For all he didn’t consider himself a religious man, Charlie King had a particular reverence for Cheez-Its. Now and again, he’d worship a single cracker by placing it on his tongue like a communion wafer. As sucking the life out of one little square usually proved unsatisfying, he more often scooped up handfuls and shoved them in the general direction of his mouth. It could be a messy business; he often ended up playing catch with a stray cracker or two, which was exactly what he was doing when Simon Lynley walked into his life.
Charlie glanced at the open kitchen door and spluttered through a mouthful of cheesy crumbs. Approximate translations might have been Hello, hold on, and Holy shit, are those contacts? His visitor’s eyes were an impossible shade of blue. Like the sky on a sunny day. Dark and light at the same time. Golden, but still blue. Celestial.
His wife’s eyes had been a greenish sort of brown, and simply one part of the whole that was her face. He could rhapsodize about her face, but then he’d been stupidly in love. Merry could have had a mole sprouting hair at the end of her nose . . .
Okay, maybe not.
His visitor’s eyes were extraordinary, particularly against a vague impression of fair skin framed by black hair, eyebrows, and a shadow of stubble . . . and Charlie was staring. Possibly gaping. Also, he was thirsty. Blue Eyes’ appearance had interrupted his chewing. Charlie grabbed a glass off the rack by the sink, filled it, and washed away the cracker sludge gathering around his molars. Then he figured he should say something.
He indicated the faucet with the empty glass. “Can I get you some water?”
Blue Eyes’ forehead wrinkled quizzically. “Ah . . . sure.”
Charlie handed him a glass of water. A fresh glass, not one sullied with cheesy crumbs. “Is this about the front porch? Listen, I know it looks old and it’s probably about ready to fall off the house, but I can’t afford to do that and the roof. I need a roof. I don’t need a porch.”
Blue Eyes gave him a blank look in response. Then Herbert started howling. Well, resumed howling. Charlie hadn’t actually registered when he’d stopped. The dog had been competing with the sounds of eighties rock and nail guns all afternoon.
“Is it the dog? I can take him out for a walk if the barking is bothering you guys. Oh, by the way, my daughter has to get out of the driveway—” Charlie checked the digital display on the microwave “—soonish. Sorry, I know we should have parked her car on the street last night, but my friend was blocking the driveway until late.” Friday nights with Phil and the Xbox were near tradition. “Then, between walking the dog and checking in on a neighbor who thought she heard something, I totally forgot.”
Blue Eyes hadn’t taken a drink yet. In fact, he’d paused with the glass raised halfway to his lips. “I’m not one of your contractors.”
Right, no Kendricks Roofing logo on his neat polo. No tool belt, no baseball cap. Just a stranger, standing in the middle of Charlie’s kitchen, looking at the glass in his hand as if he suspected the water was poisoned.
“Uh . . .” Charlie cleared his throat.
“I’m your new neighbor,” Blue Eyes said. “Moving in next door?” He tipped his head toward the door, through which Charlie could see the open gate in the hedge between their properties. Beyond that, the outline of a moving truck in the driveway.
Blue Eyes frowned.
Charlie scrubbed his free hand on the side of his jeans and offered it up. “Sorry, took me a bit by surprise there. I’m Charlie. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
“Simon.” A warm hand folded around Charlie’s, and the touch was as shocking as that first glimpse of his blue, blue, very blue eyes. What the heck?
Charlie let go and rubbed his palm on his jeans again.
Simon watched, a serious little frown marring his brow.
“Sorry, I had Cheez-Its all over my hand, and I didn’t want to— Yeah, you already— Or I . . . Um . . .”
The brilliance of Simon’s eyes had dimmed enough for Charlie to appreciate the rest of him and . . . Simon was a really good-looking guy. Charlie hadn’t noticed a guy and thought Wow since high school—and that had only been because Billy McHugh, captain of the football team, had been physically perfect, and the envy of every guy at Liberty High.
He was staring again, wasn’t he?
