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The Promise of Hope Shelter

By Sarah Hadley Brook


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2017 Sarah Hadley Brook

ISBN 9781634864190

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Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.

This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

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Dedicated to my mom, Becky, who has made a difference in thousands of children’s lives and never asks for anything. She is truly the most selfless person I have ever known.

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The Promise of Hope Shelter

By Sarah Hadley Brook

Chapter 1

His shoulders sagged and his head fell forward until his forehead rested on his folded arms. The nearly ancient wooden desk creaked under the added weight, and a vision of himself crashing to the floor flashed through his mind. Any other day he would have pulled himself up and moved away from the rickety piece, but today was definitely not any other day.

At least the cold sweats had finally ended, and if he were to open his eyes, he was fairly confident he wouldn’t feel like retching again. Still, knowing the trash can was just under the desk comforted him.

How the hell had this happened?

The small, portable fan on his desk barely managed to stir up more than a warm breeze as it oscillated, prickling the short hairs on his head. He rubbed his hand back and forth over his skull, letting the weird tickling sensation relax him. It usually took a few days for him to get used to a new haircut, but he was glad he had gone shorter than normal today. Though it certainly didn’t hide his ears, which he always felt stuck out a little too far, the shorter cut kept him cooler.

He hid in the darkness behind his closed eyelids, even as he knew wallowing in his misery would never solve anything. He tried to focus on his breathing and did his best to ignore the racing thoughts tearing through his brain.

“Jacob? You in there?”

Shit. So much for being alone. Maybe if I stay completely still…

“Jacob?”

A rap on the door told him the voice’s owner wasn’t going away.

He sighed and dragged himself up, squinting against the bright sunlight streaming in through the bare window. He really needed to hang curtains or blinds soon.

“Yeah. I’m here,” he called, attempting to sound chipper. “It’s not locked. Come on in.”

The newly stained door opened into the office and Peter stepped inside. “Dude, what’s going on with you?” His pale blue eyes widened as he stared at Jacob. “Fuck, you look like shit.”

“Language, Peter.”

The kid rolled his eyes, but kept his mouth shut.

“Was there something you needed? Or were you just trying to get out of kitchen duty again?”

Peter blanched and gave an exaggerated shudder. “I don’t see why I should have to work in the kitchen. It’s disgusting.”

Jacob calmly listened to the daily reasons why Peter felt he shouldn’t have to help in the kitchen until the teen stopped for a breath.

“Are you done?”

Peter shrugged one shoulder. “Yeah, I guess,” he answered pitifully.

Jacob bit back another sigh. “You have to work a shift in the kitchen just like everyone else. No exceptions.”

Peter huffed but stayed silent.

“Was there something else you needed?” Jacob inquired, fighting the desire to begin wallowing again.

Peter’s eyes sparked, showing he clearly remembered his original errand. “There’s a guy downstairs. A really, really hot guy, by the way.” He paused for dramatic effect, but getting no reaction from Jacob, he continued. “He said he’s here to meet with you about…crap, what was it again?”

Jacob tried to keep his patience. Any other day he would have thought Peter’s forgetfulness sweet, but again, this was not any other day. This was the day he’d been hit with a tidal wave of concern. Hmm, no, “concern” didn’t fit the current circumstance. Dread? Shock. Yes, definitely shock. He shook his head. “Did he give you a name?”

Peter’s mouth twisted as he tilted his head to the side, his platinum blond hair falling over his forehead. He chewed his bottom lip for a moment until Jacob cleared his throat. “Sorry. If he did, I just don’t remember.”

“Okay. Well, why don’t I run down and meet him and you get back to the kitchen.” He got up, rounded his desk, and clapped Peter on the shoulder.

“Fine. I’ll go help, but I’m telling you, this dude is really, really hot.”

Jacob tried not to roll his own eyes. Peter thought almost every man he met was “really, really hot,” and Jacob tried to ignore the boy, what with all the craziness going on in his head. He followed Peter into the hallway and down the battered old stairs to the first floor. When Peter stopped abruptly, Jacob chuckled to himself and grabbed him by the shoulders, turning him toward the kitchen.

“Go!” he ordered.

Peter shuffled off to his assignment before turning toward the entryway, where a man in a well-worn black leather jacket and faded jeans stood watching.

Jacob couldn’t have stopped the sharp intake of breath if he had tried. For once, Peter had been right. This man was drop-dead gorgeous and Jacob openly stared, his feet rooted to the floor. He swallowed hard and temporarily forgot his own name. The stranger with skin the color of light caramel had pools of dark chocolate silk for eyes, framed by long, full, black lashes. Mesmerized, Jacob couldn’t look away. How could anyone’s eyes be that beautiful?

“Are you Jacob Baumgardner?” the stranger asked, tucking a strand of long dark hair behind his ear with his finger.

Jacob’s knees actually wobbled. Had anyone’s voice had that effect on him? Wait, he had asked something, hadn’t he? Fuck.

He was acting as starry-eyed as Peter. Jacob shook his head and cleared his throat, forcing himself to tear away his gaze. Only then did his brain begin working again. “Hi,” he choked out. Smooth. He cleared his throat again. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”

The man’s lips twitched as if trying to keep from smiling. “I asked if you were Jacob Baumgardner.”

“Oh.” Silence fell between them until Jacob realized he still hadn’t answered. God, he was like a high school boy with his first crush. “Sorry. It’s been a long day. Yes, I’m Jacob,” he managed to say in what he hoped was something comparable to the English language as he offered the man his hand.

The stranger’s large hand enveloped his and shook, sending jolts of electricity dancing down Jacob’s spine. Holy shit.

“I’m Luka Smith.” He let go of Jacob’s hand.

Jacob raised an eyebrow. Was he supposed to know him?

“Thurston Hyatt sent me.” Luka cocked his head. “Said he told you I was coming?”

