RILEY HAD been driving for four hours, and he couldn’t wait to stop.
No, that wasn’t entirely true. He was enjoying the drive through the most gorgeous landscapes he’d ever seen, but he was looking forward to his destination even more.
Plus, he had to pee, and he wasn’t in the habit of doing his business on the side of the road, even if there had been a shoulder to pull out of traffic.
Or what passed for traffic out here in the middle of the most beautiful nowhere he’d ever been. He’d passed maybe ten cars in the past hour.
Let’s see, that’s one every six minutes or so. He could manage a pee in less time. He’d pull over as soon as there was any extra space. He really shouldn’t have gotten the extra-large coffee at his last stop. But he’d been so damn tired. Between jet lag and excitement, he hadn’t slept in a day or two. Instead of staying the night in Denver, Riley had headed off on his journey immediately.
He couldn’t wait to get to Aspen and his first job out of culinary school.
But more than that, he couldn’t wait to fall into Denny’s waiting arms.
Just another hour or so and that dream would be a warm, wonderful reality.
They’d have the whole summer to explore the area, on their days off from the dream job at Antelope Inn in Aspen, where Denny had already started working while Riley finished his course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
The pent-up excitement stimulated his bladder, pulling him back to reality in the tin can of a rental car (he’d never driven a Kia before. In fact, he’d never heard of a Kia before). Up ahead he spotted a good flat place where he could stop and take care of business, and there wasn’t another car as far as the eye could see.
He pulled to a stop halfway off the road, got out, and inhaled the clean, crisp, completely invisible air. It smelled sweet and fresh, though thin, and it suddenly dawned on him he was the only person for miles and miles and miles.
Many people would find that idea irresistible, but not Riley Emerson. He was a city boy born and bred, and so much nothingness suddenly frightened him. He took care of his increasingly powerful need and got back in the car before all the empty spaces came crashing down on him.
He hadn’t realized until this moment how much he’d come to love life in the big city: Paris, New York, even Boston where he’d grown up.
But Aspen, Colorado?
He really was in the wild, wild west.
FIFTEEN MILES, ten miles, three miles. The distance to Aspen dribbled away. Finally, Riley passed the “Welcome to Aspen” sign and felt his pulse rate double. He pulled into the first parking lot he saw and dug the Google Map printout from his messenger bag. He glanced at his cell phone sitting in the coffee cup holder.
Should he call Denny?
It was late morning, and Denny would be home catching up on sleep before heading into the restaurant to start prep for the evening service.
Riley shook his head. The whole point of coming a week early was to surprise Denny. Instead of stopping off in the Hamptons to see his family, Riley had flown straight to Denver from Paris. He hadn’t missed much. A visit with his family inevitably deteriorated into his father questioning his decision to become a chef.
“Why don’t you just invest in a restaurant if you want to be in the food industry?”
Dad’s answer to every problem: buy it, sell it, or fire it and get a new one. He didn’t understand passion for anything besides moving piles of money around on the Monopoly board that defined his life.
That wasn’t what Riley wanted. He wanted to spend the foreseeable future in the kitchen of the best restaurant that would hire him. And the rest of the time in bed—or anywhere else—with Denny.
Mind made up, Riley glanced at the directions to the apartment Denny had rented for them, got his bearings, and headed for his exciting future.
With a minimum of error—Riley had a great sense of direction even in places he’d never visited—he found the apartment building and parked the rental in a guest spot.
Riley didn’t have a key, but he knew Denny’s habits well. A glance around the area outside the door and he knew exactly where the spare key was hidden. Riley found it in two inches of dirt near the ugliest plant. He wiped off the key, silently slid it into the door, and let himself in.
The place was deserted. Or at least the living room and kitchen were. What must be the bedroom door, located on the other side of the living room, was open about three inches. Riley grinned. This would be fun.
He hoped Denny was still sleeping. He’d slide into bed behind him and snuggle up and kiss his earlobes until Denny woke up.
A sound from the bedroom got Riley’s attention. A soft moan, then another.
He smiled. Denny did have a thing for porn of the raunchiest and cheesiest variety. The soundtrack on this one was heavy on fake grunts and groans. Denny was going to be so glad to have Riley back in his bed.
