A Right and Wrong Story
Escaping an abusive relationship left Luke Preston anxious and spouting panic-induced poetry. Desperate for a fresh start, Luke accepts a job remodeling a tired old beach house for a professional soccer player and his model girlfriend. While his passion is literature, not sports, focusing on the renovations eases his anxiety. Until the job he signed up for turns out to be more complicated than advertised.
Sidelined with a serious injury, soccer star Michael Martinez decides his beach house is the perfect place to recuperate. Remodeling might be the diversion he needs to keep his mind off his busted knee. Falling for the pretty designer with some quirky habits wasn’t on the drawing board. Unfortunately, Luke didn’t build a big enough closet for Michael to hide in. Having a star-powered sports career used to be all Michael lived for, but he’ll have to reevaluate his plans and find the right words if he wants to build more than a beach house with Luke.
Consejos vendo y para mí no tengo.
Advice I sell and for myself have none. – Spanish proverb
THERE WAS nothing quite as thrilling as the beginning of a new project. Transforming a sad, tired, old home into something fabulous and beyond anyone’s expectations was its own kind of magic. No matter what some might say, interior designers were visionaries. Anyone could slap on a fresh coat of paint in the color du jour and call it a day. But the true “interior artist,” as I liked to refer to myself, was a genius of perception, proportion, and harmony. Unfortunately, my flair for color and spatial equilibrium didn’t translate to my personal life.
I was a fucking mess.
I sat for a moment in the car I’d borrowed from my best friend Brandon and took a deep breath, hoping to steady my shaky nerves. I glanced up the steep driveway leading to my metaphorical restart. The house was barely visible through the veritable forest of gigantic eucalyptus trees, but I’d done my research and had a fairly good idea about the scope of work involved. The project was a 1950s rambling ranch-style home located on a high bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. According to my e-mail correspondence with my new client, Jamie Wilson, my job was to bring the house into the current century before she and her professional soccer player boyfriend became officially engaged. It sounded simple enough, but I wouldn’t know until I saw for myself.
I was excited to meet Jamie after weeks of conducting business online. It was a little strange we’d never spoken on the phone, but Brandon assured me she did all her business with him online as well. He owned a fabulous home-accessory boutique in West Hollywood, and apparently Ms. Wilson had a thing for throw pillows. He shipped new ones on a regular basis to her home in Orange County, and he’d always been paid as agreed and on time. Which was good news because I was running short on cash.
I checked my watch and quickly grabbed the portfolio I’d compiled for the remodel before opening the car door and stepping into the brilliant September afternoon. The view at the end of the cul-de-sac was breathtaking. A vacant lot across from the property and the higher elevation allowed an unimpeded sweeping panorama of the Pacific Ocean. The view from inside was sure to be killer too. I adjusted my classic Ray-Ban sunglasses as I turned toward the row of imposing eucalyptus trees at the top of the incline and the old wooden structure they closely guarded. I ignored the slight tremble in my hand as I hefted my bag over my shoulder. I wanted to chalk it up to first-meeting jitters, but I knew it was more than a client interview that had me on edge. However, I wasn’t going to let anxiety win. Not this time.
The closer I got to the front entry, the more concerned I became that anyone lived in the house. It had an almost derelict appearance with peeling, faded yellow paint on the siding and eaves. The majestic fragrant trees added a certain rustic beach charm; however, they were in need of serious pruning. In fact, all of the foliage was a little overgrown. It didn’t appear Jamie and her man had hired a gardener yet. Or that the previous owner had done any landscaping in years. Dead branches from the tall eucalyptuses had fallen onto the old shingle roof, and the gutters were visibly flooded with leaves. I knew I was in an affluent neighborhood and probably not in harm’s way, but the house had a spooky feel that had me looking over my shoulder and checking the signal on my cell phone. I took another deep breath and knocked on the weathered front door.
I rang the doorbell, thinking perhaps Jamie couldn’t hear my knock. It didn’t appear to be in working order. No buzz, no ring. No sound whatsoever besides the gentle California breeze through the towering trees and the waves breaking on the nearby shore. I stared at the ugly red door, wondering first of all, who would ever think to paint their door that particular shade of red when their house was an equally horrid yellow? And second, where the fuck was Jamie? I was on time. In fact, I was maybe three minutes early, which was amazing when I considered the traffic I sat in to get here. I felt a familiar wave of panic bubble inside me as the silence stretched. Was this all a joke? Was there no soccer player with a big bank account and a spendthrift girlfriend? My breath caught when my panic reached a new level. Was Neil behind this?
No. Stop. Brandon, who I trusted with my life, referred this client to me. He wanted me to get out on my own, away from my controlling, borderline-crazy ex. He wanted me to have the new start I craved. He would never have suggested I take on this project if he suspected foul play.
I knocked on the door with renewed force, hoping Jamie answered before I worked myself into a full-blown panic attack.
I closed my eyes, willing the wave of despair to recede before I picked up my cell to dial Brandon. Maybe he knew another way to get a hold of her. I’d pushed my sunglasses down my nose to better see the phone display when I heard the telltale sound of a lock being unlatched. Thank God. The door opened slowly. The shadows were dark in the entry, making it difficult to see the person on the other side, but it certainly wasn’t a woman.
“Uh, hello. I’m looking for Jamie. Jamie Wilson. We have a meeting today at two. Well… now.” I gave a short laugh, unsure if it was a good sign or not that the man behind the door stayed half-hidden. At least he opened it.
