Chapter 1

 

“OH MY God, do you not know what a turn signal is?” I leaned on the horn, but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. That huge black Cadillac kept driving wherever it pleased and darted across three lanes of traffic to cut me off.

To be fair, the jug-handle entrance onto Hooper from Route 37 was a bitch. I’d learned the hard way not to even try it during rush hour. If I was lucky, someone might wave me through so I could get into the left lane to make my turn, but that didn’t happen all that often.

Of course, after cutting me off, the Cadillac sat there while the green light stared us both down. I tapped the horn as a gentle reminder, and with a start, the ninety-year-old driver zoomed away, taking up two lanes as he did so.

“Fuck.”

My stomach chose that moment to growl. Maybe that had something to do with my lack of patience. I hadn’t eaten since my last class, and that had been, what? Two o’clock? I hadn’t gotten out of the library until they closed, and by then I’d learned the hard way that Shore Community College didn’t have a twenty-four-hour cafeteria.

I’d gotten too used to stumbling out of the library after hours of reading to find food at whatever joint was open. Of course, up in New Brunswick there had been a shit-ton more choices. Here, the campus’s single food court closed at six.

When I spotted a pizza place with the lights still on, I took a chance and pulled into the empty parking lot. That should have been a clue.

I pushed open the door, the sudden warm air a relief from the cooler September night. A bell jangled loudly and cut into the music playing from a stereo propped on the counter. I blinked at the sudden brightness after the darkness outside. Springsteen sang to an empty room, not a single person in the booths with polished red leather seats that lined the wall. I noted the black-and-white checkered floors and a mural of the leaning tower of Pisa on the wall—yeah, like a million pizza joints I knew.

And then he walked into the room, wielding a broom and dustpan and looking good enough to eat.

“Sorry, man, I’m about to close up.”

It took me a minute to find my voice. He had dark hair that curled around his ears, sleepy bedroom eyes, and a wicked grin beneath a noble-looking nose. His shoulders filled out a green T-shirt that had Martelli’s written across it in golden letters. Apparently he got a workout from rolling pizza, because those arms were solid muscle.

But I couldn’t draw my eyes away from the bit of scruff on his cheeks. More than a five-o’clock shadow, it was the kind of almost beard that begged to be licked.

“Um, sorry. Do you have anything left over?” To make me sound even more pathetic, right then my stomach chose to gurgle. It wasn’t anything like a manly growl—it was a tiny twisted gurgle.

The guy with the broom laughed. Fuck, were those dimples? I thought he was lickable before.

“Tell you what. Take a seat at the counter.”

I’d missed the barstools lined up along the counter during my first glance. Instead of display containers with stale pizza, there were napkin holders and glass shakers of pepper flakes and garlic powder. I sat carefully, and I say carefully, because the guy turned his back in order to flip the sign on the door to Closed, and I got a really nice view. Those tight jeans framed that ass spectacularly.

He turned, and I swear he caught me staring. Shit. I started to pull out paper napkins from the tin dispenser so I didn’t have to meet his eyes. My cheeks felt hot. I knew better than to do shit like that, not until I knew another guy might be interested. Now I was left with a pile of napkins in front of me. I started to fold one into a fan to keep my fingers busy.

“I have some gravy saved for my dinner tonight.” He walked behind the counter and pulled out a plastic container from an unseen fridge. “There’s enough to share. I’m just going to nuke it. I hope you don’t mind. I already washed all the pots.”

“Um, no, that’s fine.” I watched as he moved around the kitchen, putting the container in the microwave and toasting some huge hunks of Italian bread. It started to smell delicious, the rich aroma taking my attention off the muscles in his back and the smooth way his arms moved as he deftly served up the meal.

Hey, I was hungry.

“Gravy, not sauce?” I peered down at the bowl of chunky red sauce he put in front of me, along with the plate of steaming bread.

He held his hand to his chest. “Don’t let my mother hear you say that—it’ll break her heart!”

I laughed.

“Seriously, though, it’s an Italian thing. If it’s got meat in it, it’s gravy. There’s ground beef in there. I didn’t ask if you were vegetarian.” He ran his fingers through his dark hair, looking a bit sheepish.

“It’s fine.” I broke off a chunk of bread, dipped it in the “gravy,” and came up with a generous helping. Before I even got it in my mouth, I could smell the richness of the flavor, the warmth of the garlic, and the twist of oregano. Flavor exploded on my tongue—sour and sweet, the tomato a bit too much. The pepper hit me after I swallowed, and the heat shocked me.

“Holy crap, that’s good.” I shoved the rest of the bread into my mouth.

“Really? Not too much pepper?”

I shook my head and took another bite before answering. “You need the pepper, I think. Reminds you that you’re alive.”

“Something’s still not right. Maybe I should add more basil next time.” He licked his lips, and I followed the tip of that pink tongue as it swiped away the last bit of sauce.

“Wait. You made this?”

“Yeah. Well, kinda. I’m tweaking the family recipe.” He pointed to the shirt. “I’m Lou. Martelli. Obviously.”

