Change of Address
This title is part of the Hartsbridge Island universe.
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Air Force sergeant Michael Baldwin wanted nothing more than to escape his family’s political ambitions, but his dream of freedom was shattered by an enemy bullet to the head. Two years later, he and his service dog, Kaylee, resist his father’s demand to join him on the campaign trail—where a photogenic “wounded warrior” is always an asset—and instead return to the family’s summer home on Hartsbridge Island.
There Michael and his beautiful German shepherd capture the attention of Josh Goldberg, co-owner of the local bagel shop. Josh has a knack for business and a killer repertoire of his bubbe’s recipes. But lack of education undermines his confidence, and Josh’s father doesn’t share his ambition for the restaurant’s future.
Chicken soup and bacon might be the way to Michael’s heart, but he and Josh need time to learn about everything that comes after—lessons that Governor Baldwin and his relentless ambition will do anything to thwart. Letting someone in is a tall order for two men who can’t trust themselves, but if they have any hope of a future together, that’s exactly what they’ll need to do.
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The unfamiliar voice was almost drowned out by the bell jangling over the front door. What a strange thing to say. Frowning, Josh peered through the kitchen doorway to the front of the shop.
“Dee’s on break. Let me go get that,” he told his ex-girlfriend-turned-accountant. When she waved him away, he got up from the prep table where they were working on the books and went out front. He was just in time to see a white taxi pulling away from the curb, which was odd. There was only one taxi service on the island, and those taxis weren’t white. Someone from the mainland?
Shaking his head, he looked over at the front door. His new customer was standing there, and Josh eyed the guy for second—T-shirt, jeans, sunglasses, messenger bag slung across his chest—before a swish of movement caught his attention. A dog?
No dogs allowed. He actually drew breath to say it before the dog’s red vest registered. Service dog, then—and a handsome one too. Josh was no expert, but he could recognize a German shepherd and suspected this one was a purebred.
It took far too long for Josh to remember his customer-oriented manners. He put on a friendly smile and rested a forearm on the tall glass counter, saying, “Hey, welcome to Bagel End. What can I get for you?”
The guy took off his sunglasses, revealing warm brown eyes and high cheekbones. He was focused on the menu boards hanging over the counter, so Josh took a surreptitious second look. The guy was well-built, but thin enough that Josh’s first instinct was to suggest a stacked brisket sandwich and a bowl of filling broccoli cheddar soup. Get some meat on those bones.
Not about to get caught staring, Josh took a couple of plastic gloves out of the box. He heard the guy approach, along with the soft click of dog toenails on the laminate floor. Josh turned back and met him at the order counter, which put them barely two feet apart, and there was no way he couldn’t stare now. If not for the momentary distraction of the dog, he would’ve been staring the whole time, because wow. This guy was hot, especially when he gave Josh a shy little smile.
“Uh . . . let’s do the corned beef,” the guy said softly, his accent too indistinct for Josh to place.
“Bagel, white, wheat, rye, sourdough, or focaccia?” Josh asked, guessing he’d go for rye. He seemed like a traditionalist.
But he turned his attention to the bagel display, biting his lip. “Plain bagel,” he said, glancing at Josh before looking back down. “I haven’t had a good bagel in years.”
A fellow connoisseur. Josh’s smile brightened. “The recipe’s from the family’s old place in Brooklyn. You’ll love it,” he promised as he pulled out the plain basket. Indulging his need to feed his customer—and hopefully entice the guy to come back—he found the biggest bagel and dropped it into the automatic slicer.
The guy followed as Josh made his way down the counter to the corned beef. “Also, a half pound of roast beef. You can just wrap it in something.”
Probably for the dog, Josh guessed. Lucky mutt. “Sure thing. What else did you want on your sandwich?”
“Only deli mustard.”
“A purist.” Josh grinned in approval and swiped a thin layer of spicy brown mustard on each half of the bagel. “This your first time on the island?”
The guy met Josh’s eyes, though only briefly. Was it endearing shyness or skittishness? “I, uh, grew up spending my summers here.”
“Oh! Well, welcome back, then,” Josh said, trying and failing to slot the guy into the “rich asshole tourist” niche. He seemed friendly, despite the lack of eye contact.
“Thanks,” he said, looking straight down, probably at the dog. Josh could barely see the brown tips of its ears. “It’s good to be back.”
Josh wanted to keep up the friendly chatter, but not while the guy was focused on the dog. Instead, he finished assembling the sandwich, sliced up a generous half pound or so of roast beef, then asked, “Anything else? The soup’s really good today.”
“Um, maybe later.” The guy glanced at the empty tables by the front window. “Mind if I eat here?”
Why would he even ask? Probably because of the dog, though Josh knew better than to ask a well-behaved service dog to leave. Hell, the dog was cleaner and more polite than some two-legged customers. “Be my guest,” he said, giving his friendliest smile. “Something to drink? A bowl of water for your pup?”
The guy’s answering smile brightened a notch. “I’ve got a bowl.” He glanced at the soda machine. “Uh, just water for me. She’s fine, thanks,” he added with a nod toward the dog.
Usually they used the small paper cups for water, but Josh filled a big cup, then capped it. He put the wrapped roast beef into a to-go container only because he wasn’t sure if health department regulations would let him put a service dog’s food on a plate. Was she even eating here? He arranged everything neatly on a tray and slid it down to the register.
