The influx of San Francisco Bay Area gays is now commonplace in Stone Acres, California. But that means big city problems—much to the dismay of long-time residents of the small community.
In Relative Best, Zeke Bandy’s hotel becomes a haven for a battered youth. Native American Vic Longbow, who escaped a similarly brutal upbringing, comes face-to-face with it at Zeke’s place. With trouble surrounding them, can Zeke and Vic find their own peace and love?
On the outside, hardware store owner Frank McCord is the town’s bachelor handyman in Frank at Heart. Inside, he’s pining for true love, particularly the regard of software designer Christopher Darling. But recently divorced Christopher isn’t looking for another husband.
Country contractor Ben in Waking the Behr has always believed he’s heterosexual…until he meets city entrepreneur Mitch O’Shea. Mitch never thought he’d settle down with a guy from the country. Can a gay city mouse and a sexually confused country mouse find love?
When UC Davis horticulture grad Fen Miller agrees to help out in his cousin’s nursery over Christmas, he rents a room in sous chef John Barton’s Victorian house. John, another shorter than average man, catches Fen’s interest. But John’s past comes back to threaten them both in Short Order.
During the recession at the beginning of the 21st century, many gays and lesbians moved from the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento to the Sierra Foothills. FLAG (Foothills Lesbians and Gays) was formed. This series was written for them.
Excerpt from Waking the Behr:
Driving Mitch’s Rhino GX up to the Bottom was every good old boy’s wet dream. The thing greedily gobbled up the road. A couple of times I felt like I was holding it back with a thin piece of rope that was on the verge of breaking.
Mitch, the bastard, laughed at me the whole way.
“Let her have some head.”
“Can’t. We’re coming up on a couple of tight switchbacks. Don’t want us to go off the road before we’ve had lunch.”
“Pussy,” he whispered.
Easy enough for him to say. I was sure glad I hadn’t let him drive. We’d have been careening all over the place and probably would’ve had a lot more near misses.
I could just imagine my cell lighting up with calls as we passed some of my friends in their trucks. I felt them all staring at Rita as we flew by.
“You could have let her go,” he grumbled after we parked at the Bottom.
My hands were shaking from exhilaration. My zillion-dollar smile had to be glowing. Fuck. A guy could come just from driving this baby.
“Whatever,” I mumbled, because I really didn’t have any words at all. I had no native language at that point. I was cruising on the blissful release of having danced with Rita.
As we rounded the corner of the parking lot and headed for the front door, my brother Connor nearly bumped into me.
“What the fuck is that thing, Ben?” He was practically panting as he took in Rita.
“Well, damn me. There are two of you beauties,” Mitch whispered close to my ear.
“Yeah, well. Mitch O’Shea, this is my younger brother, Connor. Connor, Mitch.”
They stared for a split second before Mitch thrust out his hand and Con grabbed it.
“Hey, nice to meet you. What kind of car is it?”
They stood much too close, in my opinion, as Mitch listed Rita’s specs.
Not that I was jealous or protective or anything. I mean, Mitch had said he was gay, and Con definitely was. So they were a perfect match, right?
Are you kidding? my dick sneered.
My gut screamed that Con was encroaching, which was really weird. It wasn’t like I had any real designs on Mitch. I mean, I’m straight, even though I was between women and didn’t really feel like hunting down another one at the moment.
So what if I was attracted to Mitch? He was a good-looking guy. I had a lot of good-looking friends.
True, none of them made me want to run my hands all over them, though. Which was beside the point, right?
“So you’re here for lunch?” Con asked Mitch.
I nodded, but Con didn’t acknowledge me.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked, staring at Mitch.
Couldn’t he tell he was the third wheel at this party?
I shrugged, and Mitch nodded. I had no clue what the nod meant.
Lorraine, the Bottom’s co-owner, latched on to us near the hostess stand, scooped up three menus, and said over her shoulder, “Right this way.”
Connor was having lunch with us, then.
“Let me give you a quick overview about the roadhouse, Mitch. Then you’ll have some basic info to think about. Okay?” This was a working lunch, right? So I’d best be acting businesslike.
Mitch nodded, and Con, fortunately, figured out what was going on and shut the fuck up.
Excerpt from Relative Best:
“I want to thank everyone for coming out tonight. You’ve been a great audience.” The couple at the center table looked up at me with almost identical grins. Despite this being an extra gig in a very busy week, I’d enjoyed playing for their bachelor party—even if it made me feel my loneliness more sharply.
