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Chilly autumn wind swirled dry leaves around Zach Jensen's feet as he pushed open the door of Bean Readin', the bookstore/coffee bar he'd owned for the past twelve years. He could still remember when the time and effort he and Jay had put into the place had been more love than labor. But those days were gone. Jay was gone, and now it was just him.
Closing the door against the chill, he paused and inhaled the rich aroma of coffee mingled with the scents of ink and paper and glue, the smell of books, a smell he'd come to love and loathe in equal measure.
He looked around at everything that was so familiar. Part of him still expected Jay to come walking out of the back of the store or to appear from around the end of the biography section. His lips parted, Jay's name on the tip of his tongue when the realization, and with it the grief, hit him like a freight train. He gasped and, closing his eyes, gripped the edge of the front counter to keep from staggering under its force.
How was it even now, nearly two years after Jay's death, the memories could still hit so hard and so unexpectedly, triggered by something as familiar as the scent of good French roast? Wasn't grief supposed to become easier to bear with time?
He didn't know.
"Are you okay?" A strong hand gripped Zach's arm, steadying him. A quiet voice, filled with concern, spoke next to his ear.
Before he had time to think, Zach reached out and gripped the hand. "Jay?"
His eyes snapped open. Except it wasn't Jay; of course it wasn't.
Idiot. Jay is dead.
Zach found himself face to face with a slim blond man in his early twenties, a stranger.
Customer, Zach realized with thepart of his brain not addled by grief and confusion. He dug for the friendly but professional veneer he wore here in the store, his game face. He'd just about managed to drag it into place when he realized his mistake. This guy was no customer. It was still way too early for customers.
"Sorry, not Jay." The blond held out his hand, a long, slim hand which, only a moment before, had been gripping Zach's arm. "I'm Keith Harte. And you must be Zach."
This must be the new kid Rhonna had been threatening to hire. Looked like she'd gone ahead and done it.
Great. So now he'd made an idiot of himself in front of his new employee. Way to make a first impression, man.
Zach stared at the hand. Civility dictated that he take it, so he did. Keith Harte's grip was firm, the hand warm and dry, a fine handshake. And a good-looking guy too, Zach's brain piped up.
That part of his brain, the part that still noticed the way tight pants hugged a particularly fine ass, would not be so easily silenced.
Look at those gorgeous eyes, it went on, and those pretty, pouty lips. Imagine how they would feel wrapped around your--
So much for the idea that he'd successfully muzzled that voice in his head, only letting it out on the rare occasions when the company of his right hand wasn't quite enough. Clearly, he'd been wrong.
"Um, if you don't mind me asking, who's Jay?"
Zach started. Shit. Not only had he been staring at the man's mouth, but he was also still holding his hand.
He dropped the hand and stepped back, putting some much-needed space between them. "Nobody. Forget it. I was just having a senior moment."
Keith laughed, a warm, sexy chuckle. "I don't think you're allowed senior moments at ... what, thirty-four? Thirty-five?"
Keith's gaze slid down Zach's body, appreciation clear in the younger man's eyes.
"I'm thirty-eight." And too old for you. Even if, and maybe because, that look had made his belly flutter just a little.
"Even so, I think the rule is you have to be at least forty before you're allowed senior moments." Keith's gaze settled on Zach's mouth.
Zach licked his lips. Just a reflex, he told himself.
"Rhonna didn't tell me you were starting today."
Or at all.
Of course he remembered the conversation they'd had, the one where Rhonna said they needed to hire someone full-time now that the two part-time college kids had returned to school. The same conversation during which he'd said they could manage just fine with only the two of them. She hadn't agreed, and here, standing in front of him, was the result.
"Oh. Well ... I am. I'm going to be running the coffeebar mostly, I think." He paused. "Barista boy at your service." He made a little ta-da gesture with his hands and smiled. That smile took his all-American good looks to something close to angelic.
Zach's cock stirred and began to fill. "Oh, well, that's fine." He shifted his stance, but apparently not in time. Keith's gaze dropped from his face to his crotch, then just as quickly slid back up. "Guess I'll let you get to it then."
"Okay. Sure." Another pause. "Can I maybe get you some coffee? A latte? Anything?"
Anything? Yeah, anything would suit me just fine.