“ARE you sure you can’t get a general contractor’s license?” Drew said, wiping sweat out of his eyes.
“Did you just whine?” Nick said, grunting as he muscled a cherrywood cabinet into place. “Besides, what about the one you already work with?”
“Shut up. Bob’s great, but I’m getting tired of hiring an outside contractor so this work passes inspection, and anyway, you’d be cheaper,” Drew said. He set a level on the cabinet Nick had just installed and squinted at it as the bubbles moved sluggishly in the yellow fluid. “It’s not… quite… plumb.”
“How come you don’t have a contractor’s license?” Nick said, squatting down to tap a shim into place under the cabinet. Sweat soaked his shirt, as portable fans cooled the kitchen in theory only, but with the HVAC unit out, fans were all they could get in the summer heat.
Drew looked up from the level, struck once again by just how attractive his best friend was. Coaching the men’s crew at California Pacific College certainly encouraged Nick to keep himself fit—that, and his smokin’ hot boyfriend, Morgan. Some coaches let themselves go, but not Nick. Not for the first time, Drew found himself wishing they could’ve worked out, but they’d given that a whirl as undergraduates and both agreed they made better friends than lovers.
And what friends they were, pulling each other through hard times and celebrating the good. Drew had helped Nick win and keep Morgan. Nick worked like a dog all summer for Drew’s home renovation business. He was one of the few people Drew trusted besides himself to supervise each project from start to finish, the only other person whose eye for detail and quality touches matched his own. Nick treated the jobs done by St. Charles Renovations like it was his own name on the line, not Drew’s.
“Because getting my real estate license took all my time and money when I was younger, and now selling houses takes all my time,” Drew said. “The flipping was just a sideline, and now reno work for other people? It’s killing me, I tell you.”
“A sideline.” Nick snorted. “The best home flip in the area. Isn’t that what Sacramento Magazine named you this year? Spend the time on this it deserves and the St. Charles property empire could grow by leaps and bounds.”
“It still will. I like a challenge,” Drew said, grinning wolfishly. “Besides, sleep is for sissies.”
“You would know from sissies,” Nick said, watching Drew carefully to gauge the reaction, faintly disappointed when Drew barely even rolled his eyes. “Is it level?”
“Yes,” Drew said, straightening.
“Good, now you can use those over-gymmed muscles for something besides filling a polo shirt and help me hang the next cabinet. That’ll be the last of the uppers on this side of the kitchen. The guys can help me hang the rest later.”
“I can’t get too sweaty. I have to show houses this afternoon,” Drew said.
“Don’t worry, princess, you’ll still be the prettiest girl in the room,” Nick laughed. “I just need someone to steady it and hold it while I get it bolted to the cleats. The pilot holes have already been drilled.”
“Seriously, Nick, how am I going to replace you?” Drew said. “You’ll go back to coaching and your grad work all too soon, and I’ll lose my best crew leader.”
“I’m your only crew leader,” Nick pointed out.
Drew made a face. “Don’t remind me.”
“You and Renochuck have me for another two months, so make the most of it,” Nick said, “because after that I go back to just being your friend.”
“That’s what Octavio and the guys call it,” Nick said.
“Some of them barely speak English, and they still came up with Renochuck,” Drew said, shaking his head. He wiped a speck of dirt off the rich red wood.
Nick eyed Drew askance as he bent over. “Bend from the hips, not your lower back.”
“Yes, Coach,” Drew sighed.
“Did you enjoy throwing your back out last fall?”
Drew smirked. “Oh hell yes, I had a fabulous time throwing my back out.”
Nick didn’t reply. He just glared at Drew, warm brown eyes to merry blue ones. “Did you enjoy the aftermath? No? Then do it my way. I do know something about bodies in motion, thank you very much.”
“Yeah, that’s what Morgan tells me,” Drew said.
“Hands on,” Nick said, loftily ignoring his friend. He squatted down and put one hand under the cabinet and used the other on top to steady it. “In three. One, two, and up!”
“Now I know,” Drew grunted out, “where that coxswain of yours gets his abrasive tone from.”
“No, that’s totally Stuart’s,” Nick said. “Besides, we’re crew. We’re not real bright, but we can lift heavy objects. Now, put those muscles to some use, Muscle Mary, and hold this steady while I drill it.”
“I’m sure you’re very good at drilling, seeing how much practice you’ve been getting,” Drew said, muscles of his arms and back straining to hold the cabinet in place as Nick hurried to secure it to the wall. Then he noticed something. “Why is the taller of the two of us the one who’s not holding this up?”
Nick grinned at him. “Because I’m the drilling expert, remember? There,” he said as he put the last bolt in. “That’ll hold it while I finish up. You can let go.”