“I’m going to get to the front porch soon,” Charlie explained, not sure where they’d left the conversation but somehow convinced Simon was there because of the noise, or his cheap-ass choice of roofing tile. “I’d have done the roof myself if my daughter hadn’t threatened me with an emancipation suit, whatever that is, if I got up there. She does not want to live in Florida with my folks. Something about frizzy hair and alligators. Not that I’m in the habit of falling off things, but it is kinda high up there. And a long way down.”
Simon was staring at him now and probably not thinking, Wow his eyes are so brown.
“This isn’t going how you expected it to, is it?” Charlie said. “It’s not too late to shove everything back in the truck and move again. No one wants to live next to the weird guy.”
Simon’s laugh was sudden and very, very welcome. Charlie inspected the floor rather than the way Simon’s eyes crinkled and twinkled. He’d done enough staring for one afternoon. Besides, the back of his neck itched—the sensation almost unfamiliar. He was blushing. Standing in his kitchen with a stranger, staring at his floor, and blushing.
“For all you know, I could be the weird one,” Simon said. “I did just let myself into your kitchen, after all.”
Charlie glanced up. “Right past my howling attack dog.”
“He was busy chewing something that looked like a plastic chair leg.”
“I can’t have nice things. Not plastic things, anyway. So, where’d you move from?”
Simon was finally taking a sip of his water. Charlie busied himself with refilling his own glass instead of watching Simon’s mouth, lips, and the drinking-swallowing thing. He really needed to get out more if he was tempted to watch strangers swallow—and the question of why he might watch, with extreme interest, his male neighbor swallow would be tabled until later.
“Morristown,” Simon answered.
Huh? Oh, right, where he’d moved from. Get with the program, Charlie.
“What brings you across the border?” Moving across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania used to make sense. Lower taxes, less traffic. Now the bills and roads were just as crazy.
Simon’s smile faded a little. “Looking for a change of scenery.” He turned and put his glass back on the counter. “Anyway, I was checking out the gate in the hedge and when it opened and your door was open and you were standing here, I thought I’d introduce myself.” He glanced over his shoulder. “And I left it open, didn’t I?”
“’S okay. Herbert is on a chain. He’ll strangle himself long before he gets close to the gate.”
“Good to know.”
“He’s managed to push through the hedge when he’s off the chain, though. I’ll try not to let that happen.”
“Hey, it’s all good. He seems like a nice dog.”
“He is, mostly. Friendly. Had him since Olivia was ten.”
“Olivia is your daughter?”
Charlie’s smile was involuntary, as it always was when Olivia wandered into the conversation. She had him happily wrapped around her little finger, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit it. His days started and ended with his girl. “Yeah. You got kids?”
“No, it’s just me.”
“That’s a big house for one . . . Um, unless you’ve got a lot of hobbies or like space. A lot of rooms.” Moving on, “This is a good neighborhood. Quiet. Well, usually, when Herbert isn’t saying hello, and contractors aren’t playing music. A few kids, a couple of retirees. The lesbian couple on the corner.” Why tell a complete stranger about the supposed sexual orientation of the couple on the corner? “They’re very nice. Sue always brings the best salads to cookouts . . . and I’m gonna stop talking now.”
Simon was laughing again. “You spend a lot of time alone, don’t you?”
“Guilty as charged.”
“What do you do?”
“That would explain it. What do you write?”
As if the conversation weren’t awkward enough. “Technical writer by day, science fiction author by night.”
Simon’s eyebrows rose. “Like aliens and stuff?”
“Do you read?”
“Not much,” Simon said. “I used to. Even read some science fiction when I was a kid.”
Because grown men didn’t read stories about space pirates. Nope.
“I haven’t read anything but a trade magazine in years,” Simon continued.
“What do you do?”
“Oh yeah? You really don’t want to look at my front porch, then.”
Simon smiled. “I’ll be working with Arthur Beckwith.”
“Beckwith and Associates on Main Street? You’ll have to tell us who his associates are. We have theories, but no one has ever met any of them. Anyway, I think he redid the place on the corner. They had a sign in their yard for a while after.”
“The lesbian couple?” From the sparkle in his eyes, it was clear Simon was messing with Charlie.
