“UH, GABE, there’s a lost-looking customer on aisle sixteen.”
Gabe Mason glanced away from the pile of bathroom fixtures he was restocking toward Harry Johnson, a name that gave all the guys no end of chuckles. “Does he need something unusual?” Harry might not know as much about the inventory as Gabe, but he was perfectly capable of helping most customers.
Harry grimaced and shrugged his big shoulders. “I think I scared him. When I asked if I could help, he practically melted into the drawer of cabinet handles he was searching. I was afraid he might run.” He shifted uneasily. Harry was such a massive guy, he could be intimidating.
Gabe nodded and waved at the stack of boxes. “You want to take this over, and I’ll go check on the lost lamb?”
“That’s where I left him.” He was already stacking. Harry definitely didn’t want to deal with this customer.
Gabe walked toward sixteen. Hattie and Mary waved from the checkout stands. Mary always gave him an extra smile. She knew, as all the personnel in the store did, that “Gabe didn’t exactly go for women,” but she didn’t really believe it. Good old regular-guy Gabe—single father of a teenage girl, most knowledgeable employee on everything having to do with hardware, lumber, and home improvement—gay? Hell no. Gay guys wore chartreuse and kept cats, right? They didn’t build furniture and repair cars. He smiled tightly. As long as he didn’t give them any reason to doubt his man’s man image, they accepted him and, more importantly, accepted Ellie, his daughter.
Rounding the corner on the hardware aisle, he spotted a couple of customers looking like they needed help. One was a woman with two little kids tugging on her and each other, and the second was an older man in a red cap who stared at Gabe like he’d been waiting for him for two hours. With a frown, the man said, “Can you help me?”
A quick glance up the aisle revealed no lost shoppers, if you didn’t count the woman, who might be looking for a cage to house her children in. She glared at the man. “I was here first.”
“You left.” The old man scowled.
“I chased my son, that’s all. I’ve been waiting longer.”
Gabe stepped forward. “No worries. I’ll help you both. What do you need, ma’am?”
She flashed a victorious smile at the old man. “I need some screws.”
Gabe glanced at the entire wall of screws behind her.
The older man stepped forward pugnaciously. “I do too.”
Gabe nodded. “Excellent. What are you screwing?” He kind of wanted to say apart from each other, but didn’t.
“Wood.” They answered at the same time, then looked at each other as if the other person had stolen something from them.
“That’s really good. We can look at the same options. Now, will the wood you’re screwing be used indoors or outdoors?”
The woman looked at the man suspiciously. “Indoors.”
The man said, “On my deck.”
“Okay, here you go.” Gabe waved at an array of screws. “These are all production screws. This batch”—he pointed—“is specifically deck screws.” He smiled at the man, then turned to the woman. “And these are for indoor applications.”
As they both pounced on their screws, Gabe looked up for his fastest escape route and caught a glimpse of a tall, thin man in a beanie peeking around the end of the aisle toward him. Now that looks like lost lamb material.
He glanced at the screwers. “Got what you need?”
The man held up a screw. “Is this the right size?”
“Are you screwing two-bys or plywood?”
Gabe held up a screw. “Here ya go.” He smiled again. “If you’ll excuse me, there’s someone trying to track me down.” He started walking down the aisle, and the head of the person who’d been staring at him disappeared.
Gabe slowed his steps and tried to look as harmless as possible. While Gabe was a good-sized man, he was a shrimp next to Harry, so maybe the customer would be willing to talk to him. If not, screw it. He had plenty to keep him busy.
When he got to the end of the aisle, he looked casually to his left. Tight against a display of light fixtures, back turned to Gabe, stood the guy in the beanie. He had long legs in baggy jeans, an equally baggy sweatshirt that still stretched across really wide shoulders, all his hair covered by the cap, and still the total strangeness didn’t obscure the view of one world-class ass inside the jeans.
Gabe cleared his throat but didn’t get too close. “Can I help you find something, sir?”
“Wha—” He half turned, and Gabe saw he’d put on sunglasses after he’d withdrawn from peering around the corner.
“Can I help you, sir?” Gabe thought he should probably walk away, but the guy had become kind of a challenge.
