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Leaning Into Forever by Hayes, Lane (1)

1

“Why, darling, I don’t live at all when I’m not with you.”—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

A mild breeze whistled through the short lavender plants. They’d been cut back a few weeks ago and wouldn’t look their best until spring. Same with the rose bushes and the ivy climbing the brick wall. Most of the plants and vines were dormant now. The only real greenery in the courtyard was from the olive trees and succulents lining the gravel pathway. Even the sky was gray and dreary.

February sucked. Why did it always seem like the shortest month of the year dragged on the longest?

I thought about voicing my feelings aloud, but this was a strict no-negativity zone. Mike deserved better than to listen to endless griping. My feelings about cold weather and constant drizzle weren’t news to him anyway. I shifted on the bench and straightened my long legs in front of me before refocusing on the wings of the stone angel statue. It was peaceful in this little alcove next to the herb garden. The high hedge offered just enough privacy that I didn’t feel awkward talking to ghosts.

“It’s slow today, darling. A boring Tuesday afternoon in a gloomy month. At least it’s almost over. Did I mention we’re hosting the winter wine and food pairing event this Saturday? You always liked that party more than me. I told Wes we should cancel it, but he insisted we keep it…for you.” I pursed my lips and swallowed around tears before continuing. “Wes thinks I could use a vacation. He may be right. I can’t remember the last time I went anywhere besides the city. I think it was Mexico. Do you remember when we went to Tulum? God, it was beautiful. The water was so blue and the—”

“Geordie?”

I started; then I hung my head in a mad quest to get my emotions under control before I embarrassed myself or worse…made my friends and employees worry that I’d lost it again. I wiped the corner of my eyes, careful not to smear the light layer of mascara I’d applied that morning. Then I clandestinely pinched my cheeks to add a little color before patting the empty space beside me on the wooden bench in invitation.

“Is my presence required in the tasting room, Ryan, darling?”

Ryan sat down and snaked his arm around my waist then laid his head on my shoulder. “Yeah. Wes asked me to find you. He’s talking to the guy who bought the diner.”

“The new restaurateur.”

Ryan nodded then handed me a tissue and tilted his chin toward the statue. “How’s Mike?”

I dabbed my nose with a sigh. “He’s stubbornly silent today.”

A gentle breeze tousled Ryan’s curly brown hair. He was just thirty-one, but he’d been an employee at the winery for over seven years. He’d become my right-hand man in the wine tasting room and in spite of our age difference, a dear friend too. It was nice not to have to explain my puffy eyes and lackluster smile; Ryan understood. I couldn’t help flinching when he spoke again, though.

“I may have asked you this before but…do you ever feel him here?”

“Sometimes, yes. But…not today.” I sighed then flashed a quirky grin at him. “Do you think I’m crazy?”

“Eccentric, yes. But not crazy.”

“Rumor is, there’s a fine line between the two. Statues first…next I’ll be talking to squirrels in the park like old man Mulrooney.”

“Is he the one who feeds squirrels and birds and lets them crawl up his arms?” Ryan asked with a grin.

“Ugh. Don’t let me become a squirrel whisperer, Ryan. Rodent friends barely worked for Cinderella. They’d be disastrous for my reputation.”

Ryan barked a quick laugh then kissed my cheek and stood. “Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. I’ll tell Wes and our hunky neighbor you’ll be in shortly.”

I made sure he saw my exasperated eye roll. “Hunky? That’s a slight exaggeration.”

“No, it’s not. Levi Yeager is sexy as hell, and he’s cool too. Lauren almost fainted when he walked in carrying a motorcycle helmet. The ripped jeans and leather jacket sealed the deal.”

“Does your boyfriend know you’re drooling over the new man in town?”

He chuckled as he stepped onto the path. “Danny knows he has nothing to worry about, and he agrees with me anyway. So do Nick and Wes. You’re the only holdout, and I think it’s ’cause you haven’t been formally introduced. You like to be the first to know what’s going on around here.”

“True,” I admitted, inclining my head. “I’ll be there in a moment…after I reapply my lip gloss.”

Ryan snorted. “All right. I’ll tell Wes you’re on your way.”

I listened to the crunch of gravel beneath his shoes as he made his way through the herb garden to the wine tasting room before turning back to the statue.

“I must go, my love.”

