Air Force sergeant Michael Baldwin wanted nothing more than to escape his family’s political ambitions, but his dream of freedom was shattered by an enemy bullet to the head. Two years later, he and his service dog, Kaylee, resist his father’s demand to join him on the campaign trail—where a photogenic “wounded warrior” is always an asset—and instead return to the family’s summer home on Hartsbridge Island.
There Michael and his beautiful German shepherd capture the attention of Josh Goldberg, co-owner of the local bagel shop. Josh has a knack for business and a killer repertoire of his bubbe’s recipes. But lack of education undermines his confidence, and Josh’s father doesn’t share his ambition for the restaurant’s future.
Chicken soup and bacon might be the way to Michael’s heart, but he and Josh need time to learn about everything that comes after—lessons that Governor Baldwin and his relentless ambition will do anything to thwart. Letting someone in is a tall order for two men who can’t trust themselves, but if they have any hope of a future together, that’s exactly what they’ll need to do.
Change of Address is available from Riptide Publishing. http://riptidepublishing.com/titles/change-of-address
Six a.m., and Hartsbridge was a ghost town. Michael stood next to the deer statue on the green, wrapped in a windbreaker that was fine for DC but insufficient for the chilly wind blowing in off the Atlantic, and stared out at the emptiness. Only the twenty-four-hour diner was open, and even that looked ominous, almost dystopian. With the sun rising behind the low building, the front was in shadow, lit by the red neon sign over the door. The extended dining room was night-dark; the lights were on over the long counter and booths, though they were deserted.
Kaylee’s leash twisted in Michael’s grasp. Free of her vest, she dove headfirst into the grass and writhed over onto her back, kicking her legs, tail wagging madly. He smiled down at her—at the reminder that he wasn’t alone in a postapocalyptic world—and made a mental note to look into local dog ordinances. Growing up, he’d never had a dog, so he wasn’t sure if it was legal to have one off-leash or not.
The tinkle of a bell, too faint to really startle him, made him turn to the other side of the green. All the shops there were still dark, except for Bagel End. The door was propped open, and someone had sneaked out long enough to set up a sandwich board outside.
“Diner or bagel place?” Michael asked Kaylee, though he’d already made his decision. Yesterday’s lunch bagel had been a little wheel of heaven—not to mention the cashier.
What were the chances that the blond guy from yesterday was on the opening shift? Six a.m. was an unholy hour for most civilians, but the guy seemed to be a manager type, so . . . maybe.
Recognizing Michael’s tone of voice, Kaylee got to her feet, giving a good whole-body shake. A cloud of grass poofed around her, only to be swept away by the sea-salt breeze. She stood still while Michael took her vest down from his shoulder, and as he fastened it around her body, he could see her brain kicking into high gear. Her ears perked forward, eyes going sharp and alert. Much as she loved to play, she was a working dog, happiest when she had a task to perform.
When he said, “Let’s go,” she paced beside him, no longer sniffing everywhere, and paused at the curb to get his okay to cross the deserted street. Growing up in the city had given her good street manners.
The wind went briefly still, filling the air outside the shop with the warm scent of fresh baking. Michael’s stomach growled, and Kaylee’s nostrils flared as she sniffed. She didn’t surge ahead, but her steps went springy and light until they reached the open door, where training kept her from rushing inside.
At this hour, it was a formality to check for anyone coming through the doorway, but the key to training was consistency. After verifying no one was in the way, he told her, “Go through,” then followed her in.
“Be right—” The blond guy from yesterday popped into sight behind the glass case half-full of bagels; his smile was breathtakingly sincere. “Hey, be right with you.” He turned to take a wire basket of bagels from a rolling rack taller than he was.
“No rush.” Michael hung back, not wanting to seem like he was demanding immediate service. Six months ago, he might’ve slipped out and come back later, but his DC therapist had worked with him on that. Not that he still didn’t wish for the ability to turn invisible, to disappear and avoid confrontation of any kind. He was just conscious of the desire and able to push past it most of the time.
Besides, this was what he’d wanted, right? A chance to see the blond guy again, maybe figure out if his smile was friendly or genuinely interested.
So he stood his ground and petted Kaylee, who sat at his left side and leaned against his leg with just enough pressure to reassure him without pushing him off-balance. But instead of focusing entirely on her, he kept sneaking glances at the guy behind the counter. Cute was the first word that came to mind, with messy blond curls and the little smile playing around his mouth. Awake, too, judging by how quick he was at setting up the baskets, smoothly sliding each one into place until the bagel case was full. His eyes—hazel, Michael guessed, though he didn’t want to stare—were bright and free of dark circles and drooping lids. Most civilians didn’t have half this much energy at six in the morning. Hell, most soldiers didn’t.
“Okay, there,” the guy said, straightening up to rest one arm on top of the counter. “Didn’t want you to have only a partial selection. They’re all fresh. What can I get you?”
