Chris stared at the guy sitting beside the fireplace.
“Stop glaring at the customers,” Allison said as she passed behind him with two mugs of something topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Chris watched as Allison delivered the drinks to a table near the window. “I’m not glaring,” he said when Allison returned.
She just gave him a look, then tossed a soapy rag at him. “If you’re just gonna stand there, make yourself useful.”
Chris was tempted to ask Allison just who the boss was around there, but he was afraid he might not like the answer. So he wiped down the counter, then cleared a few tables and wiped them off as well, all the while continuing to study the guy whose sole purpose, Chris thought, was to aggravate him.
The guy came in practically every afternoon and took their best seat near the fireplace that Chris had started lighting once fall officially hit. It wasn’t cold enough in Northern California to warrant a fire in late September, but it was mostly for ambiance anyway. And people liked to sit near it for the comfort it offered.
The guy would sit there for a couple of hours, the tea he’d purchased cooling at his elbow while he wrote in a notebook spread open across the table or typed into his laptop. Today he’d worn a navy blue peacoat into The Coffee Carafe, with a complimentary navy blue and green scarf wrapped around his throat. He’d tossed the coat carelessly over the back of one of the other chairs, but left the loosened scarf on like some aging hipster.
“It’s not even that cold out,” Chris grumbled as he stomped past Allison and into the kitchen, her confused, “What?” trailing after him.
Chris dumped the dirty water and refilled the bucket, adding anti-bacterial soap. He rinsed out the rag before dropping it back into the sudsy water, and then turned his attention to the tray of dirty dishes. He tossed used napkins and cardboard cups into the trash and loaded plates and mugs into the dishwasher, thankful for the mindless task. The washer was just shy of being full, but Chris ran it anyway. It was better to do it now and get ahead, than to wait until their post-five-o’clock rush and end up behind.
When Chris stepped back out into the shop, the guy was gone. Chris told himself it was relief he felt.
Another week went by and the guy was always there, like a stone in Chris’ shoe. One morning the guy came in to get a hot tea to go. Chris was at the register because Allison was flirting with some kid at the other end of the counter. Chris snorted when the guy pulled out two singles to pay for the drink and he noticed that he was wearing fingerless gloves.
Chris made the tea and passed it over the counter. The guy took it with a thank you and then went over to the milk station to add some half and half. Not that Chris watched him so carefully as to know what he took in his tea.
“You’re going to be late for class,” the guy warned as he walked past the kid who was making a valiant if abysmal effort to flirt with Allison.
The kid jerked at the words as if he’d been unaware of any aspect of his surroundings except for Allison. Chris rolled his eyes and turned his attention to the next person in line. He thought it might be the last time he saw the guy that day, but he was back that afternoon, sitting in his usual spot, just like clockwork.
Saturday morning the guy came in with a book instead of his usual pen and pad of paper. He took a seat on the sofa at the back of the shop because all the tables near the fireplace were taken. He didn’t appear the slightest bit put out about it, merely tossed his coat (and scarf as well, this time) over the arm of the couch and set his book on the coffee table before coming up to the counter to order.
Erica was at the register and Chris was supposed to be making a wild berry smoothie rather than paying attention to the guy, who was wearing a thin burgundy V-neck sweater over a white t-shirt. The combination managed to show off the guy’s throat and collarbones, as well as his forearms when he shoved up the sleeves. Chris swore to himself as he sprayed too much whipped cream onto the top of the drink and it slid down over the side of the cup.
“Problems, boss?” Erica said gleefully.
“No,” Chris growled, refusing to look up as he carefully wiped off the outside of the cup and popped the top on it.
Two kids came in later that morning. They’d both been in before, but Chris immediately recognized the one with darker hair that flopped into his eyes as the boy Allison had been flirting with the other day.
“I’ll order,” that boy said.
The other rolled his eyes and said, “I’ll get us a table.”
Chris’ gaze followed the one boy as he walked up to the counter, stopping near where Allison was working, rather than going directly to the register.
“Uncle Peter!” the other boy said, drawing Chris’ attention away from his daughter.
The boy had been settling in at one of the tables before he saw the bane of Chris’ existence sitting on the couch. He picked up his backpack and jacket and headed to the back of the shop.
“Stiles,” the guy, presumably Uncle Peter, drawled in response.
The kid, Stiles, apparently (What kind of name was Stiles?), held out his fist for Peter to bump. Peter looked dubiously from the fist to Stiles’ face. Undeterred, Stiles gave his fist an encouraging little shake.
Peter rolled his eyes, but he raised his fist and bumped it against Stiles’. Stiles grinned, and then dropped onto the couch beside Peter, his coat and backpack falling to the floor between his feet.
“Where’s my actual nephew?” Peter said.
“Derek had to work,” Stiles said. “What are you doing here?”
Peter looked pointedly at the book in his hand and the mug of tea sitting on the coffee table.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re reading and drinking tea, but you could to that in your own livingroom.”
“I like it here,” Peter said. “It’s nice to have a change of scenery sometimes. And besides, it’s comfortable.”
Chris felt himself preen at Peter’s unintentional compliment.
“It’s not nice to eavesdrop, boss,” Erica said.
“I’m not eavesdropping,” Chris said, giving her an ineffective glare.
It wasn’t eavesdropping if they were in public and had zero expectation of privacy, Chris told himself.
“What are you and Scott doing here?” Peter was saying when Chris tuned back into their conversation.
“We’re headed to the library to study for mid-terms,” Stiles said.
“Which doesn’t explain what you’re doing here, annoying me,” Peter said.
Stiles smiled. “You know you love me.”
Peter snorted, and Chris had to duck his head to hide a grin.
“But to answer your question, the hot chocolate, and also, Scott has a crush on . . . .” Stiles turned towards the counter to point out Allison and caught Chris watching them. “. . . absolutely no one that works here,” he finished less than smoothly. “I think I’ll just go see if . . . .” Stiles pushed himself off the couch and tripped over his backpack. “Yo, Scotty, you got my hot chocolate yet?”
“What?” Scott said without taking his eyes off Allison.
“Hot chocolate, Scott,” Stiles said, leaning into Scott and slapping him on the back. “Hello, Allison.”
Chris felt Peter’s eyes on him, but when he turned back Peter had returned to reading his book.
On Monday morning Peter came in and ordered a hot tea and a pastry. Chris was already pouring the hot water into the cup before Peter got to the register. He waited until Peter ordered to grab the tea bag out of the display, even though Peter only ever ordered Earl Grey. Boyd gave Chris a look when he set the cup and tea bag on the counter.
“It’s for Peter,” Chris said, then realized what he’d said. When he raised his eyes, Peter was looking back at him with more of a smirk than an expression of surprise. “I heard Stiles say your name the other day,” Chris explained.
“Did you?” Peter said, and then he took the bag that held his pastry and his cup over to the milk station and fixed his tea.
“Goodbye, Chris,” Peter said before he pushed out the door, though Chris was doing his best to ignore the fact that he knew exactly where Peter was the entire time he was in the shop.
When Chris looked up, Peter was already on the sidewalk. He glanced at Boyd, but Boyd was paying him zero attention as he focused on the girl at the register. Boyd wasn’t big on gossip, or talking much at all. Chris liked that about Boyd.
Peter continued to come into The Coffee Carafe at his usual time, taking his preferred seat when it was available, finding a spot that was inevitably in Chris’ line of sight when it wasn’t. He also started dropping in more often in the morning on his way to work for tea and sometimes a pastry to take with him.
They didn’t always speak, mostly because Chris made a habit of finding something else to do if he spotted Peter before Peter spotted him. On the occasions he couldn’t escape, he’d return Peter’s cheerful greeting of, “Good morning, Chris,” with a growled, “Peter,” which only made Peter’s smile widen.
One morning Chris turned his back on Peter’s retreating form, only to find Allison staring at him. “What?”
She shook her head at him. “You’re being ridiculous.”
“Oh, yeah?” Chris said to Allison’s back as she busied herself at the other end of the counter. “Well . . . so are you.”
“Smooth, boss,” Boyd said as he stepped behind Chris, tying an apron around his waist.
“You’re not my favorite anymore, Boyd,” Chris said.
“Lies,” Boyd said, giving Chris a look. The expression on his face was placid, but his eyes were laughing.
“I’m going to go do inventory,” Chris muttered.
“I’m headed to class,” Allison said, removing her apron and relinquishing the register to Boyd.
