The Gift of Strength Chapter 1

Chapter 1
The Baker’s Son

They were back.

How those crazy old ladies always knew when the store was empty was beyond me. I’d honestly started wondering if they had the shop under surveillance. It was a stupid thought but it was the only somewhat logical option I could come up with. There were only so many times it could happen before it wasn’t an accident.

“Hello.” Their overly cheerful voices grated on my nerves as they called out in unison, but that was mostly because I knew how devious they were…and how nosy.

Last week they’d started asking my parents about my hobbies.


That was the last thing I needed.

Luckily, my father thought they were all senile. Every time they came in, he’d just start muttering under his breath as he wandered off and left someone else to deal with them. It was rude but they hadn’t helped their case any when one of them asked him why he was so stodgy and judgmental.

He’d taken it better than I’d expected until she’d questioned his sanity and seemed to indicate his penis must be small because he wasn’t a happy person. The logic in that argument had stumped me and I was still trying to take apart the insult, but it’d been the last straw, so now I was relegated to crazy old lady duty.

However, since that seemed to have been their goal, I wasn’t sure I should be rewarding their bad behavior.

“What can I do for you lovely ladies?” I, at least, was more professional than my father. “Are you in a pastry mood or were you looking for some bread today?”

It was late enough in the day that the selection was thin but they usually came for gossip, not food.




They all started talking at once and using every variation of my name they’d ever heard my parents use. I managed a smile and focused on the ringleader, even though I wanted to start throwing rolls at my parents for starting this mess. “Mrs. Jenkins, it seems like you’re all bright and cheerful today.”

And the biggest pain in my ass.

But since she’d probably take that as permission to grope my ass again, I kept that thought to myself.

And I stayed safely behind the counter.

She and her friends twittered like little birds as they leered, but thankfully she was the only speaker as they quieted down. “Good morning, Ben. We were just stopping by to pick up a treat for our card game tonight. What would you recommend?”

Hmm, she was entirely too appropriate.

Something was very wrong but I tried not to look too suspicious because that would just make her ask more questions. I knew that because we’d lived that sitcom moment before. “How about some cookies? They’re delicious and small enough to justify eating as many as you want while you play.”

That got eager nods and actually let us have a professional conversation for long enough that I thought I was safe.

I should’ve known better.

As I started gathering up a variety of cookies, the ringleader smiled too sweetly. “Ben, we were wondering if you knew any artists or models. We’ve met some lovely people through an art class we’re taking.”

I was a smart man.

I was a great baker.

I was a patient-as-fuck son.

I was a badass Dom.

But I couldn’t see where the trouble was coming from in the seemingly innocent inquiry. I wasn’t sure if that made me stupid or paranoid, but I wasn’t going to take any chances because the last time they’d come in, they’d asked what I thought about poly relationships and if I was more open-minded than my father.

Fuck if I was going to get myself in another mess like that again.

There’d been no right answer to that disaster of a discussion.

“I haven’t thought much about artists. I appreciate their creations but I think I’m too practical for anything like that.” They seemed to have forgotten how much artistry went into the pastries and even the cookies, so I didn’t even look in that direction as I moved over to the register.

Whatever was going on with the art class, I knew I didn’t want to get involved.

My response had a sea of frustrated-looking faces staring back at me with matching frowns, but Mrs. Jenkins tried to play it off. “They can be very refreshing, though, and they have the most interesting personalities. You know, there’s a nice young man who seems like someone you’d really get along with. We were—”

Oh, that didn’t sound good.

Thankfully, the bell over the door chimed before I had to figure out how to respond or what was weird about the guy in their art class, but as everyone looked over, I realized another can of worms had just popped open.


Amanda and Payton.

She was unpredictable and he was…he was the cutest man I’d ever met.

“Something smells good. Good morning, ladies.” For some reason, no matter what Amanda said, those dirty old women twittered like she’d said my ass was hot.

Of course, that was totally something she would’ve said, but in a friendly, I’m going to fix you up with a cute twink kind of way because, while she was funny and attractive, she was just a good friend I’d known for years and a lesbian.


The ridiculous behavior of the women had Amanda looking at everyone like they’d lost their minds. She had an innocent routine that was better than anyone else I’d ever met, and the sexy cutie she’d dragged along was blushing, making it seem even more believable for some reason.

Of course, every time I saw Payton, he blushed.

Mostly because every time I ran into him, it went awkwardly.

Payton was her newest employee and one who seemed like he was going to be staying around for a while, but he was also shy and blushed when I so much as glanced in his direction…and had I mentioned he was just my type?

