The Help Wanted sign in the window stopped Aldric in his tracks. He’d been walking along San Antonio’s Pearl District, somewhat lost in his thoughts and worries, so why he noticed the sign, he couldn’t have said.
Maybe because it stood out in the day of internet-everything. All the job boards that he’d scanned and the applications for employment that he’d sent in had been online. That was just how it was done nowadays…except not at the business he’d stopped in front of.
Aldric stared at the sign for a solid minute while trying to calculate his chances of being hired if he went in and applied before going home and changing. Not that he had any fancier clothes. Jeans, T-shirts and one button-up were all that was in his wardrobe.
What are the chances someone else will apply and get hired by the time I go home, shower, shave, change and come back?
Whatever the odds were, his empty stomach didn’t want to risk them. Blinking away his musings, Aldric pushed his glasses farther up his nose, then caught himself screwing up his face to re-settle them exactly where they’d been. He attempted to smooth down his hair—being thick, it tended to tousle, even though it wasn’t long—and reached for the door handle, which was when he saw the name of the place that was hiring.
Intrinsic Value Antique Shop. At least shop wasn’t spelled all funky. It was a silly pet peeve he had, people adding extra letters onto words to make spellings like shoppe rather than shop. An antique store might have a better reason than most businesses or services to use an old spelling of the word, and he had no reason to be judgmental of anything—something he needed to keep in mind.
Even though he knew nothing about antiques, Aldric opened the door and stepped inside to the tinkling of chimes. He glanced down at the door handle inside and saw strings of silver and copper bells dangling from it.
“Good afternoon. May I help you?”
Aldric pivoted so quickly that he almost tripped over his own feet—nothing unusual for him. Heat rushed to his face, and he gulped as he spotted the older man standing with one hand on an ancient-looking cash register. “Er, yes, I, um, I—” Aldric took a deep breath and exhaled to the count of ten. If he didn’t get himself calmed down, he’d stumble over his words as well as his feet, as he tended to do when he was flustered.
“My name is Elliot Douglas. I’m the owner of Intrinsic Value. Please call me Elliot.” Elliot came around the counter and stopped in front of Aldric.
“Aldric Beamer.” Aldric offered his right hand to shake. “Nice to meet you, Elliot.” His mouth was dry, and a tickle started up in his throat.
“Nice to meet you, too.” Elliot pumped his hand one more time, then let go. “Are you here about the job? I noticed you standing outside and thought you might be considering it.”
Aldric covered his mouth and turned his head before he coughed. He lowered his hand and faced Elliot again. “Sorry, the mountain cedar is kicking my allergies into high gear. Yes, sir, I’m here about the job. Surprised me to see an actual sign in the window. Everything’s done online, it seems. I’ve been told to go home and apply online so often, I’ve quit thinking about actual signs.”
“Ah yes, the internet is an amazing tool for many things, but I prefer to meet people in person first, rather than online.” Elliot smiled, and Aldric realized the older, taller man, with his tawny-brown eyes and thick mane of slightly long, wavy light-brown hair that was just starting to silver, was quite handsome.
“Why don’t you come back this way and tell me what makes you think you’ll be a good fit at Intrinsic Value?” Elliot gestured in the direction of the cash register. “I was cleaning off my baby and would like to finish as we talk.”
“Yes, sir.” Aldric coughed again and wanted to melt into the floorboards.
“Would you like some cold water or hot tea?” Elliot offered. “I have both available.”
Aldric wasn’t sure about hot tea. He’d only ever had Texas tea—cold, with lots of sugar and ice in it. But maybe tea was a thing with Elliot. “Er, tea, please?”
Elliot glanced back at him. “You sound uncertain. Have you tried hot tea before?”
Lying wasn’t something Aldric did if he could help it. “I haven’t, but I thought a warm drink might help with my scratchy throat.”
“That it might. I have a few different kinds, but how about you try the chamomile? It’s good for all sorts of ailments.” Elliot stopped by an elegant-legged wooden table that had a silver tea kettle and several mismatched cups and saucers sitting on it.
