Ashley Willis stood in the foyer of his house and checked his phone again. He’d hoped his boyfriend, Colt Harrison, would have texted by now. Nothing. He groaned. Colt knew the school staff party was tonight at eight.
The diner, no doubt, would take precedence. It always did.
Ever since Ashley and Colt had moved in together, he seemed to see Colt even less than when they’d lived apart. Then there were the rumblings from his fellow teachers about why they thought he should be getting married.
Good Lord. He had enough to worry about without making things legal. Living together and buying the house in both names should’ve been enough. Sure, they had needed more room and bought the bigger house, but he hadn’t quite adjusted to the change. Anyway, he wasn’t the marrying type…right? He’d barely gotten his life in order with the new house and scheduling conflicts. Then Wyatt, his son, had begged for a puppy. Colt, the man who could seem surly to everyone but the ones he truly loved, had brought home two pups he’d rescued from the shelter. Having two puppies wasn’t bad, but they created a whole new group of problems like accidents, having to go outside at all hours of the night and chewing up the furniture. Colt helped, but he wasn’t home that much to make a difference. At least Colt and Wyatt were good at taking the pups for walks.
About the only thing Colt had done was give Wyatt ideas for naming the dogs. Wyatt thought the world of Colt and, of course, had agreed to Colt’s ideas. The female had become Liz and the brown male was named Dick.
Ashley shook his head. He and Colt had been through hell together. After finally getting the nerve to speak to each other, they’d tried dating. Then the Coalition, the group who wanted to rid Cedarwood of gay people, had attacked Colt and beaten the hell out of him. The moment he’d found out, Ashley had thought he’d lost Colt. Ever since the attack, he’d realized just how much he loved Colt. He couldn’t see his life without him. But that didn’t help right now when he seemed to be doing a lot of living alone.
Wyatt thundered down the steps. “Ready.”
“Great.” Ashley shoved his phone into his pocket. “At least one of you is.” Shit. He shouldn’t have said that in front of Wyatt.
“Colt isn’t?” Wyatt rolled his eyes in the way only an eight-year-old could. “Is he gone?”
“He’s at the diner.” Ashley helped his son into his coat. “I’ll worry about him. Where’s your bag? Aren’t you bringing clothes and toys to Grandma’s?”
“Yep.” Wyatt abandoned the coat and hurried up the stairs again. He clunked back down with his plastic suitcase. “I’ve got my action figures, my blocks and my tunes.”
“Clothes? Pajamas? Anything?” He loved his son, but Wyatt could drive him crazy. “You need something to sleep in.”
“Grandma has clothes.” Wyatt put his coat on. “She said I didn’t need to bring anything.”
“If I text her and you’re fibbing, you’re in trouble.” Right now, he needed to get moving. He still had to drop Wyatt off with his mother and stop at the diner. “Put your boots on and get in the car, please.”
Wyatt disappeared into the garage.
Ashley stepped into his loafers. Where’d he put his gag gift for the exchange? He spotted the bright red and green box. Everyone had been asked to bring a gift. Nothing fancy or expensive. When he’d spotted the carved wood statue, he knew he’d found the right item. The eyes weren’t quite right on the statue of Santa. It was quirky enough to be funny without being insulting. He’d boxed the odd piece of art and wrapped it. He’d wanted to show his treasure to Colt, but Colt hadn’t been home much since Thanksgiving.
He understood Colt was important. Colt ran and owned the diner. The thing was, Colt took his role at the restaurant to the extreme. If something went wrong, Colt acted like he was the only person who could fix the situation. The staff Colt had hired were capable, but Colt wouldn’t relent.
Ashley knew better, but Colt didn’t listen to him. Colt knew how to run the diner and took no advice from him.
He grabbed his keys and phone. Where was his wallet? He patted his pocket for his wallet. Found it. He carried the box to the back of the SUV and put the gift in the cargo area. He rounded the vehicle before he slid behind the wheel. “Buckled?”
“Yes, I am.” Wyatt held up his hands. “Safe.”
“Thank you.” He opened the garage door and switched on the engine. He checked the driveway in the slight hope that Colt might have come home. Nothing. He backed out of the garage, then put the door back down.
Why wasn’t he surprised Colt wasn’t home? He should have known Colt wouldn’t be around in time for the party. Colt needed to work. The diner was in his blood.
Ashley drove across town to his mother’s condominium. Wyatt sat in the backseat and sang along to the Christmas songs on the radio.
Ashley tuned out Wyatt’s singing. He didn’t feel Christmassy. His heart sank when he drove past the diner. Colt’s car was in the lot. Knowing Colt, he hadn’t even looked at a clock.
Oh well. Ashley couldn’t fault Colt for being devoted.
Ashley drove the rest of the way across Cedarwood to the Knowlton Condominiums. At least there wasn’t any snow. He hated driving when the weather conditions weren’t ideal. He pulled into the condo lot and parked in front of his mother’s garage.
Brenda opened the front door. She met Ashley and Wyatt on the front walk. “There are my boys.” She stopped. “Where’s Colt?”
Ashley handed Wyatt the suitcase and gritted his teeth. Wyatt knew Colt wasn’t around, but it didn’t mean he needed to hear the discussion.