A vague recollection of Thurston calling yesterday niggled at Jacob’s memory. Thurston sat on the Board of Directors and called a lot. A lot. So often that Jacob often failed to fully listen to Thurston when he spoke. To be fair, the man was a bit of a windbag and most of what he said was…well, stupid. But Thurston meant well and he had been a friend of Jacob’s grandparents. He was also the president of the largest bank in Nixon City, so Jacob had put up with him.

“Right…he did mention sending someone over to…to….” He looked around for an answer and finally gave up. He turned to Luka and ran his hands over his head, trying to settle his nerves. “Look, I’m sorry.”

“Long day, right?” Luka gifted him with a smile, and Jacob’s dick jumped to attention. “It’s okay. I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades and after I did some handyman work at the bank, he mentioned you might be needing help here.” Luka scanned the living room that had clearly seen better days. “Looks like he was right, huh?”

Jacob couldn’t help but agree. This building still needed a lot of work, but funds were incredibly tight. “It’s been a slow process to get this place up and running. You’re right, though, we need a lot of work done. We need to pass an inspection in just under sixty days and, to be honest, money is scarce.”

“Mr. Hyatt mentioned that. Let me take a look around and see what needs to be done. Do you have a list of things that need to be repaired to pass this inspection?”

For the first time since receiving the crushing news earlier in the day, Jacob felt something like hope blooming in his chest. Something about this man buoyed his spirit. “Yes, in my office upstairs—second floor. Follow me.” Jacob gestured toward the stairs.

A clang rang out from the kitchen, then a string of curse words.

“Peter,” he warned, his voice stern.

“Sorry,” Peter called, followed by an exaggerated sigh.

“Everything okay in there?”

“Yes, just dropped the big bowl of salad.”

“Yeah, he thought we wanted a tossed salad!” Jimmy said from the kitchen.

Jacob smiled, glad to hear the kid joking. Jimmy had been a mess when he’d arrived at The Promise of Hope Shelter a few weeks ago. It was good to see he’d progressed.

“Just clean it up and get things ready for dinner,” Jacob said and swiveled his head toward Luka.

“Lead the way,” Luka said with a smile that sent a shiver down Jacob’s spine.

When they reached the second floor, he led Luka to his office and gestured for him to take a seat in one of the two blue-and-green plaid upholstered chairs, while he sat behind his desk and riffled through a stack of papers, files, and folders in a tray. “I know it’s here somewhere,” he muttered. It was a pink piece of paper, wasn’t it? Maybe yellow…no, definitely pink. He laughed when he finally found what he was looking for—and it was blue.

Luka’s brow creased as he watched, but he didn’t ask questions.

Jacob handed the list to Luka. “As you can see, there are quite a few things that have to be fixed.”

“Mmm-hmm.” Luka perused the list.

“I know some of these are going to be pretty costly, but I thought if we could find a way to get things done over time—and I could make payments—it could be manageable.”

Luka looked up from the document and held Jacob’s gaze for a moment, sending a thrill through him. He could get lost in those eyes. “So, what exactly is this place?” Luka asked, breaking the moment.

Jacob beamed. He loved talking about The Promise of Hope Shelter. It was his passion. Unfortunately, it was almost dinner and he didn’t have a lot of time to go into the whole story. “Short version, okay?”

Luka nodded.

“I inherited the building when my grandparents passed away about two years ago. This year I turned it into a shelter for gay homeless youth, ages thirteen through eighteen. I created a nonprofit organization and put a board together. We knew the building needed work, but we had no idea how much until we didn’t pass the first inspection. We have less than sixty days to get it up to code.” And we’re almost broke.

Luka’s smile stretched across his face. “That’s wonderful. How many live here now?”

“Just three teens, but once we’re up and running full time, we’ll have the capacity for thirty.”

“Impressive.” Luka dipped his head to review the paper again. “Listen, do you mind if I take this home and do some estimates? I can come back tomorrow when I get off work at three o’clock.”

“Sure, that sounds great. Where do you work?”

“About four days a week I work at Nixon City Hardware on Main Street.”

Jacob nodded. He knew the place well, having made many, many trips there over the last few months for parts and various tools. It was curious he had never seen Luka; he would’ve definitely remembered him if he had.

“I can see the wheels spinning,” Luka said with a chuckle. “I just started about two weeks ago. I’m new in town.”

“Where did you move from?”

“Up north.”

Okay. The man didn’t like to talk about himself. Noted.

They discussed a few more items on the list before Jacob ushered Luka out the door, trying not to notice the way his well-worn jeans hugged the curve of his muscular ass.

The sound of shattering glass cut through his haze of lust. He breathed deeply, telling himself it would all be okay. “Guys, is someone sweeping up the glass?”

* * * *

Several hours later, once Jacob had made sure the boys were in their rooms, he locked up the place and made his way to his room on the third floor. He was exhausted and emotions were pinging around in his body like one of those old-fashioned arcade games. He entered the attached bathroom and stripped, letting his clothes fall to the floor in a heap.

Jacob started the shower and let the water run for a minute to warm up. He looked in the mirror and chuckled. His reddish-blond hair only made his pale skin stand out more, and the smattering of light freckles across his nose made him look like Howdy Doody. He smiled and wondered if any of the teens would even know who Howdy Doody was if he asked them. Jacob was only twenty-six, and most of his friends had probably never heard of the character, either. The only reason he knew was because his grandfather’d had a Howdy Doody collection. Thank God Jacob had green eyes, instead of the blue like the puppet, or his grandfather probably would have nicknamed him “Howdy” or something along that line.

He smiled at the memories of his grandfather. Losing his grandparents had been hard, but he hoped he was doing something to honor them. He wanted to live his life in a way that would make them proud.