A white ceramic dish held glass jars of tea and cubes of sugar, and a clear container was filled with what appeared to be honey. Delicate silver spoons were laid out as well. Aldric tucked his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. Everything on that table looked delicate, not only the spoons, and he was afraid to touch anything.
Which had to mean he shouldn’t apply for the job.
“Aldric?” Elliot arched one thick eyebrow. “Is chamomile okay?”
Realizing he’d more than likely made sure he wouldn’t get hired, because Elliot had to think he was on the dense side, Aldric shook his head. “It’s okay, thank you. I’ll just—” He started to take a step back.
“Just what?” Elliot asked, scooping tea from a jar before he put it into a little oval-shaped strainer. “Are you not interested in the job after all?”
Aldric bit his bottom lip and pondered whether he should stay or not. For one thing, he’d already made some kind of impression, good or bad. For another, Elliot hadn’t run him off. That has to mean I still have a chance, right? Until I tell him I know nothing about what this shop sells. Damn it.
“I’m interested, but I don’t have any experience with antiques,” Aldric rushed out, watching Elliot pour hot water over the strainer holding the tea. Elliot had put a lid on it so the tea leaves didn’t flow out.
Aldric took a step closer, unable to resist getting a better look at what Elliot was doing. He took off his round-framed glasses, polished them and shoved them back on.
“The tea needs to steep for a few minutes,” Elliot explained. “The infuser keeps most of the bits of tea leaves from escaping, but you still might have a few pieces in your cup. Those will usually settle at the bottom.”
“That’s the infuser?” Aldric asked when Elliot nudged the strainer holding the tea.
Elliot smiled at him. “Yes, it is. Do you like honey?”
“I—” Aldric’s stomach picked that moment to let out a rumbling growl. He dropped his gaze and pressed a fist to his belly. “Sorry. Skipped breakfast.”
“Well, that won’t do. It’s almost time for dinner. I’ll order us something to eat, then you and I will sit down for a proper interview—if you’re interested in the job?” Elliot picked up the jar of honey.
“Oh, I…I am, I just thought I’d blown any chance I had at it.” Aldric ducked his head and stared at the worn toes of his tennis shoes. “I don’t have any experience for it. I’ve only worked at fast-food places. I don’t know anything about antiques. I didn’t even know what that thing—the infuser—was.” His ignorance was embarrassing, and he hated that he didn’t know more.
“So,” Elliot drawled, one corner of his mouth curving up. “No experience at all? That would mean I’d have a clean slate in you, if I were to hire you. Wouldn’t have to rid you of bad habits and misinformation.”
Aldric was almost too afraid to believe he might have a chance of keeping his shitty apartment and not going hungry for much longer, after all. “Are you serious?”
“Utterly. Here, let me fix your tea, then I’ll order something from the restaurant across the street. It has a little of everything. I have a menu for it behind the counter. This won’t take a moment…” Elliot took the infuser out, then added honey to the tea.
“Thank you.” Aldric should have refused the offer of a meal, but the truth was, he was too hungry to let pride cost him sustenance. He took the warm cup of tea from Elliot and inhaled the fragrant steam rising from it. “Oh! This smells good.”
Elliot smiled at him, a delighted expression, if Aldric wasn’t reading him wrong. “I hope you’ll like the way it tastes as well. Let me grab that menu, then you can peruse it with me.”
“Okay, thanks.” Aldric took a sip of the tea. It was hotter on his tongue than he’d expected, and he winced as he swallowed. He was glad Elliot hadn’t seen him do that. The next sip he took was slower. The taste was as pleasant as the smell of the tea, the honey sweet but not overpowering.
“Here we go. I haven’t had anything bad from here yet, but then again, I always order the same thing. I’m a creature of habit in many ways.” Elliot’s smile had turned rueful.
“What do you get?” Aldric asked before taking another drink. He could get addicted to hot tea.
“Nothing adventurous, just the grilled salmon with steamed vegetables and mashed sweet potatoes.” Elliot handed him the menu. “I think the burgers should be good, though. Whenever I’m in the restaurant and see and smell them, they remind me very much of the ones my brother used to love.”