“Be safe,” Chris said, pausing to drop a kiss onto Allison’s cheek before disappearing into the back.
Ridiculous, Chris huffed to himself as he grabbed the clipboard off the nail in the storage room. He was not being ridiculous. It was perfectly natural to be annoyed with someone who was so . . . annoying, with his stupid scarf, and his stupid collarbones, and his stupid forearms. And his stupid voice that did not send a burst of heat sliding down Chris’ spine to coil in his belly. Chris pushed thoughts of Peter out of his head and concentrated on the inventory.
The next time Chris saw Peter he was sitting on the couch even though his favorite table was free. Instead of the usual notepad, or the less usual, but more expected book, there was a stack of papers piled carefully on his crossed legs, one hand holding the papers steady while the other viciously wielded a red pen.
Chris set the plate holding the warmed cherry turnover (which Allison had shoved into his hands and told him to deliver) onto the coffee table.
“Thanks,” Peter said politely, glancing up with a distracted smile that froze on his face when he saw that it was Chris who’d delivered his pastry.
“You’re not in your usual spot,” Chris said, giving the plate a little nudge as if to say that he hadn’t come over just to be stalker-y.
“No,” Peter said. If he was surprised that Chris had spoken to him beyond a reluctant hello, he didn’t show it. “I wanted to be comfortable while reading these monstrously pitiful excuses for essays.”
“You teach,” Chris said, the reason for all the red marks becoming clear.
“Yes,” Peter said. “History. At the college. Your daughter’s boyfriend is in one of my classes.”
Which explained how Peter had known that Scott was going to be late for class that one morning. Wait. “Allison doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
“If you say so,” Peter said, hiding his amusement behind a sip of tea.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Chris asked Allison when he got back behind the counter. “The brunet with the puppy eyes.”
“Scott doesn’t . . . ,” Allison began, then stopped and smiled. Smiled sappily, oh my god, he was sunk. “Yes, I guess he does.”
“So is that a yes?”
“No,” Allison said sadly. “We talk, flirt a little bit, but he hasn’t worked up the nerve to ask me out yet.”
“You could ask him out,” Chris said, and then wondered why he was encouraging his daughter to date.
“I could,” Allison said. “But where would be the fun in that? Besides, in my experience, guys feel better if they’ve done the asking.”
“Maybe Scott’s not like most boys,” Chris said, and then kicked himself.
Allison’s smirk told Chris that she knew exactly how torn he was feeling right now.
“Get back to work,” Chris said gruffly, which only made Allison laugh.
Chris had his back to the counter, stacking mugs fresh from the dishwasher back onto the shelf, when he heard a familiar voice.
“Are you ever going to put Scott out of his misery?”
A voice Chris didn’t recognize said, “Stiles,” in a warning tone, but Allison just laughed.
“Is Scott in misery?” she asked, with just the slightest bit of satisfaction in her voice.
“You know he is,” Stiles said. “You’re tormenting him with the most beautiful smile he’s ever seen, and the most beautiful voice he’s ever heard, and the most beautiful eyes, oh my god, Stiles, have you seen her eyes!” he finished on an exasperated note.
“Scott really said that about me?” Allison said, sounding the slightest bit uncertain.
“Ad nauseam,” came the wry response from the voice Chris wasn’t familiar with.
Chris turned from his task to see a dark-haired man standing beside Stiles with his arms crossed over his chest and a grumpy frown on his face, looking like he really didn’t want to be there. He was just slightly taller than Stiles, but broader in the shoulders than Stiles’ wiry frame.
“Here.” Stiles slid a piece of paper across the counter to Allison.
Allison unfolded it and Chris read over her shoulder: Dear Allison, I like you, do you like me? Y/N Love, Scott
Allison’s surprised laugh covered Chris’ snort.
“Did Scott really write this?” Allison said.
Chris could tell that Stiles was torn between lying and telling the truth, but he finally said, “No, I did, but he needs something to work from or he’s going to continue to admire you from afar and live in misery, Allison, misery,” Stiles finished, slumping dramatically over the counter.
“As will the rest of us,” the dark-haired guy with Stiles muttered.
“Derek,” Stiles said, standing up and planting his elbow into the man’s, Derek’s, stomach. “He’s in love. Remember how a certain other person acted when they were pining for their soul mate from afar?”
Derek didn’t answer in words, but his frown became even more frown-y and the tips of his ears turned red.
“I thought you might,” Stiles said, and then he turned back to Allison, who’d been watching the whole exchange with amusement.
“Please,” Stiles said. “If you won’t do it for Scott, think of the rest of us.”
“Only because I don’t want to leave you all in misery,” Allison said. She plucked a pen out of the mug sitting beside the register and circled the Y five times before sliding the note back across the counter to Stiles.
“I love you!” Stiles said, leaning across the counter to throw an arm around Allison.
Chris could’ve sworn that he heard Derek growl, but Stiles just picked up the paper, crumpling it slightly in his hand, and raised his fist in triumph. Derek rolled his eyes. Chris just managed to keep from doing the same. Stiles grabbed Derek’s hand and dragged him out of the shop, Derek following him with an indulgent expression on his face.
When Allison turned around she looked surprised, and a little bit embarrassed, to see Chris standing right behind her. Before she could speak, Chris said, “That was a good thing you did, Allison. Saving the world from Scott’s misery. From the look on Derek’s face, it’s something no one wants to experience.”
“Derek always looks like that,” Peter said, catching them both unaware.
Allison spun around, smiling when she recognized Peter. “Good morning,” she said.
“Did Scott finally work up the courage to ask you out?” Peter said.
“No,” Allison said. “But he’d better do it soon, or I’m gonna kick his a–.”
“Allison,” Chris warned, given that they were at work.
“Butt,” Allison finished.
Peter looked surprised for a moment, and then he laughed. Chris had never heard the sound of Peter’s laughter before, but he liked it.
“I think,” Peter said when he stopped laughing, the smile he still wore crinkling up the corners of his eyes, “that you’re perfect for Scott.”
“Thank you,” Allison said. “Now, what can I get you this morning?”
Chris started pouring hot water into a cup before Peter even answered her. It was professional to remember people’s drink orders when you worked at a coffee shop, especially when they were regulars; it was not the slightest bit stalker-y, Chris told himself.
The next time Stiles came in he was with Scott. Stiles veered off and headed to the couch in the back while Scott moved over to the counter to wait for Allison to finish serving a customer. Stiles got a book out of his backpack and pretended to read it while peering over the top. Clearly he was there for moral support, which meant that Scott had finally worked up the courage to ask Allison out.
Chris didn’t know how he felt about that, but he couldn’t remember seeing Allison smile the way she was smiling now in a long time. Chris made a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream and carried it over to Stiles.
“Your book’s upside down,” Chris said as he set the mug onto the low coffee table.
Stiles gave a satisfying jerk of surprise that brought a smile to Chris’ face as he walked away.
Chris kept himself busy clearing tables and sweeping up crumbs, restocking mugs and tea bags, so he didn’t have to think about the fact that Allison was going on a date with this boy. That she might actually be in love.
“What are you doing?” Allison said when they both reached for the same coffee carafe to brew another pot.
“My job?” Chris said.
Allison stepped back and let Chris set up the carafe under the coffee machine, but her eyebrows told him that she expected more of an explanation than that.
“I’m just trying to keep busy,” Chris said. “No rest for the wicked, idle hands, and all that.”
It was clear that Allison wasn’t buying it. “Why?”
Chris sighed. “So I don’t have to think about the fact that you’re all grown up now.”
“Dad,” Allison said softly.
“I know,” Chris said. “I’m being ridiculous. But you’re my little girl.”
“I’ll always be your little girl,” Allison solemnly said. “Even when I’m all grown up.”
Then she tucked herself inside Chris’ arms and let him pretend that he was holding her, rather than that she was holding him.
Chris left Allison to set out the carafe of freshly brewed coffee and went to the office to call in an order. He stayed seated at the desk after he’d set the phone back in the cradle. He stared blankly at the order form in front of him and thought about the changes in Allison since they’d returned to Beacon Hills. Well, Chris had returned, having lived there for a couple of years a very long time ago as a child; Allison had never been there before.
For the past couple of years after Victoria’s death they’d just sort of drifted. Chris had felt unmoored without Victoria there to ground him. It wasn’t until he realized what his own disconnect was doing to Allison that he’d decided they needed a change of scenery. It wasn’t enough to move out of the home where Victoria had died; Chris decided that they needed a fresh start somewhere else. And when he’d thought about where they should go, Beacon Hills popped into his mind.