When he’d received that horrible phone call earlier today, that was the first thing he’d thought—letting down his grandparents. He still wasn’t sure how to handle the situation or if he could even come up with twenty-five thousand dollars. Hopefully he would sleep well and things would be clearer in the morning.

* * * *

Chapter 2

Jacob had changed his mind and wished he had not just cut his hair, because now he needed something to yank. This day had gone from bad to worse in the course of just a few hours, beginning with breakfast.

Morning had come earlier than he had planned, due to a faucet in his bathroom that sounded like the Liberty Bell clanging every time it dripped. He finally gave up trying to sleep and went running at four-thirty.

When he stepped outside, he breathed in the cooler air. Fall had arrived not with a roar, but with a whine. It wasn’t until last week that the weather had even begun to cool.

Thanksgiving was in three weeks, then the inspection—just in time for Christmas. If he wasn’t able to pass, the shelter would close before he’d even had a chance to do any real good in this world.

Jacob did some stretches on the sidewalk and made sure his Fitbit was tracking before heading off, setting a gentle pace to start. The cool air whipped around him and he was glad he’d remembered to wear his knit cap.

The smell from the bakery just two doors down wafted over him as he neared, and he made a mental note to come back and get donuts and muffins for breakfast tomorrow. His stomach growled and he wondered if it was too late to change the planned breakfast at the shelter for this morning. While he tried to eat healthy most days, oatmeal was not one of his favorite foods.

Eric, the manager of the drugstore across the street, stepped out his front door with a broom and raised his hand in greeting. Jacob waved back and watched him start sweeping fallen leaves, inwardly groaning as he imagined how many were piling up in the back of the shelter. He could already imagine Peter balking about helping.

When he reached the path at the end of the block that led through the park, he picked up the pace, urging his body to move faster and harder than usual in the mornings. Jacob wanted to feel the burn today.

He let himself build into it, breathing deeply as he glanced at the nearly empty park. He loved running there. It was a beautiful park with large oaks, elms, sycamores, and a few cottonwood trees scattered throughout, although most of the leaves were now on the ground. Just a week ago, they had been bursting with fall colors. One end of the park boasted a fairly new playground with a large swing set, some climbing equipment, and a circular slide. Was that called a tornado slide? He wasn’t sure.

There were benches throughout, made and donated by the local Nixon City Lodge members, a group of retired men—and a few women—that liked to get together weekly and play cards, bowl, and just hang out. They also donated their help to many causes, and were seen all over the city during the holidays, raising money for various charities. His grandfather had been a member, and Jacob had participated in more fundraisers than he could count in his teen years.

Jacob credited his grandfather with instilling in him the desire to help others. Which is another reason he knew the call he’d received yesterday had to be a lie. It had to be.

He wound around the park a few times before heading back to the shelter. The boys would be getting up soon and he had to make sure they were settled with their tutor before he could really start his own day. First up was a meeting with Reverend Anderson from the Nixon City Faith Church just around the corner from his shelter. While he had never met the man, Jacob couldn’t shake the sense that nothing good would come of the meeting. The only thing he really knew about the church was that it was nondenominational.

“Jacob! Good morning!”

He turned toward the voice and waved. “Hi, Jess! You’re early today,” he said, his eyebrows raised.

Jessica “Jess” Miller ran the antique store next to the bakery. She was young, probably around twenty-two, and had more energy than most teenagers. Her short pixie hair sported new green highlights and he was pretty sure she had a new eyebrow piercing, but he wasn’t going to ask. With her ivory skin, blue eyes, and upturned nose, she was adorable no matter how many piercings she insisted on adding to her skin.

She wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, I’ve got a delivery coming in early. I would so rather be sleeping in. Thank God for coffee, huh?” She smiled as she raised her large travel mug.

“Yeah,” he agreed, eager to get back and grab some himself. He waved again and made his way home.

Running usually helped clear his mind, but not this time. Where the hell was he going to get twenty-five grand? It not only scared him, but pissed him off. How could his grandfather have been so careless? He had been an educated, extremely intelligent man. Why had he let this happen? There was no way his grandfather had done what he was being accused of. It made no sense—no matter what the voice on the phone had said.

He’d decided to stick with oatmeal for breakfast rather than making a change so close to mealtime, but as he ran past the bakery again, he knew he’d return to pick out something for tomorrow.

Unfortunately, breakfast quickly spiraled out of control, starting when Peter and Jimmy accused each other of forgetting to put out the sugar and cinnamon. The argument quickly escalated into what would have come to blows had Jacob not been there.

The newest resident, Bradley, sat at the table and laughed like he hadn’t seen anything funnier in his life. Which, of course, only pissed off the other boys.

All three had been homeless before coming to The Promise of Hope Shelter. A small disagreement on the streets could be a matter of life or death, and backing down showed others you were afraid. Jacob understood, but he needed to help these boys also understand they were safe here. Part of the program was daily group therapy. A local counselor, Marcus English, had offered his services for now until Jacob could obtain more funding. Personally, Jacob really liked Marcus and hoped he would stay on when the board could afford to actually pay him.

Marcus was amazing with the boys. Jacob had worried at first that a former Marine may not be able to understand or empathize with the situations these kids had lived through. Being abandoned and abused by their families until they ran away, or being kicked out for being gay, was not something everyone could handle.

The first group meeting laid all Jacob’s fears to rest. Marcus had a commanding presence and the kids responded to him. He had all the qualifications, had passed the background check—not a criminal or sex offender—and had led an exemplary life while in the Marines, while in college, and even now.

Because the boys were no longer in school, they were expected to participate in classes to earn their GED. Peter had balked and Bradley had made it clear he hated school, but Jimmy had seemed to like it so far.

Jacob hadn’t learned a lot about Jimmy yet, but he was sure there had been abuse in his life. He wondered how much, if any, schooling Jimmy had been able to get under his belt before he found himself on the streets.

