“Hello. Welcome to our single fathers’ group. My name is Colin Baker. I own the Books, Comics, Vintage and Memorabilia Bookstore on Main Street. I’m thirty years old, gay and I have a son. I’ve been single for the last year, and I’m not sure I’m ready to start dating, but I’m positive I’m tired of being alone.” Colin rubbed his hands together and stood behind the podium. He hated being the center of attention. Being terminally shy, he preferred to play the role of the wallflower. Then he and his partner had adopted their son. Everything had changed when they’d welcomed Gage into their lives. He gripped the top of the podium.
“I’m glad you’re all here.” Colin folded his hands to hide the shaking. “I created this group for the single gay parents in the Cedarwood area—especially the guys. As you know, Cedarwood isn’t exactly welcoming to the LGBT community. There aren’t many of us, but I figured we all need a support system. Feel free to add your name to the outreach list and invite anyone you think might like to attend. In this group, we share our stories and support one another. Now I’ll open the floor.”
He stepped away from the mic and made his way down the steps of the stage. Meeting in the basement of the former Reserved Church of the Open-Minded worked better than he’d expected. People knew the building, but no one seemed to care if anyone gathered there—unless the people were gay. The church for anyone who wanted to worship had only lasted long enough for a sign to be erected. Bad for the church members but good for Colin and his people, who now numbered only five. He grabbed one of the chairs and listened to the others share their stories.
He’d been asked once if the group was intended to hook up the single fathers. Colin had smiled at the time, but inwardly seethed. God. Yes, they were single, but not everyone wanted to hook up. Okay, that wasn’t true. He wasn’t interested in a hookup. After Nicolas, he dreaded jumping back into the dating pool. But the loneliness wouldn’t go away.
Two and a half hours later, the meeting broke up. He helped put the chairs away, turn off lights and locked the building. The guys in the group were a good bunch. Everyone seemed interested in the problems of the others. Some of the men were making headway in their love lives. Others weren’t. Some were happy to be in Colin’s not-yet-ready-for-dating camp.
Despite the town’s location outside Cleveland, the population numbered only around six thousand. Most people worked in the bigger city and spent their weekends in Cedarwood. People moved to Cedarwood for the schools and the safe small-town feel. The children tended to live idyllic lives. The kids belonging to gay parents were the subject of bullying more than most of the other children. He knew because he’d heard stories from his son.
Colin drove home to the duplex he shared with his brother, Farin. The light shone in the living room of his half of the building. Farin must’ve brought Gage home for the night. Colin checked his watch. Nine p.m. Shit. He’d stayed out fifteen minutes past his son’s bedtime. He preferred to be home before Gage went to sleep to kiss him good night. He strode into the house and dropped his coat and keys on the chair by the door.
“Heya.” Farin stood. He rolled his shoulders and groaned. “I’ve been on that couch for the better part of forty-five minutes. Gage and I read every book he’s got on every superhero known to mankind.”
“He likes his superheroes.” Colin rubbed his temples. “Police too. I don’t know why. I tried to get him interested in baseball, but that hasn’t worked.”
“It’s a phase. Remember how I used to get silly over fire trucks?” Farin patted his brother’s shoulder. “I was five, but I loved those trucks. But we were talking about Gage. He hit the hay ten minutes ago. He didn’t want to go to bed. When I asked him why, he said there’s a kid at school giving him hell. He didn’t say hell, but you get the idea.”
Colin pointed to the chair. “Sit. He hasn’t said a word of this to me. What’s going on?”
“Okay.” Farin perched on the edge of the armchair. “Some kid in his class—he wouldn’t say who—has been talking crap to him. Saying his dad is gay, so he must be gay. Kids are rough at that age.”
“He’s seven.” A dull ache grew behind his eyes. The next thing he knew, the kid would be teasing Gage because he was adopted, too. His younger brother had definitely inherited the listening gene. Where Colin moved first and thought second, Farin knew how to get people to talk. Apparently, he’d worked his magic on Gage.
Farin rested his elbows on his knees. “Don’t let it bother you. Kids say stupid shit all the time. I talked to Gage, but he wanted me to keep quiet. He just wants to know that Dad has his back, but he’s scared to talk to you because he’s worried you’ll get upset. Let him know you’ll go in and talk to the principal, too, if that’s what needs to be done.”
“You bet your ass I’ll talk to the principal.” Colin bit back his anger. He hated the way the residents of Cedarwood refused to accept the differences in society. So some people are gay. Who cares?
“Calm down before you do or you’ll blow a gasket and get yourself into trouble.” Farin left the chair and headed to the front door. “Give Gage a kiss, tell him it’s cool and you and Uncle Farin love him. If you need help, I’m right over there.” He saluted Colin, then headed out of the door.
Colin jumped up from his seat and ascended the stairs two at a time. When he reached Gage’s bedroom, his son was already asleep. The kid did have a talent for crashing once his head hit the pillow. He kissed Gage on the forehead and whispered, “Love you, big boy.”
Colin crept out of the room and left the door open a bit. He went back downstairs long enough to lock up and turn off the lights. He paused at the picture window. The lights of Cedarwood twinkled against the dark sky. In the silence of the night, the small town was almost pretty. He should’ve been happy to live in the community. The schools were all located in one central campus and the sports programs were highly ranked. The graduating classes featured only around a hundred and twenty-five kids each. A person could still shop in town and get everything needed in one trip down the main drag. The cost of living wasn’t horrible, either. But the cost of living in Cedarwood as a gay man rose by the minute. He managed to fuck himself over doubly by co-owning the lone bookstore in town. The people wanted the books, comics and collectibles he sold, but that didn’t stop them from making derogatory comments.
