Better Red Chapter 1

Who’s afraid of the big bad Wolfe?
Better Red by Tara Lain

Chapter One

“Hi, Red. How ya doing?”

Red Ridley, short for Redmond, which was pretty grandiose for a small-town guy, smiled but poised his order form clearly in the line of sight of his customer. “Fine, Amy. What can I get you? Burger and fries?”

“You busy?” She pursed her pink lips around her straw and sucked her cherry Coke.

He kept the smile plastered on but glanced around at the full booths. Mom and Pop’s was the busiest restaurant in town. Of course, it was one of the few restaurants in Ever After, New York that wasn’t fast food. “Uh yeah, kind of busy. What’ll you have?”

“Cheeseburger and fries, please. So, how’s your grandma?”

“She’s good. Thanks, Amy.”

She sipped some more. “I’m glad. I was worried.”

That made him look up. “About what?”

She shrugged. “Don’t know. I just overheard someone in the grocery say something about ‘that nice Mrs. Ridley.’ I was hoping there was nothing wrong.”

He smiled. “Nothing’s wrong.” Man, if people in Ever After didn’t have enough gossip, they’d make some up. Still, he’d kind of like to know what they’d said.

He walked quickly away and back to the order counter where he clipped his page. “Order up!” They weren’t exactly high tech at Mom and Pop’s, but the food was good. Really good. And there was plenty of it.

Red’s best friend, Kimmie Sinclair, sidled over and chuckled. “Amy’s still got a crush on you.”

He shrugged and tightened the band on his ponytail. Mom Grady was okay with his hair as long as he kept it out of the food. “She’s just friendly.”

“Yeah and a soufflé’s just eggs.” Kimmie was a closet chef. She leaned in and whispered, “You should tell the girls you’re not interested. At least it’d get some of them off your case.”

Whispering, he said, “Nah. Come on. I barely know myself. I don’t want anyone else’s judgment before my own’s in.” He lowered his voice even more. “Have you heard any gossip about Gran?”

“No. Just people saying they like her blog.”

“Good.” He glanced toward the crush in the booths, then back at her. “Gotta get out there.” He gave her a low fist bump and headed for his new four-top. Flipping his order pad, he turned the corner on the booth and stopped. Phil Gordat sat with three of his buds. Crap. Just when he’d thought it might be a nice, fast-moving night. Red couldn’t get to a smile, but he tried for pleasant. After all, the asshole was the nephew of the sheriff, a fact Phil never let anyone forget. “Hi. What’ll you have?”

Phil looked up and his eyes widened like they almost always did when he spied Red. “Look who’s here, guys. Our very own pretty boy. Do you know this guy right here is sooo fucking pretty that the preacher hisself has to warn us all of the dangers of coveting the joys of the flesh, just so we don’t stray from—” He raised a hand and spoke in a big, righteous voice. “—the paths of truth and goodness.”

The other dudes looked half-bored and half-scared since Phil was mean as crap and liked to throw his family connections around, but one guy, Tooey, said, “The preacher ain’t talking about Red. He’s talking about girls. Don’t be lusting after the pretty girls.”

Phil sneered, “Yeah, well Red’s as pretty as a girl. In fact, I think he is a girl.”

Red sighed loud enough to hear. “You want something, Phil, or shall I wait on other customers while you make up your mind.”

“No, no. Whaddy’a want, guys? Get me two cheesesteaks with extra onions, double fries, and a chocolate shake.”

Red purposefully didn’t stare at the gut that was starting to hang over Phil’s belt despite all the weights he lifted. Hell, he wasn’t more than twenty. The other guys ordered burgers.

Red wrote it all down as legibly as he could manage so the kitchen didn’t complain and then hurried toward the order window—and stopped. Oh wow.

There he was. Huddled in his quiet corner on the last stool at the counter sat Mark Woods, cradling a cup of coffee with cream between his big, strong hands. The expanse of his massive shoulders formed a wall between him and the rest off the room. Funny that Mark was so notoriously shy, but he always seemed to come to the restaurant when it was busy. Red wasn’t complaining. At least that schedule meant he got to see Mark, because Red only worked at peak times.

