Wheels Down by Beth Bolden
Ross Stanton was having an epically shitty day.
Really, it had been a shitty month.
To top off a pretty shitty year.
His ex-business partner had gone completely psycho, set Ash’s food truck on fire—technically, Ross supposed, he had forced Ash to do it, not that the technicality had really made the situation any better—then after Aaron had been arrested, Ross had discovered that he’d been stealing money from the business.
All the money.
He’d asked Aaron more than once why, even though it seemed like they were always busy and in demand, they never had any savings, why they were always scraping by. Why they seemed to have less money, not more, as they gained popularity in the LA area.
Aaron had brushed him off with an excuse that Ross realized now that he should’ve seen through.
He was left with no partner, a busy food truck that he was essentially running by himself, and a whole shitload of problems that he didn’t know how to fix.
Margo, his latest in a long string of temp help, eyed him suspiciously from her spot taking orders. Ross knew he wasn’t good at reading people, but when even he knew that her days were numbered—like all the other temps who had quit in a huff recently—things were bad.
Not just bad. Absolutely fucking terrible, Ross inwardly moaned.
Margo had hardly been a fantastic employee, but she’d been an employee.
“Those fried heirloom tomatoes almost ready?” she demanded. “The customer’s been waiting forever for them.”
She hadn’t seemed particularly impatient when she’d shown up two days ago, eager to work for one of the most popular food trucks in Los Angeles.
Ross thought the one thing he could count on, without fail, was making people hate him. Usually within a day or two. He was painfully reliable like that.
“One sec,” he barked in her direction.
Probably why she hates you now, his brain unhelpfully supplied. You’re a terrible boss. Grumpy and mean and short-tempered. No wonder everyone leaves.
Ross scooped the tomatoes out of the fryer with a pair of tongs, depositing them in a lettuce-lined paper boat, then reached down and grabbed a plastic tub of the homemade buttermilk dressing that accompanied each order.Realized that he only had a handful left, when the deep-fried heirloom tomatoes had been one of the more popular dishes today.
“Here,” he said brusquely, shoving the tomatoes at Margo. “I need more of the buttermilk dressing. You know, the one I showed you on your first day.”
“I have to take orders,” she said, and practically flounced back to the front of the truck.
“Shit,” Ross said, this time out loud.
Things hadn’t exactly been great the last few months with Aaron on board either—Ross had figured out pretty quickly that he was using again, which had really pissed him off, but he’d known better than to harass Aaron about it—but after he’d been arrested and Ross became fully aware of the situation he was in, things had gotten worse.
Basically, he was scraping the bottom of the barrel.
The flat-top grill was not working reliably. He needed to get a guy out to look at it, so he could go back to making multiple sandwiches at once. But he had no money to pay the bill, and the repair company wouldn’t extend him any more credit. He’d been stuck making one at a time on a little dinky sandwich press.
And then his regular chicken delivery—organic and free range—hadn’t shown up on time, and a call to the supplier right before the truck had opened for the lunch crowd had informed him that he was way behind on that bill too, and they were apparently under a rock and hadn’t realized that Aaron wasn’t working there anymore. They’d only had his number, and had been unsuccessfully trying to reach him.
“He’s in jail,” Ross had told them unceremoniously. “Don’t think callin’ him is gonna help.”
They’d informed him that he wouldn’t be getting any more chicken—his number one bestseller was the fried chicken plate—until the account was settled.
Which meant that Ross barely had enough chicken, already marinating in the big tubs of buttermilk and spices in the truck’s fridge, to last him the next two days.
Then there was Margo, who was unlikely to last as long as the chicken supply.
The weekend was coming up, and it was the busiest time for Basket and the other food trucks at the lot.
“Two smoked turkey Reubens, a chef salad with extra deviled eggs, and another order of the tomatoes,” Margo called out.
Ross’ hands moved automatically, pulling out bread and slathering it with butter on one side, and then building the sandwiches efficiently. First the spicy Russian dressing he’d developed himself, then slices of swiss, then the signature smoked turkey that he smoked himself, on his off hours, on the little smoker out back, behind the truck. One, and then the other, went on the sandwich press, as he began to assemble the salad.
