Because of an opportunity he’d be a fool to turn down, Lyle Powers transfers to his company’s warehouse in central Kansas. The last thing he expects is to meet another gay man in the small town, let alone one who captures his interest.
Roger Kypers is a recovering alcoholic with a twelve-year-old daughter he only gets to see for part of the summer. Neither Lyle nor Roger is looking for a relationship, and they fumble at the start, yet emotions build as Roger shows Lyle the landmarks of Oz.
But when Roger’s wicked witch of an ex-wife threatens to take his daughter away for good if he doesn’t act “normally,” he’s faced with the challenge of letting her get away with it, or fighting to accept himself and standing up for what he knows is right.
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“Yes. I do almost all of our baking,” the man told him. “I’m Roger Kyper, the owner and baker.” He extended his hand.
“Lyle,” he said, shaking it. “I’m staying at the inn next door for a couple of weeks.” Roger held his hand a few seconds longer than necessary and then released it, not breaking eye contact. “I’ll be working at the Shoebox warehouse near the highway,” Lyle continued. He figured being friendly was the way things were done here, and he wanted to fit in. “Sorry I got here so close to closing.”
“It’s no problem,” Roger said, moving out of the way when the server returned with Lyle’s bierock. “I’ll let you finish your brunch.” He moved away, and Lyle watched him go out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t want to be seen watching another guy, not in a small town like this, but he couldn’t help it. Roger was hot, and he moved like a dancer. Lyle swallowed hard as his mouth went dry. He turned away and went back to his cinnamon roll. As he ate, the restaurant employees wiped down the chairs, swept the floor, and gathered the flower vases from the tables.
When he finished the cinnamon roll, he ate the bierock, humming softly to himself at the savory taste of bacon, sausage, egg, and ham all mixed together, combined with the bread. Dang—it had to be a local delicacy, and it was amazing. Lyle finished eating and sat back. He realized he was the only person in the room. The servers had finished their work, and he now sat alone.
“I see you liked it,” Roger said as he came back in.
“It was great,” Lyle said with a smile. “Am I keeping you from going home?” He stood up and looked for his check, then picked it up off the corner of the table.
“Not really. It’s Sunday afternoon, so take your time.” Roger didn’t leave right away, and Lyle stared at him for a few seconds. Then Lyle moved to the side and walked toward the back of the house. He stepped into a tiny bakery with a single case, now empty, but delicious scents lingered in the air. Roger went to stand at the register, and Lyle handed him the check and money.
“Please give the change to the server,” Lyle said.
“She’ll appreciate that,” Roger told him.
Lyle said good-bye and left by the back door, stepping out into the heat. He looked around and walked up toward the street, deciding he’d take a walk through the park. As he headed to the sidewalk, he saw Roger lock the door before jogging down the stairs. Lyle waved and continued across the street into the park.
It was gorgeous, with shade trees, paths, and playgrounds, like most parks. He also passed a fountain, and a cannon set in concrete, continuing his stroll down a footpath that led over to a bridge where a small pond narrowed. People fished off the bank, and Lyle saw a small wooden model boat landing near shore where a father and son operated a remote-controlled boat. Lyle stood on the bridge, leaning against the rail, just watching.
“Nice, isn’t it?” a familiar voice said.
Lyle turned as Roger joined him on the bridge.
“It is,” Lyle agreed. “What is it about this town?”
“What do you mean?” Roger asked.
“It seems so perfect,” Lyle said, and Roger chuckled lightly.
“Most folks who live here grew up here. And we believe in taking care of what we have. Everyone pitches in to take care of the park and keep the town clean. There isn’t a lot, but we do okay. A lot of people in town work either at the feed mill or at Caterpillar. Some work at the Shoebox warehouse too. And there are lots of farmers and farm support.”
“It’s like stepping back in time,” Lyle told him.
“That it is. Since we don’t have a lot, we want to preserve what we have. Years ago, when folks started tearing down the old buildings to create new, some folks got together to try to rescue what was still around,” he explained, motioning toward a cluster of small buildings. “So we started the Wamego museum. We moved the old buildings to one location, just like we moved the windmill into the park. Folks here are proud of their town.”
“That’s obvious,” Lyle said. “Do you get a lot of visitors?”
“The Oz stuff brings in a few tourists and curiosity seekers, but mostly it’s just us. Except for during Oztoberfest—then the town fills up with people wearing green everything. It’s a real emerald city, and the characters come out all over the place. People dress as their favorite characters from the movie. Basically, everyone has a great time.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Lyle said.
“Then you’ll be here a while,” Roger said.
Lyle nodded. “About a year. They’ve put me up in the inn for a couple of weeks, but I need to find a place to live. I figured I’d ask around at work to see if anyone knows of anything. I understand a lot of them live in Manhattan.” Lyle looked around. “But this is so nice.”
“It’s too quiet for some folks,” Roger said, leaning on the railing next to him.
“I think quiet is nice. Harrisburg isn’t big as cities go, but it’s noisy and fast.” His condo building always had people coming and going. Lyle turned to look at Roger and saw him looking back. Lyle’s belly did a little flip as he recognized the interest in Roger’s eyes. Then it vanished and Roger turned. Lyle stifled a sigh as he watched the remote-controlled boat glide under the bridge. He turned and watched as it floated out the other side and made a lazy circle on the water before starting its return trip. “I could use some quiet.”
Lyle heard the kid laugh as the father handed the controls to the boat to him. From the bridge, Lyle saw the kid smile as he took the controls. The boat glided back to the center of the pond and then began making all kinds of circles and loops. Lyle turned back toward Roger, and he could have sworn Roger turned away just as Lyle began looking. Lyle opened his mouth to say something, but Roger pushed away from the railing. “I’m sure I’ll see you around,” he said. Before Lyle could open his mouth, Roger had turned and started striding back along the path through the park.
Lyle watched him go, wondering what had happened. He shrugged and pushed away from the rail himself, continuing across the bridge and on closer to the stone windmill. Lyle looked around the stone structure and saw Roger coming up the other way. He watched him for a few moments and realized he was being watched in return. Lyle walked over to where Roger stood. As he approached, Lyle once again saw a quick flash of desire, and then, just like before, it was gone and Roger turned away. This time Lyle watched him walk all the way across the park and back to the restaurant. He had no idea what was going on, so he pushed it from his mind. He wasn’t here to hook up, or even to meet anyone. He had a job to do, and he planned on doing it to the best of his ability, and taking some time to think and contemplate what he wanted. He certainly wouldn’t get caught up with a small-town closet case too afraid of what the neighbors would say to even be seen speaking to him in broad daylight.
He ambled back through the park, then stopped by the community pool to listen to the kids as they screamed with watery delight before continuing on and back to the hotel.
“Did you have a nice walk?” the hotelier asked as Lyle approached the stairs.