Uncommon Ground releases in TWO DAYS! (I’m a little excited.) I’ve already seen a couple advance reviews and they’re making me wish I’d written aliens in New York well before now. 😉
Because the World this story is a part of is new, I won’t have sale links until release day. Until then, how about a sneak peak at the first chapter?
THE INTERIOR OF the Empire State Building was almost the same as Dillon remembered it—gilded marble walls, high ceilings, and the hush of reverent voices, broken more than occasionally by happy calamity. Clutching a backpack, Dillon stepped around one knot of family and through the middle of another. It was either that or duck under one of the barriers designed to keep tourists away from the walls. He could see the attraction. The marble looked really warm. He wanted to touch it. He remembered having the same urge twenty years ago when his grandfather had brought him here for his first visit.
Murmuring soft apologies, Dillon wended his way around and through a few more clusters of people until he found a sign directing him to the observation deck. Exhilaration fluttered in his stomach as he anticipated the view, the wind, and the experience of being high above the city. He hugged the backpack tighter.
“Soon, Grandpa. Nearly there.”
All fluttering ceased when he rounded the corner and found himself in a cattle maze of humanity, all winding their way toward a row of white uniforms and metal detectors. A sign affixed to the barrier up ahead read: Two Hour Wait from This Point.
“Hey, buddy, you getting in line or what?”
“Uh, yeah,” Dillon answered without looking over his shoulder. He took his place at the end of the line and prepared for a long wait.
The line did move. Slowly. Dillon used the time to people watch. The guy behind him pretty much typified the casual visitor to New York City. Ball cap, sunglasses, bright red T-shirt bearing the logo of the Kansas City Chiefs, multipocketed shorts, sneakers worn with dress socks (shudder), and a brood of tired and sticky-looking children. His wife stood on the other side of the kids, penning them in. She was wearing a sparkly pink “I Love New York” T-shirt, and studying Dillon with a narrow-eyed gaze.
He guessed she wasn’t comparing the color of his hair to the bedazzled heart on the front of her shirt.
One of the kids whined, drawing her attention, and Dillon moved on. Dude over there was wearing a parka. In July. Weirdo. That little old lady looked like she was about to faint, and that girl in the hoodie was watching him with a curious intensity.
Looking away, Dillon stepped past the Ninety Minutes from This Point sign.
Had he had to wait this long when he was a kid? He couldn’t recall. All he could remember was the joy of being in the city, and of being with a virtual stranger—the first time, and every time. He hadn’t known his grandfather that well, and that was always part of the attraction. His grandfather didn’t know him, either.
Sometimes it was nice to be unknown. Meant no one else knew the stuff you hadn’t quite figured out yet.
Okay, that guy over there, with the slim jeans and body-hugging tank? Dillon wouldn’t mind getting to know him. Ninety minutes would be more than enough time to see if his ass really was as firm as the jeans suggested. Ample opportunity to count abdominal muscles and follow a certain trail of hair downward. Unless he shaved. Dillon angled his head for a better view of the guy’s chest and received a prod from behind.
“Line’s moving, buddy.”
Thirty-four minutes later, standing shoulder to shoulder with people who obviously didn’t want to be pressed up against a skinny guy with purple hair had started to wear him down.
“Less than an hour now, Grandpa. Nearly there.”
“Daddy, that man is talking to his backpack,” said one of the kids behind him.
“He’s strange looking,” said her brother. Dillon ignored them. He was well used to the comments, curious glances, the sniffs, sneers, and smirks. Whatever. Everyone else in the line was bored enough to take a look, though, and soon his skin crawled beneath the unwanted attention.
The dude in the tight jeans and tank had disappeared by then.
The girl, the teenager in the hoodie, hadn’t. Every now and then Dillon felt the weight of her gaze. Shouting “I’m gay, so you’re wasting your time” across a crowded hall probably wasn’t the way to go.
By the time Dillon got to the uniformed guard directing traffic toward the security setup, he felt about as tired and sticky as Kansas City Chief’s kids.
“Can you open the backpack for me, sir?” asked the guard.
Dillon unzipped his pack and displayed the contents. She poked a stick thing inside, lifting his sketchbook and laptop away from the cushion of his only change of clothes—a clean T-shirt and boxers—that he’d wrapped around the metal flask containing his grandfather’s ashes. She frowned.
“Is that a Thermos? There’s no food allowed on the observation deck.”
“It’s not a Thermos.”
“What is it, then?”
“It’s my grandfather, okay?”
“You got ashes in there?”
She clucked her tongue. “You can’t take ashes up to the observation deck. We got a strict policy about that.”
