Shelf Life (Hearts & Crafts, 2)
Grayson used to love baking, but the recipe for running his parents’ café changes every day. His dad, overwhelmed by grief, is no help. They can’t even talk about Gray’s mom, let alone the failing business. Of less help is the crush Gray has on Sporty—a trainer from the local gym. Gray barely has time for his friends, let alone scratching the itch Sporty inspires.
Aaron suspects he’s not Gray’s type, meaning Gray probably isn’t into fitness, board games, or redheads. Still, that doesn’t stop Aaron visiting the café twice a week. The day Gray finally speaks to him personally could have been the start of something—if Gray hadn’t immediately suffered a heart attack.
The prescription for Gray’s recovery includes exercise, but when Aaron steps in to help, Gray is dubious. He’s never been fond of working out. The more he gets to know Aaron, though, the more they seem to have in common, especially when it comes to games. Aaron has been quietly designing his own, and when Gray shows interest, they embark on a quest to complete it together: a hero’s journey complicated by family, the demands of their careers, their fledgling relationship, and learning to be honest about what they want out of life.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: adoption, angst, commitment, duty, family, fitting in, gaming culture, geeks / nerds, grief, heritage, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, interracial/multicultural, isolation, jocks / athletes, pining / UST, politics / power struggle, recovery, self-discovery / self-reflection
The bell over the café door jingled. Grayson didn’t want to check to see how many people had slipped inside, but he did. And groaned. Too many. The line winding away from the counter, between the tables, and along the front window of the café was already long.
As he pulled his phone from an apron pocket, Gray entertained a fantasy about turning the sign from Open to Closed. He hit Redial. The call cut out before the first unanswered ring. Did that mean he’d been blocked or that the phone he was trying to call had been switched off?
Patty would know.
Except Patty was busy grilling with one hand, somehow cutting a sandwich in half with the other, all while taking an order over the shop phone. Gray counted the number of people in line for lunch again and selected a new number on his phone.
His best friend, Oliver, answered after one ring. “What’s up?”
“I don’t suppose you have an hour free?”
“Is that Clery-speak for three hours?”
“It’s lunch, it’s a rush, and the damned college student I hired yesterday isn’t answering her phone.”
“Wonders will never cease. So, I’m down in Allentown right now. I’m heading back, though. I could be there in forty-five minutes.”
Another groan worked its way up from Gray’s gut. He trapped it below his throat, where it sat like a bubble of unexpressed air.
“You could try Cam,” Oliver suggested. Cam was Nick’s brother, Nick being Oliver’s boyfriend. Cam had a job but worked flexible hours and always seemed oddly happy to help out elsewhere.
“I will. Thanks.” As Gray ended the call, the bell over the café door jingled again. He didn’t want to look but he did. Speaking of oddly happy people . . .
Sporty McSporterson had a name. One not made up by Gray’s unhappy brain. Sporty was easier to remember, though, if only because the guy always wore coordinated sweats and always—always—seemed ready to run somewhere in an entirely too cheerful and energetic manner. Sporty was also cute in a way that had never appealed to Gray before.
Red hair? Freckles? Cheekbones? Broad shoulders, narrow hips, long legs?
Yes, Gray had looked. The often vibrantly colored sweats invited his gaze to linger.
But Gray didn’t do cute, redheaded, sporty, or cheerful. Especially not cheerful. He also barely had time to breathe, let alone think. No time for casual chats or the more-than-casual attention he often caught from Sporty.
He had a café to run, a college student to murder, and—
Gray glanced over at the service counter where Patty might as well have been holding back a flood of humanity with nothing but her too-short arms. Thankfully, she’d put the knife down.
“Do we have any Kaisers left?”
Gray pocketed his phone and ran for the oven, where the timer beeped merrily away. He shoved a thick mitt over his fingers and grabbed the oven door. Heat rolled out into the kitchen, carrying the scent of overly toasted sesame seeds. He ground his teeth together and flipped the switch at the side of the oven to halt the rotation of the shelves. Tension throbbed along his jaw as Gray reached inside for the first tray. If he hauled them out quickly enough, he might be able to save this batch. The ones at the back? Toast, quite literally. But these could be okay. Too dark but not completely awful. And honestly? On days like today? He didn’t care.
He wanted to finish rolling out the dough for tomorrow’s bread and then go home.
Of course, that was as likely to happen as little green men poking their heads out from the other side of Jupiter to offer the answer to life, the universe, and small business staffing issues.
Gray rescued what he could from the oven and turned the temperature down. He should cycle a few pastries through before shutting it off entirely, but first he needed to give Patty a hand behind the counter.
“Where do you want me?” he asked, though he was technically the boss.
Patty was his cousin and his savior. She turned up to work when no one else did. Also, she’d been working the counter solo for about the past half hour and had a rhythm going. He’d step in where she needed him most.
“Can you take over the grill?”
“Sure.” Gray glanced at the line of dockets tacked to the wall beside the flattop and hauled in a deep not at all calming breath. A sharp jolt of pain shot through his torso. He’d been experiencing heartburn on and off for weeks, now. Note to self: eat less bacon.
He rubbed at his sternum before picking up the spatula and a pair of eggs. Four bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, one with the egg cooked hard, two cheesesteaks, a chicken parm, three BLTs—
A blur of motion added another docket to the wall: a grilled chicken, and two more bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches. His phone buzzed with an incoming text: Cam was on the other side of Milford but could get there in about an hour.
Don’t worry about it, Gray texted back. But thanks.
Gray slipped the phone into his apron pocket. “When a call gets cut off before the first ring, does that mean I’ve been blocked or the phone is off?” he asked as Patty retreated to the counter.
“It means we’re never hiring another college student, ever. Did you get in touch with Oliver?”
“He’s in Allentown. Is Jared actually sick today, like really sick?”
“He sounded pretty awful.”
“Call him if you get a chance. Maybe his girlfriend could come in for an hour?”
