next to the window after I’d knocked it over in its previous location, and sent the pens rolling across the counter and through the window onto the floor at his feet. I was so embarrassed. “Oh God. I’m so sorry.” I gathered them up and set them in the container I uprighted.

Mr. Carr bent down, retrieved the pens from the floor, reached through my teller window, and put them into my container. Three were upside down, so I took them out and flipped them over. This time he smirked the smirk I was expecting and said, “Until next time.” He picked up one of my business cards from the stack next to my name placard and read it. “Grant Adams,” he repeated my name. “It was a pleasure to meet you.” He pocketed the card and stuck out his hand again. I didn’t knock over the pens when I shook it.

His hand was dirty and rough and completely swallowed my tiny palm. “Likewise.”

He nodded and walked away, and I glanced at my hands. They felt gritty.

I looked to the next customer and smiled as she stepped up, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the feel of his skin touching mine. I rubbed the tip of my nose. My hand had an oddly earthy aroma, which repulsed me almost as much as it intrigued me. I glanced at the unappealing bottle of hand sanitizer and considered it for a second. Which would it be—nauseating alcohol smell that made me sneeze or earthy mechanic smell? The woman set her money and checks on the counter, but I had to excuse myself. “I’m sorry. I need to wash my hands.” I took a step backward. “I’ll only be a second.”

She gave me a questioning look but warily conceded, “Okay.”

I dashed to the bathroom, pumped three squirts of foam onto my hands, and lathered thoroughly for twenty seconds. Mr. Carr’s hands had appeared greasy, and even though there was no evidence of grease or dirt on mine after he shook it, I still had to wash. I rinsed and dried my hands. I looked down at my open palms, fresh and clean. Sniff. The earthy scent was gone, and for some odd reason, a tiny part of me regretted it. He’d touched me. A man I’d just met had held my hand briefly. I’d introduced myself to countless people before, some of them male, yet Mr. Carr’s warmth still lingered inexplicably.

I heard a knock on the door and I jumped. “Grant? How long are you going to be in there?” Lucinda, another teller, asked. I opened the door and she said, “There’s a line. I don’t want to call Tracy over to help.”

Tracy was the bitchy branch manager I’d come to loathe from day one. She was not friendly by any means, but did her job well enough to garner the customers’ adoration. Lucinda had been kind enough to warn me about her before I got myself fired over nothing. Tracy was all business, and as long as I did my job to her satisfaction, Lucinda had assured me Tracy would leave me alone. Only I hadn’t been here long enough to earn a reputation for excellence. Tracy hadn’t worked with me at the other branch, and apparently word of mouth wasn’t good enough.

“No,” I replied. “I’m coming.” I shut the door and returned to my station. The same woman was waiting there. I greeted her with a smile. “Good morning.”

“It’s 12:10, therefore afternoon,” she corrected, handing me her deposit.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Time flies when you’re having fun,” I joked, hoping she would let my inattention slide.

“Or chatting up a customer,” Jessica commented as she walked past me on her way over to the drive-thru window.

I blanched and hoped my customer didn’t notice as I entered her account number into the computer. I couldn’t believe Jessica would say such a thing with a customer right there. Was this the type of person she was? How was I supposed to make friends with someone who embarrassed me in front of customers?

“That man did look dirty,” the customer said, oblivious to Jessica’s comment or at least ignoring it. “I don’t blame you for washing your hands.” She slid her license toward me without a prompt.

“Thank you. Although it’s not necessary for a deposit.”

She smiled. “I come in here several days a week. You’re new, so I wanted to make sure you got familiar with my name… and face. It will make it easier the next time.”

“True.” I read the name. “Ms. Gina Snyder.” I chuckled, finding her name ironic. “I have Snyder’s pretzels in my lunch today. I don’t suppose you own the pretzel company, do you?” Her deposit was large, but there had to be hundreds of Snyders in the greater tristate area. Snyder’s was a Pennsylvania company.