“Other corner,” Charlie said, grinning. “I thought about using him, but I don’t want to do everything at once.”
Even though his parents had moved to Florida almost a year ago, the place still felt like their house. Putting on a new roof for now and making plans for the front porch, and maybe the garden, made the house feel more like his.
“One day I might knock out the back wall of the kitchen and put in a nook sorta thing. Like to eat in. Or maybe a sunroom.”
Simon smiled again and the whole kitchen felt warmer. “You’ve definitely got the space for it, and a good aspect.”
Charlie’s best project to date chose that moment to blow in. “Dad!”
Olivia took after her mother, which meant she was blessed with beauty, poise, and a complete lack of hairy moles. Glossy brown hair she spent two hours doing stuff to every morning, and a pixie-like face. She had Charlie’s eyes—more brown than green—long limbs, and a knockout smile. At seventeen going on twenty-seven, she didn’t smile enough for his liking, though. Of course, all Charlie remembered about seventeen was not listening to anyone’s advice on anything, particularly when it had come to Merry. He should be grateful Liv hadn’t lost her head yet.
“I need to go, and there’s a truck blocking the driveway,” she said.
Charlie gestured between his new neighbor and his daughter. “Simon, Olivia. Olivia, Simon. Daughter, new neighbor. Back in a second, Simon. I want to ask the guys to move their truck.”
“I should head next door, anyway. Make sure my movers are moving.”
“Well, nice to meet you. If you need anything, I’m usually around.”
With a wave, Simon disappeared, taking his blue eyes and sunshine with him. Charlie probably stared at the empty doorway for too long. He told himself he was practicing a lingering gaze for a scene he wanted to write. Then he glanced over at Olivia.
Her eyes were narrowed. Her jaw moved once, twice, and then gum snapped behind her teeth. “He’s hot.”
“And way too old for you. Jesus. Don’t give your dad a heart attack. I haven’t finished doing up the house.”
Chuckling, she followed him outside into the late-summer sunshine.
It was hard to say whose company Simon had enjoyed better: Charlie’s or that of his house. They both exuded personality. Both obviously had history. It was the house that had called him next door, however.
Something more substantial than history surrounded the fieldstone and timber structure that rambled in true farmhouse tradition. Simon called it story. The house spoke of generations of use and abuse. Not that the place looked ready to fall down. Rather, the house showed signs of weathering many storms, within and without, and of standing strong through it all.
It was the sort of house he wanted to live in one day. The sort of house he’d like to dedicate his career to finding and restoring.
From his side of the unruly hedge, only the upper stories were visible. Sunlight glanced off of the half-finished slate roof and weathered siding, brightening the soft gray. The colors complemented the fieldstone chimney, and he wondered if Charlie had chosen them. Charlie, the living component of the house next door—not that houses couldn’t live and breathe. They did. Each had a soul, some more unique than others. Charlie . . . He was something else entirely.
Though he couldn’t be over forty, he was a lot like his house. Simon had been able to see over the top of his head, which put him at just under six feet, but with a sense of movement. As if he’d recently come from somewhere, or intended to go somewhere. Energy and momentum in human form.
He was a good-looking guy too, with rich-brown hair that might not have seen a comb in near on a decade. The mess suited him. Brown eyes, tanned skin, and lines around his mouth and eyes that spoke of frequent smiles.
Simon closed his eyes. Fantasizing about married men stood pretty much at the top of the stupid list. But, Lordy, that mouth. Charlie’s garrulous nature only drew attention to the fact he had generous lips and straight white teeth that he flicked with his tongue now and again. He could have been searching for cracker crumbs, but every time the pink tip had shown, Simon had thought about kissing him. Playing with that tongue, and what it would feel like alongside his own.
“I’d offer a penny for your thoughts, but the look on your face suggests they’re worth a lot more.”
Simon opened his eyes. Frank stood in front of him, eyebrows raised.
“I was just checking out the house next door,” Simon said.
“With your eyes closed.”
“Fixing it in memory. It’s probably original to the area. I’d like to study it some more.”
“Mm-hmm. Did you meet the neighbors?”