“Last time she worked here she somehow got the cord to the can opener looped around the blade of the deli slicer.”
“Desperate times, Patty.”
“I’ll give her a try.” Patty glanced toward the crowd milling behind the counter. Gray followed her gaze. The crowd gazed back, each and every person waiting to order vying to meet the eyes of the people supposedly working at the café, as though making contact would hurry everything up.
At the end of the line, Sporty offered a cheerful smile and wave.
A groan broke free and seemed to tear something loose with it. Gray’s heart skipped a beat, tapped double time for a bit, and then squeezed tight. Sweat broke out across his forehead. The heat from the flattop buffeted his face, and the kitchen floor shifted beneath his feet. It was only the first of April, but already, spring had proved warm.
Gray slapped together the first few sandwich orders and delivered them to the counter. Patty wrapped, rang up the tickets, and continued taking orders. Together, they moved through the dance they’d practiced hour after hour, day after day, over the past nine months. Orders were filled, more orders were placed. Time ebbed and flowed in unsteady waves, minutes disappearing only to reappear later—mostly when Gray needed additional room on top of the grill. Eventually the line behind the counter dwindled and discarded plates, coffee cups, and napkins collected at the center of each table. Gray muttered curses. There were trash cans by the coffee dispensers and near the door.
“Is there any coffee?” someone called.
Gray smothered another groan. His molars ached and the tightness in his chest had yet to loosen. He pressed his palm to the muscles lurking beneath the winter layer he’d packed on somewhere between the turn of the century and now, and massaged the ache spreading toward his shoulder. He must have pulled a muscle lifting a sack of flour. Normally, his back complained. But shoulder pain wasn’t new. Nor was stomach pain, or the feeling the shop van was parked across his chest. Sometimes, it felt as though he carried the weight of the entire row of buildings. Mostly, this one—his parents’ café and the apartments upstairs. The thick stack of bills on the desk in the office, the responsibility for it all. A dream that wasn’t his but could be. His mother’s legacy and the burden of his father’s current apathy.
It was Sporty. Hadn’t he picked up his sandwich and left yet?
His dark orange eyebrows were pointing toward the center of his forehead. His eyes—a quieter shade of light brown than the bright blue or warm hazel one might expect from a redhead—reflected concern.
“Was there something wrong with your order?” Gray didn’t mean to bark, but he didn’t have time to chat.
He turned to survey the row of coffee urns and noted with dismay that four of the six were empty. Jesus, lord, help me. He hefted the first and winced as the pain in his shoulder flared.
“My sandwich was great. It’s always great.”
Turkey, beets, alfalfa, and avocado on a gutted wheat roll. Gray would roll his eyes at the alfalfa if Sporty was the only one who ordered it.
“Have you put any more thought into a line of gluten-free bread?” Sporty continued. His gaze flicked to the urn. “Here, let me help you with that.”
“I’m fine.” Gray tugged the urn out of Sporty’s grasp and coughed as the movement wrenched his shoulder further. A muscle in his upper chest spasmed. His stomach rolled. “I hear you on the gluten-free bread. But as you can see, I’m a tad busy right now.”
“Of course.” There went the eyebrows.
Why was he so obsessed with Sporty’s eyebrows? Because looking down meant noticing the color of Sporty’s eyes again. And the freckles. All the freckles. The cheekbones. His wide mouth. His lips. The hint of ginger stubble along his jaw.
Gray had dated white guys before, but never one this white. And never one who seemed to have an inexhaustible wardrobe of coordinated sweat suits and sneakers. Definitely not a guy who sparkled with such good health.
Gray was more into nerds like himself and Oliver. Guys who wore their middle age comfortably (sometimes a bit too much so) and owned maybe one pair of sneakers, purchased at least ten years ago and only ever worn . . .
Gray couldn’t remember the last time he’d worn sneakers.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” Gray yanked open the cupboard beneath the coffee stand to retrieve a pouch of coffee grounds. He sorted through the different flavors for French roast. Or was he supposed to be making decaf? And who put the coffee away last? There was a system: French roast to the left, decaf to the right, flavored coffee in the drawers underneath.
He found a double-sized pouch of French roast and straightened. The shop did not follow him up. In fact, the shop seemed to be moving in a slow circle away from him. Gray gripped the edge of the counter, waiting for the circle to stop. It didn’t—not quite.
“You don’t look so good,” Sporty said.
“Been a busy day.” Why was Sporty still standing there?
Oh, dear lord. That was Patty’s something’s-broken-and-we’re-all-going-to-die voice.
“What now?” he called.
“The flattop’s acting up. Gas has cut out on one side.”
A murmur traveled along the small line of customers still waiting for their lunch.
“Be right . . . there.” Gray rubbed at his chest, right over his heart. Decided the pain wasn’t there but up toward his shoulder. Or kind of down his arm? The floor shifted beneath his feet again, and his stomach performed a queasy roll. His teeth sent a sudden ache along his jaw, and the coffee filter he’d picked up drifted from his hand. He pincered numb fingers together, frowned, and bent to retrieve the filter. Stars flashed in front of his eyes as his head collided with a hard object.
“Oh my God! I’m so sorry. I was trying to help.”
It was Sporty. Had been Sporty. Sporty’s head. He now had a red mark in the middle of his forehead, one he stroked with long fingers, each topped with a very square nail. In fact, Sporty’s fingernails were disturbingly neat. All of them the same size and shape, as though he spent his evenings filing them next to a ruler. And they were pink, which made no sense, or maybe it did. Also, he had freckles on his hands. Not many, but enough to notice.
The coffee stand hit Gray in the back. The floor was still moving. He was sitting on the floor and the weight parked across his torso had rolled onto his chest.
“Can’t breathe,” he said, gripping one of Sporty’s hands. “Can’t—”
The café grew dim. What was up with the lights? Had he forgotten to pay the electricity? Maybe the grill—no, the grill was gas. Had he forgotten to pay the gas?