Red inhaled slowly. Without Mark, he’d never have realized he was—uh, that he liked guys. Sure, his eyes had wandered a few times in the locker room, but the boys in school were so awful to people they decided were gay, he kept his gaze mostly to himself. True, he’d noticed that he had more posters of Shawn Mendes than of Zendaya, but it wasn’t until Mark started planting his world-class ass on a stool at Mom and Pop’s every time Red worked, that the B-boy dancing balls in Red’s jeans just wouldn’t let him deny he had a strong preference.

He sighed.

No matter what he wanted, Red had no excuse for waiting on Mark. He didn’t handle the counter, which was probably good. No point giving Red a chance to spill something all over a customer.

Dragging his gaze away, Red walked to the order counter and slapped up Phil-the-Pill’s selections. One good thing was that Mom and Pop’s used servers to bring the food, especially during peak times, so the waiters didn’t have to carry the trays and could spend more time taking orders and money, just like in the upscale restaurants. That meant he didn’t have to stand next to Phil with a tray on his shoulder and get his ass patted. If his attraction to Mark let Red know he liked guys, Phil Gordat showed him he sure as hell didn’t like all guys.

Get moving. He ran off to serve more tables and smile as he delivered the bills. Ever After residents might not be big tippers, but a few dimples brought out the best in them. Of course, a few of Red’s big tips might go down if the parents found out he wasn’t going to date their daughters.

First up, the mayor and his family. Red walked to them quietly, smiled, slid the bill on the edge of the table closest to Mayor Arbruzzi, and whispered, “No hurry.”

The mayor held up a hand. “Oh wait, Redmond.” He fished in his wallet, came out with a gold card, and slipped it onto the bill. “How’s your grandmother, son?”

Suddenly, he wanted to ask why, but he said, “She’s well, sir. She sure loves doing her blog.”

The mayor’s daughter, Valerie giggled. “I love Granny in Jammys. I read it all the time. She’s forever talking about her grandson.” She laughed again.

Red tried not to blush. Fortunately, his hair was auburn, not that pinky-red that gave a guy freckles and lots of blushability. And yeah, he needed to talk to Gran again about leaving him out of her advice column. He’d also like to ask her about the rumors, but he didn’t want to upset her.

“Will you be going to the community college in the fall?” The mayor patted Red’s arm.

“Yes, sir. That’s my intention.”

“What do you plan to study?”

Red swallowed. That was the question. “Not quite sure yet, sir.”

“No rush. You’re still so young.” The mayor smiled confidently.

Mrs. Arbruzzi smiled, too, but said, “I’d think you’d be going to the city or maybe Hollywood. I know that’s what your grandmother thinks too. Truly, Redmond, I can’t believe someone wouldn’t snap you up in a minute and put you on a magazine or in a film.”

This time, he knew his complexion wasn’t saving him. He must be scarlet. “I think those things take talent, ma’am.”

“Your talent’s written all over your face, dear.”

Can I just hide under the table?

He held up the credit card. “I’ll just take care of this.” He walked away fast, but he heard Val and her mother whispering and laughing together. Crap! Why couldn’t people let him make his own decisions?

The rest of the night went fast. Red slowed down only long enough to notice Phil leave with his crew—thank God—and Mark finish a sandwich and slip away as quietly as he’d arrived. Sigh. You wouldn’t think it’d be easy to ignore a guy so big and handsome, but the people of Ever After seemed to get that Mark wanted to be overlooked, and after a few years of trying, they’d granted his wish. Even though he was only like twenty-one or -two or something, he ran the car repair shop his father had left him, apparently with way more than competence, but aside from that, nada. Hell, Mark had the right idea. Maybe Red could find a way for people to ignore him too.

Right. Not with this face.

Mark Woods was a big, handsome guy, but he was a regular, handsome guy. No matter how you looked at it, Red wasn’t regular. He was too girly to be masculine, but he didn’t exactly look like a girl, or at least not any girl you’d seen before. His face was weird with eyes that turned up and cheekbones that stuck out, and don’t even get him started on the f-ing lips. People turned to look at him on the street. Girls mooned over him and guys stared at him but didn’t like to be seen with Red because they knew they’d get teased and accused of being gay. People were all nice to him, a lot because they loved his grandmother, but just try to make good friends. If it wasn’t for Kimmie and Hans, he’d spend a helluva lot of time alone. Red couldn’t blend in. He sighed. No matter how badly he wanted to.

