Counting Fence Posts Excerpt

Chapter One

FIELDS OF snow slid past the passenger-side window, the monotony of white broken only by fence posts. Henry had been counting the posts for a while. He had one tally for posts leaning at odd angles, another for missing railings, a third for gates. In approximately twenty-five miles, there had only been two gates.

How many fence posts would mark the miles from Syracuse to Boston?

Henry fiddled with the vent on his side of the dash, directing the feeble draft of heat more toward his knees, and snuck a quick look across the driver’s side of the rental car. He meant to check the other side of the road for fence posts, but found Marc’s profile too distracting. Snowy banks and posts blurred behind the angle of Marc’s strong nose, his lips, chin, and jaw. When Marc’s brow wrinkled, Henry knew it was time to turn away, lest he get caught staring.

Lusting after straight guys wasn’t healthy. Nope. Been there, done that, not doing it again. Counting fence posts was better for his sanity and his heart. Returning his attention to his own window, Henry added the posts he’d missed to his tally and looked toward the next gate. He wondered if all the snow-covered fields on his side of the road belonged to the same property. Somewhere, perhaps beyond the distant line of trees bordering the far edge of the fields, there might be a house. Inside, a family would be cozied up together in the soft glow of a lit Christmas tree, while Henry was stuck in a rental car with Marcus Winnamore.

“Signal lost,” the GPS announced in a bored tone.

Marc smacked the dash-mounted unit. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“It’s probably just a pocket.” Henry gestured vaguely toward the windshield. The blizzard that had diverted their flight from Boston to Syracuse loomed on the horizon; a long, ruminating cloud, stretching endlessly north and south. “Or it could be the storm.”

“We’re still two hundred miles from Boston,” Marc said, smacking the GPS again. “We won’t hit weather for at least another hour.” And from there, they’d plow through, because Marc had never met an obstacle he couldn’t defeat. Over, under, around, or through. He probably had that tattooed somewhere on his body.

Henry lost a moment imagining just where that ink might be and how it might flex across Marc’s pleasantly muscled frame.

He’d been excited by the opportunity to travel with Marc. They weren’t the only Boston University graduates at Beck and Meyer, but they were often mentioned in the same breath because of their interview scores—which were supposed to be private, yet never were. Henry had beaten Marc by one point. He’d known the minute he met Marc that it would be the last time he topped him in anything, however.

They were both tall, both had brown hair. Both had graduated with honors and a position with one of the most prestigious financial consultancy firms in the Northeast. There the similarities ended. Marc was four years older and seemed a decade wiser. He carried his height with confidence and had a set of broad shoulders illustrating he didn’t spend all his hours behind a desk. When Marc smiled, everyone else smiled. When he scowled, cowards looked for cover. The brave were rewarded with hearty backslaps and invitations to Mulligan’s on Thursday afternoons. It was easy to believe he’d charmed his way through college, but he hadn’t. Marc had earned his position at Beck and Meyer, and he’d already advanced to Senior Acquisitions Analyst by the time Henry joined the firm.

This was the first time they’d worked together. At the airport, they’d done the brief introduction thing, even though they had been employed by the same company for over two years. “Call me Marc,” Marc had invited over a firm handshake. Then he pulled out a slim laptop, flipped it open, and proceeded to work until boarding and all through the flight. In Chicago, he’d only spoken to Henry to deliver instructions, and they retired to separate hotel rooms without sharing dinner.

The second day on-site had passed in much the same way. Henry had learned a lot by watching Marc—from the way he handled clients to the precision with which he approached each aspect of the deal. He’d hoped for a little more one-on-one time, though, and not just because he had secretly fantasized about his colleague for, well, two and a half years. Marc would make an excellent contact within the firm. If Henry could permanently partner with him, he’d go places.

After three days in his company, Henry just wanted to go home.

“Earth to Auttenberg.”

“Huh?”

Marc pointed at the glove compartment. “See if we have a map.”

Henry eyed the compartment with some trepidation before opening it. Used condoms were the least disgusting things he’d found in the nooks and crannies of rental cars.

Marc was stabbing a finger through the air again. “Do you need directions? It’s right there.”

Sighing, Henry flipped open the compartment and braced for untold horrors. Fence posts slid by uncounted as he waited for something to crawl out of the murky depths and bite him. Nothing stirred but a badly folded map. He grabbed the nearest corner and pulled it out.

“We could just head back up to 90.” Henry sorted through the folds until he found Miami. “This is a map of Florida, by the way.”

“Fuck.”

The hair along the back of Henry’s neck bristled. He’d never heard Marc swear. Ever. Guy defined the word irascible, but he usually kept a civil tongue.

“Continue on highlighted route,” the GPS chimed in.

“GPS is back up.”

“So I noticed,” Marc said, kindly not appending doofus to the end of his statement.

“We must be past the hold up on the interstate by now.”

Marc shook his head. “I don’t want to backtrack. I think 20 will take us all the way to 88.”

“I thought we were on 13.”

“And that’s why I’m the organ-grinder and you’re the monkey.”

