Change of Address
Air Force sergeant Michael Baldwin wanted nothing more than to escape his family’s political ambitions, but his dream of freedom was shattered by an enemy bullet to the head. Two years later, he and his service dog, Kaylee, resist his father’s demand to join him on the campaign trail—where a photogenic “wounded warrior” is always an asset—and instead return to the family’s summer home on Hartsbridge Island.
There Michael and his beautiful German shepherd capture the attention of Josh Goldberg, co-owner of the local bagel shop. Josh has a knack for business and a killer repertoire of his bubbe’s recipes. But lack of education undermines his confidence, and Josh’s father doesn’t share his ambition for the restaurant’s future.
Chicken soup and bacon might be the way to Michael’s heart, but he and Josh need time to learn about everything that comes after—lessons that Governor Baldwin and his relentless ambition will do anything to thwart. Letting someone in is a tall order for two men who can’t trust themselves, but if they have any hope of a future together, that’s exactly what they’ll need to do.
"Brock’s tender social-class-bridging love story features authentically decent, good-hearted, and kind protagonists who grow and learn together." –Booklist
"Sometimes playfully loving and other times intensely thought-provoking, this tale is a pleasure to read." –Publishers Weekly
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: acceptance, angst, coming out, disability / disfigurement, family, financial gap / class disparity, first love, homophobia / transphobia, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, military, protection, PTSD, recovery, self-confidence, trust issues
The unfamiliar voice was almost drowned out by the bell jangling over the front door. What a strange thing to say. Frowning, Josh peered through the kitchen doorway to the front of the shop.
“Dee’s on break. Let me go get that,” he told his ex-girlfriend-turned-accountant. When she waved him away, he got up from the prep table where they were working on the books and went out front. He was just in time to see a white taxi pulling away from the curb, which was odd. There was only one taxi service on the island, and those taxis weren’t white. Someone from the mainland?
Shaking his head, he looked over at the front door. His new customer was standing there, and Josh eyed the guy for second—T-shirt, jeans, sunglasses, messenger bag slung across his chest—before a swish of movement caught his attention. A dog?
No dogs allowed. He actually drew breath to say it before the dog’s red vest registered. Service dog, then—and a handsome one too. Josh was no expert, but he could recognize a German shepherd and suspected this one was a purebred.
It took far too long for Josh to remember his customer-oriented manners. He put on a friendly smile and rested a forearm on the tall glass counter, saying, “Hey, welcome to Bagel End. What can I get for you?”
The guy took off his sunglasses, revealing warm brown eyes and high cheekbones. He was focused on the menu boards hanging over the counter, so Josh took a surreptitious second look. The guy was well-built, but thin enough that Josh’s first instinct was to suggest a stacked brisket sandwich and a bowl of filling broccoli cheddar soup. Get some meat on those bones.
Not about to get caught staring, Josh took a couple of plastic gloves out of the box. He heard the guy approach, along with the soft click of dog toenails on the laminate floor. Josh turned back and met him at the order counter, which put them barely two feet apart, and there was no way he couldn’t stare now. If not for the momentary distraction of the dog, he would’ve been staring the whole time, because wow. This guy was hot, especially when he gave Josh a shy little smile.
“Uh . . . let’s do the corned beef,” the guy said softly, his accent too indistinct for Josh to place.
“Bagel, white, wheat, rye, sourdough, or focaccia?” Josh asked, guessing he’d go for rye. He seemed like a traditionalist.
But he turned his attention to the bagel display, biting his lip. “Plain bagel,” he said, glancing at Josh before looking back down. “I haven’t had a good bagel in years.”
A fellow connoisseur. Josh’s smile brightened. “The recipe’s from the family’s old place in Brooklyn. You’ll love it,” he promised as he pulled out the plain basket. Indulging his need to feed his customer—and hopefully entice the guy to come back—he found the biggest bagel and dropped it into the automatic slicer.
The guy followed as Josh made his way down the counter to the corned beef. “Also, a half pound of roast beef. You can just wrap it in something.”
Probably for the dog, Josh guessed. Lucky mutt. “Sure thing. What else did you want on your sandwich?”
