The Remaking of Corbin Wale

The Remaking of Corbin Wale, by Roan Parrish
 
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-692-7
eBook release: 
Nov 27, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-693-4
Print release: 
Nov 27, 2017
Word count: 
59,200
Page count: 
237
Type: 
Cover by: 
 

This title is part of the 2017 Holiday Charity Bundle collection. Check out the collection discount!

Ebook $4.99
Print $17.99   $14.39 (20% off!)
Print and Ebook $22.98   $16.09 (30% off!)

Last month, Alex Barrow’s whole life imploded—partner, home, job, all gone in forty-eight hours. But sometimes when everything falls apart, better things appear almost like magic. Now, he’s back in his Michigan hometown, finally opening the bakery he’s always dreamed of. But the pleasure of opening day is nothing compared to the lonely and beautiful man who bewitches Alex before he even orders.

Corbin Wale is a weirdo. At least, that’s what he’s heard his whole life. He knows he’s often in a fantasy world, but the things he feels are very real. And so is the reason why he can never, ever be with Alex Barrow. Even if Alex is everything he’s always fantasized about. Even if maybe, just maybe, Corbin is Alex’s fantasy too.

When Corbin begins working at the bakery, he and Alex can’t deny their connection any longer. As the holiday season works its magic, Alex yearns for the man who seems out of reach. But to be with Alex, Corbin will have to challenge every truth he’s ever known. If his holiday risk pays off, two men from different worlds will get the love they’ve always longed for.


20% of all proceeds from this title will be donated to the Russian LGBT Network.

Each year, Riptide Publishing releases a holiday collection in support of an LGBTQ charity. Twenty percent of the proceeds from this year’s collection will be donated to the Russian LGBT Network.

The Russian LGBT network was founded in April 2006. It is an interregional, non-governmental human rights organization that promotes equal rights and respect for human dignity, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. They unite and develop regional initiatives, advocacy groups (at both national and international levels), and provide social and legal services.

To learn more about this charity or to donate directly, please visit their website: https://lgbtnet.org/en.

This collection would not be possible without the talent and generosity of its authors, who have brought us the following holiday stories:

 

  • Cecilia Tan, Watch Point
  • Roan Parrish, The Remaking of Corbin Wale
  • Katie Porter, Came Upon a Midnight Clear

 

Pre-ordering this collection will allow you to download each story two days prior to its official release date, as well as save 20% off the list price of the individual books.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Alex Barrow liked bringing things to life.

A month ago, he’d had friends, a lover, and a prestigious job in New York. A week after that, he’d found himself back in his Michigan hometown, where he hadn’t spent more than a week since leaving a dozen years before. He had nothing to his name except—now—the bakery where he stood. And yet, alone in the predawn dark of opening day, Alex felt lighter than he had in years. He took a deep breath of leaf-scented air and felt himself grin. Yes, Alex liked bringing things to life, and he’d dragged this bakery into being from the wreckage of his life in New York.

It had begun with the one-two punch of Timo breaking up with him, and Rustica, the restaurant in the West Village where Alex had worked as pastry chef for four years, being bought by a corporate conglomerate. Down a boyfriend and a job in forty-eight hours, Alex hadn’t been sure which had been the bigger blow. And that, his best friend Gareth had pointed out with a knowing wink, should tell him something important about both.

Timo was a radiologist who owned the apartment they’d lived in. He was mature, sensible, handsome, and intelligent. He’d had a three-year plan, a five-year plan, and a ten-year plan, all of which, he’d explained patiently during the conversation that turned into a highly civilized breakup, had included Alex. That Alex hadn’t known he was included in these plans had been a problem. That he’d had very little interest in them, once he’d been told, had been a more telling problem.

As Alex had lain on the couch that night—because Timo was far too mature and measured to suggest he leave suddenly, but Alex had found it too strange to share a bed with the man who had been his partner and suddenly wasn’t—he’d realized he felt . . . not nearly as much as he’d expected. Certainly less than he’d imagined he should feel after being with someone for three years, living with them for two, meeting their family, sharing their bed, and knowing how they tasted and what made them cry.

And he’d thought maybe Timo felt less than he’d expected too.

