MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ stared blankly at the New York transplant who had landed on his ex-crush’s lawn, and then looked down the street for the ex-crush himself, who had trotted away in the sweltering heat, along with the dog of ambiguous ownership.
Rico was not coming back with Clopper any time soon.
Miguel had to look back to Mr. Manhattan, and he turned just in time to watch several drops of sweat splash down from Ezra Kellerman’s forehead. The young man—roughly Miguel’s age—grimaced and wiped his face on the sleeve of his polo shirt.
“So,” Miguel said blankly, feeling dumb. “You, uh, want to come inside? I guess you live here now.”
Those had been Rico’s words before he took off with the dog to make up with his boyfriend. He’d said Ezra could have his place on the couch, and for Miguel to tell Rico’s cousin Adam that it was all good.
Miguel had spent his life trying to please all the adults in a big family—he hadn’t been happy about it, but he was still damned good at following directions.
Ezra looked back at him, shell-shocked blue eyes wide and a little red. Rico had been kind—because Rico was kind—but Miguel gathered the “I’m glad you’re okay; I need to go move in with my current boyfriend!” brush-off hadn’t been what the poor guy was hoping for. “Yeah, sure,” Ezra responded dazedly. “Anything to get out of this fucking heat.”
They had to pull Ezra’s two big suitcases and his carry-on up the stairs to the second floor and into the apartment, but the cooler air hit them as soon as they opened the door. So did Finn and Adam’s surprise as they walked in.
Finn was seated at the little Formica kitchen table, his mouth full of what was probably ice, given that the ice bowl was sitting right next to him. Even as they looked, he spat a stream of pink into the plastic cup in his hand. His heart-shaped face was screwed up in pain, and he kept squeezing his big blue eyes shut like he was trying not to cry. His strawberry-blond hair swacked to his head with sweat.
“Fuckin’ Derek,” Adam snarled, giving him a clean plastic cup and taking the other one to the sink. “Are the painkillers kicking in?”
“What happened to him?” Ezra asked, looking worried. Well, this whole day was probably worrisome. Miguel cast a surreptitious look at Ezra’s knuckles. Healing scars decorated the backs of his hands—showing them to Rico had caused a stunningly vulnerable expression to cross Ezra’s pale, high-cheekboned face.
“Rico’s boyfriend saw you on the lawn and curbed the car,” Adam said tersely. “Finn bit his tongue.” He stopped for a moment and touched Finn tenderly on the cheek. “You’re going to be okay, though, right?”
Finn nodded gamely and grinned, the expression surprisingly puppyish around his open mouth. “Iba gobba be fibe,” he said, and Adam squeezed his eyes shut.
“Ibbit?” he mocked grimly. “Ibbit gobba be fibe?”
Finn’s round eyes narrowed. “Dit.”
Miguel snickered, and Adam threw him a droll look. “He could have bit the damned thing off and he’d still be talking.”
For a moment all was right with Miguel’s world. “Yes, but he wouldn’t make you quite so happy, would he, papi?”
Adam’s mouth twisted—almost a smile. Sort of a triumph. He gently tousled Finn’s hair and looked up, his eyes catching Ezra. Smile gone.
“Uh, so, speaking of Rico—what are you doing here?” Adam’s scowl intensified. “And where the fuck is my dog?”
Ezra’s gaze darted nervously to Miguel. Wonderful. Miguel’s business had failed, and he’d spent the past two months pretending he’d never even tried to be Mr. Responsible Leadership Person. Apparently now he was in charge of a stray.
“Rico said Ezra could have his spot on the couch. He, uh, told me to tell you that he was bringing Clopper back tomorrow, and that he’ll get all his clothes then, and that we should get Ezra a job at Candy Heaven. And that he was going to go tell Derek that he wasn’t getting back with Ezra.” Miguel recited it as close to verbatim as he could get, because Rico’s instructions confused him,and he could imagine Adam being a little surprised as well.
Not so much.
“Yeah, well, don’t talk to me about Derek. I don’t give a shit if he is my boss, anyone who would curb a convertible like that has totally lost my respect.”
Finn gave an outraged whine, and Adam rolled his eyes. “Yeah, baby—and you hurting yourself doesn’t help his cause either.”
“Wait—Rico wants you to take me to work for Derek?” Ezra asked, clearly as confused as Adam should have been.
The gaze Adam leveled at Ezra would have made Miguel quail in shame. Ezra blinked and smiled slightly, like he was used to that shit all the time. Adam cocked his head then, and did something… curious.
“No,” he said, drawing it out so it didn’t sound abrupt. “He wants me to take you to Candy Heaven so you can work for Darrin.I get why you’d be confused. But right now, go ahead and stack your bags in the corner there. I’ll make sure we’re gone when Rico comes for his stuff….” Adam’s voice deepened and his irritation clearly showed. “…and returns my fuckin’ dog! You can unpack then.” He glanced at Miguel. “Mik, you work tomorrow too?”