Something poked him in the back, and Dillon turned to find Kansas City Chief calling a child to heel. The eyes of both father and daughter widened as they studied his piercings. Dillon curbed the need to sneer. He was a nice person. A fun person. A guy who just wanted to pay his respects to his grandfather.
He turned back to the guard. “I promise I won’t spread them.” He’d maybe pull out a flake. Just one.
“You can’t take that up there.”
“Well, where am I supposed to leave it, then? Do you have a bag check?”
“Out in the lobby.”
“Will I lose my place in line?”
“Listen, buddy, we’ve been in this line for two hours. You wanna make up your mind?”
Turning back to the Chief, Dillon reconsidered his sneer. “I’m just trying to say goodbye to my grandfather.”
Chief rolled his eyes. “Give me a break.”
“Sir, you’re holding up the line,” said the guard.
Oh for fuck’s sake.
Dillon tugged the backpack out of her grasp and reached to zip it closed. “Whatever, where’s the exit? Maybe the Rockefeller Center will let me go up with my—”
“There is no attraction in the city that is going to let you take an urn through security. Not a metal one like that.” Her gaze flicked over his face, and her mouth moved as though she considered telling him he’d have trouble with the metal in his face too. Thankfully, she showed some restraint. “Maybe try the East River?”
Dillon huffed out a sigh. “Thank you.”
She tipped her head in a quick nod and poked her stick toward the exit. He didn’t move fast enough. One of the brats behind him stepped on the back of his flip-flop, causing him to nearly walk out of it. Dillon tripped forward. He reached for something to hold onto, and the wave of humanity parted before him like the Red fucking Sea. The impact of marble against his knees was cold and sort of shocking. Worse, his backpack clattered down in front of him, and the urn fell out of the half-done zip and rolled across the floor.
I’m so sorry, Grandpa. Dillon rested on his hands and knees for the moment it took him to suck in a breath. Then he crawled after his grandfather and pulled the urn away from a curious hand.
“I was just gonna—”
The tourist fell silent at Dillon’s growl.
Tucking the urn back in against his chest, Dillon got to his feet, hauled the backpack over his shoulder, and made good use of his sharp elbows as he made his way back through the crowd. By the time he hit the street, the afternoon sun was touching the tops of the tallest skyscrapers, sending wide shafts of light slicing across the city. It was kinda beautiful, if you noticed things like that, especially against the shimmer of heat rising from the pavement.
After making sure the backpack was zipped tightly closed, Dillon stood still for a minute to catch his breath. Or tried to. He had all summer to do this. If he didn’t have a job to go back to in September, he’d have the rest of his life. Or until he figured out what he wanted to do.
Digging in his pocket, he located the set of keys the lawyer had given him. Time to head uptown and find out what else his grandfather had left behind.
THE PURPLE HAIR caught his attention first. The shade was so similar to a near-forgotten memory that Lang stopped in the doorway of the coffee shop until a throat cleared behind him.
He stepped inside and away from the door, feeling more displaced than he had for a long time. Even the aroma of roasting beans failed to ground him as he waited by the window, caught in a sudden whorl of homesickness.
The purple wasn’t that unusual, really. Lang saw a dozen different hair colors every day. Humanity was a vastly diversified species. Their skin, hair, and eyes came in a startling array of natural colors. Unsatisfied with that, however, they often played with their appearance, changing the color of their hair and skin and nails.
Then there were the clothes.
Lang looked down at his own suit—lightweight charcoal fabric over a pale chartreuse shirt and lavender tie—and smiled. If there was one thing he loved about Earth, it was the clothes.
The guy with purple hair was not wearing a suit. Instead, he had on jeans that looked properly lived-in rather than artfully distressed, and a black T-shirt with a wiring diagram printed across the front. He sat at a table in the far corner, coffee and a half-eaten donut in front of him, and a sketchbook opened across his lap. He seemed pretty absorbed by whatever he was doing until he looked up, directly at Lang.
I’m staring, aren’t I?
And he was going to stare some more because the purple-haired man was stunning. The guy’s features—wide-set, large eyes, sharp cheekbones, overlong nose, and oddly small mouth—were not conventionally attractive. Not in the way humanity classified beauty. To him, though?
Lang looked away, acutely aware of his blush. He’d be sporting two hectic spots of color high on his cheeks, and the afternoon sunlight slanting through the front window would only deepen the shade of red. Lang reached up to loosen his tie. He needed to move away from the window where the heat was stifling, and… maybe order coffee? That’s why he’d stepped inside, after all.
