Sam's Cafe Romances, Book 2
Having survived one nightmare of a relationship, Justin Tesh thought he'd left the worst behind when he put his ex Peter behind bars. But when his new lover, Russell Pine, explodes in a fit of alcohol-fueled rage, Justin finds himself frozen with a fear he thought he’d long since worked through. While older, more experienced Russ is anxious to put the incident behind them, avoiding personal issues never works, and for Justin, his fear is an open doorway to demons both he and Russ need to confront.
Despite their histories of loss and pain, Russ has faith in the promise of their relationship. But if he can't heal the wound he's inflicted on his lover’s heart, he risks losing Justin forever to Peter’s legacy of brutality.
- 3 To Be Read lists
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Heat Level: 4
Romantic Content: 5
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 36-45
Protagonist 2 Age: 18-25
Tropes: Age Difference, Coming of Age, Hurt / Comfort, Love Can Heal / Redemption, May/December
Word Count: 32000
Setting: New England
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Continuous / Same Characters
RUSSELL PINE groaned. The room needed to stop spinning. He clutched his head and very slowly sat up. The blankets were scattered, and the sheets had been pulled from the corners of the bed. It was hard to miss that, even with the room still spinning. He groaned again, and the taste on his breath had his eyes opening wide as he bolted from the bed.
He reached the bathroom in time, barely, to thrust his head into the porcelain bowl and heave. There wasn’t much in his stomach but alcohol, and the stink of it mixed with the bile in his throat as he emptied his guts into the toilet. He gulped, wincing at the taste, and wiped at the trail of bile-tainted spittle that hung from the corner of his mouth. He swallowed again. The bitter taste twisted his stomach. He let a slow breath out, and then another. His stomach rebelled, and he choked and heaved and retched a final time into the bowl.READ MORE
I deserve this. It might have been an hour, even two, before he managed to pull himself to his feet. He kicked off his bottoms, leaving them in a pile of befouled fleece on the floor, and stumbled to the shower, and then he closed the glass door as he turned on the water. He set the water to pound, cold and relentless, and shivered under it as the flow erased the traces of his misery.
When his body was clean, he buried his head under the spray. The pounding on his skull only made the headache worse, but he kept his face under the spray for what seemed an eternity, which was probably less than a minute. He took a breath. It still tasted of bile, but he was a little steadier. He closed his eyes and felt for the soap. Normally he’d use a cloth, but today just the soap would have to do. He slid the bar across his skin, working up a lather, and then rinsed himself off. Once rinsed off, he stepped from the shower and dried himself with a towel.
Russ could still feel the pain in his skull, pounding and sensitive. He shuddered. What did I do? He toed the sleep pants against a wall; he’d wash them later. No point in contaminating the entire contents of the hamper. A finger along the wall, trailing lightly, preserved his focus enough to keep him from getting dizzy. At the door he stared into the bedroom. He hadn’t puked in the bed, thank God. A half-empty bottle of vodka sat on the nightstand by the lamp, a shot glass next to it. Not that I used the glass after the first couple shots.
He sighed again, winced at the taste, and returned to the bathroom to brush his teeth and rinse with mouthwash. The taste was cool and minty, and thankfully nothing that provoked his stomach, but the sloshing in his mouth echoed in his skull like a vast crashing wave. He spit into the sink, rinsed his mouth again, with water this time, and shut off the light.
Russ tried to ignore the fact the bed was empty. Instead he walked, finger still trailing along the wall, to the living room that he’d trashed while he was drunk, and from there to the kitchen. The light was bright—painful. I wanted him here. Why isn’t he here? He winced as he moved into the brighter lights of the kitchen, squinting against the pain the light caused him. It took him a moment to find the switch and plunge the kitchen into a dusky darkness. Just the hint of dawn was shining through the windows. Is that why he’s gone? Please let that be why!
Russ walked to the sink and looked out the window into the darkness. His car was still there, but Justin’s was nowhere to be seen. “Oh, Justin,” whispered Russ, wrapping one hand over his forehead and digging the fingers hard into his skull. It was painful, but right then he needed that pain to ground him. Combined with the hangover, it was almost too much. As the nausea threatened to overtake him, Russ splashed his face with cold water from the sink. When that wasn’t enough, he put his head underneath the freezing stream of water. It only took a moment for the cold to ground him enough to stand up again. He braced his hands against the counter and let the water drip down his face, along his shoulders and neck, and continue on until it caught in the silvering hair on his chest.