Your number, Michael thought, but there was no way in hell he’d say it, much as he wanted some of that warm, cheerful energy for himself. He stared unseeing at the display, finally asking, “What’s good? I mean, besides everything? Breakfast special, maybe?”
The guy pointed up and over one shoulder, and Michael belatedly remembered the menu board. Before he could stammer an apology, though, the guy said, “If you’re wanting something bagel-based, we do a killer breakfast sandwich combo. Comes with coffee or tea, and I can cook up some extra bacon for your friend . . .” The way he trailed off felt expectant without pushing Michael for any information he didn’t want to share. He was grateful for that. Growing up in the political fishbowl meant he wasn’t the sharing type.
So he was surprised to find himself saying, “Kaylee. And sure.”
The sunny smile brightened a notch. “I’m Josh. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself yesterday. I always forget my name tag, which is my way of setting a bad example, I guess. Bagel preference?”
Thrown off guard—Michael had expected to be asked for his name—he said, “Uh. Whichever? You pick.”
Josh narrowed his eyes—definitely hazel—but his smile didn’t fade. “Everything,” he said after a moment. “Everything bagel, eggs scrambled with cheese, sausage patty, bacon on the side. Sound good?” He pulled a piece of waxed paper out of a box and rested a hand on the basket of everything bagels.
Michael would’ve probably ordered something plainer, but his stomach’s approving growl had him nodding. “Perfect. Thanks.”
Beaming, Josh used the waxed paper to take out one of the bagels and asked, “One last question, and then I can get started. Bold or mild coffee? Both pots are fresh.”
Bold would’ve been Michael’s choice, prehospital. Now, grateful for the option, he said, “Mild, black.”
“Five minutes. Go have a seat. I’ll bring everything out to you. Did”—Josh hesitated, eyeing the dog—“Kaylee? Did she want water?”
“No, thanks. She’s good,” Michael said truthfully. He’d slept poorly as usual and gotten out of bed around four, which gave him plenty of time to water and brush Kaylee this morning, though he’d forgotten entirely about her nails. Again.
He wandered toward the front of the store, thinking he should have paid first. But Josh seemed to be the only one working, and he’d disappeared into the kitchen. At least that saved Michael from the temptation of staring, though he did take the same front corner table as yesterday. From there, he could see straight back behind the counter, just by turning his head. When he did, he saw Josh pulling a bright-green apron over his blue polo shirt, then ruffling one hand through his already-messy hair, making Michael wonder what those curls felt like.
So much for resisting temptation.
* * * * * * *
Josh couldn’t stop grinning as he washed his hands and prepped the first order of the day. Hot Tourist Guy was back, which made switching shifts with Dad absolutely worth the morning’s caffeine jitters. It had been a long time since Josh had been on opening shift, but maybe he could get his sleep cycle turned around. Seeing Hot Tourist Guy was definitely incentive to try.
Hoping to entice Hot Tourist Guy into coming in again tomorrow morning, Josh took a little extra care assembling the sandwich and cooked up enough bacon to win any dog’s heart. Kaylee. Pretty name. He’d have to figure out her human’s name somehow. He should’ve asked, but the words hadn’t quite made it out of his brain. Now, as he plated the sandwich and tucked the bacon in a to-go box for the dog, it felt too late.
Maybe the guy would pay with a credit card, Josh hoped, carrying the breakfast sandwich out. Hot Tourist Guy was back at the table in the corner—developing a regular’s habits already? Hopefully.
Josh filled a cup with mild coffee, arranged everything nicely on the tray, then carried the tray out front. The dog was lying comfortably on the floor under the table, though she sat up at Josh’s approach. She probably smelled the bacon.
“Here you go,” Josh said, sliding the tray onto the table. The guy had taken off his jacket, revealing arms that were thin but solid with muscle. Don’t stare. “If you need anything else, just give a yell.”
Brown eyes met Josh’s for long enough to scramble his brain—at least a full second. “The check?”
Josh made an indistinct gesture in the direction of the cash register. “Whenever you’re done.” He smiled reassuringly before realizing the guy might want to skip out at a moment’s notice. “Or do you want me to ring you up now?”
“No rush.” The guy smiled. “Thanks.”
That was a clear dismissal. Too bad. “Enjoy,” Josh said as he turned away, just in time. A familiar car had pulled up to the curb in front of the shop. Dr. Miller was usually the shop’s first customer, stopping by on her way to the civic center. This morning, she’d brought her wife, the other Dr. Miller.
Josh headed back to the pass-through and took out a couple of plastic gloves, ready to take the Millers’ orders. There’d be time enough to chat with Hot Tourist Guy later—and maybe figure out how to ask the new morning regular’s name.