Chris had involved Allison in every step of the move, especially the house search, and when they’d come to Beacon Hills for the first time to look at the houses they’d put on their short list, they’d walked past the closed up coffee shop with a For Sale sign in the window.
“You should buy that,” Allison had said. “You need something to keep yourself busy.”
They weren’t hurting for money, but Allison was right. He had his consulting business, but he’d been taking fewer jobs because most of them required that he travel and he didn’t want to leave Allison alone. A place like the coffee shop would give him something to do and still allow him to be there for Allison.
Once they got settled into their new home and Chris had crunched the numbers and decided to purchase the business, Allison sighed up for some classes at the local college. They did most of the renovations to the coffee shop themselves, as they were minor for the most part, and opened just before classes started. Chris thought about how much had changed for them in the last few months, not just a new location, but how Allison’s face wore a smile now more often than the somber expression it used to, how Chris didn’t think of Victoria’s loss every second of every day, and had somehow managed to find a little bit of peace himself.
Beacon Hills, it seemed, had been good for both of them.
Tuesday morning as Chris walked back to The Coffee Carafe from making a deposit at the bank, he caught sight of Peter sitting in a window seat at Hale’s Bar & Grill. Chris chided himself for the way his eyes were drawn to Peter, the way his heart sped up at the unexpected sight of him.
It didn’t matter that Chris watched Peter now without the same flare of annoyance, or that he sometimes wondered if Peter was flirting with him, because nothing was going to happen. It wasn’t that Chris had anything against moving on – as much as he loved Victoria and still missed her, he wasn’t stuck in the past. He just wasn’t in the market for love (or sex. But Chris had never really been a one-night stand type of guy.) He and Allison were just beginning their lives in Beacon Hills, and Chris was kept busy running The Coffee Carafe.
Which didn’t explain the way Chris’ heart bottomed out in his stomach when he drew near enough to see that Peter wasn’t alone. He was having lunch with a beautiful woman who had long dark hair. The woman said something and Peter laughed. He couldn’t hear the laughter, but he saw the way Peter’s eyes lit up with it. Chris didn’t see Peter as having the weight of the world on his shoulders, yet he had never seen Peter act so carefree before. It was a good thing he wasn’t interested in a relationship, Chris thought as he crossed the street and took the long way back to The Coffee Carafe so he didn’t have to pass by Hale’s.
The next time Peter came in to The Coffee Carafe, Chris made sure to keep a polite distance. He returned Peter’s smile, but kept his own professional. He ruthlessly suppressed the shudder that went down his spine when Peter spoke his name. And when he told Peter to have a nice day, it held no hidden meaning. Peter raised his eyebrows at Chris, but merely said, “You, too,” before heading to class.
“What was that?” Erica said.
“Don’t you have some tables to bus?” Chris said.
Erica held up her hands in a gesture of surrender, and then, hips swaying seductively (more for Boyd’s benefit than anyone else’s), she sauntered out from behind the counter to clear and wipe down tables.
Chris was in the office when Allison came in and plopped herself down in the chair in front of his desk. She put her feet, crossed at the ankle, up on his desk and texted on her phone (a smile playing at her lips, which meant she was talking to Scott), while she waited for Chris to finish up with his own call.
“How’s Scott?” Chris said when he finally got the order placed.
Allison’s smile widened. “Scott’s fine.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Chris said. And he was. Ever since Scott had manned up and asked her out, Allison had been walking on air.
“How were your classes?”
“Good,” Allison said. “I sat in on one of Professor Hale’s history classes this morning. I think I might sign up for one next semester. Did you know he teaches a class on local history?”
“I did not,” Chris said. Which wasn’t too surprising, given that he had no idea who this Professor Hale was.
“Speaking of,” Allison said. “What’s going on with you and Peter?”
Chris didn’t know how Allison got from history class to Peter, but he knew there was no way out of answering her. “There’s nothing going on with me and Peter,” he said.
“I heard that you were rude to him this morning.”
“I was perfectly polite to him,” Chris said.
“Perfectly polite,” Allison repeated. “What happened?”
“Nothing happened,” Chris said a little more vehemently than he’d intended.
“I thought you liked him,” Allison said.
“I like him fine,” Chris said. “I just don’t want to encourage him.”
“Why not?” Allison asked.
“Because I’m not . . . .”
“Ready?” Allison finished for him. “You know Mom would want you to be happy.”
“I know,” Chris said, feeling only a slight twinge of guilt when he let her believe that he wasn’t ready to move on.
“Okay, well,” Allison said. “Be nicer to our customers.”
“I will,” Chris promised.
Chris stood on a stepladder hanging paper pumpkins and scarecrows and skeletons from the ceiling because Allison had decided they needed to decorate for the upcoming fall holidays. He swore as he tried to disentangle the string that had been perfectly fine when Allison had handed the pumpkin to him before getting distracted by Scott.
“Here,” Peter said, the sound of his voice so close that it startled Chris and he almost fell off the ladder.
Peter put one hand up to steady Chris and held out a pumpkin hanging from an untangled string with the other.
“Thank you,” Chris said as he traded pumpkins with Peter, the phantom feel of Peter’s hand still warm against Chris’ back.
Peter helped Chris hang the rest of the decorations. Allison looked over once and noticed, but when she made a move to cut off her conversation with Scott and take back her duties, Chris waved her off. He could handle working with Peter for the few minutes it would take to finish, for god’s sake. And if he couldn’t, that was a secret he was going to take to the grave.
“He’s a nice boy. Scott,” Peter clarified at Chris’ look. “In case you were worried about that.”
“I wasn’t,” Chris said. He could tell for himself that Scott was a puppy dog. What he said was, “I personally taught Allison how to protect herself. If Scott hurts her, she’ll kick his ass.”
Peter gave a surprised laugh. “I’d be careful what you tell Scott,” he said. “Some boys like a girl who could beat them up.”
Chris made the wise (and in no way cowardly) decision to ignore that comment, but he fumbled the next scarecrow when Peter added, “Or a boy.”
Chris found himself more aware of Peter standing beside him, looking up at him as he handed off decoration after decoration, the intensity of his gaze dueling with the heat of his body. He was glad when he’d hung the last decoration and could move away from Peter to put away the stepladder.
Allison was still flirting with Scott, and Erica still painting fall decorations onto the front windows, so Chris washed his hands and then prepared a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream and stuck a cinnamon stick in it.
“Is that for Scott?” Allison asked when Chris stepped out from behind the counter with it.
Chris stopped and gave her a look. “Did Scott help me hang the decorations you insisted on having?”
“No?” Allison said, blushing and grinning.
“No he did not,” Chris said archly, and then continued on his way to where Peter had settled on the couch.
Peter was watching him, and Chris lost some of his momentum. He forced himself to continue and hoped he could pull off casual. Friendly without a hint of flirtation. He set the mug on the coffee table.
“Thanks for your help,” Chris said.
“You’re welcome,” Peter said. “I was happy to help.” He eyed the mug. “You don’t have to give me hot chocolate to entice me.”
The way Peter said ‘entice me’ created a not-altogether-unwelcome heat in Chris’ belly. “I wasn’t attempting to entice you,” Chris said, hoping he wasn’t blushing. “But if you don’t want it . . . .” Chris reached for the mug.
Peter slipped his hand in and picked up the mug before Chris could get it. “I didn’t say that,” Peter said. “In fact, I want it very much.”
“Yes, well,” Chris said, thoughts tumbling over each other as his feet nearly stumbled over each other. “Enjoy it,” he said, wincing internally at the glee he saw on Peter’s face at the comment.
“Oh, I’m sure I will,” Peter said as he dipped one end of the cinnamon stick into the whipped cream, and then placed the stick between his lips to lick it clean.
“Good,” Chris said through a dry throat, and then hurried back to the safety of the counter.
He ignored Erica’s, “Smooth, boss,” and busied himself with wiping down every flat surface and refilling the coffee carafes. Their seasonal pumpkin spice flavor was a hot seller.
On Halloween they gave away a free apple cider donut with each purchase of a hot drink until they ran out of donuts.
“Trick or treat,” Peter said when he came in that morning.
Chris forced himself to regard Peter evenly, as if the mere sound of his voice didn’t wrap him up in nerves and want.