Mrs.,” she stressed. “And not directly, no,” she replied, grinning rather mischievously. Her eyes lingered on me, and my face flushed. “I’ll see you another day, my dear boy.” She winked and turned away.

Two winks in one day. If this was any indication of the type of town Westminster was, I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I was used to attention, but this was silly. I wasn’t sure I’d last in this branch if every customer flirted with me, although perhaps I was assuming too much. Mr. Carr couldn’t possibly have known I was gay, and Mrs. Snyder wouldn’t flirt with a guy my age, would she? I was young enough to be her son.

Jessica stepped up behind me and whispered, “Be careful with her. She’s a cougar.”

I turned around sharply. “What?”

Jessica glanced at the lobby before saying, “She’s an aggressive older woman who likes to prey on hot young guys.”

There was one person filling out a slip and another waiting to see the manager about opening an account, so I had a minute or two to fuss. I protested, “I’m not hot.”

She snorted. “Oh, please. You’re hot. I wouldn’t normally admit it to your face, but since you’re gay, my opinion won’t get misconstrued.”

“Gay? I’m not…,” I started to protest, but the look she gave me screamed, “Stop before I smack you.” I glanced around and whispered, “How did you know?”

She snorted again, louder this time. If she’d been drinking something, it would have come out her nose for sure. “I know this is going to sound awful, but you drip gay. From your pink shirts—”

“Straight guys wear pink,” I blurted.

“To your perfect hair—”

“Straight guys comb their hair.”

“And your obsession with cleanliness—”

“Straight guys can be clean.”

“There isn’t a single thing about you I’ve seen this week to convince me you’re straight. Maybe Mrs. Snyder can overlook your less-than-straight qualities because she wants to bag you, but I pegged you from day one. I’m just saying… be careful and stop flirting with the customers.”

“I’m not.” Besides the fact her assessment of me was offensive, I didn’t flirt. Did I?

“Oh, right,” she laughed. “Then you better control your blushing, because women like Mrs. Snyder will eat you alive, and guys like Mr. Carr will punch the shit out of you. I saw him at a Papa Joe’s once. He got off his motorcycle and walked across the parking lot like he owned the place. It scared the crap out of me. He could be a police officer, or a general of an army. Believe me, you don’t want to mess with him.”

I couldn’t imagine Mr. Carr punching me. He’d seemed very nice. His half smile intrigued me—it made me think of trouble brewing under the surface. He certainly had that bad-boy quality I’d always appreciated from afar. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. He didn’t seem dangerous to me. Besides, I’m not flirting with anyone, and I don’t blush easily.”

“The hell you don’t. Just watch yourself, or Tracy will haul you into her office and rip you a new one. She’s all about policy, and dating customers is frowned upon.”

We were only standing in my cubicle, but as she hissed at me so intensely, she might as well have yelled, I felt as though she’d shoved me into a corner with her finger pointed in my face. “Okay, okay. Jeez. I haven’t done anything.”

Her expression changed. “I’m sorry, Grant. I like you. I don’t want to see you get fired or hurt. You seem very sweet, albeit a bit naive.”

She had me there. My cheeks heated from embarrassment.

“See, you’re blushing again.” She reached up and touched my arm as I clapped my hands over my cheeks. “I’m sorry I commented about chatting up the customers. I think it was my way of challenging what I’d seen. Part of me hoped it wasn’t true. You’re seriously cute, Grant. Being gay would ruin my chances.”

I sighed. “You’re right, I’m gay.”

“Then why be so defensive about it?”

“I guess because you deconstructed my sexuality based on stereotypes. I don’t like labels and definitions. I think there are too many people out there who don’t fit into a category. Some get offended.”

“But yours are obvious.” She looked over my shoulder. “Sorry. Customers. I gotta go.” Jessica patted my arm and waved the customer in line to head over to her window.

I waved one over as well. I greeted the older man, saying, “Good afternoon.”