He’d meant to catch up on everything this morning. Now all of Stroudsburg had landed on his torso and he could not get off the floor.
Aaron hadn’t imagined his first physical contact with Grayson Clery would be so painful. The center of Aaron’s forehead throbbed, and the corresponding mark on Grayson’s forehead was starting to form a visible lump. That Grayson seemed to be having difficulty breathing worried him, though. They hadn’t hit their heads together that hard, had they?
When Gray slumped to the floor, eyelids fluttering, and started tugging at the collar of his polo shirt, Aaron switched from dazed bystander to concerned citizen. Gray rasped about a bill before clamping a hand to his chest, right over his heart.
Aaron switched into panic mode and yelled, “Someone call 911!”
The remaining customers in the café stared at him with exactly two expressions: What did you say? and Does this mean I can’t order lunch? Then the woman at the head of the line pulled out her cell. Behind the counter, Patty grabbed the shop phone.
Aaron knelt next to Gray, who continued to clutch his chest. His breath rasped and labored, and his usually warm brown skin had taken on a decidedly ashy cast. Despite the terror welling inside, Aaron ran down the emergency checklist drilled into him once a year when he refreshed his CPR certification. As a gym instructor and personal trainer, he took the health of his clients seriously, including adverse reactions to exercise.
Gray was suffering more than an adverse reaction. He looked like he was having a heart attack.
Keep him calm, loosen his collar. Ask about medication.
“I’m going to unbutton your shirt collar,” Aaron said. “It might help you breathe. Are you taking any medication for your heart? A daily aspirin?”
Gray’s lips moved. A gasping sound came out.
Aaron leaned closer. “What was that?”
Shaking his head, Aaron rocked back on his heels to call to Patty. “Anything?”
“I—” Her attention diverted to the phone and she started speaking quickly.
Gray tugged on Aaron’s hand. “Sporty.”
“’M fine. Just need some coffee.”
The absurd urge to laugh welled inside Aaron’s chest. “Yeah, no. I think coffee is the last thing you need right now. How’s your breathing?” He eyed the lump in the middle of Gray’s forehead. Should he hold up fingers for Gray to count? “Are you allergic to aspirin?” he asked instead.
Gray was shaking his head when Patty called out, “They said to ask if he’s currently taking any medication for his heart.”
“For God’s sake,” Gray wheezed. His eyelids fluttered.
“Gray?” Aaron put a hand to his shoulder. “You still with me?”
“They want me to stay on the line,” Patty said. “Can you make him comfortable?”
Aaron answered with a jerky nod. “Gray.” He squeezed the broad shoulder beneath his palm. “You still there? Can you tell us about medication or aspirin?”
“I can take an aspirin,” Gray whispered, eyes still closed. “Might help with this headache.”
This time, Aaron did laugh. Guy was making a joke right when he might be . . .
Please don’t die. I haven’t gotten to know you yet.
“They’re saying the EMT is five minutes out,” Patty relayed. “Is he breathing okay?”
“He says he can take aspirin.”
Patty glanced from the phone, to Gray, to somewhere toward the back of the shop.
The customer who’d pulled out her cell phone stepped up. “Want me to get it?”
“In the office at the back,” Patty said. “Right inside the door, white tin. Should be a jar inside.”
The customer hurried past the kitchen into the back of the shop. She reappeared almost instantly with a bottle of water and a jar of aspirin. She broke the seal on both, knelt next to Aaron and Gray, and dispensed a pill.
Gray allowed the aspirin to be pushed into his mouth and drank from the bottle when Aaron held it to his lips. After swallowing, he said, “Coffee would have been better.”
Aaron shared a chuckle with the woman kneeling next to him.
“Three minutes,” Patty called out. “How’s he doing?”
“How’re you doing?” Aaron asked.
Gray locked eyes with him and a chill jolted down Aaron’s spine. He grabbed Gray’s left hand and squeezed his fingers. “Gray?”
“It’s all blurry,” Gray said.
Gray’s eyes drifted closed.
Aaron cupped Gray’s suddenly slack hand and slid a couple of fingers to the inside of his wrist. He barely registered the sound of sirens outside the café or the bustle of the EMTs as they pushed through the door. His entire focus had narrowed to the near nonexistent rasp of Gray’s breath and the fact he couldn’t find a pulse.
Then Aaron was being gently set aside while the EMTs formed a loose huddle. The other customer helped Aaron to a nearby chair, and Aaron sat heavily. Tears stung his eyes, and his sinuses burned. His breath felt about as shaky as his hands, and if the band around his chest didn’t loosen soon, he’d be on the floor beside Gray.
Someone patted his hand. Aaron glanced over to find the woman who’d gotten the aspirin and water smiling faintly at him. “You did great,” she said.
“I . . .” Aaron shook his head.
“I’m choosing to believe he’ll be fine.”
Aaron let his head bob up and down instead of shaking side to side. Then decided all motion should cease before he regurgitated his lunch.
One of the EMTs materialized in front of him. “Sir?”
“Are you okay? You’ve got a pretty big bump on your forehead. Can you tell us what happened?”
The next few minutes passed in another blur of motion. Gray being lifted onto a stretcher. Patty yelling at one of the technicians. Questions, answers, the determination that Aaron did not have a concussion, but had suffered a shock and might want to consider asking someone to pick him up.
“What about Grayson?” Aaron asked.
The EMT squeezed his shoulder. “He’s in good hands.”
Aaron watched them steer Gray out through the door and into the back of the van. They’d just closed the van doors when a familiar man blocked Aaron’s view.
Patty ran toward the café door. “Oliver! Gray collapsed. A heart attack, maybe.”
“What?” Oliver swept the café with a glare, as though one of those remaining inside was responsible. His gaze landed on Aaron. They knew each other from the gym. Aaron taught classes; Oliver provided some of the food for the small onsite café. “Where are they taking him?” he asked.
