Four weeks! Elliott and Augustus's love story was such an adventure for me. How do you give someone a happy ending with such a huge, devastating secret hanging over their heads, and with the last person on earth that they should fall in love with? The Restoration series has dealt with some pretty heavy topics over the course of three books, but it's been a journey of love for me, watching these men overcome terrible things on the way to their HEA's.
I hope you guys have enjoyed the first two Restoration installments, and that you enjoy TAKING A CHANCE just as much. Until September 14, here are the first two chapters to tide you over!
Auggie Rhinehart glared at his business partner, Steve Lawrence, the man who’d issued the less than helpful command. Auggie would have to sit on his hands to keep them still. He began to verbalize the thought, only to be cut off by the arrival of Sharon Russ, the WXKY reporter charged with keeping their upcoming interview under ninety seconds.
They were a sound bite, not a lead story, thank goodness, but this was still for the six o’clock evening news.
And it was live.
Sharon plunked down in the director’s chair angled toward Steve and Auggie, giving them each a brief smile before smoothing both her blouse and hair. All business, which gave Auggie hope that she’d focus on the design special he and Steve were promoting, rather than their public image.
“Fifteen seconds,” said someone wearing black head phones.
Auggie counted backward in his head, watching the camera trained on their trio set back in a corner of the very active studio. The red light changed to green. His insides curled up into tight knots and he flattened both palms against his thighs.
Sharon turned on a mega-watt smile. “Hi, everyone, I’m Sharon Russ and tonight I’m here with two folks you probably know from the hit renovation show Nailing It. Wilmington’s own Reno Duo, Steve Lawrence and Augustus Rhinehart.”
“Hey, all.” Steve waved to the camera.
“It’s a pleasure,” Auggie told her. Direct and simple. Good. His voice hadn’t shaken or gone too high.
“So we here at WXKY have been working with the Reno Duo on a very special project.” Sharon shifted her attention to them. “Why don’t you guys give our viewers a preview of what they can expect to see in on their televisions in April?”
“Absolutely, Sharon,” Steve said. He’d already agreed to take point during the interview. Auggie was fine being filmed while working on a renovation, but direct interviews like this turned him into a bumbling idiot.
He was getting tired of playing his role in their duo.
Steve continued mugging for the camera. “Last month we asked viewers to send in photos and videos of one room in their home that desperately needs a makeover, as well as a personal, meaningful item to use as inspiration for the makeover design. Augustus and I have worked tirelessly to choose four lucky homeowners who will receive that makeover.”
He went a little high on the final few words, nearly ending with an exclamation point.
“Just like on Nailing It, I’ll be handling the design while Augustus here plays the muscle.” Steve patted Auggie’s thigh—both a comment and a touch that didn’t bother him in the least, but he still gave his trademark side-eye.
Despite being as queer as Steve, Auggie had defaulted into the role of the straight man in their partnership, and their loyal fans ate it up. Auggie always looked uptight during interviews because all he could think about was giving something away, while Steve flamed away and charmed the audience.
Steve still had a few more bits of information to work out in the allotted time. “We’ll film each renovation over the course of the week, and then surprise the homeowner with a final reveal on Friday morning. WXKY will air each renovation during their regular six o’clock broadcast beginning the first week of April.”
“That sounds like a fantastic project,” Sharon said.
The clock ticked toward the end of his torture.
He worked to keep his expression smooth, his body language open. “Yes, Sharon?”
“You’re always the quiet one on Nailing It. What’s it like working with Steve and all of his energy?”
He could read between the lines. She was asking what was it like working for someone so openly gay.
He bit back a lot of problematic responses. “Steve is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met, and he’s a pleasure to work with. Some days his energy is even contagious.”
“Well, I know our viewers are looking forward to seeing more of you two on their screens in April, and best of luck with the new project.” Sharon angled directly toward the camera. “Back to you, Mike.”
The light went red.
Auggie sagged into his director’s chair as apprehension drained away, leaving him tired and a little hungry.
A production assistant un-miked them both quickly, and after only a few brief minutes of follow up with their segment producer, Auggie escaped the station and stepped out into fresh air. Or fresh air according to the city of Wilmington, which smelled largely of gasoline, exhaust, and stale water.
Steve followed him out, as completely at ease with himself in public as Auggie was self-aware.
“Why do I keep letting you talk me into these things?” Auggie Rhinehart asked, and not for the first time in the last two and a half years.