“Only deli mustard.”
“A purist.” Josh grinned in approval and swiped a thin layer of spicy brown mustard on each half of the bagel. “This your first time on the island?”
The guy met Josh’s eyes, though only briefly. Was it endearing shyness or skittishness? “I, uh, grew up spending my summers here.”
“Oh! Well, welcome back, then,” Josh said, trying and failing to slot the guy into the “rich asshole tourist” niche. He seemed friendly, despite the lack of eye contact.
“Thanks,” he said, looking straight down, probably at the dog. Josh could barely see the brown tips of its ears. “It’s good to be back.”
Josh wanted to keep up the friendly chatter, but not while the guy was focused on the dog. Instead, he finished assembling the sandwich, sliced up a generous half pound or so of roast beef, then asked, “Anything else? The soup’s really good today.”
“Um, maybe later.” The guy glanced at the empty tables by the front window. “Mind if I eat here?”
Why would he even ask? Probably because of the dog, though Josh knew better than to ask a well-behaved service dog to leave. Hell, the dog was cleaner and more polite than some two-legged customers. “Be my guest,” he said, giving his friendliest smile. “Something to drink? A bowl of water for your pup?”
The guy’s answering smile brightened a notch. “I’ve got a bowl.” He glanced at the soda machine. “Uh, just water for me. She’s fine, thanks,” he added with a nod toward the dog.
Usually they used the small paper cups for water, but Josh filled a big cup, then capped it. He put the wrapped roast beef into a to-go container only because he wasn’t sure if health department regulations would let him put a service dog’s food on a plate. Was she even eating here? He arranged everything neatly on a tray and slid it down to the register.
The guy already had his wallet in his hands. He took out cash; so much for Josh seeing his name on a credit card. Josh got rid of the plastic gloves, rang up the order, and handed back the change along with a paper copy of the menu.
“We’re setting up online ordering, but the kid doing the website is kind of flaky,” he said apologetically. “But if you call ahead, we can have your order ready for you—for both of you,” he added, stretching to look over the counter at the dog, who was politely sitting on her human’s feet, attention focused on the door.
“Thanks.” The guy smiled. “Do you do deliveries?”
“Technically only for catering orders,” Josh said, lowering his voice. “But if it’s not raining and I’ve got a full staff, I can get pretty much anywhere on the island within half an hour, give or take.”
The guy’s laugh was even nicer than his smile. “I won’t tell anyone.” He picked up the tray and told the dog, “Let’s go.” Together, they headed for the two-seat table in the front of the shop, where the guy sat with his back to the wall. The dog followed him, then turned neatly and sat at his side, mouth hanging open in a canine grin.
Cleaning up gave Josh a thirty-second excuse to linger, long enough to watch the guy crush the overstuffed bagel down to a manageable size. After the first bite, he smiled—always a good sign. Hopefully Josh had just gotten himself a repeat customer. Maybe even a regular.
The brisket was surprisingly good, which helped Michael to relax and concentrate on something other than watching his environment. That was Kaylee’s job, and though she was young for a fully trained service dog, she was focused on the doors—a comforting reminder that Michael wasn’t alone.
Not that he’d really been alone anyway. He glanced toward the back of the restaurant. On the customer side, there was a closed door with a bathroom sign. He could see straight through the open kitchen door behind the counter, where the cashier seemed to be working on a laptop.
Dark-blond hair fell to his shoulders in a mess of neglected curls. His back was rounded from leaning in close to the screen. His bright-blue polo shirt had short enough sleeves to show New Hampshire–pale arms. No desert tan. No hard muscles. No tattoos.
Being around a guy like this was the exact opposite of how Michael’s life had gone for the last ten years. He’d never had trouble finding company, even before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, but they’d all been hard-bodied soldiers. And in DC, during his recovery, Michael had gravitated toward dark, anonymous clubs to find his one-night stands. Picking up a civilian in daylight would be a nice change—especially one with a welcoming smile and a charming laugh.
Had Michael returned that smile? He couldn’t remember. He’d ordered his lunch on autopilot, too wary to do more than assess the cashier’s nonexistent threat level. He hadn’t even bothered to note the name tag.