The EMT van pulled away.
“Which network is he with?” Aaron asked. Did Gray have insurance?
“Lehigh Valley.” Patty turned to Oliver. “They’ll probably take him to Pocono Medical.” The closest local hospital had been renamed Lehigh Valley something or other a couple of years ago but no one from the area called it that. “I need to contact his dad and maybe get over there, unless you want to? And we need to close the café.”
“I can help,” Aaron put in. “Here, at the café. I’ll help whichever one of you close up.” He’d prefer to follow Gray to the hospital, but despite his currently addled state, Aaron understood that wouldn’t be appropriate. Gray didn’t even know his name. At least, Aaron didn’t think he did.
Would he ever?
Now was so not the time to ponder romantic fantasies.
A buzz against his thigh distracted him. Aaron fished his cell phone out of the pocket of his sweats and stared dazedly at the picture of his sister on the screen. Devorah did not have red hair and freckles. She had the perpetual tan of their parents’ Mediterranean heritage as well as their dark hair and eyes. Aaron’s adoptive family often teased him about his almost transparency, but always in a way that made him feel welcome and loved. They’d chosen him because of his red hair, his mom always insisted. Not in spite of it.
He was still staring at his phone. Aaron gathered his wits and answered the call.
“Aaron, dude, it’s after one o’clock. Did you forget you had a class? Where are you?”
He blinked at the café windows. “What?”
“Where. Are. You?”
“Oh, shit. I’m so sorry. I was at Clery’s getting lunch and asking about the gluten-free bread and Gray—Grayson Clery. The baker? He had . . . I think he had a heart attack. Right here. He was standing next to me, and then we bumped heads and he collapsed on the floor.”
Feeling a prickle of attention, Aaron glanced up. Oliver was giving him the side eye. Thankfully, Patty pulled on Oliver’s sleeve and the pair of them disappeared toward the kitchen.
Over the phone, Devorah was saying, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Stunned, I guess? I mean, we run through that course every year on what to do, but it’s very different when it’s happening. I’m glad we’ve never had a serious incident at the gym, because I don’t think I did everything I was supposed to.”
“I’m sure you did fine. He’s okay, right?”
“I don’t know. They took him to the hospital, but they didn’t have the siren going when they left. Is that good or bad?”
“I’m not sure. Wait, Grayson Clery? The guy you’ve been crushing on?”
Aaron didn’t answer.
“Oh—kay,” Dev said. “So, your two o’clock class.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Are you sure? Leilani is here. I can ask her to cover it.” Leilani was Devorah’s partner in every sense—life partner, business partner, and coconspirator in making Aaron’s life simultaneously wonderful and awkward. It was like having two sisters for the price of one.
“No, I think I need to be there. To do something usual. The exercise will be good for me.” His head chose that moment to throb. Aaron inspected the lump with his fingers. Maybe he should let Leilani cover the two o’clock. There was also the matter of having volunteered to help close up the café. “You know what? Ask Leili if she’d mind. And the three thirty. Add it to the babysitting bill.” Not that watching his nephew was ever a chore. “I want to hang here and help them clean up the café. They were understaffed today and it was nuts.”
“Should I ask about our bagel order?”
“We can check back tomorrow. If not, we’ll have time to order from Metzgar’s. Heck, we could buy a few bags of bagels from the supermarket if it came down to it. We don’t sell a ton.”
“We can chat about it later. You going to be all right?”
“All right. Love you, bro.”
“Love you too.”
They rang off and Aaron slipped his phone back into his pocket.
Oliver was looming over him again. “Can you help Patty close? I’m going to head over to the hospital and check on Gray.”
“Sure. Anything to help.”
Oliver’s countenance softened slightly. “Thanks for sitting with Gray. Patty told me how you helped out.” His gaze wandered upward. “You might want to put some ice on that.”
Aaron touched his forehead. “I’ll be fine.”
“Hey, about your bagel order. It’s all good. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll be making sure Gray’s café remains open. He needs to not worry about this place while he recovers.”
Oliver’s faith that Gray would recover was heartening, as was his desire to keep the café going in his absence. But Aaron couldn’t help thinking that closing the door for a month or whatever might be kinder. The café was always busy and nearly always understaffed. Today, though. Today had to have been every small business owner’s nightmare.
Thank God Aaron didn’t have a stake in anything like it. Devorah and Leilani seemed happy enough building their small fitness empire, but for Aaron, working a daily schedule of classes and personal training sessions was enough. He did his thing, then he went home and did some other thing. Aaron had had enough complication at the start of his life to not want any in what were supposed to be his best years.
That being said, he wouldn’t mind some company now and again.
He glanced around the empty café, at the tables piled with leftover plates and napkins. The coffee pot sitting on the floor. An image of Gray, ashen and panicked, flashed to the forefront of Aaron’s mind. Taking a deep breath, Aaron sought the moment before—and got instead the moment after, when Gray had been lying on the floor cracking, literally, coffee jokes.
He’d take it.
When Gray was a kid, a vacation had meant he wasn’t allowed to leave the hotel alone and that he could eat French toast for breakfast every day. When Gray was in his twenties, a vacation had meant he could leave the hotel any damn time he wanted to.
His first adult vacation, he hadn’t left the hotel for three days. When he had left the hotel, he’d slept on the beach. He’d bought postcards at the airport and told everyone he’d had a great time. Couldn’t wait to go back.
Waking up in the hospital the morning after someone parked the shop van on his chest felt a bit like that vacation. He was tired. Very tired. The previous day was a smear across his memory, a blur of endless tests and the dawning knowledge that fear only lasted so long before morphing into a complacency that was somehow worse.
Gray was blinking at the ceiling, his mind working to slot the events of the past day into a sensible timeline, choosing what to keep and what to discard, when a face popped into view. A nurse with warm brown eyes and a wide smile.
“Look who’s awake.”