The customer reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a drawer handle. He muttered, “Need handles this size.”
Gabe took it. “All right, sir. If you’ll come with me, we have the drawer pulls at the end of aisle sixteen.”
The guy nodded and turned but never raised his head enough to look Gabe in the eye. Still, his high cheekbones and full lips made his face striking, even when it was pointed at his shoes.
Gabe started walking, trusting from the soft scuffling of sneakers behind him that the man was following. Those footsteps slowed when they passed the woman with the kids as she gathered the last of her screws, but he sped up again after she dragged the children toward the checkout registers. In front of the rows of drawers containing handles and knobs, Gabe pointed to the samples attached to the front of each drawer. “See any you like?”
The guy’s head barely moved, so through the glasses, Gabe couldn’t see if he even looked. He shrugged.
“Do you like modern? Traditional?”
“Brushed nickel, maybe? Or are you a chrome guy?”
The slim nose wrinkled.
“So no chrome. Nickel, then.” Gabe walked to the drawers and held out the sample the guy had given him to check for size and spacing center to center. He picked a couple of modern pulls he liked and took them from the drawers, then held them out to the man.
He looked at the pulls intently, cocked his head, and then ripped off the glasses somewhat impatiently, as if someone had made him wear them.
Gabe sucked in a soft breath. The guy’s eyes were two different colors, one a deep blue and the other light green. Startling and very distinctive. Maybe it affected his eyesight or sensitivity to light and that’s why he was wearing sunglasses in ImproveMart?
The guy reached out a long-fingered hand and tapped the handle that was Gabe’s favorite—a simple wide U-shape of brushed nickel. Gabe nodded. “Yeah, that’s a good one. How many do you need?”
“Uh, eight.” His voice was soft to the point of nonexistence.
Gabe pulled the drawer out farther and began counting out the plastic packages that contained the handle and necessary screws, piling them on the shelf beside him. “Need anything else?”
The guy had put his glasses back on by the time Gabe turned to him. Darn. Those eyes are something. The man nodded his head and pointed to some simple, ball-shaped drawer pulls. “Ten.”
“Oh, I hope I have enough.” Gabe pulled open the drawer and started counting.
The dude stepped closer to watch the counting, which turned out to be a bad idea for Gabe’s autonomic responses. What is that smell? Like some mix of orange and spice. Whatever it was, Gabe’s lower regions came out for a sniff. He shifted his feet and pressed his elbows against his work vest to be sure it covered his crotch. Down boy.
He forced a smile as he scraped the last package from the drawer. “There you go. We just made ten.” Gabe looked around. The guy had no cart. Not even a carry basket. What exactly was he planning on hauling stuff in?
The man seemed to realize it at the same time as Gabe. He grabbed his lip between his teeth, looked down, took hold of the hem of his giant sweatshirt, and held the bottom out like a bag.
Gabe chuckled. “Excellent save.” The problem with the dude’s invention was it raised the shirt from his narrow hips—and what might, just might, have been a half-mast condition thrusting out the front of his jeans. Don’t need to know that—if it’s true. Hell, just what he needed. To get turned on by weird customers.
Stalwartly, taking pretty shallow breaths, Gabe piled the handles and knobs into the guy’s shirt, smiled, and gave him a short wave. “Glad you got what you needed. Have a great day.”
Walking away as fast as he could without looking conspicuous, he headed for the lumber department, which was as far as he could get from where that disturbing dude was likely to show up. It wasn’t officially Gabe’s assignment, but since he’d commandeered Harry to do his stocking, he could go anywhere he might be useful, and not that many of the store personnel knew lumber as well as Gabe.
He ran his hand over some of the boards. He loved wood. No matter how cold it got, wood was slightly warm to the touch—kind of like skin. Not that he’d know much about that.
Gabe waited on customers and cut two-bys for an hour—the guy had to be gone, right?—then walked back to hardware.
Harry was checking something on the computer. “What happened? Did you have to chase that customer all over the store to get him to say what he wanted?”
