“IT WAS my fault.” Channing pushed away his plate, which was a shame because he still had some of Nica’s best work left to eat. “I—I have a business in San Francisco. I’ve been running it from here with a laptop, mostly, but I… even if I want to sell it and move back here so Sammy doesn’t have to change his life, I still have to be there for a month or two. Sammy—he heard me talking, I guess, and he just lost his mother, and….”
“And he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Tino guessed.
Channing shrugged and leaned forward, resting his weight on his elbows. “The first shoe was pretty brutal as it was.”
Tino suddenly felt outclassed and over his head. “I’m sorry,” he said inanely. “You have plenty on your plate. It was nice of you to ask me over”—he conveniently forgot that he’d finagled the invitation—“but I should leave you to—”
“He likes you,” Channing said baldly, standing up as Tino did so they were facing each other.
“That’s flattering.” Tall. Oh dear heavens, the man was just… tall. Tino grabbed his water glass and took one last swig, because his mouth had just gone dry. “But—”
“He likes you, and you said over dinner that you were working at Panera to get through school.” Channing, who had appeared to be sane for pretty much the past two hours, was looking at him with an unholy gleam of connivance in those blue-gray eyes.
“I am.” Oh yeah, time to back off the edge of the cliff before Tino got sucked down into the childcare job at the bottom of the abyss. “I need that money. I cannot possibly afford to take a childcare job, even if I worked both—”
“I’ll pay off your student loans,” Channing stated, so flatly, and with such desperate firmness, that Tino found himself hovering over the chasm, his feet suspended in midair.
“Uhm, do you have any idea how much—”
The figure rolled off Channing’s tongue: Tino’s student loans, plus a decent chunk of change at the end that would help Tino buy a dependable car, get an apartment—even a new laptop to help him get started when he found a job.
Tino grasped the top of the chair and leaned on it, not sure he could hold himself up. “Real—”
“Yes, really, Tino. I need help. I’m not too proud to say it—Sammy is the last part of my sister that I have, and I need help clearing this transition with him. I cannot do this alone.”
Tino swallowed and counted the spots floating like fish in front of his eyes. “But Sammy’s father—doesn’t he—”
“Yeah,” Channing said, voice grim. “He does—but we can’t let him. He was not good for Sheryl, and I’m fighting one hell of a legal battle to keep him out of Sammy’s life. Please….” Channing’s shoulders slumped, and he used his thumb and forefinger to rub his eyes tiredly. “Please—I’ll draw it up in a contract, half now, half when the summer’s over. Just think about it, Tino—no student loans. A free-and-clear start.”
“How… how does anyone have so much money?” Tino asked, appalled and admiring in spite of himself.
“The money?” Channing muttered, sounding indifferent. “That was easy—I started out rich and made more. The money isn’t important. Sammy? That’s our goal right now. Can you help me make my goal?”
Tino shook his head and went to take a step backward. “Uh, my mother told me no candy from strangers?” He tried a helpful smile, but Channing followed him, and he didn’t smile back.
“This isn’t candy,” he said, eyes piercing and deadly. “This is your future—wrapped all pretty with a bow. No loans—”
“But 24-7!” Oh God, his chest compressed just thinking about it.
“Weekends off, plus use of the car,” Channing hammered home. “It’s not indentured servitude, Tino—”
“Well it’s not a notch on my resume!” Tino objected. “What, I’m going to start looking for work in September and show people—”
“Your letter of rec from Channing Lowell,” he said, eyes flinty. “Ask around—in fact, go home and Google me. It’s worth its weight in gold, Tino, and it can be yours. Just help me out here—”
“I have a degree in business!” Tino objected, feeling sorely let down. He’d hoped his big break would come in the corporate world, not delivering his sister’s dinner box—wait! “And I live in Rocklin!” he pointed out triumphantly.
“You would live here,” Channing answered, gesturing around to the giant house. “Mirella goes home, but there are five unoccupied bedrooms here. Sammy has several day camps already scheduled—you’d be mostly taxi service, but if you want to take him to visit your family—”
“This is crazy,” Tino muttered, taking another step backward, like Channing was the devil and he was escaping temptation. “You’re insane—you don’t even know me. I could be a child molester or a thief or—”
“I’d check you out too,” Channing said, sounding almost bored. “I am a very good businessman, Tino. Don’t think I’m not. But right now, I want you to stop looking at me like I’m going to eat you, and think about it.”