Gray croaked in response, and when he blinked, the nurse’s face slotted into the kaleidoscope of his memory.
“I know.” She patted his shoulder. “You’re tired. And no wonder. Last night wasn’t fun, was it? Now, in case you don’t recall, my name is Evie, and I’m about to head off shift. My friend Eric will be taking care of you until you go home. Which will be soon.” She delivered another pat. “Dr. Kassel is going to have a lot of information for you when she comes in, but I’ve been working this unit for five years. I can always tell.”
Tell what? And whatever it was, shouldn’t he assume she could tell simply because it was her job? His eyebrows must have declared his doubts.
Evie clucked. “Mm-hmm. You go on and believe I don’t know what I’m talking about.” She activated the cuff encircling his upper arm. “That’s fine. All types end up in here. Those who think I don’t know my job and those who take comfort from what I have to say.”
The blood pressure cuff squeezed tight. Gray tried not to hold his breath. Tried to will his blood pressure toward a reasonable state. Evie frowned at the display.
“High or low?” Gray rasped.
“About right,” she reassured him, checking the bandage wrapped around his left wrist.
Gray issued a warning grunt.
Evie smiled gently. “Imagine how you’d be feeling if we’d used the femoral artery instead.”
They could have opened a hole in his chest and he might not have felt worse.
Evie frowned at the display again. Then she was back by his shoulder, her grip firm. “Deep, slow breaths. Easier said than done, I know.”
“When can I go home?” Gray asked.
“Oh, honey. As soon as your blood pressure stabilizes. We’re nearly there. Dr. Kassel will be by soon. Can I get you some water?”
Gray shook his head, his thoughts sloshing from one side to the other. He was so done with peeing in bottles. Fatigue landed on his chest and spread out like an octopus. With a sigh, Gray let his heavy lids fall closed.
The next time he woke, Dr. Kassel stood over him holding a tablet computer.
“There you are.” Her smile wasn’t quite as warm as Nurse Evie’s.
Gray instantly decided he was not a fan.
“Worst April Fools’ ever, am I right?” she said.
Really not a fan.
“I know, my humor sucks. Luckily for you, it’s not an essential component when it comes to your treatment.”
Why were all the staff at this hospital so talkative? “When can I go home?” Gray asked, his voice as strained and broken as before.
“Let’s talk about that.”
I thought we were?
Gray didn’t consider himself a terse individual. He could be sunshine itself. He’d patented the wide and warm smile. But the past couple of years had been a trial, and now the universe had played a practical joke that he failed to see as funny: he’d just suffered from the same ailment that had killed his mother—after moving home to take over the business that might have proved her end.
“Okay. Talk.” He meant to say more, to maybe try for a modicum of politeness, but Dr. Kassel’s was not the only humor that currently sucked.
“It’s all right to feel whatever you’re feeling at the moment,” she said. “You’re probably tired, sore, overwhelmed, anxious. All of the above.” Thankfully, she didn’t squeeze his shoulder. “So, let’s start with the good news.”
Dr. Kassel began with a recap of what he’d experienced the day before. He’d suffered a myocardial infarction, commonly referred to as a heart attack, and they’d used the highway from his wrist to his heart, the radial artery, to clear the blockage and place a stent. The procedure had gone well, and he might have been sent home last night if not for the fact his blood pressure refused to stabilize.
“What’s the bad news, then?” Gray asked.
“Statistics. But we’re going to buck the trend.”
“What do you mean?”
“African Americans have a significantly higher risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. We’re going to look at hereditary and lifestyle factors and do what we can to minimize the impact of both.”
“Meaning . . .”
“I’d like you to monitor your blood pressure at home until we’re sure the medication is doing what it’s supposed to do. I’d also like you to examine your diet. Losing weight and making healthier choices, both food-wise and regarding exercise, will go a long way toward addressing your hypertension and high cholesterol. The medication will do its part, but will work better if you do yours.”
“What about my job?”
“You’ll want to take it easy for the next couple of weeks. Your wrist may be sore, but the incision is small and should heal nicely. Keep it clean. Otherwise, avoid stress and get lots of rest. Fresh air if you feel like it. A quiet walk if you feel up to it. No driving right away and no heavy lifting.”
A bag of flour weighed fifty pounds.
“I have a business to run. A bakery.”
“Someone else is going to have to do that for a while.”
“What?” Had the cuff around his arm started squeezing him again?
“Unless you’d like me to book time right now for your bypass?”
“Bypass?” More squeezing.
Dr. Kassel’s eyes twinkled. “I’m kidding. Mostly.”
“I liked the April Fools’ joke better.”
“See? My humor’s not all bad.” She smiled briefly before consulting her notes. “If you’re good and follow all the rules”—don’t leave the hotel alone—“you’ll be back up to speed in no time. Many heart patients are healthier than they’ve ever been after recovery.”
“That makes no sense.”
“A better diet, adding exercise and medication, and a new appreciation for the little things. For some, it’s a wake-up call. For others, it’s a much-needed change of perspective. For you, it’s your body saying you need to slow down and take care of yourself, especially considering your family history. Think of the next couple of weeks as a vacation.”
Heh. “Can I eat French toast?”
Here came the wide, warm smile. “In moderation.”
Gray had no idea how much time had passed when he next opened his eyes. The cuff around his upper arm had been removed, which allowed a much deeper sleep, even if someone had woken him up to check his pressure anyway.
A scuff caught his attention. He rolled his head and saw Oliver seated in the chair next to the bed.
“Hey,” Oliver said.
Gray issued the grunt he planned to trademark once they let him out of the hospital.
“How are you feeling?” Oliver lifted the small box resting in his lap. “I brought cookies.”
“Are they free of everything that makes the good things in life good?”
“If you’re referring to animal products, yes. But they’re still chocolate chip cookies. You could even call them legal chocolate chip cookies.”
“You’re going to tell me that they’re heart-healthy. Aren’t you?” The very thought of eating a vegan cookie caused him distress.
