One more junk collector pushing up daisies. Not the most charitable of thoughts, but it was the best Marc could do while his Aunt May rattled on about where she wanted to start the estate sale hunt that morning.
“It’s a crying shame. A crying shame. Poor Mr. Steinbrick spent the last years of his life all alone, puttering around that huge house, and do you think anybody came to take care of him when he got sick? No.”
Marc murmured something noncommittal. He shut the door, then took his time walking around to the driver’s side of his truck. He hoped that by the time he reached the other side her ranting would have run its course, but when he opened his door, she was still going, like Marc had been listening the whole time. He sighed affectionately, resigning himself to a day of her one-sided conversations.
“He barely stepped foot out the front door for years. Lord knows what he was doing, mind you, alone for all that time. It’s unnatural, hiding away from the world like that, and I told him so. Yes, I did. We used to be so close, you see.” Her voice trailed off, and she frowned out the window. Marc waited, knowing she wasn’t finished. “But time changes things,” May continued after a brief reprieve. “Time changes us.”
“It doesn’t change everyone,” Marc heard himself say. He pressed his lips together before his brain got another head start on his good sense.
“Maybe not.” May sniffed, then shook herself, casting off the melancholy mood like a dog shed water. “He appreciated a fine piece of furniture when he saw one, as I recall. I’ll bet the place is full of treasures. Can you imagine?”
Marc could imagine, and he didn’t bother adding that the estate sale crowd was probably taking similar bets. Just as they gossiped about what his aunt might be collecting in her own home. Rumor had it she kept back the best of her finds for herself, which Marc could’ve confirmed if anybody had bothered to ask him.
He pushed his blond hair out of his eyes, smoothing it over his ears. “So is that where you want to start?”
Aunt May nodded. “And you probably should have worn something you didn’t mind getting dirty. There’s no telling the last time these things saw a good cleaning. Though that might be just enough to drive the amateurs away.” She cackled and clutched her floral fabric bag to her chest.
Marc glanced down at his jeans and red T-shirt, then he shrugged and put the truck in gear. “This is fine. I don’t mind getting it dirty.”
His Saturday mornings had been taken up with Aunt May and her estate sales since he’d owned a vehicle capable of catering to her compulsive habit. Ten summers of never sleeping in on a day that rightfully should’ve belonged to him. It might’ve soured some relationships, but resentment had never quite outweighed Marc’s sense of obligation. His Aunt May had been both a mother and a father to him, and in all the years of his life, she’d only ever asked for this one thing.
“All right,” he said, flashing a smile at her. “The Steinbrick estate sale first.”
He swung out of her driveway and onto the road, heading east toward the lake. May adjusted her seatbelt over her pink pinstripe blouse, then balanced her notepad on her lap. Nibbling on her pen, she scoured the classified section.
“Any other good prospects today?” Marc asked. It wouldn’t hurt to feel her out. Find out just how long he might be running her around the countryside this particular Saturday. Sometimes it was only an hour or so. Other times, the majority of his day went into moving boxes and furniture.
“Steinbrick’s will be the biggest, and where I’ll find the good stuff this weekend. I’m sure of it.”
Marc snorted. “You’re acting like he was hoarding the crown jewels. You have no idea what the old man owned.”
“I know some. Paul was hardly a stranger.”
May ignored the obvious request for clarification. “This is a small town. Word gets around.”
Yes, it did, Marc thought with a grimace. Got around like wildfire. Edgewood was small enough that few secrets stayed that way, unless one was careful. Over the years, Marc had learned to be very, very careful.
“Speaking of which,” Aunt May continued, “I heard from Horace over at the butcher that you canceled your date with Rachel last weekend.”
“So?” Marc fixed his eyes on the road. It twisted around the creek, then back up the hill. He pretended to be preoccupied with navigating his truck around the tight bends.
“Why did you do that?”
“Aunt May.” Marc rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s none of your business, you know.”
“That’s never stopped me before.”
“And never will, most likely,” Marc grumbled.
“Did you have a fight?”
Marc clenched his teeth and took the next turn a bit too fast. May bumped against her door with a grunt. “No,” he ground out. “We didn’t have a fight.”
“Are you sure? This is the second date you’ve cancelled in as many weeks.”