I pressed a kiss on my fingertips then touched the angel’s cold stone feet just as a sudden gust of wind blew through the alcove. I glanced toward the heavens and smiled when the clouds parted to reveal a fragment of blue sky. Maybe I was slowly going mad, but I swore these moments were proof, if I needed it, that Mike was still with me, watching over me. I could almost see his twinkling blue eyes and that slow-moving grin that made my heart beat double time. I hadn’t heard his voice in years but somehow, I knew exactly what he’d say.

“You’ve got this, Geordie bird. Pick a song and go on.”

I let out a ragged breath as I stood. Then I pushed my shoulders back and hummed the first few notes of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” The song built inside me with every footstep as I headed toward the winery. By the time I threw open the back door to the wine tasting room and passed through the archway leading to the bar area, I was in full command of my emotions. In fact, I was better than ever. A little Barbra worked wonders on a soul. So did Judy and Liza.

I was a sucker for kickass lyrics and a well-timed crescendo, especially in a musical. The powerful combination blocked out the perpetual melancholy that followed me around, and it restored some semblance of normalcy. I firmly believed in the importance of rising to any occasion with panache, so I spread my arms wide and belted out the last few lines as I sailed into the room. I held the final note like a pro then took a deep bow and inclined my head to thank my fans. Since there were only ten people in the cavernous space, it didn’t take long.

I spent an extra moment soaking in the praise of the older couple clapping enthusiastically at the far end of the bar before moving toward Wes, who was chatting with our visitor in the lounge area. Wes was a good-looking man by anyone’s definition. He was tall and well-built with green eyes and a light beard. His brown hair was threaded with gray at the temples, giving him a debonair look that contrasted nicely with his casual jeans and oxford shirt.

And the man standing next to him was…hot. But this stranger wasn’t my type at all. I didn’t go for ruggedly sexy men who elevated ripped jeans, plaid button-down shirts, and work boots to haute couture. Nope. Not my thing at all. He appeared to be around six foot two with dark brown hair and a mischievous smile that hinted at a keen sense of humor. Humor was harder to find fault with, so I figured I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if he did have an unmistakable “sporty” air about him.

Fine, I admit it. I was a judgy bastard when dealing with cocky assholes with big muscles and tiny brains. The second Wes told me our new neighbor was a former baseball player, I knew I’d have to keep my distance or risk insulting the poor, handsome devil. Wes probably arranged this introduction, so he’d be on hand to smooth things over if I failed to be on my best behavior.

They stood on either side of the huge stone fireplace, engaged in light conversation at a frustratingly low volume. It was impossible to overhear them, though I’d bet good money Wes was issuing a standard “Don’t mind Geordie. He’s not quite as odd as he seems.…” disclaimer. Hmph.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen.” I shot an irritated glance at Wes, silently asking why I’d been summoned, then turned to our guest with my hand outstretched and a friendly smile in place. “Hello. I’m Geordie.”

“Hi, there. I’m Levi,” Mr. Tall, Dark, and Sexy said as he grasped my hand firmly.

Enchanté. I’m—” My flippant, over-the-top greeting was reduced to an unintelligible mumble when he squeezed my fingers. A zing of instant awareness tripped along my arm like a rogue wave of static electricity. I dropped his hand as unobtrusively as possible and moved to stand beside Wes. Then I cleared my throat and tried again. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too. I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself last week, but I didn’t want to disturb the Grease sing-along,” he said with a lopsided smile.

It was more of a playful smirk with a nod I understood to be a grudging show of respect. But I couldn’t tell, which was strange because usually I was an expert at reading people and situations. I couldn’t get a feel for this guy. I firmly pushed aside the strong desire to play off his Grease reference and break into “Summer Nights” as I peeled off my coat. I draped it over one of the leather chairs flanking the fireplace before turning back to our guest.

“Did you come by with a specific musical request, or is there some other way I can be of assistance?” I asked haughtily.

“Levi has a question that falls under your jurisdiction. I’m not sure if you can help or not but I figured since you’re here, he might as well ask you himself.”

Wes rubbed my shoulder soothingly and gave me look of quiet communication. Don’t worry. The gesture might be a tad familiar coming from anyone else, but Wes and I had been through too much to bother with formalities. We’d gone from bitter rivals to close friends in fourteen years. We’d loved and lost the same man, and we’d been forced to lean on each other when the unthinkable happened. There was a time we barely said two words to each other, yet Mike had always insisted Wes and I would be best friends one day. He was right.

