Brandon Reese thinks there are too many big reasons why he and Rhine Walken can't have anything other than a friendship, but Rhine thinks differently.
Brandon Reese isn't ugly, but he thinks he is. He knows he looks better now that he's lost over 200 pounds, but he can't get over feeling, well, less like the handsome men he writes about in his gay romances. Then he meets Rhine Walken. He's intrigued. But the next time he sees Rhine there's something really wrong with the young man. Like really. Brandon finds out that Rhine suffers from a traumatic brain injury that manifests in a strange manner, one that makes a relationship pretty much off the table. Damn that sucks. B ecause he could love this man.
Brandon pulled his cart closer to the shelves so he wouldn't be in the path of other shoppers as he took the time to read the nutrition facts on the tub of yogurt. Sixteen grams of protein and only seven carbs. Yeah, that'll work. He grabbed a few different flavors and put them into his cart. After his bariatric surgery two years ago, he'd lost just over two hundred pounds and he intended to never go back. He had to admit, he was tired of some of the same things over and over, so he was always looking for a little variety. He was especially tired of chicken, despite the many ways you can prepare it. Well, except fried. He'd certainly not eaten anything fried in two years.
He moved on to the produce section, ignoring the carrots and potatoes and heading for the asparagus and broccoli, bell peppers and grape tomatoes. He remembered how upset he'd been when he realized just how many carbs were in some of his favorite veggies. He'd felt it just wasn't fair. If he was giving up bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, fried anything, most fruits, and anything sugar-related, he should at least be able to eat peas and carrots. Right? But, no, they had a lot of carbs and in the beginning he hadn't been able to have any of those things.
It was a little better now. It was just second nature to go for the low carb items. On to the meat department where he got still more chicken and a nice lean pork tenderloin. He moved on to frozen foods and grabbed some sugar-free popsicles and headed for the checkout.
There was a long line so he used the time to think about the direction his next book was heading. Brandon Reese was a very successful author of M/M literature. He didn't need to work, having been left quite a sizable sum when his parents died years ago, which he had invested very wisely. But he loved writing and from the number of his fans and the accolades he'd received, he was one of the best. Not that anyone would ever recognize him.
Brandon was pretty much what he considered butt ugly. Unlike the characters in most of his books, and most of the books in his M/M genre, he wasn't absurdly attractive. Brandon thought he fell just short of scaring little children. Well, maybe not scaring, but he had been pointed at and he'd heard the whispered comments all his life. They'd hurt. He'd accepted it long ago.
Thirty-two-year-old Brandon had blond hair that curled if he didn't keep it buzzed very short, so he did. His hairline was receding, too, which only added to what he thought of as his oddity. He would admit to having big blue eyes, but they were a little sunk in, giving him what he called a caveman appearance with the big nose to top it off. He was six feet tall and was fit now. His complexion wasn't one nice smooth color. If he was hot he got beet red, and on a good day he was white mixed with a bit of red, purple, and brown. The brown came from the freckles and the other colors from just being fair complexioned. His big ears stuck out and had been another cause of ridicule when he was growing up.
Oh, he guessed his teeth were okay, big and white and straight, except for that one on the left side that was turned left and crossed over the one next to it. He didn't care enough about it to change it. Perfect teeth were not going to salvage his looks.
After the weight loss, he also had that ugly extra skin to deal with, since he'd seen no reason to worry about more surgery to get rid of it, as no one else would ever see it. Brandon did a mental check list and he had plenty of powder at home. Baby powder, the kind with cornstarch to cut down on diaper rash. Yeah, he was reduced to using stuff that made him think of a squalling baby with a red behind. But it worked. If he let it go, he'd have a painful rash and he was all done with that.
His looks didn't matter. Brandon didn't put his picture on his books or online where he did communicate with his fans and other authors. He didn't go to the conventions because he was so self-conscious about being in a world where the gays were supposed to be gorgeous, or at least confident in themselves, neither of which was he. The juxtaposition between how he felt about himself and how he described all his characters was his own personal joke. No one wanted to read about ugly, fat people, especially in his genre. So, Brandon lived alone in a very large, very nice house. He was quite content with his solitary life. Really, he was.
At that thought his eyes lit upon the bag boy at the end of the counter. Oh, my. If he wrote books that had the pretty, sweet twinks in them, this guy would be perfect. He was tall for the usual twink, but tan, leanly muscled, and quite fair of face, as the saying went. No, the man was fucking beautiful. Nature had seen fit to give him symmetrical features that just made you want to smile when looking upon him. His eyes were this amazing green that Brandon could see from four carts back and his hair was long with big curls in a pretty sable brown that fell into and around his face, cut almost like a girl's. Brandon noticed he kept flipping his head to get it out of his eyes. It looked silky soft.
The man's lips were big and pouty, his teeth white and shiny. And his nose was perfect, a good size and straight. God, he was perfection. And he was always smiling. Brandon couldn't help smiling, too. How stupid was that? He went back to thinking about his upcoming book. But he just couldn't help it; his eyes kept cutting back to watch the smooth economical motions of the young man at the end of the counter.
Deciding to give in to his fascination with the young man, Brandon watched him closely. He was impressed by how quickly, but efficiently, the guy worked and how smart he seemed. With seemingly little effort, he had divided the items into cold, soft, cans, etc., all the time making sure that none of the bags were too heavy.
Brandon had long ago bought his own cloth bags, some insulated and others not, to be used each time he shopped. He wasn't crazy about grocery shopping, but it had become so important to his continued success during and after his weight loss that he was used to the chore.
Before he knew it he had arrived at the checkout. He hoped his watching the guy hadn't been noticed. Brandon handed his bags over to the young man and pulled out his card to pay. He had gotten close enough to see the name tag and learned that his name was Rhine. Brandon thought it was a very interesting name and one he'd not heard before. Rhine also seemed a little older than the other bag boys and girls around him. Maybe that explained why he was so adept at the chore.