“How the hell—” Marc hit the brakes and pulled to the side of the road. “Never mind,” he said, turning to face her. “I know exactly how you know that. Those gossipmongers in your card club don’t know when to shut up.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to rein in his temper. “She’s still dealing with a lot of things from her last boyfriend. Sometimes it’s hard for her, dealing with the memories. If she wants time alone, she deserves it, okay?”
May clucked her tongue. “He was horrible to her, I’ve heard. Men like that should be thrown in jail for the rest of their miserable lives.”
Marc agreed, of course. It had taken Rachel months to open up about the abuse she’d suffered while under that bastard’s control, and even though she no longer hid from what had happened, she hated to dwell on it.
“Stay out of it, okay?” Marc clenched the steering wheel. “It’s really none of your business what’s going with Rachel and me.”
Aunt May clucked her tongue. “I only want you to be happy. Is that too much for an old lady to ask?”
Marc swallowed the guilt that surged up his throat. He reached across the seat and took her wrinkled hand in his. “I am happy, okay? I’ve got the house, and the business is really starting to take off. I’m fine. I’m happy. I don’t need a—I’m fine, okay?”
He squeezed her fingers in his, and after a moment, she did the same. Her expression softened, grew somber, and Marc’s heart sank. He knew what was coming as sure as he knew he’d be loading his truck with junk in less than an hour. “You’re like a son to me, you know that?” May sniffed and wiped at a stray tear.
Marc nodded, groaning inwardly. “Yes.”
“The son I never had. Is it wrong for me to hope you’ll settle down and give me a grandchild or two?”
“It’s not wrong,” he whispered. He pulled his hand away, checked his mirrors, and pulled back onto the road. It wasn’t wrong. It was just never going to happen. He’d been busy enough with school and starting up the business that the occasional date with Rachel had kept the gossip at bay, but he wondered how much longer he could go before the rumors started about him. A year. Maybe two. Probably a lot sooner.
“Can we drop it? Please?” he asked, staring at the road. When the silence stretched, he shot her a sideways glance.
“I suppose,” May muttered. She opened her mouth, Marc cringed, and she shut it again without saying another word. They rode in silence for several minutes after that, Marc biting his lip and May clutching her bag. Just before they turned onto Church Road, less than a mile from the Steinbrick farm, she reached over and patted his knee. He turned to look, and she smiled, then winked at him. The tension that had been bunched in Marc’s shoulders bled away.
They turned onto the long, gravel driveway a minute later. Marc pulled past the house and stopped in front of the detached garage. A quick glance at the dash showed him they were almost an hour early, common behavior for estate-sale junkies. “Does the ad say anything about early birds?” he asked, peering out the windshield at the house. It looked uninhabited.
“Doesn’t say ‘no early birds’, which is just as good as saying they’re fine,” May replied.
Marc refrained from contradicting her. He killed the engine and got out, then walked around to open May’s door. The morning was still and silent, and he caught himself looking around nervously as he helped her climb down from the cab.
The Steinbrick house had begun as a three-story Victorian, but at some point one of its owners had added two wings that stretched out from the main house. Marc admired how the additions complemented the structure instead of detracting from its stately grace. A wide porch wrapped around the front and sides. Perhaps the house had seen better days, but the peeling paint and broken shutters couldn’t hide its solid construction.
“Come on, Marc,” May scolded. She tapped her cane against his shin. “The day’s wasting.”
Marc handed over her purse, and as she was slinging it over her shoulder, another car pulled in behind them. Suddenly as spry as a ten-year-old, May took off across the yard as fast as her legs would carry her. “That’s Kitty Singer! Quick, Marc! We’ve got to get to the door first!”
Marc swallowed a snort and instead of following walked over to Mrs. Singer’s black Lincoln. He opened the door, laughing under his breath at how the loud squeak made May hobble even faster. He took Mrs. Singer’s hand and helped her out of the car. “No Mr. Singer today?” he asked.
“Nope. I’m all by my lonesome this morning.” Kitty glared over the top of her sedan at May, who had reached the top of the porch stairs and was knocking on the front door. She shook her head. “Even getting here an hour early isn’t enough to beat your aunt to a sale, Marc.”
“That’s the truth.” He shut the car door. “She’s had her eye on this one since she saw it in the paper on Tuesday.”
