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Carrboro's Weaver Street Market was a veritable Godiva Gold Collection of eye candy. Especially on sunny, unseasonably warm Saturday afternoons in early January. The faint lingering nip in the air wasn't nearly enough to discourage the crowds of aging hippies, families and college students from congregating on the Market's wide lawn and outdoor tables.
Slouched on a bench beneath a spreading oak, legs stretched out in front of him, Dean Delapore lifted his black shades and aimed a smoldering look at the doe-eyed young man watching him from across the shaded lawn. The boy gave him a coy smile.
The bench moved as someone plopped down beside Dean. He turned to face Kerry Shiffer, one of the friends he'd come here to visit. "Did you get your ice cream?"
"It's not ice cream, it's gelato." Fishing in her canvas grocery bag, Kerry pulled out a small brown and white container. "Organic and locally produced by Green Fields Creamery."
"Of course." Dean slid his shades back into place and lifted his face to the winter sunshine. "I'm glad you and Ron talked me into coming up here to visit. Y'all know how much I love my job, but I seriously needed a vacation. We've been up to our eyeballs in freaky cases lately."
Kerry turned sideways on the bench and tucked a leg underneath her, one hand absently rubbing her six-months-pregnant belly. "Well, we're both glad you could come up. With the baby coming Ron needs to save up his time off, and we both need to hang on to our money. But we wanted to see you. It's been way too long."
"It sure has." Putting an arm around Kerry's shoulders, Dean kissed the top of her curly auburn head. "I miss college some days.The three of us had some great times together here at UNC."
"We sure did." Kerry planted a kiss on Dean's cheek, patted his knee and rose to her feet. "Come on, let's head back now. Ron should be home soon."
"Cool." Dean jumped up and fell into step beside Kerry. "I hate that he had to go in to work today."
She shrugged. "That's what he gets for being the only one there who actually knows how the hell their computer network functions, I guess. At least it's only for a little while."
"Yeah." Sticking his hands in his back pockets, Dean grinned at a gap-toothed little girl who waved at him from atop a nearby brick planter. "I don't blame y'all a bit for settling here. It's a great town. Always has been."
"Yeah. I'm just glad this warm snap hung around for your visit. It's usually colder than this in January." She gave him a sidelong glance as they crossed the street and headed down the hill past colorful shops and restaurants. "I wish you could stay longer."
"Me too. But Bay City Paranormal could only spare me for a couple of weeks."
Kerry wrinkled her freckled nose. "I don't see why they couldn't let you off for longer."
Dean laughed. "Bo was willing to let me off for a month, but I told him I'd only take two weeks. It's a small business, and we've been super busy lately. They need me."
"Yeah, but still--"
"Kerry, I love you, but give it a rest, huh?" Dean nudged Kerry's shoulder. "I don't mind. Really. Like I said, I love my job. And I love my coworkers. They're a great group."
Her round face lit up, blue eyes sparkling. "Any of them you love more than the others?"
Shaking his head, Dean pushed the "walk" button at the next corner. "You know me, Kerry. I don't tie myself down."
She shot him a careful look. "You would have, once. Please tell me she didn't totally destroy your ability to settle down with somebody else."
At that moment, Dean was grateful he had his sunglasses on. He didn't want Kerry to see his eyes, because she was right. Sharon had been his first real love. The first person, male or female, with whom he'd seriously considered having a permanent relationship. When she found out he was bisexual and had slept with men, she'd left him. He didn't like to admit, even to himself, just how painful that had been. Or just how much it had affected his life since.
"I got over Sharon a long time ago," he said softly. "Believe me, if I find Mr. or Ms. Right, what happened with Sharon won't stop me from hanging onto them. I just haven't found that person yet, that's all."
"So it's got to be true love forever, or no deal?"
"What's wrong with that?"
Pursing her lips, Kerry picked at a loose thread on her long red skirt. "Nothing, I guess. It just seems kind of lonely to me."
"I date a lot, I get laid a lot, but I still get my own space with no one telling me I can't have beer and Fritos for breakfast or lay around watching TV in my underwear. That's not lonely, that's the best of both worlds."
He refused to acknowledge the small but growing part of him which longed to wake up every morning with his arms around someone he loved. To spend a lifetime learning that person inside and out. It didn't seem likely to happen, and he saw no point in mourning something he'd probably never have. Especially since it was his own tendency to hold himself back that kept him from having the kind of relationship he wanted.
Kerry frowned at him, but before she could say anything her cell phone trilled. She shot him a "this conversation isn't over" look as she fished the phone out of her purse and flipped it open.
"Hey, babe," she said, eyes sparkling like they always did when she talked to her husband. "We're on our way back from the Market, are you already home?"
Tuning out his friends' conversation, Dean stuck his hands in his back pockets and gazed around him. Just ahead, the town's newest Thai restaurant had its front doors flung open, letting out a spicy, mouthwatering scent. Next door, customers wandered in and out of a bookstore specializing in rare and out-of-print volumes. A wave of lilting violins drifted from the music store across the street.