As Brandon finished paying for the groceries, Rhine asked, "Do you need help out to your car, sir?" Rhine's voice was deep, kind of rough, but respectful.
"No," Brandon said, "thanks, though." He put his wallet in his back pocket and turned to take hold of the cart.
Brandon couldn't help it, for some reason, as he was walking past Rhine, he blurted out quietly, "I could so put you in a book." He didn't even know when he'd decided Rhine would be good for his books, but Brandon felt he really could form a character around this good-looking, low-voiced, serious young man who seemed so out of place working as a bag boy.
Slightly embarrassed that he'd said anything, Brandon didn't wait around to see if Rhine had heard him or what effect his words caused. He was very proud of his work, his influence on his readers, and his success, but he would always feel that inferiority of being morbidly obese for a large part of his life. Now he was continually working on changing that self-image. Attending the support group he'd joined right before the surgery, had helped, and now he encouraged new members. Brandon was one of the success stories, but he was still shy about being on display, in front of others, the center of attention.
As he closed the trunk and headed for the driver's door, he heard crickets. He smiled. It was his editor, Cammie Sharden. He used to have the cricket sound as his ring tone and she always hated it, while he had liked that he didn't have the same one as everyone else. When he upgraded his phone plan and could assign ring tones to individual people he had to choose the crickets for Cammie, just to piss her off.
Cammie was his star, his mentor, his life saver. He would not have the success he had now if not for her. She loved his work and pushed him, encouraged him, and basically took care of him. She didn't have to crack the whip to get his manuscripts in on time because he loved what he did.
"I hear crickets," he said, as he answered.
"Shut up," she said, before continuing with, "your bullying series is going to audio. They want to know who you'd like to have read them. I'm sending you samples of several men's voices. You pick the one you like and we'll deal. This is great, Brand, just wonderful. The more people who read those books, the more good they do. Oh, and I heard back from the lady who petitioned her daughter's high school to put the series in their library. She didn't get a firm yes, but says she's still hopeful. You do good things, in the sexiest way, don't you know?"
Brandon sat in the car and beamed at the news. The audio news was great, but he was happiest about the series maybe going into a school library where he thought it could do so much good. Teens needed to read about others like themselves and how they'd gone through the hard times, too, and come out on the other side. Brandon had been graphic and honest in his series about the kinds of feelings his characters had, the horrors they'd endured, and while they all ended well, there were harsh things in the books. He felt the truth was needed in order to be believable and he didn't shy away from it.
"You're not saying anything, Brand." Cammie was clearly waiting for him to gush, but she should have known better.
"That's great. I'm really glad about both things. I know I have you to thank for it." Brandon gave credit where it was due.
"Bullshit," she snorted. "You're the reason for it and we both know it. You wrote them with such compassion and honesty that people fell in love with the characters and think you are nothing short of the second coming."
"Well, now, let's not be sacrilegious. Only in the M/M genre would people feel that way," he teased.
"Brand! I'm so proud of you. That sounded almost confident. I'll make a pretentious snob of you yet, just like Franklin Mokker." Brandon smiled at hearing her laughter.
"Oh, please, yeah, that's my goal. I want to feel like no one is equal to my greatness, beauty, and success. God, how he gets through doorways with that big head is a mystery." Being the near recluse that he was, Brandon was able to make judgments and watch as others in his genre went about their promotions and events. He was not impressed with Franklin's attitude about his work or about his readers. The man was just rude.
"Kidding, hon. What are you up to today?"
"Just finished grocery shopping and saw a guy that might make his way into my next book." Brandon didn't know why he'd revealed that. She'd never let it go now.
"Really? How very interesting. Tell me all about him. Put your earbud thing on and talk to me. I know you've got chicken in the car so get going and don't leave out anything."
Brandon never drove without it, so he immediately told her about watching the guy and even about what he'd said to him as he'd taken his groceries and left.
"Next time you go, why don't you sneak and take a picture of him with your phone so I can see him? He sounds really cool. Maybe you'll ask him out and you all will fall in love," she teased.
"Not likely. He's gorgeous. I'm so not." He was simply stating fact.
"Do not even go there, Brandon Reese!" Bless her heart; she just wouldn't let him be honest.
"Fine." He let it go, but he did have a mirror.
Clearly he hadn't lost all the weight to be better looking, but to be healthy. Everyone in his family had been overweight. His mother had died from complications from diabetes. Brandon had gotten rid of all signs of that disease when he lost the massive amount of weight, thank God. His father died of a heart attack brought on by hard work and the big stomach he'd carried around for years. He'd seen pictures of his grandparents, all now deceased, and they were all big people. He was breaking the chain.
"Get back to me on the voices as soon as you can. I'll get that rolling. Keep writing, Brand." Cammie ended the call.
Brandon spent the rest of the drive thinking about the plot for his next book which was set in the world of horse racing. His story had more to do with trainers and the background than the actual racing. He'd done his homework and felt he was ready to begin.
Should he make one of the characters like Rhine from the grocery? No, he already had his characters, but he did think he'd like to use someone like the tall bagger in a later book. Brandon wondered if he could talk to Rhine and get a better feeling for him. Rhine was certainly older than most of the baggers who were probably high schoolers or from the local community college. Brandon thought there was a story there. Why was an older, seemingly smart man bagging groceries?
He gave up his thoughts of the pretty man and got to work after putting away his groceries. He spent the next three days working steadily on his book. He was well into it, which meant he had to set timers to remind him to eat. Had to get that protein in or he'd feel like crap. He also drank like a fish, mostly water these days.