The guy already had his wallet in his hands. He took out cash; so much for Josh seeing his name on a credit card. Josh got rid of the plastic gloves, rang up the order, and handed back the change along with a paper copy of the menu.
“We’re setting up online ordering, but the kid doing the website is kind of flaky,” he said apologetically. “But if you call ahead, we can have your order ready for you—for both of you,” he added, stretching to look over the counter at the dog, who was politely sitting on her human’s feet, attention focused on the door.
“Thanks.” The guy smiled. “Do you do deliveries?”
“Technically only for catering orders,” Josh said, lowering his voice. “But if it’s not raining and I’ve got a full staff, I can get pretty much anywhere on the island within half an hour, give or take.”
The guy’s laugh was even nicer than his smile. “I won’t tell anyone.” He picked up the tray and told the dog, “Let’s go.” Together, they headed for the two-seat table in the front of the shop, where the guy sat with his back to the wall. The dog followed him, then turned neatly and sat at his side, mouth hanging open in a canine grin.
Cleaning up gave Josh a thirty-second excuse to linger, long enough to watch the guy crush the overstuffed bagel down to a manageable size. After the first bite, he smiled—always a good sign. Hopefully Josh had just gotten himself a repeat customer. Maybe even a regular.
* * * * * * *
The brisket was surprisingly good, which helped Michael to relax and concentrate on something other than watching his environment. That was Kaylee’s job, and though she was young for a fully trained service dog, she was focused on the doors—a comforting reminder that Michael wasn’t alone.
Not that he’d really been alone anyway. He glanced toward the back of the restaurant. On the customer side, there was a closed door with a bathroom sign. He could see straight through the open kitchen door behind the counter, where the cashier seemed to be working on a laptop.
Dark-blond hair fell to his shoulders in a mess of neglected curls. His back was rounded from leaning in close to the screen. His bright-blue polo shirt had short enough sleeves to show New Hampshire–pale arms. No desert tan. No hard muscles. No tattoos.
Being around a guy like this was the exact opposite of how Michael’s life had gone for the last ten years. He’d never had trouble finding company, even before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, but they’d all been hard-bodied soldiers. And in DC, during his recovery, Michael had gravitated toward dark, anonymous clubs to find his one-night stands. Picking up a civilian in daylight would be a nice change—especially one with a welcoming smile and a charming laugh.
Had Michael returned that smile? He couldn’t remember. He’d ordered his lunch on autopilot, too wary to do more than assess the cashier’s nonexistent threat level. He hadn’t even bothered to note the name tag.
“Next time,” he murmured to Kaylee, reaching down to ruffle her fur. She gave him a doggie grin, tail whooshing over the floor. There’d definitely be a next time. Last Michael checked, Hartsbridge Island didn’t have a big assortment of restaurants, and he wasn’t going to live on his own cooking just to soothe his hypervigilant nature.
After polishing off the sandwich, he picked up the menu and unfolded the glossy paper. He didn’t bother to take his reading glasses out of his bag. One side of the menu listed bagels sold by the baker’s dozen, meat and cheese platters, and party-size soups and subs. The other had breakfasts, hot and cold sandwiches, and soups of the day. The shop’s phone and fax numbers, too blurry for him to make out, were at the bottom. And hadn’t the cashier said something about delivery?
Tempting, but no. Part of Kaylee’s training involved reminding him when he hadn’t left home for a couple of days. Heading into town for a bagel was a good way to keep from becoming a shut-in.
Kaylee sat up abruptly, ears perked toward the window, just as a young woman walked into the shop. Her polo shirt matched the cashier’s, with Bagel End embroidered over her heart in a vaguely Elvish font. Another employee starting her shift or coming off break meant they expected a surge in customers, maybe an early dinner rush, which was Michael’s signal to bail. He’d give Kaylee her roast beef at the town green across the street.
“Let’s go,” he told Kaylee, who pushed up to all fours and stepped away from his chair. He threw out his trash, then brought the tray to the counter, hoping to coax his cashier out of the kitchen, but no such luck. The young woman was already back there, tying on a green apron with the shop’s logo covering the front.
“I’ll get that. Thanks!” she said brightly, rushing close enough for him to see her name tag. Dee. Not the name he wanted to know. As she picked up the tray, leaving him the to-go box of roast beef, she grinned down at Kaylee and asked, “How was your meal?”
“Great,” Michael said truthfully.
Turning her smile on him, she said, “Hope you two come back soon.”
With one last glance through the open kitchen door, Michael promised, “We will.”
After an hour and a half on the train from Boston and almost an hour in the taxi, Michael welcomed the chance to stretch his legs on the walk to his new home. The bed in last night’s hotel had certainly done his back no favors.
He crossed the town green, taking in the changes since he’d been here ten years earlier. The old town meeting hall had been turned into a museum, but the life-size bronze stag that was the town mascot, Hercules, still towered over the grassy field. The Stars and Stripes and the New Hampshire state flag snapped in the wind in front of the new civic center, with the island’s tiny police station tucked into one side of the building.
East of the green, the Rocky Shores Diner was still in its old place, though it looked bigger than he remembered. The board of selectmen still hadn’t put in a traffic light instead of the four-way stop at the corner. And the townies’ houses hadn’t been knocked down to make room for tourist bungalows and condos, which was comforting.