Basket was as busy as ever, and it was a lot for one person to manage all the orders.
Ross, who’d been working in restaurants since he was a teenager, working in his grandmother’s kitchen for longer than that, could even feel it at the end of the day, when sometimes he was too tired to even keep his eyes open.
Maybe if Margo—or any of the other temps—had been decent, he could’ve given over some of the more basic prep and assembly to her, but whether she was incapable or he was just a fucking terrible teacher, that had been impossible from the beginning.
When Ash had been working with him, it hadn’t been so bad.
But then Ash had gone to start another food truck, and Ross hadn’t felt like he could stop him, considering it was partly his fault that Ash’s original truck had gone up in flames.
Salad finished, he arranged the deviled eggs on top, grabbed two sides of dressing, and dropped the already breaded tomatoes into the fryer next.
He was going to need a break to make more buttermilk ranch, but he didn’t know when he’d get even a minute.
And that was when his day got even worse.
“Hey,” a voice said. Ross, busy with slicing the sandwiches in half and depositing them onto plates, glanced over at the propped-open door. At one point, when things had been going really well, and they’d had money—before Aaron had stolen it all—he’d fantasized about putting a little portable air conditioner into the truck.
But these days, he was making do with a partially open back door and a dinky fan he’d stolen from his apartment.
He supposed that the visitor could’ve been someone he really didn’t want to see. Like Tony. Or Tate. Or Alexis. Or another one of the food truck owners who made his insides feel like they were curdling with guilt.
It wasn’t any of them; it was Shaw, who helped his brother, Jackson, run the Funky Cup, a bar that they all frequented, a few blocks away.
“You got a minute?” Shaw asked, tucking a strand of hair the color of the best grade of honey behind one ear.
“No,” Ross said. He balanced the plates and took them to the front of the truck, calling out the name on the ticket Margo had tacked up, picking up three more.
“You look busy,” Shaw said. He’d actually climbed into the truck now, even though he hadn’t been invited, and even though Ross didn’t really dislike him, he disliked people in his space, and the kitchen back here was absolutely, unequivocally his space.
“Yeah, what gave it away?” Ross grumbled.
“You should’ve told Ash to wait til you hired someone else,” Shaw said.
“Yeah, no,” Ross retorted.
Shaw was a frequent visitor to Ross’ truck. In fact, since he’d joined the Food Truck Warriors lot a few months back, he’d guess that Shaw ate more meals at Basket than he did any other truck at the lot.
He was also a genuinely nice guy, one of the few around who would actually talk to Ross, not just tolerate his presence.
Ross was sure he was doing it because he was nice, not for any other reason—at least no other reason had ever materialized.
“I get it,” Shaw said. Crazily enough, Ross almost believed that he might. But then, he’d taken pains to make sure nobody knew the constant gnawing guilt that he’d learned to live with. “I got in line,” Shaw continued, “but your new temp looked frazzled, and I thought, better make sure Ross is okay.”
“Ross is fine,” he said. A terrible lie. He almost never lied, but he also had his pride to consider.
Nobody knew about the money problems, though he was sure they were passingly aware of his staffing issues, and Ross would rather die than beg for help.
“Ross doesn’t look fine,” Shaw pointed out.
Ross looked up from where he was prepping sandwiches for the little grill. “And? Is there a point to this exercise?”
“It’s my day off, let me help you, at least for a little bit. I’m pretty familiar with the menu.” Ross caught a brilliant lopsided smile when he glanced up. “I can do it.”
“You’re a bartender,” Ross said brusquely. More roughly than he’d probably intended, because he was actually kind of tempted by Shaw’s offer.
He didn’t drink but he’d heard really good things about Shaw’s unique libations. The man had an experimental touch that Ross could appreciate even though he’d never tried one of his drinks.
He’d probably be inexperienced and clumsy in the kitchen, but a voice in the back of his mind told him that he couldn’t exactly be picky.
“Yeah, I am,” Shaw said, leaning closer. He smelled like lemons and rosemary, and Ross resolutely pushed the thought away. If he kept telling himself that he wasn’t attracted to Shaw, then he wouldn’t be. Because after all this time, it was clear that Shaw wasn’t attracted to him. And who would be? He was a grumpy workaholic with zero social skills.