Cheeks heating, Henry turned his attention back to the map. He opened it all the way out and looked for the original creases before carefully refolding it. When he was done, he had a neat packet with a beach scene across the front. The blue of the sky had faded a little, but the sun looked bright. Glancing up from his slice of paradise, he counted fence posts for a little while, starting a separate tally. Beneath the monotony of the count, he calculated how many posts there were in a mile, then plotted the course between Syracuse and Boston in posts. Over two hundred thousand. Thinking about counting them all made him tired. He wished he was back in Boston already, sprawled across the love-worn furniture at his parents’ house. His sister would be there too with her husband and kids. Would they wait for him before following the Christmas Eve tradition of opening one present each?

“How long have you been with Beck and Meyer now?”

Starting, Henry turned away from wishes and snowy fields. “Uh, two and a half years?”

“You’re not sure?” Marc glanced over, one dark brow quirked over an equally dark eye. He had those brown eyes that could be black. Henry tried not to meet his gaze too often because he feared he’d get lost searching for the line between iris and pupil—and that would mean he’d been staring.

Staring at straight guys like a lost puppy was a good way to get his ass kicked.

“Um, yeah. I mean, sure I’m sure. I started in 2012. August.”

“Right out of BU?’

Henry cleared his throat. “Right.”

“You should watch those tics in your speech, and never turn a statement into a question. Makes you sound unsure.”

“Um, okay.”

“See, that right there is what I’m talking about. Don’t say ‘um,’ ever. Pause if you need a second to put your words together.”

Turning away, Henry leaned toward the passenger-side window, hoping the crisp outside air might magically leach through the glass and cool his cheeks.

“Not talking is only half a solution,” Marc went on. “Knowing when to be quiet and observe is a definite skill, but to make an impression, you have to open your mouth.”

Inhaling quickly, Henry banished all thoughts of opening his mouth in the vicinity of Marc’s… anything. Then he paused, letting an “um” fall by the wayside. “Thanks for the advice.”

Marc gave him a sideways look. Apparently deciding Henry had been sincere, he turned his attention back to the road. “You’re a smart guy. Everyone knows it. Your analysis of the financials for Chicago was really insightful. You caught trends most would miss. That’s why I asked you along this trip.” Marc had asked for him specifically? “But if we’re going to continue to work together, you need to find your tongue.”

Henry loosened his collar. His blush had spread down his neck and across his shoulders. The curse of pale skin often meant that particularly intense emotions lent a flush to approximately 80 percent of his body.

He searched for his tongue and found it. “Is this a performance review?”

“No, I’m just making conversation.”

“We’ve had three days to make conversation. Why now?”

“You don’t want to talk?”

“I appreciate the advice, really. Ah—” Cutting himself off, Henry leaped to the next word “I’m just wondering why you want to talk now, when you basically ignored me for the whole trip.”

Marc glanced over again, dark eyes sparkling over a dangerous smile. “Your panties in a bunch, Auttenberg?”

“My name is Henry, and I don’t wear panties.”

That black gaze dropped to Henry’s lap. “Going commando under your suit pants? Isn’t the wool itchy? You don’t want to end up with a rash.”

“It’s a good thing I’ve got a couple days to recover, then.”

“You’re not taking off the week between Christmas and New Year’s?”

“Are you?”

“No, but all our client offices will be closed. It’s going to be pretty quiet.”

Relieved to have moved the conversation away from underwear choices, Henry said, “I figured it would be a good time to start checking the data on Hiddenger.”

Marc’s brows shot up. “Hiddenger is going to be my client.”

“I know.”

A smile eased across Marc’s mouth. “Still waters run deep.”

“Is dropping clichés part of your prescription for being more talkative and memorable?”

Rather than take offense, Marc chuckled. Then he cast another significant glance at Henry’s crotch. “Tell me you’re not really going pants-less.”

“Why are you so interested in my underwear?”

Interestingly enough, Marc blushed. At least, Henry thought he did. His darker complexion hid most of it. “Just making conversation,” he muttered.

Henry let a few more fence posts pass by uncounted before adding a batch load to his tally. Then he said, “Boxers.”

“Huh?”

“I’m wearing boxers under my suit pants.”

Marc tipped a nod toward the steering wheel, and the next mile rolled by in something like companionable silence—Henry quietly satisfied with his end of the conversation, weird as it had been. He’d almost held his own—or had at least shown himself to be less of a doormat than Marc might have assumed.

“Signal lost,” the GPS reported.

Remembering he still held the map, Henry shoved it back into the open glove compartment and sealed the hatch. Then he pulled out his phone. “No bars.”

Marc shifted in his seat and reached into a pocket. He produced a phone and handed it across to Henry. “See if you can get anything with mine.”

The device was warm, and cradling it in his palm, Henry allowed his thoughts to wander toward the hip it had been nestled against. He checked the network status. No signal. “Nothing.”

“Dammit.” Marc tapped the GPS again.

Flakes of snow drifting toward the windshield distracted Henry from a pointless daydream involving Marc’s long, tanned fingers. “It’s snowing.”

Despite the white fields and brooding clouds covering the horizon, those first few flakes embodied a moment of wonder. Even at the age of twenty-four, he marveled at the quiet efficiency of snow. He appreciated the way a fresh blanket covered murk and slush, washing the world with soft brilliance.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t amount to much. The storm should be moving away from us.”

It should be, but as the swirl of snow across the windshield increased, the horizon became less distinct. Then the fence posts lining the side of the rural highway began to disappear.