“Haven’t we all.” Mrs. Singer leaned close, and after casting a wary eye at May, Marc bent down so she could whisper in his ear. “We’re not the only ones who want a look at that grandson of his, either. Expect a crowd to be arriving very soon.”
“Grandson? I thought Mr. Steinbrick didn’t have any family.”
“No! The man has four grandchildren, though this is the only one who ever took any interest in him, far as I know. He’s some famous writer or columnist or something. From Pittsburgh.”
Which might as well be an alien planet to most of these folks. Marc frowned up at the house. On the porch, his aunt knocked impatiently on the door once more. “I don’t remember him having anybody at all,” he mused.
Mrs. Singer began walking toward the porch, and Marc followed. He tried to ignore how his aunt was glaring at him over her shoulder. Five bucks said he’d get a lecture later for fraternizing with the enemy. “Oh, yes,” Mrs. Singer went on, glaring back at May. “Paul had a daughter, but she never lived with him. His young wife took her away when she was just a baby. It was quite the scandal back then.” She sniffed and nodded at May. Marc grinned at his aunt’s own stiff nod.
For all of May’s knocking, the house stayed quiet. In fact, Marc was about to suggest they leave and return a bit later, when he heard the thump-thump of someone running down the stairs.
“About time,” May grumbled.
“Not the prompt sort, is he?” Mrs. Singer answered. They shared a disapproving look.
A shadow appeared behind the frosted glass pane, and a moment later it swung open to reveal a man who Marc assumed was Mr. Steinbrick’s grandson. Marc took a step back, eager to put himself out of the way of May’s business, but one look at the man turned his graceful retreat into a clumsy stumble. He caught the railing before he embarrassed himself too badly, hoping the heat spreading up his neck wasn’t obvious.
The man pushed the screen door open and stepped out onto the porch, welcoming May and Mrs. Singer with a wide, friendly smile. He wore a white, wrinkled T-shirt and jeans. His feet were bare, which drew a scowl from his aunt.
“Can’t afford decent shoes, young man?” she asked with her usual forthrightness.
“Um….” The man laughed and ran a hand through his chocolate brown hair. Thick and wavy, it curled at his ears and at the base of his neck. A shadow of a beard covered his cheeks, and his bright eyes, as pale a blue as Marc had ever seen, sparkled with mirth.
Marc swallowed once, cursing his dry mouth and galloping heart. As surreptitiously as possible, he tightened his grip on the railing.
“Wow,” the man said. “I thought I made the ad for nine o’clock.”
“Yep. You did,” May confirmed. Marc rolled his eyes, then mouthed “sorry” over his aunt’s shoulder when the man finally looked at him.
“Well,” the man said, voice soft and eyes still on Marc, “your enthusiasm is appreciated, if unexpected. I’m Sawyer, by the way. Paul Steinbrick was my grandfather.” He smiled, and Marc’s stomach clenched.
“Interesting name,” Mrs. Singer remarked as he shook their hands. Marc gave a quiet groan.
Sawyer grinned. “My mother was a very interesting lady,” he said. “She loved Twain.” They all shared a polite laugh. Marc hoped his didn’t sound too forced.
“Don’t tell me,” May said. “You have a brother named Huckleberry.”
“Would you believe Finn?” May and Mrs. Singer gawked, and Sawyer chuckled. “It’s true. He’s a couple of years older than me.”
“I don’t recall ever hearing his name,” Mrs. Singer said.
Sawyer’s grin faded a bit. “No. I don’t suppose you would have. He and my granddad were never really close.”
Marc couldn’t let Sawyer’s statement pass without offering some condolence. “I’m sorry about your grandfather. I didn’t know him very well, but I remember speaking to him a few times about his time in the war. His stories were fascinating.”
Sawyer swung his gaze back to Marc, pinning him in place with his unusual, arresting eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “He loved to tell stories, about the war, especially. When I was a boy, I’d sit at his feet for hours while he talked.”
Marc nodded, swallowing when Sawyer didn’t look away. His palms were damp, and there was a low buzzing in his ears.
“You’re still a boy,” Aunt May said, pointing a bony finger at Sawyer, and he gave a self-conscious laugh.
“If you say so, ma’am. I won’t argue. Um….” He glanced over his shoulder into the foyer, then shrugged, scratching at his stomach. “I expect things are as ready as they’re going to be. You’re welcome to go on in and take a look around, if you like.”