Despite the late-spring chill, the walk warmed Michael enough that he’d taken off his jacket by the time they reached the Baldwin family vacation home. The white colonial farmhouse was still surrounded by squared hedges, beds of bright flowers, and a green lawn, neatly striped from a lawnmower, that stretched from the road all the way to the bank above the rocky beach.
At the edge of the property, Michael took off Kaylee’s service vest and unsnapped her leash. “Go play,” he told her, and she rushed off to explore, nose buried in the grass. He watched her, smiling, and felt a weight slip off his shoulders. He was safe here, safe enough to let her play.
But when grass gave way to the manicured gravel driveway, Michael called her over and put the vest back on, a signal that she was on the job once more. Ears alertly perked, she trotted up the driveway at his side, rocks crunching together under her paws. Michael made a mental note to pick up some heavy booties and a warm coat for her. He’d never wintered on Hartsbridge Island, but he couldn’t imagine the weather was at all gentle. In fact, they’d both need to be better prepared.
His parents had given him a house key when they visited in DC. Or, well, Mom had; Dad had spent the entire visit on the phone, making plans to have dinner and drinks with important political connections. Michael suspected a presidential bid in the near future, which was both unpleasant and convenient. A summer of campaigning meant there’d be no time for a vacation, leaving the house all to Michael.
So there was no trepidation in him at all when he pushed open the door, braced for a rush of stale air that never came. Instead, the house smelled like sunshine and flowers—but why? Who was here?
Suspiciously, he leaned down and unclipped Kaylee’s leash. “Recon,” he said, and she trotted into the house.
Apprehension drove him to pace along the sloped walkway between the garage and front door, though he couldn’t see into the windows. If there was anyone inside, Kaylee would find them and give a warning bark. He was back home on American soil. He was safe.
He kept telling himself that for the endless minutes it took for Kaylee to return to him. She streaked past in a blur of brown and bright blue, turned on a dime, and sat, giving him the happy-dog grin that said it was all clear.
With a sharp, relieved exhale, he crouched down to pet her. “Good girl,” he said, which was her signal that it was okay to break her sit and nose at his face. He laughed into her fur, reminding himself that this was proof he was safe. He could relax his vigilance. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything—no need to be suspicious all the time.
But logic had nothing to do with emotion, so he was still a little apprehensive when he went into the spacious, remodeled house. The sound of Kaylee’s nails changed between the warm wood hallway and the slate-floored kitchen, which had doubled in size. The patio furniture had been set up out back, and there were fresh-cut flowers everywhere, no more than a few hours old, so someone had been here.
Maybe his mother had arranged for the caretakers to air out the house before Michael’s arrival? That would have been unusually thoughtful of her. More likely, her personal assistant had taken care of it.
Perfectly normal explanation, Baldwin. Get a hold of yourself. And this was a good reminder that the caretakers would be around every week or so. Michael would have to find out their schedule so they couldn’t catch him by surprise.
Upstairs, he opened the door to what had been his childhood bedroom and froze. His classic sci-fi movie posters and framed comic books were gone, replaced by a blandly tasteful painting of the island’s crumbling lighthouse. Instead of his old bed, there was a queen-size bed lost under decorative quilts and throw pillows. One of them, instead of being square or round like the rest, had a familiar contour.
Was that his pillow? The one shaped to help ease his tense neck and shoulders? Suspicious all over again, he went into the room and picked it up. Definitely his, though it was in an unfamiliar ivory pillowcase that matched the rest of the linens.
He spun and opened the wardrobe tucked into one corner of the room. His clothes, few as they were, hung from the rod. The drawers revealed his socks and underwear, along with the plastic box that held his service ribbons. Looking back into the room, he spotted the wooden box with his Purple Heart on a shelf near the valet stand.
Why the hell was his stuff unpacked?
Sure, he’d shipped most of his belongings to the house a couple of weeks ago, along with the SUV he’d picked up last winter in DC. But the caretaker was supposed to store the boxes in anticipation of his arrival—not unpack them. And sure as hell not unpack them into this impersonal room.
His skin crawled at the invasion of his privacy. If he’d been willing to put up with people in his room—in his territory—he would’ve stayed at a hotel.
He crouched, resting a hand on Kaylee’s back, as the world rocked around him. This was supposed to be his anchor, more than just somewhere to stay. More than just a house. He needed a home. Somewhere he could continue to nurture the fragile civilian identity he’d begun to construct back in DC, after he was discharged from the hospital.
Kaylee shuffled around so she could rest her muzzle on his shoulder, a comfort behavior that she’d developed on her own. Michael wrapped his arms around her and breathed deeply, pretending to be calm until he fooled his body into complying. He had a safe place to stay, even if it wasn’t secure, and he had his meager belongings, even if someone else had fucked with them. This was nothing he couldn’t work with. Nothing he couldn’t overcome.
“Okay.” Another deep breath, and he straightened, braced against Kaylee for balance. He looked at the house keys with their neat labels: front door, back door, kitchen door, garage door, barn. “Okay, Kaylee. Let’s go scout out somewhere better to live.”
She wagged her tail in answer.
* * * * * * *
“Will you look at that?” Michael asked Kaylee, slowly grinning as he took in what used to be a gaping space full of cobwebs and mold-rotted wood. Somewhere along the line, his dad must have pulled strings to get a building permit for the barn. It was nothing like what he remembered from the few memorable occasions he and Amanda had managed to pick the lock on the doors—usually it was Amanda, with her more dexterous fingers, who succeeded—and creep inside the deathtrap full of splintered beams, spiders, and garter snakes.