Justin loves the silver. Russ couldn’t help but smile at the thought. Justin did love it, which was the perfect salve for Russ’s bruised ego over the signs of age that accumulated each year as he approached forty. He closed his eyes and ran his fingers through the wet strands. “I have to go to work.” He meant the words for Justin, even though Justin wasn’t there. It was a game they used to play. Trying to convince each other to stay home from work to enjoy each other. “Both too fucking responsible,” Russ muttered.
He opened his eyes and glanced down at himself. Any other morning, wandering around the house naked would be an invitation. One Justin would smile at, even if he didn’t take it. The smile threatened again. Most days Justin took the invitation. Russ slid a hand, just one this time, through his hair again. As often as not his assistant Debbie interrupted their play with a phone call. It was one of the penalties of having a good corporate job.
“She’d better not call me.”
Almost like magic the phone started to ring, and Russ wasted little time silencing it. The last thing he needed with a hangover like this one was a phone ringing. Debbie meant well; the early morning calls were simply to give him a head start getting prepared for the day. Unfortunately they also meant he needed to get his ass in gear and get ready for work. He strode quickly back to the bedroom, rummaged through his closets quickly for some clothes, and got dressed. He assessed himself quickly in the mirror. His tie was crooked, his green eyes bloodshot, but the clothes would get him through the day. Russ knew better than most, a good suit could carry you through the day, and all his suits were good suits.
He stopped at the door, glancing back at the bedroom, his eyes going from the empty space in the bed to the nearly drained bottle on the nightstand. “Oh, Jus, I’m so sorry,” he whispered. He pounded a fist lightly against the doorframe. “So sorry.”
Slowly he turned, strode through the house—stopping only to pick up his phone—and set the alarm as he left.
SAM TESH approached the door to his son’s room quietly. He edged it open and peeked in. Justin didn’t look up. Huddled like that, Justin looked like the sullen teenager Sam remembered rather than the twenty-two-year-old that had demanded that Sam accept the relationship with Russ. Is he regretting that now?
“Just leave me alone.” Justin kept his eyes downcast, staring at the bed.
Sam sighed. The sheets had been torn from the corners and the mattress was plainly visible. Justin had always tossed and turned at night. And after he’d been hurt, Sam had often found him in the corner, the sheets half in a pile on the floor, Justin buried under the blankets, shaking.
“I haven’t seen you like this in a long time.”
“Since Peter.” Justin closed his eyes. It was hard to see, but Sam noticed. After Peter, Sam had learned to notice a lot of things.
“You need to know, Justin, I’ll always believe you. I don’t care if he’s—”
“It wasn’t that.” Justin looked up, and Sam’s heart splintered again. The steel-blue eyes that were the mirror of Sam’s own seemed to almost drown in the red that surrounded them.
“You cried all night?” Sam asked softly.
Justin’s answer was a shy nod and a look away.
“I mean it. I’ll believe you.”
“I know you will. It wasn’t that. I promise it wasn’t.” Justin pulled at the blankets with his toes. After a moment he let out a very long sigh. “We had a fight.”
Sam nodded. “I guessed. He hit you?” Sam braced himself for a yes. It would mean changes. Russ owned a stake in Sam’s café, the family business, a stake Sam was not ready to buy out. But he’d do it if he had to. If Russ hit Justin.
Justin shook his head. “He’s not like that, Dad. It… it wasn’t like that.” Justin ran his hand through his blond-on-blond highlights. He looked at Sam and tried to say something, then shook his head suddenly and looked at the bed.
“What was it like?”
Justin’s eyes were squeezed shut. Sam stepped into the room, watching for Justin’s reaction as he approached cautiously and sat on the edge of the bed. Justin was trembling, and Sam could feel the cracking as his heart splintered some more. He reached for Justin’s shoulder cautiously. Right after everything that happened with Peter, Justin hadn’t wanted to be touched at all. It’d taken a long time for Justin to be comfortable with even the hand on the shoulder that Sam was offering. He couldn’t help the sigh of relief when Justin’s reaction was to lean into the hand.