Horrified, Marc watched his aunt and Mrs. Singer push past Sawyer, knocking him off-balance. Marc jumped forward to catch his arm. He stopped the swinging screen door with his other hand before it hit the both of them. “I am so sorry.”
Wide-eyed, but still smiling, Sawyer straightened, making no effort to step away from Marc. “They take this pretty seriously, don’t they?”
Marc nodded, fascinated with the way the muscles in Sawyer’s arm rippled under his fingers. A combination of smells assaulted him: soap, coffee, and a hint of furniture polish. Overwhelmed, he tried to keep his expression neutral—with little success if Sawyer’s slow, sly smile was any judge.
“You want to get in there too?” Sawyer jerked his chin in the direction of the foyer.
“No,” Marc breathed. Embarrassed, he cleared his throat. “No. I’m just the chauffer.”
Sawyer laughed and finally, finally, stepped away. Marc’s hand dropped from his bicep. “And the furniture mover, among other things, I’d bet.”
“Let’s just call it cheap laborer and cover all our bases,” Marc said.
From somewhere in the house, Marc could hear his aunt and Mrs. Singer bickering, but Sawyer showed no inclination to investigate. Instead, he leaned back against the siding, crossed one bare foot over the other, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his faded jeans. “So should I be expecting more people this early, you think?”
Marc nodded, welcoming the excuse to look away from those piercing eyes. He glanced at the yard, squinting through the bright morning sun. Already another car was creeping up the drive. He couldn’t help but smile when he heard Sawyer groan behind him. “There’s your answer, I’m afraid,” Marc said. As the third car parked behind Mrs. Singer’s Lincoln, a fourth turned in from the road, throwing gravel as it raced toward the house.
Sawyer looked on curiously, a confused smile on his face. When two older women piled out of the first car and scrambled toward the front porch, his expression turned a bit fearful. “Hello,” he said, stepping out of the way as they reached the door. Their replies were barely audible as they rushed past him into the house, chattering about a matching bedroom suite and mahogany china cabinet. The driver approached more slowly. He climbed the three steps to the porch, head hung low like a condemned man. Marc was shaking with quiet laughter by the time he joined them by the door.
“Marc,” the man said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
The sarcasm fueled Marc’s amusement. “I could say the same, Frank. Betty’s got you up early this morning.”
“Yep.” Frank stopped to pull a handkerchief from his back pocket. He dabbed it across his forehead. “She couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this one. A chance to get first dibs on Mr. Steinbrick’s fabled china cabinet. And, of course, to ogle this famous grandson of his.”
Marc glanced sideways at Sawyer and was relieved to find him trying to hide a smile. “Well, Frank, today’s your lucky day. You actually beat your wife to something. This is Sawyer, Mr. Steinbrick’s famous grandson. Sawyer, this is Frank Jones.”
“Not so famous,” Sawyer said, reaching to shake Frank’s hand.
Frank returned the firm shake. “Nice to meet you. I hear you’ll be sticking around town for a while, so I’m sure we’ll get better acquainted. As for now”—he paused as another argument broke out in the room beyond—“I better go make sure Betty doesn’t start a cat fight. I do believe she might’ve loaded a couple of bricks into her purse this morning.” Mumbling about crazy old ladies, he stepped inside.
Marc took in Sawyer’s shell-shocked expression. “He was kidding.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well.” Marc ran his tongue over his teeth. “Pretty sure. They make it all out to be a big deal, but I don’t think any one of them would actually resort to violence. There’s a bit of a competition around here, you know. The town’s loaded down with old families, but not old money so much anymore. People come to these parts all the way from the city to get their one-of-a-kind antiques and collectibles. To be honest, you probably would’ve made a bit more money if you’d talked to one of the auction houses in town.”
Sawyer shrugged. “Marc, is it?”
“Well, Marc, the thing of it is, I don’t need the money so much that I wanted to deal with a full-blown auction. And I kind of felt like….”
Marc cocked his head. “Like what?”
“Like what was left of my granddad should go back to the community where he spent his life, you know?” He kicked at the plank boards under his feet. “Silly, I know. But he really loved this place. Edgewood. He talked about it all the time.”
