Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Block and Strike was named a finalist in the 6th Annual Bisexual Book Awards. What does that have to do with pie? Not a lot, except for the fact there is a lot of pie in the book and a slice of my favourite in the excerpt below. The winners were announced this past Friday night (June 1st) in New York City, and I was there, invited to read an excerpt. Block and Strike didn’t win, but being able to celebrate my book and share it with others was a wonderful experience. I felt honored to be in the company of so many talented authors and enjoyed meeting other finalists and winners.

I’d like to share the introduction and excerpt I read at the awards ceremony. It’s a scene I’ve not posted previously and it was one I chose to highlight Jake’s character.

I called this book Block and Strike for two reasons, both of which amount to the same thing. The study of martial arts is a strong component of the plot—as something Jake has always practiced, and something that helps Max build confidence. But, really, the book is about balance. It’s about figuring out that not all of the aspects of your life have equal weight, and learning to put energy where energy is due.

Me doing the reading thing!

For Max, who is very young and has had a hard time accepting the fact he is gay, this means figuring out that he is a worthwhile person, just as he is, and not over obsessing about what other people think of him. For Jake, it’s pretty much the same, though he has more to balance: his temper, which has resulted in prison time for assault, his bisexuality, and his family. Max is the person who helps him put a lot of it into perspective. Same for Max, with Jake.

This scene from about halfway through the book and occurs sometime after Jake makes it clear he likes guys as well as girls. Being young, not entirely comfortable with his own sexuality, and having a massive crush on Jake—Max takes it badly. Especially because, up to this point, Jake has kept him firmly in the friend-zone. So Max starts avoiding Jake. For his part, Jake is confused, hurt, and angry. But because he does consider Max a friend, he has resolved to make one more attempt to reconnect.

 

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Jake sat in his truck with a paper sack of leftovers in his lap. Barbecue pork, coleslaw, and strawberry rhubarb pie. Listening to the cooling engine tick, he planned out his attack. The food in the bag was for Max. Jake resolved to make one more attempt to get through to him and he wasn’t ashamed to try an ages-old method. Pie hadn’t worked last Sunday. The bag he’d left by Max’s door had still been there on Monday night. Jake forgave him the slight. He’d have done the same thing—and didn’t he think Max’s stubbornness was cute?

But a week without Annabel Kendricks’ pie could wear on the hardiest soul.

A surprise awaited him in the apartment hallway. Max sat on the stairs, cell phone in hand. Eyes widening, he stood and tucked his phone into his pocket. His hands followed, fingers crawling deep.

“I….” Max blushed deeply and for once, Jake didn’t enjoy the sight. The tips of Max’s ears didn’t pink adorably, he just looked plain awkward. “I need to talk to you,” Max said before dropping his gaze.

Arching a brow, Jake waited for the slow roll of anger to move through him. His temper was his greatest fault, he knew that. Losing hold of it now would not help his case, or his cause. And hadn’t he planned to do just this? Talk?

“Okay.” He affected a nonchalant shrug. “Want to come up?”

Max’s gaze touched on the paper bag, lifted to Jake’s face, and skittered away. He returned the shrug. “Sure.” He flattened himself against the wall so Jake could pass, then followed him upstairs.

Dropping his keys onto the small table inside the door, Jake lifted the bag in his hand. “Are you hungry?”

Max shook his head. “I just want to talk.”

“Okay, so talk.” Jake winced at his own tone, but managed to swallow bitter recrimination. He wasn’t the one at fault here.

Max fidgeted, biting his lips and pulling his hands in and out of his pockets. Then he got right to the point. “I wish you would have just told me you were bi. At the beginning.”

“Why?”

“Because I felt like a fool last Sunday. I’m sorry I left, I know it was rude, but it was like you all had this secret and I was the odd man out.”

Jake processed that for a moment. Took it, walked across the room with it, toyed with it as he dropped his sack of food onto the table. “Okay, I guess I can see that. Thing is, Max, my sexuality isn’t really anyone’s business but my own. I don’t identify as bisexual first, human second. It just is what it is. I’m not ashamed of it. I just don’t wear it as loudly as, say, Eric. I’ve had girlfriends and I’ve had boyfriends. He’s had girlfriends, too. Just so you know.” Eric’s sexuality wasn’t in question, but the fact he came across as more obviously gay while still having had a period of figuring himself out sort of made Jake’s point, didn’t it? He waved toward the fridge. “Want a Coke or something?” Max shook his head. He still stood halfway across the room. Jake beckoned him over. “Come sit?”

Max crept forward and put his hands on the back of a chair.

“Can I ask you something?”