“Told you,” mumbled Justin. “Wasn’t that.”
Sam shook his head. “You have to know, son, that’s going to be about my biggest fear forever.”
Justin sniffed and wiped at his nose. He nodded. “Mine too. I wouldn’t stay with someone who did that to me.” Justin swallowed, the bob of his throat tearing at Sam’s heart.
But you did, son. For too long, you did. Sam squeezed Justin’s shoulder. Sam glanced at the window. The dawn was coming and with it responsibilities. They aren’t important enough; this is my son.
He kissed Justin’s shoulder. “Come on.”
“What?” Justin glanced up.
“You need to get away,” Sam said. “So we will.”
“We? Dad, it’s almost time for you to—”
Sam chuckled. “Lou is gonna kill me. But we’ll close the kitchen, and he can run the front, at least for the morning. It’s mostly croissants and coffee that early anyway.”
“Dad, you haven’t closed the kitchen since Mom died.” Justin’s voice got very soft, scarcely a whisper as he finished.
“I know.” Sam smiled hesitantly. “Come on.”
“The reservoir? Into the mountains? Where do you want to go?”
Justin pulled one knee against his chest. “The reservoir.”
Sam kept himself from laughing. Just now he doubted Justin would appreciate it, but that he still knew his son was a comforting thought. He shoved Justin playfully sideways. “Shower. Get dressed.” He clapped his hands together. “Move it, little man.”
Justin gave Sam a look, but he stood, walked into the hall, and shut the bathroom door behind him. It didn’t take long before the water started running. Sam stood and looked around the room. The bed wasn’t the only disaster. The floor was covered with torn strips of paper. Justin’s sketchpads, normally so carefully cared for, were strewn about the floor. Pages were bent, some even torn out.
Sam clenched a fist and hurried to the door before the temptation got the best of him. Last time he’d looked, he’d discovered his twenty-year-old son was nursing a crush on Sam’s best customer, his best friend. Sam slipped into the kitchen and ground beans for the coffee. Once it was brewing, he dialed Lou.
It didn’t take much to convince his old friend to cover the café,. Only three words. “Justin needs me.”
He poured the coffee, pulled some ceramic bowls from the cupboard, and set boxes of cereal on the table. Sam glanced at his phone. He’d expected Russ to call. The water shut off, and Sam’s gaze was drawn to the hallway. With Justin here, Russ should have called. He sighed and poured himself some cereal. He was almost finished when Justin appeared, pushing a hand back through wet hair.
They normally had breakfast at the café, taking turns eating while getting the prep for the day done. To his son this probably seemed like slumming. But Sam wasn’t taking chances. Going to the café would mean running into Russ. He glanced at the boy. The shower hadn’t erased the tears, not enough.
“You loved cereal,” Sam said.
“Yeah, when I was five!”
“It’s easy. It’s also what I’ve got.” He swatted Justin lightly on the back of the head. “Sit. Eat.” Sam stood and dumped his bowl into the sink. “Let me just finish getting ready.”
Justin nodded and sat down, lifting each box and examining it before finally settling on the one sugared cereal that Sam had known from the start he’d pick. Sam smiled and leaned against the hallway corner. Sam waited until Justin had actually started eating, then headed to the bathroom to finish washing up.
When Sam returned to the kitchen, Justin was in his jacket, steel-blue eyes hidden behind sunglasses.
“I’m ready, Dad.”
Sam pulled the keys from his pocket. “Go start up the car.”
Justin held the keys out in front of him, his mouth open.
Justin rushed toward the garage door. The smile on his face had made it worth it. Sam followed Justin out of the house. Justin was shaking with excitement behind the wheel of the Corvette. The car they’d spent Justin’s teenage years restoring together.
He looked up at Sam. “Can I drive, Dad?”
That’s my little boy. Sam smiled at Justin. “All right. You treat her right.” Sam ran a finger along the bright red body as he moved to the far side of the car and slipped into the passenger seat. He put on his sunglasses and rested his arm on the door. With the press of a button, the garage door opened. Sam set a hand over Justin’s on the gearshift and smiled. “Let’s go.”COLLAPSE