Love You So Special

 

Chapter One

 

ARTIE HAYNES put the last twist on the nut connecting the supply tube to the tailpiece under the sink in the big men’s room. Like always, he suppressed a chuckle at the double meaning in the names of the plumbing parts. He never shared the joke. The guys might be big on tail, but they sure as hell weren’t into nuts.

Martinez peered in the door. Soft music filtered through along with his tough-guy face. “Yo, Haynes. Ya done? Wanna go get a beer?”

Did he? He liked beer and he liked the guys well enough, but he only had one more day on this job. That meant one more day when he could sneak into the back of the giant auditorium and listen to those people play music—music like he’d barely ever heard before. “Nah. Thanks, man. Gotta do some family shit.”

Martinez snorted. “Tell me about it. You ain’t seen family crap till you’ve been Mexican, man. See ya tomorrow.” The door closed behind him.

Artie leaned under the sink and turned the water back on, stripped off his gloves, and stuck them in his tool bag. The damned thing weighed a ton, but he didn’t like leaving his tools behind at the job like some guys did. Hefting the bag on his shoulder, he stepped out into the wide hall beside the men’s room he and the crew had been renovating. The client had only given them three days to get the work done in there since they needed the bathroom for some big concert. He would have liked to stay twice as long.

The music filled the hall, though it stopped sometimes and then restarted. The previous day Artie had watched the guy up front of that big band click his stick and everybody’d stop. The leader would say some stuff Artie couldn’t hear from the back, and then the players would go back and do it again. Maybe that dude heard something wrong, but man, to Artie’s ears it sounded perfect.

The music began again, and real quietly Artie slipped into the back of the big auditorium, set his tool bag on the floor, and then hunkered down in a seat near the exit doors. Two or three other people were sitting in the hall listening, but they were up front.

Artie leaned his head against the back of the seat and let the music wash over him like the world’s best shower. Wonder what that music’s called? It was real complicated, with lots of instruments playing at once, but they went together so perfect. It was, like, unexpected. The horn things would play something and then the fiddles would pick it up. Wow. Imagine being able to make music like that.

In his pocket, his phone vibrated once. Text. He didn’t even look. It could wait. This was too great.

“Are you enjoying the music?”

Artie was on his feet so fast he got light-headed. A small, white-haired woman in beautiful clothes stood beside him in the aisle. She must be a damned ninja, because he hadn’t heard her coming. “Uh, yes ma’am, I am. I hope I’m not bothering anyone.”

She waved a hand sporting a diamond the size of a bagel. “Not at all. We’re always happy to know our audiences are enjoying the symphony.”

“It’s really great.” He didn’t mention that he was as likely to be a member of the audience at Sanderson Hall as he was to turn into Superman. He’d seen the prices on those tickets.

“I noticed you were here yesterday as well.” She was smiling, so she didn’t look pissed about it.

He grinned back. People always said his dimples were his best feature. “I’m part of the crew working on the renovations. I’m the plumber, although I do carpentry too. I can hear the music from across the hall, and it’s hard to resist.” He held up a hand. “I’m all done for the day, so I’m on my own time.”

She laughed. “You don’t have to punch a time clock for me. Music is at least as important as work.”

He nodded. “Yeah. It’s like food or something. You hear it and you feel—better. Sorry, I haven’t got the right words.”

“You’re doing fine.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Helen Sanderson, by the way.”

He stared like maybe some angel had descended from heaven. Damn, I hope my hands are clean. He shook her hand. It felt tiny and soft. “Artie Haynes.” Wait. “Did you say Sanderson?”

“Yes. My family built this hall.” She laughed, and it sounded pretty musical. “They paid to have it built, of course. No hammers involved. That’s your job. So please feel free to drop by anytime.”

“Uh, ma’am. Can you tell me what that music is?”

She looked a little surprised but nodded. “Yes, it’s Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. One of the most popular of Beethoven’s works. Do you like it?”

“Yeah. I mean, yes. I really like it a lot.”