Drew lowered his arms. “Seriously, how’s it going with you and Morgan?”
He pretended to listen as Nick rattled off a list of his boyfriend’s virtues, but Nick’s syrupy smile actually answered the question well enough. “I’m sorry, what’d you just say?”
“I asked if you were going to be around this weekend,” Nick said. “I’m meeting his parents for the first time, and I’m scared shitless. I’m hoping you’ll be around so I can send panicked text messages from the bathroom.”
“Meeting the parents? It must be serious,” Drew said, smiling.
“You know it. He’s it, the only one I’ll ever want,” Nick said.
“Some of us might like the chance to find that for ourselves, you know,” Drew said, pretending to be very interested in a small pile of loose screws.
“Aww, jeez, not Brad Sundstrom again. I keep telling you he’s straight,” Nick said.
“Just his phone—”
Nick put the drill down. “Look, Drew. You know I can’t give out his information without his permission. It’s a confidentiality issue, among other things. I was his coach, technically a college official. I can’t just hand out phone numbers like that.”
Drew knew all about Nick’s scruples, having listened to him endlessly gnaw his guts out about his interest in Morgan. He supposed he ought to be grateful to Morgan for taking matters into his own hands, if not because Morgan made Nick happy, then because it shut Nick up. “Then will you at least give him my number if he asks for it?”
“C’mon, Nick. It’s a fair question. Don’t I at least deserve the chance to get shot down?”
“I just don’t want to see you hurt,” Nick said quietly.
“I’m a big boy, babydoll. I can take care of myself.”
“I know, and yeah, if he asks, I’ll pass your number on,” Nick said.
Drew looked at his watch. “Shit, it can’t be that late, can it?”
“It can be, yes. Late for the showings?” Nick asked.
“Just about. Everything looks great so far, but keep in touch, and let me know if you hear from the counter fabricators, will you?” Drew said, already heading for his car.
“Of course,” Nick said, picking up his drill.
Drew tried to mop the sweat off his brow as he rushed for his car but only succeeded in pushing it up into his brown locks. He had just enough time to run home and shower before he showed the first of the homes to his clients. Yeah, rummaging around in the dirt and sawdust probably wasn’t the best idea, but he couldn’t give up fixing up homes, he just couldn’t. What he hadn’t told Nick was that some days, he felt like he’d made a huge mistake in getting a real estate license instead of going directly into repair and improvement. Working his way through the building trades might’ve seemed strange after getting his bachelor’s degree in business, but it would’ve been handy when he got a contractor’s license. While he’d never wanted to be a designer, there was something almost magical about watching a dump of a home rise from the depths to become a showplace, limited only by budget and imagination. The cabinets with their reeded glass inserts, the soapstone counters that were supposed to have arrived last week, the reclaimed Indonesian teak floors covered with marine varnish to repel water, the lighting, all of the pieces fitted together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that only he could solve—that was why he couldn’t keep out of it.
But how—oh how—was he going to replace Nick?
BRAD SUNDSTROM looked at the clock. My, how time flies. Those five minutes just raced by, he thought.
He sat at his desk in the sales office of a subdivision no one wanted to live in. Shitty little houses on tiny lots out in the middle of nowhere. As far as Brad could tell, Randall Sundstrom didn’t own the land between here and civilization, so this place wouldn’t serve as an anchor to further development. When he’d asked about this, his dad had just snapped, “You create the demand, son. You should know that. Build the houses and the rest will come.”
Come? They weren’t even breathing hard.
Brad glanced around the office, anything to relieve the tedium. There weren’t even games on the computer. He’d checked. There were two other empty desks for non-existent salespeople and a display of the entire subdivision with little plastic Monopoly houses on the few lots that had sold and the few more that had been built on but languished, unsold and unloved. The people who lived there were sure going to be pissed when this place went belly-up, which Brad figured would be sometime early the middle of next year, at the rate this place wasn’t selling. His dad would probably find a way to blame him for it too.
The view out the picture windows depressed him. Inexpensive landscaping had been slapped down to gussy up the parking area in front of the sales office, but beyond that was nothing but the seared brown fields of the Sacramento Valley in the middle of summer. Heat mirages shimmered in the air over the blacktop, making Brad’s battered Lexus waver and flicker in the midday heat, magnifying the scratches and dents the two Sundstrom boys had put in their mother’s old car since her death.
He flicked a bit of onion, fallen from the sandwich he’d picked up on the way in, off his desk. He’d learned the second day he’d worked out here in this godforsaken pit not to eat the burritos from the local stop-and-rob attached to the one gas station on the feeder road to the subdivision.