“It’s your day off, why do you even want to work on your day off?”
“Because a friend needs help?”
Ross looked up at that, surprised. “We’re friends?”
He didn’t have many, or any, probably because of how difficult social interaction was for him—and he was better at it now than he’d ever been. But Shaw didn’t look mad or frustrated. Instead, he pulled his hair up and reached over and grabbed an apron, hanging on a hook in the corner. “Yeah,” he said, with an actual smile, “we’re friends, and friends help friends, especially when everything’s going to shit around them.”
Ross almost laughed. Shaw didn’t even know how bad things were, and he still thought everything was going to shit.
“Fine,” Ross said, giving in, because it had been inevitable, hadn’t it? “There’s a recipe posted on the fridge.” He gestured with a hand. “For buttermilk dressing. Ingredients should be in the fridge. Make a double batch.” Ross hesitated, and then tacked on an awkward, “Please?”
Shaw laughed. “You got it, boss.”
Margo craned her head around the corner. “You still want your salad, Shaw?”
“I’ll have it in a bit. I’m helpin’ Ross out for a few.”
“Sure thing,” Margo said, bestowing a warm smile on him that Ross hadn’t received in days.
Not since she’d gotten the job and discovered how terrible a boss he was.
“See,” Shaw said, “things aren’t so bad, after all.”
Ross turned back to his sandwiches and tried not to glower at them.
They’d narrowly avoided the buttermilk dressing catastrophe, but there were half a dozen others, lurking in the back of his mind.
And he was pretty damn sure Shaw couldn’t help with those.
The recipe for buttermilk dressing was written in a messy hand that Shaw realized must be Ross’. Ingredients and amounts were scribbled on the paper, some of them crossed out, a few of them adjusted two, three, even four times.
Shaw knew that Ross was a perfectionist when it came to his recipes, but he’d never realized that over time, Ross was continually changing and improving them. The paper was stained and crinkly with water damage, but he could tell that some of the changes had been made over time, with different pen ink, and even one set of changes in pencil.
He hadn’t intended to work today—just to grab a quick bite and then head down to the beach for a relaxing afternoon not at the bar, but when he’d approached Ross’ truck and seen the line, then observed the new temp’s strained expression, he’d known things were bad.
As much as Ross tried to hide it, it was obvious to Shaw—if not anyone else—that he was struggling.
He’d tried saying something to Tony, when he’d come in for a drink a few nights ago, but Tony had brushed him off. “He’s got more customers than the rest of us combined,” Tony had said, “he’s doing just fine.”
Tony knew better than to believe that all you needed as a business owner was customers. Sometimes you could even have too many customers, overwhelming your capacity to serve them. The Funky Cup had been through one or two of those rough periods, before they’d managed to hire a few more good bartenders and waitstaff, and Shaw still remembered those times.
It wasn’t that Tony didn’t know, but it was more like he didn’t care.
The rest of the food truck guys might have accepted Ross into their lot, but he wasn’t their friend.
Shaw knew intimately how lonely a spot that could be, accepted but never included, and at first he’d started coming around to Basket to see if Ross needed a friend.
Ross did, unequivocally, even though he didn’t seem to see it.
But more than just that, over the last few months, Shaw had fallen in love with Ross’ food.
He was endlessly innovative and creative and never rested on his laurels. He was always trying to make the next new best thing on the menu.
The dressing was a simple enough recipe—mayo, sour cream, buttermilk, a bunch of herbs that Shaw chopped carefully and finely, knowing that Ross would freak and throw away a whole batch of dressing if it wasn’t perfect—and he finished twenty minutes later.
When he turned to Ross to ask what he could do next, the man’s dark eyes were focused on the sandwich press. And that made no sense, as there was an empty, clean expanse of flat-top grill right next to him. But maybe that was one of Ross’ new innovations. Maybe things really tasted better on the press. It would be just like Ross to make that kind of change.
“Finally done?” Ross said, not raising his head.
