Daily Grind – Anna Zabo
A man as roasted as his coffee.
Brian Keppler’s in a grind. As owner of Grounds N’at, he barely has time to sleep or eat, let alone a relationship. Then Rob Ancroft, a charming, ginger Brit walks into his shop, and Brian’s world tilts on its side.
A recovering workaholic.
Rob, CEO of CirroBot, knows about breaking apart under pressure. The last thing he wants is to watch Brian become as roasted as his espresso. He’s in love, but there’s only so much help Brian will accept, and watching him crack apart unearths ghosts from Rob’s past.
An impossible choice.
Love’s on the menu, but so’s burnout. As Brian struggles to keep his business afloat, stress fractures the relationship he’s building with Rob, and he has to choose between the man he loves or the shop that’s his life.
Also available in paperback.
Bright sunlight from the first warm spring day in Pittsburgh drove cheerful customers looking for a tasty jolt of caffeine into Grounds N’at. Brian Keppler wiped his brow with his forearm while two shots of espresso dripped into glasses for an order, then set about frothing the milk.
One cappuccino. One Americano. Both easy drinks, thank goodness.
He needed to down a shot or two of espresso himself. This morning had been cruel. He’d barely made it to the shop in time to open, and the flow of customers had been nonstop since he unlocked the door at eight am.
A sunny Saturday always meant business would be brisk, and he was grateful for all his customers, but man, he needed about three more hours of sleep.
Coffee would have to do, as usual.
He finished crafting the drinks and handed them over, with a smile, to the high-school kids who had ordered. They set up their papers and laptops at a table near the window.
The line had died down to nothing and everyone in the shop had what they needed. For a moment, he had a reprieve from slinging bean juice. Good. He started brewing a much-needed shot for himself and leaned against the counter.
He knew better than to sit down, though he kept a stool under the counter. The instant his butt touched wood, a flood of customers would pour in.
He did check his phone and found a text from Ethan—the barista who should’ve been working this morning.
Hey, am I still on for Monday?
Brian twisted his lips and pondered that same question. He hadn’t enjoyed being woken up by a phone call from Ethan at seven thirty to be told he couldn’t make his shift—not after a rare night out for Brian with his brother and sister. He’d fallen into bed after two in the morning.
Normally, he’d have let it slide. Things happened, sometimes. But this was the third time Ethan had called off on short notice for no other reason than “I’m just not feeling it today, man.”
Brian clicked the phone screen off and tucked it into his pocket before collecting his much-needed espresso.
He hated firing people, but didn’t see much choice in Ethan’s case. He needed dependable baristas, not dudes who came into work only when the moon was in the right house or whatever.
The bell rang on the door and Brian downed his shot and prepared for another round of slinging drinks.
A guy walked in. Tall. Red hair. Sunglasses. Not a regular customer—he’d have remembered this guy. Freckles and a bright-ass smile while he took in the shop.
Brian swallowed and set his espresso cup down. He usually didn’t dig dudes. But sometimes . . . sometimes he did.
This was one of those sometimes.
Sunglasses walked farther in and took the glasses off—and that really wasn’t any better. He had pale eyes—hazel or blue or green—and cheekbones that went straight up to heaven as he stared at the drink menu.
Brian’s usual line was “What can I get started for you?” That’s not what came out of his mouth, though.
“See anything you’d like?”
Sunglasses stepped forward and met his gaze. Hazel—his eyes were hazel and they had little lines around them that matched his smile. “Lots of things.” The melodic words slithered through Brian, all wrapped up in a British accent. “What do you recommend?”
He completely forgot what drinks were even on the damn board. “Well, what do you like? Light? Dark? Bold? Something with a bit of cream?” Did he really just say that?
A huff of laughter. “I’m fond of bold. And cream.”
His smile deepened. “Bold, hot, and spicy?”
Yeah, he was in trouble. “With cream.”