Steve shrugged dramatically, then batted his white-blonde eyelashes. “Because you love me, and you’ll do anything to make me happy.”
Auggie snorted. “Try again.”
“Fine. Because you love what you do, and if the occasional anxiety-inducing interview is what it takes to stay successful you’ll do it, because you’re Augustus Fucking Rhinehart, and you never fail.”
Auggie wouldn’t go as far as saying never. He’d very definitely failed in his marriage to his ex-wife Jocelyn. He’d ignored his attraction to men since puberty, and he’d strived to become the best heterosexual he could be. Except at the end of the day, he was just as gay as Steve, and their audience and fans had no idea.
Steve was an interior designer with sixteen years of experience, and Auggie came from a carpentry and house-flipping background. They had used their combined experience to successfully produce two seasons of Nailing It, and WXKY had come to them with the idea of adapting their format and airing it in brief segments during the evening news. Both men had been excited by the opportunity.
“All I want,” Auggie said, “is for this project to get us the publicity we need to get a contract for season three.” Being in front of a camera all of the time wasn’t his favorite thing, but he loved the reveal moments, when homeowners saw the results of their hard work. Nailing It gave him that over and over again.
“Ditto, partner.” Steve hit the unlock button on his key fob. “Sooner or later, HGTV will notice us, and we’ll become the next Property Brothers.”
“Except older and a lot more gay.”
“We’re not old, we’re well-seasoned.”
Auggie didn’t bother arguing with Steve’s dreams of reaching an audience outside of Wilmington and its surrounding suburbs. The chances were miniscule. Besides, higher profile meant more public scrutiny, and Auggie didn’t need anyone digging into his past mistakes. He had a hard enough time dealing on his own without reporters getting in his face.
He also liked working with WXKY. The new project was being produced as a three-week special broadcast. Filming in March gave everyone plenty of wiggle room in terms of things going wrong, homeowners pulling out at the last minute, or unexpected delays. Auggie and Steve would meet each owner on a Monday, see the room and meaningful object, figure out what they liked in terms of style, the next three days would be spent doing the makeover, and Friday would be the big reveal.
The four-minute episodes would then air in April, one home per week, over the course of five evening news segments.
The very brief episode lengths also meant more focus on the work and less on the two hosts. Auggie went along with the public perception that he was the straight man to the more flamboyantly gay Steve, because it sold them. The hook was a little cliché, but sometimes clichés worked.
In the parking lot, he caught the wide-eyed smile of a pretty woman in very high heels, who did a thorough once over of him as they passed. He played it up with a smile of his own, and he swore she blushed as she turned away.
“Get in the car, Casanova,” Steve said.
Auggie laughed as he slid into the passenger seat of Steve’s SUV. “Very funny.” He frequently caught attention from men and women for two very different reasons: he was six feet of solid muscle, and his race confused people.
He’d heard the “are you black/white/Haitian/Hispanic?” question since he was a child. His most common response was, “I’m me.” It shut most people up.
“You want to come over for dinner?” Steve asked as he eased into traffic. “Stephen is making his famous balsamic chicken.”
He groaned out of sheer disappointment, because Stephen’s balsamic chicken was amazing, and Auggie rarely turned down a dinner invitation. “I would but I have plans,” Auggie said.
Steve’s eyes went comically wide. “Oh my god, Augustus Rhinehart, don’t tell me you have a date.”
Don’t I wish.
“It’s Jack’s birthday.”
“Oh, well, I suppose that’s an acceptable excuse.”
“How old is he again?” Steve asked.
“Eighteen. It’s hard to believe.” Auggie still had vivid memories of the first time he’d held his nephew as a six-hour-old newborn. Jack was the closest thing Auggie would ever come to having a child of his own, and that was fine with him. The final four years of his marriage had been the worst because of Jocelyn’s insistence on them starting a family.
“Whole family coming out for it?”
“No, just us locals. JJ is in Chicago doing another show. Mom and Dad couldn’t make the drive on a Thursday, and May doesn’t like being in the car at night.”
“Right. Forgot that about May.”
Steve had only met Auggie’s entire extended family once, at a reunion party last summer. There was no reason for Steve to remember all of the things that set off Auggie’s baby sister.
“You get Jack anything good? First Playboy subscription?”
Auggie snorted hard through his nose. “His mother would kill me, thank you very much. I still don’t think she’s accepted her baby boy is eighteen.”
“Don’t tell me she’s deluded herself into believing he’s still a virgin, too?”