“How disappointing,” Peter said with an actual pout when Chris handed him a cider donut in a cellophane pastry bag with his usual tea to-go.
“You didn’t want a treat?” Chris said.
“I was hoping for a different kind of treat,” Peter told him.
“Hope springs eternal,” Chris said, and then immediately kicked himself for flirting with Peter when he’d decided that he would not do that anymore.
He couldn’t deny, though, that Peter’s pleased smile at the comment brought a smile to his own face at unexpected times during the rest of the day.
When November hit, Chris went into denial, refusing to think about Thanksgiving. After Victoria’s death, even before they moved to Beacon Hills, it had only been the two of them. It had been a pretty maudlin holiday, with Chris trying to give Allison something to be thankful for while himself feeling that there was very little.
Chris was very determinedly ignoring Erica trying to feel out Boyd with respect to his plans for the holiday when the bell above the door jingled. He looked up, thankful for the interruption until his gaze landed on the woman he’d seen Peter having lunch with that day a couple weeks ago. She was even more beautiful in person. Damn it.
“Welcome to The Coffee Carafe,” Chris said, ignoring the way his stomach twisted unpleasantly at the reminder that Peter, no matter now much he might flirt with Chris, was already taken. Which was fine, because he wasn’t interested in a relationship, anyway, Chris reminded himself.
“Good morning,” the woman said, her voice smooth as honey. “I’m meeting someone . . . .”
“Peter’s not here yet,” Chris said.
“You’re meeting Peter, if I’m not mistaken,” Chris said.
“You’re not mistaken,” the woman said with a considering look at Chris. “I’m a bit early.” She looked around the shop with interest. “I’ll be honest, I’ve been curious about the place he likes to spend all his free time.”
“Well,” Chris said, not certain how to take that, and feeling a little bit guilty even though he had no control over what Peter did with his free time. “I hope you enjoy your visit. I’d be happy to show you to Peter’s usual spot so you can be comfortable while you wait.”
“Oh, please do,” she said.
Chris escorted her to the table near the fireplace and asked if he could bring her anything while she waited.
“Yes, thank you. I’ll try Peter’s favorite coffee.”
“Peter drinks tea. Earl Grey. And the occasional hot chocolate,” Chris said, hoping he hadn’t just given anything away with his tone.
“Ah, of course,” she said. “The pumpkin spice sounds nice.”
“I’ll be right back with it,” Chris said, and quickly escaped.
When he returned with the mug of coffee, the woman had seated herself two tables over from the one Chris had pointed out to her.
“Sometimes it’s good to shake Peter out of his routine,” she said with a smile when she noticed Chris’ reaction. “Thank you,” she said when Chris set the mug in front of her. “I should probably introduce myself, seeing as you’ve been putting up with Peter for the last couple of months.”
Chris wanted to tell her to please don’t, but couldn’t think of a way to do so that wasn’t rude, so instead he pasted on a smile of bland interest.
“Talia Hale,” the woman said, extending her hand to Chris.
Chris took the proffered hand and shook it. “Chris Argent. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Oh, the pleasure’s all mine,” Talia said, with a smile that made Chris feel like a bug under her microscope.
“Well, thank you,” Chris said. “Enjoy your coffee.”
“I’m sure I will,” Talia said, wrapping her hand around the mug as if she was cold.
Chris backed away carefully from Talia, as if she was a viper ready to strike, and didn’t feel safe until he was behind the counter once more. Talia drew a magazine out of her bag, and each time Chris glanced over she had her head bent over it. She wasn’t even looking in his direction and still Chris felt as if she could see right through him.
Chris glanced towards the door each time the bell rang, both hoping and dreading for it to be Peter. When it finally was, Chris didn’t even need to look up from the coffee he was serving to know it. Peter’s presence was like a finger drawn gently down his spine, leaving a shiver in its wake.
Chris kept the smile on his face as he handed over the coffee, and then he let his eyes flick over to where Peter stood. Whatever smile he might have worn when he entered, it was gone now.
“Talia,” Peter said.
Chris knew that he shouldn’t eavesdrop, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Peter, dear,” Talia said as she closed her magazine.
“What are you doing here?”
Peter sounded annoyed, yet resigned. Hardly the response of a man deeply in love, Chris thought. But who was he to judge? He turned away to make Peter’s drink, giving them some privacy from his own prying eyes. At the last minute, Chris placed two cider donuts on a plate for them.
Peter stood on the other side of the counter when Chris turned around. He slid the hot chocolate onto the counter and noticed the surprise in Peter’s eyes. “I thought you could use it,” Chris said. “And this,” he added as he placed the plate beside the mug.
Peter’s lips twitched. “She’s not that bad,” he said.
“Then you don’t need these?” Chris said, his hand moving back to the plate.
Peter covered Chris’ hand with his own. “I’m keeping the donuts,” he said.
Chris tried to ignore the feel of Peter’s hand covering his own, but it was difficult. Especially when Peter didn’t even release him when he reached into his pocket for his wallet.
“It’s on the house,” Chris said.
Peter hesitated. “How bad to I look?” he said. “I mean, when I walked in and saw her sitting there?”
“Bad enough,” Chris lied, giving the plate a nudge to encourage Peter to pick it up and release Chris’ hand and go away so he could go hide in the kitchen and hyperventilate like a teenager.
“Who’s that?” Allison asked as if she hadn’t just seen Peter practically holding Chris’ hand.
“Talia Hale,” Chris said.
“Ah,” Allison said. “I’ve heard Peter mention her.”
I haven’t, Chris thought, but out loud he said, “I need to make a phone call.”
Allison gave him a knowing look, but was kind enough to not say anything.
“Peter seems like a nice guy,” Allison said to Chris one day when they were slow enough that she was able to sit at one of the tables in the back and read for one of her classes while Chris cleared tables and wiped them down.
“I guess,” Chris said, noncommital. He glanced around at the few customers they had, one lounging on the couch with a newspaper, another in the corner on her iPad, and another staring blankly at the television which was normally set to broadcast the news on mute unless Chris was feeling crazy enough to leave Erica in charge when he left to run errands. He invariably returned to find that she’d turned off the low music they normally played in the background in favor of MTV videos.
“I’m just saying,” Allison said earnestly. “If you wanted to ask him out I’d be okay with that.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
Luckily, the bell above the door chimed so they didn’t have to continue their conversation. Even more lucky for Chris, it was Scott and his friend Stiles, so Chris knew that Allison would be distracted for some time. Hopefully she’d forget all about this conversation by the time Scott left for the animal clinic and Stiles went to the library.
(And the fact that he knew that said a lot about just how often Scott and Stiles stopped by. And how much Stiles talked at Chris while Scott was busy with Allison.)
Still, Chris couldn’t stop thinking about Allison’s comment. Why would she even think that he was interested in Peter? And didn’t she realize that Peter was already seeing someone? Even if Peter had looked irritated at Talia Hale for most of the time they sat there, and even if Chris had sometimes overheard them sniping at each other like children.
Chris blushed when Peter showed up that afternoon. Even though it was never going to happen, he hadn’t been able to keep himself from wondering what it would be like to take Peter out on a date. He’d distract Chris with his stupid V-neck sweaters and his long fingers, and when he spoke Chris would find himself staring at his lips. He wondered how Peter kissed, and then shook his head and laughed at himself. He was never going to find out, because he was not going to ask Peter out, whether Allison was okay with it or not.
Scott was long gone, but Allison pretended to be busy checking the coffee carafes to see if they needed to brew more coffee (he knew she’d performed the same task just moments before), so that Chris had to man the register.
“I wanted to apologize for yesterday,” Peter said instead of ordering.
“For what?” Chris said, confused. If anything, it should probably be him apologizing.
“For my sister.”
“Talia,” Peter said. “She’s always hated not knowing things, and sometimes she’s worse than a bull in a china ship. So, in case she was rude, I just wanted to apologize on her behalf.”
“Your sister,” Chris said. “Talia Hale is your sister.”
“Well, yes,” Peter said with a frown. “Who did you think she was?”
Chris felt his cheeks heat up. He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t get his tongue to work right. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t get the words out because Peter seemed to catch on. He laughed. And laughed.
“It’s not that funny,” Chris said, embarrassment giving way to irritation.
“Oh, no,” Peter said between chuckles. “It really is. I mean, even if I wasn’t gay, Talia would not be my type.”
“Why not?” Chris said. “She’s a very beautiful woman.”