“I hope you’ll come and see it performed when they’ve finished rehearsing. That won’t be until later in the year. The season doesn’t really start until fall, except for special events.”

“Oh, uh, thanks.” At least he had one more day to listen to them practice.

“It’s been a pleasure, Artie. I’m always glad to meet a fellow music lover.” She patted his arm. “Will you be here tomorrow?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Be sure and come in to listen, because we have an extraordinary soloist I think you’ll enjoy.”

Soloist? “Uh, like a singer?”

She smiled. “No, he’s a pianist. Truly exceptional. The only way we got him is because he’s local, so they made a small exception for us.” She lowered her voice. “Honorarium-wise.” She gave a little laugh.

He smiled back, though he had no clue what that meant.

“I hope I see you again.” She walked out the auditorium doors.

What a cool lady. He glanced toward the stage. It looked like the musicians were closing up their stuff, so Artie grabbed his tool bag and left before anybody else noticed him. It took a couple of minutes to walk through the halls to the back entrance they kept open during the day and out into the sun of a southern California afternoon.

So, something cool was going to happen tomorrow. A little shiver ran up his back. If today’s music was just your regular and tomorrow’s was special, shit, he couldn’t wait.

Oh right, the text. He stepped against the wall into the shade and brought it up.

Hey Artie. Got a job for you starting Monday if you’re free. Needs carpentry and plumbing. A little electrical. Private home. Probably a couple weeks work at least. Let me know quick. JT.

JT Morrow was one of the small contractors Artie worked for. Good guy. Honest and paid decent. Perfect timing too since this job finished the next day. That meant he could pick up a bartender gig on the weekend and maybe take a day off. Man, that’d be different.

Artie typed, I’m in. Text me the details.

Shoving the phone into his pocket, he walked to his battered truck, then drove up the on-ramp to the ridiculously crowded 405 freeway. He always wanted to say Come on, guys. It’s three in the afternoon. Give us working stiffs a break. But no such luck. After a lot of stop and start, he veered onto the even worse 55 freeway, then, when the damned cars went nowhere, pulled off the freeway onto a side street to try to outmaneuver the crush on his way to his apartment over a garage in Costa Mesa. Finally he pulled into the driveway. Don Rogers, the old man who lived in the house in front of the apartment, was out puttering in his yard.

Artie waved. “Hey, Don, need any help?”

At eighty-two Don had slowed down a little, but he kept himself fit with walks and lots of messing in his yard. He owned the house outright, so renting to Artie gave him a little income to supplement his Social Security and pension from his job as a teacher. Artie took care of his own maintenance and a lot of Don’s too, but he still insisted on paying full rent. Hell, Don needed it more than him.

“Thanks, Artie. I’m good for today. I’ll be making enough for two at dinner if you want to join.”

“Oh, thanks. I’m going to go visit the parental unit.”

Artie laughed. They’d heard that expression in a movie they’d watched together, and Don always got a kick out of it so Artie always used it.

Don said, “I can save you some.”

“Likely they’ll feed me. But thanks.”

Don nodded. “Come get it later if you’re hungry.” He knew how bad Artie’s mom’s cooking was, since Artie complained about it enough.

Artie waved and ran up the stairs to his place. Inside, he tossed his jacket on the lounger with the cracked phony leather, then crouched in front of his fucking fish tank. That’s what he called it because he’d been sucked in by a bunch of fucking fish. He smiled and ran a hand across the glass. A couple of the little fuckers came up and nibbled against the other side. Too cute.

He’d won a bowl with a goldfish in it at a fair, so he went to a store to buy some food. Bad idea. He saw these fish, like a painting in a tank—neon blue, orange and black stripes, fat little black guys. He told the person at the store he wanted a couple of those. The person told him those were tropical fish and he’d need air and filters and shit. But those little fuckers sucked him in, and he walked out of there with a two-hundred-dollar bill, six fish, and a weekend’s worth of work setting it all up. Yeah, and he never told anybody, but he loved them. Actually looked forward to coming home just to see them. Pathetic.