The doorbell rang at precisely ten and Jacob made his way downstairs, hollering to the boys that he’d get it and to stay working with Greg, their tutor.

He opened the door to a pale, paunchy man wearing a black suit, white button-down shirt, and the ugliest black-and-purple-striped tie he had ever seen. Something about it reminded Jacob of those old spinning barbershop poles.

Jacob forced a smile. “Hello, you must be Reverend Anderson. Welcome to The Promise of Hope Shelter.”

The older man smiled, his full gray mustache twitching above a pair of thin lips. But the smile didn’t quite reach his pale blue eyes, nor did he extend his hand to shake. Oh, yeah, this is going to be just great.

“Hi, Reverend. Please come in. I’m Jacob,” he said politely as he waved him inside, plastering another smile on his face.

The reverend entered, making a wide arc around Jacob as he paused to take in the meager surroundings.

“We’re still settling in,” Jacob explained, shrugging from embarrassment. He knew when he was being judged, and he didn’t like it.

“I can see that. Looks like you’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

His words made Jacob’s skin crawl, and he realized his first impression was right. Definitely not going to be a good meeting.

“Would you like to meet in my office? Or here in the living area?”

“Your office would be fine. This needs to be discussed in private. It’s of a rather delicate matter, Jacob,” Reverend Anderson said, keeping his words even and low, as if afraid someone might overhear.

“Follow me,” Jacob directed and headed up the stairs.

Once settled in his office, he behind his desk and the reverend in the chair Luka had sat in last night, the thought of the handyman brought a blush to Jacob’s face and he bit back a smile.

“Look, son, I’ll get right to the point,” the reverend said.

“I appreciate that.” Jacob stared into his eyes. It was harder for a man to be rude and lie if they had to look someone in the eyes. His grandfather had taught him that.

Reverend Anderson looked away and cleared his throat. “Look, what you’re doing here…well, it’s just not…not right for Nixon City.”

The hairs on Jacob’s arms stood up, and he took a deep breath before speaking. “I’m not sure what you mean, Reverend Anderson. Do you mind clarifying?” His mild tone belied his anger. He knew exactly what this man was saying, but he was going to make him spit it out.

The older man turned back to him, his lips twisted into a frown. “Actually, I don’t mind at all. This is a nice town. Nice people. God-fearing people. There is no place for your shelter in Nixon City.” He spat out the word “shelter” with such force that spittle flew from his lips.

Jacob had come across this before, and would again, no doubt. This was the Heartland, after all, at least one church for every tractor. It wasn’t that he had anything against religion. He believed in God and grew up attending church. He despised it, however, when people used religion to spread hatred. Jacob couldn’t reconcile a loving God with the one so many people said hated anyone that fell outside their notion of “normal.”

He rose and extended his arm across the desk, offering his hand. “I thank you for your time, Reverend.”

Anderson looked shocked, but stood, refusing to shake his hand. “This isn’t the end of this discussion, Jacob.”

“Oh, but it is, Reverend. You see, I’ve worked with the city administrators and have been given the clearance to set up this shelter here.”

Anderson’s eyes narrowed into slits that nearly disappeared into his fat cheeks. “I have friends, Jacob, and I know your building isn’t up to code. Don’t count on passing the inspection.”

Jacob’s heart fell into his stomach. He wasn’t sure what to say.

“Hi, honey! I took an early lunch from work,” a voice sung out from the hallway as the door swung open. Luka walked over to Jacob, who stood staring open-mouthed. “Looks like I surprised you, baby,” he said with a laugh and planted a kiss on Jacob’s cheek. “I missed you so much, I had to come see you,” he whispered loudly as he snaked his arm around Jacob’s neck and pulled him close.

Reverend Anderson stood frozen, his lips pressed tightly together in disbelief and his eyes wide with disgust.

“Hi, I’m Luka, Jacob’s better half.” Luka reached to shake the reverend’s hand. When it wasn’t reciprocated, he walked around the desk and clapped him on the shoulder.

The older man nearly jumped out of his skin, and his eyes darted between Luka and Jacob. “I’m leaving,” he said tersely. “Mark my words, Jacob. You won’t be open very long.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry! Are you leaving because of me?” Luka asked, feigning innocence. “Oh, baby,” he cooed as he looked at Jacob, “did I interrupt something important?”

Jacob finally shook himself from his stupor and a grin spread across his face. “It’s okay. The good reverend was just leaving.”

Luka came around the desk and wrapped his arm around Jacob’s shoulders, pulling him close again. Jacob fought the urge to inhale deeply as the scents of musk, sweat, and something that must be pure Luka wafted into his nose. He wondered what it meant that his dick got hard as a rock even though a reverend was in the room.

Thank God he didn’t have to think about that too long, because Anderson left, his boots stomping down the stairs, across the entryway, and onto the porch as the front door slammed.

Luka pulled away and Jacob instantly missed his presence. He stared at the man and tried to form words, but could think of only one. “Why?”

Luka grinned, and Jacob’s belly flip-flopped. Fuck, he was in trouble.

“I heard what he said through the door and it pissed me off. Was it too much?” he asked, brow furrowed. “Sorry, I sometimes don’t think before I act.”

Jacob smiled. “Hell, no, it was perfect! He was being an ass. I sort of expected it when he called to say he wanted to meet, but your timing was perfect. Speaking of that, why are you here so early?”

“I wasn’t totally lying earlier—I did get an early lunch break. So I thought I’d run my estimates over for you to review. That way, if you decide to hire me, I could start right after my shift at the hardware store.”

Jacob was impressed. “That’s great. I’ll take a look at them and contact you. Should I call the hardware store?”

“I listed my cell on the paperwork,” Luka said, a blush spreading across his caramel-colored skin as he passed over the papers.