Losing Timo had certainly been an inconvenience, in that it had left Alex without a place to live. Walking into Rustica the next night to the announcement of its sale, on the other hand, had been gutting. Finding out the following afternoon that he could keep his job if he simply produced the menu the corporate team designed, but would no longer have the freedom to develop his own recipes, had been devastating. With no apartment, he certainly needed the salary. But he didn’t want to be a machine, turning out the same pastries week after week, year after year. That was why he’d left his first two jobs at traditional bakeries. With no creative control and no power over the menu, he’d been bored as paste.

He’d left Rustica and walked through Lower Manhattan for hours, making pro and con lists in his head. When his phone had buzzed with an incoming call from his mother, Alex had almost ignored it, not wanting to admit failure on two fronts to the woman who only ever wanted to see him happy. But he’d answered anyway, and listened to her chat about the weather, the latest football game that had backed up traffic all the way to her house, a new store that had opened across the street from Helen & Jerry’s Java. As he listened, he’d calmed thinking about the Ann Arbor autumn.

About the way the days were warm but the nights turned cold as soon as the sun’s heat had burned away. The way downtown smelled like coffee and waffle cones and turning leaves and moss. The way the U of M fight song blasted from car horns and house windows and cell phone ringtones during football season and got stuck in your head even if you weren’t a football fan.

When his mom had told him that, lately, the arthritis in her hands had gotten so bad she could no longer even make the coffee drinks at Helen & Jerry’s Java—the café she and his father had opened his senior year in high school, and which his mother had run alone since his father died ten years ago—and that she wished she could take a vacation, drive up north with her new beau (her term), Alex’s head had gotten fuzzy. And then it had gotten very, very clear.

“Mom,” he’d said softly. “I think I’m coming home.”

And now here he was. He’d shipped his belongings, surprised but not upset to find that he didn’t own much he cared enough to hold onto. He’d given Rustica his notice, and he’d booked a flight. When he’d touched down in Detroit, it hadn’t felt like moving, it had felt like visiting, as he’d done dozens of times before.

He’d had one small duffel bag and his laptop, as if he were coming in for a long weekend like he always did. The taxi had dropped him off in his mother’s driveway, just like it always did, and his mother had come out to meet him, just like she always did. She’d told him he looked so handsome, just like she always did, and he’d seen the moment her eyes moistened, thinking about how she wished his father were here, just like he always did.

It was just the same, only everything was different.

Because this time, when his mother settled him at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a cup of decaf for herself, she didn’t say, “So, tell me everything,” like she always did. This time she said, “So, here’s the plan.”

Now, after weeks of work, the bakery that had existed in his head for years, in gradually shifting menu concepts, color combinations, and layouts, was finally a reality. Helen & Jerry’s Java was now And Son. Gareth had thought it was a ridiculous name; Alex’s mother had cried.

Alex could say now—armed with knowledge of the restaurant industry and professional baking training—that Helen & Jerry’s Java had not been a good coffee shop. The layout had been bad, the coffee mediocre, and the pastries . . . well, the less said about them the better. Alex had completely transformed it. His mother’s employees had jumped at the chance to log extra hours painting, cleaning, rearranging, and running endless errands. It had been pure luck that Mira, one of the baristas who’d worked there for a few years, had announced that she’d worked construction for her father all throughout high school. Alex had paid her to build out the counter and add a bench along the perimeter of the café.

While they’d worked behind paper-taped windows, Alex had spent his time sourcing ingredients, setting up deliveries, and designing his menu.

The best bakeries had a cohesive vision. You didn’t want a counter selling bran muffins next to key lime tarts next to baklava next to polvorones. The menu needed to have range, but not feel chaotic—provide surprises, but not overwhelm. For each recipe he added to the mental menu in his mind, Alex had shifted another one off. When he’d realized he needed a lemon glaze on this one or cayenne in that one, it sparked to life another avenue of flavors.

He’d felt like a kid, sitting cross-legged on the heavy steel prep table, scribbling his dream recipes on sticky notes that he rearranged over and over on the cool metal. He had so many things he wanted to try, so many ideas that he eventually stuck all the notes back into a stack, put them on the shelf, and said to himself, Ten and five. Ten basics and five specials. Start there and you can add more later.

Alex had always had a bit of a problem reining it in.

And Son was reopening on a crisp, cool Monday that smelled of rain that didn’t fall. Alex had been there since 3:30 that morning, baking, and when his employees showed up at 6:30, he smiled at the sounds of surprise they made as they looked around the finished bakery.

“It’s amazing!” Mira called as Alex came out from the kitchen. Sean, the other barista who’d worked for his mom, agreed.