“Yeah. A writer and his family.” Simon gestured toward the moving truck. “Have they broken anything yet?”
“No, but soon they’ll be squaring up for piano versus door.”
Simon surveyed the house on his side of the gate, absently checking the width of the front door. This was his home for the next six months—maybe longer. The owner wanted to sell the place, but Simon had no interest in a 1960s-era pile of cream brick. He’d seen some fascinating interpretations of split-level ranch homes, but they didn’t appeal to him on a gut level. Hopefully, within six months he’d find something that filled him with wonder and delight. Simon glanced over the hedge again. Something like the place next door would do—preferably with someone like Charlie still in residence.
Married, Simon. And if the wife was anywhere near as beautiful as the daughter, unlikely to look elsewhere. Except he had. Simon could have sworn he’d felt Charlie’s gaze at his throat while he was drinking. Then there’d been the long, lingering look when he’d said hello. Charlie had actually gaped, which had been amusing in one sense as cracker crumbs had spilled from his lips, and flattering in another as the source of those crumbs had obviously been forgotten.
Then there’d been all the talking. Simon smiled. He liked men who talked. They made up for his quietness.
Shouts and grunts wafted from the back of the truck. Simon crunched across the gravel drive in time to see the movers struggling with his second-most-precious possession: a grand piano. His heart fluttered anew. Had they already unloaded his drafting table?
“Please don’t tilt the piano too much,” he said, trying to keep calm.
Even an hour in the moving truck meant he’d have to have the instrument tuned, but excessive jostling would only make it worse.
The only door wide enough to admit the piano was at the back of the house. Simon followed the movers across the lawn and onto the patio, wincing every time the piano hummed and groaned. He’d packed the inside according to a “How To” he’d found on Google, but too much stuffing could be as detrimental as not enough. He breathed a sigh of relief when the movers set the piano down in the middle of the open-plan family room.
“Where did you want it?” Big asked. Simon had dubbed the movers Big and Little in lieu of actually remembering their names.
Pursing his lips, Simon studied the available space.
“How about there?” Frank gestured toward the long expanse of windows looking out over the patio.
The light would reflect nicely off the polished wood of the piano, but the temperature variance might stress the delicate equilibrium of the finely tuned instrument. Besides, it would be nice to put his sofa between the fireplace and the view. Simon turned to the opposite corner, where two walls met in a sort of shaded alcove. Originally he’d planned to install his bookcases there, but perhaps—
“Over here.” Simon indicated the corner.
After having the men turn the piano one hundred and eighty degrees, then back seventy and finally rotating it the other way, Simon was satisfied with the placement. Soon after, the rest of his belongings were in semi-appropriate positions and Little was handing him a clipboard.
“I just need your signature.”
Simon felt an odd reluctance to let the movers go. The new house wasn’t large, but as Charlie had so helpfully pointed out, it was a lot of space for one person. One person alone. Frank would want to start the drive back to Jersey City soon.
Simon signed the clipboard and handed it back with a cash tip. “Thanks, guys.”
He closed the door on his old life and turned around to take in the new. Frank ducked out of the kitchen area with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
“Where did you find all that?”
“Your boxes are labeled with lists, Simon. You’re predictably anal in all the ways.”
Snorting softly, Simon took the glasses and held them while Frank wrestled the cork from the bottle. He didn’t recognize the label, which meant Frank must have brought it with him.
Glancing up, Frank smiled. “I’ve also got some nibbles in a picnic basket in the car. I’d suggest spreading a rug on the floor and getting all rustic, but my knees are about thirty years beyond such shenanigans.”
“I’d thought you might want to get going.”
“And leave you all alone in the wilds of Pennsylvania?”
“You’re such a giver.”
Frank filled the glasses and waved the bottle toward the loose arrangement of furniture between the windows and the stone fireplace. “Go sit and I’ll get the food in.” He put the bottle on the kitchen island and gathered up his car keys. “And don’t touch a single box while I’m gone. You can do that tomorrow.”