He rose and stepped to the table where he kept the small aquarium. He stuck his finger in, and the goldfish sucked on it and his girlfriend rushed over to do her own kissing. He gave them a little food. GG. Gateway Goldfish. Shee-it.

He hurried into the bathroom for a shower and quick change. If he got to his parents early enough, maybe he could get away and have time for a beer before he turned in. He wanted to get to the job early tomorrow.

The water running over his head felt good. He didn’t like to run up Don’s water bill, but just a couple of minutes. He sighed. It’d be nice to jerk off, but he’d wait until tonight and relax himself to sleep.

A couple of minutes later, he was dry, in clean jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt that was dark red. Yeah, it was a weird color for a guy, but it felt a little bit—he shrugged as he pulled it on—special. And it looked good with his light brown hair and brown eyes.

He made a rude razzberry noise. Give it up. You’re wading into deep water, man. You’re gonna start watching Project Runway soon.

When he ran back down his stairs, Don was inside. Artie could see him through the kitchen window. He waved and hauled ass into his truck. Get this done.

His parents’ house was only about ten minutes from his apartment, but where his place was in east-side Costa Mesa, a pleasant area that got ocean breezes and had a nice mix of old and new houses, his folks’ home was on the west side, definitely rougher and run-down. When he pulled up in front, it was like going back in time. They’d lived there since before he, his brother, and sister were born, and it never changed except to get uglier. It was like his folks figured houses were supposed to wear out like people did, and hopefully the building made it as long as the bodies.

He climbed out of his truck and eyed the roof. Roofing was no specialty of his, but if he couldn’t figure out a way to do it, they’d be lucky not to be watching TV in the rain.

The front door opened. “Yo, bro!” His brother, AB—a nickname he got since somehow the folks had gone Biblical when he showed up and named him Abraham—ran out the door, leaped through the air, and tackled Artie, sending them both careening backward toward the truck. Since AB was smaller, Artie managed to keep his feet, but it was a near thing. Not that he shouldn’t have been ready. AB greeted him someway similar every time he came to visit.

Artie grinned. “Hey, man.” AB managed to be his friend, despite their being not very much alike. Of course, AB didn’t quite know that. He gave AB a short punch on the arm. “How’s it?”

AB shrugged. “Same ol’.”

Yeah, that described their family all right.

AB snorted. “What’s with the shirt?”

“Oh, uh, haven’t done laundry.”

“Yeah. Looks like it.” He slapped Artie’s shoulder.

Artie threw an arm around AB’s neck, and they walked through the open front door directly into the living room. Until he’d started working on other people’s houses, Artie barely realized there was such a thing as an entry.

His dad sat in a recliner, feet up, paunch hanging over his belt, which Artie could clearly see in his white T-shirt. He had a beer on the side table and was gazing at the TV, where some football game played. Across the small room, in “her chair,” his mother wore her favorite tights and a T-shirt. A romance novel was held open in her left hand and her right held a Diet Coke, a drink she was more addicted to than his dad was to beer, and that was saying something. The carpet in front of both chairs, that had once been some shade of blue now looked dull gray-brown, not as much from dirt as wear. She glanced up. “Hi, honey.”

“Hi, Mom.” He leaned over and kissed the cheek she held his way.

“You staying for dinner?”

“Uh, I better not. I’ve got some work stuff to finish up.”

She pulled her glasses off. “You work too hard.”

“Nah. You know how it is. Best to take the jobs when you can get them.” His mom worked as a cook in a high school cafeteria while his dad had been night shift at a supermarket for as long as Artie could remember. He sat on the couch they’d covered with an old blanket. Junior, their ancient black lab, opened one eye at him, then sighed and returned to sleep. Artie patted him. “I just wanted to see how you are.”

“Same old, same old. What’s with the shirt?”

AB piped in, “He didn’t do laundry.”

“Looks like it.”

Artie didn’t sigh. “How’s work, Dad?”