“No idea, but he lost that card sophomore year with a girl named Selina.”
“He told you that?”
“Sure. I’m the cool uncle because I’m on TV. Plus his father is an uptight prude.”
Steve laughed. “Tell me what you really think, partner.”
“You know I don’t have a problem speaking my mind.” His lack of filter had gotten him into a lot of trouble as a teenager. He’d learned to control it better as an adult. Most of the time.
They chatted blithely about nothing important on the drive to Auggie’s house in Talleyville. Auggie’s latest project home was a mid-century minimal Tudor cottage, built in 1952. He’d bought it from the original owner’s son for a steal last year. The exterior still needed some TLC, but he’d done most of the work he needed to do on the inside to bring the house into the twenty-first century. Two bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, kitchen with an attached dining room. Perfect.
“Say Happy Birthday to Jack for me,” Steve said.
“Will do. See you Monday.” Auggie grabbed his briefcase from the back of the SUV. Steve honked once as he backed out, a signature move that Auggie swore he did to annoy the neighbors.
He didn’t have time to go inside, so he climbed into his two-door sports car and headed east towards Claymont. He was meeting his sister’s family at a local pizza place Jack loved that apparently made 48-inch pies—a location guaranteed to annoy April, who thrived on spending her investment banker husband’s money and proving how not-poor she was now.
Of all his siblings, April was the most determined to shed her inner city Philadelphia roots.
Auggie wanted to shed the sins of his past and find a way to live comfortably in his own skin.
Sonny’s Brick Oven was packed for seven o’clock on a Thursday night. Auggie claimed one of the last few parking spots in the attached lot. He removed his gift for Jack from his briefcase, locked the case in his trunk, then headed inside.
Warm, spiced air hit him in the face, a nice change from the early March chill. Warm tones of red and orange on the walls, fake archways that were more Grecian in style than Italian. Clusters of fake grapes that would make Steve gasp in horror. The place needed a do-over, but if the food was good he could forgive them a few design faux pas.
Jack waved from a booth near the back of the dining room. Auggie indicated to the hostess that he had a party waiting, then went to join his family. Jack stood up to give him a firm hug. As tall and rangy as his father, Jack had his mother’s dark eyes and cinnamon skin. April subjected him to a ridiculous double-cheek air-kiss, something Auggie worked hard not to roll his eyes at. Not a hair out of place, her blouse wrinkle-free, April looked as comfortable in the pizza place as a preacher in a whorehouse.
Silas fit right in. Despite his wealth and four-car garage, he wore a simple green sweater over jeans. Auggie wouldn’t call the man attractive, but he had the blue-eyed, brown-hair thing going for him that Auggie tended to find appealing.
The only face Auggie didn’t recognize was a teenage girl Jack introduced as Lindsay.
“His girlfriend,” April added with enough smugness in her voice that Auggie would lay money on Lindsay’s parents having money.
“Nice to meet you,” Auggie said.
“Jack talks about you all the time,” Lindsay said. “And I’ve seen you on TV. It sucks you cut the dreds off. They were really cool.”
“It was time for a change.”
Practically a non-answer, but he’d said the same thing to his producers. It wasn’t as if he could tell any of them the truth—that Auggie had learned his boyfriend of a year was also in a committed relationship with another man. He’d been lied to and had his heart broken, and it had led to a minor mid-life crisis that almost made his mother burst into tears when she saw him again—he’d cut off the fifteen-inch freeform dreadlocks he’d been cultivating since college. His producers went apoplectic, because he’d done it right before he and Steve began filming the second season of their show. The key grip nearly earned himself a black eye for asking, “Are you trying to look more white?”
Not like Auggie could tell him he was trying to look less like the dumbass who got used by the first guy he ever fell in love with.
Auggie squeezed into the booth on Jack and Linsday’s side, putting the skinny brunette all the way against the wall. Drinks were already on the table.
“I ordered you a ginger ale,” April said.
“Thank you.” He hadn’t liked ginger ale since he was fifteen, but April never seemed to get the memo.
“We also got mozzarella sticks and a plate of wings,” Jack said, visibly excited over the idea of greasy appetizers.
Auggie resisted the urge to grimace. He’d reached his limit of deep-fried food when he ordered French fries with his veggie wrap at lunch. His digestive system could only handle so much in a day before going on strike.
“Can we get the Monster Pie?” Jack asked.