Simon did as bid, weaving around a stack of boxes to get to the sofa. The light-gray microfiber looked appealing in the afternoon light. If not for Frank, Simon might have taken a nap. But as he sat, he acknowledged the fact that he’d more likely lie there thinking than sleeping. Instead, he surveyed the open-plan space that formed the heart of his new home.
Until he unpacked the boxes piled in every room, the house wouldn’t feel like his. It might never feel like his, especially if he didn’t stay long. He should make an effort, though. A good part of his motivation to move had been to find his own space—which sounded better than finding his self. This new space echoed with fewer memories of what he’d lost, but each box or familiar piece of furniture served as a subtle reminder.
Simon jerked, startled. He hadn’t heard Frank return. He looked down at the glasses he still held in his hands, worried he might have spilled some wine, and leaned forward to set them on the table. Frank started laying out a selection of cheese, crackers, dips, olives, sausage, and fruit, all from a gourmet deli in Bethlehem, according to the labels. Trust Frank to have already surveyed the town.
“You grew up somewhere near here, didn’t you?” Simon asked.
Frank waved toward the front door. “North. Pocono Mountains. Which is a fact you’re supposed to have conveniently forgotten. Now stop thinking about Brian and help me spread out our supper.”
The reference to his ex brought with it the usual stab of sadness, but nine months had dulled any sharp points. Simon’s sadness was now just that. Purely sad. Not angry, not certain they could work it out, not wrestling with guilt and a need to forgive Brian’s sins. Just sad.
“I was thinking more about my new house. My future.”
“Know what I like about you?” Frank asked, sitting beside him.
“My anal tendencies?” Simon handed him a glass and lifted the other.
“As if you’d ever let me near that ass of yours.”
It was an old joke between old friends. They’d tried once, but the timing had been off, with neither of them in a position to commit. Since, their friendship had deepened to a point where Simon wasn’t sure it could ever work between them. He loved Frank—as a friend. As the person who would pack a frivolous picnic basket and keep him company the first day in his new house.
Frank held his glass up. “It’s your courage I’m admiring right now. Here you are—a new state, a new job. Brian didn’t know you.”
Frank clinked his glass to Simon’s. “To the first day of the rest of your life.”
Smiling faintly, Simon sipped his wine.
By the time Frank was shaking the last drops from the bottle, a warm glow had settled over Simon’s mood. He felt brave. Comfortable in his decision to start over at forty-six, even though he wasn’t exactly starting over—more doing what he’d always wanted to do. Investing in a business that wasn’t his and Brian’s, but would one day be just his and his alone. The word didn’t sound so ominous when put that way.
Frank leaned in to rest his head on Simon’s shoulder. Their conversation had stalled a little while ago, and neither had rushed to resurrect it.
Simon slipped his arm around the back of Frank’s shoulders and pulled him in close. “Thanks for staying. I feel less morose with you here.”
“I’m going to count that as a win.”
“You want me to make up the couch for you?” They’d shared only a single bottle of wine, but it would be a long drive after a long day.
Frank turned in the half embrace and put his hand on Simon’s thigh. “You’ve a big bed.”
Simon looked down at his friend, who’d lifted his face. They were close. Kissably close. The slight fog of wine and fatigue seemed to form a glue, or a field of inertia, and Simon didn’t immediately pull back. With the specter of loneliness still lingering in the shadows of the haphazardly furnished living room, he nearly leaned forward. Frank was comfortable, easy. Sex with him could be easy and comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. He needed . . .
Simon saw that when he focused. Saw it in the directness of Frank’s gaze, the mood of his light-brown eyes. Frank wanted something Simon couldn’t give.
Tucking his arm a little more securely around Frank’s shoulders, Simon snuggled in closer and let his head tip to the side so their temples touched, their faces side to side rather than mouth to mouth. It was the gentlest way he could think of saying no.
Tension seemed to stiffen Frank’s shoulders briefly before bleeding away. Then he relaxed into Simon’s embrace. “It’ll be cozy here come winter,” he commented absently, his head brushing Simon’s as he nodded toward the dark fireplace.
“I might not be here that long.”
“We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”
Coming October 15, 2018 from Riptide Publishing