His father dragged his eyes from the big TV, the one thing in the house they kept up to date. “Good. I mean, nothing special, but then, what’s new about that?” He laughed, but it didn’t sound funny. “How about you?”

Artie leaned back on the couch even though it made the blanket fall down behind his back. “Good. I have this job at the Sanderson Center.” Neither parental unit flickered an eyelash at that. “You know, that big place over by the Plaza shopping center where they do music and plays and shit?”

“Oh yeah, kind of.”

AB nodded. “Right. I’ve seen that place. Kind of cool.”

Artie smiled. “Yeah, well, I’ve been working in there, and they have all these musicians who play in an orchestra. Real fancy stuff like violins and giant violins and horns that are huge. Anyway, they play this amazing music, and you can hear it all over the whole building and—” His father’s eyes wandered back to the TV, AB’s leg bounced, and his mom stared at her book. Artie let out his breath real slow. “Who’s playing, Dad?”

“Rams, man. You oughta know that. You really must’ve been working too hard.” He laughed.

Artie started scratching Junior’s ear, stared at the television, and spent the next half hour commenting on every play every Ram made. He was way up to date on the team, not because he really loved football that much, but because every other person in his life did. Finally he felt like he’d done enough father/son bonding shit. He rose. “I better get going. Yell if you need anything.”

His dad glanced up, then back at the screen. “Great to see you. I’ll let you know how the game turns out.”

“Thanks.” He noogied AB’s head. “Take care, squirt.” AB was only two years younger, but he hadn’t quite gotten it together enough to move out, unlike Artie who’d rented a room at sixteen and spent the last nine years on his own. Artie leaned over and gave his mom another quick kiss.

She glanced up. “Oh, you gotta go, sweetie?”

“Yeah. I’ll see you soon.”

“Okay, dear.” She patted his cheek but was looking back at the page before he even stood up. At least she liked to read.

AB walked to the truck with him. Artie said, “You okay? You need anything?”

“Yeah. Pretty much. I’ve got a few construction jobs coming up, ’cause shit, man, who can live on what I make at Taco Heaven?”

Artie dug in his pocket, grabbed some bills he had ready, and handed them to AB. “Here. This’ll tide you over until you get those jobs.”

“Oh, you don’t have to, man. I know you haven’t got much left over.” But he already had the money moving toward his pocket. “Thanks, bro. You’re great.”

“No problem. See you soon.” He gave AB a one-armed hug, then walked around the truck and slid in. Fact was, the money was to ease his guilty conscience. He’d gotten AB a job once with one of his contractors, and he’d done such a crappy job, the contractor hardly let Artie forget it. Now, Artie gave AB money—but no jobs.

With a long, easy breath, he pulled away from the curb and pointed the truck straight for his buddies’ favorite bar. After a beer maybe he’d do a little work, just so he wouldn’t have lied to his dad. Hell, he hated to add one more lie.

 

 

Love You So Sweetly

 

Chapter One

 

“MR. MERCED. Remy. Wake up.”

Remy Merced blinked, gasped, snapped his head up, and slammed into something hard that yelled.

“Ow.”

Remy clapped a hand against his head and looked up sideways at Eartha, his administrative assistant. Make that his long-suffering admin. She was rubbing her chin where he’d obviously smacked her.

He grinned. When in doubt, use the dimples. “I’m so sorry.”

She stepped back from his desk. “This is where I left you last night at seven thirty. I’m making the assumption that you haven’t moved.”

He ran a hand over his stubbly chin, then wiped at his eyes. “I’m sure I moved in there somewhere.” Although his bladder pretty much agreed with her evaluation. “What time’s my first appointment?”

She placed some papers on his desk. “Eight fifteen with the executive from Tesla.”

He stood. His back didn’t like being slouched over a desk all night, but he tried to look normal so he didn’t reinforce Eartha’s opinion of his idiocy. “I better get into the bathroom and clean up.”

“I’ll get you something to eat.”

He started toward his executive washroom.