Max nodded.

“Why is it such a big deal?” Jake squashed the urge follow up with a qualifier, give Max reasons to duck, or a range of acceptable answers. Instead, he simply waited for one of those spikes to be driven through his heart, and wondered why this kid—this man—held such power over him. Why he mattered so much.

“Because I was with a guy in college.”

Well, damn. He should have seen that coming. Hadn’t he wondered about Max’s sexuality? If only it was considered polite to ask which way the wind blew or whatever. Straight up ask if someone was gay.

“Okay then.” Jake wrapped a hand around his nape and squeezed. So, Max was gay. Not bi, not questioning. Gay. Had to be, because the picture in Jake’s head sure looked like the result of a lot of little pieces slotting neatly together.

And the blush darkening Max’s skin looked downright painful.

Jake pulled a chair out from the table and flopped into it. “Okay, I need to sit.” He waved at the chair Max was gripping. “Sit, before you fall down. Let’s talk this out.”

Max looked confused for a second—more confused—then he jerked the chair out and dropped down.

“What happened with the guy from college?”

“Henry.” Max’s voice was so quiet. Sucking on his lower lip, he skimmed a fingertip along the edge of the table. “Mom got sick again and I had to go home and they, well, they didn’t like it. Him. Henry. They knew, I think, that he was more than a friend. Dad did, anyway.” He paused for a long, quiet moment, then looked up. “Mom was so sick. They hadn’t told me how bad she’d gotten. So I had to stay and that meant I had to let Henry go. I had to be there for my folks.” His voice rose at the end, as if in question.

Reliable as the tide, Jake’s anger rolled back in. The picture in his head expanded. Max had spent his childhood being picked on, and his parents hadn’t supported him, obviously. His mom had been too sick and his dad sounded like a right prick. So Max had gone into hiding. But a kid never really lost the need to impress, did he? A guy always craved the approval of his folks. So when they rejected who Max wanted to be, Max retreated into what he thought he needed to be.

How fucking exhausting.

The tide of his anger rolled back out, leaving Jake contemplating a move around the table. Surely Max could use a hug. When was the last time someone had passed on a quiet word of reassurance? Told him he was a good guy, blessed and beautiful and perfect in his own way? Max’s tense posture warned him off. One touch and Max might fly up and away, likely never to return.

Okay, maybe not all of his anger had drained away. It would take more than a few minutes to forget the whole fucking off halfway through dinner business, and the week of silence after.

Breathe, Jake.

“So how come you had a girlfriend down here?” Jake asked. Might as well deal with all of it now that they were talking.

Max pushed his arms onto the table. His shirt sleeves caught the edge and slid back, revealing the slim but leanly muscled forearms Jake had admired so often. Running at Pennypack had brought out some freckles. A glance up confirmed freckles also converged around Max’s nose. Because he wasn’t already cute enough. Swallowing a sigh, Jake waited—and tried not to stare. Tried to remember all the times he’d caught Max looking at him. Had Max ever looked at him like this, with desire spiking through his veins? Could that be why things were so awkward now?

“She asked me out and she seemed nice and I didn’t have any friends down here yet.”

What was Max talking about? Oh, his girlfriend. Right. “So you ended up with a girlfriend.” Jake smiled at that. “That’s kind of how I ended up with Kate, you know. We were friends and I just liked her.” Had loved her.

“Yeah, I wondered about that. So, you slept with her?”

“Uh, yeah? I got her pregnant, didn’t I?’

“How does that work?”

“Well, when a man likes a woman very, very much….”

The twitch of Max’s lips held no mirth. “Okay. I guess it was kind of rude of me to ask.”

“It’s not like you’ve never been rude before.”

“I know. I can be an ass. Elaine calls me on it all the time.” Max pushed out a sigh. “So, have you had a lot of girlfriends?”

Jake spread his hands across the table surface. “Listen, Max. I’m happy to talk about my past relationships, but another time, hey? Right now I’d rather talk about you.”

“Not much to tell.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were gay?”

With another soft blush, Max acknowledged the strike. “Because.” His dark brows pinched together in the middle of his forehead and his shoulders hunched together. Then he pushed back from the table. “I… I’m… I….” He stood.

Jake stood as well and rounded the table. He put a hand on Max’s arm. “Hey. It’s just me, remember? I won’t hurt you, Max. Is that what this is all about? Did someone hurt you because of this?”

“Yes.”

“Shit, it wasn’t your dad, was it?”

“No.” Max gave his head a quick shake, brow furrowing more deeply. “He didn’t like me being a sissy, but he never laid a hand on me.”