Brad put his long legs up on his desk. He couldn’t believe this was what his life had become. He’d graduated from CalPac over a month ago, and the contrast was just killing him. He’d only dimly realized it at the time, but those five years at CalPac College had been the best years of his life. More or less out from under his father’s thumb, he’d been one of the big men on campus, literally and figuratively. Sure, there’d been classes to contend with, and Coach Bedford could be a real asshole when he wanted to be, but that had been part of the fun too.
He smiled for the first time in days. Crew really had been fun, maybe even what made the rest of school worth it. Despite the blood, sweat, and occasional tears, he’d never felt more alive. Even his rivalry with Morgan Estrada, which had led him to do the one thing he regretted in life, even that had been part of the experience. He’d lost. Morgan was stronger, maybe even the better oarsman, but even losing to Morgan had been as important to his experience as anything else. It meant something, he was sure. He just couldn’t figure out what. He and Morgan and the others had shared the big win at the Pacific Coast Rowing Championships, so even though his unofficial rivalry had come to nothing, his rowing experience had still meant something.
That race. Brad dwelt on it quite a bit on those long afternoons, when it was too hot even for hungry real estate agents to drag wary clients out to this “entry-level” subdivision. Sure, the race itself had been one for the CalPac record books, but it was the aftermath that he returned to again and again. Coach Bedford had stepped down after dropping an atomic bomb on the crew: he’d been dating one of them! Brad hadn’t been surprised—after all, there’d been that day in the boathouse—but he acted like it. Morgan had gone off after their coach, and on a whim, Brad followed.
What he saw had stopped him in his tracks, and every time he thought it about, it still had the power to freeze him in place. Morgan Estrada and Nick Bedford locked in an embrace, kissing like they were the only two in the world. The sight of it had puzzled his brain at the time, but the more that Brad thought about it, the more he understood it. That kiss had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with love, a love he’d never experienced. He’d thought he had, but that day after the race, watching those two men, Brad knew he’d only been fooling himself with all those chicks he’d banged in high school and beyond. Nothing with his last girlfriend, the one who’d talk about marriage, had ever felt like that kiss between Morgan and Nick looked, like for that moment, they were all that mattered. Each was the air the other breathed, the sunlight that warmed them, and the ground beneath their feet.
Brad, a little wistfully, wondered what that might’ve been like. Then, like the caboose on a runaway freight train, came the thoughts of Drew, Coach Bedford’s fairy friend. Brad was uncomfortably aware that once upon a time he might’ve called a man like Drew St. Charles a homo, not that he’d have meant anything by it. It was just a word.
But that was… before. Before the kiss. When he thought about it, and lately it seemed like it was all he thought about, maybe his attitude toward gays had started to change before the kiss. He’d never been homophobic; gays just weren’t on his radar. But at some point, Brad noticed Drew. He tended to show up at the local regattas, and Brad just figured it had been because he was Coach Bedford’s friend. Had he and Coach…?
Brad shook the image out of his head. It was nowhere he wanted to go. Drew. Brad had noticed him everywhere that spring, and now he seemed to be a permanent resident of Brad’s imagination. He couldn’t figure that out. He just kind of enjoyed the fluttery feeling in his stomach that came with the thoughts.
Brad spun in his chair and flicked his computer back awake. Damn thing was as bored as he was. He opened up the web browser and his mail account, his private e-mail, not the company account. He wasn’t that stupid.
He started typing a note to Morgan. He wrote to him more and more lately, sometimes just to say howdy, sometimes to talk about crew, sometimes… sometimes to beat around the bush for awhile before asking Morgan to ask his boyfriend for Drew’s e-mail. Brad had already looked Drew up on Facebook. Actually, Drew seemed to have two accounts, a personal one and a professional one. The personal one was locked down tight, and Brad didn’t have the balls to friend him out of the blue. Instead, he chewed his guts out and perused the professional one for glimpses of Drew. They were there, obviously. Drew showing houses. Drew renovating, including one tantalizing pic of Drew in a tight, sweaty shirt.
Morgan had yet to come through, but he was weakening, Brad was sure of it. Brad could be a pretty charming guy when he wanted to be, and right now, he really wanted Drew’s e-mail.
Brad wasn’t much of a letter-writer, and the e-mail, including beating around the bush, was soon sent, and reality once again intruded. He was still stuck where he didn’t want to be, living at home, earning money at a job he hated, and a boss… he wasn’t fond of his boss, either. He missed his old life, and if he’d known what the new one held, he might’ve gone for that sixth year. He went back to staring out the window.
It felt like hours later, but someone drove up the feeder road. Brad watched with unseeing eyes. Then he jumped as the dust cloud registered. That meant traffic. That meant something to do. That meant human contact.