At the next corner, two young men crossed the street with their arms around each other. The blond tilted up the brunet's face and kissed him. Dean smiled, the sight bringing a mix of conflicting emotions. Mobile, where he'd been born and raised and still lived, wasn't a particularly dangerous place for gays, but neither was it a place where a man could kiss another man in public without any thought to the possible consequences.
Sometimes, he really missed the open and accepting attitudes here in Carrboro and neighboring Chapel Hill.
"Well, crap." Snapping the cell phone closed, Kerry shoved it into her purse. "Ron's not done yet. He's got to stay at work until probably midafternoon."
"He's taking a break right now. He's headed over to The Open Eye. I told him we'd meet him there."
"Cool." Dean glanced at the shopping bag hanging from Kerry's arm. "What about your gelato? It'll melt."
She grinned at him. "We'll go ahead and eat it. It goes great with the organic Sumatran dark roast."
"Awesome." Taking Kerry's hand, Dean led her across the busy street. "Do they still have those chocolate croissants?"
"Fantastic. I haven't had one of those in years."
Laughing, Kerry pushed open the door of Carrboro's most popular coffee shop. Dean shoved his shades up on top of his head and breathed in the heavenly scents of baked goods and fresh-brewed coffee. It was the smell of college mornings spent huddled over the colorful tables with his friends, discussing classes, music, girls or boys they wanted to get into bed. All the things that seemed so important then, with the world at their feet and all their lives ahead of them.
Time had a way of teaching a person what was truly important, Dean reflected as he and Kerry took their place in line. Friends. Family. Partners. If there was one thing Dean had learned in his life, it was that nothing mattered as much as keeping the people he loved close, and letting them know how much they meant to him. He liked to think he lived by that creed, and that his friends and family knew how he treasured them.
He ignored the empty ache inside for a love like Kerry and Ron shared.
Behind him, the rather shrill tinkle of the bell on the door announced an arrival to the shop. A shoulder clipped Dean's as someone rushed past the line and straight to the counter, sending Dean stumbling into Kerry. A woman passing on her other side caught her elbow, narrowly preventing a fall.
"Hey, watch it," Dean called, scowling at the back of the man who'd run into him. "Pregnant lady here, huh? You almost made me knock her over."
The man turned, blinking in surprise as his large brown eyes lit on Kerry. "Kerry? Oh my God I'm sorry! I'm just in kind of a rush, and wasn't looking where..." He stopped, blowing out a breath. One long, slender hand raked through shaggy shoulder-length hair the color of redwood. "Sorry. Listen, y'all come out to my place tonight for karaoke, I'll give you dinner."
Kerry laughed. "We'd love to come for karaoke, but you don't need to feed us."
"You were in a hurry, and you accidentally ran into someone," Kerry finished. "It happens. I'm fine, don't worry about it."
The stranger bit his lower lip, and Dean's breath caught. Something about the nervous action and the uncertain look in those huge, expressive eyes made Dean want to pull the man into his arms and comfort him.
"I'd still love it if you and Ron came for karaoke. Y'all haven't been out for at least a month." His gaze flicked sideways to Dean, then back again, as if he wasn't sure he should speak to him. "And you can bring, um, guests." He darted another look at Dean, this one sizzling with curiosity. "Um, yeah. See you later."
The man turned and leaned against the counter, talking low and fast to the young woman on the other side. Dean stared, admiring the slim, tight lines of the stranger's body. Black jeans hugged long legs and the sweetest ass Dean had seen in ages. A pale blue shirt with the tails hanging out and the sleeves rolled up set off the man's deep red hair and golden skin tone perfectly.
"Who's that?" Dean asked, nudging Kerry's elbow. "He's hot."
Kerry grinned. "How do you do that?"
"Do what?" He tilted his head sideways to better view the curve of buttock and thigh as the man shifted from foot to foot.
"Pick out the gay ones, every time." Kerry slapped him on the butt. "Are you listening?"
"I didn't know he was gay. I just thought he was hot." Dean flashed his friendliest smile as the man turned around and hurried toward the door carrying a large paper bag. The man blushed and looked away, but Dean saw the way the corners of his mouth turned up as he passed. Dean swiveled around to watch the man walk out the door. "Oh yeah. Smokin' hot. So who is he?"
Snickering, Kerry stepped up to the counter and ordered two organic Sumatrans before turning back to Dean. "That's Sommer Skye. He's a good friend of mine and Ron's."
Dean laughed. "Sommer Skye? What the hell were his parents thinking?"
"They were serious hippies." Kerry held her hand out. Dean handed her two dollars, which she gave to the girl behind the counter along with her own money. Taking the change, Kerry picked up the huge indigo mug the clerk handed her and led Dean toward a table containing carafes of soy milk and half-and-half, packets of raw sugar and a small pitcher of honey. "They disappeared four years ago. Nobody's seen or heard a trace of them since. It's kind of a sore spot with Sommer, so do not say anything, okay?"