Warmth spread through Marc. It wasn’t silly, he wanted to say. There was something special about the town. He’d stayed on after graduating from the local college because of it. He’d started his business here, even though he knew his personal life would be put under the microscope sooner or later. Plus he could never abandon Aunt May. “I understand,” he said, nodding.
Marc nodded. “Yeah.” Something Frank had said came back to him. “So are you staying in town?” Even as he asked, his heart rate accelerated.
“I think so.” Sawyer looked pensive for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I am,” he said, sounding more certain this time. “I need a break from the city, and my work doesn’t hold me down to any one place. I think I’m going to stick around for a while.”
“Work from anywhere, huh? Sounds like a dream job.”
“Yeah, in a way.” Sawyer crossed his arms over his chest. “The magazine originally hired me just to write. Fun, but the pay left a lot to be desired. The promotions came fast, but I have to be honest, I’m not exactly manager material. I’d much rather get my hands dirty.”
Marc could certainly relate to that. “Is that what you are now? A manager?”
Sawyer gave a sheepish smile. “I’ve got some fancy title that implies I manage things, yeah. But I’ve also got a competent, self-motivated staff. That’s the blessing.” He rubbed his palms together. “Leaves me more time for the fun stuff.”
“Like estate sales?”
Sawyer winked. “Exactly.” His mouth curled into a fond smile. “My granddad left the house and property to me, but I only need a fraction of what he’s got stuffed into this place. Some of the things have sentimental value, but—” He shrugged. “I think they’ll be put to better use by someone else.”
Marc bit back a laugh. “My aunt thanks you.”
Before Sawyer could reply, there was the sound of shattering glass and more yelling. He paled before shooting Marc an apologetic look and ducking inside. “See you later, Marc?”
“Sure thing. I’ll be out here,” Marc said, gesturing at the yard. He burst into laughter when Sawyer mouthed “bastard” before letting the screen door shut behind him.
Loading up Aunt May’s purchases so they could be transported without getting damaged was like working a jigsaw puzzle. Marc figured he’d need to make two trips and separated out the pieces that would fit best for the first load. Sawyer appeared as he was lifting a highboy onto the tailgate.
“Here, Marc. Let me help.” Sawyer swung onto the bed of the pickup and lifted the end of the dresser onto the moving pad. Together, they slid the heavy piece of furniture to the rear of the bed, where Marc secured it with several bungee cords. When he’d connected the last one, he glanced up to thank Sawyer, but the words died in his throat.
Sawyer had stripped off his T-shirt and was mopping the perspiration from his face. “Okay, Marc,” he said with a chuckle. He stuffed the shirt through one of the belt loops on his jeans. “You do this every weekend?”
Marc tore his eyes away from Sawyer’s bare chest. “In the spring and summer.” He stayed crouched in the truck bed, checking and double checking the cords until Sawyer called to him.
“No wonder you’re in such great shape.”
Marc’s hand slipped off the hook he’d been holding and the cord bounced back and hit his leg. “Fuck!” He pressed his hand against his thigh to ease the sting.
Marc looked over his shoulder to find Sawyer staring at him. Or rather, staring at how his hand was rubbing his leg. He snatched it away. “Fine.”
“Ready for the next one?”
Marc closed his eyes before answering. Surely that wasn’t amusement in Sawyer’s tone. “Yeah. Be right there.” He took a deep breath, beat down the tingling that had spread through him, and stood to help with the next piece. He managed to load the rest of the furniture without incident, though it was nearly impossible to keep his eyes from wandering. It wasn’t until he jumped down for the last time and found himself face to face with a smirking Sawyer that he realized he’d been caught out.
“So,” Sawyer said, wiping a smudge of dirt from Marc’s arm. “Do you have any plans for dinner?”
“Plans?” Marc stumbled over his word, the skin on his arm still tingling from the touch. “I—no.”
Sawyer cleared his throat and hooked his thumbs into his jeans pockets. It was the first time Marc had seen him look anything less than completely self confident. “You don’t sound so sure.”
Marc risked a glance around the yard. “I don’t have any plans. I mean, beyond getting these unloaded for Aunt May. I was thinking about coming back for the last of it later, but I didn’t know if you were going to be around.”
Sawyer stepped back. Immediately, Marc found it easier to breathe. “Well, that’s perfect,” Sawyer said. “You can come back, we can load you up, and then you can stay for some steaks. How does that sound?”