“Next time,” he murmured to Kaylee, reaching down to ruffle her fur. She gave him a doggie grin, tail whooshing over the floor. There’d definitely be a next time. Last Michael checked, Hartsbridge Island didn’t have a big assortment of restaurants, and he wasn’t going to live on his own cooking just to soothe his hypervigilant nature.
After polishing off the sandwich, he picked up the menu and unfolded the glossy paper. He didn’t bother to take his reading glasses out of his bag. One side of the menu listed bagels sold by the baker’s dozen, meat and cheese platters, and party-size soups and subs. The other had breakfasts, hot and cold sandwiches, and soups of the day. The shop’s phone and fax numbers, too blurry for him to make out, were at the bottom. And hadn’t the cashier said something about delivery?
Tempting, but no. Part of Kaylee’s training involved reminding him when he hadn’t left home for a couple of days. Heading into town for a bagel was a good way to keep from becoming a shut-in.
Kaylee sat up abruptly, ears perked toward the window, just as a young woman walked into the shop. Her polo shirt matched the cashier’s, with Bagel End embroidered over her heart in a vaguely Elvish font. Another employee starting her shift or coming off break meant they expected a surge in customers, maybe an early dinner rush, which was Michael’s signal to bail. He’d give Kaylee her roast beef at the town green across the street.
“Let’s go,” he told Kaylee, who pushed up to all fours and stepped away from his chair. He threw out his trash, then brought the tray to the counter, hoping to coax his cashier out of the kitchen, but no such luck. The young woman was already back there, tying on a green apron with the shop’s logo covering the front.
“I’ll get that. Thanks!” she said brightly, rushing close enough for him to see her name tag. Dee. Not the name he wanted to know. As she picked up the tray, leaving him the to-go box of roast beef, she grinned down at Kaylee and asked, “How was your meal?”
“Great,” Michael said truthfully.
Turning her smile on him, she said, “Hope you two come back soon.”
With one last glance through the open kitchen door, Michael promised, “We will.”
After an hour and a half on the train from Boston and almost an hour in the taxi, Michael welcomed the chance to stretch his legs on the walk to his new home. The bed in last night’s hotel had certainly done his back no favors.
He crossed the town green, taking in the changes since he’d been here ten years earlier. The old town meeting hall had been turned into a museum, but the life-size bronze stag that was the town mascot, Hercules, still towered over the grassy field. The Stars and Stripes and the New Hampshire state flag snapped in the wind in front of the new civic center, with the island’s tiny police station tucked into one side of the building.
East of the green, the Rocky Shores Diner was still in its old place, though it looked bigger than he remembered. The board of selectmen still hadn’t put in a traffic light instead of the four-way stop at the corner. And the townies’ houses hadn’t been knocked down to make room for tourist bungalows and condos, which was comforting.
Despite the late-spring chill, the walk warmed Michael enough that he’d taken off his jacket by the time they reached the Baldwin family vacation home. The white colonial farmhouse was still surrounded by squared hedges, beds of bright flowers, and a green lawn, neatly striped from a lawnmower, that stretched from the road all the way to the bank above the rocky beach.
At the edge of the property, Michael took off Kaylee’s service vest and unsnapped her leash. “Go play,” he told her, and she rushed off to explore, nose buried in the grass. He watched her, smiling, and felt a weight slip off his shoulders. He was safe here, safe enough to let her play.
But when grass gave way to the manicured gravel driveway, Michael called her over and put the vest back on, a signal that she was on the job once more. Ears alertly perked, she trotted up the driveway at his side, rocks crunching together under her paws. Michael made a mental note to pick up some heavy booties and a warm coat for her. He’d never wintered on Hartsbridge Island, but he couldn’t imagine the weather was at all gentle. In fact, they’d both need to be better prepared.
His parents had given him a house key when they visited in DC. Or, well, Mom had; Dad had spent the entire visit on the phone, making plans to have dinner and drinks with important political connections. Michael suspected a presidential bid in the near future, which was both unpleasant and convenient. A summer of campaigning meant there’d be no time for a vacation, leaving the house all to Michael.