"Cross my heart." Dean stirred honey and a generous amount of half-and-half into his coffee and took a cautious sip from the orange and yellow mug. "Oh man, that's good. So, we're going to his place tonight, huh?"
"Yep." Kerry poured a packet of raw sugar and a dollop of soy milk into her coffee and stirred. "He owns the Blue Skye Inn and Winery just outside town. It's a cool place, you'll love it. He's set up the wine shop and tasting room in the old barn, and he has Karaoke Night there every Saturday. Five bucks a head, and you get one complimentary glass of his chardonnay and as much karaoke as you can handle. Half the town turns out for it, it's a real blast."
"Sounds like it." Dean followed Kerry to a small round table bathed in sunshine pouring through the wall-to-wall windows. As he slid into the chair, he caught sight of a tall, lanky man chaining a bicycle to the rack outside. "Hey, there's Ron."
Kerry's face lit up. She tapped on the window. Ron looked up, smiled and waved at her. She waved back, beaming. Dean chuckled. His friends had been married for seven years, and had dated all through college, but they were still head over heels for each other, and it showed. Dean thought it was adorable.
Ron swung the door open and bounded in, gray eyes shining. Flipping his long golden ponytail over his shoulder, he slid into the chair beside Kerry and put an arm around her. "Hey, babe."
"Hey yourself." She tilted her face up for a kiss. "We're going to Sommer's for karaoke tonight."
"Okay, cool. I'll be home by four, so no problem." Ron's bearded face broke into a wide grin as he leaned over to clap Dean on the shoulder. "He's single, and Kerry says he's cute. Want me to set you up?"
"No need, I can handle it. But thanks anyway." Dean took a sip of his coffee, licking the rich, dark taste from his lips. "By the way, he is beyond cute. He's gorgeous. Just so you know."
Ron's eyebrows shot up. "When did you meet him?"
"I didn't. Yet. But I sure am looking forward to it."
"Sommer was in here just before you got here," Kerry explained, answering the puzzled look on her husband's face. "He was in a rush and didn't stay for introductions, but Dean noticed him. Big surprise, I know. I told him we'd come out for karaoke."
Ron chuckled. "Sommer's always in a rush. Was he in here getting coffee beans again?"
"Most likely. I noticed Weaver Street Market was out of that fair trade Mexican blend he serves at the Inn." Kerry glanced at Dean. "He usually gets all his stuff at the Market, but he comes here for his beans when they're out at Weaver Street."
Dean nodded over his coffee cup. "Very Carrboro of him. I like that in a man."
"You have to try his zinfandel tonight, Dean," Ron said, leaning back in his chair and stretching. "You'll get a free glass of chardonnay, but the zinfandel's out of this world. He'll give you a free taste, if you want."
An array of decidedly impure mental images flashed through Dean's mind. He rested his chin in his hand. "You think he'd give me a free taste of anything else? I promise to ask nicely."
"I'm sure he would. He's got merlot, Pinot Grigio, and--" Ron stopped, his face flushing pink. "Oh. Dean, you have a filthy mind."
"That can't possibly surprise you at this point." Kerry took a long swallow of coffee. "You want me to order you a coffee, hon?"
"Naw, I'll get it." Yawning, Ron rose to his feet. "Y'all want anything else while I'm up?"
"A spoon." Kerry held up her bag. "I have gelato."
"Oh yeah, and I wanted a chocolate croissant. Mr. Hotpants distracted me." Pushing away from the table, Dean stood and dug his wallet out of his pocket. "I'll come with you, Ron."
"Cool." Leaning down, Ron kissed his wife's forehead, then followed Dean to the counter. He shot Dean a keen look. "You look tired. Is everything all right back in Mobile?"
"Yeah, it's fine. The last few months have been kind of..." He trailed off, not knowing quite what to say about all he'd experienced since joining Bay City Paranormal. "It's been weird," he said finally.
"That's what you get when you work for a paranormal investigations agency."
"Yeah, I guess." Dean smiled at his friend. "It's good to be back here. I missed y'all."
"Same here, man." Sweeping Dean into a tight hug, Ron planted a kiss on each cheek. "It's been ages since we got to hang out."
Before Dean could answer, Kerry's voice rang out across the crowded shop. "You guys can make out if you want, but no threesomes. Only wholesome family sex around the baby."
Ron raised his eyebrows. He and Dean cracked up at the same time, along with half the customers in the shop.
Oh yeah, Dean thought as he let go of Ron and waited to place his order. I've missed these people, and this place.
Of course, just because Carrboro and Chapel Hill held so much nostalgia for him didn't mean there were no new memories to be made here. With any luck, some of those new memories would involve a slender, dark-eyed inn-and-winery owner between his legs.
He grinned. Karaoke Night, here I come.