* * * * * * *
Apparently the island had changed more than Michael expected. The way the two women were holding hands, bumping shoulders and smiling at each other, spoke of something more than friendship. He couldn’t remember seeing any same-sex couples back when he’d vacationed here. And they weren’t tourists either, judging by Josh’s cheerful, “Good morning, Millers!”
Maybe that was why Michael’s parents wouldn’t need the summer house anytime soon. Diversity was precisely the sort of thing to drive them to hide in their country refuge of mansions and genteel farms. But this boded well for Michael’s future social life. It’d be nice to have a shot at meeting an interested guy without having to hide their relationship behind closed doors.
Assuming anyone would want a relationship with him.
The thought made him sigh and sip at his coffee, only to put the mug back down when Kaylee sat up for the second time. The first had warned Michael of Josh’s approach. Now, Michael glanced up and saw the shorter Miller heading for his table.
“Sorry to bother you,” the woman said politely, barely giving Michael a glance, eyes fixed on Kaylee instead. She pushed a lock of thick graying hair behind one ear and asked, “Service dog, right?”
Michael nodded, taking a deep breath of coffee-scented steam. Having a service dog was at odds with his desire to go unnoticed, but he’d practiced standard answers to all the questions strangers might ask, from intrusive—What’s your disability?—to obvious—Is that a German shepherd?
He was completely unprepared when she smiled and said, “If any of the businesses give you a problem, have them give me a call.” She felt around her pockets, then finally pulled a wallet out of her jacket. “I’m . . . Doctor—aha”—she offered Michael a business card—“Arielle Miller, with Hartsbridge General Hospital. No relation to the soap opera. I can help straighten out any questions of access. He’s very well trained. She?”
Michael took the card and nodded again, feeling like he’d been run over by a very friendly truck. “She—”
“She’s beautiful. Just beautiful. Oh, Dr. Mason’s the island vet, if you need to see her.” She patted her pockets again. “I don’t think I have her number in my phone, but her office is just across the street from the elementary school. You can’t miss it.”
When the rush of words stopped, Michael had to take a moment to gather his wits, then said, “Thanks.”
Dr. Miller smiled at Michael, beamed at Kaylee, and hurried back to where her wife—presumably, going by their shared last name—was waiting at the register. The other Miller gave Arielle a curious look, and the shop was quiet enough that Michael heard Arielle say, in more subdued tones, “Remember the ADA seminar last November? It covered service animals versus therapy animals. And with the mainlanders and all their dogs . . .”
“Which reminds me,” the other Miller said in a rich British accent, “we need to do something about the pets people leave behind after the summer.”
“Bastards,” Josh said with a huff, winning Michael’s heart forever. There was a special place in hell reserved for anyone who’d abandon a family pet. “Sorry. It’s just—”
“I quite agree,” she answered, taking one of the cups he offered; Arielle took the other one. “Would you be interested in attending a town hall meeting to address the issue?”
“Me?” When the British Miller nodded, Josh said, “Uh, sure. I’ll tell my dad too. Want us to bring bagels and coffee?”
Her smile lit up her whole face. With her rich contralto voice, high cheekbones and deep brown eyes, she was beautiful enough to catch anyone’s attention—even Michael’s, and his preferences were firmly on the masculine side of the spectrum. She took the bag Josh offered her and said, “That would be lovely. As soon as I have a time and date, I’ll send someone over with the information.”
As Josh rang them up, Michael turned his attention back to his excellent breakfast. Kaylee was too well trained to focus on the bacon, but she knew she’d get a reward once they left the restaurant. The bacon was cooked but not so crunchy it would fall apart at the first bite, so he could feed it to her neatly on the sidewalk right outside, if he wanted. Maybe that would coax Josh into coming out from behind the counter? Even though Kaylee was a service dog, Michael had taught her a few tricks that might impress Josh.
Stupid idea, Baldwin. Josh was apparently running the shop on his own this morning. He wasn’t going to abandon his job to watch dog tricks and talk with someone too shy to even offer his name.
Time to go, Michael decided, before he could do anything stupid. He wolfed down the rest of his food, picked up the to-go box, and brought his tray to the register. Josh had disappeared into the back, but he’d apparently been keeping an eye on the counter. He headed over and asked, “How was everything?”
“Great.” It came out barely above a mumble and had him instantly feeling guilty. He forced himself to look Josh in the eye and add, “It really was. You can’t get bagels like that in DC.”
“And this is why I don’t regret never going farther south than Brooklyn,” Josh said, eyes bright with the force of his grin. His fingers danced over the cash register buttons. “I’d be lost without good food.”
The blunt words, spoken so cheerfully and matter-of-factly, startled Michael. In the Air Force, everyone worried about physical fitness checks, to the point where he’d known people to get liposuction so they wouldn’t get a letter of reprimand and possibly miss out on a promotion.