Riley was halfway across the living room when the plan struck. He pulled his shirt off and slid out of his new jeans and boots. Next came the underwear. He was already half-hard from the anticipation of climbing into bed with Denny again. He finished the job with a couple of quick tugs and put his hand on the doorknob, trying not to laugh at the over-“acting” of the guys in the clip Denny was watching.
He flung the door open.
It wasn’t a film. It was Denny with his cock up to the hilt in someone else’s ass.
“What the fuck?” the someone else said.
Denny opened his eyes and stared at Riley.
“I don’t do three-ways,” Denny’s new friend said.
“Oh, Riley. You’re early.” He barely slowed down what he was doing to the other guy.
No shit, Sherlock.
Riley’s stomach plummeted through the floor and his face was on fire. He ran out of the room and was near the front door when he remembered he was buck naked. He grabbed his clothes and sped through the front door, covering himself with them until he was outside on the sidewalk.
Luckily no one else was around. He pulled his shorts on and kept moving to the car. He was sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open, pulling on his pants, when Denny caught up with him. He had a towel wrapped around his waist and he was barefoot.
Riley tried to shut the door, but Denny held on.
“Hang on a minute, Rile.”
Riley pulled harder on the door.
“I’m sorry you found out like this. I was going to tell you.” He fought Riley for the door.
Riley let go, and Denny went flying back. Riley tried not to smile as Denny dropped the towel while trying to keep from falling over. He gave up and let out a laugh.
“I guess that makes it okay. As long as you were going to tell me.” Riley exhaled slowly to calm himself. His stomach still hadn’t caught up with him, and a heavy pit opened in his gut. “Just out of morbid curiosity, what would you have said?”
Denny held on to the towel with one hand and put the other on the top part of the door. This close, Riley could see tooth marks around one nipple. He could have lived without that. Denny shoved a hand through his thick, wavy hair. Once, Riley thought Denny was really hot with it pulled off his forehead in a certain way. Clearly he knew exactly how to achieve that look.
“Rile, I kinda fucked up. I know that.”
“So you and this guy are more than fuck buddies?”
“No. Well, not at first…. It was just fucking, but then… I don’t know. I really missed you, and I was lonely.”
Denny had the good sense to look sorry, but Riley wasn’t in a forgiving mood.
“And now what?” Riley didn’t have to ask, and he really didn’t want to know, but he could see the whole thing upset Denny too, and that’s the only reason Riley pressed on.
“I don’t know. We have fun together. And he’s really different from you. But I do still love you.”
“Are you asking me to forgive you and try to work things out?”
Denny chewed his bottom lip and shifted his weight. He made a sideways move with his head that was a cross between a nod and a shake.
“Yeah, I wasn’t going to, even if you had asked. Or even pretended to ask.” Riley yanked the door back from Denny’s grasp and slammed it shut, then rolled the window down—it was such a beater it didn’t even have electric windows. “I’m actually glad this happened, Denny. I hate to think we might have ended up together without me knowing what you’re really like. Good luck.”
Riley started the car and backed out of the spot. He noticed Denny’s new boyfriend leaning in the door to the apartment, wearing a matching towel.
Riley had sent those towels from Paris. Under any other circumstances he might have decided to keep them, but he didn’t want to even touch them now. He squealed out of the parking lot and managed to get half a block before the tears streamed so heavily he couldn’t see anything. He pulled into the first available driveway and sat in the parking lot of a toy store and let it all out.
When the tidal wave of emotion subsided, Riley dried his face the best he could with his shirtsleeves, and when those were too wet to help, then the tail of his shirt. He still hadn’t quite caught his breath, and he choked out a few more sobs before he managed to pull himself together.
Right, this is a good thing, he told himself a few times. At least he knew the truth about Denny. They’d only been together a little more than a year. They’d met in Paris, but Riley had been busy with the pastry course for much of that before Denny flew ahead to Aspen. That didn’t make what Denny did okay, but the truth was Riley didn’t know him that well. It wasn’t a commentary on Riley’s value as a boyfriend, but on Denny’s.
Yeah, right. Riley didn’t believe it either.
But he didn’t owe Denny any more of his time sitting here in a parking lot. With no place to stay now, Riley had to find a hotel and decide what to do about his job at the Antelope Inn.
He got back onto the street and drove toward the edge of town. He’d passed a Motel 6 and a Red Roof Inn. Much more in his price range than the towering condos and exclusive-looking resorts he’d also driven past.
