"Jared, it's me."
Jared McFarland sighed and moved his gaze away from the jumbled numbers on the screen to the answering machine on the other side of his desk.
"I know you're there. Pick up the phone."
Susan couldn't know he was there. She lived in Phoenix, and he lived a hundred twenty-five miles west in Hope, Arizona.
"The reason I know you're there is you never leave your property and it's nine o'clock at night, which means there's not enough light for you to be working outside."
Susan's ability to read his mind terrified him.
"Plus, I know you're on your computer."
"And the reason I know you're on your computer is last time I visited, I uploaded a program that tracks everything you do on there."
Jared froze, thinking through the ramifications of that claim.
After a pause, Susan continued. "Do we need to have a conversation about the porn addiction?"
Grappling for the phone, Jared lost his balance on the rolling office chair and almost fell.
"I do not have a porn addiction!" he shouted into the phone. When he heard no response, he realized he hadn't answered it. After pressing the green button, he tried again. "I'm not addicted to porn!"
Pulling up a website a couple of times a month when the loneliness got to be too overwhelming didn't constitute an addiction. Besides, he didn't enjoy it very much. The men on the screen weren't real. He couldn't smell them, couldn't touch them, couldn't taste them.
"Of course you don't have a porn addiction," Susan said incredulously. "I've known you your entire life. I'd know if you had a porn addiction."
He pulled the phone away from his ear, stared at it, and then put it back. "But you just said—"
"I said what I needed to say to get you to answer your phone."
"So you don't have a program on my computer tracking everything I do?"
"I might, but that's not the point," she said dismissively. In his head, he could see her waving her hand and flipping her long brown hair over her right shoulder. "It's called manipulation. It's the same way I got you to do everything I wanted when we were married."
Susan had been his high school sweetheart. They'd gotten engaged right after graduation, married six months later, and then divorced two years after that. Susan had moved to Phoenix with Phillip Padrez, her new boyfriend—now husband. And Jared still loved her just as much as he did on the day they got married. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough now, and it hadn't been enough then.
"Jared, stop feeling guilty. It took two people to get married and two people to get divorced."
Thankfully the end of their marriage hadn't meant the end of their friendship. Susan still called Jared a few times a week and came to see him when she visited her mother in Hope, which made computer spying a viable possibility. And though Jared was much more comfortable with that type of relationship, he sometimes still regretted that he hadn't been able to give Susan more.
"But if I wasn't… If I could have…"
"If you weren't gay, I still would have been miserable living on that farm, and we both know it," Susan said. "Just like we both knew you were gay, even if we were too young to admit it or realize you didn't need to change."
For many years Jared had wished for that very thing. But at age thirty-two, he had long since stopped wishing he could change himself and fall in love with a woman. Instead, he longed to meet a man he could love who would love him back.
"I know," he said quietly.
Susan sighed. "I hope that's true because I worry about you being out there on that farm all alone."
"I'm not alone," he denied. "There are people around all the time, working, and I go into town to buy supplies and—"
"Are those men working on your farm also working it in your bed?"
He started coughing. "That's none of your business."
"Uh-huh, that's about what I thought. Jared, isn't it time you made an effort to meet someone?"
"I know you and Phillip are happy, but that doesn't mean everyone wants to be in a relationship."
"I'm not talking about everyone. I'm talking about you. Don't bother arguing with me about it, because I know it's true. You live out on that farm, away from the world, and you're dying to have someone waiting for you in the house every day."
Denying it was pointless. Susan had firsthand knowledge of just how much Jared longed for what she described. After all, he had married her, hoping for that very thing even though the love they'd shared had been one of friendship and not what anyone, them included, would have described as romantic or passionate.
"Wanting something and being able to have it aren't the same things," he said.
"That's because you don't try! If you ever leave your farm, it's to go into Hope, which has a population of nothing, and even then you don't talk to anyone."
"Hope isn't that small, and you don't understand."
