Not a Boy by Elle Keaton
Pausing behind the front desk, Ben narrowed his eyes at his phone, wishing, not for the first time, that he hadn’t given his father his cell phone number. Ever.
C: Date is September 17. You need to have your tux fitted two weeks prior. Rehearsal dinner is the Thursday prior and you are expected to attend. Lucky for you it won’t be much of a commute. Your mother is not invited and I ask that you please reinforce this with her.
Ben snorted. As if he could control his mother. Marigold Rainbow was a force unto herself.
C: Due to a cancellation, Melissa was able to secure the Brooch Resort for the ceremony.
He rolled his eyes upward to the tin ceiling of Stoney Brook Inn’s lobby. Nice power move there, Melissa. Although the joke was on her because Ben’s mom couldn’t care less about Chuck marrying Melissa, or anything that Chuck had or hadn’t done since Ben was conceived. This, Ben thought, was the part that really bothered Chuck—Marigold Rainbow just didn’t care. If it weren’t for Ben, they wouldn’t have a connection at all.
C: A haircut is in order as well. This is my wedding, not a beach party.
Why was he part of the wedding, then? He’d tried to get out of the pomp and circumstance, even telling his father he didn’t think he fit in with his high-powered lawyer friends, but Chuck had dismissed his concern. Fine, Ben would get fitted, he would wear the damned tux, he’d be on time. There would be no haircut.
“I do not have the bandwidth to deal with this,” Ben grumbled. He’d had a long day and it wouldn’t be ending anytime soon. Not with guests still needing to be checked in and the head sommelier having scheduled him for a tasting that evening.
Stoney Brook Inn’s general manager, Piper Walsh, bustled behind the front desk, efficiency pouring off her in waves.
“Ben, why don’t you take the rest of the day off? Jeffrey had to cancel the tasting and we’re relatively slow tonight. Plus the new kid, Riko, is settling in nicely, he can handle any overflow.”
Ben frowned at his boss but she just waved toward the front doors. “You’ve put in ten hours already today and twelve yesterday. You deserve a break. Head out to the beach and relax.” She winked. “Maybe you’ll find someone fun to hang out with.”
“One time. I hook up with a guy one time and you have to ride me about it the rest of the summer?”
“I’m just jealous that my Person Charming hasn’t walked in the doors yet.”
Ben laughed, his shoulders relaxing in anticipation of some beach time. The past week had been brutal. He was tired and ready for some time that didn’t involve helping guests find lost keys, towels, or even kids. Like yesterday, when every available staff member spent a stressful hour searching for a missing eight-year-old, only to find him hiding in one of the hedges.
When his red-eyed, teary mom had asked him why he was hiding and hadn’t answered her frantic calls, he’d given her a look like she’d finally lost her last marble and calmly explained he hadn’t been hiding, he’d been watching a spider build a web and would she please stop squeezing him so tightly.
“Are you sure? Riko still has the new-waitperson smell,” he asked, mostly so he wouldn’t feel guilty about taking off. “You know some sorcery will happen if you let me go.” Ben was pretty sure that the unofficial law of doing something nice for someone was going to bite Piper in the ass. As soon as he left the inn, a horde of tourists would appear out of thin air and demand a full-service lunch, or that kid would find another bug to spy on. It was inevitable, almost an unspoken rule in the hospitality industry.
Piper flashed him her signature grin, her long dark hair restrained in a practical ponytail that hung down her back. Ben’s summertime boss was smart and beautiful, and made him wish he could activate that one percent of himself that was attracted to women. But no, it had remained stubbornly quiet, which was probably for the best, as Piper had become a good friend instead.
“He can handle it. Trial by fire and all that. Go on,” she made a shooing motion with both hands, “we’ll be fine. Tripp is here too.”
Ben felt a little better about leaving if there was someone besides Riko. Riko was nice but he was still learning. Tripp was more experienced, had been around a bit longer.
“Okay, I’m out of here.” Ben wasn’t going to argue any further. Leaving the concierge desk, he headed down the back hallway and around the last corner to the employee locker room. There, he exchanged his practical shoes for this summer’s flip-flops and his slacks for well-worn cargo shorts. He also changed from the polo shirt with the Stoney Brook logo on it into a short-sleeved pink-plaid button-down he’d picked up at a second-hand store. After making sure he had his wallet secured in a side pocket, Ben headed out the door.
Freedom was calling and he didn’t want it to have to leave a message.
