Dylan forced air into constricted lungs.
At 6’7” tall, Aston Winkler was impossible to miss even in a penthouse crowded with SXSW partiers. When Dylan rounded the corner, the sight of the familiar face towering above the rest of the crowd knocked the wind slap out of him.
He stopped dead, ignoring the other caterers moving around him. Not here. Not now. He wasn’t ready to face Win yet. But Dylan couldn’t move for a full minute. He just stood there, risking exposure, his gaze locked on Win as though he was the only person in the room.
Eleven months, two weeks and three days since he’d last seen the man he loved. He refused to call it a year.
Dylan pulled himself together and retreated to the kitchen. He couldn’t let Win see him in these clothes.
He glanced down at his blue Roy Rogers-style shirt and brown polyester pants. He looked like something out of a bad fifties western. He was a walking joke. Fitting, because Joe Bob’s Texas Catering Company was a joke to everyone in the Austin culinary world. A year ago, if anyone had told him he would ever touch food prepared by Joe Bob’s he would have laughed his ass off. Now here he was, Joe Bob’s new pet chef, hired on for the SXSW music festival to trot out in front of V.I.P. clients.
What difference Dylan’s culinary skills made, he didn’t know. Joe Bob’s catered to the convention crowd because no real Texan would hire them. The company churned out bland, assembly line food that the owner, Felix Minger, hawked as “real Texas barbeque” and “authentic Tex-Mex” to moon-faced Yankees who didn’t know pico de gallo from picante sauce much less a jalapeño from a guajillo.
Dex Reed, New Yorker via New Zealand with more cash than brains, had been the perfect mark. Felix had culled the rock star out of the SXSW crowd the way a lion separates the sick gazelle from the herd. Dylan would never forget the conference call to go over the menu. Dex wanted Tex-Mex, his concept of which seemed to be an unholy fusion of national fast-food chain offerings and the latest catch-phrases he’d picked up from Food Network. The rock star had heard Austin was the place to get tacos, so tacos were what he wanted—but not ordinary tacos. Something “elevated” and “in a taco bar, like that Elvis place.”
“Elevated tacos. Got it.” Dylan had nodded solemnly and tried not to laugh, because conference calls now included video and as much as he despised Felix and Joe Bob’s, he needed the extra paycheck. Three red-eye shifts a week in a diner out by the airport weren’t cutting it.
He didn’t know how he was supposed to elevate anything destined to be stuck in a buffet and self-assembled by drunk music fans. Never mind the “Elvis place” had a nacho bar, not a taco bar, and there was nothing “elevated” about it.
“Oh, and one more thing.” Dex had stared directly into the screen giving Felix and Dylan the full benefit of his brooding rock-star gaze. “Please make sure everything is gluten-free”
And, bingo, Dex Reed had saved Dylan’s culinary butt with the perfect excuse to veto the industrial cans of processed, pre-cooked everything Joe Bob’s normally used to “make” their food.
Despite not being able to wheedle his way out of the dime-store-cowboy duds, Dylan had almost been looking forward to tonight’s job. He was catering an exclusive SXSW party thrown by an honest-to-god rock-star. The menu was all his. And, yes, dammit, it was elevated. He defied anyone to find a better taco bar anywhere in Texas. He had battled Felix and won. The taco bar wasn’t so much a help-yourself-buffet as a made-to-order chef station.
Wait staff circled the room with tapas, which were good by anyone’s standard. Except for a few partiers obviously too coked-up to eat, everyone was scarfing them down. Until now, his biggest concerns for the evening had been figuring out if there was a way to network future gigs sans Joe Bob’s and worrying the attendance looked like it exceeded the guest-count he’d been given.
Seeing Win, though…
Dylan made his way across the room and began methodically going through the insulated food pan carriers taking up one full side of the kitchen. Most of them were empty. The empty trays should bother him, because it was barely past midnight and he was expected to keep the ever-expanding crowd fed until sunrise. Instead of the neatly sorted trays, all he could think about was the brief glimpse of Win standing across the room.