Peter narrowed his eyes. “Do you think so?”
“Well, yes, of course.”
“So does her husband,” Peter said.
“Oh my god, I wasn’t macking on your sister!” Chris said, and watched relief flood Peter’s features. “But if I was,” he went on, “what is it about her that makes her not your type?”
Peter glared at Chris, then seemed to realize that he was being teased. His expression turned thoughtful. “I don’t know if it’s because I know her too well, or because we’re too much alike. But I do know that I’ve never forgiven her for the time she put a snake in my bed when I was six.”
“She didn’t,” Chris said, unable to hide the amusement he found in that.
“She did,” Peter said, giving Chris a look. “It was a harmless little fellow, but I didn’t know that when it slithered across my ankle in search of warmth.”
Chris laughed, and then tried to cut it off. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That must’ve been traumatizing for your six year old self.
“It was,” Peter said archly, but there was a glint of amusement dancing in his eyes.
“Does the memory of it call for another hot chocolate?” Chris asked.
“Earl Grey will be fine,” Peter said. “Though I might splurge on a cranberry-orange muffin.”
Chris rang up the sale, then got the tea and muffin.
“Keep the change,” Peter said when he handed Chris his payment.
Chris completed the sale with one eye on Peter as he made his way across the room to the empty table near the fireplace. He dropped the change into the tip jar as he watched Peter set down the leather satchel he carried, and remove his jacket. Peter took the usual notebook out of the bag, as well as a stack of papers that probably needed grading.
Which was the moment everything clicked. Talia Hale. Peter teaching at the college. The Professor Hale Allison once mentioned. “Peter Hale,” Chris breathed.
“What?” Allison said.
“That’s Peter Hale,” Chris said.
Allison’s eyebrows went up. “Uh, yeah?”
Chris turned and went back to the office and found the book about Beacon Hills he’d bought when they decided to move (back) there: ”Beacon Hills, Then & Now” by Peter Hale. Chris stared at the cover, then flipped the book open so he could look at the back flap where the author’s, Peter’s, face stared out at him.
Chris carried the book out front and marched over to Peter’s table. Peter looked up from the pages he was marking up with a red pen and gave Chris a questioning look.
“You’re Peter Hale,” Chris said.
Peter’s look turned sardonic. “Am I?”
Chris pulled out a chair and sat without being invited. The intrigued expression on Peter’s face did things to him that Chris would not admit to even in a court of law.
Chris set the book on the table and gave it a shove towards Peter. “I read your book,” he said. ‘I just didn’t connect you with . . . well, you. Him.” Chris gestured towards the book.
“Is that so?” Peter reached out and touched the tips of his fingers to the book cover. “And what did you think?”
“I . . . I liked it,” Chris said. “It was interesting and informative without being dry or boring. I even laughed in places.”
Peter smiled, one of the first truly genuine smiles Chris had seen from him. “I’m glad,” he said.
“Actually,” Chris said, embarrassed. “This is probably going to sound like I’m kissing up . . . .”
“Not you,” Peter said wryly.
Chris gave Peter a glare at that, but otherwise ignored him. “. . . but the reason I left the book here, in my office, was because I had this idea of featuring local artists, like, on the walls, and I wanted to set out your book. I never followed up on the idea,” Chris said.
“Did you really?” Peter said.
“Yeah,” Chris said. “I mean, I didn’t want to step on any toes, and I wasn’t sure if a window display would be the way to go, or to maybe have a complimentary copy for people to look at and then direct them to the local bookstore to purchase a copy . . . .” Chris shrugged. “It kind of got back-burnered, but maybe now I could, we could, figure something out.”
“I’ll talk to my agent,” Peter said. “I think she’d like the idea.”
“Who’s your agent?”
“Talia,” Peter said dryly.
“Oh,” Chris said in dismay, and Peter laughed.
Chris took a sip of the coffee that he’d barely registered Allison setting at his elbow.
“What are you doing?” Chris indicated the pile of papers in front of Peter. “More grading?”
“Oh, no,” Peter said. “I’m giving my latest book a read through before submitting it to my editor.”
“Is that what you’ve been writing in here?”
“Another book on history?” Chris asked.
“No,” Peter said. “I’m trying my hand at fiction this time. But I’m going with my strengths and making it a quasi-historical romance.”
The corners of Chris’ lips twitched. “You’re writing a romance.”
“Does that surprise you?” Peter raised his eyebrows.
“A little bit. It’s just a lot to take in. First I realize that you are Professor Hale, author of several historical books, one on Beacon Hills, which I not only own, but have read, and now I learn that you’re writing a romance.”
“Technically it’s more like a historical, fantasy romance.”
“Fantasy?” Chris said.
“Oh, well, now it makes perfect sense,” Chris said, and they both laughed.
When the laughter died down, Chris found himself looking at Peter and feeling awkward. “I . . . should probably let you get back to your, uh, edits.”
“Nonsense,” Peter said, sliding the pile of papers to the side. He picked up his tea and took a sip. “Tell me how you’re liking Beacon Hills so far.”
Chris didn’t know how long they sat there and talked. The business flowed around them and Allison never called on him to take up the slack, but Peter eventually noticed the time.
“Oh my god!” Peter exclaimed as he began to gather his papers together. “I’m going to be late for my own class! Night classes are the bane of my existence,” he confided. “Unfortunately, they’re a necessary evil.”
“I’m sorry,” Chris said. “I kept you from getting anything done.”
Peter paused in zipping his red pen into a side pocket of his satchel and looked at Chris. “You didn’t keep me from doing anything,” he said. “I enjoyed speaking with you.”
“Oh,” Chris said, feeling breathless suddenly for reasons he couldn’t name. “I enjoyed it, too.”
Peter smiled as he put on his jacket, a short leather number that looked old, but well-cared for. Chris’ gaze got caught on the long fingers Peter used to zip up the jacket to the ridiculous scarf he wore around his neck.
“I’m happy to hear that,” Peter said. “We should to it again.”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Chris said, then realized what he’d said. What Peter had said. “Wait, what?”
“No take backs,” Peter said with a knowing smile as he picked up his satchel. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, tomorrow,” Chris said, still in a daze. The bell above the door jingled and Peter was gone, yet Chris felt as if he was still right there.
“Hey,” Allison said gently as she lay her hand on his shoulder. “Everything alright?”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “No. I don’t know. I think I just agreed to go on a date with Peter Hale.”
“You think? You’re not sure?”
“Not one hundred percent, no,” Chris said.
Allison leaned down and hugged Chris, but even burying her face in his shoulder didn’t hide the grin she wore.
“What’s the grin for?” Chris said grumpily.
“I’m just happy for you,” Allison said.
“Why?” Chris whined.
Talia Hale appeared in The Coffee Carafe two days later. There mere sight of her was an uncomfortable reminder of the unwarranted relief he’d felt when he’d learned that she was Peter’s sister rather than his lover, and the flushing and stammering he’d fallen victim to when Peter appeared the morning after said revelation for his regular cup of tea to-go and proceeded to blatantly flirt with Chris.
“Yep,” Erica had said after Peter left. “You definitely agreed to go on a date with him.”
“I’m going to kill Allison,” Chris said.
Now he put on his big boy briefs and smiled at Talia. “Mrs. Hale, what can I get for you this morning?”
“Talia, please,” Talia said. “And I’d love a cup of that pumpkin spice if you still have it. And a moment of your time if you’re not too busy.”
Chris’ fingers skittered over the register screen in surprise. “I . . . of course I’ve got some time,” Chris said, though he wished he could come up with something that needed doing in the back right then.
“Excellent,” Talia said with a smile. She slid a five dollar bill across the counter. “Get yourself a cup, as well,” she said.
“I got it, boss,” Boyd said.
Chris gratefully stepped away from the register and let Boyd ring up the sale. He got down two mugs and filled them. His hand shook just a little bit and Chris wondered if he shouldn’t have left the job of pouring hot coffee to Boyd as well. Chris carried the mugs over to the table Talia had chosen, raising his eyebrows when he saw that it was Peter’s favorite table.
“It’s a lovely spot,” Talia said. “Very cozy.”
“And you like to tweak Peter,” Chris said as he set the mugs onto the table before taking a seat across from Talia.
“It can be very . . . satisfying,” Talia admitted as she wrapped her hands around the mug.
They both carefully sipped at the hot beverage before Chris spoke. “What can I do for you?”
“I spoke with Peter,” Talia said.