“Of course.” He tucked his sunglasses into the neck of his t-shirt. “Sounds exactly like what I want.”
Shit. “For here or to go?”
“For here, for now, I think.” Each word was enunciated with humor.
That meant ceramic—and no name. “I’ll get that started for you.” Brian turned away and stared at the espresso machine. He didn’t flirt with men. Except he just had. Hard. Every bit of his skin tingled.
Good thing making coffee was pretty much muscle memory by now, because his mind was spinning like a fucking bean grinder. What was he doing?
Making a drink for a British redhead with one hell of an amused voice. He pulled out the Mexican chili chocolate and crafted the man’s drink with hands that were mostly steady. Brian caught glimpses of Sunglasses while he worked—and each time, the man met Brian’s gaze.
Oh yes, he was being watched. Heat rose from his toes to the top of his whirling head. He finished the drink, added a dollop of whipped cream and a dusting of cinnamon, and set it down on the counter.
“That looks lovely.” Deep, appreciative voice with all those round vowels. Brian could get hard from listening to this man.
Hell, he already was.
Brian shifted to the register and rang him up. Cash—which meant he still didn’t know the dude’s name. “New in the area?”
“No—and yes. I’ve been in Pittsburgh on and off for about two years. Things have finally calmed down enough for me to explore a bit.” He picked up the drink but didn’t go far—taking a seat at the bar top next to the register rather than at one of the tables.
“On and off?” Brian didn’t need another espresso. Started making one anyway.
Sunglasses took a sip of his mocha, leaving behind a smear of whipped cream on his mouth, which he licked off with a slow swipe of his tongue. “This is quite spectacular.” Those eyes met Brian’s again. There was a dusting of light freckles over his nose and cheeks.
Brian couldn’t move. Could barely breathe. “Glad you like it.”
Another swipe of tongue over those lips. “The company I work for moved its headquarters here from Chicago. I spent quite some time going back and forth while we were co-located. But we’re here now—and so am I.”
The end of that sounded far too much like an invitation.
Maybe he did need the espresso after all. He took the cup and, despite tempting a flood of customers, pulled a stool over and sat. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
More whipped cream on that mouth, and a smile. “Thanks.” A dart of tongue. “I’m Rob, by the way.”
Rob. Rob Rob Rob Rob. The name rang in Brian’s mind like a bell. “Brian.” He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” Rob’s grip was firm and warm, and Brian was glad he was sitting, because touching the man was a bit like sticking his finger into a socket. The handclasp lasted a little too long before they both pulled back.
What was he doing? Every nerve sang.
“And you?” The whipped cream had melted into the mocha, but foam from the milk still touched Rob’s lips. This time, Rob didn’t lick it off.
It was distracting as fuck. “What?”
“Are you from around here?” An almost knowing smile formed on his frothy lips before he took another sip.
“Yeah. Born and raised.” He drank some of his espresso—it hadn’t gone tepid, but it was bitter as hell. “Well, not this neighborhood, but in Pittsburgh.”
“I’ve noticed all the little neighborhoods. The bigger ones, too. North Hills. South Hills.” He waved a hand at the windows. “There’s places to explore everywhere.” He looked down into his coffee. “Gems to discover.” His eyes flicked up and met Brian’s.
That— Yeah, this was definitely flirting and Rob was interested. Only . . . Brian didn’t date men. Didn’t do anything with men but admire them from afar.
For all intents and purposes, he was straight. Even if he wasn’t.
Rob tipped his head and raised an eyebrow. There was a hint of silver at Rob’s temples, which likely placed him close to the same age as Brian. He had gray too, but it blended in with the blond.
“I—” He was completely at a loss for words and his hands were shaking. He pulled something out of his brain “What have you seen of Pittsburgh so far?”
“Not as much as I’d like.” He eyed Brian and sat back. “Well—very little, truthfully. Point State Park. Downtown. Some of the execs took me on one of those Ducky tours last summer. Went to a Pirates game.”