“Only if everyone wants pizza,” Silas said directly to Auggie.
Auggie didn’t give him the satisfaction of a reaction. If Auggie said he’d rather order a salad, then Silas would say no to the giant pizza. Jack wanted that pizza, so Jack was getting that pizza. Spending a few hours in the morning running to the toilet was worth seeing his nephew happy.
The table settled on half plain, half sausage and pepperoni.
“I saw your interview on the news tonight,” April said. “Your new project sounds interesting. How exactly is it different from your other show?”
“The concept is similar, but the actual aired footage will be much more condensed,” Auggie replied. “We have a day of planning and then three whole days to do the work on the room, instead of flipping it in forty-eight hours. And the homeowners are locals who submitted their rooms and were chosen based on need, rather than the ability to fit the reno into a two-day timeframe.”
“That sounds really exciting,” Lindsay said. “Did they announce the winners?”
“They’ll do that on tomorrow night’s six o’clock broadcast. The homeowners will be contacted about thirty minutes before the broadcast.”
“Wow. You have a fun job. I’ve thought about going into interior design.”
“My partner Steve is the designer. I get to handle all of the big tools.”
Jack snorted his soda. Lindsay frowned, the innuendo going right over her pretty little head.
“Well, you do know something about tools,” Silas said.
Auggie mentally eye-rolled and held his tongue. Jack changed the subject to his final year playing catcher for his high school’s baseball team, and Auggie made the joke all by himself, in his head. When their waitress returned, Jack very proudly ordered the Monster Pie. Auggie silently ordered a bottle an anti-diarrheal medicine. Silas started rambling on about his latest deal, and Auggie mentally tuned out.
The monstrous pizza finally arrived and was sitting on a serving tray next to the table. Grease glistened on its surface like a harbinger of doom. Since Auggie was closest to it, he began doling out pieces of the giant pie to order, depending on the topping preference. Auggie found a small piece of cheese pizza with as much crust and little topping as possible for himself.
He would so much rather be at Steve and Stephen’s house eating chicken and sipping good wine.
By the time everyone was finished, half of the monster pie was left. Jack won a brief argument to take some of it home, and April declared they could trash the rest. Auggie resisted another actual eye-roll in favor of a mental one. April knew damned good and well what it felt like to go hungry, and now that she’d found money she tossed food like it meant nothing.
Annoyance crept under his skin and stayed put, a tiny shard of glass he could not dislodge.
A troop of the wait staff came out of the kitchen with a lit cake that probably cost as much as their entire dinner, singing “Happy Birthday” to Jack. Auggie picked his way through a slice of too-sweet chocolate cake. Jack ate a few bites before claiming he was full, but Auggie knew better. Jack’s favorite hadn’t been chocolate since he was twelve, but April didn’t seem to care. Tradition was tradition, and April knew best.
Auggie had high hopes of escaping the uncomfortable booth very, very soon, and then Lindsay smashed that by leaning past Jack and saying, “So J tells me you’re gay.”
He stared at the petite girl, and if Jack had the complexion to blush, he probably would have in that moment. Auggie hadn’t come out to anyone except his family, but he also hadn’t made them promise to keep it a secret. “Okay,” he said.
He found minor amusement in the fact that April looked like she’d just chewed on dog shit. Manners and all that.
Lindsay seemed perfectly oblivious. “So do you have, like, a boyfriend or something?”
I thought I did. Once. Turns out he was a cheating asshole.
“Really?” Lindsay’s eyebrows arched into dramatic peaks. “But you’re so good looking.”
“It’s not, ah, something I’m looking for right now.”
“He’s still getting over his wife,” April said.
“Jocelyn and I have been divorced for three years,” Auggie said, maybe a little too defensively. “It was my call. I am very much over her, I am simply not looking for another relationship right now.”
“Too busy with your shows?” Lindsay asked.
“Yes.” Mostly a lie, but Auggie didn’t owe the girl an explanation. One person on the planet knew about the colossal mistake named Doug Swenson, and that was his best friend Connor. A year later and the lie still hurt. Even when Auggie was at his loneliest, giving real thought to trying to date again, that lingering pain kept him and his heart safely at home.
“That’s cool. But you know, I have an uncle who’s gay and kind of your age. If you start looking again.”
Auggie would have face-palmed if she wasn’t staring right at him. He was getting set up by his eighteen year-old nephew’s high school girlfriend. “I’ll, ah, keep that in mind, thank you.”