“About?” Chris said, fighting down a blush. There was no way that Peter, much less Talia, knew what Chris thought about Peter in the privacy of his own mind. He was pretty sure, anyway.
“He told me that you read his book and were interested in showcasing it along with works by other local artists,” Talia said.
“Yes,” Chris said, trying to not sound too relieved.
“What were you thinking?” Talia asked.
“I hadn’t actually given it a great deal of thought beyond the initial idea,” Chris admitted. “It crossed my mind and then I got busy and completely forgot, but I guess I was thinking something like a window display for the books, maybe hang some paintings on the walls.”
Talia nodded, and then she pulled out a legal pad and started making notes. By the time they were done, Chris had a list of names and numbers and had agreed to host a book reading-slash-signing, possibly in conjunction with Beacon Books, the local bookstore.
Later that afternoon, Peter slid up behind Chris while he was clearing a table. “I hear you met with my sister.”
Chris didn’t drop the mug he’d picked up, but it was a near thing. “I did,” he said, trying to ignore how close they were standing when he straightened. “She’s terrifyingly efficient.”
“Yes,” Peter drawled. “As a child she was just terrifying, but she’s turned that trait into something that works for her.”
Chris smiled. In addition to the snake story, he’d heard about the dead opossum that had mysteriously ended up in David’s bed, and how Talia had encouraged Ben’s belief that he could fly and then pushed him off the porch roof.
“Well,” Chris said, “I guess it’s good to know that she’s exerting her terror on your behalf, rather than against you.”
“Who says she can’t do both?” Peter said wryly.
The next day Chris got a visit from Clara Mills, who ran the local art gallery, and the day after that Sonia Billington, head of the local historical society (which in turn ran the local museum), dropped by. The germ of an idea Chris’d had months before was finally taking root. Though no thanks to Chris himself, since Talia must’ve taken it upon herself to make some phone calls.
Within a few days Chris had books on Beacon Hills and the surrounding area displayed in the front window, as well as pictures created by local artists or taken by local photographers hanging on the wall with a card tucked discreetly in the corner of the frame listing the gallery’s address. Dave McGrath from the newspaper stopped by to talk to Chris about including The Coffee Carafe in the holiday guide, and Kelly Everett, who printed the local business brochures for the Chamber of Commerce called to get their information so The Coffee Carafe could be included on the next run.
Now when Chris walked down the street people he didn’t even know waved at him, and one morning a woman nearly burst into tears when she saw the small sculpture she’d created displayed on a shelf above the fireplace. Talia also scheduled a meeting with Nola Lindy, the owner of Beacon Books.
Before Chris left The Coffee Carafe to join them at Hale’s Bar & Grill, he glared at Scott. “Don’t distract Allison all night.”
“He won’t,” Stiles promised. “We’ll drag him over to the couch after a few minutes so he can make cow eyes at her from afar.”
“I don’t make cow eyes,” Scott said, blushing.
“You’re one to talk, grouchy puss,” Stiles said, poking Derek in the chest.
Derek glared at Stiles, who responded by throwing his arms around Derek’s neck.
“Don’t worry, I like your grouchy puss.”
Scott gagged. Chris rolled his eyes.
“Boyd!” Chris said.
“You’re in charge.”
“Yes, sir,” Boyd said as Allison sputtered.
Moments later Chris felt the ground shift under his feet when he walked into the Bar & Grill and saw Peter sitting at the table with Talia and Nola Lindy. Of course Peter would be there, it was his book, after all. Chris didn’t know why he hadn’t anticipated it. Chris’ steps faltered when Peter glanced up from where he’d been listening to whatever Nola and Talia were talking about and their gazes met across the room. His heart sped up when he saw a slow smile spread across Peter’s face.
Which was ridiculous. Because he saw Peter practically everyday. Except seeing him here, in jeans that hugged his legs and a button down shirt open at the collar, it just felt different. Peter stood up to greet Chris and when Chris slipped his hand into Peter’s for a polite handshake, it felt more intimate than a handshake should. Chris tried to ignore the tingle in his palm as he hung his jacket over the back of his chair and joined them at the table.
“What would you like to drink?” Peter asked.
Chris took a quick glance at what the others were drinking. He wasn’t sure whether this was a coffee kind of meeting, or whether he’d require beer to get through sitting next to Peter for the next hour. Talia had a glass of wine in front of her, Nola a mixed drink topped with a cherry and slice of orange, and Peter was drinking a margarita, which gave Chris a moment’s pause.
“We’re running a tab,” Talia told Chris. “My client’s taking care of it.”
“She means me,” Peter said to Chris in a loud whisper.
“It’s the least he can do for the free publicity,” Talia said.
And then they both looked at Chris for his answer.
“Anything dark on tap?” Chris said.
“Coming right up,” Peter said, and then stood to wind his way through the tables to the bar.
“Oh, I could . . . .”
“Let Peter do it,” Talia said. “It makes him feel useful.”
“I heard that!” Peter said.
“You were supposed to!” Talia called back.
“So,” Chris said while they waited for Peter to return. “Working with family must be interesting.”
“It has its challenges,” Talia said. “And its perks,” she added when the bartender, a woman with long dark hair and a certain Hale resemblance, followed Peter back to their table and topped off her wine glass.
“My daughter, Laura,” Talia made introductions. “This is Chris Argent, he runs The Coffee Carafe.”
Laura extended her hand and Chris took it. “A pleasure to meet you,” she said, studying Chris.
“You, too,” Chris said uneasily beneath her scrutiny.
“I approve,” Laura told Peter in an aside, though she didn’t bother to lower her voice. “Though I don’t know how he puts up with you.”
“I’m so glad, and thank you,” Peter said wryly. “Now go away.”
“Chris,” Talia said, keeping Chris from wondering too deeply on just what Laura had meant by that. “Have you met Nola?”
“I’ve been in the bookstore a few times, but we’ve never officially been introduced,” Chris said, reaching across the table to take the hand Nola offered. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
“You, too,” Nola said. “Welcome to Beacon Hills.”
“Okay,” Talia said, clearly done with the small talk.
Beacon Books had done a book signing with Peter back when his book had first been released, but she was willing to host something similar on a smaller scale, especially if other business around town, like The Coffee Carafe, got involved to help defray the cost. She agreed that, at the very least, such an event would draw people with an interest in local history, and perhaps some of the students from the local college, as well.
It was decided, mostly by Talia, with minimal input by the others, that The Coffee Carafe would host a reading on Saturday evening, while Beacon Books set up a table for a signing on Sunday afternoon. Books would be available for purchase at both locations. They scheduled it for early December in order to take advantage of the holidays and perhaps give those wondering what to purchase the perfect gift idea.
Nola was going to run other specials at the same time to further encourage gift book purchases, and Chris was encouraged to do the same.
“Nola and I need to talk numbers now,” Talia said. “You,” she addressed Chris. “Think about a good seating arrangement for the reading and we’ll talk later. You can both leave now,” she said when they didn’t move fast enough.
Peter led the way to the bar and Chris followed.
“I feel like I just had my knuckles smacked with Sister Margaret’s favorite ruler.”
Peter laughed, and Chris tried to not think about how much he liked the sound of it.
“Come on,” Peter said, taking a stool and indicating the one next to it. “I’ll buy you a beer to help take away the sting.”
“You already bought me a beer,” Chris said.
“I did,” Peter agreed. “Does that make this our first date?”
Chris didn’t blush, but he was glad for the dim lighting just in case. “Since your sister was there, I’m going to say no.”
“Hmm,” Peter said, and Chris had to bite his tongue to keep from asking what he’d meant by it.
“Was the beer alright?”
“The beer, did you enjoy it?”
“Oh, yes,” Chris said. “It was good.”
Peter got Laura’s attention with a finger snap that made her roll her eyes, and ordered another round of drinks for them.
“Do you like wings?” Peter asked, and when Chris said he did, and the hotter the better, he ordered a double order when Laura dropped off their drinks.
Peter rolled up his sleeves in anticipation of the wings, and Chris choked on a sip of beer he’d just taken when the act revealed Peter’s forearms.
“You alright?” Peter said as he pounded Chris on the back.
“Yeah,” Chris said, coughing. “Just went down the wrong pipe.”
They talked, but Chris couldn’t recall about what because Peter’s hands were so distracting. When the wings came out it was even worse because Chris couldn’t take his eyes off Peter’s long fingers, or the bones in his wrist, or the fine hairs along the back of his forearm.