In typical Win fashion, he had been at the edge of the crowd, practically against the wall. All of the seating must be taken, because Win wouldn’t stand among strangers if he could sit. He hated people staring up at him. As usual, he had attracted a knot of people—male and female.
Dylan had been a lucky sonofabitch. With an ounce of self-confidence, Win always could have been a player. Instead, he had been all Dylan’s right up until Dylan walked away, too stupid to realize Win wasn’t going to follow.
Clicking the final container shut, Dylan tried to remember if he had counted anything. He supposed it didn’t matter. Whatever the count, it wouldn’t cover another five hours of party.
A party with Win standing in the next room, surrounded by strangers and, for once, not looking like he was going to bolt. He looked amazing, in fact. He had always been sexy as hell, but he had finally gotten a decent haircut and he had new clothes. Nothing off-the-rack either. The three-quarter length Victorian-inspired coat skimmed his torso like it had been made for him and the sleeves didn’t stop inches above his wrists like any jacket Win had ever bought outside a specialty shop. Pricy. Even his geeky black frame glasses looked like they had gotten a designer upgrade. Who the hell was buying Win clothes?
The memory expanded to include the man standing next to Win. Slightly older, shaved head, expensive shoes – he didn’t scan as a musician or groupie. His trim suit with the shirt open at the collar might have passed for high end club-wear some places, but in Reed’s crowded party it screamed business.
Win didn’t go for suits, or he hadn’t ever before, but the asshole next to him sure had his hand at Win’s back. He stood right next to Win, body slightly angled, subtly warning people back from their personal space. Dylan knew the stance because protecting Win had been Dylan’s job. Before he fucked the whole thing up.
Dylan ran his hand through his hair and tried to focus on his job. Thinking about Win sent his emotions into overdrive and short-circuited his brain. If he had known he would run into Win, Dylan never would have taken the gig, no matter how desperate his situation. Not that he didn’t want to see Win, just not yet. Not until he was ready.
He forced his mind back to business. They were seriously short of food. He stuck his head around the corner, trying hard not to look in the direction he had last seen Win, and gestured to Mark, his second-in-command for the night.
“Hey, boss, is this party the shit, or what? Colt Douglas just walked in. Sheila’s gonna flip her lid when she finds out. You think he’ll mind if I ask for a selfie with him?”
“Maybe later,” Dylan temporized. “Hey Mark, you were in charge of unloading. Did we leave some containers in the van? It seems like we had more.”
“Yeah, man.” Mark gave him a funny look. “Are we ready for round two? I’ll grab a couple of the guys and get ‘em up here. Don’t sweat it. We’ve got plenty.”
Dylan experienced a moment’s relief, but it wouldn’t settle. He glanced back at the containers they had already emptied, mentally doing the math in his head. It seemed…off. Or rather, it seemed right and wasn’t. He could have sworn everything he had ordered prepped would fit in the cases they had already emptied. And there were too many damn guests.
He was losing it—seeing Win messed with his head.
Mark made it down to the van and back in record time. He had what looked like half the crew with him, moving containers. The sense of wrong intensified. Yeah, they had a lot more food.
“Hey, Mark? You prep some of this before I got in today?”
“Hell no. I’m in overtime as is and you know how Felix gets with the hours for us temps. He had some of his regulars working on it before I got in.”
No. No way. Why have Dylan come in to supervise less than half the food?
“Funny system, huh?” Mark grunted as he hefted one of the smaller carriers onto the container. “I mean, first in last out. First made, last served, whatever. Sounds bass-ackwards to me.”
“He told you to unload the other stuff first?”
“Yeah, he was real specific about the serving order.”
Dylan walked open to the nearest container, flicked open the latches, and started pulling trays out at random. At first he thought he was mistaken. The bite-size tamales looked like his, except…he broke one open.