So there was no trepidation in him at all when he pushed open the door, braced for a rush of stale air that never came. Instead, the house smelled like sunshine and flowers—but why? Who was here?
Suspiciously, he leaned down and unclipped Kaylee’s leash. “Recon,” he said, and she trotted into the house.
Apprehension drove him to pace along the sloped walkway between the garage and front door, though he couldn’t see into the windows. If there was anyone inside, Kaylee would find them and give a warning bark. He was back home on American soil. He was safe.
He kept telling himself that for the endless minutes it took for Kaylee to return to him. She streaked past in a blur of brown and bright blue, turned on a dime, and sat, giving him the happy-dog grin that said it was all clear.
With a sharp, relieved exhale, he crouched down to pet her. “Good girl,” he said, which was her signal that it was okay to break her sit and nose at his face. He laughed into her fur, reminding himself that this was proof he was safe. He could relax his vigilance. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything—no need to be suspicious all the time.
But logic had nothing to do with emotion, so he was still a little apprehensive when he went into the spacious, remodeled house. The sound of Kaylee’s nails changed between the warm wood hallway and the slate-floored kitchen, which had doubled in size. The patio furniture had been set up out back, and there were fresh-cut flowers everywhere, no more than a few hours old, so someone had been here.
Maybe his mother had arranged for the caretakers to air out the house before Michael’s arrival? That would have been unusually thoughtful of her. More likely, her personal assistant had taken care of it.
Perfectly normal explanation, Baldwin. Get a hold of yourself. And this was a good reminder that the caretakers would be around every week or so. Michael would have to find out their schedule so they couldn’t catch him by surprise.
Upstairs, he opened the door to what had been his childhood bedroom and froze. His classic sci-fi movie posters and framed comic books were gone, replaced by a blandly tasteful painting of the island’s crumbling lighthouse. Instead of his old bed, there was a queen-size bed lost under decorative quilts and throw pillows. One of them, instead of being square or round like the rest, had a familiar contour.
Was that his pillow? The one shaped to help ease his tense neck and shoulders? Suspicious all over again, he went into the room and picked it up. Definitely his, though it was in an unfamiliar ivory pillowcase that matched the rest of the linens.
He spun and opened the wardrobe tucked into one corner of the room. His clothes, few as they were, hung from the rod. The drawers revealed his socks and underwear, along with the plastic box that held his service ribbons. Looking back into the room, he spotted the wooden box with his Purple Heart on a shelf near the valet stand.
Why the hell was his stuff unpacked?
Sure, he’d shipped most of his belongings to the house a couple of weeks ago, along with the SUV he’d picked up last winter in DC. But the caretaker was supposed to store the boxes in anticipation of his arrival—not unpack them. And sure as hell not unpack them into this impersonal room.
His skin crawled at the invasion of his privacy. If he’d been willing to put up with people in his room—in his territory—he would’ve stayed at a hotel.
He crouched, resting a hand on Kaylee’s back, as the world rocked around him. This was supposed to be his anchor, more than just somewhere to stay. More than just a house. He needed a home. Somewhere he could continue to nurture the fragile civilian identity he’d begun to construct back in DC, after he was discharged from the hospital.
Kaylee shuffled around so she could rest her muzzle on his shoulder, a comfort behavior that she’d developed on her own. Michael wrapped his arms around her and breathed deeply, pretending to be calm until he fooled his body into complying. He had a safe place to stay, even if it wasn’t secure, and he had his meager belongings, even if someone else had fucked with them. This was nothing he couldn’t work with. Nothing he couldn’t overcome.
“Okay.” Another deep breath, and he straightened, braced against Kaylee for balance. He looked at the house keys with their neat labels: front door, back door, kitchen door, garage door, barn. “Okay, Kaylee. Let’s go scout out somewhere better to live.”
She wagged her tail in answer.