Finally the wings were finished and Chris could breath easily again. Laura had brought them fresh drinks with the wings and Chris had been grateful for it when the delicious heat of the wings had hit his tongue, but now, after three beers when he’d barely drunk one a couple times a week, if that, he was feeling the effects, even with the wings in his belly. He was pretty sure it was the beer and not Peter’s nearness. Though he wouldn’t bet on it. Still, that was his story and he was sticking to it. So long as he didn’t forget it the next time Peter smiled at him.
“I think I need a cup of coffee,” Chris said.
“I know a place where you can get a pretty good cup of coffee,” Peter said.
“Pretty good,” Chris repeated. “High praise,” he said dryly.
Peter’s only response was to smile at him.
“If you’re trying to invite me back to your place,” Chris said, “that might be moving too fast.”
Peter choked on a sip of his margarita, which was satisfying. Chris rarely got the best of Peter when it came to trading witty rejoinders.
“I wasn’t,” Peter said when he could finally speak. “But it’s gratifying to know that you’ve thought about it.”
“I . . . .” haven’t, Chris finished silently, struck dumb by Peter’s smirk.
Peter turned away to signal Laura over, and Chris took the opportunity to compose himself.
“Close out my tab,” Peter said as he handed over a credit card. “Your mother’s on her own after this.”
“You don’t have to . . . ,” Chris began, but the words dried up when Peter turned to look at him.
“I want to,” Peter said. “You can buy me coffee,” he added as he turned away to sign the receipt Laura set in front of him.
“You don’t drink coffee,” Chris said.
Peter just smiled.
A week later Chris was sitting in his office when a shadow appeared in the doorway. “One . . . second,” he said distractedly as he finished writing out the last item on the order form. “Okay, what?” Chris said as he looked up, only to see that it was Peter casually leaning against the doorframe rather than Allison wanting to speak with him.
“The inner sanctum,” Peter said as he pushed off the doorframe and stepped over the threshold. “I’ve always wondered what it was like back here,” he added as he looked unabashedly around.
Chris swallowed to wet his suddenly dry throat. “What, uh, what are you doing here?”
“Allison said you made some decisions about the t-shirts.”
“Oh, yes, I . . . we’ve ordered a trial-run printing on some t-shirts and mugs. I’m holding off on the travel mugs until I see what the others look like.”
Allison had drawn the design they used for The Coffee Carafe’s logo, a line drawing of a mug with steam rising from it sat next to a lidded to-go cup, with both in front of a carafe. She’d once suggested that they get some t-shirts and travel mugs made up, but like many things it had gotten put on the back burner when the shop opened and Allison started school, and Chris had only remembered it when Talia suggested that he run some special to benefit his own shop during the reading.
It wouldn’t hurt that they’d also serve as free promotion once they sold enough items to recoup the initial cost. Chris also had Boyd working to come up with some special drink offers for that weekend.
“We’re working with Impressions,” Chris said, naming the local imprint shop.
He liked the idea of purchasing locally, and he’d also worked a deal on the pricing for some free advertising for the imprint shop in the form of a small sign indicating that the t-shirts and other items had been purchased there.
“I’ve got some samples here,” Chris said, leaning over to dig through the box on the floor near his chair.
They’d worked with Allison to turn her design in to a template and sent the samples over for their okay before starting the first limited run. Chris tossed the first shirt he grabbed across the desk. Peter caught it before it hit the ground and held it up.
“Pink. How did you know it was my color?”
“Just a guess,” Chris said as he set one of the sample mugs on the desk, trying not to stare as, instead of merely looking at it, Peter pulled the t-shirt on over his head.
“I like the fit,” Peter said as he wiggled his shoulders inside the shirt.
“You’ve got two layers on underneath it,” Chris said dryly.
“I could take them off,” Peter suggested.
“That won’t be necessary,” Chris said quickly. “What do you think of the design?”
Peter held the t-shirt away from his body and looked down at it, then picked up the mug and plopped down into the chair in front of Chris’ desk. He propped his feet on the desk as he studied the mug.
Chris shook his head when he saw Peter’s shoes.
“What?” Peter said, raising his eyes from the mug.
Peter looked at his shoes. “What’s wrong with them?”
“You’re such a cliche,” Chris said.
“And yet you’re having a difficult time figuring me out,” Peter said. Before Chris could think of an answer, Peter went on. “I like the design, and I think they replicated it nicely.”
“That’s what Allison thought.”
“So,” Peter said. “Pink t-shirts?”
Chris smiled and thought about telling Peter yes, but he said, “No. We’re going with the white for now.”
He and Allison (with Erica’s input) had decided that the white looked best with the stark black lines of the logo. They’d consider other colors once they got an idea of the popularity of the items. Boyd had suggested black with the logo in white.
“Black, like your cold, cold heart,” Erica had said as she leaned against Boyd and pressed a kiss to his cheek.
“You didn’t think my heart was cold last night,” Boyd said.
Instead of blushing, Erica laughed joyfully. “No,” she agreed, “I certainly did not.”
“Boyd,” Chris said. “You are no longer my favorite.”
Boyd just smiled.
In the now, Peter nodded. “That’ll look good.”
“Yeah, thanks. Well,” Chris said, suddenly feeling awkward without anything to talk about.
“Well,” Peter repeated, and only he could make that single word sound dirty.
“I should probably . . . .” Chris sought for an excuse to get away from Peter before he just gave in and threw him over the desk. He stood, hoping that Peter would take the hint that he had work, something, to do.
“Yes,” Peter agreed. “You probably should.” He set down the mug, stood, and skinned the t-shirt over his head. He held it out to Chris.
Chris’ tongue felt as if it was too big for his mouth. “You can keep it,” he said. “Since pink is your color. It’s one of a kind,” Chris added.
Peter looked at the t-shirt bunched up in his hand and smiled. “I think I will,” he said. “I’ve been looking for a new shirt to wear to bed.”
It was really irritating that Peter had the uncanny ability to turn Chris’ teasing against him so easily.
“Happy to help,” Chris said as he banished the image of Peter wearing the t-shirt and nothing else from his mind. He gestured towards the door, eager to end this conversation. “After you.”
Chris ignored Peter’s knowing smirk as he followed him out of the office. Just shy of the doorway Peter stopped and turned, and Chris nearly ran into him.
“I almost forgot,” Peter said.
“Distracted?” Chris said before realizing that he was heading down a path he probably didn’t want to with that comment. He cleared his throat. “What is it?”
“I wanted to thank you,” Peter said. “For hosting the reading. For wanting to do anything at all.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” Chris said. “The book was really good, and I’m happy to do it.”
“Yes,” Peter said, sounding kind of amazed. “You are.”
“Yes,” Chris said. “I am.”
And then he stepped closer to Peter and kissed him, because what else could he do with Peter looking at him like that? Peter made a sound, like he’d been gutted, and his arms came up around Chris’ back.
It had been a while since Chris had kissed anyone, but it was, he found, just like riding a bike. The only surprise was the way that Peter, despite his teasing and biting sarcasm, let Chris take the lead with the kiss. It wasn’t until Peter slid one hand to the back of Chris’ neck and tilted his head so Chris could deepen the kiss that Chris realized he was in fact being led by Peter.
Chris thought he should be annoyed, but realized it was just like Peter, who poked at you until you found yourself doing exactly what he wanted. Still, it wouldn’t do to let Peter get away with it.
“Stop,” Chris growled against Peter’s lips.
“Stop what?” Peter said breathlessly.
“Stop trying to make me do what you want me to.”
“And let me do what I want,” Chris finished before reclaiming Peter’s lips in a bruising kiss. It was deep and a little bit rough, because if Peter had been telling the truth that one time, and not just trying to get a reaction out of him, Chris thought he’d like it that way. If the sounds Peter made were any indication, Chris was right.
Finally they broke the kiss, panting. “We shouldn’t be doing this,” Chris said.
“We should never stop doing this,” Peter countered.
“Allison could walk in on us,” Chris said.
“Would that be so bad?”
“I really don’t want my daughter to see me trying to fuck you into the wall,” Chris said dryly.
Peter moaned. “If you keep talking like that I’m going to come in my pants like a teenager.”
“My point exactly,” Chris said. “We are not doing the walk of shame past my daughter, not to mention the customers. And we’d never hear the end of it if Erica happens to be out there.”