Tino blinked and put a hand to his heated face, aware that he’d seen very little but the breadth of Channing Lowell’s chest and his intense gray eyes for the past ten minutes.
“I don’t think you’re going to eat me,” he muttered, sort of wishing Channing Lowell would eat him, just gobble him right up.
“Good,” Channing said, the challenge in his eyes lightening up a fraction. “Because I want you to feel comfortable here.”
“I haven’t said I’d do it.” Tino crossed his arms in front of his chest, like his youth was the problem—his narrow chest and rangy shoulders were far too exposed and he was tempting this probably straight man into perdition.
Channing laughed, and it wasn’t Tino’s imagination. The laugh was vaguely predatory, and this time, as he raked Tino with his eyes, Tino was aware of a half-mocking sort of assessment.
“You’ll do it,” he said, sounding insufferably smug.
“Why?” Tino threw back, determined not to take another penny from Channing Lowell if he bought all his sister’s dinners for a year. “Because I’m poor? Because I’m young? Why am I going to—”
Channing took one more dangerous step forward and Tino’s shoulders bumped against the wall. That thunder-mountain of a chest and those deadly eyes were advancing on him and he had nowhere to go.
“I’ve told you,” Channing rumbled, sounding angry for the first time, “that’s your chip, and not my mindset. And you’re not going to take the job for the money, or the car, or even the letter of rec, although that’s all I’m offering.”
His heat and his mild aftershave and even his deodorant filled Tino’s senses, and he was having trouble breathing. The full presence of this man was pressing down on Tino until he felt trapped like a rabbit with no place to go.
So, like a rabbit, he held himself very still. “Then why?” he whispered, wondering when he’d be able to catch a full breath. “What makes you so irresistible?”
Channing’s full lips quirked into a smile. “I don’t know, Tino, you tell me. You’ve been staring into my eyes all night, and touching your lips, running your fingers through your hair, touching your cheeks. I’ll be honest—I’m flattered as hell. But you need to be honest with yourself. What exactly do you want from me that you are not going to get from Panera, no matter how long you work there?”
Tino’s breath caught, and for a brief, suspended second, there existed only the two of them, Tino’s rough, ragged breaths pumping his chest in and out against Channing’s brick wall of a chest that rose and fell evenly.
“Uh….” Channing lifted his thumb to rub it back and forth over Tino’s lower lip—and that was all. “Uh….”
“Think about it,” Channing whispered. He lowered his head enough that his breath brushed Tino’s temple. “Just think about it.”
Channing backed away, dropping his hand, breaking all contact, and Tino felt absurdly hurt. No kissing? No plundering? No forsaking his chaste values as the world’s oldest virgin in the heat of Channing Lowell’s predation?
Channing bowed at the waist and gestured past the dining room to the living room and the main exit, and Tino glared at him.
“Good night, Tino. You left your sister’s card. I’ll e-mail her the contract for you to look over, and get some information from you so I can run a background check, because I’m not stupid. After that, you have two days to give me an answer.”
Tino gaped at him. “But… but….” But you were going to kiss me!
Channing winked. “I promise, taking advantage of people isn’t my style. Not that it’s off the table, but I’m very sincere. Sammy’s well-being is my top priority.”
“But….” What if I wanted you to kiss me, dammit!
When Channing spoke next, his voice dropped silkily. “I promise you, young Mr. Robbins, if you ever come asking me for extracurricular activity, I’m not going to turn you down. But it has to be your choice. Right now I’m just offering a job. A very good job.”
Tino opened his mouth and closed it again, and opened it and closed it—and then found himself, still speechless, being hustled toward the entryway and outside to his car. He was actually in the car, in the balmy spring night, making his way back to his parents’ house near Stanford Ranch, when he managed to wonder if he even said one intelligible thing after Channing Lowell’s last promise.
Or was it threat?
Or did it matter?
Because Tino was not going to see that man again!