I lifted my brow and cast a curious gaze at Levi. “Color me intrigued. What sort of mystery assistance do you need, new neighbor?”

Levi pushed his hands into his pockets and gave me a boyish grin before replying. “The cooking kind.”

“Keep talking.”

“My chef quit.”

I frowned. “Oookay…that’s too bad.”

Levi shrugged. “It’s not the end of the world. I need to find someone soon, but I still have a few months before the renovations are complete. Wes probably told you I bought the old Skillet diner down the road.”

He had. Wes had also mentioned that our new neighbor was a minor league ballplayer turned coach. One who seemingly had more money than sense, because who in their right mind poured money into a derelict diner located off the beaten path in wine country?

“Yes, I heard. When is the grand opening?”

“Summer. I’m interviewing a few candidates, but if you know of anyone local who might be interested, let me know.”

I cocked my head and crossed my arms in a silent request for him to continue. Mama didn’t raise a fool. Yes, I’d lived in Napa for years and was well-connected in the area. I could certainly put out the word that the new restaurant in town was hiring, but so could Wes. And Nick, Ryan, Danny, Lauren, and a host of others. There had to be a doozy of a part two coming up.

“Go on,” I prodded.

Levi glanced at Wes then at me. “Well, I was hoping to participate in a few of the food and wine pairings beforehand. I can’t do that without a chef. I have the recipes but…I’m an idea guy. Not a cook. I can barely boil water.”

“That could be troublesome,” I replied matter-of-factly.

“Yeah. The thing is…I don’t want to waste any time. It’s important to stir interest now and get the word out.”

“Makes sense.”

“And that’s where you come in.”

I shot my best “Who do you think you’re messin’ with?” look at him followed by a fierce head bob. “I’m still in the dark here. Unless—oh, honey. If you’re trying to get my number, you can do better than this,” I snarked.

“Huh?”

I glanced at Wes. “Is that what he wants? Wes, you beast. You should have warned me. I would have changed into something a tad more fabulous. Like that red cape! You know…the shiny matador one I bought in España. I was always tempted to embroider something kitschy on it, like Bay City Rollers, but I never got around to it. Plus I’d have to explain the reference over and over, and my patience just isn’t what it should be.”

“What’s he talking about?” Levi hooked his thumb toward me but kept his gaze on Wes. His query was laced with amusement, which meant he either had a real sense of humor or he was desperate enough to entertain the local eccentric.

“The Bay City Rollers,” I replied quickly before Wes could intervene. “The ’70s sensation. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of them. Then again, you probably weren’t even born until the ’80s. Eeks…or ’90s.”

Levi snickered. “Early ’80s. I’m thirty-seven. We’re the same age, aren’t we?”

“Well done, Mr. Yeager. Flattery will get you everywhere. No, we’re not the same age, but let’s stay on topic. What exactly do you need from me?”

“Help. Specifically, I need culinary expertise. Nothing crazy. Like I said, I have the recipes. I just need someone to help make them.”

“Make them? As in…you want me to be your chef?” I widened my eyes comically as I gestured between us. My bangles clanged noisily and seemed to echo against the stone walls.

To his credit, Levi was a cool customer. My mini-rant didn’t faze him in the slightest. He grinned and if possible, the simple upturn of his full mouth made him look even hotter than anyone should be allowed.

“Not exactly. I’m just looking for assistance with the appetizers, so The Vine can still participate in the food and wine pairing here this weekend.”

“Excuse my persistent confusion but…what do you want from me?” I turned to Wes, so he knew the question was directed at him as well.

“Levi has offered to feature Conrad wines exclusively at his restaurant when it opens. At least initially. You’re a natural when it comes to food and wine pairing, Geord. And you’re a great cook. It would be a nice collaborative touch,” Wes explained.

I glared at my business partner. His gift for oversimplification annoyed the hell out of me. Or perhaps it was the fact that he hadn’t asked me privately first. No, he’d waited until I was backed into a corner and would look like an asshole for denying canapés to a neighbor in need.

“Do you have a card, Mr. Yeager?” I asked with a tight smile.