“Thanks to you,” he said, and smiled at Mira. But he was really pleased with how it had turned out.

The walls of the seating area were sage green and behind the counter a warm terra-cotta. Pen and ink drawings hung in untreated wood frames. Gone was the clutter of small tables and too many chairs. In their place were several four- and six-top tables, and a long padded bench with tables ran around the perimeter of the café under the windows.

There were plants in the corners, potted succulents on small wooden shelves on the walls, and air plants hanging from the pressed tin ceiling. The whole effect was calm and warm and peaceful.

The earthy bite of coffee, the comforting smell of fresh-baked bread, and the snap of sugar made Alex’s stomach rumble, and he took a cinnamon streusel muffin back into the kitchen with him. He snapped a picture of himself taking a huge bite and sent it to Gareth.

Alex had met Gareth their first day of culinary school, and they had quickly become friends and then roommates. For ten years, Gareth had been the one constant in an otherwise hectic and chaotic life. Alex felt the ache of distance that he hadn’t felt since the first year after his father died, when he’d wake up some mornings and remember all over again that he was gone. It had been Gareth he’d called from Ann Arbor when his mother sat him down a month before and told him she’d signed over the café to him. Gareth who’d told him he’d be an idiot if he didn’t turn the café into a bakery of his own.

Happy opening day! Gareth wrote back in response to the muffin pic. Try not to eat ALL the stock. Then, a second later, I’m proud of you.

The warm feeling in Alex’s stomach persisted as he slid a tray of croissants out of the oven and added notes to his recipe binder.

When they unlocked the door at seven, Alex’s mother was the first to walk through. He hadn’t let his mom see the bakery at all, and her mouth fell open as she looked around. She shook her head at him, and he saw the moisture in her eyes as she pulled him down for a fierce hug.

“I still think it should’ve been ‘& Son,’ with an ampersand,” she said, sniffing.

“Mom, I told you, it’s harder to search for, and hard to put in a website URL. People don’t know what it’s called, so they’ll say, ‘It’s called & Son, but with that and-sign thingy.’ Besides, And is good for alphabetical listings, or—”

“Okay, okay, you know what you’re doing and I should butt out, I hear you,” she conceded, walking to the counter to greet Mira and Sean.

A man had trailed in after her and was standing politely off to the side. Alex turned to him and held out his hand. “You must be Lou Wright. I’m Alex. It’s nice to meet you.”

Lou grinned at him as they shook. He had mischievous brown eyes, dark brown skin, a bald spot, a warm smile, and an easy manner. Alex could see immediately why his mother liked him.

Alex got his mother and Lou coffee and croissants to go, and was about to retreat to the kitchen when someone approached the counter. Someone Alex couldn’t look away from.

The man was a few inches shorter than Alex’s six feet, and slim—almost willowy. He had a tangle of dark hair that fell around his face, and eyes almost as dark. His skin was light gold and there was a spray of freckles across his delicate nose. He looked up at Alex, eyes half hidden behind that veil of hair, with his head cocked like a bird.

“Coffee, please.”

He was the most beautiful man Alex had ever seen. Strange looking, a bit awkward, and half-wild, the way animals were that lived side by side with people but never went inside as pets. His face and the set of his shoulders made Alex want to tramp through the woods as the leaves fell, run through fields to tumble him down on sun-warmed grass, press flowers to his lips to see which were softer. Beautiful.

“Hi,” Alex said. “Hello. Good morning. Welcome to And Son. I just opened.”

The man cocked his head in the other direction and nodded. “Coffee,” he said quietly. His tone said it was a request even though his voice didn’t go up at the end to intone the question.

“Of course.” Get a grip, Alex. “Light, medium, or dark roast?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “Dark.” His voice was low and soft, and there was something so familiar about him all of a sudden that Alex narrowed his eyes against the jolt of déjà vu. But that’s how it was coming back to Ann Arbor. Always the sense of familiarity paired with that jarring discontinuity.

Under Alex’s scrutiny, the man dropped his chin a little and glared.

“Coming right up,” Alex said. “Can I get you anything to eat?”

The man shook his head, but the glare was gone, and as he handed over his money, it was replaced by a faraway look that made Alex feel like he wasn’t seen any longer. He brushed the man’s palm with his fingertips as he took the bills, and their eyes locked for a moment. Then the man jerked away.

