Marie Sexton - Coda 04 - Strawberries for Dessert

BOOK: Marie Sexton - Coda 04 - Strawberries for Dessert
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Copyright

Published by
Dreamspinner Press
4760 Preston Road
Suite 244-149
Frisco, TX 75034
http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Strawberries for Dessert
Copyright © 2010 by Marie Sexton
Cover Art by Anne Cain [email protected] Cover Design by Mara McKennen

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact Dreamspinner Press, 4760 Preston Road, Suite 244-149, Frisco, TX 75034
http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/

ISBN: 978-1-61581-550-0

Printed in the United States of America First Edition
August, 2010

eBook edition available
eBook ISBN: 978-1-61581-551-7
Dedications

Troy and Julie:
Thank you for your support and encouragement.
Scarlett:
If he ever turns, he’s all yours!
Wendy:
Thanks for the ongoing workshop chats. This book would not be what it is without you. And thanks for giving me the naughty half of our brain!
Sean:
As always, thank you for your never-ending love and support.
And l ast but ne ver l east, K endall:
One of these days you may be embarrassed by the books your mother writes, but for now, I’m glad you find it so exciting. And because it means so much to you, I will include the words you added to the manuscript when it was less than ten pages long: tim jim lim dim7975 6781
I love you!
1

Strawberries for Dessert

 

T
HE
flight was six hours long. Six hours to contemplate all the ways this could end.

I had flown more times in my life than I could possibly count, but only one other flight had ever caused me this much anxiety. That flight had ended with me voluntarily throwing myself out of a perfectly good airplane. I had known then that I might be about to experience the thrill of my life—or I might come to a very messy end on the ground below.

This didn’t feel much different.

Every minute was an exercise in patience. Pre-boarding made my heart pound. Finding my seat made my palms sweat. The takeoff almost caused me to hyperventilate—there was no turning back now. I was given a bag of pretzels (because peanuts were no longer allowed) and a tiny shot of Sprite on the rocks. What I really needed was a Valium, but I was pretty sure the stewardess didn’t have those on her rickety little cart.

Every choice I had ever made had led me here, to this airplane. Everything I wanted in the world was at the other end of this unbelievably terrifying cross-country flight. What if it all went wrong?

Finally
we began our descent, and I could not stop my hands from shaking or trepidation from growing in my chest like some kind of parasite. The fear was almost overwhelming. It might even have been crippling, if not for one simple thing: underneath it all was something stronger. Something pure. Something that drove me on.

It was hope.

 

2

 

E
IGHTEEN MONTHS EARLIER

Date: April 10
From: Jared
To: Cole

Cole—We were in Vegas a few weeks ago and ran into a friend of Zach’s. He lives in Phoenix, and he said you should look him up. Good looking guy and he seemed nice enough as long as you’re not the one dating his ex. I think the two of you might hit it off. His name is Jonathan Kechter.

Jared

Date: April 11
From: Cole
To: Jared

Hey Sweets! It’s good to hear from you, even if your email is dreadfully short. What happens in Vegas doesn’t really have to stay in Vegas, honey. Would it kill you to give me some juicy details?

So, you think I should look up this Jonathan fellow? I’ll take your word on the good-looking part. After all, you do have fabulous taste in men, even if that big pissed-off cop you’re with now isn’t exactly my type. As long as I’m “not the one dating his ex”? That’s terribly intriguing. I suspect there’s a good story to go along with such a cryptic statement. You never were much of a gossip (you really should work on that, Sweets). I’ll be in New York for the next few days, but when I get back home, maybe I’ll give him a call. God knows Phoenix has been awfully dry lately—and sugar, I’m not talking about the weather!

3

 

T
HE
flight from LA to Phoenix took about an hour. One hour that I had a perfectly legitimate excuse for turning off my cell phone. What did it say about my job when the commute was the fun part?

I’d just spent a week in LA helping our newest hotel client transition their accounting data into my company’s software. Next week, I would be doing the same thing for another client in Vegas. Between those two cities and Phoenix, I was currently juggling six different clients in various stages of the transition process. All of them seemed inclined to call me at all hours.

And then there was my boss.

The calls started at six a.m. and usually ended by ten at night. Although I was skeptical that my simple cell phone really posed any threat to modern aviation equipment, I was quite happy to abide by the FAA’s rule that it be turned off during the flight. But all too soon we were on the ground in Phoenix, and my reprieve was over. As I walked from the gate to the baggage claim, I turned my phone back on and was immediately informed that I had four voice mail messages. Four messages in one hour?

I bit back my annoyance. Another year or two in this position, and I would be eligible for a promotion. I tried to keep my eye on the prize. Still, four messages waiting for me was a definite sign that my arrival home in Phoenix was not going to be the end of my work week, even if it was Friday afternoon.

Before I could even listen to the first one, my phone rang. Shit. Here we go again. “This is Jonathan.”

 

“Jonathan! Where the hell are you?” It was Marcus Barry, my boss.

 

“I’m at the airport. Is there something wrong?”

 

4

“That woman from the Clifton Inn has been trying to reach you for the last hour.” I had only left the Clifton Inn four hours ago. What could possibly have come up in that time that was so urgent?

“I was on the plane,” I said, trying not to let him hear my frustration.

 

He sighed. “Well, she’s driving everybody here nuts. She wants answers
now
.”

 

“I’ll call her right away.”

 

“Good,” he said, and hung up without saying goodbye. Not that I minded.