“Will you look at that?” Michael asked Kaylee, slowly grinning as he took in what used to be a gaping space full of cobwebs and mold-rotted wood. Somewhere along the line, his dad must have pulled strings to get a building permit for the barn. It was nothing like what he remembered from the few memorable occasions he and Amanda had managed to pick the lock on the doors—usually it was Amanda, with her more dexterous fingers, who succeeded—and creep inside the deathtrap full of splintered beams, spiders, and garter snakes.
Now, though, the barn was a light and airy refuge, despite having only a few tiny windows. The space by the doors was a high-ceilinged living area with an antique wood-burning stove in the corner and a massive television on the front wall. Quilts covered a plush sofa and the armchairs. In the back, a rustic dining set divided the living area from a single-story kitchen with a loft bedroom overhead.
As he led Kaylee inside, the tension drained from his shoulders and back. He explored every inch of the rebuilt barn, thinking this was where he belonged—a place with one entrance, one lock that he’d change as soon as possible, so only he would have the key. A place where childhood memory and his need for sanctuary could comfortably, safely intersect. Very comfortably, in fact. The bathroom tucked behind the kitchen had an extra-deep claw-foot bathtub as well as a luxuriously modern steam shower, and the bed in the loft was king size, big enough for Kaylee to sprawl at his feet.
The refrigerator and cupboards were empty, but he took care of that in a half-dozen trips to the main house. By the end of the afternoon, he had his belongings stowed away upstairs and the kitchen stocked. Obviously someone had given the caretaker a very outdated list, because along with staples—bread, eggs, milk—he’d found two boxes of sugary cereal and canned pasta right out of his childhood diet. Those he left behind in favor of keeping only the basics on hand.
“What’re the chances the truck’s in the garage?” he asked Kaylee. The diner in town once had the best burgers on the planet.
Kaylee, sprawled on the colorful rag rug by the sink, wagged her tail.
“Yeah, probably. Come on,” he said, and she jumped up to follow him to the front door. At the click of her nails, he added, “Remind me to find the toenail clippers later.” One of these days, he’d take the time to dig into his phone and figure out how to set automatic reminders, but not now. He couldn’t let the phone distract him into avoiding going out in public.
He’d hung Kaylee’s leash and vest on the coat hooks made from horseshoes—surprisingly kitschy for any decorator his mom would hire—along with the messenger bag that he kept stocked with dog care and cleanup supplies. Kaylee sat while he got her geared up, then walked with him back to the main house, where he let himself inside. He’d have to ask for the garage code; for now, he unlocked the interior door, stepping in just enough for the automatic lights to trigger.
As he expected, his SUV had been parked on the far side of the garage, leaving room for whatever new cars his parents were driving this year. Michael stared at the SUV, clenching and unclenching his fists. He really hadn’t considered the layout of the island. The drive would be short and quick, but the roads were curved and unlit for the most part.
Dark roads. Low visibility.
Bad idea, Baldwin.
After two days on the train and a sleepless night at a hotel in Boston, he was too tired to drive safely. But Hartsbridge Island was small enough that even tired—even dead-on-his-feet-exhausted—he could walk safely to town and back.
“You up for another walk, Kaylee?” he asked, backing up a step so he could close and lock the interior door. She was in her vest, so she didn’t bounce happily in circles, but her tail wagged a little harder. He couldn’t help but smile in response as he ducked his head under the strap of his messenger bag, settling it across his chest. If only he could be so cheerful all the time.
Rocky Shores Diner had never lost its one-step-above-a-trailer feel, even with the extended dining room the owners had tacked on a few years back. When the satellite college campus opened on the south side of the island, the menu had expanded to include wings and chili-cheese fries, but the locals all knew better than to stray from plain hand-cut steak fries.
Josh picked up one of those fries now and used it to point across the booth at his dad. “This is me reminding you”—he took a bite of the fry—“to call the meat delivery guy first thing tomorrow morning.”
Dad groaned dramatically and snatched the other half of the fry right out of Josh’s fingers. “You have to remind me in the morning. Otherwise, I’ll just forget.”
In retribution, Josh stole one of the fries off his dad’s plate. “I’ll leave you a voice mail. But really, if he doesn’t get his shit together—”
“Josh,” Dad scolded, dark brows drawing together.