She couldn't understand noticing a man across a dark room and gathering the courage to approach him only to see the light of interest in his eyes dim once he got a close look at a scarred face. The beard could only hide so much. Plus, Jared had a hard enough time making conversation; it was impossible when a guy couldn't look at him without flinching or kept darting his gaze around to make sure none of his friends saw him talking to the poorly dressed weirdo from the sticks. The only thing men in bars wanted from a six foot five, beefy guy with shaggy red hair and an imperfect face was a hard fuck in a dark corner with their backs to him. Finding release with the porn on his computer demoralized him less.
"Yes, I do," Susan argued. "I know how amazing you are. Any man would be lucky to have you. All you have to do is flash those green eyes, smile, and make a little conversation."
If only it were that easy. He swallowed down his emotions and said, "Let it go, Susan."
He didn't expect a simple request to work, especially not the first time he said it, but amazingly, it did.
"Fine," she said. "That's not why I called anyway."
Distracted by the miracle of avoiding more nagging about his non-existent dating life, Jared was oblivious to the punch slated to take its place until it landed its mark.
"What are you doing tomorrow?" Susan asked.
"Um. It's Tuesday. I'm working."
"I'm sending something your way. Do you have time to run into town to pick it up?"
Each day's schedule mimicked the one before—wake up at sunrise, work with the organic produce he grew in greenhouses throughout his property, warm up dinner, eat alone, and go to bed, also alone. About once a week, he headed into town to pick up supplies and treat himself to a decent meal at Jesse's Diner. Nothing prevented him from making the next day supply day. Maybe he'd get lucky and meatloaf would be the day's special.
"Sure. Is it at your mom's house or at The Mailstop?"
"Neither actually. He'll be at the bus stop at a quarter after six."
"A quarter after six at the bus stop," she said.
"I heard that part. Did you say ‘he'?"
"Yes. I'm sending Lucas to you for a couple of months. Well, technically my dad's sending him."
Already reeling from the unexpected turn of events, Jared got dizzy from the mention of Susan's half-brother. With chestnut hair, sky blue eyes, tan skin, and a sleek, compact body, Lucas Reika was the single most gorgeous person Jared had ever seen. Susan was young when her parents divorced. Her mother had moved to Hope, seeking a simple life. Her father had remained in Los Angeles, running an increasingly more successful chain of restaurants. He had remarried and had a son, who he had raised alone after his second wife passed away.
"Why is Lucas Reika coming to Hope?"
Being around Lucas aggravated Jared's already debilitating fear of social situations and turned him into a stammering fool. Thankfully, Lucas never gave him the time of day long enough to notice. He was always too busy flirting with whatever man he had on his arm, and often with many others. Lucas was the center of attention wherever he went, and Jared was a guy who he was "pleased to meet" when they were introduced even though they had already met more than once—at Susan and Phillip's anniversary dinner, christenings for their children, and a few events thrown by Susan's father, whose restaurants were Jared's biggest customers.
"Because spending time away from his friends and the whole LA scene is the best chance Lucas has of getting his head on straight."
"I don't understand." Jared shook his head and furrowed his brow. "Lucas is in some kind of trouble?"
"Oh please. Lucas is trouble. You've seen it for yourself."
Lucas was loud, he drank too much, and he thought a lot of himself.
Susan sighed. "He finally finished school in June, barely. Took him five years, but he finished. Then he spent two months partying and didn't make a single move to find a job. My father finally got fed up and told him if he wanted to keep getting money, he had to start earning it. He even offered to teach Lucas the business, which basically meant having him rotate through the restaurants and learn from his executives. But you know how my brother is."
"Lucas didn't do the work?" Jared asked.
"That too. But the bigger issue is he had sex in the kitchen at Northstar before they opened for the Saturday dinner service. With the head chef. The head hostess, who's also the chef's girlfriend, walked in on them. She started screaming. Half the waitstaff came running in. At some point the chef or the hostess—I can't remember which one—stormed off and the other one followed, which meant no head chef and no head hostess on a Saturday night at my father's flagship restaurant. It was mass chaos. People were seated late, food came out late, and don't even get me started on my father's meltdown over what they were doing on a prep table. Totally unsanitary."
Groaning, Jared shook his head in dismay. Paul Reika took his restaurants very seriously. The papers joked that everything he touched turned to gold, but in truth, Paul worked day and night to make his restaurants a success. The fact that he trusted Jared—and nobody but Jared—to supply his produce was a huge honor, and very lucrative.