“Thanks,” Jacob said, glancing down as he took them. He suddenly felt tongue-tied again and wondered if that blush meant Luka was attracted to him as well. He doubted it. Hot, sexy men were not usually drawn to Howdy Doody look-alikes. But Jacob would relish the memory of Luka’s arms around him again and again, he was sure about that.

“I’d better get going,” Luka said as he turned to the door.

“Wait,” Jacob blurted.

Luka pivoted on his heels and raised his eyebrows.

“Um, do you think he could really prevent me from getting this building to pass inspection?”

Luka’s gaze softened. “He can try, but I promise, if you hire me, I’ll make sure this building is up to code. I can be a bit bullheaded when I’m on a mission.”

Jacob smiled, and when Luka smiled back, lust zipped through him. He swallowed hard and nodded as he waved the papers at him. “I’ll call you soon.”

Luka nodded back and headed down the stairs. Jacob practically sank into his chair and dropped the paperwork onto his desk. What an odd day. A fight between the boys, a minister who wanted to close his shelter, and a sexy man that made him want to forget about everything but falling to his knees and worshipping his cock.

He shook his head at his silly fantasy and set about reviewing the estimates. He didn’t know a lot about the cost of certain repairs, but they seemed reasonable. He especially appreciated how Luka had taken the time to break down the cost for each repair. He’d also noted on the side that he could purchase most of the supplies at cost through his job at the hardware store, which Jacob hadn’t even considered. Luka even wrote that he’d already talked with his boss about it. Jacob knew right away that he would hire this man.

A few minutes later, he called Luka and they agreed to start right after his shift. He saved Luka’s info on his phone and got back to work. He had a lot of things to do to get this place up and running at full capacity, including finding more funding. Hopefully the rest of the day would go smoother.

He should have knocked on wood because his day went to shit faster than he could say “Nixon City.”

His phone had rung a few minutes after he spoke with Luka. The landline, not his cell. He immediately recognized the voice as the one from the previous day.

“You get the money?”

“Who is this?” he demanded.

“I told you I wouldn’t put up with this crap. You want everyone to know what a pervert your grandfather was?” the voice sneered.

“You say this, but what proof do you have? I don’t believe you. I think you’re the crazy one,” Jacob yelled, then slammed down the receiver.

The phone rang immediately afterward, and Jacob wanted to ignore it. He really did. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t let someone ruin his grandfather’s good name or cause issues for the shelter.

“Yes,” he answered, filled with apprehension.

“You little fucker. Don’t you dare hang up on me again. You understand?”

Jacob stayed quiet.

“You understand me, you little faggot?”

His skin crawled and he wanted to hang up again, but he needed to see where this was going. Jacob took a shaky breath. “I hear you.”

“Good. You want proof, you watch for it in your inbox. I’ll email it to your business address. And don’t try to trace it. I’m not an idiot. You won’t be able to trace it.” With that warning, the man hung up.

Jacob shuddered and turned on his laptop. He opened his email and waited. And waited. He waited over two hours until the electronic ping announced new mail.

He inhaled sharply and hovered his cursor over the heading, “Your Grandfather is a Pervert!” He clicked the email and saw it contained a video. He wondered if he should open it. Could this be a con to get into his computer? That wouldn’t make sense, though. He certainly didn’t have a lot of money or any deep, dark secrets for anyone to steal. He did a quick scan to make sure it was just a video and not a virus, then clicked on it.

Once he hit PLAY, an image of a motel came into view. Jacob recognized it as one of the seedier motels outside Kansas City that many homeless teenagers stayed at occasionally. When he had decided to open the shelter, he had done a lot of research, especially in Kansas City, knowing a lot of the kids would have gravitated to a bigger urban area, rather than small towns like Nixon City. He’d been dismayed to find that this particular motel was a hotbed of prostitution. Mostly gay teens. It was a dismal place where the management looked the other way for a paltry few dollars. After meeting the current manager, Jacob had assumed he was too stoned to care what was going on.

The camera had captured the parking lot, and Jacob watched an old Buick come into view, then gasped when he saw his grandfather park in front of the entrance and climb out. He stopped at the passenger window for a moment before heading inside. The video must have been spliced, because he was back out in a couple of seconds with a set of keys, and drove the car a few spots down, parking in front of a door before getting out again.

The image was a little grainy, but it was definitely his grandfather, and he recognized the Nixon City Lodge logo on the back window. He gasped again when a young man also climbed out of the car, following his grandfather into the motel room. Then the scene cut to his grandfather coming out, but turning back to hug the kid in the doorway.

Jacob’s stomach fell, and he felt sick. He forced himself to watch as the door shut and his grandfather got into his car and drove away before he slammed his laptop closed. He raked his fingers through his hair and once again wished it was longer. He needed to grab onto something. He wrapped his arms around his stomach and held tightly as a cold sweat broke out over his skin. Nausea bubbled up, and he fought to slow his breathing before he hyperventilated. His world had been rocked—again—and his vision grew gray as he felt himself going under while waves of terror lapped at him.

Suddenly, strong arms wrapped around him, and his back braced against something hard.

“Breathe, Jacob. Breathe for me,” a deep voice floated into his ear.

What was he saying?

“Breathe, Jacob. Now!”

God, why didn’t the damn voice shut up and let him fall back under. His lungs hurt. He just wanted to slide into the darkness again.

“NOW!”

His mouth opened and air whooshed out before he drew air into his lungs, nearly gagging at the intensity. The pain in his lungs ebbed and his vision cleared. He glanced around as he took another deep breath. He was on the floor. In his office. He saw arms around his waist. Confusion plucked at him.

“Good. Just keep breathing steadily.”

He recognized that voice. The owner’s name was on the tip of his tongue. He craned his neck and caught a glimpse of wavy, thick, black hair and a scent he remembered from earlier. Luka. It was Luka holding him.