HE CHECKED into the Red Roof Inn, threw himself on the bed, and stared up at the ceiling.
He wasn’t expected at the restaurant for another week. He could show up early and see if he could start working right away, then look for his own apartment or try and share with one of the other kitchen staff.
Did he really want to work at the same place as Denny? Maybe his new guy worked there too. That would be really awkward. Riley didn’t want Denny back, but he didn’t want to spend twelve hours a day in the same kitchen either. Restaurants were hotbeds of gossip. Chances were everyone in there would know what Denny had done to Riley, if they didn’t already.
Nope. Riley would not subject himself to that.
He sat up and glanced at his watch. It was 7:00 p.m.
How had it gotten it so late? Then he remembered he hadn’t reset it since arriving in the States. It was still on Paris time.
He grabbed his cell phone and pushed a speed dial.
“Riley!” his sister Estelle shouted, nearly breaking his eardrum. “You’re back? I can’t believe you got out of a visit home to New York. You are never going to hear the end of that from Mummy.”
“I know.” He frowned at “Mummy.” Their mother had spent a year in London as a child and insisted her own children refer to her as “Mummy” in the British fashion. But never “Mum”; that was common. Once Riley understood the affectation, he always called her “Mom,” no matter how she protested.
“So, are you in Aspen? Is it fabulous? I am so hoping you’ll be there through ski season. I know it’s terribly rustic compared to St. Moritz or Gstaad, but I can’t wait to see it. I don’t care what Daddy says.” Dad was a ski snob, preferring to take the family to the Alps rather than the Rockies. Apparently anything European was infinitely superior to anything America, even mountains.
He let her finish rambling on about skiing for another minute without responding. When she stopped talking, he counted a few beats. “Yeah, I’m in Aspen.”
“You don’t sound excited. I thought you and Denny would be, you know, welcoming each other….”
“I got a special welcome from Denny… and his new boyfriend.” He kept the emotion out of his voice, or so he thought.
“Oh shit, Riley!” She giggled. “Sorry, I wasn’t laughing at you.” She loved cussing since their parents and before that, the nannies, had always been the cuss police. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not particularly. But I do want your advice.”
“How can I help you?”
“I don’t know what to do about my job. Should I report in or try to find something else?”
“Oh God, there’s no way you want to work around Denny all summer. You should come home. I’m sure the parents will take back everything they’ve said and pretend it never happened. I’d love to have you back for the summer. Oh, yes, please come home.”
“Stell, that isn’t one of the options I mentioned.”
“Okay,” she replied with a resigned sigh. “What are the options again?”
“One was to take the job. It’s a great opportunity to work with a top chef, but I don’t think I’ll be able to keep my personal situation out of the kitchen.” He paused. “I could try to get a job at another place here. Aspen’s full of good restaurants. Or I could go to Denver or Boulder and look for a spot there.” He shook his head. “I suppose the last option is to go to New York, where I know people.”
“Do you know anyone at another place in Aspen? Why do you want to stay in Colorado?”
“I don’t want to stay here, but it is beautiful. Really spectacular. I’m already here and it’s easier to take a job here than to go home and start looking.”
“That makes no sense, Riles.”
“I’m not thinking clearly. Remember, my whole life just got turned upside down about an hour ago.”
“You don’t have to decide today. I think you should take a day or two before you make any big decision. Go take a drive in the mountains and enjoy yourself, and we can have this discussion again tomorrow. But I’m here if you want to talk about anything.”
“I know.” He was about to say good-bye when a thought popped into his head. “Stell, do you think I should forg—”
“If you’re going to ask whether you should consider forgiving Denny and try to get back with him, then the answer is no.”
“Just wanted to make sure.” He smiled.
“If you get confused about that again, just call me and I’ll set you straight. So to speak.” She giggled. “Love you, Riles.”
“You too. Thanks.” He hung up, in a marginally better mood than when he’d called. She was right. He didn’t need to decide that moment or even that day.
He lay back on the bed and looked up at the ceiling again, trying to decide if the tea-colored stain there reminded him more of a moose or an elephant.
It’s Colorado. Has to be a moose.
AFTER A fitful night’s sleep, Riley woke up with a headache. It hadn’t helped that he’d walked down the block and bought twenty dollars’ worth of cheap booze the night before and got microwave nachos at the convenience store on the way back.
