Note: This scene takes place sometime after Just Business and before Daily Grind.
Spice of Life
(A Takeover vignette)
The beginning of September at Grounds N’at meant relieved parents delighting in their freedom, sleepy teens agonizing over their homework, and college students rolling their eyes at everything.
Brian Keppler dusted his hand on his apron. This morning had been a busy one. Thank goodness Miranda was on today and not Ethan. More and more that kid was slacking off on shift and Brian hadn’t need his attitude today—he’d needed help. Thankfully, Miranda was his best barista.
They’d managed the morning rush and settled into the glorious slow time before lunch, where their only customers were the regulars—the college professor on his day off, the writer, and the employees of Sam Anderson’s consulting firm looking for their caffeine fix.
Today, the employees who walked through the door were Justin, Brian’s ex-barista-turned-Sam’s-assistant, and Eli, Sam’s CFO…and Justin’s husband.
It was still odd, seeing those two together. Justin, with his snarky punky attitude and Eli, the consummate businessman in his suits and ties and with the cane that was as much a fashion accessory as it was functional.
They’d hated each other at first. But now? Didn’t take much more than an exchanged look between them to signal how much they loved each other.
Fucking lucky guys.
Miranda rolled her eyes. “I’ll let you handle Statler and Waldorf.” She took the dishes and headed to the sink.
Justin was one step ahead of Eli when they came up to the counter, his smile wide. His bangs were dyed a bright shade of orange. The rest was its usual black.
“Nice hair. Seasonal.”
“Exactly,” Justin said. “Autumnal colors.”
Eli snorted. “It’s not even fall yet, and I’m not sure the pumpkin look suits you.”
Huh. Trouble in paradise?
Justin’s grin was toothy, but his voice dusky and dark. “That’s not at all what you said last night.”
Color rose to Eli’s cheeks, which wasn’t normal. The heat in Brian’s own was though, so he turned away. “The usual?”
He didn’t need to think about those two. At all. So, of course he did.
“For me, yes.” Eli’s voice was thin. He coughed once and mumbled something, probably to Justin, since it contained the words incorrigible, pay, and later.
Really didn’t need to know. Brian set the machine brewing two shots for Eli’s Americano, composed himself, and turned back. “What about you, Just?”
Justin studied the chalkboard above Brian’s head. “You don’t have pumpkin spice? I thought everyone had pumpkin spice.” His grin was sharp, sly, horribly effective, and entirely inappropriate since heat crept up Brian’s spine to the back of his skull.
Justin didn’t know exactly what he did to Brian, mostly because Brian had worked very hard never to let the dude know he was the least bit interested in him. For one, dating an employee was inappropriate. For another, no one knew Brian was bisexual. He had no desire to come out because Justin teased him about freaking pumpkin spice.
“Since when have I ever had pumpkin spice?” That wasn’t a fall drink flavor he’d ever carried. Too close to the big green siren and the last thing he wanted to do was copy their drinks. It was bad enough when they’d started carrying gingerbread lattes. That had been his before them.
“You had that great pumpkin loaf last year.” Justin frowned and looked—disappointed.
Pastries were entirely different, but still. “Dude, you actually like that stuff?” News to Brian.
“There are very few things Justin wouldn’t do for pumpkin pie,” Eli said. He paused and flashed a grin. “Trust me on that.”
Brian swallowed and tried so hard not to let his imagination run wild. “Oh. Uh.” He glanced at the board. Nope. Nothing pumpkin. “Do you trust me, Justin?”
“I worked for you, so yes.” There was a glimmer in his eyes. “You’re going to make something, aren’t you?”
He was. He hadn’t crafted a new beverage in a while, but why the hell not? It was Justin. “It’s not gonna taste quite like the mass marketed stuff.”
“Dude.” Justin placed a hand over his heart and mocked being offended. “I worked for you.”
Yeah, he had. Brian missed Justin as an employee something fierce. Trying to replace him had been hell—and he’d yet to manage it. “Well, you did abandon me…”
Eli swallowed a laugh, but didn’t say anything. Didn’t need to. That happy twist in his lips spoke volumes. Sam might have hired Justin, but Eli had married him.
Not that Brian was jealous, even though he totally was. Eli and Justin were both so fucking comfortable with themselves.
Brian doubted he’d ever be that free in his own skin.
He swallowed a sigh. “The whole thing with pumpkin spice is the spice.” He turned back to the counter and started working. First up, shots for a latte. While that brewed, he contemplated his collection of syrups and spices. Really, he should make his own flavorings one of these days, but he could start with cinnamon syrup and some vanilla and go from there.
Justin didn’t have the biggest sweet tooth, so he skipped the simple syrup and went straight for the nutmeg and cloves. Sadly, he didn’t have any allspice. He ought to bring some in, if he wanted to truly duplicate the flavor of pumpkin pie.
He added a touch more clove and the concoction smelled fantastic. After frothing the the milk, he mixed everything together, and piled whipped cream on top. Lastly, a dusting of cinnamon and some maple flakes to round the drink out.
He handed the cup to Justin, who looked almost as excited as a kid on Halloween getting his favorite candy.
For his part, Eli had the most loving, indulgent look, one that was far more intimate and personal than Brian had seen from the man before. A shock of pain flicked through Brian. He couldn’t even make a relationship work with women. He was hopeless with men—too scared to even try. But damn, he wanted something like what these two had.
Justin examined his drink and raised it to his lips. The look of bliss that followed had Brian laughing. Yeah, if nothing else, he made Justin happy with that.
“You really need to put this on the menu,” Justin said, his voice deep and appreciative.
“Better than the competition?”
“Oh hell yes.” Justin took another sip. “I could marry this cup.”
“Bigamy,” Eli said, “is illegal, especially with inanimate objects.” He didn’t sound upset at all.
“If you drank this, you’d want to marry it, too.” Justin offered the drink to Eli.
Flavored anything wasn’t Eli’s style. He tended to drink Americanos with cream or ask for the occasional cappuccino. Still, Eli took the offered sip.
And damn, his expression was amazing. Wide eyes, a slight flush, and a sharp look at Brian. “This is good.”
He couldn’t help the grin. “I’m so sorry I fed your husband decent coffee.”
Eli snorted and handed over his card. “I’m not sure if I’m paying you for the drink or for the show.”
A little bit of both. “If you ever want to change things up, you can always ask.”
A long look from Eli, then a nod. “It’s something to remember.”
Brian handed back Eli’s card, and the two men headed out of the shop and back up to Sam’s office.
Brian leaned against the counter and ran a hand through his hair. He didn’t know why, but Eli’s words—and his own—sank into his bones.
Sometimes, though, you couldn’t ask. Asking relied on knowing what you wanted. Pumpkin spice was easy. Life—that was harder.
Brian shook his head and set about cleaning up the mess he’d made.
Copyright © 2016 Anna Zabo
All rights reserved.