Jacob was torn between embarrassment of being caught in the middle of a panic attack and the safety he felt while wrapped in Luka’s arms. Technically, this was the second time the man had rescued him in less than…two…maybe three hours. Okay, the first time was not really rescuing, but Luka had still helped him during a bad situation.

He squirmed and tried to pull away, but Luka’s strong arms tightened around his waist.

“Give it a few more minutes.”

Jacob nodded and slumped against the wall of muscle behind him. His heartbeat sped up and he realized he could feel Luka’s beating hard into his back. Had Luka been worried about him?

It felt so natural to be in the man’s arms. Jacob hadn’t dated in quite some time, mainly due to his grandparents’ death and trying to start this new shelter, but he also hadn’t met anyone that had piqued his interest. And Luka definitely piqued his interest. Unfortunately, he was pretty sure he hadn’t made the best impression on Luka, although he was just as confident that Luka wouldn’t soon forget meeting him.

“I’m okay,” he whispered.

“Okay,” Luka replied, pulling back. “No quick moves.”

Jacob nodded and waited for Luka to stand before he tried to push himself from the floor. His legs felt like jelly, so he was glad when Luka reached down like a lifeline. He grabbed onto the hand and let Luka pull him to a standing position.

They faced each other, Jacob eye level with Luka’s chin. He was too embarrassed to say anything and too wobbly to move, so he concentrated on the cleft in Luka’s chin.

“Jacob?”

Luka’s voice washed over him and brought him warmth. He caught himself before he leaned his forehead into Luka’s perfect golden skin. “Mmm?”

Luka’s thumb gently nudged up his chin until Jacob looked into his eyes. Dark chocolate eyes full of concern. “Are you okay?” Luka whispered, his hot breath caressing Jacob’s flesh. He shivered and nodded.

“Want to tell me what that was about?”

Jacob made a half-hearted attempt to look away, but Luka cupped his chin and held him in place. “It was a panic attack. I get them occasionally. I haven’t had one in years.” Since the day his grandparents had been killed in a car accident, to be exact, but he kept that information to himself.

“What brought it on?”

He wasn’t going to tell him that either. How could he? His pulse sped up and he trembled.

“Okay, you don’t have to tell me right now. I just want to make sure you’re safe,” Luka whispered. The man’s thumb rubbed along his jaw, and he leaned into Luka’s hand. His touch felt so nice.

“Why are you here?”

“The hardware store was slow and my boss let me go a couple of hours early. I grabbed some supplies for the first repair jobs. My boss said you can pay him directly if you want or give the money to me and I can pay him.”

Jacob nodded. Supplies. Repairs. Money. He sighed. Money wasn’t the root of all evil, but it was the root of his problems. Never enough money.

He pulled back and looked up at Luka. “Thanks for catching me,” he whispered.

Luka smiled. “My pleasure,” he drawled out. “I’m going to start on the thermostat and get that replaced.”

Luka’s voice melted over Jacob, and he felt a little disoriented. “Um, okay, yeah…um…yeah. Thanks.” Shit. He sounded incoherent and Luka’s gaze roamed over him, slowly and thoroughly.

Eventually, Luka turned and Jacob watched him move into the hallway. A warmth blanketed him. Something told him that Luka was going to become an important part of his life. As a friend, lover, or something else remained to be seen. But he couldn’t wait to find out.

* * * *

Chapter 3

The next week was a blur of activity at the shelter. Not only had the agency in Kansas City picked up another homeless teenager in need of a place to stay, he had been caught stealing and had marijuana on him. The judge decided to give him the opportunity to work with The Promise of Hope Shelter or go to juvie. He had chosen the shelter, so Jacob had driven to the city to get him.

This kid was a handful. He’d been on the streets a while, smoked like a fiend, and had attitude to spare. He was sarcastic, rude, and pushed people’s buttons. Shelby was only sixteen, but life had treated him pretty badly, and when Jacob looked into his eyes, he would swear the youth had lived a much longer life. Shelby didn’t want to be at the shelter and made it well known.

Jacob worried he would run, but after a few days, he saw that something kept him there. Possibly the security of a bed and three meals was enough to make Shelby stay for now, but he still refused to talk in group and didn’t try to make friends.

Additionally, Luka spent three afternoons in a row at the shelter, working on several of the smaller projects on the list. The kids were immediately drawn to him and Jacob was more than impressed with how Luka explained what he was doing. Knowing that none of the kids had any father figure in their lives to help them, Jacob was touched that Luka made the time and never seemed impatient over their questions.

According to Marcus, Luka was a big topic of conversation in group, although he didn’t divulge to Jacob exactly what was discussed. Jacob could only imagine what Peter was saying.

Luka charmed Adam Oliver and Garrett Martinson as well, the two social workers that helped at the shelter several days and evenings a week. Right now, the two men switched off and Jacob filled in the rest of the time. Once everything was officially set up, he would hand the reins over to full-time staff throughout the evenings.

To be honest, Jacob had been surprised that the state would allow kids to already live at the shelter, but sadly, there were more homeless gay teens than beds and they needed any and all help they could get. Once the building passed inspection, he would also receive state funding—not a lot, but enough to help each month. He would also be able to apply for grants.

He hadn’t received any more calls or emails from the mystery man, but he knew not to expect him to have given up. Jacob had wrestled with the video, but no matter what his own eyes showed him, he knew his grandfather had not hurt a vulnerable teen. He knew it in his soul. He just needed a way to prove it.

Yes, Luka had been a hit with everyone so far, but was strangely silent when it came to Jacob. He wasn’t sure what to make of that. After all, the man had been pretty outgoing and talkative the first day they’d met. Hell, Luka had even kissed him, albeit on the cheek, and only as a ruse to irritate the reverend.