“I— Yeah.” Sensing an impending ridiculous grin, Michael looked down at Kaylee. “I think we’ll both be back for breakfast tomorrow.” If not lunch later today, though he didn’t say that. There was a difference between being a good customer and a creepy one.
“The door opens at six,” Josh said, his voice warm. Inviting. And Michael wanted to accept that invitation, but . . .
He’s just being a good businessman, Baldwin. The voice of caution was too loud for Michael to do anything more than pay his bill and slip out with a soft “Thanks.”
But when Josh called after him, “See you tomorrow!” it sounded genuinely hopeful, not just polite, and Michael left the shop with a smile.
* * * * * * *
By the fifth “What a beautiful dog!” that interrupted the trip to the hardware store, Michael was actually relieved to hear his phone ring. Unless it was his dog trainer back in DC, the call probably wasn’t from someone wanting to talk about Kaylee. He stopped the shopping cart, made sure Kaylee sat out of the way, and checked the caller ID.
Unlisted. Never a good sign.
He was tempted to let the call go to voice mail, but that was avoidance behavior, and he couldn’t let himself fall back into the habit of self-isolation. Reluctantly, he swiped the screen and put the phone to his ear.
“Yeah?” he asked gruffly. Only a dozen or so people had his number, and fully half of them didn’t warrant a friendly hello.
“Mr. Baldwin?” The voice was unfamiliar.
He switched hands so he could dig his fingers into the fur between Kaylee’s ears. She leaned heavily against his leg in response, tail wagging. “Who’s this?” he asked, conscious that he wasn’t alone in the aisle of hand tools.
“Lee Wilkins, chief of staff for Governor Baldwin. How are you doing?”
Wishing I hadn’t answered. A lifetime of etiquette lessons urged him to mind his words; his instincts screamed at him to rip out the phone’s battery and throw it away. The end result was a gruff, “What?”
The chief of staff was too polite—or, more likely, too well trained—to sound offended. Instead, he asked, “All settled in? Governor Baldwin told me you’d returned to New Hampshire.” He obviously didn’t expect a response, because he forged ahead, adding, “Which is why I’m calling. There’s a fund-raiser barbecue at the Knox family farm tomorrow, and you’re invited.”
Michael bit back a laugh. Invited was political code for required, in his experience. “I don’t—”
“Your father specifically asked me to contact you,” Wilkins interrupted. “As I understand it, one of the guests of honor served in the New Hampshire Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.”
Michael’s chest went tight. This was worse than the usual dog and pony show. He’d known this would happen, Dad wanting to use Michael’s Air Force service as a political tool. It was one of the biggest hazards of moving back to New Hampshire instead of, say, California, but he hadn’t expected it to happen this soon.
“Would you like me to check the governor’s schedule, see if he can call you to talk about the agenda?” Wilkins offered into the silence, smoothly as a knife slipping between Michael’s ribs.
“No. I’ll—” Michael stared down at Kaylee, who’d practically melted against his leg. At least he wouldn’t be doing this alone. “Send me the information. Location, time, all that.”
“Fantastic. I’m sending . . . now,” Wilkins said as Michael’s phone buzzed with an incoming text. He must have had it ready. “See you tomorrow. It’s great that you’re back.” He hung up before Michael could say good-bye. Or possibly, Fuck off.
Well, shit. Michael scrubbed a hand over his face, staring blankly into the cart. He had a new lock for the barn door, a couple of screwdrivers, and some graphite spray. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember what else was on his shopping list.
“Let’s go,” he muttered to Kaylee, who stood and looked up at him, still leaning against his leg until he gave the cart a push, heading for the register. There was no sense in shopping for anything else. Apparently, he’d be away from home tomorrow.
Coffee-fueled author Jordan Brock writes engaging contemporary romance with a deliciously pan-romantic sensibility and an emphasis on consent, respect, and, of course, love. Her characters are constantly surprised by the way love’s slow burn sneaks up on them.
Jordan’s children are all four-legged and furry. They love to be oh-so-helpful with her writing. She can usually be found hiding from the sun with her service dog and her puppy-in-training. (She tried the training thing with cats first, since cats are so much smarter, but it was a no-go.)
Before she was published, Jordan worked as a tech writer in the semiconductor industry. She’s also created labs and learning materials for auto, diesel , and motorcycle mechanics. The technology was the easy part; the hard part was trying not to slip in pop-culture snark.
Jordan lives in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona, despite the fact she turns into gray goo and blue hair dye when exposed to heat. For fun, she hunts scorpions in the backyard, with a blowtorch, and a crowbar. She’s chronically unavailable for at least a month after new game releases from Blizzard. She’s an unapologetic fangirl and has been known to write an occasional fanfic to prove Bucky Barnes is not a villain. Oh, and she crochets the cutest amigurumi ever.
If you’d like to learn more about Jordan, check out her blog and website at jordansbrock.com.
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