Outside, the early summer evening was gorgeous, the air temperature perfect, and only a slight breeze tripped through the hedgerows and treetops along the strip of land that the town of Stoney Brook was situated on.
Stoney Brook was cute and, when not filled to the gills with tourists, very livable. But Ben missed his hometown of Hidden Harbor, and the end of the season couldn’t come fast enough—even if it meant being home in time for Chuck and Melissa’s wedding. Like Hidden Harbor, Stoney Brook was a town where people lived and worked year-round. But it doubled in size during the high season, when Stoney Brook celebrated the Tall Ships and hordes of visitors came for the festivities.
From down the street, an ancient mint-colored Chevy rumbled slowly toward where Ben hesitated. The driver caught his glance and slowed down even further to let him cross over. Ben wondered what the driver was doing since the road was closed for the Main Street Fair, a funky arts and craft fair that was also part of the Tall Ships’ festivities. Maybe the guy was helping set up a booth or something.
Waving his thanks, Ben darted across the narrow street and made a beeline for the touristy Wine and Beer Shoppe. He was taking himself on a date and wanted to pick up something cold to drink for the special occasion.
A display at the cash register held bags of Fox Family potato chips made in Maine—totally the locally produced kind of thing his boss back home would sell too. On impulse, Ben bought two bags—one salt and vinegar, one barbecue—and also added a Stoney Brook Tall Ships Festival travel mug, both for practical reasons and because he’d be glad for the souvenir once he was back home.
This was going to be a great date.
“Looks like you’re going to have some fun,” the cashier, Brady, remarked.
“Piper let me off early.” Ben grinned at him. “I’m going to hide somewhere.”
“Dude, I’m jealous. It’s been crazy this week. Bag?”
“That’d be great.”
Back outside on the sidewalk, Ben steered clear of tourists and their families wandering around after their meals or coming up from checking out the beach. It was almost the end of July and the Tall Ships Festival was coming to an end. The Stoney Brook was bursting with visitors and locals who’d come to enjoy the ships and participate in the various festivities during the high season. The inn had been booked solid for the past week and even overbooked one night. Ben didn’t know how Piper had solved that problem, but she had. The woman was pure genius.
Crossing back across to the oceanside of the street, Ben headed for a path that was slightly hidden between the inn and a seawall. This time in the evening, the beach wouldn’t be exactly empty, but if he headed the opposite direction from the Tall Ships, he’d find some peace and quiet not too far away.
Ben found it funny how very few visitors explored past the confines of the resorts and festival area. But that was also just fine because it meant he could relax in peace with the locally sourced chardonnay and potato chips. He’d discovered the winery early on, and they made a nice middle-grade chard with a pleasant, oaky finish that didn’t cost an arm and a leg.
After making his way down the narrow unpaved path, Ben popped out onto the beach and began heading toward his spot. About ten steps along, he stopped to kick off his flip-flops and walked the rest of the way barefoot, enjoying the feel of the coarse sand under his feet.
Not long after arriving in town, Ben had gone exploring and staked out a special out-of-the-way spot for himself. It was down the beach a ways, tucked out of the wind and protected by overhanging beach grass, and boasted an unobscured view of the bay. From there, Ben would be able to watch the sunset. Maine sunsets weren’t as pretty as the ones at home—when he asked Piper if she knew why, she claimed it was something about the angle of the sun. The sunrises in Maine, on the other hand, were supposed to be better than at home. There were some pretty shots on the Inn’s website, but Ben wasn’t getting up at four a.m. to watch the sun come up.
So, sunsets would have to do. What a tragedy.
When he reached his spot, Ben flopped down into the still-warm sand, ignoring the instinct to pull his phone out of his pocket and check his messages again. He wanted to relax, and if he checked his phone, there might be another text from Chuck. Sometimes a guy just wanted to chill on the beach with his wine and potato chips.
His sperm donor shouldn’t be taking up any more of Ben’s headspace.
And yet, that thought brought his dad’s voice full steam into his head. “Son, you went to school on a baseball scholarship, for chrissakes.You’re wasting your life, your talent.”
His mom had never interfered with Ben’s relationship with Chuck, never said a bad word about the man. Sometimes Ben wished she would, but that’s not how Marigold Rainbow worked. He suspected, though, that she might have put a Wiccan spell on Chuck, even if she would never admit to it.
According to Marigold, she and Chuck had “come together on a starlit night,” Ben was meant to be, and Marigold had brought him into the world with love and grace. Ben thought there had to have been alcohol, maybe pot, involved, even if his mother denied it.