He raked his fingers through his hair. He wasn’t part of the star baseball team and he wasn’t the naive kid from high school anymore. He had a kid, a business and a life. He’d worry about Gage’s problems at school in the morning. Maybe by then he’d have a fresh perspective or better advice to give his son. Maybe.
* * * *
The next morning, Colin stood at the island in the middle of the kitchen and drummed his fingers on the faux marble surface. Two months into school and his kid was late…again.
“Come on, Gage. You’re late.” He glanced up the back set of stairs one more time. The light glowed on the wall from the second-story bathroom. “What are you doing up there?”
Gage rounded the corner and bounded down the stairs. “Sorry, Dad.” He kept his head down. “My belly hurts.”
“Really?” Colin stopped Gage on the steps. “I heard about the kid at school. Besides, you’re only a week away from the Halloween parties. You love those parties.”
“Harvest parties. We can’t have Halloween ones. It’s against the law.”
“It’s not against the law.” Probably against something else, but Colin didn’t want to discuss that with Gage. “So, talk. What’s with the kid at school?”
“Uncle Farin blabbed.” Gage ducked under Colin’s arm. “He wasn’t supposed to talk to you. He promised.”
“You do realize your uncle and I talk about everything?” Colin followed his son into the kitchen. “So, spill your guts, kid.”
Gage stared at Colin. He might have been adopted, but from the way the kid glowered at him, he could’ve sworn Gage shared the same gene pool. With the same blond hair, blue eyes and thick lashes, Gage reminded Colin of a mini-version of himself.
Colin squatted in front of his son to put them at eye level. “What did the kid say?”
“That my dad is a fag.” Gage stuck out his bottom lip. “Why would he do that? You’re a dad.”
Colin sighed. “Okay.” He needed to explain the situation for Gage to understand. “Some people say mean things. No matter how hard you try to get away from them, they’ll always be there.” God, did he know that lesson well. He’d tried to shake the memories of the guy from high school who’d insisted on making his life hell.
“What do I do?” Gage rested his hands on his hips. “Uncle Farin said to ignore him.”
“That’s a good idea. Don’t let him know you’re upset. It’s hard because you’re going to be mad, but once he realizes you’re not going to react, the kid should stop,” Colin said. Unless you have a secret crush on the guy being the dick. He shook his head. He wasn’t about to tell his son that little tidbit of information.
“Fine.” Gage picked up his tennis shoes. “But I’m already late. Why don’t you just let me skip today?” He grinned and batted his lashes. “A mental health day, like you say you want to have?”
Kids were such sponges. He’d have to remember to think before he spoke in the future. “No mental health days. Grab your book bag. You have art today, don’t you? You love art.”
Gage yanked his bag from the hook. “I do.” He hurried past Colin and headed out to the garage.
Colin picked up his tablet, wallet and keys. He’d get Gage to school late, but at least he’d conned the kid into going. He locked the back door, then climbed into the car beside his son.
Once the garage door opened, he backed out of the garage and closed the door. Colin eased the rest of the way down the driveway, then turned onto the street. He glanced at his son’s reflection in the rearview mirror.
“I’m going to take you in to school and write the excuse then, okay?” Colin asked. He barreled down the back road to the school complex. The speed limit sign read twenty-five. He snorted. Did anyone actually drive that slow anymore? He checked his speed. Thirty-nine. Fuck. He tapped the brake. He needed to get his head in the game and pay attention. The speed limit was there for a reason, not a suggestion. God. He was a dad and getting his kid to school safely should’ve been utmost in his mind.
Colin let off the gas and continued down the road, but something in the mirror caught his attention. Red and blue lights. What the hell? Realization washed over him as he recognized the reason for the lights. A cop. Fucking balls. He’d been caught speeding. He pulled over to the side of the road and parked.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” Gage asked from the backseat.
“Daddy went too fast on this road and the cop is calling me out. I was wrong. I was speeding.” He sighed and leaned back in his seat. Shit. Of all the times to screw up, he had to do it in front of his kid.
“Sorry, Dad.” Gage curled up in his booster seat.
“Me too, kid. Now you’re super late.” Colin pressed the button to roll down the window, then reached across the dash to the glove box and retrieved his registration.
“Excuse me, sir.” A shadow darkened the window. “License and registration, please?”
Colin slid the card from his wallet. “Here you go.” He refrained from looking at the cop. Not because he disliked cops, but because the shame of his actions washed over him in epic proportions. He’d been speeding, in a school zone more than likely and with his kid in the car.
“Do you know how fast you were going, sir?” the officer asked.
“Probably twenty miles over the limit.” He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.
“Thirty-nine in a twenty. This is a marked school zone. The lights were flashing.”
“I’m sorry, Officer.” Colin opened his eyes. The stress was no excuse to be a jerk. “I was trying to get my son to school and wasn’t paying attention. I accept responsibility for my actions.” And I’ve learned my lesson.
“I see.” The cop paused. “Colin Baker? I knew a guy named Colin Baker when I was in school. We played ball together. Huh. Well, I’m going to give you a ticket. Give me a moment.”
Colin slid his gaze to the officer as the man retreated to the cruiser behind Colin’s car. He didn’t need to read the man’s badge to know his name. He’d recognize that body anywhere—Jordan Hargrove. Why in the name of God did the guy who’d featured prominently in all Colin’s high-school fantasies have to be the guy who was currently writing him up for breaking the speed limit?
The dull ache from the night before developed behind Colin’s eyes. So much for being a good role model for his son. Horrible fucking luck.