Oh, fuck you Felix, you cheap-ass bastard.
He spent the next ten minutes on the phone with Felix who, big surprise, had decided he could charge a fortune for gluten-free food without actually paying for gluten-free ingredients.
“Come on, kid. Everyone’s drunk or high by now. No one’s going to notice. Dex Reed doesn’t have Celiac disease and he’s no more gluten-free than you or me. Now do what I’m paying you for and get those people served.”
“Felix—“ Dylan gave up. The utter silence on the line meant Felix had disconnected. Calling him back seemed less than pointless.
So, it was all on him. Did he serve the damn food and pay his rent? Or do the right thing and tell Dex they were out of food at, he checked his watch, 12:43 am? He drummed his fingers on the counter, wondering when his moral compass had gotten so skewed
Dylan closed his eyes at the unfairness of the whole fucked up night. Damn, damn, damn. The sound of his name on Win’s lips still made him weak at the knees. It made him want to punch the asshole in the other room and anyone else who’d touched Win while he was gone. It made him want to take Win home, and take him to bed, and remind him they belonged to each other. Dylan and no one else took care of Win. Unfortunately, none of that was possible, and it was all his fault.
“Win.” It was all he could manage. Up close Win was even more devastating. Dylan locked his knees so he wouldn’t take a step closer. If he started moving toward the man standing in the doorway, he wasn’t sure he could stop.
“Most people just call me Aston now.”
I’m not most people. Dylan stopped himself from saying it out loud.
Win watched him for a minute. “I didn’t know you were back in town.”
Was there a shadow of hurt in his eyes? Dylan couldn’t tell. The realization sliced him, because he had always been able to tell exactly what Win was thinking.
“Just got back.” What else was there to say? Yes, he was back in Austin. No, he wasn’t in New York. Yes, his Big Chance had been a Big Mistake. No, he never should have left. He should have stayed here, a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond instead of trying to swim in the ocean. He should never have forced Win to choose.
Win took a few steps closer and all the thoughts running around in Dylan’s head stopped cold so his brain could focus on one fact. Win. Right in front of him. I could touch him.
Win was so close Dylan had to tilt his head to keep looking at him. The angle brought back the memory of every time he’d angled his head just so when Win leaned in to kiss him.
Dylan held his breath, held as still as he could, and tried not to give the thought away.
Win gazed at him for a minute, then lifted one hand and trailed a finger down the front of Dylan’s shirt, lighting up nerve endings as he went.
The word registered as Win dropped his hand away. Burning shame washed over Dylan.
“Nice jacket.” He hadn’t meant to be snide. The tone was a reflex he regretted the second the words were out.
To his surprise, Win’s lips quirked in a tiny smile. “I like it.”
Good. About time Win started standing his ground. He had always been too sensitive about his appearance. Dylan searched around for something to say. He wanted to say something nice, something to take back the unintended jibe at the jacket, and yeah, something to make Win’s gaze heat the way it used to when they were together.
What came out was, “How’s south-by so far?”
Generic conversation starter for anyone else, but Dylan had forgotten how Win got this time of year. He launched into a breakdown of a dozen bands Dylan had never heard of and probably no one at any of the official SXSW venues had either.
“Hey, I’m ditching this place in few minutes. Wanna come with?”
Yes. “I can’t, Win.”
Win’s face closed and he de-animated like a one of his little clockwork figures winding down.
“Of course. Work. I understand.” His voice went flat.
“I’d love to come, but I can’t leave.”
“You can’t leave Joe Bob’s in the lurch for a few hours? What here is so important?”
Shit. Nothing as much as reconnecting with Win, but Dylan had never walked out on a shift in his life. “Look, I’m here until sunrise. Can we meet for breakfast in the morning?”
He held his breath, waiting for an answer.
But instead of Win he got Dex Reed crowding into their personal space and forcing Win to take a step back.
“There you are, mate.”
Great. The last person Dylan wanted to deal with at the moment. Except Dex wasn’t looking at Dylan. All his attention was fixed on Win.