Jacob often left his office, finding some reason to be around Luka. He couldn’t help it. Something pulled him to the man, and he was surprised to discover that Luka was actually twenty-five, only a year younger than himself.

One day, late in the afternoon, he heard the familiar jingle of Luka’s keys in his pocket as footsteps grew louder. Jacob’s heart sped up and he rose from his chair, eager to catch a glimpse of Luka’s smile. As he stepped into the hall, his cell phone pinged, and he pulled it from his pocket. He blanched when he saw the text.

$25,000 or the world knows your grandfather was a pervert.

He started to delete the message, but thought better of it. His gut clenched as fear gripped him again. Surely he could find a way around this.

“Whoa, man. You okay?”

Jacob looked up and sucked in a breath. Luka stood only inches away and held out his hands in the traditional surrender move.

“Sorry,” Jacob managed to say. “What…what did I do?”

Luka chuckled and pointed to the open gallon of paint sitting just behind Jacob’s foot. “You were inches from walking into that and probably dumping it over.”

“Oh, wow! I’m sorry…I-I wasn’t watching.”

“Which is why I jumped in front of you.” Luka smiled. His eyes searched Jacob’s face and he tilted his head, his silky black hair falling over his eyes. “You okay? You look pretty pale.”

“I’m always pale.”

“I know, wiseass. I meant you look paler than normal. Like you’ve seen a ghost or something.”

Jacob’s eyes grew wide. Was Luka messing with him? Or did he really think Jacob was being a wiseass? “I…I guess I just wasn’t paying attention,” he offered, knowing he sounded lame.

Luka nodded and shrugged. “Hey, no biggie. Just try to watch where you’re going.”

Jacob wanted to kick himself. Luka obviously thought that Jacob didn’t want to talk with him. He had blown his chance. Luka turned his back and was painting the wall he had patched the day before. His stance clearly showed he had shut down and was ignoring Jacob.

The doorbell rang, and Jacob glanced at Luka before he hurried downstairs. He opened the door to find a petite woman with short blonde hair, styled in a fashionable coif. She wore large sunglasses and a gray wool coat cinched at the waist.

“May I help you?”

The woman slid her sunglasses down her nose to peek over the rim. “My name is Ava.”

Jacob searched his brain, because clearly she thought he should know her, but he came up blank. “Ava. I’m sorry. Have we met?”

Her eyes flickered, irritation quickly replaced with cool acceptance. “Ava Anderson. My husband, Reverend Anderson, came to see you the other day.”

Recognition washed over him and he braced himself for an unpleasant conversation. “Ah, yes. I remember your husband.” He debated whether or not to invite her in, but when he glimpsed the smirk on her glossy pink lips, he decided to step onto the porch and deal with her there. He pulled the door shut behind him, forcing her to take a few steps back to make room. She was clearly perturbed, but maintained her frosty composure. He had to give her credit for that.

“What can I do for you?” he asked as he folded his arms across his chest.

She cleared her throat and pulled off her sunglasses. “I am the president of the Women’s Group at our church and we are all very disturbed with what you are doing.”

Jacob gritted his teeth and set his jaw as he stared at her. Silent.

When she realized Jacob wasn’t going to say anything, she straightened her shoulders and tossed back her head. “We are very concerned about this little…project…you have started,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

“Project?”

“This…shelter for those kinds of children. They should be in a juvenile facility, not around good people in Nixon City.”

Jacob breathed in slowly and counted to ten in his head. One…Two…Three…It wasn’t working. He wanted to slap the ignorance out of her. Four…Five…Six…

The door opened behind him, and he turned to see Luka smiling. The sight of him standing in the doorway blew him away. Luka’s T-shirt clung to him in all the right places and paint splatters covered his faded jeans. Sweat shimmered on his skin and Jacob found himself wanting to lick Luka everywhere. Shit, he was sexy.

Ava apparently agreed, because the woman’s eyes nearly popped out of her head as she stared at him. Jacob could practically see the drool on her lips.

“Everything okay, honey?”

Jacob bit back a smile and nearly laughed out loud at Ava’s crestfallen face. She did a good job of schooling her features, though.

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” Jacob responded as Luka’s arm slid around his waist and pulled him close so they stood hip to hip. “This is Ava Anderson. She’s Reverend Anderson’s wife.”

“Oh, the man we met the other day?” Luka smiled sweetly and reached out his hand.

Ava pretended not to notice and pressed her hands to her hair, as if smoothing it.

“Yes, she was just explaining why we shouldn’t be allowing these children here.”

Luka’s eyebrows raised. “Oh?”

She cleared her throat as she took a step back. She’d come in like a lion, but would be leaving like a lamb. “Yes, well…I came over to explain that my women’s group is unhappy with this new shelter being right around the corner from our church. These kids should be living in a bigger city, like Kansas City, where they are able to get the help they need.”

“Help?”

She squirmed under Luka’s intense gaze, and Jacob had to admit he liked it. “For their…issues.”

“I sincerely hope you aren’t suggesting that being gay is an ‘issue,’” Jacob said, making air quotes with his fingers.

Ava glanced between the men, and Luka’s hold tightened around Jacob’s waist.

Trying to ignore the tingles spreading through his skin from Luka’s touch, Jacob smiled at Ava. “And as for any issues,” he began, biting his tongue at the harsh words he wanted to spew at the hateful woman, but instead choosing diplomacy, “these kids have had hard lives. What better place to help them get on track for a good life but here? We’re giving them a safe home, plenty of food, helping them earn their education and teaching them how to thrive in life. Here they can learn about small-town life and how we treat others as we wish to be treated. Isn’t there something about that in the Bible? I’m sure you realize that, right?”

Luka placed a chaste kiss on his cheek, then whispered into his ear. “Nice, baby.”