“I’ll leave the happy couple with these words from an old Native American chief who, if he was smart, said them to his other half: ‘I will fight no more forever.’” I raised my glass of water and shouted over the noisy crowd, “To Sammy and Ned—may they have a long, happy, peaceful life together!”
The raucous audience at Stonewall Saloon whooped and hollered through my words and got even louder after my last sentence. Rising from their seats, Sammy and Ned raised their clasped hands like boxers who’d won a particularly hard bout but now were on their way to a great wedding.
As they gushed about how happy they were that everybody could make it to their wedding, I started to pack up my banjo and guitars. Tonight I’d left the fiddle backstage because I was so tired. I’d been burning too many candles from both ends. After locking away the instruments in the storeroom and breaking down the mic and the amps, I caught the end of Sammy’s speech.
“If you enjoyed Zeke Bandy’s guitar and banjo playing, remember he’s here at Stonewall Thursday and Friday nights. We’re honored to have him play at our wedding.”
When the crowd cheered, I stood, turned, and waved to the fifty or sixty bobbing heads on the other side of the stage. Whistles and catcalls joined the shouts and cheers. I had my fans and a lot of regulars in the audience.
“See ya tomorrow, Red! I love you!” some drunk yelled, and the crowd cheered louder.
“Oh, cut it out, guys! You’re making me blush.” And they were, with all their yells and waves and hoots and hollers.
A cry went up about more beer from one side of the room, and the night proceeded like all the others when I played. Attention spans flew out the window as the beer and hard drinks flowed.
Completely sober, I put away the rest of the equipment and shut off the power on the platform that bar owner Guy Stone had designated as a stage.
Jimmy Patterson, Stone’s significant other and owner of Penny’s coffee shops here in Stone Acres, California, waved at me as I returned to the barroom from the storage area in the back.
“I got a table!” He was trying to shout over the noise.
As I limped toward him, men slapped me on the back and told me how much they enjoyed my playing. I kept moving, even though guys tried to stop me and give me requests for Thursday night. One guy even grabbed my face and kissed me, which would have been really flattering, even hot, if he hadn’t stopped, stared at me, and said, “You’re not Tom.”
I turned to walk away, only to hear him shout, “Red, you’re cuter than Tom.” I didn’t turn back but heard him yelp like he’d been hit.
I ended up sitting at a big table in the corner of the drinking area with a decent view of the tiny new dance floor. At the table with Jimmy sat four guys—flamboyant designer Fredi Zimmer and his husband, staid, reliable Max Greene, both of whom I knew fairly well, and two guys I didn’t know.
My eyes were drawn to the one who had strong cheekbones, long blue-black hair, and vibrant adobe-colored skin. He could easily have been a poster boy for the California Native American Heritage Commission. If I could pick a guy to kiss me unexpectedly, he’d be my choice. The libido I thought dead from overwork rose from its grave.
While the guys wrangled over who was paying for the next round, I took in the other man to the left of my preferred eye candy. This guy flaunted nearly white-blond hair, startling blue eyes, and a California tan, like the ultimate surfer dude. He did nothing for me, but I appreciated the effect he’d probably have on a lot of other guys here tonight.
I could easily see the humor in the three of us sitting at the same table, though. Considering I’ve got bright red hair, porcelain white skin with a thick spattering of freckles, and cornflower blue eyes, this table covered a large portion of the rainbow.
Jimmy introduced us while he partially stood to get Stone’s attention. “Zeke, these are two of the groomsmen, Vic Longbow and Hayden Weller. Zeke Bandy.”
Both of them nodded, a nod I returned.
“Hey, man. Nice pickin’ up there.” Hayden, the beach god, waved his nearly empty glass of beer at me.
“Thanks.” I never knew what to say when someone complimented me after a performance. While part of me was floating on the post-performance high, the rest of me was critiquing what I’d done and what I’d like to do over.
“Are you recorded?” Vic’s voice was low and soothing, the kind of sound that oddly created a center of calm in the middle of the barroom noise. I gladly stepped into the peace and took a deep breath.
I looked down, fleetingly taking in the scarred tabletop, and balanced momentarily on the pinpoint of serenity Vic had presented me.
“No, no recordings. I haven’t ever had the time or energy.” I shrugged. I owned and ran the historical hotel in downtown Stone Acres. When was there time to record?
“Where do you get the songs? Are they yours?” Vic was focused on me so much that the rest of the table dimmed.