“Sure thing. So if you’re gay, how come no one really knows? On the show you play it so straight and all.”
“I’ve never said one way or the other on air. It’s the brand Steve and I created with the network, so we don’t do anything to change public perception.” And it kept people from digging into his divorce, harassing Jocelyn, and basically being a douche about something that wasn’t any of their business.
“Does anyone want any coffee or more soda?” the waitress asked, appearing in the nick of time to stop the godawful conversation.
“No, I think we’re all finished,” Silas replied.
The waitress plucked a slip from her black book and handed it over to Silas, who immediately gave her a credit card to run.
“Thanks for coming out for this, Uncle Auggie,” Jack said. “You gonna come to my baseball games?”
“As many as I can fit into my schedule,” Auggie replied.
The waitress promptly returned with receipts for Silas to sign. To April, she asked, “Would you like me to box up the rest of the cake?”
“No, you can throw it away,” April said.
Half of the two layer cake was leftover. “Why don’t you take it and share it with the kitchen staff?” Auggie suggested.
He earned a beaming smile for that. “Thank you so much, that’s very generous. I’ll have to ask my manager if that’s allowed.”
“If it is, then I hope you enjoy it.”
Auggie hated waste. He might have cut his hair and wore nice suits to work, but he damned well and sure would never forget where he came from. He owed too many people too many debts—and not the kind of debts that could be repaid with money.
Spiritual debts were almost impossible to wipe clean.
It didn’t stop him from trying, though.
“Your last position was as an office assistant at Hyatt, Wheeler, and Greene,” Mr. Tight Ass said. He stared down at the resume over the slim rim of silver-frame glasses like the words on the typed page were illegible child’s scrawl.
“Yes, sir,” Elliott Quinn replied. He could look at the polished nameplate on the guy’s desk, but Mr. Tight Ass fit better. The guy had walked into Elliott’s interview like he had a permanent clench.
I am already fucked. Again.
“Tell me why you left.”
I no longer gave a good shit, so I stopped going in and they fired me. “I no longer felt like I fit in with that particular law firm. I left to pursue other opportunities.”
“I see.” Mr. Tight Ass looked at Elliott over the rim of those glasses. “Would your supervisor at Hyatt tell me the same thing?”
Elliott swallowed, his throat dry. He wasn’t nervous. Not after his eighth interview this week going exactly the same way. “They would see it a bit differently. I neglected to put in a proper two-week’s notice, so I was fired.”
“Why didn’t you give your notice?”
He kind of wanted to yank those glasses off the guy’s face, since he didn’t seem to need them for reading paper or seeing people. “I was simply ready to leave the company. It was an inexcusable mistake that I will never repeat again, you have my word.”
“You’re right, failing to give proper notice to an employer is an inexcusable mistake. It reeks of immaturity and a lack of focus on one’s profession.”
Elliott pulled hard on his instinct to snap back at the Prick in a Suit. No, he shouldn’t have quit his old job like he had, but he’d kind of been stuck in a deep pit of depression, drugs, and sex, and he hadn’t been taking his actual life very seriously. Now that he’d been out of rehab for three weeks, he needed to get his ass back into the working world. He had money in the bank, but his credit was for shit and getting a rental agreement in a decent building was proving impossible.
“You’re absolutely right.” It was time to kiss ass, and not in the fun way.
“Of course I am.”
His inner bitch shrieked to be let loose on Mr. Tight Ass.
“Care to explain your lack of employment from the month of October onward?”
No. He cleared his throat. “I have financial income from investments, so I was able to take some time off and get my head together. To decide what I wanted to do with my life.”
“And that is to become an administrative assistant again?”
Hell to the no, and italicize that shit.
Elliott didn’t want a job like his old one, but he knew how to file, answer phones, keep track of a schedule and handle demanding bosses. He hadn’t found himself or his true passion at Baybrook House, but he had found the strength to stay sober and live his life again.
A life very, very different from the one he’d nearly wrecked.
“It’s fulfilling work, sir, and it allows me to be part of a larger machine,” Elliott replied. “Hyatt, Wheeler, and Greene is a very well-respected law firm here in Newark, and I would be honored to be part of this team.”
“I see.” Mr. Tight Ass propped his elbows on the desk and curled his hands together. “You see, I am very good friends with Ralph Braxton, one of the senior partners at Braxton, Greene, Bessler and Brown. I heard a different story about your leaving there.”