Now, though, the barn was a light and airy refuge, despite having only a few tiny windows. The space by the doors was a high-ceilinged living area with an antique wood-burning stove in the corner and a massive television on the front wall. Quilts covered a plush sofa and the armchairs. In the back, a rustic dining set divided the living area from a single-story kitchen with a loft bedroom overhead.
As he led Kaylee inside, the tension drained from his shoulders and back. He explored every inch of the rebuilt barn, thinking this was where he belonged—a place with one entrance, one lock that he’d change as soon as possible, so only he would have the key. A place where childhood memory and his need for sanctuary could comfortably, safely intersect. Very comfortably, in fact. The bathroom tucked behind the kitchen had an extra-deep claw-foot bathtub as well as a luxuriously modern steam shower, and the bed in the loft was king size, big enough for Kaylee to sprawl at his feet.
The refrigerator and cupboards were empty, but he took care of that in a half-dozen trips to the main house. By the end of the afternoon, he had his belongings stowed away upstairs and the kitchen stocked. Obviously someone had given the caretaker a very outdated list, because along with staples—bread, eggs, milk—he’d found two boxes of sugary cereal and canned pasta right out of his childhood diet. Those he left behind in favor of keeping only the basics on hand.
“What’re the chances the truck’s in the garage?” he asked Kaylee. The diner in town once had the best burgers on the planet.
Kaylee, sprawled on the colorful rag rug by the sink, wagged her tail.
“Yeah, probably. Come on,” he said, and she jumped up to follow him to the front door. At the click of her nails, he added, “Remind me to find the toenail clippers later.” One of these days, he’d take the time to dig into his phone and figure out how to set automatic reminders, but not now. He couldn’t let the phone distract him into avoiding going out in public.
He’d hung Kaylee’s leash and vest on the coat hooks made from horseshoes—surprisingly kitschy for any decorator his mom would hire—along with the messenger bag that he kept stocked with dog care and cleanup supplies. Kaylee sat while he got her geared up, then walked with him back to the main house, where he let himself inside. He’d have to ask for the garage code; for now, he unlocked the interior door, stepping in just enough for the automatic lights to trigger.
As he expected, his SUV had been parked on the far side of the garage, leaving room for whatever new cars his parents were driving this year. Michael stared at the SUV, clenching and unclenching his fists. He really hadn’t considered the layout of the island. The drive would be short and quick, but the roads were curved and unlit for the most part.
Dark roads. Low visibility.
Bad idea, Baldwin.
After two days on the train and a sleepless night at a hotel in Boston, he was too tired to drive safely. But Hartsbridge Island was small enough that even tired—even dead-on-his-feet-exhausted—he could walk safely to town and back.
“You up for another walk, Kaylee?” he asked, backing up a step so he could close and lock the interior door. She was in her vest, so she didn’t bounce happily in circles, but her tail wagged a little harder. He couldn’t help but smile in response as he ducked his head under the strap of his messenger bag, settling it across his chest. If only he could be so cheerful all the time.
* * * * * * *
Rocky Shores Diner had never lost its one-step-above-a-trailer feel, even with the extended dining room the owners had tacked on a few years back. When the satellite college campus opened on the south side of the island, the menu had expanded to include wings and chili-cheese fries, but the locals all knew better than to stray from plain hand-cut steak fries.
Josh picked up one of those fries now and used it to point across the booth at his dad. “This is me reminding you”—he took a bite of the fry—“to call the meat delivery guy first thing tomorrow morning.”
Dad groaned dramatically and snatched the other half of the fry right out of Josh’s fingers. “You have to remind me in the morning. Otherwise, I’ll just forget.”
In retribution, Josh stole one of the fries off his dad’s plate. “I’ll leave you a voice mail. But really, if he doesn’t get his shit together—”
“Josh,” Dad scolded, dark brows drawing together.
Josh ignored the reprimand. “We can’t keep putting up with late deliveries, Dad. Especially not when summer business really kicks off. What are we going to do? Tell people we don’t have corned beef? We’re the only supplier on the island.”
Dad laughed and slurped some of his milk shake. “It’s corned beef, not heroin.”
“And you’re not in Brooklyn anymore. Corned beef might as well be heroin, the way the tourists gobble it up.” Josh tried to sound stern, but he was struggling to hide his grin. “You too. Don’t think I don’t know about your stash in the back of the walk-in.”
“A guy’s got to eat,” Dad pointed out, though he didn’t need to worry about his weight—not like Josh did. “Speaking of Brooklyn,” Dad continued, refilling his milk shake from the frosty metal cup, “I might take a trip down there this weekend or next. See your aunt. We’ll probably go to the cemetery to visit Bubbe.”
“I’ll have things covered,” Josh said, looking up automatically when the bell over the door rang—a habit from running Bagel End.
His dad’s answer was lost under the abrupt thump of Josh’s heartbeat when he spotted that afternoon’s customer—the one with the service dog. God, he was nice to look at in profile, expression soft and unguarded as he turned from one side to the other, taking in the scope of the diner. Josh couldn’t see if he had the dog, but he assumed so.
“Sit anywhere you like, hon,” Betty called from behind the counter, giving a friendly wave with the coffeepot that always seemed to be stuck in her hand. As the guy walked between the booths, Betty frowned, though it melted into a sappy smile almost immediately. “Aww, what a pretty boy!”