His gaze landed on a group of long-legged seabirds hunting for last-minute snacks far out at the water’s edge, jabbing their long beaks into the wet sand and popping back up with a shake of their heads. Ben loved birdwatching, maybe in another life he would have pursued a biology degree and saved the animals, but he had zero interest in more college.
Ben hadn’t regretted his decision to walk away from baseball for a single moment, either—except when Chuck was being… Chuck. He was happier than he had been in years. He’d only played as long as he had because the game came naturally to him, and it seemed that the one thing his father liked about Ben was his natural athletic ability.
It drove Chuck crazy, knowing his son had been a better baseball player at eight than he had ever been in his life.
First, it was Ben playing varsity as a high school freshman that made his dad proud, then it was winning city and state championships, then the cycle started over again in college. By the time he was eighteen, organized sports had lost the allure, and playing wasn’t fun anymore. It had taken a couple of years for him to decide he couldn’t fake it any longer. When he had realized he was never going to be happy playing, he’d quit, turned his back on the whole damn thing.
When Ben had explained why, Chuck Sutcliff had not been understanding. Big surprise there.
“Forget about all that, this is your chance to be a star.”
But what if he didn’t want to be a star?
It was impossible to forget about something—about being gay—that meant, unlike his teammates, he couldn’t really date or get married without being judged, being front-page news. Ben had no desire to be one of the gay poster boys for major league baseball, even if he would have been drafted in the first place, nor was he staying in the closet for a dubious shot at a fame he never wanted. Six years later and Chuck still hadn’t forgiven him.
And six years later, Ben was frustrated that he still struggled with the desire to make the man proud of him, even as he wanted to cut Chuck off and never acknowledge his existence again.
“I spent thousands of dollars so you could fuck around serving people gourmet burgers?”
Ben had never asked Chuck to send him to sports camps or pay for him to play on the select teams. And it didn’t make a difference how many times Ben explained that he loved what he did. That he loved learning about wine-and-food pairings and, yes, serving up blue cheese and caramelized onion burgers or rosemary potato pizza. The chef he worked with back on Piedras loved to mix stuff up, getting diners to try things they never had before, and Ben discovered just how much he loved it too.
He’d hoped his recent birthday would slow Chuck’s nagging down. No major league team would recruit him now, anyway, and he figured his dad would get that, at least. No such luck. Thus, when the chance to intern with Piper at Stoney Brook Inn had come up and Cody Prescott, his boss on Piedras, had okayed his absence, Ben had jumped at the opportunity to fly across the country for the season and work for one of the best in the hospitality industry. Chuck could suck it.
Rummaging in one of his pockets for his handy keyring-slash-bottle-opener, Ben de-corked the wine and sloshed it into his new mug before leaning back again against the rocky earth of the bank. He took a good long sip of the chardonnay, holding it on his tongue a minute before swallowing. Deep breaths. Breathe in. Breathe out. Another sip of wine, more slow and calm breathing. Birds flying, the sound of the wind caressing the grasses above his head. Life really was good.
“Here’s to freedom and choices and watching spiders build webs.” He took a third sip, enjoying the oaky flavor as it slid across his tongue and down his throat.
Sensing movement and a shift in the light, Ben glanced away from the birds and sparkling water. He’d assumed a stray cloud had drifted across the sun for a second, something like that.
It was not a cloud. It was a man.
A man, a seriously sexy, older-than-Ben man—like a grown man in his forties, not a witless frat boy—had stopped in front of Ben and was staring at him. He was smoking hot. Tall, leaner than Ben. Not difficult, since Ben was built like a redwood tree.
Dark brown hair, slightly threaded with silver at each temple, riffled in the breeze—or so Ben thought, anyway, as he peered up while the man stood there. The short-sleeve shirt the stranger wore was entirely unbuttoned and flapped in the light wind. Unlike Ben, he was not wearing a t-shirt underneath. Ben had tantalizing views of a swath of tanned skin, a slightly furred chest, a flat stomach, and a delicate trail that led Ben’s gaze down to lean hips barely holding up a pair of beach shorts.
“Evening,” was the stellar greeting Ben managed to push out between his lips. The wine he’d drunk on a mostly empty stomach coursed through his bloodstream and fused with the instant attraction he felt, making him more forward than he might otherwise have been on a public beach. “Would you like to join me?”
The stranger hesitated for a second before giving a nod and stepping closer to plop down on the sand next to Ben. Close but not too close. Ben refilled his tumbler before holding out the bottle to his guest. Fingers crossed, his near-perfect solo date might be about to get even better.