Marc gulped. “That sounds fantastic.”
More yelling broke out behind them. Someone honked. Sawyer rolled his eyes, gave Marc a small wave, and started to back away. “I’ll see you later then? Five o’clock?”
“Five o’clock,” Marc confirmed.
May called to him from the front porch, and he went to help her down the steps.
“I found all sorts of treasures today, Marc. All sorts,” she said as she settled into the cab.
She hadn’t been alone. Marc negotiated out of the crowded driveway, hands shaking on the steering wheel.
Marc pulled up in front of Sawyer’s house at exactly at five o’clock, then sat in his truck while he pulled his thoughts together. He took deep breaths and rubbed his damp palms over his jeans. Calling to cancel had crossed his mind more than once that afternoon. He didn’t mind admitting the truth to himself. He was terrified.
Woefully unprepared didn’t even begin to describe his experience in this situation, plus he’d been at a loss as to what to bring for his host. But then a perfect solution presented itself: a photo album he’d found in Aunt May’s attic just a few months ago. He’d kept it because it contained pictures of his grandparents, people he hadn’t known, but still longed to learn about. It would be the perfect gift for Sawyer. By some quirk of fate, the album contained more pictures of his grandparents’ friends than of his grandparents themselves. There were several of Paul Steinbrick. Maybe they would help ease the sting of loss. He ran his hand over the cracked, brown leather of the album. A picture was worth a thousand pieces of scarred furniture.
A knock at the window made him jump. He looked up to see Sawyer standing on the other side, grinning. Ducking his head to hide his blush, Marc killed the engine, grabbed the old album and got out of the truck.
“Everything okay?” Sawyer asked.
“Fine. Just—” Marc faltered.
“No problem,” Sawyer said, diffusing the awkwardness. “I was going to suggest we load the rest of these things first, but I’m wiped out, to be honest. Do you think your aunt could wait until tomorrow? That is, if you have the time then?”
“Sure. That’d be fine. I’m kind of tired too.”
Sawyer grinned. He rubbed his palms together. “Hungry?”
Now there was a question he had no trouble answering. “Starving.”
Sawyer led him around the side of the house, to the large patio Marc knew was there, but had seen only once. He turned in a circle as Sawyer poked at the pile of charcoal heating in the grill. The grass had started to creep over the pavers, and ivy now weighed down the old iron pergola that shaded the patio near the house. Mature, wild-looking, and a bit neglected, it fittingly reminded Marc of Mr. Steinbrick. “It looks a lot different than the last time I saw it.”
“Oh yeah?” Sawyer called over his shoulder. “When was that?”
“When I was about ten, I think. Your grandfather threw a big party for a friend of his, and my Aunt May was invited. Some reunion or celebration; I don’t really remember the specifics. I was one of the only kids there.” He glanced over to see Sawyer giving him a funny look. “What?”
Sawyer pointed the tongs at him. “How old are you?”
Sawyer shook his head and chuckled as he poked at the charcoal. “I remember that party. I was here too. I turned thirteen that year, and Granddad decided I’d reached the age where I needed to learn some things.”
Marc arched an eyebrow. “Things?”
Sawyer laughed. He set the tongs aside and joined Marc by the pergola railing. Marc tried not to stare, but knew he failed miserably. Sawyer’s hair was damp from his shower, and the clean jeans he’d chosen for the evening hugged his body in ways that made Marc’s mouth go dry. The T-shirt was black instead of white, a near match of the one he himself was wearing. “Not those kinds of things,” Sawyer said. He leaned against the railing, facing Marc. “Things like honor and bravery and loyalty. Self-esteem. Confidence.” Casually, he laid his hand over Marc’s.
“I’d say you’ve got the confidence thing down pat,” Marc managed to say over the pounding of his heart.
“Yeah.” Sawyer flashed a cockeyed smile. “Is that a problem?”
As far as Marc could tell, the entire situation was a problem. The deep timbre of Sawyer’s voice and the warm weight of his hand made the muscles in Marc’s stomach quiver. He’d entered dangerous, unfamiliar territory. “That’s a lot for a thirteen-year-old to take in, don’t you think?”