Oliver set the box down on the table next to the bed and wheeled it over Gray’s midsection. “Try one.”
“Maybe I don’t feel like a cookie.”
“You don’t look like one, either.”
“What is it with hospitals and bad jokes?”
Oliver’s eyes glistened.
“Don’t you dare.”
After drawing in a deep breath, Oliver managed to compose himself. “Hospitals are the scariest places on Earth,” he said, voice quiet. “Bad humor is par for the course, my friend.”
“True that.” Gray pushed his palms into the mattress and winced at the pressure on his bandaged wrist as he scooted back against his pillows in an attempt to sit up.
“Don’t you have some sort of control to lift up half your bed?” Oliver asked.
“Dunno. Maybe. Give me a cookie.”
Before Oliver could open the box, Eric arrived. Eric was a large man. And hot. He had the patented wide smile, but also warm brown skin, merry brown eyes, and a fade that would require weekly maintenance.
Gray could remember when he and Oliver had had cool, up-to-date haircuts. Now he let his hair grow out until it touched his ears, at which time his dad was usually ready for a mutual barbering session.
Nurse Eric also had broad shoulders and large hands. And he and Gray had already been intimate. He’d helped Gray to the bathroom earlier that morning.
“Are those cookies?” Eric asked.
“Heart-healthy cookies,” Oliver answered in a slightly dreamy tone. He must have noticed Eric’s shoulders and hands. His smile. Eric was the whole package. Much more Gray’s type (and Oliver’s, apparently) than Sporty McSporterson.
A flash of light brown eyes beneath dark orange eyebrows teased his memory. The bump corresponding directly to the fading mark on Gray’s forehead. The cadence of Sporty’s voice, the fact he’d been down there on the café floor with Gray, gripping his hands.
Back in the present, Oliver was ticking off the benefits of his un-fun cookies. Eric was frowning and chewing on a full lip. “I dunno, man. How about if I take the cookies back to the nurses’ station and give them to Mr. Clery when he’s cleared to go home?”
“I guess that’d be okay.” Oliver tore his gaze away from Eric’s assets to check in with Gray. “Sound good to you?”
“Sure. So, the café. How—”
Eric’s tut sounded suspiciously similar to Evie’s.
Oliver patted the air with his hands. “All under control. You had enough bread dough to cover the weekend, and I’ve worked with you often enough to prepare for next week. I’m going to show Patty’s husband how to mix dough this afternoon, and Nick took care of the bills on your desk. Aaron’s been scrubbing everything from the front door to the back.”
“Who’s Aaron? Where’s Patty?”
“Patty’s keeping the lights on. Making sandwiches for your ever-loyal public. Aaron’s the guy who was with you yesterday. Red hair?”
“Always wears coordinated sweats.”
“He’s an instructor at Leilani’s gym.”
“I know. Drops off the bagel order in person, twice a week, even though there’s a thing called email. Always orders the same sandwich: turkey, beets, alfalfa and avocado on a gutted wheat roll. Asks when I’m going to start doing gluten-free bread.” Dispenser of smiles that revealed a dimple in each cheek. How did Gray know this? Because Sporty was always cheerful and chatty.
“Sounds like someone has a crush,” Oliver murmured.
“Don’t I know it,” Gray all but sighed in reply.
Eric was pretending not to listen, but he was totally listening.
“I’ll tell him you said hi.” Oliver was grinning now.
Gray scowled. “What about my dad?”
“He was here last night. We weren’t allowed to see you until you were asleep. Want me to give him a call?”
Gray’s thoughts fluctuated: Was his dad watching over him while he slept annoying or sweet? And how long had he stayed? Maybe he’d simply checked the heart monitor, tendered one of his gruff nods, and left. Or had he sat in the chair awhile?
Gray shook off the questions, his shoulders rustling against the pillow. “No. I should be getting out of here today.”
“Call me when you’re ready for a ride home.”
Already tired but not willing to show it, Gray offered a sharp nod. “Will do.”
“Great class, everyone! Thanks for being here.” Aaron raised his hands in a double clap and the class clapped back. The energy he had pushed into the ninety-minute workout bounced right back at him, and he soaked up the high.
The Saturday freestyle class could be his favorite. Rather than follow a set routine, he got to change it up from week-to-week, varying between CrossFit type workouts to old-school kickboxing and step aerobics. The changes kept the class interesting while also challenging the participants. And him.
Aaron mopped his face with a towel and picked up his phone. Before he could wake the screen, a sneakered pair of feet stopped in front of him. He glanced up.
Focus Fitness attracted multiple types of people, but Aaron could almost always sort them into two broad categories: those who liked to work out and those who wanted to like working out. Contrary to the spirit of working out, Aaron preferred the second group. He loved witnessing that moment of change, when an exercise clicked or a goal was met. When one of his clients figured out that fitness wasn’t a chore but a choice.
Kevin, the guy standing in front of him now, fell into the first group. He loved to exercise, attending nearly as many classes as Aaron taught, and regularly booked two private sessions a week. Kevin didn’t really need the help, and if he was just after a workout buddy, there was always someone in the weight room willing to spot. Aaron assumed he simply liked showing off his admittedly impressive stamina and the body that came with it.
Still, Aaron greeted him with a smile. “Hey. Great work today.”
“Thanks! It was a fun class. I felt like we were back in the eighties.”
Aaron laughed. “Jane Fonda is a legend, even if some of her moves are a bit outdated.”
“As always, you knew where to make the changes.”
“I appreciate that.”
“So, listen, can I change our Monday session to Tuesday?”
Aaron woke the screen on his phone to check his training calendar. “What time were you thinking? I have an opening at ten.” He also had two open training spots after lunch that day, but would like to keep his afternoons free to help out at Clery’s. Gray’s friend, Oliver, was going to take care of the baking, and Patty seemed to know all there was to know about café management. But Aaron could work a broom and a mop.