“Younger or older brother?” Aldric flipped the paper menu open to scan the selections.
Elliot froze for a second, as though something were wrong. Before Aldric could ask him if he was okay, Elliot drew in a breath, then touched his temples, where he had a few strands of gray. “Younger. Chris is thirty-two, Natty is thirty-four and I’m the old man at forty-something. Do you have any siblings?”
Aldric decided he’d get the bacon burger and sweet potato fries. He’d never had the latter before. “I have two, like you. Twins. They’re almost twenty years older than me.”
Elliot’s eyes widened. “That’s two whole decades!”
“Yeah. I was a surprise,” Aldric muttered. That was a nicer description than his family had called him at times. “Gregory and Simon are forty. I’m twenty-one.” He hoped Elliot wouldn’t ask any more questions about them, or Aldric’s family, period. Hoping to avert such possibilities, Aldric tapped the menu. “Can I get this? The bacon-mushroom burger?”
“Of course, of course.” Elliot moved back behind the counter and picked up something black. He stuck one finger in a silver ring that had smaller holes in it, and it took Aldric a moment to realize Elliot was using some kind of old phone.
Aldric had vague memories of his parents having a landline, but by the time he’d been old enough to care about it, they’d had cell phones. Even so, none of the phones Aldric had ever seen had looked like the one Elliot was now speaking into.
Elliot grinned as if he knew what Aldric was thinking, making Aldric look away and take another drink of his tea. When Elliot had looked at him then, it had occurred to Aldric that his potential boss was not only quite handsome, but very attractive. He’s about the same age as my brothers, so gross. Aldric needed a job more than he needed to get laid, and he’d never been attracted to older men, either—and he wasn’t about to start down that road now.
Not that Elliot would be interested in someone like him. Even though he’d only spent fifteen minutes in Elliot’s presence, Aldric could already tell that the guy was much classier than he’d ever be. There was also the very real possibility that Elliot wasn’t gay, despite the vibes Aldric was reading. Well, it didn’t matter one way or another.
Elliot hung up and tapped the black phone. “It’s an ancient rotary phone. My grandparents and parents had these, way back when, although we’d upgraded to a push-button phone by the time I started school. Want to see how it works?”
Aldric was itching to do just that. “Yeah, I mean, yes, I’d like that.”
The lesson taught him more than how to dial out on the phone—it taught him that Elliot was a patient and kind man. He encouraged and answered any questions Aldric had, which was freeing in a way that Aldric hadn’t experienced before. The old saying about children being seen but not heard had been a rule in his parents’ home.
“You have an inquisitive nature and a good brain.” Elliot propped a hip against the counter. “I think you’ll do well here.”
Aldric blinked in surprise. He was glad he’d set the teacup down, or else he might have dropped it, considering how much his hands trembled. “I have the job?”
Elliot nodded. “You do.”
“But…what about references and work history?” Aldric regretted asking as soon as the words were spoken.
“I like to believe I have excellent judgment when it comes to people,” Elliot said. “Am I wrong in regard to you?”
Aldric shook his head. “No. It’s just, I don’t know anything about antiques, or what I’ll be doing.”
“You can learn. Someone gave me a chance a few years ago and made this”—Elliot swept a hand toward the antiques in the shop—“possible. I’m still learning, one might say. That’s one reason I keep alphabetized cards on every item in the store, as well as those in the back. If someone asks about, say, this…” Elliot walked over to the second row of shelves and pointed to a silver tray. “What does it look like to you?”
Sweat broke out on Aldric’s brow. He knew what the object looked like to him, and it seemed obvious—was Elliot trying to trick him? No, Elliot had been nothing but kind to him. Aldric couldn’t let his own insecurity get the better of him now. “A-a silver tray?”
Elliot’s smile could have lit up the room. “Yes! So you’d just open the gold-leafed book under the register—go ahead and find it. Open it and look up ‘silver tray’.”