Josh ignored the reprimand. “We can’t keep putting up with late deliveries, Dad. Especially not when summer business really kicks off. What are we going to do? Tell people we don’t have corned beef? We’re the only supplier on the island.”
Dad laughed and slurped some of his milk shake. “It’s corned beef, not heroin.”
“And you’re not in Brooklyn anymore. Corned beef might as well be heroin, the way the tourists gobble it up.” Josh tried to sound stern, but he was struggling to hide his grin. “You too. Don’t think I don’t know about your stash in the back of the walk-in.”
“A guy’s got to eat,” Dad pointed out, though he didn’t need to worry about his weight—not like Josh did. “Speaking of Brooklyn,” Dad continued, refilling his milk shake from the frosty metal cup, “I might take a trip down there this weekend or next. See your aunt. We’ll probably go to the cemetery to visit Bubbe.”
“I’ll have things covered,” Josh said, looking up automatically when the bell over the door rang—a habit from running Bagel End.
His dad’s answer was lost under the abrupt thump of Josh’s heartbeat when he spotted that afternoon’s customer—the one with the service dog. God, he was nice to look at in profile, expression soft and unguarded as he turned from one side to the other, taking in the scope of the diner. Josh couldn’t see if he had the dog, but he assumed so.
“Sit anywhere you like, hon,” Betty called from behind the counter, giving a friendly wave with the coffeepot that always seemed to be stuck in her hand. As the guy walked between the booths, Betty frowned, though it melted into a sappy smile almost immediately. “Aww, what a pretty boy!”
Wasn’t the dog a girl? Josh couldn’t remember, and the guy didn’t answer her, at least not loudly enough for Josh to hear. He just walked to the corner booth, as Josh guessed he would, and sat where he could see the door—and Josh, who quickly slouched down and gave his dad a somewhat scrambled smile.
Dad’s eyebrows did a slow creep toward his hairline. “I didn’t say anything.” He turned to look over his shoulder. “Someone you know?” he asked, which really meant Someone you’re dating?
Josh snorted. His dad was more of an interfering matchmaker than any twelve yentas from Brooklyn. “A customer, that’s all. He came in this afternoon. Stop staring.” Please, he added mentally, sinking another inch. Too bad the booths were low, not the super-high style popular in the seventies, making it easy for Dad to take a nice long look at the guy.
“Uh-huh.” Dad finally turned back, a sly grin on his face. “Early in the season for a tourist, isn’t it?”
Josh didn’t roll his eyes, but it was a close call. “Mainlander, with a family house here, yeah. He’ll be here for a while, I think.” He was proud he didn’t say, I hope.
“Uh-huh,” Dad repeated, stealing another of Josh’s fries. But then he got back to business, saying, “The meat delivery guy. Any other issues we need to deal with?”
Josh shook his head, trying to focus again—these dinnertime business meetings were crucial to keeping the shop running smoothly, as well as being the only real time he and his dad could relax and catch up with each other. But he kept stealing glances at the guy, who’d settled down to look over the menu.
While wearing glasses.
The sight made Josh’s knees go a little weak. He liked glasses, even though he’d never needed them himself—and he wasn’t hipster enough to get plain lenses just so he could try to look hot. It wouldn’t work. He was about as far from “sexy librarian” as possible.
Remembering that his dad was expecting a coherent answer, he said, “Uh . . . no, I think we’re good. Lizzie and I did the books, and the schedule’s set for the next couple of weeks. Speaking of . . .” He glanced past his dad again before he could stop himself. Glasses. His voice wavered a bit as he said, “Why don’t I open tomorrow? You can sleep in.”
Dad let Josh’s distraction pass, though not unnoticed, judging by the grin still plastered on his face as his eyebrows went up again. “Not that I’m arguing, but why?”
Because Hot Tourist Guy might be an early riser, and I don’t want to miss the chance to see him, Josh thought. “To deal with the meat delivery guy.”
Dad shrugged. “You got it.” He slurped up the last of his milk shake and didn’t bother stealing another fry, a sign that he was done for the night.