“Ha. Ha.” He gave Harry a toothy smile. “Thanks a bunch. Actually, I finally got out of him that he was looking for cabinet handles and pulls. He wanted a lot of them, but he hadn’t brought a basket or cart. Anyway, after I got done with him, I figured I’d check on lumber since I heard they were down a man today.”
“Oh yeah. And thanks for helping that customer. He kind of freaked me out.”
“Yeah. Me too.” But likely not for the same reasons.
Harry glanced around. “Not too busy. Call if you need me. I’ve got some work in the stock room.” He started walking, then looked back. “Some of the guys are going for a beer after work. Wanna come?”
“Not tonight. Ellie’s cooking. But thanks for asking. Rain check.”
Harry nodded. He was a great guy and always made a point of inviting Gabe to join him for whatever he and his friends were doing. Gabe liked them all, but sometimes being with them made him feel more alone.
Harry probably wouldn’t be so happy to hear that his weirdass customer gave me a boner.
Gabe sighed and went back to work.
“HONEY, THIS is amazing.” Gabe took another bite of the pot roast his sixteen-year-old kid had managed to conjure for their dinner. She often cooked when she didn’t have an evening shift at her fast-food job, but tonight she’d even set his handmade table with their best dishes. Of course “best” in their house meant most of the dollar-store plates matched. “You sure you want to become such a good cook?”
She snorted. “Why, because it’ll be hard to stay unmarried?” She wrinkled her cute, short nose. She’d gotten mostly Tiffany’s features, with the fairer hair, brown eyes, and softly rounded face. That was good since Gabe looked all Mount Rushmore, with a sharp nose, prominent cheekbones, and a cleft in his chin. Not even a little girlie.
He sat back and patted his stomach. “Exactly. Some guy’s gonna go, ‘She can cook too?’ and try to slip a ring on your finger while you sleep.”
“Yeah. No. I’m learning to cook so I can feed myself in my perpetual single state.” She took her last bite. “Just don’t tell Mom that.”
“I promise.” He smiled at her. “But I also promise that getting married someday doesn’t mean you’re going to end up with the wrong guy like your mom did.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “You mean like my mom did twice? Going on three times?”
“Admittedly, she didn’t do a whizbang job of choosing the second time, but the first time was on me.” He gave her arm a pat, then grabbed the plates and started toward the kitchen sink.
“Oh come on, you were sixteen. Not exactly the age of enlightenment.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “But I knew better.” Then he grinned. “I must have known that if I kidded myself for a while, I’d get you, and trust me, honey, that was worth anything.”
She kissed his cheek as she put their utensils in the sink for him to wash later. “I didn’t want to get so domestic I made dessert, so want an ice cream sandwich?”
“Perfect.” He returned to the table, and she followed with two paper-wrapped ice creams.
“Don’t tell Mom about this either.” She unwrapped an end and took a bite.
“Why?” He tried to control the frown on his face.
“Is your mom on you about weight again?”
“Yeah. It’s her constant refrain right after her sudden onset of Christianity.”
“You’re not too heavy, Ellie. And you’re way more Christian in the human-kindness sense than most people I’ve met.” She made a face, and he leaned forward and waved his ice cream. “I’m totally serious. I don’t want you thinking that you need to lose weight. You have to take your mom with a grain of salt on this subject.”
“You mean because she freaks over every pound she gains?”
“Yes. You can never be thin enough for your mom, so don’t try. You look wonderful.”
“Nope. You’ve got to trust me on this subject.” He grinned.
“Because you’re a gay guy, and everyone knows gay men are experts on beauty and style, right?”
“Damn straight. Uh, damn right. There’s got to be some good coming from all those stereotypes.” He gave her a sidelong look as he chomped his last mouthful of ice cream.
“Um-hm. I totally trust you, your nail gun, and your flannel shirts on the subject of style.” They both laughed. She returned that side-eyed look. “And on the subject of keeping an open mind with regard to men, how about you do the same?”
Uh-oh. Sore subject. “I’ll focus on the same sex later. Right now I’ve got other priorities.”
“Other priorities like me.” She rocked back in her chair, crumpled the paper her ice cream had been in, and tossed it on the table. “Come on, Dad, it’s a year and a half until I’m out of here and off to college. Good grief, your gonads will dry up and blow away by that time.”