“Point taken,” Peter said, then out of the blue, “You should come to the Hale’s Thanksgiving Dinner with me. I mean, if you and Allison don’t already have plans. Scott and Stiles will be there, so she’ll know someone besides me.”
“Scott will be there?” Chris said, surprised, and still confused by the change of topic.
“When Stiles started dating Derek, we also gained the Sheriff and the McCall family,” Peter said.
“As Derek’s uncle, shouldn’t you say that Derek started dating Stiles?”
“No,” Peter said thoughtfully. “I’m not sure Derek had any choice in the matter. He was just swept along in Stiles’ wake.”
“I think I know what that feels like,” Chris said.
Peter smiled, wide and pleased. “Well,” he said, speaking around the smile he couldn’t wipe off his face. “Think about it.”
“I will,” Chris said.
He already knew that they’d probably end up going. It had only been the two of them since Victoria’s death, celebrating the holidays alone, and that was one thing he wanted to change for them both. He knew that Allison would be glad of the opportunity to spend the day with both Chris and Scott, and he hadn’t lied about being caught up in Peter’s orbit.
“There’s something else you should think about,” Peter said.
“What?” Chris said, suspicions raised at Peter’s tone.
“How good I look in pink,” Peter said, and then he slid out from between Chris and the wall Chris hadn’t even realized he’d been pressing him against, and slipped back out into the shop.
Chris barely heard Peter’s and Allison’s voices over the sound of blood rushing in his ears. He needed a minute before he could walk out there and pretend that nothing had happened back here. Chris turned back to his desk and picked up the mug he’d shown Peter. He turned the mug around in his hands, then carried it out to the front and replaced the plain mug beside the register that held pens with the mug imprinted with The Coffee Carafe logo.
Chris gazed out over the customers, many of them regulars, as he set the mug into the plastic bin of dirty dishes beneath the counter. And yet he felt like he’d never seen them before. As if he was looking at things through a new set of eyes. Which was ridiculous, because nothing had changed. Yes, he’d kissed Peter, and Peter had kissed him back, but surely that wasn’t enough to make the earth tilt on its axis.
Besides, he couldn’t even be certain of how Peter felt. Sure, they’d kissed. And spent the last month or so flirting. But they hadn’t talked about what the hell they were doing. Peter had invited them to Thanksgiving Dinner, but that could’ve just been a friendly invitation. As friends. What if Peter’s world hadn’t been shaken up as much as Chris’ had by that kiss?
Chris chanced a glance over to where Peter was sitting on the couch, a book in his hand. The only difference from any other Saturday was that the hand holding the book was resting in Peter’s lap, and he was staring off into space. As Chris watched, Peter raised his other hand and pressed the tips of his fingers to his lips. Chris knew what he was feeling, because his own lips still tingled with the phantom press of Peter’s lips.
As if he’d felt the weight of Chris’ gaze upon him, Peter glanced over. The smirk he threw Chris wasn’t nearly as effective with the flush rising up to pink his cheeks. Chris had never seen Peter look the slightest bit flustered, but decided right then that it was a good look on him, and one he’d try to make happen as often as he could.
“Dad?” Allison said, her tone indicating that she’d tried at least once before to get his attention.
Chris’ head snapped around and he hoped that he didn’t look too guilty. “Yes, sorry, what?”
Allison gave him an ‘I have no idea what is going on with you’ look. “Erica’s here, so I’m taking off.”
“Okay. Tell Scott I said hi.”
Allison huffed. “I have other friends besides Scott.”
“Uh huh. Tell Stiles and Derek I said hi, too.”
Allison rolled her eyes. “Fine, I will. If I see them.”
Allison turned away as she untied her apron. Chris reached out to touch her arm and she looked back at him over her shoulder.
“Thanksgiving,” Chris said, and then had to clear his throat. “I was thinking that maybe this year, since we’re getting a fresh start, we shouldn’t spend it alone.”
Allison smiled and threw herself into Chris’ arms. “Alright,” she said when she pulled back, not hiding the glance over Chris’ shoulder, “but if you’re inviting Peter, then I’m inviting Scott.”
“Actually.” Chris had to clear his throat again. “Peter invited us to join the Hales for Thanksgiving Dinner. Apparently their extended family already includes Stiles and Scott.”
“Wow,” Allison said. “That’s . . . .”
“Yeah.” Chris nodded. “Like skipping the frying pan altogether and leaping right into the fire.”
Allison laughed. “No, that’s, that’s really great. I’d like that.”
“Okay, well . . . .”
Allison smacked a kiss to Chris’ cheek, then skirted out from behind the counter and made a beeline for Peter. Chris almost laughed at the panicked look on Peter’s face. Allison leaned down and kissed his cheek, and while Chris couldn’t read lips, the expression on Peter’s face helped him figure out his, “What was that for?”
Chris couldn’t hear Allison’s reply, but Peter’s face cleared and he smiled at her. Their eyes met as Allison came back behind the counter and headed for the back of the shop. She touched Chris’ shoulder as she passed him. Chris poured himself a cup of coffee and left Erica behind the counter to join Peter on the couch.
“I’ve never seen you look so panicked,” Chris said after he’d seated himself far enough away from Peter that he wouldn’t give in to the urge to jump him. Probably.
“That was your fault,” Peter said. “Your talk about Allison walking in on us made me wonder why she was marching over here with such a determined look on her face.”
“I, uh . . . ,” Chris began, flushing. “I told her about your invitation to Thanksgiving Dinner.”
“So I gathered,” Peter said. “I’m guessing her response was positive.”
Chris hugged a laugh. “You could say that. I think we’re both in agreement that we shouldn’t spend Thanksgiving alone this year.”
“I’m glad,” Peter said.
Chris didn’t know why that sounded a lot like, ‘I want to rip your clothes off.’
Chris cleared his throat. “Thank you, again. For the invitation. Just let me know what you want us to bring.”
“Talia’s husband James does the cooking every year, but you’d have to talk to the person who creates the menu.”
“And who would that be?” Chris said, a feeling of dread pooling in his stomach.
Peter grinned. “Talia.”
“Oh, god,” Chris said, dropping his head back onto the couch. “Maybe I can have Allison call her?”
Peter laughed. “She’s really not that bad.”
Chris turned his head and glared at Peter.
“Besides,” Peter said, his foot sliding against Chris’ leg and making him lose his breath. “I promise that I’ll make it worth your while.”
“How?” Chris choked out.
“Pie,” Peter said.
“Talia usually assigns me to make one of the pies for Thanksgiving Dinner.”
“You’re making it worth my while with pie,” Chris said.
“Boss,” Erica said. “Sorry to interrupt, but I need to clean off some tables. Can you keep an eye on the register for a second?”
“Yes, sure, of course,” Chris said. He gave Peter one last look before he stood up and turned to head towards the register.
“Among other things,” Peter said softly, and Chris nearly tripped and fell flat on his face.
When Chris turned to survey the room from behind the counter, Peter was reading his book as if nothing had just happened. As soon as Erica was done with the tables, Chris went to his office and got out the schedule. He was supposed to close with Boyd that night, but he didn’t think that Erica would mind filling in for him if it meant spending more time with Boyd. After she’d agreed, Chris walked over to where Peter was pretending that he remained unaware of Chris’ presence.
“We’re going out tonight,” Chris said.
“Yes. Pick me up at six.”
“And where am I taking you?”
“Someplace that serves pie,” Chris said.
Peter’s laugh followed Chris back behind the counter. He busied himself with checking the coffee and restocking mugs so he wouldn’t be tempted to look back over at Peter. Moments later Chris sensed Peter standing behind him. He was disappointed when he turned around to see that Peter had his coat on.
“Leaving so soon?” Chris said.
“Yes,” Peter said. “I have a date to get ready for.”
“Hmm,” Chris said. “Well, have fun.”
“I intend to,” Peter said.
Peter turned to leave, then turned back. He leaned in quick and planted a kiss against Chris’ lips. “I’ll see you later.”
“Um . . . ,” Chris said.
The smile on Peter’s face when he left was going to haunt Chris for the rest of the afternoon.
Erica gently knocked her shoulder into Chris’. “Smooth, boss,” she said.
“Thanks,” Chris said distractedly.
“I’m happy for you.”
“Yeah,” he said. He might not be smooth, but he still, somehow, managed to get his man. Chris checked his watch. Twenty minutes until Boyd came in and Chris could leave early. He had a date to get ready for, too.