Damn. There went Josh’s opportunity to maybe make first contact—second contact?—with his handsome customer. His gaze slid past Dad to Hot Tourist Guy, no longer obscured by his menu. Unfortunately, he was also no longer wearing the glasses. He just needed them for reading, then, which was still hot as hell.
Their eyes met, and Josh quickly looked away, not wanting to be seen as a creepy stalker, even though he’d been in the diner first. God, he was terrible at making the first move. Or responding to one, for that matter. He was terrible with potential dating interests in general. His people skills were top-notch only in the bagel-pushing field. Otherwise, he got self-conscious with girls and nervous about triggering homophobic idiocy with guys, and there wasn’t even a hint of a queer community on the island.
Well, maybe there was something at the college, but Josh wasn’t one of them.
Defeat made his shoulders slump. The hot guy with the dog would fit in great with the college crowd, even if he looked to be a few years older than them. He would have no trouble turning heads no matter where he went. A dumpy, boring, dropout-turned-bagel-guy didn’t stand a damn chance with someone like him.
In three bites, he wolfed down the rest of his burger and fries. His dad put a twenty on the table, and Josh added a five for the tip. They left together, and he heroically refrained from throwing one last look at the corner booth. Hot or not, the guy was a customer, and it wasn’t as if Bagel End could afford to have Josh scaring away anyone. Besides, if the guy came back or called for a delivery—as he’d implied he would—maybe they could at least become friends. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?
Six a.m., and Hartsbridge was a ghost town. Michael stood next to the deer statue on the green, wrapped in a windbreaker that was fine for DC but insufficient for the chilly wind blowing in off the Atlantic, and stared out at the emptiness. Only the twenty-four-hour diner was open, and even that looked ominous, almost dystopian. With the sun rising behind the low building, the front was in shadow, lit by the red neon sign over the door. The extended dining room was night-dark; the lights were on over the long counter and booths, though they were deserted.
Kaylee’s leash twisted in Michael’s grasp. Free of her vest, she dove headfirst into the grass and writhed over onto her back, kicking her legs, tail wagging madly. He smiled down at her—at the reminder that he wasn’t alone in a postapocalyptic world—and made a mental note to look into local dog ordinances. Growing up, he’d never had a dog, so he wasn’t sure if it was legal to have one off-leash or not.
The tinkle of a bell, too faint to really startle him, made him turn to the other side of the green. All the shops there were still dark, except for Bagel End. The door was propped open, and someone had sneaked out long enough to set up a sandwich board outside.
“Diner or bagel place?” Michael asked Kaylee, though he’d already made his decision. Yesterday’s lunch bagel had been a little wheel of heaven—not to mention the cashier.
What were the chances that the blond guy from yesterday was on the opening shift? Six a.m. was an unholy hour for most civilians, but the guy seemed to be a manager type, so . . . maybe.
Recognizing Michael’s tone of voice, Kaylee got to her feet, giving a good whole-body shake. A cloud of grass poofed around her, only to be swept away by the sea-salt breeze. She stood still while Michael took her vest down from his shoulder, and as he fastened it around her body, he could see her brain kicking into high gear. Her ears perked forward, eyes going sharp and alert. Much as she loved to play, she was a working dog, happiest when she had a task to perform.
When he said, “Let’s go,” she paced beside him, no longer sniffing everywhere, and paused at the curb to get his okay to cross the deserted street. Growing up in the city had given her good street manners.
The wind went briefly still, filling the air outside the shop with the warm scent of fresh baking. Michael’s stomach growled, and Kaylee’s nostrils flared as she sniffed. She didn’t surge ahead, but her steps went springy and light until they reached the open door, where training kept her from rushing inside.
At this hour, it was a formality to check for anyone coming through the doorway, but the key to training was consistency. After verifying no one was in the way, he told her, “Go through,” then followed her in.
“Be right—” The blond guy from yesterday popped into sight behind the glass case half-full of bagels; his smile was breathtakingly sincere. “Hey, be right with you.” He turned to take a wire basket of bagels from a rolling rack taller than he was.
“No rush.” Michael hung back, not wanting to seem like he was demanding immediate service. Six mont