Over the last few months, Shaw had discovered that the man’s bark was always worse than his bite. Actually, he’d realized that he had no bite at all. He was terrible at making friends, and maybe even worse at keeping them, but he didn’t have a nasty or cruel bone in his body. He usually meant well, Shaw had figured out after long observation, but he had no idea how to actually communicate that.
“Yeah,” Shaw said.
Ross straightened and suddenly he was right there, in Shaw’s space.
His dark t-shirt was old and threadbare, pulling tight across his biceps and his broad chest. The man was tall and broad, and Shaw didn’t always remember just how big he was—actually, he tried not to remember, because it was clear that Ross lived for his work, and had never had a relationship that anyone could ever remember.
But Shaw, despite his best intentions, still sometimes felt that zing of undeniable attraction whenever Ross got close.
He pulled a spoon out and dipped it in the dressing, flicking his tongue out to taste it. Shaw swallowed hard.
“Needs more salt,” Ross said, but before Shaw could grab it, Ross already reached across him, pressing one of those big, meaty arms against his own chest. Shaw felt heat and muscle and ground his teeth together in frustration.
He didn’t want to be attracted to Ross.
Not only would it be totally unrequited, it would be a disaster.
Jackson, ever the overprotective older brother, was still feeling a boatload of resentment over what had happened to his boyfriend, Alexis’ food truck because of Ross’ ex-partner, and would probably never stop giving him shit for it.
“Better,” Ross said. He looked at Shaw then, like he was seeing him for the first time. “I’m surprised.”
Anyone else might be insulted, but Shaw wasn’t. He got it. If someone showed up at his bar, without any training, and tried to make drinks, he’d be suspicious at best.
“Thanks,” Shaw said. “What else can I do?”
“Slice and bread more tomatoes,” Ross said brusquely.
Shaw resigned himself to not getting any lunch—and postponing his beach trip to next week.
Shaw cut a whole flat of tomatoes, and then breaded them in the station that Ross had instructed him how to set up.
Between the dressing and the tomatoes, Shaw felt like he was getting a good idea of the rhythm of the way Basket worked.
Then he made extra slaw, and whipped up a batch of honey butter. By the time they’d reached the end of the lunch rush, Shaw had a really good idea of why Ross looked grumpy all the time.
Ross was leaning against the grill, which he was able to do because it was cold and empty, drinking an entire bottle of water in one gulp.
“I know what’s going on,” Shaw said hesitantly. He hadn’t been sure if he could bring it up—if he should bring it up—but by the time he’d made the honey butter, he’d known that he wouldn’t be able to leave without at least trying to talk to Ross about it.
Ross crushed the plastic in one big hand. “What do you mean?”
“Why your grill’s cold. Why there’s bare spots in your fridge. Why three of the five big plastic containers you use to marinate chicken are clean and empty. Why you keep hiring cheap temps and not anyone who can actually help you.”
Ross’ dark eyes narrowed. “Oh?”
Shaw swallowed hard. He’d said they were friends, but he didn’t know how far that friendship extended. If Ross would get angry with him for even suggesting it. But he knew enough about business, and about this business, to know that he couldn’t keep quiet. Maybe he could help, somehow.
Not somehow. He knew how he could help.
The only question was if Ross would accept it.
Ross looked away. “Think you’ve got it all figured out, huh?” The sentence might have normally come out in Ross’ normal sneer, but today, it sounded quiet and defeated.
Things must have been even worse than Shaw realized.
How long had Ross been struggling like this?
Back before Aaron? Had Aaron caused it, along with all the other destruction he’d wrought on the food truck lot?
Had he tried to drag Ross down with him?
“I don’t think I know anything.” Shaw stepped closer. “I just know that you aren’t using this grill, when it’s way easier and more efficient than that little sandwich press. And then there’s the chicken.”
Shaw saw Ross’ fingers tighten, the skin going white at the knuckles, around the crumpled water bottle. “What do you know about chicken? You’ve worked here . . .” Ross checked his watch. “An hour and a half?”
The more defensive Ross got, the more sure Shaw was that he’d hit on something important.
“You’re right. I don’t know exactly how much you need to stock to deal with the crowds, but it doesn’t seem like you’ve got enough to last the week. You having an issue with your supplier?”