He nodded. “And now I must fend for myself.”
So, single. “How’d you end up in Squirrel Hill?” Did he live here?
A laugh and that fascinating smile. “A coworker recommended some restaurants to me—and this shop. His husband works in the company above.”
Only one person that could be. “Todd Douglas.”
Rob sat up straighter. “Yes.” He sounded surprised.
Brian chuckled and finished his espresso. “Fazil Kurt’s husband.”
Rob glanced at the ceiling. “Do you know everyone up there?”
“Well, it’s a small office and I’m their coffeepot, so yeah.” He pushed his cup to the side. “Plus, Sam Anderson’s assistant, Justin, was my best barista until Sam hired him away.” He missed Justin’s competency and work ethic. The shop had run smoothly then. Unlike now.
“This is your shop? You own it?” Rob leaned in, his face bright. “That’s fantastic!”
“Most days.” This one had started out as shit, but with Rob sitting in front of him, he couldn’t say that now. “So you must work at that robotics place down in Bakery Square.”
“CirroBot,” Rob said. “Yes.” His cheerful demeanor vanished into thoughtfulness.
That was odd. “Don’t like it there?”
There was something raw and unguarded about Rob’s reply. “No, I love it there.” The smile returned, but a bit more restrained. “Problem is, I’m somewhat of a workaholic if left to my own devices. Hence—” He gestured at the shop.
That Brian understood. “Get out of the house, see the sights, and not work yourself to an early grave?”
“Exactly.” The grin dropped away. “You as well?”
The bell on the door rang and Brian slipped off the stool. “This place is my life. Just ask my ex-girlfriends.”
Rob’s brows knitted, but Brian couldn’t say anything more—not with three customers bearing down on him and another two ringing the bell on the door a second time. “Gotta go.”
“Of course,” Rob said. He didn’t move, just sipped his coffee and watched Brian as he waited on the flood of customers.
Oh, the confusion when he’d mentioned girlfriends. He didn’t know how to explain himself to Rob. Then again, he didn’t know how to explain himself to himself, so that was nothing new.
He was thirty-eight years old and tired. He’d known since high school that he was bisexual—except guys weren’t bi. They were either gay or straight. If they were bi, then they were just on their way to being gay. Or liars.
He whipped up a triple caramel macchiato with two pumps of chocolate and winced—more at himself than the drink.
He was thirty-eight. Why did he still give a fuck what other people believed?
Two cappuccinos followed, then an iced latte.
Rob finished his drink, but he remained at the counter, idly running a finger around the lip of his cup.
During a small breather between customers, Brian leaned over. “Would you like another?”
“Yes.” Crisp and clear, and the force of that word made Brian shiver. “But finish up with your customers, and then we’ll talk.”
Brian nodded and got back to work.
Sadly, Rob Ancroft couldn’t lean back in his chair, cross his arms, and just watch Brian, the barista and shop owner, since the barstool he was sitting on that made such displays impossible. Probably a good thing, in hindsight. He’d likely teeter over onto the floor.
What a curious and handsome man Brian was! Full of wit, innuendo, and charm. No doubt Brian knew exactly what he was doing, the flirty thing that he was. Not a naive young man—he wanted Rob. That had been apparent from his cream comments.
And yet, ex-girlfriends.
But no negative quips about Todd or his husband. Or Sam Anderson’s little queer consulting firm above his head.
Bi? Pan? Not that it mattered. Rob hadn’t come here to pick up a date—just a cup of coffee. He examined Brian’s back. Powerful shoulders, very nice arms, and a trim waist. Went well with his lovely long face, sandy hair, and pretty brown eyes.
Brian was very much like the coffee he’d drank. Bold and spicy. And yes, a taste of that cream, too, please. He hadn’t had a date, let alone a roll in bed in…far too long. CirroBot had eaten his relationships along with his life for the last few years.