Levi unzipped his leather jacket and pulled out a business card and a pen from the inside pocket. Then he made a small production of clicking the top before scrawling something on the back and handing it over. “That’s my cell. I’d just need an hour or so of someone’s time Saturday afternoon. And of course, I’m willing to pay.”

“This Saturday? Before the event? I’m going to be very busy. I don’t—” I looked at the card and frowned. “What is this?”

He furrowed his brow and leaned in to look at the card. “It’s a bunch of grapes. Get it? The Vine.”

“Yes. It’s…inspired,” I lied. Clichéd, tacky, and trite were better adjectives, but I caught Wes’s warning glance and remembered my manners. “I’ll consider your appeal for assistance and get back to you within twenty-four hours. Will that suffice, Mr. Yeager?”

“My appeal for assistance, eh?” Levi repeated with an amused huff. “I suppose it’ll suffice. By the way, what was that song you were singing when you first came in?”

Gasp!” I clutched my heart theatrically. “It was a Barbra Streisand classic. You don’t know it?”

Levi shook his head and chuckled in a low tone with a sultry edge that reverberated through me. It was melodic yet heady like a slow sexy song or—

I frowned in confusion. Was I getting sick?

“No, I don’t. My bad.”

“Yes,” I said in a faraway tone. “You should fix that.”

Levi gave me a funny look. “You okay? You look a little green around the gills.”

“I’m…I’m fine.” I cleared my throat and tried again. “It was just shock.”

“Ha. Maybe I should brush up on my Barbra classics.” His eyes creased at the corners in amusement.

“It certainly wouldn’t hurt.”

“Where should I start?” he asked.

I narrowed my gaze. “What do you mean?”

“If a guy didn’t know anything about that kind of music, where would you suggest he start?”

“At the beginning,” I replied.

We stared at each other in a strange standoff. It felt like another conversation was happening under this awkward one about music and appetizers. I didn’t understand the buzz in the air around him either. He glowed with a cowboy mystique. I could almost imagine a scenario where he moseyed into a saloon wearing chaps and dusty boots. He’d tip his hat and give me a knowing grin and then—

“Okay. The beginning it is,” he said, holding my gaze intently before finally turning to Wes. “Thanks for seeing me.”

“Anytime,” Wes replied.

Levi turned back to me with a devilish grin. “Nice to meet you, Geordie.”

I opened my mouth, certain I could rely on my quick wit to regain my footing, but my mind went blank like I had an empty cartoon cloud over my head. Talk about strange. That hadn’t happened since I was a teenager. Thankfully, Levi didn’t seem to notice. He picked up his motorcycle helmet and held out his right hand.

I stared at it for longer than was probably polite and blurted, “Is that for motorcycle or horseback riding?”

Levi threw his head back and guffawed. I studied his laugh lines, noting the attractive dimple on his left cheek and the manly stubble on his jaw. I didn’t want to touch him, but he was certainly nice to look at. He sobered quickly and gave me a thorough once-over.

“I haven’t been on a horse since I was a kid, but I’ve got a Harley out front. Want to check it out?” he asked. The low, sexy timbre of his voice rolled through me like honey.

I shook my head with more force than necessary. “No.”

“Well, if you ever feel like goin’ for a ride, let me know. It was good to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand again.

There was no way to avoid it this time. Not with Wes giving me a side-eyed WTF look and my screwy brain conjuring Wild West-inspired fantasies starring our unsuspecting new neighbor on a canapé quest. I’d already skirted too close to rude and downright awkward for comfort, so I pasted a smile on my face, slid my palm into his, and—

It happened again. A weird tingling sensation shot up my arm. It tripped the wiring in my brain and left me feeling tipsy. I let go quickly and stepped backward.

“Good-bye.”

Levi quirked his brow then inclined his head before turning toward the main exit. He paused to exchange bro greetings with Danny and wave to Ryan and Lauren before finally leaving.

Phew. That was a close call. I sighed in relief then wiggled my fingers to make sure everything was still in working order before turning to Wes.

“What the hell was that all about?” I hissed.

“You tell me!” he yelled.

Okay, fine. He didn’t yell. Wes rarely raised his voice, which was a miracle, considering the range of crazy he dealt with daily. Wes Conrad was even-tempered and easygoing, but he was nobody’s fool. His steely side had been a perfect contrast to Mike’s perpetual sunny demeanor. It was no wonder they’d been best friends. There. I felt better already. Thinking about Mike cleared the lingering haze away and allowed the familiar dull ache in my chest to return with a vengeance.