Wide eyes, hair long enough to run my fingers through, and an ass that would look fabulous with a tail. Not that I’d spent much time watching his ass…he didn’t come to the store often enough for that.

For some reason, the women all glanced at each other and then in unison between Payton and me. They looked like a flock of birds on the nature channel and I was having a hard time not laughing, but poor Payton was so red it looked like his face hurt.

“There you go, ladies. Have fun tonight.” I doubted they were actually going to play cards but I wasn’t going to wish them well with the stripper they’d hired or whatever else they might be doing. I’d heard enough rumors to be wary, so I was going to play dumb.

For some reason, finishing their transaction had several of them nearly pouting, so one of us had ruined whatever shenanigans they’d been planning. But I just did my best to look boring and neutral as they sighed and headed out the door. Not even their chorus of names sounded cheerful as they waved goodbye, and they usually liked fucking with me that way.

So when the coast was clear, I let out a breath and leaned against the case, resting my head in my hands. “Thank you for saving me. How did you know?”

Amanda laughed as Payton looked slightly guilty. “My wonderfully helpful employee here saw them racing by like their blue hair was on fire and he let me know right away. We left poor Elizabeth manning the store but we can’t leave her long because her shift is almost over.”

Refusing to think about what it meant that Payton was the one who’d known to save me, I smiled at the cutie, trying not to look predatory and scare him off. “Thank you, Payton. I am eternally grateful.”

That got a quiet laugh from him as his color started returning to normal. “You’re welcome. I…I was hoping I wasn’t overstepping or being ridiculous, but the last time they came into the bookstore they…they said things when they were in the…the spicy romance section.”

Amanda’s bark of laughter filled the shop. “Oh God. They were in the erotica section again, weren’t they? I told them one at a time because they’re dirty old birds who egg each other on. They say the most ridiculous shit.”

Payton seemed to feel guilty about tattling on them, but he pushed through it even though his voice had dropped to almost a whisper. “They were loud and they chased off a woman who was in the self-help section. I wasn’t sure what to do.”

Yep, I had to agree with Payton on that one.

“Shoo them out with a broom.” When her first response had his eyes going wide, she chuckled. “Find me and let me know. I will make sure they remember to behave.”

Part of me had connected the dots between him coming to save me and what the dirty old ladies had been talking about, but I did a very un-Dom-like thing and ignored it. I was not going to spend the next few days wondering what they’d said and how it might’ve scared off the blushing cutie.

Or what they knew.

Because they knew something…and now it seemed like Payton knew it too.


“I’m with Amanda on this one, Payton. Call her—because they’re scary.” My dryly delivered teasing had his blush coming back, but there was a smile with it, so I thought that was a good sign.

“They are…” He paused, glancing between us and looking like he was working up the courage to ask something as he took a breath and straightened. “They’re also confusing, and I’ve started to think that I might not know your name? I’m very sorry if I’ve been calling you the wrong one.”


As my groan cut him off and I went back to hiding in my hands, Amanda laughed. “That’s his parents’ fault.”


Waving at Amanda while she snickered, I sighed and let her tell the story. Her delight over the crazy meant she always told it better than I did. “His parents kept arguing about his name when he was a baby. Both sides have huge families, and there was so much drama, people in the neighborhood still talk about it. His mother threw a frying pan at his father when she was about nine months pregnant.”

I wished she was kidding.

“So the basic story is that they couldn’t agree on a name, so it’s officially Benjamin Xavier Becker and that just sounds ridiculous together.” She was so nice when she gave her opinions. “But his mother calls him Ben or Benji or Benjamin when she’s pissed and waving around a frying pan, and his father calls him Xavier or something worse when he’s pissed.”

And she still wasn’t kidding.

When the silence started to stretch out, I straightened and saw her grinning and Payton looking slightly startled. “You said to call you Ben. Is that still okay? Honestly, it sounds traumatic and I don’t want to add to your stress.”

I’d have preferred Master, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath for that. Especially when I was constantly looking like an idiot around him…or worse, a mama’s boy.

“I don’t mind Xavier either, but I actually enjoy pissing my father off, so I usually go by Ben at work.” My slightly overly honest answer had him laughing quietly as I pushed away from the counter to get them some treats before they left.

Saving the day deserved a reward.

“You’re braver than I am.” His soft reply had his blush flaring back to life and Amanda looked like she was barely holding off the urge to hug him and tell him how cute he was. That was always hard for her but she’d mentioned that he was a stickler for not being overly familiar at work, so she was trying to behave.