Sawyer shrugged. “I suppose. But in a lot of ways it shaped how I look at the world. I remember that party, but I don’t remember you. You were here with your aunt? The same one from this morning?”
Marc nodded. “Yeah. She’s my mother’s aunt, actually.”
“You spend a lot of time with her.”
“Well.” Marc shifted, pulling his hand back a little, and Sawyer let him go without a fuss. “She raised me mostly. My parents weren’t around much, and after a few years, I stopped moving back and forth between houses and just stayed with her.”
“Where are they now?”
Marc rejected the caustic reply that flew to his lips and chose a more neutral answer. “Not sure. I haven’t heard from them in awhile. They like to travel.” A while, in this case, was five years, but Marc wasn’t a child anymore, and he’d let them go a long time ago.
“Sorry.” Sawyer’s eyes filled with sympathy.
“Don’t be. I have Aunt May, and she was a better parent than lots of kids have these days.”
Sawyer smiled before ambling back to check the grill. “Yeah, she’s a pistol, as my granddad would say. I bet they were fast friends.” He spread out the pile of hot coals and set the grate over them. He gestured to a small cooler at Marc’s feet. “Grab a beer while I get the steaks. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Marc managed to avoid embarrassing himself during the meal. The relaxed conversation helped. After the dishes were collected and stacked in the sink, Sawyer led Marc back out to the patio. He sank onto a cushioned rattan sofa with a sigh, then tipped his head back and closed his eyes. “The food made me tired.”
Marc hovered for a moment, rolling his beer bottle between his palms, before taking a deep breath and sitting down beside him. “Are you sure it wasn’t all the excitement from this morning?”
Sawyer laughed and threw a hand over his eyes. “It might have been. Glad I don’t have to do that all the time. You’re a hero for taking your aunt around every single week.”
Marc shrugged, uncomfortable with the compliment. He’d never considered taking care of his aunt a burden, even if his Saturday morning routine grew tiresome every now and again.
“What’s this?” Sawyer scooped the photo album off the table where Marc had set it earlier.
“Oh.” Marc took it and flipped it open to the first page. “I wanted to bring you something. I found this a while back in my aunt’s attic. When you were talking about your grandfather this morning, I thought of it.” It wasn’t a total lie, and Marc hoped the fading light and deep shadows would hide his blush.
Sawyer scooted closer until their thighs were touching. “What is it?”
“Old pictures. I told you there used to be a lot of money around here. My grandfather loved photography, and he had state of the art equipment back then.”
Sawyer gave a low whistle. “I bet that cost a pretty penny.”
“He could afford it. Anyway, he has a bunch of pictures of your grandfather in here. At least, that’s what the captions on the pages say. I think they were good friends back then.”
Sawyer shot him a smile. “It sounds like you and I are more connected than we thought.”
“Yeah,” Marc said, staring into his eyes.
Sawyer’s smile turned knowing and his free hand slid onto Marc’s thigh. “Show me?” He held out the album.
Marc did. He pointed out all the people he knew, or had known, and described the places in the background. Occasionally, Sawyer’s eyes would light up with recognition, and he’d share one of his grandfather’s stories about the other people in the pictures. There were even some tales about Marc’s own grandparents.
“Thanks, Marc,” Sawyer said after they’d reached the end and set the album aside. “You have no idea what that meant to me.” He sighed. “Today was harder than I thought it would be. But now I don’t feel like he’s totally gone. I was upset when I realized he hadn’t told me how sick he was.”
“He didn’t want to burden you.”
“It wouldn’t have been a burden.”
Marc nodded. It was like the situation with Aunt May. He understood.
Marc glanced sideways and found Sawyer staring at him. “Yeah?”
“Are there any good restaurants in this town?”
Marc blinked at the sudden change of subject. “Several. Why?”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“Me?” Marc shifted, then caught his breath when he felt Sawyer’s hand wrap around his. “Sure. I mean… what kind of food do you like?”
“What kind of food do you like?”
It was impossible to concentrate with Sawyer’s fingers dancing across his palm. He felt the soft touches all the way to his toes. “I’m not sure what you’re asking,” he said, breathless. Experimentally, he swiped his thumb over Sawyer’s knuckles, then bit his lip when Sawyer’s fingers clenched around his wrist.
“I’m asking,” Sawyer said in a husky voice, peppered with more than a trace of amusement, “if you’d like to go to dinner.”