But it didn’t last. I couldn’t slink away to lick old wounds when there was a mystery to solve. I pointed my finger at Wes and narrowed my gaze.

“Did he really ask me to make an appetizer for my party Saturday?”

“Yes and no. He asked for assistance and since all wine tasting events are your domain, I knew you’d want to be notified. It’s your call, Geordie. Not mine.”

“Then why didn’t he contact me himself?”

“Why are you upset?” Wes gave me a curious look.

“I’m not upset!” I lied. I was upset and unsettled. Moreover, I was frustrated because I had no idea what was bothering me. Certainly not Levi. I could easily pawn him off on one of the caterers on Saturday without a second thought. This was a nonissue. I seemed hell-bent on creating something out of nothing.

“Lower your voice,” he warned in a commanding tone.

“Don’t talk to me like a child,” I fired back before launching into full attack mode in Spanish.

Of course, Wes was fluent in my native tongue. He gave me a sharp look then glanced across the room at our unwitting audience and tugged on my elbow.

“Let’s discuss this privately, shall we?” he suggested angrily.

I shook out of his grasp then marched toward the arched doorway, aware that all eyes in the room were on me. I was too out of sorts to think of a song to ease the building tension, and that pissed me off more than being pulled into his office like an unruly student visiting the principal for the umpteenth time. I speed walked down the short hallway and up the stairs. Then I pushed open the first door on the right and froze at the sight of the partially undressed man perched on the corner of Wes’s desk.

“Hey, baby. I—oh. It’s you. Where’s Wes?” Nick asked with a chuckle as he stealthily rebuttoned his light-blue oxford shirt.

Nick Jorgensen was a movie-star handsome tech geek. He was six foot three and lean and toned without being overly muscular. He had short, dark hair and gray eyes that seemed to change color with whatever he was wearing. Today it was half of an Armani suit. I stared pointedly at his unzipped trousers before falling into one of the leather chairs opposite the desk.

I swiveled the chair to face the impressive view of the vineyard from the massive window anchoring the room but immediately turned back when Wes entered the room.

“Geordie, I—well, hello. This is a surprise.” Wes stopped in his tracks and smiled before greeting his boyfriend with a kiss.

A kinder soul would have given the lovers a modicum of privacy, but I was in a rotten mood. I cleared my throat obnoxiously then crossed my legs. “Yes, Nick. Whatever are you doing here in this shocking state of undress?”

Nick gave me a Cheshire cat grin as he slipped his arm around Wes’s waist. “I was hoping to seduce my man, but…it looks like you two are in the middle of a serious discussion.”

“Oh, he’s just going to yell at me for questioning his sanity in public. This shouldn’t take long at all,” I snarked.

Nick and Wes shared a look that sent me a little closer to the edge. I was about to let them have it when Nick widened his eyes comically.

“Someone’s gonna get a spanking,” he singsonged.

And that was why I begrudgingly adored Nick. He was goofy as hell and frustratingly single-minded at times, but he had a great sense of humor. He was a perfect match for my sometimes overly serious business partner.

Wes chuckled then pointed at the door. “Out. I’ll call you in a bit.”

Nick grinned then deftly stepped out of reach when Wes swatted his ass. He stopped in the doorway and gave his man a lascivious once-over. “Heads up. I’ve got an hour until I’m expected at the lab. Ciao, boys.”

I motioned for Wes to start talking when the door clicked shut.

“Let’s hurry this along. You have a booty call waiting, and I have wine to pour. And of course, when my official duties are done for the day, there’s laundry to do and a new season of Queer Eye to start. I’m a busy man, Wes. Let’s not waste precious time.”

Wes sighed heavily then sat in the chair next to me and rested his elbows on his knees. “Are you okay, Geord?”

I huffed dismissively and silently cursed my seat selection. I wanted to stare out the window and avoid his worried gaze. More than anything, I wanted to avoid the question. Was I okay? No. Probably not. But I’d grown accustomed to going through the motions, and I was under the impression I’d done a damn good acting job. No one knew me better than Wes, though. But if he told me he saw cracks in my armor, I might actually fucking cry, and tears were not an option.