Kevin consulted his phone. “Ten is great. See you then!”
While watching Kevin work out might not be the highlight of Aaron’s week, regular clients were essential to the gym’s business. And Aaron had to admit Kevin put on a good show. Focus Fitness had gained a handful of new personal-training clients after someone had seen him and Kevin working together.
Aaron checked his calendar for the rest of the day. Only two people had signed up for the three o’clock session. Gym policy was to cancel any class with too few participants. Aaron rarely did, though. He enjoyed smaller groups because he got the opportunity to work closely with those who showed up. But Gray was still in the hospital, and Aaron wanted to visit.
After arguing with himself for thirty seconds, Aaron clicked Cancel. The app would text anyone who’d signed up, informing them of the change.
He was about to put his phone away, when it rang. His mother’s smiling face filled the screen, and Aaron grinned. He answered the call. “Hey, Mom.”
“Hey, yourself. How’s my charming boy?”
“I think I know what I want for my birthday.” It was two months away, but whatever.
“You do?” She sounded delighted.
“For you to stop referring to me as your ‘charming boy.’”
“Aw. How’s ‘charming young man’?”
Aaron laughed. They had the same conversation at least once a year. “How are you, Mom?”
“I’m about to step onto an airplane.”
“Yeah? Where are you going this time?”
His parents had retired to Arizona about a year after Hurricane Sandy swept through the Northeast. They’d decided they were done with snow. Since moving, they’d continued to travel, apparently not quite being done with seasons. They’d cruised Alaska; toured the Sonoma Valley; trekked the Appalachian, PCT, and the John Muir; ridden donkeys through the Grand Canyon; and sailed the Florida Keys.
“Pennsylvania!” she chirped.
“Really? What’s here that you haven’t seen?”
“You, my charming young man.”
Warmth built a nest in Aaron’s chest. “I’ve missed you too. How long are you staying? Can I pick you up at the airport?”
“That’s why I’m calling. Could you?”
“Of course. What time does your flight get in?”
She rattled off a flight number and arrival time, and Aaron plugged it all into his calendar before ringing off and pocketing his phone. Only then did he realize she hadn’t mentioned how long she’d be staying. Huh. She’d fill him in on the way home from the airport, no doubt.
Next on his agenda was a shower. If he was quick, he could stop by the hospital before he picked up his mom.
Devorah caught him outside the locker room. “Do you have time for a chat?”
“Sure. Can I take a shower first?”
“Leili’s on her way. Can you make it a fast shower?”
It’d have to be if he still wanted to visit Gray. “Ten-four.”
Aaron assumed any chat involving his sister and her wife would have to do with the gym, and he wasn’t wrong. He’d no sooner sat down across the small table in the corner of Devorah’s office when Devorah pushed a glossy brochure toward him. She glanced at Leilani as Aaron picked it up. He blinked down at the trifold real estate advertisement for a commercial property development in a neighboring suburb.
“That—” Devorah reached over, unfolded the brochure, and pointed to a large, blank square at the end of the development “—could be your gym.”
“Memberships at our Marshall’s Creek expansion have nearly doubled over the past three months, far outpacing our first-year projections, so we’re ready for the next step. We always planned to try for a property to the west. A gym for each of us!”
Devorah beamed. Beside her, Leilani beamed. They smiled at each other, and then turned their high-wattage happiness back in Aaron’s direction. He felt his lips peel upward. His face forming the appropriate response.
Inside? He was not beaming.
Post-workout slump, probably. He needed a protein shake and fifteen minutes of positive visualization—otherwise known as a power nap. Still, he did his best to mimic his sisters’ excitement. They were getting a new gym and they wanted it to be his!
“Wait, you mean you want me to run it?”
“Of course!” Leilani said. “What did you think we meant?”
Aaron massaged his forehead. “Sorry. Blanked for a bit there. Will I still be able to teach my classes? My clients, what about my personal clients?”
Devorah waved a hand. “We’ll figure it out. Some of your clients probably live over that direction and will be happy to relocate with you. As for classes, it’ll be up to you because—” she folded her elbows across the table and leaned in “—it’ll be your gym.”
Leilani extended a hand to squeeze his wrist. “I’m so excited for you!”
“I am too,” Aaron’s lips said. His brain had hit a hill of sand and was having serious doubts about its ability to get up and over. Time for a subject change. “Oh, hey, Dev, did you know Mom and Dad were visiting?”
Devorah blinked at him.
“She just called. Was about to get on a plane. I’m picking them up at Newark in a couple of hours.”
“This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“So, they’re not staying with you?”
Devorah glanced at Leilani, whose eyes widened. They turned their surprise on him. “Ah, no?” Leilani said. “Crap, I don’t think they can. We literally have no wall on the back of the house. Why didn’t she call sooner?”
“Maybe they got a last-minute deal,” Devorah said.
“What do you mean ‘no wall’?” Aaron asked.
“We decided to go ahead with expanding the kitchen and put a family room in too. Also, we, ah, need an extra bedroom.”
Devorah grabbed Leilani’s hand, and they kissed.
Aaron gaped. “Wait, an extra bedroom for . . .? You’re pregnant?” he asked his sister.
She shook her head. “Leili wanted to do it this time. It’s still early, so keep it to yourself, okay?”
“Can I tell Mom and Dad?”
“Let us do it when they’re here. Did they say where they planned to stay?”
“No, but I guess I can keep them. Though I’ve been throwing shit into my spare room and closing the door without waiting to see where it lands for—” he checked his watch “—five years? I really need to get going.” So much for stopping by the hospital. “About the gym, can I think about it for a few days? I’ve got a lot going on in my head right now, and I want to take a moment to sit and process this.”
Devorah and Leilani exchanged a glance.
“Sure,” Devorah said, her tone clearly saying, Really? What’s there to think about?
Leilani squeezed his wrist again, and the meeting broke up.