He didn’t put anything in his coffee, just cradled the mug as he made his way to the corner table and folded himself onto the bench, knees sharp through faded denim. He slid a black notebook out of his tattered canvas bag and immediately bent so close over it that the ends of his hair brushed the paper.

He seemed completely absorbed in whatever was in the book, and after a while Alex went back to the kitchen, leaving the front of house to Mira and Sean.

When Alex brought baguettes out to the counter at lunchtime, the man was still there. He was still hunched over his book, but now he was drawing, his lines fluid, quick, and studied.

“Do you know that guy?” Alex asked Mira.

“Corbin Wale,” she said softly. “He’s come in for years, according to Helen—er, your mom. Since before I started working here. Sometimes he’s here every day for two weeks, sometimes once a week, sometimes he doesn’t show for a month. He always sits and draws. Helen always let him.” She bit her lip. “Is it okay? Or do you want me to . . .”

“No, it’s fine. I was just curious. Thanks.” Mira looked relieved.

Alex sliced a piece of warm baguette in half, spread one side liberally with salted butter, and scooped plum jam into a ramekin. He put it all on a plate and carried it over to the table in the corner. Corbin didn’t look up. He didn’t seem to notice Alex at all.

“Corbin?” he said softly.

Corbin jerked, his elbow nearly knocking the empty coffee cup off the table. The eyes that met Alex’s were wide and wild.

“Sorry,” Alex said. He kept his voice soft and smiled. “I thought maybe you might like a snack.” He set the plate down on the table and took a step back, since Corbin seemed threatened by his looming.

“I didn’t . . . I didn’t order that.” Corbin blinked quickly as if he was coming out of a dream, confused about what was real and what wasn’t.

“No, I just thought you might like it.” At the gaping mouth and fluttering eyelashes, he added, “Since I just reopened, I wanted to welcome customers. You used to come in when this was my mom’s place, right?”

“Your mom. Helen is your mom.”

“Yep. She asked me to take the place over. It’s been a lot of work for her lately. She gets tired.”

“Tired,” Corbin echoed, and his shoulders slumped a bit, like the word had taken up residence in his body.

“I’m Alex. It is Corbin, right? That’s what Mira said.” He nodded at his employee and she smiled.

Corbin gave a stuttering nod. His eyes tracked from the food on the table to Alex’s face. “You don’t want me to leave.” Alex realized that he said all his questions like statements.

“No. I’m glad you’re here.” It was a pat answer—one any new business owner would give a customer—but Alex felt the truth of it down to his toes. “Please make yourself at home.”

Alex tried to get a glimpse of what Corbin was working on, but the notebook was covered by Corbin’s arms, intentionally or not. All that was visible were some spiky black lines and an indigo curve arcing from under Corbin’s fine-boned wrist.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Alex said, and turned back to the kitchen. As he got out the flour and butter to make pie crust, he realized what he felt was a vague sense of disappointment. Disappointment that he hadn’t seen the contents of the notebook. Disappointment that Corbin hadn’t asked him to sit down and join him. Disappointment that Corbin had seemed to draw closer into himself with every inch toward him that Alex moved.

And when he brought two pies out later that afternoon, disappointment to find the table in the corner empty, with no sign of Corbin having been there at all.

 

Chapter Two

Alex had a problem.

Alex had a problem and it was spelled C-O-R-B-I-N W-A-L-E.

The problem was that every morning Alex worked with bated breath, finding excuses to come out of the kitchen to see if Corbin was there. The problem was that when Corbin was there, Alex’s eyes seemed magnetized to him—to the cant of his head on his graceful neck. To the way his thin, nail-bitten fingers wielded a pen like a scalpel, ruthless and exacting. To the hair that often obscured his face. To the eyes that either stared resolutely down, completely absorbed by his work, or fixed, dreamily, on something up and to the right that Alex didn’t think he was seeing at all.

Alex would wait, hoping that some loud noise or sudden shift in the air would catch Corbin’s attention. Snap him out of absorption or dream, and bring him back to a place where Alex could reach him.

It wasn’t that Alex didn’t try. Sometimes he even succeeded, for a little while.

The next time Corbin came in, Alex asked what he was drawing. Corbin looked up, startled, as if he hadn’t realized his notebook was visible to anyone but himself. He looked at the page and then back at Alex, dark eyes framed in inky lashes.

“Everything,” he said, and a shiver ran up Alex’s spine.