Wasn’t the dog a girl? Josh couldn’t remember, and the guy didn’t answer her, at least not loudly enough for Josh to hear. He just walked to the corner booth, as Josh guessed he would, and sat where he could see the door—and Josh, who quickly slouched down and gave his dad a somewhat scrambled smile.
Dad’s eyebrows did a slow creep toward his hairline. “I didn’t say anything.” He turned to look over his shoulder. “Someone you know?” he asked, which really meant Someone you’re dating?
Josh snorted. His dad was more of an interfering matchmaker than any twelve yentas from Brooklyn. “A customer, that’s all. He came in this afternoon. Stop staring.” Please, he added mentally, sinking another inch. Too bad the booths were low, not the super-high style popular in the seventies, making it easy for Dad to take a nice long look at the guy.
“Uh-huh.” Dad finally turned back, a sly grin on his face. “Early in the season for a tourist, isn’t it?”
Josh didn’t roll his eyes, but it was a close call. “Mainlander, with a family house here, yeah. He’ll be here for a while, I think.” He was proud he didn’t say, I hope.
“Uh-huh,” Dad repeated, stealing another of Josh’s fries. But then he got back to business, saying, “The meat delivery guy. Any other issues we need to deal with?”
Josh shook his head, trying to focus again—these dinnertime business meetings were crucial to keeping the shop running smoothly, as well as being the only real time he and his dad could relax and catch up with each other. But he kept stealing glances at the guy, who’d settled down to look over the menu.
While wearing glasses.
The sight made Josh’s knees go a little weak. He liked glasses, even though he’d never needed them himself—and he wasn’t hipster enough to get plain lenses just so he could try to look hot. It wouldn’t work. He was about as far from “sexy librarian” as possible.
Remembering that his dad was expecting a coherent answer, he said, “Uh . . . no, I think we’re good. Lizzie and I did the books, and the schedule’s set for the next couple of weeks. Speaking of . . .” He glanced past his dad again before he could stop himself. Glasses. His voice wavered a bit as he said, “Why don’t I open tomorrow? You can sleep in.”
Dad let Josh’s distraction pass, though not unnoticed, judging by the grin still plastered on his face as his eyebrows went up again. “Not that I’m arguing, but why?”
Because Hot Tourist Guy might be an early riser, and I don’t want to miss the chance to see him, Josh thought. “To deal with the meat delivery guy.”
Dad shrugged. “You got it.” He slurped up the last of his milk shake and didn’t bother stealing another fry, a sign that he was done for the night.
Damn. There went Josh’s opportunity to maybe make first contact—second contact?—with his handsome customer. His gaze slid past Dad to Hot Tourist Guy, no longer obscured by his menu. Unfortunately, he was also no longer wearing the glasses. He just needed them for reading, then, which was still hot as hell.
Their eyes met, and Josh quickly looked away, not wanting to be seen as a creepy stalker, even though he’d been in the diner first. God, he was terrible at making the first move. Or responding to one, for that matter. He was terrible with potential dating interests in general. His people skills were top-notch only in the bagel-pushing field. Otherwise, he got self-conscious with girls and nervous about triggering homophobic idiocy with guys, and there wasn’t even a hint of a queer community on the island.
Well, maybe there was something at the college, but Josh wasn’t one of them.
Defeat made his shoulders slump. The hot guy with the dog would fit in great with the college crowd, even if he looked to be a few years older than them. He would have no trouble turning heads no matter where he went. A dumpy, boring, dropout-turned-bagel-guy didn’t stand a damn chance with someone like him.
In three bites, he wolfed down the rest of his burger and fries. His dad put a twenty on the table, and Josh added a five for the tip. They left together, and he heroically refrained from throwing one last look at the corner booth. Hot or not, the guy was a customer, and it wasn’t as if Bagel End could afford to have Josh scaring away anyone. Besides, if the guy came back or called for a delivery—as he’d implied he would—maybe they could at least become friends. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?
Six a.m., and Hartsbridge was a ghost town. Michael stood next to the deer statue on the green, wrapped in a windbreaker that was fine for DC but insufficient for the chilly wind blowing in off the Atlantic, and stared out at the emptiness. Only the twenty-four-hour diner was open, and even that looked ominous, almost dystopian. With the sun rising behind the low building, the front was in shadow, lit by the red neon sign over the door. The extended dining room was night-dark; the lights were on over the long counter and booths, though they were deserted.
Kaylee’s leash twisted in Michael’s grasp. Free of her vest, she dove headfirst into the grass and writhed over onto her back, kicking her legs, tail wagging madly. He smiled down at her—at the reminder that he wasn’t alone in a postapocalyptic world—and made a mental note to look into local dog ordinances. Growing up, he’d never had a dog, so he wasn’t sure if it was legal to have one off-leash or not.
The tinkle of a bell, too faint to really startle him, made him turn to the other side of the green. All the shops there were still dark, except for Bagel End. The door was propped open, and someone had sneaked out long enough to set up a sandwich board outside.
“Diner or bagel place?” Michael asked Kaylee, though he’d already made his decision. Yesterday’s lunch bagel had been a little wheel of heaven—not to mention the cashier.
What were the chances that the blond guy from yesterday was on the opening shift? Six a.m. was an unholy hour for most civilians, but the guy seemed to be a manager type, so . . . maybe.