Since he was on until closing, he finished his last tables, helped with bussing and refilling ketchup, mustard, and mayo, made sure all his orders balanced, and pocketed his share of the tips—thank you, Mr. Mayor! Mr. Arbruzzi must have felt bad for how his wife hounded Red.

Red grabbed his jacket and looked around for Kimmie. He found her in the kitchen. “Want me to walk you home?”

She looked up with shining eyes. “No, Alejandro’s gonna take me. Pop says we can make an order of tamales for tomorrow, and if he likes them, he’ll offer them as a special. Isn’t that cool?”

“Fantastic, Kimmie. Congrats.” He gave her cheek a quick kiss.

For a couple minutes, he stood back and watched Kimmie and Alejandro work, pulling ingredients from their small walk-in and happily arguing about the best way to mix the filling.

Red smiled and pushed down the tiny thread of envy at Kimmie for being so certain what she wanted to do in life. Hell, Red didn’t know if he even wanted to go to college or what he’d study when he got there. Not that he didn’t like learning. He did. He was a good student—Dean’s list and all that—but he enjoyed serving food and balancing accounts and feeling like he had a successful, productive day. Beyond that? He didn’t know what his goals were—if he couldn’t have Mark Woods, that is.

Half-smiling at his own silliness, he headed to the front door of the diner.

Kimmie stuck her head out of the kitchen. “Say hi to Gran for me.”

“Will do. Bye.” He walked onto the porch of the restaurant, wrapped his jacket a little tighter against the spring chill, and headed across the parking lot and onto the sidewalks of the town for home. Gran didn’t much like him walking alone after 9:00 p.m. when Ever After pulled in the sidewalks, but they couldn’t afford to buy him a car, and taking a bus such a short distance seemed silly. Plus fresh air after hours of inhaling hot grease and cooking cow was always a relief.

He cut off Anderson Street where Mom and Pop’s was located and turned down Arden Street. Everybody knew it for all the trees decorated with small, dancing lights that stretched down it. It had a magical look. He and Gran lived at the far end of Arden.

At that moment, the street was long, dark except for the firefly lights, and very quiet. Red couldn’t help it. He whistled tunelessly between his teeth, just to have something to focus on except his own heartbeat.

Walking with purpose, he stared straight ahead—until something moved at the corner of his vision.

“What?” He should have been somewhere up in the tree branches, he’d jumped so high.

“Good evening, Red.” The voice was soft, kind of like wind in the trees.

He released his breath. “Hi, Mrs. Delphi.” He had to squint, but he could just make out the form of the lady on her wide porch tucked back in the deep shadows, slowly moving in her rocker. He smiled, since a lot of people in town thought she was off her rocker, but he liked her. She was part of what made Ever After such a special place—a place he didn’t want to leave.

“You’re walking home?”

“Yes, ma’am.” There was a pause. A gust of wind moved all the little lights above him and he shivered. “Uh, Mrs. Delphi, are you still there?”

“You be careful, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am. I will.” Jeez, how to make a guy nervous. More nervous. “Bye. Have a good night.”

Throwing his shoulders back, he strode forward with speed. Might as well get home fast. Whistling his tune, he covered one block, then two, then three, sucking in the crisp air.

Late spring. That meant summer was coming and then fall, and he’d have to make all those decisions he was putting off. He’d already sat across from a counselor at the JC and explained that he liked working in a small business. That was the closest he could get to saying he liked being a small-time guy who was happy. Of course, he wasn’t exactly happy yet and—

The soft crunch of tires was his first warning. The damned car didn’t even have lights on.

“There he is, all by his little lonesome. Doesn’t he make a pretty picture in the moonlight, boys?”

The sneering voice sent a rivulet of tremors up Red’s back, but he just waved a dismissive hand toward Phil, who leaned out the window of a beat-up Honda Civic. The thing had more rust than paint, but it also had three more guys in it.

Red kept walking, without trying to look like he was hurrying too much. Weird. Did Mrs. Delphi see them cruising? Is that why she warned me?

Nine blocks to home. He was a fast runner—even had a letter in track—but Phil had a car, three henchmen, and a whole hell of a lot of mean.

Red kept walking, head up, shoulders back, but a bead of moisture dripped between those shoulders.