But now they were in Pittsburgh, and the company was settled. He’d handed over much of the responsibility—and part of the ownership—to a board of directors.
He certainly could have more than one cup of coffee, especially since what he wanted was a taste of that nice tall Americano.
Even if Brian proved elusive as a bedmate, the man was witty and easy on the eyes. He also knew this city, which Rob decidedly did not. Recommendations on new and interesting non-tourist attractions would be most welcome.
Perhaps they could help each other with the whole workaholic problem.
Rob shifted on the barstool and watched Brian work his business. He smiled at each of his customers. Conversed as he made their drinks. Most topics were inoffensive—weather, sports—but Brian also knew several of the people in line, and well, too. His manner changed subtly, then. His grin open and light played in his eyes. He had a delightful exchange of witticisms with a bearded gentleman, a more serious discussion with a younger woman about her college classes, and an animated chat with a mother and her little boy.
Rob turned in his seat and examined the shop and patrons more closely. In a way, it reminded him of a pub but without the beer and sports. Lots of locals. Younger people working on school assignments. Couples having chats. An older gentleman reading a newspaper.
The mother and son sat down nearby and the child proceeded to devour a cookie while reading a library book.
He was very good not to get crumbs on the pages.
Rob turned back to the luscious man that was Brian. “Very.”
“In another drink?” Breathless voice, and a hint of nerves pinched Brian’s eyes.
“That, too.” Rob slid the cup back over.
Brian took it and swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Coming right up.”
Brian was efficient, but also careful and precise. That showed pride in what he made, be it a simple coffee or something complicated. Oh yes, the man was the owner. Rob saw that now. Couldn’t be anything else.
In short order, Brian deposited another cup in front of Rob. Fresh ceramic.
“Cheers,” Rob said and took a long draw. Great espresso, a hint of pepper and the sweetness of the cream.
Brian was staring at him, his lips parted, his cheeks flushed. That was the look of a man who needed more than a nice conversation. Unfortunately, the same expression was coupled with another that looked like fear. Closeted? Hard to believe, given the people he knew.
So, press on.
Rob eyed Brian. “You said you weren’t from this neighborhood. Which one, then?”
Brian sank onto the stool behind the counter. “I grew up in Bloomfield.”
Rob nearly choked on his next sip. “I live in Bloomfield.”
A white flash of teeth. “Close to work.”
He nodded. “I bike in, believe it or not.” In a suit, even. Because why not? Though his fellow execs warned him that would end once the summer heat kicked in.
“Nice!” Brian straightened. “Do you like to bike? There’s a ton of trails in the area, now.”
“So I’ve heard.” Another taste of the coffee. He dabbed his finger at some cream that had dripped over the edge, sucked it off, and watched Brian squirm. Fucking delightful, that. “I’d love to check some of them out.”
“I can . . .” Brian hesitated. “Well, if the scheduling works . . . I could show you some.”
“I think I’d like that.”
“And more.” Brian reddened. “I mean, of Pittsburgh sites.”
“I’d like that, too.” And more. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his phone. “Number?”
Brian started, looked around, and then rattled off a phone number.
Gotcha. Rob typed it in and hit send. Once again, Brian jumped. He whipped out his phone.
“Now you have my number, as well.”
“That a Chicago area code?”
Astute. “It is. Didn’t make sense to change it, not for my personal number.”
The damnable bell on the door rang, and Brian was off his seat and moving to the counter. But that was the nature of his business. After creating some drinks and some pleasant small talk with his customers, Brian came back to Rob.
“I’m sorry I’m not the best conversationalist.”
Rob waved the words away. “You’re working. I’m the one imposing by sitting here and distracting you.”
There was a small pause and then quiet words. “I don’t mind.”
Rob studied Brian. A little red on that neck. A little heat in those cheeks. “Good.”
Poor man looked so conflicted. If only Rob could deduce why. The attraction was obvious. Probably to everyone else in the shop, too.