“No. God, no. They’re all old tunes that have been knocking around forever, mostly by bluegrass and folk groups. I take it you don’t listen to this kind of sound?”
He smiled. “You’ve opened up a whole new door for me, and I can’t wait to explore what’s inside this new music room.”
His look caressed me enough that my dick perked, and suddenly I dared to believe my dream of finding a boyfriend and possibly a husband wasn’t as nebulous as I’d always thought. If someone this fine could look at my skinny ginger self and respond even half as much as he was, I was on the right path. I grinned at him and he at me.
Yeah, he was too hot for me with his high cheekbones and exotic hair, but I could practice on him and dream, right?
Excerpt from Frank at Heart:
Today when the stranger came into the store, instead of wandering and giving me a moment to fully admire him, he stepped confidently up to the counter.
“Hi there. I’m Christopher (mumble, mumble).” He stuck out a hand.
“Frank McCord. Sorry, I didn’t catch the last name.” I gripped his hand firmly, happy to get a chance to touch him. He shone. Handsome as they come, a poster model with a clear, warm smile and a twinkle in his eyes. I wasn’t ever going to win a beauty contest, but I stood up straight as I looked him at him.
Then I noticed his cheeks had reddened in what looked suspiciously like a blush and wondered what that was about. I was still waiting to hear his full name.
“Uh, yeah. Uh. Don’t laugh.” He cleared his throat and pulled out of our too-long handshake. “I’m, uh, Christopher Darling.”
It took me a minute because he hesitated between his first and last names. Had he called me…? Naw. But for a second I let myself believe. No, no. Darling was his last name. I almost chuckled before I remembered he’d asked me not to.
Instead, I put on my helpful store smile.
“Nice to meet you, Christopher. What can I do for you?”
His grin grew in confidence, probably because not only hadn’t I laughed at his name but I also looked as benign as they came.
“I saw you had a Help Wanted sign in the window.” He turned a little and pointed behind him.
“Well, now, I’m not saying you’re old, but I’m looking for a couple of teenagers to work either full- or part-time for the summer. Are you in high school?” I thought I’d asked it teasingly, but he reddened again.
“It’s not for me, but my son. He’s fifteen. Is he too young?” Before I could answer, Christopher scurried on. “He’s a junior, going into senior year. We think he’ll be going to MIT or Stanford after he graduates.”
“Oh my. He’s a child prodigy. You must be proud of him.” I was impressed.
Christopher flushed. “Yes, I’m terribly proud of him. We’re hoping he won’t have as many problems here as he did in Mountain View.”
Who were we? Him and the boy’s mother? I hesitated to ask. After all, it wasn’t really my business. But now that we’d broken the ice, I hoped to learn more about him.
“He had problems?” I couldn’t imagine any kid having problems with a father who seemed as supportive as the god standing in front of me.
“My son’s gay like I am. A group of kids his age thought it unacceptable there.”
Now wasn’t that good news? Focus, I reminded myself. Answer the man’s concerns.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place. Stone Acres Regional High, and the town as well, are gay-friendly and no-hate. The new principal and the gay sheriff go out of their way to keep it that way.” I gave a dry laugh. “Besides, as far as the school is concerned, only a half-dozen kids went out for football and even fewer for basketball last year. That cut down on the number of jocks. Mostly, Stone Acres is a live-and-let-live place with only a few squalls now and again.”
The bell tinkled as someone walked into the store. I shifted from one foot to the other and looked over Christopher’s shoulder. Speaking of teenagers, the half day of school must be out, and here was a potential applicant who was the right age, if I wasn’t mistaken.
The boy moving up behind Christopher stood almost as tall as me. I thought I was skinny, but this kid gave a whole new meaning to the word. His T-shirt caved in toward his chest as he walked, and I swear I could see his hip bones outlined at the top of his slacks.
Going by looks alone, he could have easily been my son. The boy and I shared prominent Adam’s apples under long, thin faces and unruly, cowlick-prone brown hair. Only our eyes were different, his a striking light tawny brown flecked with gold, like Christopher’s, to my plain old brown.
“Dad.” The way the kid groaned it, the word had four or five syllables. “I told you’d I’d come talk to him myself.”
Yup, fifteen years old all right.
It’d been on the tip of my tongue to ask Christopher why in the world his son would want to work here, in what some considered the dullest store in town. Now I’d be able to ask the kid himself.