Recognizing Michael’s tone of voice, Kaylee got to her feet, giving a good whole-body shake. A cloud of grass poofed around her, only to be swept away by the sea-salt breeze. She stood still while Michael took her vest down from his shoulder, and as he fastened it around her body, he could see her brain kicking into high gear. Her ears perked forward, eyes going sharp and alert. Much as she loved to play, she was a working dog, happiest when she had a task to perform.
When he said, “Let’s go,” she paced beside him, no longer sniffing everywhere, and paused at the curb to get his okay to cross the deserted street. Growing up in the city had given her good street manners.
The wind went briefly still, filling the air outside the shop with the warm scent of fresh baking. Michael’s stomach growled, and Kaylee’s nostrils flared as she sniffed. She didn’t surge ahead, but her steps went springy and light until they reached the open door, where training kept her from rushing inside.
At this hour, it was a formality to check for anyone coming through the doorway, but the key to training was consistency. After verifying no one was in the way, he told her, “Go through,” then followed her in.
“Be right—” The blond guy from yesterday popped into sight behind the glass case half-full of bagels; his smile was breathtakingly sincere. “Hey, be right with you.” He turned to take a wire basket of bagels from a rolling rack taller than he was.
“No rush.” Michael hung back, not wanting to seem like he was demanding immediate service. Six months ago, he might’ve slipped out and come back later, but his DC therapist had worked with him on that. Not that he still didn’t wish for the ability to turn invisible, to disappear and avoid confrontation of any kind. He was just conscious of the desire and able to push past it most of the time.
Besides, this was what he’d wanted, right? A chance to see the blond guy again, maybe figure out if his smile was friendly or genuinely interested.
So he stood his ground and petted Kaylee, who sat at his left side and leaned against his leg with just enough pressure to reassure him without pushing him off-balance. But instead of focusing entirely on her, he kept sneaking glances at the guy behind the counter. Cute was the first word that came to mind, with messy blond curls and the little smile playing around his mouth. Awake, too, judging by how quick he was at setting up the baskets, smoothly sliding each one into place until the bagel case was full. His eyes—hazel, Michael guessed, though he didn’t want to stare—were bright and free of dark circles and drooping lids. Most civilians didn’t have half this much energy at six in the morning. Hell, most soldiers didn’t.
“Okay, there,” the guy said, straightening up to rest one arm on top of the counter. “Didn’t want you to have only a partial selection. They’re all fresh. What can I get you?”
Your number, Michael thought, but there was no way in hell he’d say it, much as he wanted some of that warm, cheerful energy for himself. He stared unseeing at the display, finally asking, “What’s good? I mean, besides everything? Breakfast special, maybe?”
The guy pointed up and over one shoulder, and Michael belatedly remembered the menu board. Before he could stammer an apology, though, the guy said, “If you’re wanting something bagel-based, we do a killer breakfast sandwich combo. Comes with coffee or tea, and I can cook up some extra bacon for your friend . . .” The way he trailed off felt expectant without pushing Michael for any information he didn’t want to share. He was grateful for that. Growing up in the political fishbowl meant he wasn’t the sharing type.
So he was surprised to find himself saying, “Kaylee. And sure.”
The sunny smile brightened a notch. “I’m Josh. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself yesterday. I always forget my name tag, which is my way of setting a bad example, I guess. Bagel preference?”
Thrown off guard—Michael had expected to be asked for his name—he said, “Uh. Whichever? You pick.”
Josh narrowed his eyes—definitely hazel—but his smile didn’t fade. “Everything,” he said after a moment. “Everything bagel, eggs scrambled with cheese, sausage patty, bacon on the side. Sound good?” He pulled a piece of waxed paper out of a box and rested a hand on the basket of everything bagels.
Michael would’ve probably ordered something plainer, but his stomach’s approving growl had him nodding. “Perfect. Thanks.”
Beaming, Josh used the waxed paper to take out one of the bagels and asked, “One last question, and then I can get started. Bold or mild coffee? Both pots are fresh.”
Bold would’ve been Michael’s choice, prehospital. Now, grateful for the option, he said, “Mild, black.”
“Five minutes. Go have a seat. I’ll bring everything out to you. Did”—Josh hesitated, eyeing the dog—“Kaylee? Did she want water?”
“No, thanks. She’s good,” Michael said truthfully. He’d slept poorly as usual and gotten out of bed around four, which gave him plenty of time to water and brush Kaylee this morning, though he’d forgotten entirely about her nails. Again.
He wandered toward the front of the store, thinking he should have paid first. But Josh seemed to be the only one working, and he’d disappeared into the kitchen. At least that saved Michael from the temptation of staring, though he did take the same front corner table as yesterday. From there, he could see straight back behind the counter, just by turning his head. When he did, he saw Josh pulling a bright-green apron over his blue polo shirt, then ruffling one hand through his already-messy hair, making Michael wonder what those curls felt like.
So much for resisting temptation.
* * * * * * *
Josh couldn’t stop grinning as he washed his hands and prepped the first order of the day. Hot Tourist Guy was back, which made switching shifts with Dad absolutely worth the morning’s caffeine jitters. It had been a long time since Josh had been on opening shift, but maybe he could get his sleep cycle turned around. Seeing Hot Tourist Guy was definitely incentive to try.