"I can't believe he did that."
"Oh, I can believe it. Lucas is an entitled, self-absorbed, lazy, snobby prick. I'm guessing he's done a lot worse but my dad kept turning a blind eye."
"But this was in his restaurant," Jared said, understanding how angry that would make Paul.
"Exactly. Ignoring his kids is one thing, but you know how my father feels about those restaurants."
Jared knew she didn't aim the comment to get pity. Susan was well aware of who her father was and who he wasn't, and she had accepted it long ago. Having an incredibly caring mother and stepfather probably helped, but mostly Susan was a strong as nails, ‘glass is half-full' type.
"So Lucas feels embarrassed about what happened, and he wants to hide out from the world for a while?" Jared said, still trying to wrap his head around why Lucas Reika was coming to stay with him and how he'd get through it without stuttering, staring, and being socially awkward. Or at least without stuttering and staring.
"Embarrassed?" she scoffed. "Please. I have no doubt he did it on purpose, and I've seen absolutely no indication that he's embarrassed."
"Then why does he want to get away? And why here? Susan, I don't think he'll like being here. It's boring." The farm, the life, Jared. All of it would be boring to a guy who grew up in Beverly Hills, surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful friends, and spent his nights at the trendiest clubs.
"Boring is just what Lucas needs. And it's not a matter of what he wants. He doesn't have a choice. My father is making him go."
Furrowing his brow, Jared said, "What do you mean he doesn't have a choice? The guy's what? Twenty-three, twenty-four?"
"He's twenty-four. And you're right, technically he has a choice. He can stay here and get cut off, or he can go stay with you, get his head on straight, and keep his credit cards."
"Your father wouldn't do that to Lucas." Paul was a ruthless shark in business, but he wouldn't cut off his only son.
"Lucas splattered semen all over the prep table in my father's flagship restaurant before the Saturday night dinner rush. My father had to find a new chef and a new head hostess. He not only would do that to Lucas, he did do it. I had to beg him to give Lucas another chance." She paused. "Beg. And the little shit didn't even bother to thank me."
"And sending your brother to stay with me was the only way you could think of to torture him?"
"It wasn't my idea," Susan said. "I begged my dad to give Lucas another chance, and he said he'd do it under one condition."
He waited for Susan to continue, and when she didn't, he said, "What's the condition?"
"Yes. Lucas has to go stay with you. That's the deal."
"That makes no sense," Jared said.
"Actually, I think it's brilliant. So brilliant I wish I could take credit for having thought of it."
"What's brilliant about it?" Jared asked. "Does he have any farming experience? Irrigation experience? Horticulture experience?"
"Is he a hard worker? A fast learner? Eager to try new things?"
"Then I don't think it's a brilliant idea, and I don't want him here."
"You're going to say no to my father?" she asked in amusement.
Jared genuinely liked Paul. He wouldn't deny that the man was sometimes cold, often grumbly, and a workaholic, but Jared got along better with him than he did with most people. And Paul had taken a chance on him when he was starting out. Jared's customers came to him because of the reputation he'd earned for growing quality produce; and he'd earned that reputation in Paul's restaurants. He couldn't turn down a favor for a man responsible for most of his income and who he considered a friend.
"Damn it," Jared said.
Chuckling, Susan said, "That's what I thought. Lucas will be at the bus stop tomorrow at a quarter after six."
"Fine." Jared sighed resignedly. "I'll pick him up and try to find something for him to do around here." He looked around at his messy desk and dragged his fingers through his hair. "Maybe he can do the paperwork."
"Uh-huh. Sure. He'll love that."
"That kind of tone is not instilling confidence in me, Susan!"
"Sorry." She laughed. "Thanks for doing this, Jared. Seriously."
He didn't have a choice. And not just because Paul was his biggest client and a friend. Susan was family, the only family he had left. "You're welcome. Say hi to Phillip and the kiddos. I'll talk to you later."
"I will. And Jared?"
He hung up the phone, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes. "I'm going to need more than luck to survive having Lucas Reika under my roof for two months."