Brenda nodded. “Wyatt? I put some popcorn in the microwave. It should be done. Why don’t you check it for me?”
“Yes.” Wyatt raced past her with the suitcase and disappeared into the condo.
“He’s all energy.” Brenda laughed. “I’m sad I’m going to miss the Christmas musical.” She paused. “I mean, Winter Extravaganza. I wish I didn’t have to work. No one wanted to switch shifts. I tried, mind you, to switch.”
“I know. He’s looking forward to singing and his one line. All he has to say is ‘Winter is the time for everyone to come together.’ You’d think he was delivering the State of the Union.” Ashley relaxed. His mother could be pushy, but she cared. “I’ll stand in the back and record it with my phone.”
“Thank you.” She touched his arm. “He’s nothing like you, yet just like you. Want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing.” Ashley closed the car door. “Colt’s at the diner.”
“He is the owner.” Ashley hooked his fingers into his trouser pockets. “He has to be there.”
“I know.” Brenda hugged him. “It seems like it’s more frequent, him being gone. It’s Christmas. He should be home.”
“He’s gone a lot, but the diner is his livelihood.” Not that it didn’t feel like a jealous, demanding lover at times.
“I know.” She hugged him again. “Just keep your eyes open. Sometimes people who stay away aren’t only working.”
“Mom.” He should’ve seen this coming. She was looking out for him, but that didn’t make her comment hurt any less.
“I love him and he’s been good for you, but stuff happens,” Brenda said. “He likes Wyatt, but he’s taken on a lot.”
“I know.” She didn’t have to vocalize all his concerns. “I need to go, but, before I do, Wyatt said he didn’t need to bring clothes. Want to clue me in?”
“I told him to leave a set of clothes here in case he spilled something on his. I bought some stuff, too.” She offered an impish smile. “I was trying to help. You’ve taken on a lot and you’re doing well, but I can help you. I’ll tell him to pack clothes next time.” She sighed. “He also told me you’re working to keep clothes on him. I thought maybe you were overwhelmed and would appreciate the assistance.”
“You’ll spoil him, but I do appreciate the help.” Her heart was in the right place. “Maybe save the rest for Christmas.”
“I will.” She blushed. “He’s had upheaval. I’m trying to be another stabilizing force in his life—like you.”
“Next time tell me first.” He hugged his mother. “Thank you. I appreciate it. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing this all alone.”
“I know.” She patted his shoulder. “It’s my pleasure. Now have a good time. I hope Colt shows up.”
“Me too. I’ll see you in the morning. I’ll pick him up around nine-thirty?”
“I’ll bring him home at ten so you can sleep.” She waved. “See you tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Mom. Wyatt?” He strode up to the front door. “I’m leaving.”
“Bye, Dad,” Wyatt shouted. He raced out of the condo and hugged him. “I’m going to miss my movie.” He zoomed back inside.
Ashley sighed. Eight-year-olds. “Be good and don’t eat junk. Love you.” He waved at his mother and climbed behind the wheel of the vehicle. He left, but his heart ached. Wyatt was growing so fast and gaining independence. Soon, he’d be a teen. Danica, Wyatt’s birth mother, would be proud. Ashley wished she’d lived long enough to see how Wyatt was turning out.
His mother was right—Wyatt needed stability. Sure, he tried. He and Colt had moved in together, they had dogs and a life, but Colt being gone made the situation difficult. Colt had to work, but did he need to be gone this much?
Ashley drove to the diner and pulled into the busy lot. He parked. The place wasn’t packed, but there had been an uptick in business. He headed inside.
Shelby, one of the servers, stopped him at the counter. “Ash. Hi!”
“Hi.” He tucked his keys into his pocket. “It’s crazy tonight.”
“Tonight, it is.” She frowned. “He had a date, didn’t he? Like right now?”
“My staff Christmas party.” Ashley toyed with the stack of menus, putting them in order. “I’m guessing he forgot.”
“He probably did.” She closed her eyes. “One of the cooks called off and Colt’s been in the kitchen all day. We needed him.” She put both hands up and opened her eyes. “I know, you do too. He should go.”
“But if the food isn’t made for the customers, then they won’t return. Colt knows the recipes and how to keep the kitchen going. If there aren’t enough people to make the stuff, then there won’t be enough to come out and fill the orders.” Ashley nodded. There wasn’t much he could do if the diner was shorthanded. Getting upset wouldn’t help. Demanding Colt come with him wouldn’t do any good, either. “Tell him I’ll hopefully see him at the party or at home. Wyatt’s with my mother, so we have the house to ourselves, save for the dogs.”
“Will do.” Sadness tinged Shelby’s eyes. “I’m sorry. Try to have fun and I’ll do my best to get him out of here.”
“Thanks.” He waved, then left. He liked Shelby. She was a nice woman and tried to help. Still, the weight crashed on his shoulders. He hated having to do so much on his own. He wished he’d gone back to say hi to Colt, but he hadn’t wanted to interrupt, either.
Things wouldn’t be different if Colt worked second shift in an hourly job. They’d still have conflicting schedules. He sighed. He’d have to make things work.