“I’m fine. But you must have lost a marble or two. What the hell were you thinking? You made it impossible to say no without looking like a jerk, and I don’t appreciate it!”

“I honestly didn’t think it was a big deal,” Wes said, shoving his hand through his hair. “I’ll give Levi the number of the caterer we used for our holiday party. Maybe they can help.”

“Of course they can, but why are you involving yourself in his last-minute canapé quandary anyway?”

“Because I’m thinking of investing in his restaurant.”

I frowned at Wes’s matter-of-fact delivery. “Oh, really? That’s funny. I’m your business partner. When were you planning on mentioning this to me?”

“Soon. I haven’t thought it through yet,” he replied. “Look, Levi is sitting on what could be a fucking gold mine, and I don’t think he knows the first thing about the restaurant business.”

“And you do?”

“No. I don’t. But I know how to run a business.” He waited half a beat then added, “And you know how to cook.”

I opened and closed my mouth like a fish out of water before blasting him. “Tell me you’re kidding, please.”

Wes held his hands up in surrender. “Hear me out before you jump down my throat.”

“Oh, I can’t wait to hear how you’re planning on talking me into working behind the oven of a greasy spoon, serving up gourmet burgers. Make it good, honey. Go on.”

“Mike wanted it.”

I couldn’t speak for a moment. My lungs hurt, and my heart tightened as though he’d wrapped his fist around it. I shook my head slowly.

“No. No, he didn’t.” My voice broke, ruining any pretense of remaining cool and in control. If I wasn’t careful, I’d lose it completely.

“He did,” Wes insisted. “Mike and I talked about buying that diner years ago, but we were in over our heads here and in no position to take on anything new.”

“He never mentioned it to me. Ever.”

“Probably because we weren’t in a position to do it. You know how he was, Geordie. He didn’t want you to worry needlessly. He was a ‘one thing at a time’ kind of guy. We had to get the winery up and running before we could think about expanding. By the time we were on our feet, the owner sold it to his cousin. Mike talked to the guy about selling to us but then…”

“He died,” I finished.

“Right.” Wes let out a rush of air that reminded me I wasn’t the only one who’d lost a piece of myself three and a half years ago. “Honestly, I hadn’t given it much thought until Levi introduced himself last month. He and his business partner have a similar story to ours. Mike was the only one with a passing interest in the wine business when we first invested in this place. But there were three of us and we worked our asses off. Levi is alone and—”

“You just said he had a business partner.”

“He bailed on him.”

“Oh. The chef.”

“Exactly. Now Levi is in the midst of renovating a restaurant he doesn’t know how to run, and I’m beginning to think this could be an opportunity.”

“How? Does he want to sell it?” I waved as though immediately dismissing the idea. “It hardly matters. We have our own business to run, and all I know about restaurants is, they’re nice places to visit.”

“I’m not suggesting that we offer to buy it or even help run it. At least not right away. Let’s just start by establishing a professional relationship with him. I like the idea of him serving Conrad wines exclusively. We can go from there.”

I held Wes’s gaze for a long moment then cocked my head. “Then what?”

“We’ll see. I don’t have a concrete plan. Yet. But we’re a team, Geord. If you don’t like the restaurant idea, we won’t pursue it.”

“And if I don’t like the owner?” I asked.

Wes narrowed his eyes. “You just met him. What’s not to like?”

I shrugged then shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Great. Now that I had Wes’s full attention, he’d give me the microscopic probe treatment. How, Geordie? Why, Geordie? What now, Geordie?

“He’s too…”

“Too what?”

“Fit.” Okay, that was bad. But since it was the first thing to pop into my head, I had to own it.

Wes scoffed. “What does that mean?”

I had no fucking clue. I waved my hand and made a funny face. “You know…he looks ultra-put-together. Like a health nut who spends too much time in a gym. And then there’s the motorcycle helmet. Between us girls, let’s be real. That man was trying way too hard.”

Wes didn’t say a word for what felt like five minutes. No doubt he was adjusting the lenses on his inner microscope, checking to see what had seeped into the cracks of my fragile psyche. I hoped he’d let me know if he found anything new.

“You like him,” he said matter-of-factly.

I straightened my spine and set my forearms on the chair like it was a throne then arched my brow imperiously. “Pardon moi?”

The corner of his mouth lifted as his eyes sparked with humor. “You think he’s cute. Admit it.”