He joined the short queue and spent the few minutes waiting for his turn, trying not to look at the table in the corner.
The barista greeted him with a smile. “Afternoon, Lang. The usual?”
Less than a minute later, he had a to-go cup of Uncommon Grounds’ signature blend in one hand and an acai berry pumpkin seed muffin in the other. Normally, he’d walk the two blocks to his building, ride to the top in the cool and quiet elevator, and enjoy his view of Central Park while dunking pieces of muffin into his coffee cup. Instead, he sidled over to a table behind Purple and sat down.
Though he knew no one was watching him, it felt as though everyone was watching him. Steilang Skovgaard sitting in a coffee shop with a cardboard cup of coffee? It wasn’t that he was antisocial, just uncomfortable around more than one person at a time—which proved difficult when you were the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. It was because he usually kept to himself that New York’s gossip columnists paid him little attention. He’d managed to remain somewhat unknown.
Thank the stars.
Still, he didn’t usually sit in coffee shops. Not when there were other people there. And sitting behind Purple was particularly stupid as he could only see the back of the guy’s head. Then again, there was a lot to admire about the set of Purple’s shoulders and the curve of his spine as he bent over his sketchbook. The way his hair tapered at the back of his neck, giving way to moon-touched skin. Humans dwelling in North America were rarely so pale.
What was he drawing?
That would be a good conversational opener, would it not?
Lang sipped his coffee and winced as the liquid seared his top lip. Ouch. If he’d walked home with the cup, it would be a drinkable temperature by the time he removed the lid and dunked in his first bite of muffin. Lang pried off the lid and prepared to shred his muffin… and stopped.
Did humans dunk pieces of muffin in their coffee? Surely they did. It must have been a habit he picked up on Earth. After being here for twenty-five years, however, Lang often forgot which quirks were his, and which were borrowed. He glanced furtively around and spied a woman dunking a cookie before offering a bite to her daughter.
Purple left off sketching long enough to eat the other half of his donut (undunked) and turned to rummage in the backpack swinging from the back of his chair. Lang tried not to look, but this might be his only chance to see the guy’s face again.
Sunlight flashed off Purple’s profile, picking out the bar threaded through one eyebrow and the rings at his nose and lower lip. The color of his hair shifted and deepened, what might be a natural, glossy black showing beneath dark magenta and purple-blue highlights. Effective from a distance, mesmerizing up close.
Purple glanced up and their eyes met… sort of. Lang had yet to remove his sunglasses. He rarely did during the day, unless he was behind polarized glass. Purple’s eyes were as amazing as his hair. A mixture of blue and brown that Lang wanted to study for at least an hour. Lang’s mouth went dry and the burned spot on his lip throbbed. Other parts of him thought about throbbing.
Purple quirked one black and twinkling eyebrow at him and winked.
Lang’s heart stopped beating for a second, and the blush that hadn’t fully faded swept across his face and down his neck. His armpits flooded and his throat fluttered. What he wanted to do to this man. Kissing. He’d start with kissing. Then his imagination quickly stripped Purple out of the T-shirt and jeans and bent him over the nearest surface. The coffee shop tables were just the right height. Lang had his imaginary hands on either side of Purple’s hips, his thumbs applying just enough pressure to separate the pale globes of Purple’s ass when he realized he was still staring. And Purple was staring back.
Lang quickly averted his gaze, looking down at his cup, and took another ill-advised sip. Hot coffee sloshed against his tender lip—and over his hand when he jolted.
“Damn it.” Lang put the cup down and reached for the napkin dispenser. Coffee ran down his arm, under his sleeve. Likely he’d just ruined his shirt. He patted at the cuff and mopped his hairline, feeling flustered and embarrassed and just hot.
Lang glanced up to find Purple regarding him with a kind expression. He tried for a smile. “Ah, yeah. Sure. Just clumsy.”
Sensing an opening, however awkward, Lang got ready to ask about the sketchbook. Before he could get the phrasing right in his mind, however, a teenage girl pressed between their tables, temporarily blocking his view—his reason for being in the coffee shop, his excuse to do things he rarely did. Then she was gone, revealing Purple’s gorgeous face once more, a face that now held no hint of flirtation. Instead, the guy’s mouth hung open and his eyes were wide with shock.
“Hey!” Purple stood, grappling with his sketchbook. With no backpack to weigh it down, his chair skidded across the floor, stopping when it hit the window.
Without the backpack.
Lang glanced toward the door. Sure enough, the girl had the backpack slung over her shoulder as she slithered through the crowd of customers and out into the street.
“Hey!” Purple shouted again, tearing after her.
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