Jacob ignored the heat spreading across his face and the way Luka’s hot breath on his ear made him want to climb the man like a tree. Instead, he smiled politely at Ava and waited for her to respond.

She pursed her lips and glared at them. “There are good church people here that won’t put up with this.”

“That’s great!” Luka said. “I’ve been looking for a new church to attend since I moved here. Maybe we’ll try yours this Sunday.”

She paled, while Jacob pressed his lips together to keep the laughter from pouring out.

Ava stayed silent for a moment as she obviously tried to remain composed. Finally, she spoke quietly, her voice strained. “I see my visit was just a waste of time today. Don’t forget, I tried to warn you.”

With that, she turned on her heels and made her way down the walk toward her car. As she climbed into her vehicle, Jacob burst out laughing, bringing a smile to Luka’s face.

“Oh, my God, that was so fun,” Jacob exclaimed just as Luka’s lips claimed his in a soft, tender kiss that spun through him all the way down to his toes.

Luka pulled him closer, and Jacob slid his hands around Luka’s neck and finally allowed himself to stroke that soft, silky hair that he’d yearned to touch.

It took every ounce of willpower to pull himself away from Luka’s hard body, but he knew the boys could catch them and he was already trying to keep their hormones at bay.

Luka opened his eyes and furrowed his brow.

“I-I don’t want the kids to see us,” Jacob explained.

Luka gave him a small smile as he slid his hands away from Jacob’s waist and up his arms. Jacob shivered at the touch and fought the urge to press against him again. God, this man did things to him that he hadn’t felt in a very long time.

“Wonder if she’ll be back soon,” Luka mused.

“What?”

“Ava Anderson. The minister’s wife…who was just here.”

Ah, her. God, the kiss had turned his brain to mush. The crazy woman had just left and with only a touch of Luka’s lips, he’d forgotten everything. He felt himself blush and looked away, but not before he saw the big grin on Luka’s face.

“You’re so sexy,” Luka whispered, his breath hot against Jacob’s cheek.

Jacob trembled, unconsciously chewing his lower lip.

“Look at me, Jacob,” Luka whispered, his hand tilting up Jacob’s chin. When they stared into each other’s eyes, Jacob smoothed some flyaway hairs from Luka’s forehead. “I’ve tried to keep my distance from you, but I can’t anymore.”

Jacob’s eyes widened. “Really? I thought you didn’t want to talk to me.”

“Let me take you out,” Luka murmured, nuzzling Jacob’s hair. It was more of a statement than a question, really.

Jacob wasn’t sure if he should say “yes,” but the pull toward Luka was too intense. He knew almost nothing about the man, yet he wanted to know everything. “Yes.”

“Tomorrow?”

Jacob thought about it. Garrett’s shift was tomorrow evening and he would be staying until morning, so Jacob could definitely go out. Not that he needed all night. “That works. I’ll need to stay until Garrett Martinson arrives for his shift around seven.”

“Perfect. I’ll pick you up at seven-fifteen. Does that work?”

Jacob nodded, suddenly feeling shy.

The clatter coming through the front door made him pull back and smile at Luka. “Looks like I’m needed inside.” He opened the door and headed in to see what had happened.

He felt rather than saw Luka staring at his ass as he walked away.

* * * *

The rest of the evening, Jacob found himself walking past Luka as often as possible. He couldn’t stop the smile playing at his lips whenever their gazes met. The kids were oblivious, but Jacob assumed that anyone else could have seen the heat between them.

Once, when he stood in the kitchen to grab his third glass of water, Luka walked in, needing something from his toolbox on the table. Jacob realized that Luka didn’t so much walk as glide. His movements were fluid and quick, his muscles flexing and stretching as he moved across the floor. An image of a panther on the prowl flashed in Jacob’s mind, and he smiled. A panther. That suited Luka to a T. He moved like he owned the space. No hint of doubt, no lack of confidence. Dominant in everything he did.

Jacob wondered if that dominance transferred to the bedroom. He wasn’t really into kinky or BDSM play, but he did like when the other man took control of the situation. Jacob was definitely more submissive in bed, but not to the point of wanting it to carry over into his everyday life. He knew some who enjoyed that, but he also knew it wasn’t for him.

Luka bent over to tie his shoe, and Jacob nearly did a spit take. He choked as he tried to keep the water from flying from his mouth. Fuck, the man was hot. He watched Luka stand up and roll his shoulders.

“You in pain?”

Luka turned, surprise on his face. “No, why?”

Jacob pointed at his shoulders.

Luka chuckled. “No, not pain, really. Just slept funny last night. Actually, I have to knock off a little early. Do you want to take a look at the wiring?”

Jacob shook his head. “I wouldn’t even know what I was looking at.”

“I’ll have to teach you one day,” Luka said, his voice low.

Heat spread through Jacob and he fought the urge to run to Luka. Instead, he blurted, “Why?”

Luka tilted his head. “Why what?”

Fuck. Jacob felt the redness spreading across his face and down his neck. Why had he asked that? Sometimes his mouth jumped ahead of his brain. He swallowed hard before answering. “Why did you ask me out?” He waited for a judgmental expression. It didn’t come. “I mean, look at you, and then look at me. I’m a bit of a nerd and don’t date much and I’m pretty sure you could have any man you wanted.” Great, idiot, let’s list all the reasons he shouldn’t date you. Make his decision easy for him!

Luka’s mouth turned into a small frown as he sidled toward Jacob. “Do you really not know how special you are?” He used both hands to gesture around. “Look at what you’re doing. Look at the kids you’re helping. You have a pure soul, Jacob, and I want to get to know you better.” He stopped an inch from Jacob, leaning down until they were almost forehead to forehead, but still tantalizingly apart. “And Jacob,” he breathed, “you are beautiful. I have to constantly remember to keep my hands to myself because all I want to do is touch you.”


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