The dust cloud resolved into a pickup truck. Okay, that didn’t necessarily mean one of the construction crews. But then he caught sight of the sunburst logo of Sundstrom Homes, and his dad, Randall Sundstrom himself, got out of the truck.
Brad sat up, pulling his feet off his desk. He rubbed one hand across his cropped hair nervously. He watched his dad approach, practically strutting. His father was shorter than he was, but broader, if that were possible, and built like a fireplug where Brad was just big and heading for beefy. Despite the weathered appearance a career spent outdoors had given him, Randall’s hair was still just as blond as it had always been. Sometimes Brad wished he’d inherited his dad’s genes for hair, rather than the baldness from his mom’s father, but mostly he’d made peace with his thinning hair.
Randall walked in the door, a battered leathern portfolio tucked under one arm. “Bradley.” He crossed the room and went directly to the file cabinets where Brad had been told to store the files of pending and completed sales, as well as the design records on each inhabited house. “There’s nothing new here, Bradley.”
“Randall, this place blows,” Brad complained without stopping to think first. “You told me when I agreed to come work for you that I’d be in the custom end of things.”
Randall looked up from the file he was reading. “First of all, there was no ‘agreed to come work for me’. I hired you because with your qualifications, I’d be paying for your upkeep regardless, and this way I’m getting some work in return. Or I would be if you’d actually sell some homes.”
“How am I supposed to do that when no one ever comes out here?” Brad grumbled.
“You’re here to prove yourself,” Randall said, shrugging as if it weren’t really his problem.
“How can I, when this place is dead?” Brad grumbled. Even he could tell the conversation had already curved back around on itself.
“Bring it back. That’s one of the reasons you’re out here. Since you’re so smart, it shouldn’t be any problem for you,” Randall said.
And there it was. Sooner or later their every argument came down to that. Randall thought Brad was stupid, and never missed a chance to remind his younger son of that fact. Every time they had this conversation, Brad felt like a naughty six-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar or breaking a window. Or breaking a window with the cookie jar.
Brad knew he wasn’t the smartest guy around, but he also knew he wasn’t that dumb, either. He’d actually done all right in school, graduating with a respectable GPA, even if he’d been a physical education major. But Randall had decided that of his two sons, Brad was the dumb one, and no amount of evidence to the contrary would be entertained.
Brad took a deep breath and tried again. “You specifically told me that I would be working in the custom division, not here. This isn’t even the active part of the tract-home division. This place is going to fail, and you know it.”
“Prove yourself, then talk to me about a transfer,” Randall said, shrugging.
“How can I do that when this place is dying?”
Another parental shrug. “That’s why I’ve put you here. New blood, fresh ideas.”
“Well, gee, Dad, I’ll just rewrite the marketing plan, since this one’s not working so well. Oh wait, I never studied marketing!” Brad said, trying to sound like Drew, the wittiest person he knew. He slapped his forehead. “That’s right, you pay some company for that. You’re sure getting your money’s worth. You never even asked me. You just plunked me down out here after telling me—guaranteeing me—that I’d start in the custom division. If I’d known I was going to be stuck out here in Outermost Bumfuck, I’d have taken another job,” Brad said.
“What other jobs?” Randall asked pointedly. “Did you even apply for anything else, or did you just assume I’d carry your ass like I always do?”
Brad looked down. “I didn’t apply for anything else because you promised me a job.”
“You’ve got no experience,” Randall said with exaggerated patience, “and—”
“You mean besides every summer since I started high school? I’ve done everything on the homes you build but pick out carpet in the design center. I’ve even led crews,” Brad said.
“No experience that counts,” Randall snapped, “and you’re lucky to have this one. Grow up.”
“I am grown up,” Brad said.
“You can’t be a teenager forever, but that’s what you act like. Man up. It’s time,” Randall said, shaking his head. He opened the leather folder and pulled out a business card. “Here’s the number for that worthless advertising agency. Call our sales rep and see what you can come up with to turn this place around.”
“Oh yes, sir,” Brad muttered as Randall stomped back to his truck. He glared at the clock. Fifteen whole minutes later than the last time he’d looked. At this time just a few months before, he’d have been carrying oars down the dock to get ready for practice. The realization made the office around him look smaller and tackier than it already was.
He picked the business card off the desk and stared at it for long moments. How the hell was he supposed to come up with a marketing plan, advertising agency or not? He almost wished he’d studied something useful in college, but CalPac College didn’t offer building management, and the communications major was aimed at broadcast journalism rather than PR. But somehow he was supposed to convince real estate agents to bring their clients out to this godforsaken wasteland.
Wait a minute. Brad sat up a little straighter in his chair. Drew was a real estate agent. He grinned, the first time since he’d started working there, as an idea sprouted.