“Telling you that was bad enough. What about your mom?” Jake’s father had been slower to accept his son’s sexuality than his mother, which Jake sort of got. Tony Kendricks had wanted another man to take his place. But after he’d figured out that alternating between boyfriends and girlfriends hadn’t made Jake any less of a guy, he’d come ’round. Mostly.

Max shook his head again. He opened his mouth and a strangled sound came out. He tried again. “I told her. My mom. I told her the truth before she died. I shouldn’t have done it. I shouldn’t have let her go like that. But she had this day, a week before. She got up and dressed, she hadn’t done that in months.” His words were stumbling over themselves, picking up speed. “She made breakfast. She actually cooked. She hadn’t cooked in years. Then she sat and tried to eat with me, but she couldn’t, because it was in her stomach. The cancer. It was everywhere by then. She couldn’t do anything a normal person could do, but she tried and I guess I knew that was it, you know? The last time she’d try.”

Jake squeezed Max’s arm gently.

Sucking in a quick breath, Max continued in a low, almost confidential tone, “So I told her. I figured… I wanted her to know the truth before she died. So I told her. I told her I was gay and she said, ‘I know’.” The blue of his irises deepened with sorrow. “Then, when she died, that last day, she was in such pain. She gripped my hand so hard I thought she might break something. I told her I was sorry. I was, for everything. I tried so hard to take good care of her. But she had to go. It was too bad for her to stay.”

Jake knew what heartbreak felt like, and the sharp stab in his chest was suspiciously close. Who had Max had to tell all of this? Not his father, obviously. Probably not his girlfriend either. He’d had to keep this grief bottled up for two years.

“She told me,” Max whispered, “she said ‘I forgive you’, and I figure she meant for being gay. I don’t know if she made peace with it, or if she just figured I was all wrong inside but she wanted to love me anyway.”

Wrong inside? Jake pulled Max into a hug, then, whether he wanted it or not. Max became a conglomeration of stiff angles, all wriggling elbows and knees. Throat tight, the edges of his vision not blurry—because this wasn’t his pain, damn it—Jake held on until Max stopped struggling. “You’re not wrong inside,” he said. “Not at all. You’re a beautiful person.”

Coming out could be rough. He didn’t know anyone who’d just stepped across that line without it hurting in some way. But had Max’s parents had to make it so damned hard? No wonder he was so messed up. Max trembled against him and Jake shifted his arms so he could stroke the back of his dark head. He squashed his wonder—at how many times he’d dreamed of doing just this—and concentrated on comforting his friend. The young man who so badly needed him as a friend. His heart twisted and turned as he acknowledged that—he wanted to be so much more to Max, especially now, but pushing his own agenda would only invite disaster. He’d learned patience in prison; now was the time to exercise it.

After a moment, Max pulled away. He kept his head downturned. Jake wanted to lift Max’s chin, show him he was there—with him, but understood Max needed to be somewhat alone in his skin. Fuck, being a friend was hard. But if he did this right, the reward would be worth more than his own satisfaction. To see Max truly shine, to be himself, that would be something.

“Okay, so there’s something I still don’t get,” Jake said. “If you like guys and I like guys, why aren’t we friends anymore? What happened last week? Why were you so freaked out?”

Max scrubbed at his cheek. “Because it was easy for me to be your friend when I thought you were straight. But knowing you’re….” If he shook his head again, it was gonna roll right off his shoulders. “I know you don’t like me like that. So I got embarrassed. I just figured I was in the wrong place, pretending to be someone I wasn’t and—”

“Wait up. You mean you….” He’d interrupted Max so he could offer a half formed question. Wonderful. Jake swallowed, but the hope spreading bright wings inside his chest didn’t care for such little things as breathing, swallowing, thinking… speaking. Because now, with another of those sudden clicks, the hurt and betrayal on Max’s face last Saturday finally made sense and, just like that, Jake could feel his friendly resolve crumbling.

He grabbed at some words and put them out there. “You want to be more than friends?”

2 comments

  1. I grew up in South Dakota…jumping over mom’s rhubarb plants. I loved rhubarb upside down cake and didn’t have Strawberry Rhubarb pie until moving away. Now I make it whenever I can find rhubarb!

    I love the except and can’t wait to read it! I loved ‘Uncommon Grounds’ so I know I’m going to connect to these characters too!

    And I’m so happy for your nomination.

    1. I love rhubarb! I Australia, we more usually mix it with apple, but I love it with strawberries now. The sweetness is the perfect accompaniment. So glad you enjoyed the excerpt and I hope you do connect with Max and Jake. They’re special. ❤

      Thanks so much for visiting and leaving a comment!

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