“Nick. That’s me, I mean.” I held out my hand, and he shook it. He had a nice tight grip that sent shivers down my arm. I always liked a man who knew what to do with his hands. “You’re the chef?”

He shrugged and looked back down at his food. “I’m a cook. You need a degree to be a chef.”

I took another bite of bread dipped in gravy. “Well, fuck, then they should give you one on the spot. This is good.” Really good. I wasn’t just saying that because I kinda liked the guy and wanted to get into his pants. I’d happily eat this all day.

“And that’s the shit they don’t let me serve to customers.”

I swear to God he winked at me. I wasn’t entirely sure, since I was pretty busy stuffing my face with the last of the bread.

Was he flirting with me? Or maybe I saw what I wanted to see. Super-hot guy—he cooks! Would he really be checking me out? What were the odds of me finding another gay guy my first real day on my own down here?

Instead of winking back, I grabbed some flimsy napkins and wiped my face. I was sure I had gravy down my chin or somewhere equally embarrassing—like down the front of my shirt. I dabbed at that splatter helplessly.

Lou had started to wipe down the counter and collect the dirty dishes. I’d obviously lost any chance of flirting back.

“Are you lost?” he asked as he worked.

“What?”

“You’re obviously not from around here.” He nodded at my Rutgers University T-shirt. “It’s a little late to be going to the beach.”

“I’m renting in Seaside.” I tugged at my shirt self-consciously. I hadn’t even thought about it when I threw it on this morning. Probably screamed “tourist” to all the other kids at the community college.

“You sticking around for some fall surfing?”

“Ha. No. I’m taking classes at SCC.” I tugged at my shirt again, as if I could hide the bright red logo. “I’m on a break.”

That simplified things a little. Much as I liked this guy, I didn’t want to burden him with my whole life story.

“What are you studying?” He’d gone to deposit the dishes in the sink, so he’d shouted the question from the interior of the kitchen.

“Accounting.” Saying it made me cringe a little. All I could see was my dad’s face when he’d waxed on about me joining his firm when I graduated. It had sounded like a great idea when I was seventeen and applying to colleges, but after two years of math, I was starting to rethink my life choices.

“Wow, you do not sound happy.” Lou came back, wiping down his soapy forearms with a dishcloth. I’d much rather stare at his arms than talk about my major.

“Because I only did it to make my dad happy.” Man, I must have been more tired than I’d thought to let that slip.

Lou frowned. “Trust me, I know all about family obligations.”

“At least yours is tasty.”

That made him laugh—a loud rousing guffaw that had him holding on to his belly. I smiled. God, he was cute. I wanted to eat him up, and not in an entirely wholesome way.

“Well, I need to lock up now. Why don’t you stop in when we’re actually open? Our regular food’s not bad either.”

I grinned at him. “I will.”

 

 

I REALLY did hate this bridge. I mean, I sat in traffic here all summer, waiting for it to open and close and let some jackass with a yacht through. The narrow lanes didn’t bother me then, but, to be fair, I wasn’t usually driving. I had sat in the passenger side with the AC blowing on my bare legs as Devon zigged and zagged through the traffic, like we were up north and this was the turnpike. Lacey and John had been in the back, singing along really loudly to the greatest hits of summer that blared from the speakers.

There was something about the darkness of night with the lights in the distance as I traveled over the bay that made it, well, not quite scary. I’m not twelve. Maybe a little eerie.

I hadn’t realized how quiet it would get out here after the tourists left. That was why I’d decided to stay in the first place. I needed some peace and quiet to get my head back on straight. What did they say about making assumptions? Yeah, totally made an ass out of me.

I made it over the bridge safely and remembered to zig instead of zag to avoid going into Seaside Park. The lights on the boulevard had turned into blinking oranges and reds, and I navigated them quickly. Devon’s parents’ house had a driveway that I took full advantage of. The meters on the streets still ran through October, and it was only the beginning of September.

I walked down to the beach instead of going on up to bed. Even though I could hear the waves from my bedroom, there was something about standing on the boardwalk and staring off into the horizon. Right now many of the arcades were still open, but soon they’d shut down the rides and cart them away to be safe for the winter. I was the only person on the boardwalk at the moment.

It wasn’t completely quiet, but I could shut out the lights and sounds and watch the ocean.

What the hell was I doing here? I was sure when I signed the leave of absence papers that I didn’t want to go back to RU. I needed a break, and taking the house made sense when Devon told me his parents hadn’t found any winter renters yet. I’d stay here, take some classes at the community college, and figure out what to do with my life.

Because I sure as hell didn’t want to go back to my accounting classes. I felt sick at the thought—no shit, I’d get nauseous and my hands would get cold and clammy. I’d even gone to the counselor at school about it. That hadn’t helped much.

I had to get my crap together. Somehow.

I shouldn’t be thinking about the guy at the pizzeria. I shouldn’t be fantasizing about his buff arms and gentle eyes. I shouldn’t be standing here wondering what he’d taste like if I could lick the scruff of his chin.

Hell, I wasn’t even sure he was gay. I didn’t exactly have the best track record for that kinda thing. Spent too many years hiding to be open now.

Maybe I’d stop in for pizza tomorrow.