A few days later, Corbin seemed out of sorts. Alex was working the cash register and when he asked Corbin how his day was going, Corbin muttered, “You can’t talk to me today. Please.”

“All right,” Alex said. “I’m sorry.”

Corbin’s brows drew together, a line between them. “No, no.”

Alex handed over his coffee without another word, and Corbin’s hand trembled as he took it. He pushed crumpled-up bills onto the counter and slunk to his table in the corner, tangle of hair hiding his face completely. Alex watched as Corbin stared into space, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth in a manner that absolutely did not send a shock of tender desire through him.

Alex watched Corbin. His cup emptied, though Alex never saw him sip it, and rather than becoming absorbed in his notebook, he pulled his jacket tightly around himself and left as suddenly as he’d come.

He didn’t come back for three days.

* * * * * * *

“Hey,” Alex said when Corbin next came in. “I realized why you looked familiar. I think we went to high school together.”

It had struck Alex as he was lying in his childhood bedroom one night, exhausted and wanting nothing but to fall into a dreamless sleep.

He’d closed his eyes on the day and instead of the grown-up Corbin, he saw a boy. Painfully skinny, with a messily shaved head like he’d run an electric razor over it himself. He had huge dark eyes and long lashes and his clothes were brown and green and gray, the colors of the forest, as if to announce the place he was camouflaged to fit in.

The boy had been a freshman when Alex was a senior, and he’d never known his name. It was a big school. Alex likely wouldn’t have remembered him at all, except that a month or two into the school year, someone had spray painted FOREST FAGGOT FREAK on a bank of lockers outside the auditorium. The boy standing in front of the locker that was clearly the epicenter was this pretty, skinny boy, staring at the words like they had no meaning.

After that, the rumors about him had reached even the senior class. That he was gay. That he didn’t deny it, and responded to neither taunts nor camaraderie. That he lived in the forest and animals followed him to school. That he spoke to them, but not to anyone else. That something was wrong with him.

Even then, Alex might not have remembered him. Might have grouped him in the category that his seventeen-year-old brain had marked Braver Than Me, because it felt easier not to tell anyone that he, too, desired boys instead of girls. Because it felt like he had something to lose.

But then the boy—Corbin—had disappeared.

The rumors flew. He’d gone feral in the woods. He’d been having an affair with a rich businessman and fled the country with him. He’d killed himself. Someone at school had found out he was actually a vampire and he’d had to leave town.

But here was Corbin in front of him—clearly not dead, likely not a vampire, as it was a sunny day, and not feral . . . not completely, anyway.

“Do you remember me?” Alex asked.

Corbin bit his lip and nodded.

“Oh, did my mom tell you?” It seemed likely that his mother had asked every customer who looked about his age if they’d gone to high school with her son.

Corbin shook his head. “I recognized you. You were a football player.”

He supposed that had been the most notable thing about him to a stranger in high school, but for some reason it still made his stomach feel a little hollow to hear it.

Coffee in hand, Corbin nodded at him and went to sit down. While Alex worked, he scoured his mind for other scraps of memory about Corbin from high school. He found only one.

Alex had gotten to school late one morning and had to park at the farthest edge of the lot. He’d cut around the back of the school to the science wing, and had seen someone coming out of the tree line. A skinny boy, all large eyes, and hands and feet too big for his body. A dog had been trailing behind him. At the edge of the woods, he’d paused and spoken to the dog. Then he’d scratched its head, knelt, and thrown his arms around its neck. The boy had hugged the dog like it was his only friend in the world, then snapped his fingers, and the dog had bounded back into the forest. Alex thought it must have been the last time he’d seen him until Corbin had shown up at And Son.

At lunchtime, Alex cut a thick slice of the oatmeal bread he’d baked that morning and toasted it. He spread the hot toast with butter and sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar. Corbin was bent over his notebook, drawing as usual, but this time when Alex approached, he pushed his hair out of his face and looked up. His eyes were huge.

“I brought you a snack.”

He laid the plate on the table and hovered for a moment.

“That . . .” Corbin pointed at the toast suspiciously. “That’s my favorite.”

“Yeah?” Warmth flushed through Alex. Preparing food was always a pleasure, but this—preparing something for someone he liked and having them desire it—was the thrill of satisfaction. “I’m glad.”

He couldn’t help himself. He stayed in the hope that Corbin would eat it in front of him. When the man raised the toast to his full lips and took a bite, cinnamon and sugar spilling onto the plate like snow, something hot and possessive ripped through Alex.