Elliott’s stomach soured, the acid scorching the back of his throat. Here it comes.
“I heard about an up-and-coming assistant with dreams of becoming a paralegal, who then went off the deep end. He began showing up hung over and unkempt, and then he stopped showing up at all. Office gossip was he fell hard into drugs and then ended up in rehab.”
“That’s an interesting story.” Elliott knew he was fucked but he’d be damned if he’d admit to any of that. The old Elliott Quinn had done those idiotic things. That Elliott had died when he ran a box cutter down his left arm.
“One I’m sure you’re all too familiar with. Mr. Quinn, I don’t believe that you’re going to be a good fit here. Thank you for stopping by.”
Mr. Tight Ass didn’t stand or offer his hand. Elliott let himself out, his cheeks burning as he made a hasty retreat from the law office. He’d applied hoping a law firm outside of Wilmington would at least consider him for a position. Apparently his reputation preceded him all the way to Newark.
Elliott sat in his idling car and wallowed in familiar feelings of failure. He’d failed at realizing his boyfriend of two years had been having an ongoing affair. He’d failed at being there to support James and Boxer, his two best friends in the universe, when they’d both needed him last autumn. He’d failed to keep his job. He’d failed to keep his apartment. He’d failed at every-damned-thing.
That’s doubt talking. That’s the old you. Not the new you. The new you is fresh with a thousand possibilities.
And a resume with a six-month gap on it.
He reached for the glove compartment and stopped with his fingers on the latch. That had been a favorite hiding place for the mint tin he’d kept his uppers in, and the need was automatic. Something to keep him going when all he wanted to do was curl up in a ball and sleep. The craving clawed at his breastbone and twitched into his fingertips. He could see the tin, see the tablets that would make it all better.
Except this was a different car and he didn’t have anything stashed in it. He didn’t have anything stashed anywhere, because he’d been sober for one hundred and thirty-nine days.
Getting something would be easy. He’d erased his old contacts from his phone, but he knew where they hung out. Knew the best bars to check. Knew it was as easy as handing over some cash, and then the numbness would return. The carefree energy that would get him through the agony of his job search.
He had his phone out and dialing before he acted on that craving.
“Hey, Ell, how did the interview go?” James asked.
James Taggert was his best friend on the planet, and he was a recovering alcoholic. He’d get it. “It fucking sucked balls, and not the good kind of balls.” Elliott hated that his voice was shaking. “No one is going to hire me, Jay, and all I want right now is a hit.”
“Where are you?”
“Sitting in my car outside the office building of Mr. Tight Ass.”
“Who? Never mind. I just left work for the day. Do you want to meet up and talk?”
“Yes. You want to come over to Tori’s? It’ll take me about twenty minutes, but the spare key is in that fake rock by the back door.”
“I’ll meet you there. Go straight home, okay?”
“I will, I swear.”
“Good. See you in a bit.”
Elliott hung up, that clawing in his chest fainter, not as strong. He could breathe more easily.
He passed two liquor stores on the way home, each one an exercise in restraint. The temptation pulled at his good sense, and he nearly made a U-turn once. Only his promise to James kept him on track, finally pulling up by the curb in front of Tori and Allen’s house, and his temporary residence. They’d invited him to stay as long as he wanted, but Elliott wasn’t used to relying on other people. Plus his cat liked to dig up Allen’s house plants.
The house was in a middle-class neighborhood, in a boxy, single-story house with one of the best tended front yards on the block. Allen was always redoing the hedges or the flower beds, and they had potted plants all over the interior. Elliott had never seen so much greenery in one house.
James had parked parked on the opposite side of the street. Elliott grabbed the leather portfolio he used to house his resumes, then trotted up the stone path to the front porch. Alexander von Schtump greeted him at the door with her signature chirp. He dumped the portfolio on the floor and picked up his cat. She head-bumped his chin.
“At least someone likes me.”
She chirped again.
Something edible was in the house.. He followed the tantalizing aromas of tomatoes and spices into the kitchen. James sat at the dining table, munching on a slice of pizza loaded with toppings. Elliott took a moment to appreciate the beauty of James, gorgeous on his worst day, in a tailored blue suit, snacking on pizza.
“I got the supreme from Lido’s,” James said.
Elliott’s favorite. “Thanks. You didn’t have to.”
“I had an ulterior motive. I worked through lunch and I am starving.”
“Don’t tell your boyfriend that.”
“I won’t if you won’t.”