“May I help you?” I mainly asked the question so the two of them wouldn’t start discussing—or even worse, fighting over—why the dad hadn’t waited for the kid to come in on his own. I didn’t want to give Christopher a chance to say something that would deflate his son, like the dad didn’t think the kid had enough nerve or could handle the conversation with me.
The kid gave me a blinding smile.
“Hi. I’m Henry Darling, and I’d like to apply for the summer position.” He hadn’t stumbled over his last name, so there was no question whether he was addressing me by a pet name.
Henry held out his skinny hand, and I shook it. The kid was stronger than he looked. “Well, Henry, I’m Franklin McCord. Everybody around here calls me Frank. Let me get my calendar.” I squatted and pulled out my paper day planner and plunked it down on the counter.
Father and son shared a smile. Oh, I knew why. They’d come from Silicon Valley and probably had their calendars on their iPhones or androids or somewhere else in a cloud or in the ether. Just because I kept the paper tradition started by my grandfather didn’t mean I was a complete Luddite.
I flipped through the pages, then took out a piece of paper from the back of the book.
“I’m having applicants take a little test after they fill out this form. So if you can complete it right now, we’ll set up a time for you to come in.”
“Okay. May I ask what kind of test, sir?”
Wow. “May” not “can.” What an interesting kid. But I had to break him of the “sir” habit. Made me sound way too old. At least too old for his father.
“Like I said, everyone calls me Frank, even the kids.” I pointed to the former soup can overflowing with pens and pencils. “The test’s pretty simple, really. I’ll have you name some hardware items and build a little something. I’ll provide directions. You just have to follow them.”
The test was the only way to separate the potential baristas and movie ushers from the hardware enthusiasts. Not only did everyone in town call me Frank, but they also knew I paid more than minimum wage to my high school help. So kids who didn’t give a damn about the difference between a nail and a screw—except when they were talking about sex—applied for any jobs I offered.
I watched as Henry filled out the application quickly and neatly. Christopher was eyeing him with a proud, besotted look on his face. His gaze turned to me, and he smiled over his son’s head. He nodded like we were sharing a moment here.
A pang of longing shot through me. I’ve always wanted kids—the more the merrier. As a modern gay man, I knew it was possible. Proof stood in front of me. As the geeky town tinkerer without any hope of finding a man I could love and want as my husband, however, I knew the prospect wasn’t plausible. Sometimes, like now, that realization cut deep.
After Henry studied the page a moment, he returned the pen to the can, picked up the application, and handed it to me.
“The school year ends next Thursday.” Henry, unlike many high school kids, was looking me straight in the eye and wasn’t relying on his father to fill in any blanks or prompt him. I was impressed. “I can take the test today, tomorrow, or after school next week.”
I read down his application. I don’t use a standard form, because the ones I’d found online didn’t tell me anything I wanted to know about my applicants. My form has the usual name, address, and contact information, but it also asks about extracurricular activities, interests, and passions. A lot of kids stopped at the word “passions,” and some even asked what I meant.
Henry had had no problem answering the questions. He wrote that he was a game player, both electronic and nonelectronic. He was a serious reader, listing The Silmarillion as the last book he’d truly enjoyed. Some boys can’t remember a book they’ve read, much less the last one they really got into. Also unlike most of the boys who applied, Henry hadn’t listed any sports, either as a participant or a fan.
“You don’t like sports?” I tried not to ask it too gruffly, but both Darlings’ faces scrunched up.
“Is that a problem?” Christopher evidently wasn’t worried about being too gruff.
“No. I follow a few teams. So I try to make sure rivalries and loyalties won’t become a point of contention here in the store.” Some people have remarked that mildness could be my middle name. I’ve worked hard at keeping my cool, so I don’t usually flare up. I try to surround myself with people who don’t either. The world around me got really ugly when I was angry.
Pat Henshaw, author of the Foothills Pride Stories, has spent her life surrounded by words: Teaching English composition at the junior college level; writing book reviews for newspapers, magazines, and websites; helping students find information as a librarian; and promoting PBS television programs.
Pat was born and raised in Nebraska where she promptly left the cold and snow after college, living at various times in Texas, Colorado, Northern Virginia, and Northern California. Pat enjoys travel, having visited Mexico, Canada, Europe, Nicaragua, Thailand, and Egypt, and Europe, including a cruise down the Danube.
Her triumphs are raising two incredible daughters who daily amaze her with their power and compassion. Fortunately, her incredibly supportive husband keeps her grounded in reality when she threatens to drift away while writing fiction.
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