“Are you twelve? What kind of question is that? Puppies are cute. Kittens are cute. The occasional baby is cute. Grown men are not cute.”

“Wait a sec. I’m pretty sure you were the one going on and on about how cute Joe Jonas was the other day. He’s a grown man.”

“That wasn’t me,” I insisted.

“It certainly was and…I have witnesses. Danny, Ryan, Lauren, Nick—”

“Oh, my God. Will you stop?” I deadpanned.

Wes chuckled merrily. “Fine. I misspoke. Levi isn’t cute.”

“Exactly.”

“He’s hot.”

I threw my head back in exasperation and groaned. “First Ryan and now you.”

“Oh, come on, Geord. Levi is a good-looking dude. There’s no harm in stating the obvious. I don’t know if he’s gay but—”

“Bi.”

Wes squinted at me like Mr. Magoo. “How do you know?”

“I don’t know for sure. But my gay-dar slash bi-dar is in working order, and I have a feeling that might be the case. That’s all.” I crossed my arms and gave a sassy head bob that should have effectively ended the conversation.

No such luck.

“You know, if you’re interested in him, you—”

“No!”

I shot to my feet and stormed to the other side of the room. His chair was too close to mine to make a clean escape. I had to shimmy sideways to get away from him before moving to the window. I gazed at the lush rolling hills with the precisely planted vines and winced at the familiar ache in my gut. I tried to think of something witty and clever to say to keep Wes in his seat until I could rebuild my defenses.

Nothing came. I was empty. Inside and out.

“Mike wanted you to be happy, Geordie. That’s all he ever wanted and—”

“Stop. Please.”

My voice hitched as the first sob escaped against my will. Tears streamed down my face in earnest. I hung my head and gave in to a fresh wave of sorrow. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping it would ease the trembling in my hands before it took over my entire body. It didn’t work. I couldn’t stop shaking. When Wes rushed to my side and pulled me into his arms, I buried my face in his shoulder and let go. He cradled my head sweetly and held me close. I think he spoke, but I couldn’t be sure. He didn’t have to say anything. It was enough to know I wasn’t alone.

I let out a ragged sigh and drew my tattered defenses around me like a worn blanket before finally stepping out of Wes’s arms. I gave him a pathetic lopsided smile and opened my mouth to assure him I was all right, but he beat me to it.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you, but I’d be a crappy best friend if I didn’t remind you to keep going. Mike would kick my ass if I didn’t call you out and tell you over and over how fucking amazing you are and how much you have left to give. You know he would,” he whispered in a husky tone.

This time my sob was more of a half laugh. I nodded in agreement and was relieved that my second attempt at a smile felt sincere. “Yes, you’re right. However, that doesn’t mean I’m interested in the restaurant boy.”

“Understood. But I have a favor to ask of you.”

“And here we go,” I replied without heat.

Wes ruffled my hair and chuckled when I swatted him away. “Be nice, Geordie. Levi seems like a decent guy. Like I said, in a way, he’s like us. You and me and Mike moved here fourteen years ago, intent on making a new start in a new place, doing a job none of us knew shit about. It’s good karma to give back where we can. I’m not asking you to make hors d’oeuvres for him personally. If one of our staff can help, it would be a nice gesture, and the collaborative angle could be good for future business. That’s all.”

I regarded him for a long moment then inclined my head. “Okay.”

“So you’ll call him?”

I blew out a rush of air that turned into a raspberry. “Ugh! Yes, I’ll call him. The things I do for you…I really am amazing.”

Wes burst into laughter. “You are. And I love you. Even though you did ruin my lunchtime nookie.”

I checked my watch before moving to the door. “Go find your man. I’ve got your back.”

“Thanks. Hey, Geordie?” He waited for me to turn around before he continued. “I’ve got yours too. Remember, we’re still a team.”

I swallowed hard and smiled. The tight upturn of lips felt strange and out of place, but it was the best I could do, and I knew Wes wouldn’t hold it against me. I dabbed at the corners of my eyes as I pivoted on my heels. I stopped short at the top of the stairs and leaned heavily against the wall for a moment.