Aldric did as directed and was delighted to discover that most of the cards also had a small image of the item on the right corner. “It’s an eighteenth-century silver salver.” He read off the rest of the information, relief coursing through him even as he stumbled over some of the words. He could do this job.
“You won’t be alone in the store often, not at first,” Elliot said. “I’ll be out on the floor with you or, once you’ve been here for a while, in my office. Sometimes I’m away for a day or so, for instance at a fair or auction, or I might have to leave the city, to procure or sell an antique or attend an event, but I close the shop then.”
Aldric’s excitement fizzled out. “Oh. How…how long would you be gone? How often does that happen?” He’d lose out on work, and if he couldn’t support himself—
“I’d have you come in and work in the back while I’m gone. There will always be plenty of cleaning that can be done. I’ll show you how to polish silver and clean antiques—the ones that should be cleaned,” Elliot added before the door opened, and a young woman carrying a box entered. “Meredith! You are an angel of mercy.”
Meredith shook her head, making her brown hair ruffle over her shoulders, and chuckled. “Hardly. I’m just the delivery chick from across the street. Who’s this?”
“Aldric Beamer, my new employee,” Elliot answered, glancing at Aldric. “Right?”
“He’s not sure?” Meredith asked before Aldric could answer. She winked at him. “You should work for Mr. Douglas. He’s cool, and I bet he pays well, judging by the tips he gives me.”
Aldric hadn’t even thought to ask what his wages would be. The whole job-thing had happened so fast it felt like a dream.
“We haven’t discussed his pay.” Elliot took out his wallet and removed several bills from it. “But, of course, I believe in paying a livable wage.”
Aldric knew first-hand that minimum wage wasn’t a livable wage. He’d worked just under full-time and had often skipped meals to make rent. More than once, his electricity had been cut off. No fast-food joint he’d worked at had wanted to employ him full-time—that would have meant offering him health insurance. Then things had taken a turn for the worse and he’d found himself unemployed and hovering at the edge of homelessness.
Aldric lifted his glasses with one hand and rubbed a knuckle of the other into his eye. “Sorry. I sort of drifted off. I promise I won’t do that while I’m on the clock.”
Elliot held out a box and a drink. “I have utter faith in your ability to work well. Here, take this and head to the back. Second door on the left is my office. We’ll dine in there.”
“Fancy,” Meredith said, her brown eyes alive with humor. “Nice meeting you, Aldric.”
“Nice meeting you, too,” he replied, his face heating because he’d mentally checked out in front of her and Elliot.
He found Elliot’s office and was almost afraid to sit down in the plush leather chairs. The whole room looked like something out of an old-time movie, with its shiny wood surfaces, smooth leather seats and framed black-and-white photos from decades ago on the walls.
“Have a seat. Well, scoot closer to the desk if you want to use it for a table.” Elliot came around to the other side of his desk and sat, placing his own food on it. “There’s a coaster for your drink in the wood tray to your left.”
Aldric found the coaster and set his drink and boxed meal down before moving one of the leather chairs closer. “This is a very nice office. Is everything in it antique?”
Elliot began removing his food from the box it had come in. “Yes, except the pens and paper. Although I do have a quill pen!” He pointed at a long white feather. “It’s not quite an antique, but I like it.”
Aldric took a bite of his burger, and his stomach gave a happy rumble. “This is good,” he muttered after he’d swallowed.
Elliot grinned. “I’m glad you like it. My salmon smells amazing, as always. Before I start in on it, though, I want to cover salary, hours and health insurance.”
Aldric almost choked on the sweet potato fry he’d just bitten into. “Health insurance?” No. His ears were playing tricks on him.
But they weren’t. Elliot explained how he’d make sure Aldric was covered, without a waiting period. Aldric would have a full forty hours a week, would be paid at time and a half for any hours over that, and while he wouldn’t get rich working at Intrinsic Value, he’d earn that much-longed-for livable wage. It seemed too good to be true, and Aldric quickly and gratefully accepted everything he was offered, hoping that nothing happened to make this dream-come-true come crashing down around him.