Hoping to entice Hot Tourist Guy into coming in again tomorrow morning, Josh took a little extra care assembling the sandwich and cooked up enough bacon to win any dog’s heart. Kaylee. Pretty name. He’d have to figure out her human’s name somehow. He should’ve asked, but the words hadn’t quite made it out of his brain. Now, as he plated the sandwich and tucked the bacon in a to-go box for the dog, it felt too late.
Maybe the guy would pay with a credit card, Josh hoped, carrying the breakfast sandwich out. Hot Tourist Guy was back at the table in the corner—developing a regular’s habits already? Hopefully.
Josh filled a cup with mild coffee, arranged everything nicely on the tray, then carried the tray out front. The dog was lying comfortably on the floor under the table, though she sat up at Josh’s approach. She probably smelled the bacon.
“Here you go,” Josh said, sliding the tray onto the table. The guy had taken off his jacket, revealing arms that were thin but solid with muscle. Don’t stare. “If you need anything else, just give a yell.”
Brown eyes met Josh’s for long enough to scramble his brain—at least a full second. “The check?”
Josh made an indistinct gesture in the direction of the cash register. “Whenever you’re done.” He smiled reassuringly before realizing the guy might want to skip out at a moment’s notice. “Or do you want me to ring you up now?”
“No rush.” The guy smiled. “Thanks.”
That was a clear dismissal. Too bad. “Enjoy,” Josh said as he turned away, just in time. A familiar car had pulled up to the curb in front of the shop. Dr. Miller was usually the shop’s first customer, stopping by on her way to the civic center. This morning, she’d brought her wife, the other Dr. Miller.
Josh headed back to the pass-through and took out a couple of plastic gloves, ready to take the Millers’ orders. There’d be time enough to chat with Hot Tourist Guy later—and maybe figure out how to ask the new morning regular’s name.
* * * * * * *
Apparently the island had changed more than Michael expected. The way the two women were holding hands, bumping shoulders and smiling at each other, spoke of something more than friendship. He couldn’t remember seeing any same-sex couples back when he’d vacationed here. And they weren’t tourists either, judging by Josh’s cheerful, “Good morning, Millers!”
Maybe that was why Michael’s parents wouldn’t need the summer house anytime soon. Diversity was precisely the sort of thing to drive them to hide in their country refuge of mansions and genteel farms. But this boded well for Michael’s future social life. It’d be nice to have a shot at meeting an interested guy without having to hide their relationship behind closed doors.
Assuming anyone would want a relationship with him.
The thought made him sigh and sip at his coffee, only to put the mug back down when Kaylee sat up for the second time. The first had warned Michael of Josh’s approach. Now, Michael glanced up and saw the shorter Miller heading for his table.
“Sorry to bother you,” the woman said politely, barely giving Michael a glance, eyes fixed on Kaylee instead. She pushed a lock of thick graying hair behind one ear and asked, “Service dog, right?”
Michael nodded, taking a deep breath of coffee-scented steam. Having a service dog was at odds with his desire to go unnoticed, but he’d practiced standard answers to all the questions strangers might ask, from intrusive—What’s your disability?—to obvious—Is that a German shepherd?
He was completely unprepared when she smiled and said, “If any of the businesses give you a problem, have them give me a call.” She felt around her pockets, then finally pulled a wallet out of her jacket. “I’m . . . Doctor—aha”—she offered Michael a business card—“Arielle Miller, with Hartsbridge General Hospital. No relation to the soap opera. I can help straighten out any questions of access. He’s very well trained. She?”
Michael took the card and nodded again, feeling like he’d been run over by a very friendly truck. “She—”
“She’s beautiful. Just beautiful. Oh, Dr. Mason’s the island vet, if you need to see her.” She patted her pockets again. “I don’t think I have her number in my phone, but her office is just across the street from the elementary school. You can’t miss it.”
When the rush of words stopped, Michael had to take a moment to gather his wits, then said, “Thanks.”
Dr. Miller smiled at Michael, beamed at Kaylee, and hurried back to where her wife—presumably, going by their shared last name—was waiting at the register. The other Miller gave Arielle a curious look, and the shop was quiet enough that Michael heard Arielle say, in more subdued tones, “Remember the ADA seminar last November? It covered service animals versus therapy animals. And with the mainlanders and all their dogs . . .”
“Which reminds me,” the other Miller said in a rich British accent, “we need to do something about the pets people leave behind after the summer.”
“Bastards,” Josh said with a huff, winning Michael’s heart forever. There was a special place in hell reserved for anyone who’d abandon a family pet. “Sorry. It’s just—”
“I quite agree,” she answered, taking one of the cups he offered; Arielle took the other one. “Would you be interested in attending a town hall meeting to address the issue?”
“Me?” When the British Miller nodded, Josh said, “Uh, sure. I’ll tell my dad too. Want us to bring bagels and coffee?”
Her smile lit up her whole face. With her rich contralto voice, high cheekbones and deep brown eyes, she was beautiful enough to catch anyone’s attention—even Michael’s, and his preferences were firmly on the masculine side of the spectrum. She took the bag Josh offered her and said, “That would be lovely. As soon as I have a time and date, I’ll send someone over with the information.”
As Josh rang them up, Michael turned his attention back to his excellent breakfast. Kaylee was too well trained to focus on the bacon, but she knew she’d get a reward once they left the restaurant. The bacon was cooked but not so crunchy it would fall apart at the first bite, so he could feed it to her neatly on the sidewalk right outside, if he wanted. Maybe that would coax Josh into coming out from behind the counter? Even though Kaylee was a service dog, Michael had taught her a few tricks that might impress Josh.