James’s boyfriend Nathan didn’t hover, exactly, but he knew James had a habit of focusing on his patients and not on himself. “My lips are sealed.” Elliott grabbed a hot slice out of the box. The first bite of cheese and pepperoni and bell pepper burst on his tongue.
Food had become a bit of a stand-in for booze, drugs, and sex, and Elliott had the waistline to prove it. In four months he’d gone from too-skinny to soft around the middle, his washboard abs a thing of the past. Everything was softer except his face. All those angles were still too sharp. He looked angry all the time, almost feral, and he didn’t like it.
I need to get my ass to a gym.
His doctor had been telling him that for over a month anyway, railing on him to stay physically healthy.
As if he had anyone to look his best for nowadays. His sex drive was next to nothing, utterly destroyed by the news he’d gotten in rehab. News that hadn’t shocked him like it should have, because he was the idiot who’d put himself at risk over and over again.
The front door opened and shut. “Ell? Is that Jay’s car?” Tori hollered from the front of the house.
“Yeah,” James shouted back.
“Hey you!” Light footsteps approached. Tori swept into the room, her spiky red hair tipped in blue glitter. “What do you think?”
“It’s fabulous,” Elliott said. Tori had her own personal style, and it reflected in both her appearance and her attitude. The tiny woman was the only female bartender at a leather bar called Rusty Nail, and even the toughest muscle bears knew not to mess with her. They embraced her colorful exterior, and she swore up and down that new hairstyles guaranteed good tips from the regulars.
“Thanks, baby.” She kissed him and James on the cheek, then helped herself to pizza.
“Should you be eating that?” Elliott asked. “How’s your stomach?”
Tori had been on and off with some kind of stomach bug for over a week. “I feel great today, Mom, thanks. Since you’re not jumping up and down screaming, I guess the interview didn’t go well?”
Elliott shrugged. “I’m never going find work at a law firm again unless I move across the country. I totally screwed myself.”
“I can ask around,” James said. “See if any of my colleagues are looking for office help.”
“Sure.” Elliott wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to work in a psychiatrist’s office. Exposure to crazy people probably wouldn’t do much good for his own addiction problems. But he needed a job, so nothing was out of the question.
“Is that a good idea?” Tori asked.
“The only medications we keep on hand are samples,” James replied, “and even those are under lock and key.”
“Yeah but the temptation?”
“Is everywhere,” Elliott said. “I could probably look at a picture of a pussy and want to get high.”
James cringed. “That would make anyone want to get high.”
Tori smacked him on the back of the head. “Don’t speak for straight men and lesbians.”
Elliott laughed. “I’m just saying the craving is always there. It probably always will be.”
“It fades a little with time,” James said. “But you’re right. It never really goes away.”
“So are you guys going to stay and watch the news?” Tori asked. She pulled cans of cola out of the fridge, one for each of them. “They’re doing the announcement.”
“I’ll be here,” Elliott replied.
Tori had entered her kitchen in a contest at a local news station for a free single-room makeover. Three winners would be announced on tonight’s six o’clock broadcast, and the room would be redone by a pair of local design experts. Elliott had never seen their show, but he’d heard about the Reno Duo via bar gossip. Gay designer and his drop-dead gorgeous straight partner.
Tori’s kitchen hadn’t been remodeled in decades, and it had a fifties avocado meets seventies brown/orange vibe to it. Tori used to say she loved the kitsch of it all. Lately she’d been eyeing the entire house for a makeover. There never seemed to be any extra money for the project, though. Tori’s income depended on tips, and her husband Allen had been laid off last month. He’d gotten a decent severance package, but they didn’t want to touch that money until he found something else.
He and Elliott spent their evenings together going over the classifieds and snacking on cheese curls.
“I’m meeting Nate at six,” James replied. “We’re having dinner with Wally.”
“And you’re eating pizza at four-thirty?” Elliott asked.
“Wally’s cooking, and according to Nate, he’s not that good. I’m going in prepared. Plus I skipped lunch.”
Wallace Carey was a police detective like James’s boyfriend Nathan Wolf. Wally had been shot last fall and temporarily paralyzed, but he’d been improving steadily. He’d apparently gone back to work last week. Riding a desk, but at least he was working.
“Riley and Boxer gonna be there?” Tori asked. Riley was Wally’s son. Elliott didn’t understand the whole thing, because a lot of it had unfolded while he was high, and then in rehab, but there had been a five-year rift between father and son. They hadn’t been in contact, and Riley had changed his name to avoid his father. After Wally was shot, Riley gave in and made contact and the pair was working on their relationship.