Brian collected the forlorn espresso cup. “I should go do some dishes before they pile up.”
“Don’t let me keep you.”
Brian snorted, strode to the sink, deposited the cup, and strode right back. “Not like the boss will yell at me.” He took a seat.
Nice. Oh so nice. “It’s good to be the king.”
He laughed. “Something like that.” An all-American flash of teeth in his grin. “So you like biking. What else do you do with your free time?”
“Well, back when I had free time, I liked to hike. I’m also handy with a camera.”
“Photographing the outdoors?”
“Yes—but not just the countryside. I like this—” He waved at the shop. “Cities. Urban areas. Industry.” In fact, he should have brought his camera today. Rob craned his neck around. There were some interesting shots he could have taken in here. Brick and wood. Brian’s machinery.
He’d been itching to get back into photography. And hiking. And men.
When he looked back, Brian met his gaze. “Squirrel Hill’s an interesting place to explore with a camera,” Brian said. “There’s both old and new. Different cultures. A mix of everything.”
He’d noticed. Synagogues. Men in hats and suits with tassels from their shawls hanging below the bottoms. But also college kids. In the short walk from the top of Murray Avenue to Grounds N’at, he’d heard Russian and Chinese. Passed a Thai restaurant. A multitude of colors, sites, and sounds.
“Todd mentioned a few places I should try for lunch.” From pulling out his phone earlier, Rob knew it was nearly noon.
Brian glanced at his watch. “Which places?”
He brought up the notepad app on his phone and slid it across the counter.
Brian pursed his lips. “Well, they’re all good. What are you in the mood for?”
A tall, sandy-haired American. He didn’t say that though. “I’m remarkably easy to please.”
Deep brown eyes. They lingered on Rob for quite some time. “Well, I already know you like bold and spicy.”
Brian inhaled. “Thai, then. Bangkok Balcony.” He slid the phone back over. “Or Silk Elephant.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Do you like to nibble, or have a full meal?”
Brian just kept handing Rob opportunities on a fucking platter. “I’m fond of nibbling, but I certainly wouldn’t object to being full.” He smiled across the counter.
As if Brian only now realized what he’d said, he sat bolt upright, cheeks flaming red. “Silk Elephant,” he stammered. “For nibbles.”
Time to probe a bit deeper. “And what about you?”
Brian shivered. Oh yes, he’d gotten to the man. “I’m—full of steam. Just hot water.”
He didn’t quite know how to take that. About ready to blow his top? Hot—but no substance?
Brian looked down at the counter. “And I’m working all day.”
“How long is that?”
“Eight to eight.”
The businessman in him took over. “That’s a hellish shift!”
“Yeah.” Brian snorted. “My boss is an asshole.”
Brian was the boss. If there wasn’t anyone else, you did what you had to. Rob had lived that, in the early days of CirroBot. “I hope you don’t do this often.”
A pained smile. “I try not to, but if someone calls off . . .” He shrugged.
Brian needed a backup, then. Someone else to spell him for emergencies. A manager or . . . something. Rob’s brain whirled through options. Except he didn’t know shit about this industry. “Don’t burn yourself out.”
That got him a chuckle. “Burning coffee beans is bad. Slow roasting is the way to go.”
Both lead to toasty things, though. That, in a person, wasn’t good. This man? He definitely needed someone to drag him off the job once in a while.
Brian tapped the counter near Rob’s phone. “You should try to get in to Silk Elephant soon, or you’ll have to wait until after the rush.”
Rob picked up his phone and slid off the stool. “Then I’ll head out.”
“Nice meeting you, Rob.” Soft words.
“Likewise.” He placed a hand on the counter and leaned in. “And I’ll be back for more.”
He held Brian’s gaze, indulging in that flushed and nervous look once more before he headed for the door.
Outside, he slipped his sunglasses back on. Oh yes, that was one drink he wanted to sample again.