Sugar stuck to Corbin’s lips, and Alex wanted to bend over him and lick it from his mouth. Corbin’s jaw clenched as he chewed, and Alex imagined Corbin on his knees before him, jaw moving for another reason entirely.

Corbin’s throat worked as he swallowed, and Alex fisted his hands in front of him and turned quickly away.

“Okay, enjoy,” he called over his shoulder, voice scraped raw with arousal and confusion.

He’d never responded to someone the way he responded to Corbin. He’d had lovers, he’d had good sex, he’d seen men across a room or over a pool table and felt attraction, lust.

With Timo, he’d felt desire, affection, love—or so he’d thought.

But Corbin had awoken something in him that felt like all of these, and none of them.

It was the difference between strawberry jam and a perfect, sun-ripe strawberry. Other people he’d desired had been jam. He’d seen them, liked them, saw potential in them, thought of what he might do with them, how they’d combine.

Corbin was a strawberry. If you had any sense at all, you took it as it was and you never questioned it. You didn’t add sugar and you didn’t add heat. You didn’t put it in a sandwich or use it in a cake. You didn’t do anything to it because it was already as absolutely, perfectly a strawberry as it would ever be. You recognized it, and were grateful for it.

And, if you were lucky, you savored it.

That was what Alex was doing.

Alex was savoring.

 

Chapter Three

The first Tuesday in November, it stormed. It began at noon with a clap of thunder and a silence just long enough for the patrons of And Son to freeze in anticipation, and then turn to each other and smile their relief that it was only thunder and no rain.

And then the rain came down.

Outside was black; rain hit the pavement and the roof like it was throwing itself down from the sky. The wind snatched it out of the air and lashed the windows with it. Umbrellas were torn from hands and plastic trash cans blew down the sidewalk like tumbleweeds. It only took thirty seconds for everything outside to be drenched.

Thirty minutes after that, it was still coming down, and the shop had emptied, customers running for their cars or trudging out, resigned to a soaking.

Except for one.

Corbin Wale sat in his corner and watched the rain.

He sat there for hours.

The weather app on Alex’s phone said the downpour would result in flash flooding and continue all night. It was only four, but it seemed unlikely they’d get any more customers that afternoon, so he told his employees to clean up and go home.

As they cleaned out the display and zeroed out the cash register, Corbin watched the rain.

As they mopped the floor and wiped the tables, Corbin watched the rain.

As Mira, Sean, and Sarah left—wind blowing a spray of rainwater and wet leaves onto the freshly cleaned floor—and Alex locked the door behind them, Corbin watched the rain.

And Son glowed like a lighthouse in the rain-swept dark, and Alex approached him slowly. He lifted the chair across from Corbin and moved it back far enough that he could sit down.

Corbin’s eyes were fixed on the rain as if he saw something in it he couldn’t miss a moment of. Suddenly Alex wanted so badly to see what Corbin saw that the desire hit him like a physical pain.

He wanted to rest his hand on Corbin’s and feel his skin, lace their fingers together and sit close as the rain whipped around them. He wanted to lift Corbin’s hand to his lips and press a kiss to his knuckles. He thought Corbin would smell like ink and paper, coffee, and whatever the smell of Corbin was, just Corbin, beneath all the rest.

He wanted to push the man’s hair back and cup his cheek. Trace the lines of his face with the pad of one finger, feather over dark brows and ruffle ink-black lashes.

He wanted to press his thumb into the dip in Corbin’s lush lower lip, feel the flesh give like a ripe peach, push his fingers inside and feel the sharp edges of teeth and the rasp of tongue.

He wanted, wanted, wanted, like he had never wanted before.

But more than any of that, he wanted Corbin to talk to him. He wanted to be included in the cocoon of him, invited into Corbin’s world.

In the glow of the bakery, with the hum of the coffee machine and the buzz of chatter stripped away, the only sounds were rain and wind outside.

Suddenly, Corbin’s gaze snapped to him, though he’d been sitting there for at least a minute. Alex’s breath caught. Corbin looked right at him, as present and clear as anyone.

“Did you know there’s a phenomenon called phantom rain, where it’s so hot that the raindrops evaporate before they hit the ground,” Corbin said.

It was so unexpectedly . . . ordinary that Alex almost laughed. “No, I didn’t.”

“Everyone’s gone.” Corbin looked around like he’d just noticed.

