Alone. It was the story of his life. Colton Stanton, Cole for short, took a sip out of his polar bear coffee mug and let the hot chocolate warm his insides. The flames crackled in the fireplace; despite the warmth emanating from therein, he’d have to add wood soon. He could already feel the heat ebbing as his fire lost energy. He sighed deeply, set his mug on the coffee table, and stood. No matter how warm he made his house, it wouldn’t warm the ice that seemed to encase his soul.
Cole had left his North Carolina prison as soon as he’d turned eighteen. NYC had seemed like the Promised Land for someone like him, a place where he could lose himself in the anonymity of the city. A place where no one would care that he was a foster brat. A place to start over. He’d worked hard to put himself through school, managing to snag two scholarships sponsored by the state after his first semester. He’d always pushed himself academically. All the sappy Lifetime movies he watched told him that education was the only way out of a penniless existence. He’d gotten his master’s degree in literature and taught part time at a community college as he worked on getting noticed for his writing. Cole had always been a writer and often lost himself in the worlds in his head. His fiction tended to be heartrending depictions of love and loss with happy endings, in stark contrast to what he actually knew of reality. Finally, in his late twenties, he had sold one of his manuscripts to a major publisher, and his life had completely changed. He filed that under the “how the hell had that happened?” column in his mind. Then he’d filled his world with all the things he’d lacked in his childhood. Well, almost everything. Some things were still missing.
Dragging himself out from the shit swirling in his head like the world’s largest toilet bowl, he threw another log on the fire and stared into the crackling flames, contemplating the moment he’d decided to abandon New York and everything about his life there. I should probably shoot Eric an e-mail to let him know I’m still alive, Cole thought, going back to his plush green couch and burrowing under his red fleece blanket. He and Eric had worked together for the past five years, ever since his first book was accepted for publication, and somewhere along the way he’d become more than an editor. He’d become a friend. A copy of Lisa Jackson’s latest thriller lay open on the armchair, waiting. Cole rubbed his eyes and yawned. Maybe he’d e-mail Eric tomorrow. His eyes were heavy and his body warm beneath the soft blanket. Before he could convince himself to cross the wood floor and pour himself into the cool bed in the other room, he was asleep.
A hard knock on the front door jolted Cole out of his rest. He stretched with a groan of pain as his cramped muscles protested the movement after sleeping in an uncomfortable position on the couch all night. The fire had long since died, and the hardwood floor was freezing on his feet as he stood.
“I’m coming!” he barked at the door. He wondered briefly who could be banging on his door this early in the morning. Nestled in the rural North Carolina mountains, his home rarely received visitors. He had surprised himself by buying a home in the place he’d once called a prison. He’d first returned on the insistence of a friend who wanted to visit the Biltmore House in Asheville. Despite his bad memories of the state, Cole had found himself falling in love with the quaint historical charm of the town like so many other city dwellers did, and he decided to buy a vacation home near there. The seclusion and natural beauty acted like a calming balm to him after a hard write, and he’d made it into his own rural retreat. Not many people knew who he was or even that he lived in the area. In fact, the only other person he’d had at his home in months was the elderly Mrs. Bryant, who hobbled up the hill every Sunday to bring Cole a home-cooked Sunday dinner—against his adamant protests, of course. It couldn’t be Mrs. Bryant, though, because unless Cole had lost his ever-loving mind, it was Thursday.
Cole smoothed his hands down the front of his sleep-wrinkled shirt and swung open the heavy oak door. He blinked several times in confusion. Was he still asleep? There on his front porch, in two inches of snow, wrapped up like a seasoned Eskimo to stave off the cold, was Eric. The early morning sunlight poured over his broad shoulders and etched out in detail the natural highlights of his golden hair, and then, just to fuck with Cole’s equilibrium, decided to play “mesmerize like a kaleidoscope of beautiful” with his emerald eyes. The eyes that Cole had been practically drooling over since first staring into them.
“Good morning,” Eric said brightly. “Did I wake you?”
Cole blinked again. His brain still wasn’t processing Eric’s presence on his doorstep. He looked so out of place in such a rural setting. A native New Yorker, Eric was most at ease in the rolling urban sprawl. Cole had never been able to picture Eric here.
“You going to invite me in, or am I supposed to stay out here and turn into a popsicle?” Eric demanded in his usual straightforward manner. His bluntness was one of his most endearing qualities.
“Yeah, sure. Sorry. Wasn’t expecting anyone. Come on in.” Cole stepped back to allow Eric to enter his home. He shifted from foot to foot as he watched Eric sweep the room with his discerning gaze. His home was built for comfort; everything was plush and soft, in stark contrast to his New York apartment, which was the epitome of functionality. He knew for a fact that Eric’s own apartment was more modern in its décor. “Toe off your shoes so you won’t get water on the floor,” Cole said.
After he took Eric’s coat and sat him on the couch, Cole retreated to the bathroom. He stared at the unforgiving reflection in his mirror and winced. His dark hair was stuck up every which way, and his brown eyes had black circles underneath them. He brushed his teeth quickly and washed his face, hoping that it would clean him up a bit. He also needed a shave, but that would just have to wait.
“This is a really nice place. Kind of a pain in the butt to get to, though.” Eric’s voice echoed through the house, reaching Cole in the bathroom.
“Uh, yeah. What’d you expect when you travel to BFE? Definitely no Quickie Marts in reasonable travel distance, but I like the isolation. Gives me room to relax after a hard write,” Cole called back. When he was working on a new story, he’d immerse himself in New York and the busyness of the city. The constant motion drove his muse and gave life to his characters. He often retreated to a more rural setting when he needed to relax. Here, he didn’t need to think.
“I always wondered what this place looked like,” Eric said, a certain awe in his voice. “It suits you.”
Cole came out of the bathroom and eyed his editor warily. What the hell did that mean? And why was he here? “Would you like some coffee?” he asked instead. He didn’t want to be rude. “It’s not Starbucks but it gets the job done.”
“That’d be great. I’ll help you out in the kitchen. You have anything to whip up for breakfast? I’ll cook.”
As usual, Eric took up all the space in the room. His personality was just like that. Larger than life. He never asked for permission but instead dived headfirst into everything. Cole watched helplessly as Eric walked toward his kitchen.
“Wait, you don’t even know where it is!” Cole snapped. He didn’t need Eric messing in his pantry… not that he had that much in it.
“Well, I figured the way you came from had the bedrooms, and since I see the dining room table right there,” he explained, pointing to the table across from the couch, “I’d wager that the kitchen is right through here.” He grinned in triumph as he rounded the corner and was faced with marble countertops and the stove. He turned back to meet Cole’s stormy expression. “So how about that breakfast?”