Eartha turned. “Remy, I know your family’s famous for hard work, but aren’t there some benefits to being rich? Bring in a damned couch. You’re so busy being egalitarian, you forget you’re the boss. At least build a pillow into the edge of your desk.”

He snorted as she marched out, but he looked around his office, a biggish room with a utilitarian desk, a conference table, and a couple guest chairs surrounded by glass walls so he didn’t seem to be cutting himself off from his employees. Funny how it never seemed to be his office exactly. Not a single picture, flower, or memento.

But then, this never quite felt like his life.

Wiping sleep from his eyes, he headed toward the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, he’d showered, shaved, and changed his shirt. He slapped a little aftershave on his sensitive, under-rested skin and sighed. He might be twenty-six, but he felt fifty-six and was starting to look it. Deep shadows under the eyes and a worry crease between his brows didn’t complement what the press called his boyish looks. These days his blue-gray eyes looked purple from all the lack-of-sleep redness.

With a shrug, he slid his coat back on and ran fingers through his damp waves, which he kept longer than business protocol might dictate—mostly because he didn’t have time to get it cut.

The upcoming meeting was important since it might hold the key to their future transportation needs, but then every meeting these days was critical to some decision or other. And every decision might—or might not—save the corporate ass of Merced Enterprises.

He pushed open the door of his office to a side view of long, curvy legs in black, high-heeled boots. Remy grinned. “Hi, Mama.”

Anastasia Merced stood and widened her arms. “Hi, darlin’.”

He hugged her and got a kiss on the cheek. His mama was officially retired as the CEO of Merced Enterprises, having left the running of the retail division to Remy’s brother, John Jack, and the technology group, which Remy had founded four years before when he was twenty-two, totally in his hands. She remained chairperson of the board and all-around meddler. Of course, she was brilliant and inspired, so it was tough to take offense.

A tray sat on his desk with some soft-boiled eggs and toast, and the steaming cup of coffee drew him like a lasso.

His mama waved toward it. “Eat, eat.”

“Thanks, Mama. I’ve got a meeting in half an hour.” He sat, picked up the cup, inhaled deeply, then set it back down and poured in a stream of cream. By the time he was done, the cup was full of a hot, white, viscous liquid.

“No responsible person could still call that coffee, Remy.”

He took a sip and closed his eyes. “I know, Mama. But it keeps me going.” He sighed contentedly, took another sip, then set it down in favor of eating his eggs that Eartha had flavored with VegiSal just to his taste. Between bites, he said, “To what do I owe, etcetera?”

“First, remember you have dinner with the family tonight.” She sighed. “Including Felicity.”

Damn.

His frown must have showed because she said, “You’re the one who tells me Felicity is the girl for you, not the other way around, darlin’.”

“I wouldn’t miss it, Mama.” He took another bite.

She smiled. “That’s my boy.”

“What’s second?”

“Excuse me?”

“You said first was coming to dinner. What’s second?” He took another fortifying sip of white coffee.

“You know that assistant I keep telling you that you require?”

He released a long, exasperated breath. “Mama, I haven’t got time—”

She held up a hand. “I know, I know. Too overworked to hire the assistant that might help you be less overworked.”

“Exactly. Even interviewing the candidates the agency sends over’s time consuming. I’ll do it when things calm down.”

“When’s that?”

He ran a hand over his face.

She said, “Don’t worry about it, darlin’. I know you haven’t got time.”

He widened his eyes. Thank God.

She beamed at him, her bright lipstick showing a sharp contrast against her straight, white teeth—one of the first things she’d bought, she liked to tell people, when she and Remy’s dad started to make money. The few photos of Anastasia’s early life showed her with crooked teeth, neglected due to poverty.

Anastasia said, “I know you haven’t got time, so I hired him for you.”

“What?” Somewhere he’d lost the thread of this conversation.

She stood, tall, curvy, and perfectly dressed even if her slightly big hair and slightly over-bright makeup still reflected her Southern roots. “I hired your assistant. He starts tomorrow.”

Remy jumped up. “Wait. Just wait.” His sleep-deprived brain wasn’t quite up to the challenge. “I certainly didn’t neglect to hire an assistant because I wanted you to do it for me.”