Phil made kissing noises. “Look at that pretty little fag. Don’t you think he’s a fag, guys? I mean who could be that pretty except a fag. Shall we test?”

Red snarled, “Fuck off, Phil.” But he walked faster.

One of the guys behind Phil, probably Tooey, said, “Give it up, Phil. You could get in a lot of trouble.”

Holy crap.

With a livid screech, the car door swung open and Phil jumped out.

Red turned to face him and backed up as Phil stalked forward. Red yelled, “They’re right. You hurt me and you’ll go to prison.”

“Right.” Phil smiled, but it got nowhere near his eyes. “I’m sure you’re going to report me to my uncle the sheriff. Good luck with that. I’ll say you asked for it and everyone will believe me since the preacher’s warned us all about you.”

Ask for what? Fuck!

Red ran.

“You fucker,” Phil screamed.

Red glanced back. Phil jumped in his car and was moving in seconds.

Red raced across the street and scrambled as far up the front lawns as he could get. He had to stay in front of the houses. The backyards were surrounded by high fences and most had dogs. He wasn’t sure he could jump them. Fuck! The old car screeched behind him.

A crash and scrape meant Phil had run the car over the curb and was probably on the lawns.

Red’s chest hurt, his legs were getting heavier and he still had three long blocks to go. Heat on his face was embarrassing. He was crying, but he didn’t seem to be able to stop.

The car door screeched open and Phil yelled, “Get him!”

Red was already gasping for breath as the slam of boots on grass got louder behind him.

He stumbled and a hard hand grabbed his arm.

Red didn’t wait. He started screaming, kicking, and flailing his one free arm.

A couple lights went on in some of the houses.

Red screamed again and Phil clamped a hand over his mouth, letting go of his arm.

Red punched backward and hit something soft but not soft enough. He got an oof for his effort, but Phil didn’t release him and Red was running out of steam, no matter how desperate he felt.

Phil’s callused palm scraped across Red’s mouth and his other hand started ripping at Red’s jeans. Red kicked backward and connected with Phil’s shin, but not with nearly enough force to do damage.

Phil snarled, “Dammit! Grab him, Junior.”

Shit! Junior Farley was as big as a barn. Bile rose in Red’s throat, and he twisted his body like a helicopter rotor, kicking and thrashing. His jacket ripped as Phil grabbed Red’s crotch and squeezed.

Red ripped his head out of Phil’s grasp and screamed, “Let go, you fucker! Help! Help!”

This time, Phil’s hand was delivered as a fist, but his awkward position meant he only managed to smash Red’s cheek from the side. Damn, it hurt. Then that paw was clamped over Red’s sore nose and mouth, closing off his air.

“Mmmmft.” His eyes stung as Red tried to suck in air. No luck. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Spots danced in front of his eyes and his kicking legs lost their energy. Can’t…

Suddenly a roar split the air and a black motorcycle pulled directly in front of them. The cycle fell to the ground as a person leaped from it and landed on Phil who released Red.

Red tumbled backward, gasping, and landed hard on his ass but couldn’t pull his attention from the pounding arms and fists of his rescuer. The guy was smashing Phil in the face. He was wearing a helmet, so Red couldn’t see him clearly.

The other three dudes moved closer, but the white knight looked up at them, light glittering off his visor. Then a yard light illuminated his face through the darkened plastic, showing cheekbones and sharp planes.

“Mark.” Red barely realized he’d said the word out loud.

Mark released Phil, who fell back onto the grass, and then stared at the other three. They all held up their hands and backed away.

Phil whimpered, “I’ll have you arrested. I’ll tell—”

Mark raised the visor and just stared at Phil, then spoke, soft and deadly. “You think you want to do that, Phil?”

It was one of the few times Red had ever heard Mark’s voice. It was deep but soft.

Phil never took his focus from Mark, but he shook his head frantically. “No. No. Didn’t mean it.”

Mark looked sharply up at the others who were sneaking backward toward the car. One of them, big, blond Tooey, said, “We ain’t sayin’ nothin’. Phil was out of line. We tried to tell him.”

Junior just scowled.

Mark gave one sharp nod, turned, and walked to Red. He squatted down.

Red’s heart beat so hard it might have been a drumline. He managed a nod.

Mark Woods smiled.