Miguel nodded. “Yeah—same shift as you.”
“Awesome—then we’ll bring him in and Darrin will hire him.”
Miguel gaped, opening and shutting his mouth and feeling stupid, before Ezra put him out of his misery and asked the obvious question.
“Just like that? He doesn’t even know me!”
Adam cocked his head again and nodded, the expression of casual acceptance at odds with Adam’s height, physique, and hardened jaw. And his neck tattoos—which had always fascinated Miguel.
“He’s been dreaming about you,” Adam said obliquely, but Miguel understood.
“Really? Darrin’s been dreaming about him?” And for the first time since… since he looked at Adam Macias and thought he’d never seen anyone so beautiful, Miguel let some of his frustration out. “Him?”
He waved his arms at the newcomer, the interloper who almost bollixed Rico and Derek’s budding romance, the idiot who couldn’t even wear sensible clothes when it was a bajillion degrees outside. Ezra looked back, big blue eyes wide and fringed by black lashes to set them even further apart in pale skin. He had two tiny moles by the corner of his mouth, true beauty marks, and soft pink pillow lips.
Things that Miguel only just noticed as Ezra grimaced and threw his hands from his chest in the classic pose of offended dignity.
“Chopped liver, am I?”
“Did you want the proprietor of a candy store to be dreaming about you?” Miguel asked, feeling the wound again. He worked there, for fuck’s sake. All that fucking lonely heartbreak over a guy who had barely learned Miguel’s name because he was falling head over heels for Finn, and the weirdly clairvoyant owner of the place he worked couldn’t have one lousy dream about him? If Finn wasn’t such a nice guy, Miguel would have spent a lot of useless time hating his guts. Didn’t Miguel need some attention for that? Hell, Miguel’s business dreams had gone up in flames—didn’t he get some tea and sympathy for that?
But no, Miguel was the object of nobody’s dreams, and this absurdly beautiful stranger just got his feelings hurt because of Miguel’s attempts to mean something to somebody.
“I got no idea,” Ezra said, shaking his head in confusion. “Maybe he knows Prince Charming. Maybe he is Prince Charming. Or maybe I’m just….”
He tried to sneer at Ezra, to make him feel small for wanting some attention—but he couldn’t. He hadn’t heard much—he’d mostly seen the conversation between Ezra and Rico—but he had the feeling that Ezra’s heart was probably in the same state as his own.
“Lost,” Miguel said with a sigh. “Yeah, no. Not chopped liver. C’mon. Let’s get your luggage stashed.”
“Hey, Miguel,” Adam said casually as Miguel turned toward the living room, “do you want to stay for dinner? I mean, we’ve done a piss-poor job of thanking you for watching Clopper this weekend—”
“And Jake!” Miguel felt compelled to add. The cat wasn’t any trouble, but that didn’t mean it should be forgotten.
“And Jake,” Adam conceded, completely serious. “Yeah—I mean, I know Derek was going to pay you, but still. You had to deal with family drama, and I was going to make that, whatyacallums, Asian salad, and that’s a lotta fuckin’ trouble for three people.”
Miguel’s lips quirked up at the corners. “But four people is just right?” Transparent. The man was transparent. But since he was being transparently kind,and transparently grateful, Miguel wouldn’t shit on his parade.
“Absolutely,” Adam said. He turned to Finn again and asked him to spit in the cup, and Miguel did his job as sort of a host-by-proxy.
“So, this is the apartment,” Miguel said, gesturing vaguely. A hallway ran down to a bathroom on one side and a bedroom on the other. There was a generous closet next to the bathroom. The end.
“It’s got air-conditioning like a fucking champion,” Ezra said, nodding enthusiastically, and Miguel found his poor-poor-pitiful-me moment evaporating.
“It does,” he said gratefully. It truly was about thirty-five degrees cooler inside than it was outside, and Miguel found himself a little happy that the dog wasn’t there with his nova flare body and boundless enthusiasm. “Miserable out there.”
Ezra nodded rather pathetically, and Miguel thought the word “miserable” might apply universally.
“Here—I’m going to set you down in front of… whatever the hell is on and let you just sort of decompress, okay?” Miguel thought perhaps he could do it—he could edge away from so much rampant pain and just let this stranger drift into his own comfort zone, and Miguel wouldn’t have to deal with the fact that this poor kid had just flown thousands of miles to get dumped on the front lawn of an unfamiliar place.
“That’s human of you,” Ezra said listlessly, taking the remote control and disconsolately flipping through channels. He paused after a moment and turned just as Miguel was making for the kitchen so he could have a conversation of furious whispers with Adam. “Uh, so, Miguel, could I trouble you for a glass of water? I hate to ask, I mean—”
Miguel’s head snapped over to stare at him and his eyes got wide. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “Sure. No problem. Let me get you some ice.”
That quickly, the bemused stranger was no longer a stranger. That quickly, he was a force to be reckoned with.
This apparent stranger knew his name.