He tried to stifle his laugh and failed. Then he sobered. “All I care about is you, baby.” It was true, though sometimes it was hard not to wish for maybe one more person in his life.
She picked up the crumpled paper and dropped it. “You’re just worried she’s going to try to get primary custody.” The crease between her eyebrows stood out on her pretty face like a crater.
“There’s no discrimination in Oregon against gay parents. You know that. There’s nothing to worry about.” He clasped her arm.
“That won’t stop Irving, the family-first fanatic, from trying to get custody if he marries Mom.” Her frown got even deeper. “Jeez, he’s a freak.”
“Should I talk to Mom? Is there anything about him we should know?”
She expelled a long breath. “Not really. He’s just a religious pill, and I don’t know why Mom’s so gone on him. I think she feels like she needs to be saved, you know?” She entwined her fingers with his. “Come on, she’s been married and divorced and reengaged, and you’ve barely had a date. I just want to see you happy.”
“You make me happy, Ellie.” She did. God, he loved her.
“Hell, if it weren’t for me, you could have hot hookups every night and find a boyfriend.”
He snorted. “A, consider the source.” He waved a hand over his opposite of hotness. “B, I don’t want hookups every night.” Though he wouldn’t mind one occasionally.
She plopped a hand on her hip like someone’s mother. “If it wasn’t for me, you’d focus on your furniture business instead of handing out screws at ImproveMart.”
“I like ImproveMart, the world isn’t ready for handmade furniture, and I’m focused on more important things.” He leaned forward and stared across the table at her.
“Okay, what? What’s so important?”
“The identity of the concert you’ve chosen for your birthday.”
She made a face. “Slick way to change the topic there, Dad. But yeah, I did pick one.” She gave him that sideways look again. “I’ll have to go online the second the tickets go on sale because they’ll sell out instantly, and they’ll probably be kind of pricy.”
“Money’s no object. I’m willing to spend up to twenty dollars for those tickets.” He tried to keep a straight face.
“Dad!” She smacked his arm. “Worst of all, we have to drive to Eugene to see it. Is that okay?”
“Not a problem. I told you to pick. Maybe we’ll stay overnight, but it’s only a two-and-a-half-hour drive, so we’ll play it by ear.”
“Actually, this guy is a big star, but he’s doing this special concert at the university since he went there or his father did or something. Anyway, it’s a huge deal. He usually only performs in places like New York or Vegas.”
“Okay, I’ll be properly impressed. Got any friends you want to take?”
“I thought about asking MaryAnn. But really, I’d just as soon go with you.”
“You sure? I’m not going to squeal with you and do posts on Instagram.”
“That’s okay. I’ll do enough for both of us.” She flashed her dimples.
He laughed as he walked to the sink to wash the dishes.
Ellie said, “I’m starting my homework. Are you going to work on the coffee table tonight?” She pointed toward his workshop in the garage.
He tried not to look too discouraged. “Maybe. I don’t think Mrs. McRae’s going to buy it, honey. So no rush.”
“But it’s so beautiful.”
“Yeah, but like I told you, it’s hard to charge enough for all the work that goes into handmade furniture. If I sell it at a loss, she may buy it.”
“Nuts to that. Keep it for a customer who appreciates your genius.”
“I’ll tell them you said so.” He started scraping and rinsing. Ellie really wanted his business to succeed, but the fact was he needed to be someplace like southern California or New York to sell his kind of furniture, and he needed to stay in Oregon. Partly because his ex, Tiffany, had joint custody, and partly because it was a great place to raise a kid. But from Oregon, it was hard to find buyers, and shipping cost a lot.
Most daughters would have accepted Gabe’s building his life around them as their due. Ellie seemed to feel guilty.
From behind him, he heard the music from the old upright piano they’d managed to squeeze into the small living room so Ellie could practice. She loved music in all its forms. She played in the high school orchestra and seemed to be pointing toward music as a possible major.
Gabe rinsed plates in time to the practice piece she was sifting through.
“Just keep an open mind on finding the right guy, okay?”
He chuckled and nodded.
At least he didn’t lie out loud.