He was a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in fucking Paris, so why on earth would he eat crap like that? Clearly he was trying to kill himself. Microwave nachos were a definite cry for help.
Now, in the morning light, he could still taste the fake plastic-y cheese in the back of his throat, far worse than the bourbon he’d drunk. Maybe Le Cordon Bleu would take his certificate away now.
He boiled himself in the shower for the two minutes the hot water lasted, then tried to wash shampoo and soap off in the freezing water for the rest of his shower. There was only one towel in the bathroom, a hand towel that had a stain the same color as the blotch on the ceiling.
Drip dry it is. After a large latte—they did have decent coffee out here—Riley felt a little more human again. He’d bought a newspaper and started looking at help wanted ads. The few food service openings were for dishwashers or busboys. He called the first place and introduced himself, then asked about cooking positions.
“Can you wash dishes?” the woman asked.
“I got cooks out the wazoo. I need a dishwasher.”
“Okay, thanks.” He hung up.
He tried two more restaurants with similar results before an idea struck him.
He scrolled through his cell phone and then dialed a number in New York.
“Golden. Good morning.” A woman answered the phone in a voice so cheerful he could picture her smile.
“Hi. Can I speak to Josh Golden?”
“Sure. Who may I say is calling?”
“Riley Emerson. I know him from Paris….”
“Hang on!” She surprised him by not even questioning his request to speak to the owner.
“Riley? How are you? You still in Paris?” Josh’s familiar baritone came across the miles like he was right there on the bed next to Riley. Memories….
“Hi, Josh. I’m okay. I just finished the pastry course the other day. Decided to try something new this time. I’m actually in Aspen, Colorado.”
“Congratulations on surviving a second round of that special torture. So what’s in Aspen? And why didn’t you stop in New York on your way out west?”
“It was a pastry job at Antelope Inn, but that isn’t working out.”
“Good gig. I know the owner, Lincoln Mack. What can I do for you, or are you thinking of coming to New York now?”
“I am actually looking for another job around here, Josh. Do you happen to know anyone in Aspen or nearby?”
“I do. There’s a guy I met a few months ago who’s running the kitchen at Cascade, Pieter Van Loon. Got great reviews. Want me to introduce you? If he doesn’t have an opening, he’s likely to know someone in town who might.”
“That would be fantastic. I really appreciate it.”
“What are friends for?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?” Riley felt a tightness in his chest at the thought he’d let Josh get away.
“Probably not. But you need to visit New York. I’ll show you my restaurant, and you can meet Micah and Ethan, my stepson.”
“First chance I get.”
“Let me call Pieter, then get back to you.”
An hour later Josh Golden called back with an appointment for Riley to meet Pieter Van Loon in the bar of Cascade. Riley got there early and was sipping Perrier when Pieter came out of the kitchen in a dirty apron and introduced himself with a handshake.
“Josh Golden said you’re looking for a pastry job?”
“Preferably, but I’ll take anything. I got my culinary cert—”
“I don’t need your resume, Riley. Josh’s word is good enough. I can probably squeeze in one more line cook until there’s an opening in pastry. We can’t pay as much as Antelope.” He named the salary. “It’s a good foothold in the local restaurant scene. There’s a lot of seasonal turnover, but if you want to stay through ski season, you could end up with a much bigger role somewhere.”
“Yeah, that sounds good. When do you want me to start?”
“Hang on. I said probably. I need to get final approval from the owner, but more importantly, you’ll need to meet the sous chef. I don’t want to bring someone in without him being in the loop.”
“Let me get Phillip—the sous chef—out here to meet you, and I’ll call Gaston, the owner. He’ll love the chance to speak French, so you’re probably good to go. Hang on here?”
“Sure.” Riley sipped fizzy water and a few minutes later Pieter came out of the kitchen, followed by another man.
“Riley, this is Phillip.”
They stopped in front of Riley’s table, and he glanced up to find himself staring into the eyes of Denny’s someone else.
Phillip turned the corners of his mouth down and looked like he’d rather set himself on fire than shake hands with Riley.
“Pieter, I’m not sure Aspen is the right fit for me. Thanks for your help.” Riley held out his hand to Pieter, whose mouth was wide open. “Ask Phillip, after I leave.”
Riley turned on his heel and walked as calmly as possible out to the parking lot. As he sat in the crappy rental car, he wondered how far to the nearest cliff so he could drive right off it into a painless future.