“Hey, Dex.” Win, a major music fan, sounded way too casual about having Dexter Reed looking for him. Dylan narrowed his eyes.
“Thought I lost you, Aston, and you’re a hard dude to lose. Hey, you having a good time? Dylan here fixing you up with everything you need? Anything you want man, we can get it. Big bloke like you probably needs to put away a few extra calories, right?”
And, fuck on a stick, was Dex flirting with Win? Because he was standing damn close to him.
“Yeah, Dex. It’s all good. I’m having a great time. The food’s great.”
Dylan gritted his teeth, not mollified by the compliment to his food as Win smiled down at the rocker.
“All gluten-free,” Dex said. “They give you shit about special menus some places, but Dylan here hooked me up, no worries.”
And, crap, he had almost managed to forget about the “special menu”. Dex eyed a plate of enchilada cups on the island behind Dylan. And maybe Dylan better focus, because they were definitely not celiac safe.
“So, Dex,” he said, “You’ve been gluten-free for how long?”
“Ever since I got out of rehab. Love it, best shape I’ve ever been in.” But Dex wasn’t looking at Dylan. “Are you gluten-free, Aston?”
Win shook his head.
“You should totally do it. Look at this.” Dex turned toward Win and started unbuttoning his shirt. Dylan rolled his eyes. Really, dude? But it wasn’t so funny when Dex took Win’s hand and put it right on his six-pack abs. Fucker. Win wasn’t falling for this shit, was he?
Except Win wasn’t pulling away, and he wasn’t blushing and stammering like he usually did when someone put the moves on him.
“Nice, Dex,” Win said approvingly. “The bod’s all from not eating the gluten?”
“Swear to God, I don’t even work out. I’m just so much healthier without gluten.”
Jesus. Dylan suppressed the urge to smack Win’s hand away from the tan, sculpted muscles, which had, in no possible world, appeared through the magic of any diet. God, why was he even worried about whatever crap was in the food Felix had sent over? Dexter Reed could choke on it for all he cared.
Job. He reminded himself.
Dylan moved himself back into Dex’s line of sight. “I’m sure you must cheat every now and then, though? I mean no gluten at all? Ever?”
Dex never looked away from Win. “Hey, nothing’s more important than your health, right Aston?”
“Sure, Dex,” Win agreed.
“Never a drop of gluten.” Dex smiled up at Win.
Drop? Fuck it, Dylan was going to have to just ask. Anything to end the goopy eyes Dex was making at Win.
“But, it’s just for the abs, right? You’re not celiac or anything?”
“What did you call me?” Okay, he finally had Dex’s attention. “Look mate, what’s with all the questions? No, I don’t eat gluten. Everything you made for tonight is gluten-free, right? Because the label gave me an ear-full about how much we’re spending.”
Well, shit. Was there actually a brain somewhere in there? Figures Dex would pull his head out of his ass at the most inconvenient moment. Good news? He finally let go of Win’s hand and reached around Dylan to grab the drink he set on the counter when he unbuttoned the shirt.
And Dylan did a mental face-palm. Who had his head up his ass now? Felix, the bastard, was right, after all.
“Well?” Dex took a swig out of his beer and then tilted it toward the enchilada cups. “Are we good on the gluten, or do I need to call your boss?”
Dylan thought about all the work he had put into sourcing his ingredients and making sure there was absolutely no cross-contamination just in case they might make Dex Reed sick. Then he looked at the bottle full of gluten dangling from Dex’s fingers.
He looked Dex in the eye and told the absolute truth. “The food I made you tonight is 100% gluten-free.”
Dex, who had sung his praises two minutes ago, didn’t look convinced.
“You know what, Dex? We should get together after south-by.” Win’s voice broke the spell of their angry gazes.
Over Dylan’s dead body. He didn’t know what game Dex thought he was playing, but Dylan wanted Win out of it.