“I’m aware. But I had this opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it by. My dear friend Nora Mae Treadwell called me to tell me her son has completed his schooling and is seeking a position in Southern California. I immediately thought of you and your desperate need for help. I offered the job on the spot.”

He shook his head. None of this was registering. “So you didn’t actually talk to her son?”

“No, but Nora Mae’s one of my oldest friends. An amazing woman. I’m sure her son is equally lovely.”

“Mama, I can’t hire someone I’ve never even met.”

“Of course you can. Family’s family, darlin’. I offered for him to stay with me, but she said he’s already fixed for lodging.”

“Where’s he coming from?” He was scared to hear the answer.

“Arkansas, of course.”

“Mama.” He flopped back in his seat. “I love you, and I want to help a friend of yours, but I haven’t got the bandwidth to babysit some misplaced—” He caught his breath and bit his tongue just in time before he inserted the word hillbilly or bumpkin. “—kid who’s away from home and out of his depth. Seriously.”

His mama narrowed her very intelligent eyes. “Remy, I didn’t raise you to become a West Coast snob. You’ll give this boy a chance to help you, and you’ll do it with a smile.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He might have lived in California since he was ten, but some traditions went way back to the Ozarks.

She gave him a pat on the cheek. “I know the pressure you’re under, Remy, and I know what it means if you fail. You need to accept help—from me and from this young man. It’ll be great. Wait and see.” She walked to the door and then suddenly turned. “By the way, his name’s Harper Treadwell.” She smiled. “See you tonight.”

She left as Remy tried to shake images of apple blossoms and cornbread out of his head.

 

 

ON AUTOPILOT, Remy turned his Prius into the seaside community where his mama’s home commanded as beautiful a location as crowded Southern California afforded, even to the very rich. His brain was crammed—with worry at seeing John Jack, his brother, and not having a clear solution to their online ordering problem, with exhaustion from plain lack of sleep, and with a strange thread of dread at seeing Felicity.

Shit, what’s wrong with this picture?

He wheeled up to the gate, pushed the remote, and drove onto the property. Waving at Federico, his mom’s chauffeur and all-around car guy, he parked on the circular drive in front of the three-story, traditional home, then slid out of the car, mounted the big porch, and let himself in with his key.

Nigel, his mama’s butler, met him at the door.

“Hey, Nigel.” Mama loved that little Annie Merced had a butler named Nigel. As with everyone, she treated him like a member of the family.

“Good evening, Remy. They’re in the great room.” He smiled. “I understand you’ve been working far too hard.”

Remy gave him a look. “Mama’s blabbing.”

“Well, when your mother talks about overwork, we know it’s serious, right?”

Nigel had a point. Nobody worked harder than Mama. “Message received.” He grinned, tried to let it reach his eyes, and walked toward the voices.

In the great room, John Jack hung out on the couch with Trudy, his beautiful wife who worked for ClearWater Foundation. Mama occupied her favorite chair.

Remy gave his mama a kiss on the cheek, then crossed to do the same with Trudy and shake hands with his brother. Remy smiled. “You two’re looking well. The second honeymoon must have been just the rest you needed.”

Trudy returned his smile with extra amperage. “We had a great time. You’ve got to visit Charleston, Remy. It’s wonderful.” She squeezed John Jack’s hand, and he returned it.

Remy made an effort to smile politely at the suggestion. “Thanks, dear, but Southern California’s about all the South I really need.”

His mama frowned slightly, and Remy winced. Should keep my opinions to myself. But it was good to see his brother and Trudy looking so happy. For a few years there, John Jack had been drinking too much and treating Trudy like a trophy he’d won playing golf. Then their mama had made a huge donation to the ClearWater Foundation and suggested Trudy as an employee to Ben Shane, the head of the charity. Trudy had thrived, and John Jack started seeing her with new eyes. As his appreciation rose, his alcohol consumption lowered. The “new” John Jack had been a serious improvement in both the marriage and the company.