“Something like that,” Ross muttered.
“And the grill?”
“Not working.” Ross spit the words out from between his clenched teeth.
“For awhile now,” Shaw guessed.
Ross didn’t react. Didn’t even blink. But Shaw knew he was right.
“You’ve got lines longer than anyone else, with way less help, you should at least be breaking even, if not making a decent living,” Shaw said. Maybe it was stupid to prod the beast like this, but Shaw also knew if he didn’t, nothing would change. Ross and his truck would go down as a cautionary tale, and then Shaw would have to find somewhere else to get his deviled egg and fried chicken fix. And worse than that, he’d feel guilty for letting the guy circle the drain without doing a thing to help him.
Jackson would tell him that Ross’ problems weren’t any of his business, but the way Shaw saw it, if he was in a position to help—and he thought he might be—then it was wrong for him to turn away and not say anything.
“Should be,” was all Ross said. Cryptically.
And now, goddamn it, Shaw was curious too.
“Did Aaron do something?”
Ross looked up, finally meeting Shaw’s eyes, and the emotion swirling in his gaze was like a gut punch. There was so much anger and hurt and frustration and helplessness there.
“What didn’t Aaron do?” His tone was bitter.
How could Shaw see that, and know Ross was struggling and not do anything?
“Listen . . .”
“I’m not going to take your money,” Ross interrupted him.
Shaw was surprised. “I wasn’t going to give you any.”
“I was going to say, Ash mentioned the other night that you’ve been trying to find a roommate, and I thought, that could be me.”
“Yeah, you could move in with me, above the bar. I don’t pay rent, so other than helping with the utilities, rent would be free. That might . . . that might help you get back on your feet.” And it wouldn’t be such a difficult thing for Ross to accept. It wasn’t like Shaw was going to write him a check. He’d have done it, if Ross would’ve taken it, but he already knew Ross’ pride was going to make that impossible.
This was the best—and easiest way—to both help him out and make sure that he took the help.
“You want me to move in with you?” Ross sounded incredulous, and maybe it was a little crazy, but while he’d been cutting the tomatoes, it was the best idea that Shaw had come up with. Without paying rent, which in Los Angeles was fucking ridiculous, even on that shitty studio that Ash had mentioned he lived in, Ross should be able to at least begin to extricate himself from whatever terrible financial situation he’d found himself in.
“Yeah,” Shaw said. “I’ve got a couch, it’s pretty comfy, and it’s free. And let’s face it, neither of us is home much.”
Ross drummed his fingers nervously on the stainless steel counter next to him.
“You don’t know me,” he finally said.
“I know you well enough,” Shaw said cheerfully. “You’re not going to murder me in my bed.”
Ross raised an eyebrow. “You sure about that?”
“Your ex-partner was the psycho one. We already know that. And I’d guess that he’s the one who left you in this situation, anyway.”
Ross didn’t say anything, which was confirmation enough, at least for Shaw.
Of course it had been Aaron. Maybe he’d stolen money. Maybe he’d just spent it. It didn’t matter, because this would’ve normally been a financially healthy business, because costs were fairly low, and Shaw knew Tony kept the monthly rent reasonable. And also because Shaw was used to waiting in twenty- or thirty-minute lines on the regular to get his fried chicken fix.
The one thing Ross wasn’t lacking was eager, dedicated customers.
“It doesn’t matter how it happened.” Ross’ voice was hard. “Doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out on my own. I’m managing things.”
“With temps and running out of stuff in the middle of the lunch rush and probably running out of your best-selling dish in the middle of the week? Yeah, no offense, but you’re not.”
“If I’m not,” Ross said, “then that’s my business, not yours. We’re not even friends.”
“Yeah, stupidassumption,” Shaw said. He pulled off his apron and shoved it in Ross’ direction. “’Cause friends wouldn’t stop by on their day off to help out.”
“But . . .” Ross started to say, but Shaw already knew he wasn’t going to agree to the plan—the very smart plan—so he kept moving, heading towards the propped-open back door.
“See you around, Ross,” Shaw said, hating that right now, he felt like he’d failed him, even though he’d given Ross every chance to come clean and to accept the help he needed.