“Really?” Dex sounded almost surprised.
“Absolutely,” Win said. “Jim handles the calendar. Just go tell him I said to work out a time.”
“Right, then.” Dex looked like a kid who had been handed a bag of candy. “I’ll just go see Jim. Can’t wait, bro.”
He hesitated, seeming to realize Win might expect more from him than a “bro” after all the flirting. Things got awkward for about an eighth of a second until Win, Win¸ smoothed over the moment with a fist-bump and Dex headed for the other room.
Shit, Win, don’t call him back.
“Yeah, man?” Dex was half out of the room and looked impatient to be gone.
“Dylan’s an old friend. You don’t mind if I borrow him for the rest of the evening so we can catch up?”
“Whatever you want, man. He’s all yours.” Dex barely paused, already bee lining for the other room and Jim.
What the hell had just happened? Had Win just rescued him? Dylan wasn’t sure how he felt about being rescued by Win.
“He’s not gay,” he said. Because he was exactly sure how he felt about Win’s hands on Dex’s body.
“I know. Nice to look at, though.”
“If you like that type.”
“Apparently, I do.” Win sounded as though he was suppressing laughter and Dylan realized, okay, maybe he and Dex shared a similar build and coloring. He scowled. He didn’t want to be Win’s type. Well, he did but…fuck.
“So Jim is…?”
“The money. Well, not just money.” Win waved his hand vaguely. “Like you used to do, only more.”
Dylan’s stomach did a sick roll. He had just been the money? Not true. He knew it wasn’t true. There had been a hell of a lot more between them than money.
But he remembered Jim, who definitely was not Win’s type by comparison to Dylan and Dex, and how he had stood next to Win, warning people off, the same way Dylan used to. Like you used to do, only more.
None of it explained what Dex wanted or why Win would send him off to Jim.
“So, wanna get out of here?” Win’s voice broke into his thoughts.
“Win, I can’t leave, no matter what Dex says. If Felix finds out I left I’m out a job.” Not to mention a check for tonight.
“Yes, out of a job with Joe Bob’s. Good. Why are you working there at all?”
“I can’t just walk a shift, Win. I’d never get hired any place if word got out I was unreliable.”
Win stared at him. “You’ll never get hired anywhere else in Austin if word gets out you’ve been slinging slop for Joe Bob’s. You can’t tell me you’re going to put this on your resume.”
“If you don’t want to come with me, just say so. I mean you broke up with me a year ago. I thought we might be able to be friends after all this time, but if you don’t want to, just say so.”
“Eleven months. Not a year.”
“That’s what you have to say?”
“And I didn’t break up with you.”
“The hell. Dylan, you took a job in New York City and left.”
“But I didn’t break up with you. I asked you to come with me. So if we broke up, you broke up with me.”
“If we broke up? We haven’t spoken to each other in a year.”
“Yes.” Dylan interrupted before the conversation could degenerate further. Because what was he thinking? Win wanted them to leave together and Dylan was arguing.
“Yes, let’s get out of here. It’s good to see you again. This job blows. Let’s leave.”
“Yes, really. What? You don’t want to now?”
“No. God, you’re touchy. Let me go tell Jim I’m leaving.”
“Yeah, Felix can kiss my ass, but I should tell Mark I’m ditching, at least. Come get me when you’re ready to go.”
He did need to give Mark a heads-up, but also he didn’t want to watch any good-byes Win did with Jim. Mr. Like-You-Only-More. Like-You-Only-Better, Win meant. Because when Dylan left, Win had been wearing threadbare jeans and old concert tees. His hair had needed a proper stylist instead of Budget Cuts, and he sure as hell hadn’t been hanging out in penthouses with rock stars.
If Dylan cared about Win at all, he would wish Win and Jim well and stay the fuck away from them both. Win deserved penthouse parties. But despite the fact Dylan in no way deserved Win, he intended to do everything he could to get his boyfriend back.
Where to Buy Tall Order