Remy poured himself a glass of sauvignon blanc from the bar cart and looked up at the female voice coming from the entry. A minute later, Felicity Worksman walked in wearing her usual dark suit and high heels. “Hi, all, I’m so sorry I’m late. One of my clients started freaking out over a hedge-fund deal her late husband got them into.” She fanned a hand in front of her pretty but superserious face. “It was ugly.”

Remy walked over, kissed her cheek, and handed her the wine he’d just poured.

She smiled. “My hero.” Eyes closed, she took an appreciative gulp.

Remy chuckled and went to get himself another glass.

Trudy said, “Felicity, I don’t want to make you work, but before you settle in, I’d sure like some quick advice on the best short-term investments for some of our ClearWater donations.”

Mama said, “I’d like to hear that too.”

Felicity was a stockbroker and nearly as talented as she was driven. Everyone said she was Remy’s perfect girlfriend, and he had to agree it was a great match since she worked equally hard and always understood when he broke a date or got calls at dinner. Of course, that meant they didn’t see each other much. Occasionally, he wished he cared more.

Trudy and Mama led Felicity to the far end of the big room to talk, and John Jack waggled a finger at Remy. Remy swallowed his stress with a sip of wine and sat next to his brother on the couch.

John Jack said, “Any luck?”

Remy nodded, then shook his head. “Kind of. We can develop the technology to do the ordering and you’ve got the stores, so all the elements are there. But there’s something missing.” He blew out his breath, long and slow.

John Jack nodded. “Don’t beat yourself up. Nobody’s been able to really crack the grocery home-delivery nut. People like to see their food up close.”

Remy ran a hand through his hair. He’d heard that argument a bunch of times. “But we know that back in the forties and even fifties, people used to have groceries delivered from their local mom-and-pop store. It worked.”

“Different time. Everybody didn’t have two cars to get to one of four or five supermarkets in their town.”

The crease pressed in between Remy’s eyebrows. “You know better than me that those stores are struggling, and a lot of them are almost dead. Times are changing, and people need a better way.” He swallowed a too-big gulp of wine and coughed.

John Jack patted his back. “Hey, ease up. MercedMart’s losing some of its profitability, but Merced Technologies is thriving, right?”

“Yeah, but the main source of the company’s revenue is still the stores. We employ thousands of people who are out of work every time we close a location.” His voice rose with stress.

John Jack’s hand closed on Remy’s arm and his frown matched Remy’s. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. Every store I shut about gives me a heart attack, but we’ve got to face reality, Remy. Retail’s changed, and it may never change back.”

Remy closed his hand over John Jack’s. “I know. That’s why I believe there has to be a way to get people to buy groceries online. It’s the future. It must be.”

He stared into his brother’s eyes for another second. John Jack got it. He knew all the downside of closing their retail stores. He was great at running stuff, but he wasn’t a visionary. Remy’s dad had drilled that into Remy’s young head before he died. “Your brother’s smart but not the same way you are. You see the future, Remy.” God, those words had propelled Remy through college and drove him every day. If someone was going to come up with an idea to save MercedMart and the tens of thousands of hard-working people who depended on it, it was going to have to be Remy. That’s why he worked all night—and why he had a twenty-four-hour-a-day sick stomach.

His mama waved a hand from across the room. “We’re settin’ a bad example over here. You two quit working, and we’ll quit. Let’s eat.”

Felicity waited by the entrance to the dining room, and Remy gave her another quick kiss. “Tough day?”

She nodded. “You too?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s get some dinner.”

They sat side by side and let his mama lead the conversation. Mama grinned. “I ordered a couple special things for us all tonight.”

Nigel and their cook, Florence, started serving the meal, and clearly Mama’d outdone herself in the ordering department.

Remy glanced at Felicity as rare roast beef, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, potato salad, corn nuggets, and purple-hull peas arrived on the table. With each dish, the crease between Felicity’s eyebrows got deeper. Risking a quick look at Mama, she whispered to Remy, “What is this?”