“My friends from college call me Bex. If the family drama makes you nervous, I’d be fine with you using the nickname too.” That hadn’t come out too mushy, right?

Payton’s blush coming back didn’t make me confident about that, but after a second he smiled, so I was going to take that as a good sign. “Thank you…Bex.”

“You’re welcome.” Nope, not too mushy.

“I’ve been stuck in the middle of their insanity for so long it’s second nature.” And it was fucking with my life, but I left that part out. “Sadly, the fact that my father ditches me every time those women come into the shop has become second nature too. This time he even left the building.”


He’d even slammed the back door to make sure everyone had known he’d left.

Amanda leaned over and gave the surprised cutie a quick side hug as I picked out the treats they seemed to like the best…although admittedly, I knew Amanda’s preferences better than Payton’s. “So see, you rescued him and were nicer than his family. You didn’t even threaten him with a kitchen implement.”

That had me rolling my eyes at her and Payton clearly couldn’t decide if he was supposed to laugh or not.

“She only threatened you once. Stop being a drama queen.” It was a sign that they saw her as family.

And that was another heap of drama all on its own.

I wasn’t sure how it had happened but the rumor around the neighborhood was that Amanda and I were dating, and I had a feeling my parents believed it too. My mother only threatened family, so that mess had definitely gotten out of hand.

Sometimes I hated my life and sometimes I loved it. It was usually easy to tell which I was feeling at the moment, but any time Payton was around, I was never sure of anything. He kept me on edge. He blushed like he was attracted to me, but whenever I went around the bookstore, he mysteriously vanished.

That’d definitely given me mixed signals, unless I was just bad at reading normal people because my family was full of idiots.

“Once was enough.” Shaking her head, she looked over at Payton again. “Alright, we need to go rescue Elizabeth just in case the ladies decided to go book shopping while they’re in the area.”

That horrific idea had Payton’s eyes going wide as I handed over the bag of goodies they’d earned…well, he’d earned. “You can’t let them ask me about the books in…in that section again.
They’re not asking about tropes, Amanda. They weren’t.”

What the fuck had they been asking him?

She just giggled.

She was going to end up as one of those dirty old ladies when she got old, but for now she decided to save Payton.

“Come on.” She looped her arm through his and started dragging him off as she raised up the bag in thanks and grinned. “If that’s your limit, I’ll respect it.”

And that had the blush coming back.

So he knew limits?

Was that in a he’d been to therapy kind of way, or the general everyone understands what BDSM was these days kind of way, or did he know about limits firsthand? Or worse, was he just confused about what she was saying and doing his best to hide it?

God, I hated myself.

This was not how a Dom was supposed to behave.

“Xavier.” My father’s gruff call from the back had Payton’s eyes going wide and Amanda started dragging him out faster. Traitors. “Are those crazy old bats gone?”

Thankfully yes.

Amanda left fast enough that I didn’t think he heard her giggle, but with the way my luck had been going lately, it was just going to start another round of insanity with the cranky old man.

“Yeah, Pop. They’re gone.” And they’d taken the last of my sanity with them. “But if you say that in front of them, I’m going to tell Mom that you’ve been sneaking cheesecake before you go home.”

She’d put him on a diet when he’d insinuated that she’d gained weight.

The loud crash from the back made it clear what he thought of that threat.

I loved my family but I was starting to realize the reason Payton avoided being around me might not be because he was straight after all…he might just be smart.

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The Gift of Strength by MA Innes - Gay Romance Book CoverBlurb:

Payton’s finally found a job that he loves, coworkers who aren’t bad-crazy, and space from his family…so taking a chance on anything that might mess with his newfound order is out of the question.

Keeping the status quo going is his primary goal in life and not even the handsome baker with the crazy family is going to change his mind. Well, hopefully, because the baker down the street is sweet, built, and naughtier than Payton could ever imagine.
Benjamin Xavier Becker—aka the baker’s son—realized young that the only way to keep his sanity was to set firm boundaries with his family and not tell them anything about his personal life.

Everything from the name he actually prefers to his passion for being a Handler is off-limits to his crazy parents, but he’s come to realize he should’ve set the bar higher. Sanity isn’t enough any longer. He’s just not sure how to change that until a cautious man with a blush on his cheeks and a wag in his step comes into his life and gives him the push he’s been waiting for.

Sometimes strength comes from within and sometimes it comes from the most unexpected places.