Reality crashed over Marc like a bucket of cold water. He shuddered. “I can’t.”
“Oh?” Sawyer’s eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
The fluttering in Marc’s stomach turned into a sickening churning. “I’m not—I don’t—” It was hardly an explanation, but the meaning had come through clear enough, apparently, because Sawyer’s eyes grew cold and his expression brittle.
“I see.” Sawyer pulled his hand away and stood. His acerbic laugh made Marc’s stomach roll even harder.
Panicked, he shot to his feet and reached to touch Sawyer’s arm. “Can’t we just—?” He let the question hang, praying Sawyer would understand. He felt both hot and cold, needy and desperate, and wanting Sawyer so fiercely that he could barely breathe.
Sawyer scrubbed his hands over his face, mumbling to himself, though Marc couldn’t make out the words. He turned and stepped back, putting a few feet between them. “No. I’m sorry. We can’t. I don’t hide who I am, and I’m not about to start.”
Marc’s heart lurched. Humiliated, he turned to leave.
“You don’t understand,” Marc hissed.
“I think I do.”
Whether he did or not had little bearing on how things were going to end. “I’ll come by tomorrow,” Marc said over his shoulder. “To get the rest of that furniture. If that’s okay.”
He heard Sawyer sigh. “Of course.”
Night had crept in while they talked, shrouding the yard in shadow. Marc only stumbled once as he navigated around the side of the house. His truck was where he’d left it, sitting in a faint pool of light from the porch lamp. He curled his fingers around the door handle and cursed under his breath.
He wasn’t angry with Sawyer, but with himself. For the last several years, it had been simpler to ignore the situation than to deal with it. Hiding might be cowardly, but was it so wrong to want something in his life to be free of complications? Just this once?
Sawyer had judged him, and he’d be damned if he didn’t deserve it. The rejection might even be a test, though that was less likely. Why would Sawyer go to the trouble? He didn’t seem the sort who invited aggravation into his life, and that was certainly what Marc would bring.
He turned, surprised to see Sawyer behind him. The last of the sunset glittered from behind the tree line, casting a halo around his head and shoulders. Marc’s heart lurched. “Yeah?” he asked, voice gruff.
“You forgot this.” Sawyer held out the old album. Marc thought back to how Sawyer had smiled over the photos. And how they had chased some of the wistfulness from his eyes.
“Keep it. Please,” he added when Sawyer looked ready to protest.
Sawyer’s arm sank slowly back to his side. “Marc—”
He’d said that a lot today. Hell, he’d said it a lot for the past ten years or more, apologized for something he couldn’t change. It wasn’t a stunning realization, or even a particularly new one, but it still left him desolate. His life had become little more than a balancing act, and suddenly what he’d told Aunt May about being happy seemed the flimsiest lie on the planet.
The hours of carrying and loading and unloading caught up with him in an instant. His arms weighed a thousand pounds each. He just wanted to sleep.
“Okay,” Sawyer said, voice low. “I will. If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure,” Marc said, shamelessly indulging in one last look. His eyes swept Sawyer from head to toe, smiling at the threadbare jeans and lingering over the snug T-shirt. When his eyes reached Sawyer’s, he was surprised to find a pained look etched across his face. For a moment, Marc forgot how he’d been rebuffed. He reached out, almost touching Sawyer’s cheek before good sense stopped him. With a growl, he turned away and yanked the truck door open.
He stopped and waited. His body hummed with arousal, even the humiliation hadn’t dampened that completely. Cool night air brushed against the perspiration slicking his forehead and neck. He shivered. But it was nothing compared to the shudder that gripped him when Sawyer stepped up behind him.
A warm hand landed on Marc’s shoulder and coaxed him to turn. He resisted. “Please,” he said. That word again, damn it. “Let go.”
Marc spun around, throwing Sawyer’s hand off. “Would you please just leave me some… some—”
“Some what?” Sawyer stood less than a foot away, gaze boring into him. His eyes looked even paler in the near darkness. They hypnotized him, and Marc didn’t bother fighting it.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, voice barely above a whisper. “I don’t even know.”
Sawyer opened his mouth, started to speak, then clamped it shut again. Breathing heavily, jaw clenched, he balled his hands into fists at his sides.
Marc sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing.”