“Yeah. I don’t think anyone else’ll be in when it’s coming down like this.”

“I should leave so you can go home.”

Corbin began gathering up his notebook and pens, and Alex grasped around for a way to make the moment last.

“Do you want to help me make something?” Alex asked. “If you have time.”

Corbin cocked his head, dark eyes curious. “In the kitchen.” He said kitchen like it was an improbability.

Alex nodded and watched indecision flicker over his face, then curiosity, then Corbin dropped his chin so Alex couldn’t see his face at all, and Alex’s stomach lurched.

He reminded himself that he didn’t know anything about Corbin, that they weren’t friends yet, no matter how much he might wish they were.

Gareth had told him more than once that he exerted influence over people even when he didn’t mean to. When Alex had asked him to explain, Gareth had shrugged and said that he couldn’t explain why it was true. Just that when Alex had a plan, the plan came into being, and other people got caught up in it, from where to get dinner to where to go on vacation.

“You don’t have to,” he offered now.

But Corbin said, “Okay,” and gathered up his things, slung the canvas bag over his shoulder, and stood up.

When Alex stood, he was just a few inches taller than Corbin, and closer to him than he’d ever been before. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from steering Corbin into the kitchen with a hand on the small of his back.

“What are we making,” Corbin asked, dropping his bag beside the steel prep table.

“We’re going to make brioche for tomorrow. It’s better if you let the dough sit overnight.” At Corbin’s narrowed eyes, he added, “It’s a rich buttery bread. I think it’ll be nice for tomorrow. The day after bad weather, people like comforting things.”

“Bread is comforting,” Corbin said.

Alex couldn’t tell if he was asking or agreeing, so he said, “I think it is.”

“My aunts always made our bread.”

“Is that who you grew up with?”

Corbin nodded and his eyes got that dreamy cast. “Bake on Saturday,” he said, as if he was repeating part of a poem. Then his eyes refocused. “But it wasn’t usually Saturday, I don’t think.”

“Did you bake with them?” Alex waved Corbin over and handed him the eggs and sugar to add to the mixer, where the yeast and water had dissolved.

“No.” Corbin dumped in the sugar and watched as the water wetted it, like a lake eating into an island. Then he picked up an egg and stared at it.

After he’d looked at it for a minute, Corbin deftly cracked it against the lip of the bowl and added it to the mixer, then the others. When Alex closed the distance between them to flick the mixer on, he could feel the heat of Corbin’s body next to his; the air between them felt supercharged. Corbin was watching the mixer the way he’d watched the rain, as if hypnotized.

But when Alex’s shoulder pressed into his, Corbin jumped back a step, pulling his shoulders in, eyes gone wide.

Alex had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He gritted his teeth at the thought that someone had hurt Corbin.

“Sorry.” Alex and Corbin said it at the same time.

Alex shook his head. “Do you want to add the salt and flour?”

In they went, and the mixer began to turn again.

“I used to do this all by hand,” Alex said. “In cooking school we had to learn all the techniques. Honestly, though, I love the mixer.”

Corbin hummed in reply, but his whole attention was on the bowl. Alex’s was on Corbin’s face. His brows drew together with concentration, and his lashes threw shadows on his cheeks. He’d tucked his hair behind his ear so he could see. His ears were small and delicate, with a slight point at the top, and they stuck out a little, which Alex found adorable. He was also startled by how familiar they were. In high school, when Corbin’s hair had been shaved, those ears had made people call him fairy.

Corbin pointed at the bowl and turned wide, excited eyes on Alex. The dough had finally come together.

Alex grinned. “Yeah, there’s the moment when things are separate, and the moment when they’re one thing, and you have to watch the whole time to see that instant when one becomes the other.”

Corbin’s smile was dangerous. It was slow and warm as fresh-baked bread, and then you saw teeth. A little crooked, charmingly overlapping in the front. The best smile Alex had ever seen. He was nervous what he might do to elicit another smile like that.

He could hardly tear his eyes away to swap in the dough hook. “Now the butter. One chunk at a time until it’s incorporated.”

Corbin did as he was told, watching intently.

“Hey, Corbin?”

“Hmm.”

“What do you draw? I know, everything, but will you tell me about it?”

No answer as the butter turned the dough glossy, glossier. Alex scraped down the sides of the mixer and they watched as it came together. He turned off the mixer and covered the bowl, set it aside.

“I could show you,” Corbin said softly.