Stupid idea, Baldwin. Josh was apparently running the shop on his own this morning. He wasn’t going to abandon his job to watch dog tricks and talk with someone too shy to even offer his name.
Time to go, Michael decided, before he could do anything stupid. He wolfed down the rest of his food, picked up the to-go box, and brought his tray to the register. Josh had disappeared into the back, but he’d apparently been keeping an eye on the counter. He headed over and asked, “How was everything?”
“Great.” It came out barely above a mumble and had him instantly feeling guilty. He forced himself to look Josh in the eye and add, “It really was. You can’t get bagels like that in DC.”
“And this is why I don’t regret never going farther south than Brooklyn,” Josh said, eyes bright with the force of his grin. His fingers danced over the cash register buttons. “I’d be lost without good food.”
The blunt words, spoken so cheerfully and matter-of-factly, startled Michael. In the Air Force, everyone worried about physical fitness checks, to the point where he’d known people to get liposuction so they wouldn’t get a letter of reprimand and possibly miss out on a promotion.
“I— Yeah.” Sensing an impending ridiculous grin, Michael looked down at Kaylee. “I think we’ll both be back for breakfast tomorrow.” If not lunch later today, though he didn’t say that. There was a difference between being a good customer and a creepy one.
“The door opens at six,” Josh said, his voice warm. Inviting. And Michael wanted to accept that invitation, but . . .
He’s just being a good businessman, Baldwin. The voice of caution was too loud for Michael to do anything more than pay his bill and slip out with a soft “Thanks.”
But when Josh called after him, “See you tomorrow!” it sounded genuinely hopeful, not just polite, and Michael left the shop with a smile.
* * * * * * *
By the fifth “What a beautiful dog!” that interrupted the trip to the hardware store, Michael was actually relieved to hear his phone ring. Unless it was his dog trainer back in DC, the call probably wasn’t from someone wanting to talk about Kaylee. He stopped the shopping cart, made sure Kaylee sat out of the way, and checked the caller ID.
Unlisted. Never a good sign.
He was tempted to let the call go to voice mail, but that was avoidance behavior, and he couldn’t let himself fall back into the habit of self-isolation. Reluctantly, he swiped the screen and put the phone to his ear.
“Yeah?” he asked gruffly. Only a dozen or so people had his number, and fully half of them didn’t warrant a friendly hello.
“Mr. Baldwin?” The voice was unfamiliar.
He switched hands so he could dig his fingers into the fur between Kaylee’s ears. She leaned heavily against his leg in response, tail wagging. “Who’s this?” he asked, conscious that he wasn’t alone in the aisle of hand tools.
“Lee Wilkins, chief of staff for Governor Baldwin. How are you doing?”
Wishing I hadn’t answered. A lifetime of etiquette lessons urged him to mind his words; his instincts screamed at him to rip out the phone’s battery and throw it away. The end result was a gruff, “What?”
The chief of staff was too polite—or, more likely, too well trained—to sound offended. Instead, he asked, “All settled in? Governor Baldwin told me you’d returned to New Hampshire.” He obviously didn’t expect a response, because he forged ahead, adding, “Which is why I’m calling. There’s a fund-raiser barbecue at the Knox family farm tomorrow, and you’re invited.”
Michael bit back a laugh. Invited was political code for required, in his experience. “I don’t—”
“Your father specifically asked me to contact you,” Wilkins interrupted. “As I understand it, one of the guests of honor served in the New Hampshire Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.”
Michael’s chest went tight. This was worse than the usual dog and pony show. He’d known this would happen, Dad wanting to use Michael’s Air Force service as a political tool. It was one of the biggest hazards of moving back to New Hampshire instead of, say, California, but he hadn’t expected it to happen this soon.
“Would you like me to check the governor’s schedule, see if he can call you to talk about the agenda?” Wilkins offered into the silence, smoothly as a knife slipping between Michael’s ribs.
“No. I’ll—” Michael stared down at Kaylee, who’d practically melted against his leg. At least he wouldn’t be doing this alone. “Send me the information. Location, time, all that.”
“Fantastic. I’m sending . . . now,” Wilkins said as Michael’s phone buzzed with an incoming text. He must have had it ready. “See you tomorrow. It’s great that you’re back.” He hung up before Michael could say good-bye. Or possibly, Fuck off.
Well, shit. Michael scrubbed a hand over his face, staring blankly into the cart. He had a new lock for the barn door, a couple of screwdrivers, and some graphite spray. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember what else was on his shopping list.
“Let’s go,” he muttered to Kaylee, who stood and looked up at him, still leaning against his leg until he gave the cart a push, heading for the register. There was no sense in shopping for anything else. Apparently, he’d be away from home tomorrow.
I thought this was going to be a rather heavy on the angst/hurt comfort kind of story. But while there is an element of hurt comfort here, there’s not a wisp of angst in sight, making this a rather sweet and easy read.
I liked that this was a slow burn, because it demonstrated a commitment for each man to be sure it was the right thing, and that the act was more than a physical release.
An easy, sweet read for people who like happy endings.
Sometimes playfully loving and other times intensely thought-provoking, this tale is a pleasure to read.
**Starred Review** Brock’s tender social-class-bridging love story features authentically decent, good-hearted, and kind protagonists who grow and learn together.