Elliott only cared because it affected Boxer. Boxer was his other best friend, and if Boxer loved Riley… Well, Elliott was making an effort to like the kid.
“They were supposed to be,” James replied, “but they begged off last minute.”
“Boxer say why?” Elliott asked. Boxer was big on keeping promises.
“Only that he’d call me later tonight.”
Elliott nearly whipped out his cell phone. Boxer was the kind of gentle giant who did everything he could to take care of his friends, but when he needed something he backed off. Withdrew. Gave without taking. Clear sign that something was wrong. Boxer had done the same thing last fall when he broke up with Louis, acting like it was no big deal, keeping it all to himself.
Maybe him and Riley had a fight.
He didn’t wish any kind of unhappiness on Boxer, but those two didn’t make sense together. He’d barely spent any time around Boxer and Riley as a couple, since his own life had imploded at the height of their romance, but he had no reason to believe this thing with Riley wouldn’t end just as badly as Boxer’s last relationship had.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Elliott asked Tori.
“I haven’t talked to either one of them today,” she said, already on her second slice of pizza.
Elliott stared at his half-eaten piece, concern overriding his hunger. “Maybe one of us should call him.”
“He said he’d call me,” James said.
“I know, but—”
“Don’t spend time worrying over it, you’ll make yourself crazy.”
And make him want to take something to calm the frenzy in his brain. “Yeah, okay.” Easier said than done but he’d try.
They ate in silence for a while. Elliott forced the rest of his slice down, along with the soda.
“You think any more about your tattoo?” Tori asked.
“Not really.” Elliott glanced at his left forearm. The fading scar stretched from inner wrist to elbow, a constant reminder of the morning he couldn’t stand the pain any longer. Winter was a good excuse for long sleeves, but as they eased into March the days were slowly warming. He wanted to get a tattoo of some sort to help cover the scar. Boxer had given him some books to look over, but he couldn’t decide.
He’d never really wanted a tattoo, and now he desperately needed one. “I want it to at least mean something, you know?” he said. “So when people ask I don’t have to tell them it’s window dressing for the time I sliced my arm open.”
James frowned, but whatever he was about to say was cut off by his phone emitting a mechanical “Psst!” sound. Text alert from Nathan. “Apparently I can stay for the newscast. Wally cancelled dinner.”
“Did he say why?” Tori asked.
“Then invite Nate over. He can hang here with us while we all see if I’m getting a kitchen makeover.”
“What are the actual odds of you winning?” Elliott asked, while James typed.
“I don’t care. Have you seen my kitchen?”
“Many times.” Multiple times a day now that he was sponging off her.
“Then you understand I am in dire need.”
“Yes. I love you to pieces, Tor, but your kitchen is hideous.”
Tori thumped her fist against the kitchen table, making a vase of fake flowers rattle. “My point exactly.”
Elliott steadied the vase. The fake flowers inside were cheap and ugly, but the raspberry-red vase was gorgeous hand-blown glass. Something Tori and Allen had found at a flea market on their second date back in high school, and they had pooled their meager resources to buy it. Tori always said that’s when she’d known he was a keeper.
Another “Psst!” sound. “Nate said he’ll be here by six,” James said after checking his phone.
“Excellent,” Tori said. “Allen will be home at five-thirty-ish. It’s a party!”
A party to watch the evening news.
The front doorbell rang. Tori looked over her shoulder, as if that would tell her who was on her porch. She got up and disappeared. Elliott strained to listen.
“Hey, Boxer!” Her surprised excitement carried. “How are you, baby?”
“I’m okay. Ell and Jay here?”
“Yep, in the kitchen. Jay brought pizza.”
Boxer’s heavier footsteps followed Tori’s. Elliott braced himself for something, anything. All of the changed plans and no explanations. A doozy was coming.
Elliott shared a look with James, whose lips were creased in a frown.
“What’s going on?” James asked. “Where’s Riley?”
“He went to see his dad,” Boxer said. “Thought it best. I wanted to talk to you guys alone.”
“What’s wrong?” Elliot’s insides curled into knots. If Riley did something to hurt him…
Boxer exhaled, and some of his height and bulk seemed to shrink. “Went to see the dermatologist today. He did another mole removal.” Everything in his posture and face told them what he hadn’t yet.
The doctor had found something.