I made it to the baggage claim carousel and confirmed that my bag had yet to be spit out onto the conveyor belt. I stood there watching for it while I called Sarah, the accounts manager at the Clifton Inn. It went directly to her voice mail. I left her a message saying that I was now back in Phoenix and for her to call. Before I could even hang up, my phone buzzed again.

Five voice mails now. Great.

I saw my bag spill out of the chute, and I shouldered my way to the front of the crush of people so that I would be able to grab it when it got to me. I was just about to reach for it when my phone rang.

“This is Jonathan.”

There was a half a second of silence, and then a voice I did not recognize said, “So formal, aren’t you darling? I wasn’t expecting that. This is Cole.” The voice was light, the tone mocking. Definitely a man’s voice but with a very feminine quality.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Who—
shit
!” Because I realized at that moment that, in the process of answering the phone, I had missed my bag and would now have to wait for it to make another circuit on the conveyor before I could retrieve it.

“Is something wrong?”

“No.” My phone buzzed in my hand. Six voice mails. I at least managed to keep my obscenities silent this time. “I’m sorry,” I said, trying not to let him hear the annoyance in my voice. “Who are you?” 5

“I’m a friend of Jared’s. He gave me your number, darling.” Darling? Really? “My name is Jonathan.”
“Yes. You said that already,” he said with obvious amusement. I managed to not sigh audibly. “I only meant—”

“I know what you meant,” he said, interrupting me. There was a lilting cadence to his voice, which only amplified my perception of him as overly feminine. “Jared led me to believe you would be expecting my call.”

“He did. I mean, I am. I
was
.” I stopped short and took a deep breath. I hated being flustered, and I was a little annoyed that he had managed to make me that way so easily. I made myself count to five. Ten would have been better, but I had learned that people rarely gave me enough time to make it that far. “Jared did mention a friend in Phoenix,” I said, feeling calmer, “but he never actually told me your name.” And to be honest, that brief exchange between Jared and me, made in a busy Vegas casino more than four weeks ago, had completely slipped my mind.

“So it’s okay that I’m calling?”
“Of course. You just caught me off guard, that’s all.”
“You’re at the airport.”

It wasn’t even a question, and I asked in surprise, “How did you know?”

 

“I can hear it. I’m quite familiar with that particular brand of chaos.”

“Oh,” I said, because I really couldn’t think of an intelligent response. My bag was headed my way again, and I was determined not to miss it this time.

“Is this a bad time, darling? Are you getting on a plane?” “Getting off,” I said. “I just got back into Phoenix.”
“Perfect timing, then. Are you busy tonight?”

“Tonight?” I asked in surprise, and my bag rolled past me again. “Shit!”

 

6

 

“Would you like to join me for dinner?” he asked, ignoring my outburst.

“I… well… I have to unpack, and—” I was stalling, trying to decide if I really had the energy for the conversational gymnastics a blind date would require. It sounded exhausting. On the other hand, the thought of what would probably come after was of course appealing. I hadn’t had time in LA for any type of sexual encounter that involved anything more than my own hand. In fact, I hadn’t had time for anything more gratifying in more than three weeks. Still, there was no guarantee he had the same agenda, and it seemed rude to ask.

Like he was reading my mind, he said, “Darling, it’s a yes or no question, and it’s only dinner. Let’s leave the rest open for negotiation, shall we?”

My phone buzzed again. Seven.

 

Jesus, what the hell did I have to lose? “That sounds great,” I said.

T
HE
greater Phoenix area sprawls over more than five hundred square miles. Where other cities build up, we build out. Cole and I were lucky to both live on the north side of the city. He named a restaurant, and I agreed to meet him there at six.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. This was a friend of Jared’s, and Jared and his partner Matt were both strong and masculine. They were both football-watching, beer-drinking, outdoorsy guys, and my first assumption was that Cole would be cut from the same mold. Just hearing his voice, though, had changed that. Then there was the restaurant. I hadn’t been there before, but I knew it was one of the more expensive establishments in the Scottsdale area.

I didn’t have enough time after work to drive home and change, although that meant that I arrived at the restaurant early, still wearing the same suit I had been wearing since six o’clock that morning. The only thing that saved me was that in mid-April, Phoenix temperatures were peaking in the seventies rather than the low hundreds. Thank goodness for small favors.
7

The restaurant was small, quiet, and incredibly busy. They told me it would be at least forty-five minutes before they had a table for us. I decided to wait for Cole in the bar. I was about to order a drink when my phone rang. I halfway expected it to be Cole, calling to say he was running late or wasn’t coming, but it wasn’t. It was my father. My father also lived in Phoenix. He and I weren’t exactly close, but since the death of my mother nine years earlier, we made an effort to stay in touch.

“Hello, Dad.”

“Jon! Where in the world are you now?” I was out of town as often as I was in Phoenix, and he seemed to find it amusing to start our conversations with that question.

“I just got back into Phoenix tonight.”
“That’s great! How about dinner?”

“I can’t, Dad. I have…” I hesitated over the sentence. It wasn’t as if my dad didn’t know that I was gay, but he never seemed to be very comfortable with it. “I have a date.”

“A date?” he asked, as if the term was completely foreign to him. “Yes,
a date
. You know: dinner, drinks, small talk”—sex, if I was lucky, but I didn’t say that to him—“with another person.”

“Oh,” was all he said, and I wondered if he was fighting the urge to ask if it was with a woman. He still did that sometimes, as if I might suddenly surprise him by announcing that I had changed my mind about the whole male/female thing. I decided not to give him the chance.

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