“Arkansas cooking.”

“Dear God.”

Trudy beamed. “Oh boy, some of that great potato salad.”

Felicity shot Remy another glare as she flashed a phony smile toward Trudy and John Jack, who were scooping food onto their plates. Trudy passed a platter of roast beef toward Felicity and froze. “Oh dear, you don’t eat red meat do you?”

“Uh, no.” Her small teeth gleamed as she stretched her smile overlarge.

Mama paused in the process of slathering her mashed potatoes with butter. “Right. I remembered. That’s why I asked Florence to make the chicken.” She returned to her buttering as Felicity’s lips became even tighter.

Remy whispered, “Take off the skin.” He held out the patter.

Felicity’s snort had a pugnacious quality, but she extracted a breast from the platter and placed it gingerly on her plate.

Remy crooked a finger at Nigel, who hurried over. Remy softly asked for some sliced tomatoes for Felicity. As for himself, he knew a rock and a hard place when he got squeezed by one. Every scoop of carbs would get a sneer from Felicity, but his mama would clearly watch to be sure he took a bit of each of her special dishes. Truthfully, it wasn’t a real decision. Felicity could be stern, but Mama was a Southern grand dame when she wanted to be, to say nothing of being his boss. She won.

He helped himself to potato salad and dug into his fried chicken. Most of his meals tended to be sandwiches at his desk or restaurant dinners carefully overseen by Felicity, the no-red-meat, keto fanatic. He might not love Southern cooking, but fried chicken was Mason Dixon neutral and it tasted good. He added some mashed potatoes, another universal food, to his meal and took a couple of the tomatoes that Nigel brought to Felicity. She flashed him disapproving glances, but he mostly ignored her and even ate some of the chocolate ice cream his mama served with her Arkansas Possum pie.

Finally, the meal was over, and he got to stop watching Felicity try to excise every millimeter of fried crust from the chicken and nibble tentatively on the resulting denuded meat.

They carried their coffee into the great room. Remy poured in his usual quart of cream. At least Felicity didn’t give him crap about that. He sat on the couch, and she settled beside him. Leaning in, she murmured, “Can we go soon?”

Trudy and John Jack both walked in then, so he didn’t reply. Instead, he examined his weird feelings. Felicity had come in her own car, so asking if they could go probably meant she expected to spend the night with him at his house—or maybe her house since she hated his—with good reason. He should be excited about that. Right? Sex with your girlfriend was something every red-blooded American boy wanted. Right?

But damn, he was so tired. If I’m going to stay awake, I’d rather work. If I’m going anywhere near a bed, it ought to be to catch a few hours of z’s.

But he and Felicity hadn’t had sex in weeks. Shouldn’t he have a set of horns that would put Dasher, Dancer, and Prancer to shame? Hell, he was in his twenties. Even if he was sleepwalking, shouldn’t he be ready to stick his cock in anything female that passed within five feet of him? Wasn’t that the way most guys felt? Shit, these questions haunted the back of his brain all the time while the front worried about the business. And it wasn’t like he didn’t know why it worried him.

He sipped coffee and glanced at John Jack, who was smiling at his wife with open lust. It’d be nice to have somebody he trusted to tell him straight if he was undersexed or asexual, or…. He sighed softly. But he and John Jack didn’t have that kind of relationship. John Jack was seven years older and was more a product of Arkansas than California. He put a lot of store in “being a man,” and Remy was scared of what John Jack would say if Remy tried to get personal. Remy worked all the time, so everyone he knew was associated with the company, and since Remy was the boss, who the hell was he going to tell his troubles to?

His mama’s voice came from the direction of the kitchen, telling Nigel she’d like some more ice cream.

Felicity turned to Remy and leaned in. “I’m going to make my excuses. I’m too tired.” She put a hand on his arm. “Sorry, dear.” She kissed his cheek, rose, said a fast goodbye to Trudy and John Jack, and was gone before Mama even made it into the room.

Remy had a pretty good idea he shouldn’t be smiling.