Aaron pocketed his phone, collected his bag, and left the gym. The early April sunshine, weak and watery as it was, felt good against his skin but also prophetic. No, that wasn’t the right word. Relevant? Knowing? Whatever the word, it was as though the sun matched his mood and his feelings about heading up the third gym in the Focus Fitness Empire.
He should be excited. He loved working out. He loved helping others reach their fitness goals. So why wasn’t he dancing and singing? Why did he feel as though he’d skipped his post-workout shake and nap?
Because you did.
That wasn’t all of it, though.
Gray pushed his left arm through a sleeve and hissed as the bandage briefly caught. He paused with the bulk of the T-shirt wrapped around his face until the claustrophobic press of material over his nose and mouth spurred him on to finish poking his head out of the neck hole. After another breath that did little to refresh him, Gray sat on the side of the hospital bed and let his chin drop toward his chest. First order of business when he got home would be a nap.
He wanted to be annoyed but couldn’t muster the energy. If Gray had learned one thing over the past two days, it was that anger was exhausting. He hadn’t given up on his basic human right to be pissed off— He was saving it for when his blood pressure stabilized fully.
Today’s next battle: his socks. He gazed down the length of his legs. Why were his feet so goddamned far away? He filled his lungs, which still felt like a miracle, and made the executive decision to pull his feet up onto the bed.
Why the socks Oliver had packed for him didn’t match was a question for the ages. Gray tugged them on, fitted the sneakers Ollie must have dug out of a lost property box over them, laced everything up, and rested with his eyes closed for another handful of minutes.
At this rate, it’d be a year before he got back up to strength.
A hand touched his arm, and Gray opened his eyes.
Evie stood by the bed. “I wanted to come say goodbye because I know I’m not going to see you in here again.”
Gray found a smile for her. “Yeah, how’s that?”
“Because you’re going to follow each and every instruction Dr. Kassel gave to you and take care of yourself. Aren’t you?”
“If I say, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ will you release the cookies?” Ollie had delivered another batch last night—when Gray had thought he’d been going home. His blood pressure had had other ideas.
“Once a cookie enters the nurses’ station, it’s lost forever.”
“Figures. Do you come to find every heart patient before they’re released?” he asked.
“Only my favorite ones.”
Gray smiled again. His second for the day. How about that? Then another wave of fatigue rolled over his shoulders and down the front of his chest.
“You’ll feel better tomorrow,” Evie said.
“I seem to remember you saying that yesterday.”
“Not feeling like you’re going to die generally means you’re doing better, though it can work the other way around.”
Gray laughed. “Is this the new bedside manner? Like reverse psychology?”
She chuckled in return. “Most patients report feeling more rested after a night home in their own bed. It’ll be quieter and you’ll be in your own place.”
Evie patted his hand. “You take care now.”
“I will. And thanks.”
A shuffle in the doorway caught Gray’s attention. Sporty stood there holding an oversized potted potato in one hand and a plush turtle in the other.
Evie glanced from the doorway to Gray and back again. Her eyebrows arched upward, and with a quick, soft pang, Gray realized he’d miss her. Having a heart attack was not on his list of recommended pastimes. Not an activity he’d care to repeat. But she’d made his hospital stay bearable.
She patted his arm again and moved to leave. Sporty stepped aside to let her pass.
Gray wanted to lie down and close his eyes again. But he had the potato to deal with, the turtle (seriously, what the ever living . . .), and the man holding both.
“I’m guessing you didn’t know I’m about to go home,” Gray said.
“I did, actually.” Sporty seemed to chew on this for a minute, his lips pursing without sound. “Oliver sent me. He had to go into the City with his daughter or he’d have been here.”
Oliver’s daughter was studying theater in New York City. This weekend was her set-design debut or whatever.
“I told him I’d be fine,” Gray said.
“I’m here and I have a car. Where do you live?”
“Over the café.”
“Perfect. I was going to help close today, anyway.”
“I’m pretty sure Oliver would have stern words for everyone involved if I let you take a cab home from the hospital.”
“I do have other friends.” He hadn’t been great about keeping in touch with the crew from down south, though. Calling them from the hospital to ask for a ride home might not be the best way to say hey.
He also had a father who hadn’t seen fit to visit him while he was conscious. Then again, his dad didn’t drive unless he had to. Calling him for a ride would probably be more stressful than either of them could handle.
Gray gazed wistfully at the equipment he was no longer connected to. How was he going to tell he was in trouble without seeing his heart beat? Of course, he was supposed to be getting his own blood pressure monitor. Yay.
Aaron’s eyebrows were pinched together.
He opened his mouth to speak, and Gray cut him off with a noisy exhale. “Fine, fine. But I’m not taking whatever that is with me.” Gray gestured toward the mysterious plant. “I have enough clutter. Also, that has to be the ugliest plant I’ve ever seen. It looks like a big potato. With legs.” Gray tilted his head. “Or a dead dog. With legs. And green things sprouting from its paws.”
Sporty must have the best sense of humor in Stroudsburg, because he merely smiled. “Yeah, it kinda does, doesn’t it?” He offered the pot to Gray. “Apparently someone ordered it by mistake and no one wanted to buy it. I felt sorry for it.” He held out the turtle as well. “This is for luck and longevity.” A cloud passed over his face. “Which I could have thought about a bit more, I guess. But turtles. Turtles are cool.”
Huh. “I would have figured you’d be into cheetahs or horses.” What else was fast?
“The turtle is for you.”
“Because I’m a slow old man?”
“What? No. It’s a gift. Turtles also symbolize endurance and persistence.” A blush seared Sporty’s cheeks, rendering his freckles almost invisible. “Sorry. I can keep it. I just thought—”
Gray snatched the turtle, leaving Aaron holding the potato plant. “Thank you.”
Word Count: 92,000
Page Count: 330
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Series: Hearts & Crafts
Release Date: 01/16/2023
Release Date: 01/16/2023