I sorted through my internal music selection, but nothing seemed to fit my mood. Maybe that was because I didn’t know how I felt. Had I really become a slightly older yet not-quite-geriatric gay who couldn’t read himself? Would the horror never cease? Fuck. If I’d learned one thing over the years, it was that you’d better know yourself and learn to love what you couldn’t change. It was a matter of basic survival when you were a Froot Loop in a bowl of Cheerios.

Yes, I was sad. Yes, my heart ached. Yes, it hurt to breathe, and sometimes I could barely keep track of the days of the week, but I was still here. And I might be here for another fortysomething years. I couldn’t go on like this. I had to get out of my head. Perhaps Wes had the right idea. I could treat the assignment like an acting job and play the cordial ambassador to wine country. I was good at that role. Helping our new neighbor might be just the escape I needed. If only for a little while.

I pulled Levi’s business card from my pocket after closing later that evening and studied the simple design on the front. Purple circles composed in a triangular bunch with a green stem. That was it. I couldn’t decide if it was laughably unsophisticated or a masterful execution of “less is more.” The boxy font, however, didn’t go at all.

“Danny just finished up in the warehouse. He’s coming by to pick me up in a minute. Want a ride home?” Ryan asked, shrugging his coat over his shoulders.

“No, thanks. I’ll walk. I have a phone call to make, and it’s a nice enough night for a moonlight stroll,” I replied absently. I skirted the bar and perched on a stool.

He shot a dubious sideways glance at me. “It’s cloudy and cold, and it looks like rain. Are you sure?”

“I’m positive. Go on. Don’t keep your man waiting. I’ve got things to do, and I can’t worry about you worrying about me.” I pointed at the door meaningfully. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Ry.”

“Okay, but If you need any—”

“Ryan.”

“I’m going, I’m going. Love ya, Geord!”

I waved good-bye and waited for the door to close behind him before scanning the shadows in the darkened lounge area across the room. The silence was refreshing after a long day of constant activity. I didn’t always enjoy the quiet at home, but I relished it here where the solitude felt like something earned rather than a punishment. I glanced down at the card again before my thoughts turned bleak and quickly input the number scrawled on the back.

“Hello.” Damn, he had a nice voice. Deep and masculine. Simple two-syllable words shouldn’t sound sexy, right?

“Good evening, Mr. Yeager. This is Geordie De La Rosa from Conrad Winery. We met earlier today. You mentioned a canapé and kitchen quandary, and I’m calling to offer my assistance,” I said in a professional tone.

Silence.

“Uh…okay. Cool.”

Never mind. “Okay, cool” wasn’t sexy at all.

“Very well. How shall we go about staging your required rescue?”

Levi chuckled softly. “You’re going to rescue me?”

“I’ll do my best, darling, but I’m going to need information. The ‘what, when, where’ variety. Tell me about your canapés.”

“Gee, that sounds kind of personal. We just met, Geordie.”

I barked a quick laugh as I turned to lean on the bar. “Aren’t you amusing? Let’s make this easy. I can give you two hours of my time Saturday afternoon beginning at three o’clock sharp. I’ll text you Wes and Nick’s address. We can meet there. Are you planning on coming with an assistant?”

“No. Just me. I—you’re going to help me yourself?” he asked, sounding confused.

“Yes. Call it a neighborly gesture. The more I know about your menu, the more informed I’ll sound when I tell the town how fabulous your new restaurant will be. So, tell me everything.”

“Uh.”

“About your menu.” I pulled my cell from my ear and frowned at the screen before trying again in a slow deliberate tone. “What will you serve?”

“A little bit of everything—”

“Oh, boy.”

He gave a half laugh then added, “With a Mexican-Spanish flair.”

“You do realize that Mexican and Spanish cuisine are not the same, I hope.”

“Of course I do. Look, I have a concept, but it’s too hard to explain over the phone. I’ll bring the cookbooks on Saturday and show you.”

“Cookbooks?”

“Yeah. You speak Spanish, right?”

Sí.

“Cool. I’ll bring the ingredients, cookbooks, and myself and see you at three. Hasta luego, Geordie.” His exaggerated American accent made me smile, but I couldn’t tell if it was indicative of a silly sense of humor or if his dumb jock side was showing.

Ai yai yai,” I sighed. “Good night, Mr. Yeager.”

Buenos nachos.”

Noches, not nachos,” I corrected automatically.

Levi snickered. “Just testing. ’Night, Geordie.”

I chuckled as I disconnected the call. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all.