“Jamie isn’t here.”
My hand shot out of its own accord as he attempted to close the door on my face. Fuck!
“Wait! We… Jamie and I have had this appointment set up for weeks. I know she was anxious to get started on the renovations here and—”
“Weeks?” He let out a humorless laugh and opened the door wider.
I wasn’t prepared for the jaw-dropping hunk leaning with deceptively relaxed ease against the doorjamb, his toned arms crossed over his broad chest. He was a few inches taller than my own five foot nine, with dark, short-cropped hair worn stylishly longer in the front and light olive skin. I had to assume this Latin god was the soccer player. He was definitely built like an athlete. I shut my mouth, hoping he hadn’t caught me drooling. One did not ogle their prospective straight employers no matter how delicious they were. I cleared my throat, making certain I could speak coherently before I addressed him.
“Yes. Since the beginning of August. She said she wanted to get started on the work sooner rather than later due to the engagement. I understand the property is original and Jamie was hoping to do a little updating. Ring any bells?”
He was giving me a blank but somewhat menacing stare. I didn’t know what was going on here, but I didn’t have a good feeling. Maybe they’d had a fight. Shit. What if they’d called their engagement off?
Any interior designer worth their salt knew at some point it was a pretty safe bet they’d be called upon to play peacemaker to a couple as they underwent an extensive remodel. It started with the good-natured comfy armchair argument and ended with the designer acting as marriage counselor when a discussion about a precious antique from a previous relationship, for example, spiraled into an argument about the offending partner’s inability to let go of their past. A dose of humor and an alternate, less pricey piece of furniture was sometimes all it took to restore personal harmony. But it was damn hard work, which was why the best designers charged more and usually deserved it. I wondered if that was what was going on with Jamie and the soccer player. To be dealing with this shit on day one without a signed contract did not bode well.
I smiled with a confidence I did not feel and wondered how best to deal with this pissed-off man giving me a death glare. I didn’t know much about him. I’d googled the basics. His name was Michael Martinez, and he played professional soccer for a Los Angeles-based team. I couldn’t remember his position. It would never register as important, anyway. I knew nothing about soccer. I paid more attention to the human-interest angle. He was thirty-three, originally from the LA area, and had dated his fair share of models. There were many photos of him with various buxom blondes, though I hadn’t found one of him and Jamie. I actually had no idea what she looked like.
“Mind if I come in and take a peek at the space? I’d love to go ov—”
“I’m not doing a remodel. Sorry. I don’t know what Jamie worked up, but that’s not my problem. And I’m not spending my money on crap I don’t need. Thanks anyway.”
Once again my hand shot out to stop him from slamming the door in my face. “Um, Mr.….” I waited for him to supply his own name, but he obviously wasn’t feeling friendly. I grimaced and hoped it looked something like a smile before I tried again. “If you’re interes—”
“I’m not. Sorry for the inconvenience. Jamie has a way of doing that shit to people. Thanks anyway.”
“Can I please leave a message?”
“What’s the point? Jamie doesn’t live here and before you ask, I have no idea how you might get hold of Jamie and I really don’t give a crap.”
Oh. Fuck. Now what?
Stall. Keep him talking. I could barely hear myself speak as a buzz of panic had my heart beating overtime. It didn’t escape my notice that every time he said his girlfriend’s name, he added a bit of venom. Not a good sign.
“Okay, I… I understand. Um, any chance I can get a bottle of water for the road? I wouldn’t ask normally, but it’s a long drive back to LA, and I—”
“Yeah. C’mon.” His tone was put-upon and graceless. I wanted to tell him where he could shove his water bottle, but I was racking my brain for a way to salvage this deal. I needed this job.
He let the door fall open as he grabbed something hidden from view. I could only hope it wasn’t a shotgun. I didn’t step over the threshold until I saw that it was a pair of crutches and noticed his right knee was wrapped in a black brace. Must be why he was home in the first place. A soccer player with a bum knee wasn’t a good thing, hence his crabby mood.
I followed my reluctant host as he hobbled down a dark hallway. He made a right turn into a small kitchen, stopping in front of a harvest-gold-colored refrigerator. A true relic from the 1970s. I gave the kitchen a sweeping glance and almost cried at the sheer awfulness of the boring square room. The most exciting piece was the ugly old fridge. Everything else was blah. From the peeling laminate flooring and countertops to the outdated wood-faced cabinetry, the kitchen was absolutely horrendous. Whether or not it was Jamie’s money to spend on a remodel, there was no doubt this place needed one.
“Here.” I jumped at the feel of the chilled water bottle on my arm and turned back to get my first good look at the man of the house in the light.
My first impression when he’d opened the front door was that Michael Martinez was a very handsome man. But in the light, his face was… intense. It may have been the scowl, but he looked fierce, with a dark, thick brow and his full mouth set in an angry line. I amended my initial opinion, deciding he’d be a lot better-looking if he smiled. He was wearing a black sleeveless workout shirt and a pair of matching shorts. The snug-fitting fabric lovingly showcased his muscled biceps. He was lean and finely toned, like the athlete he was.
“What happened to your knee?” I inquired in an effort to postpone being thrown to the curb.
“Torn ACL.” His tone was unfriendly and didn’t invite further question. He clearly wanted me gone.
“Oh. Sorry. I hear that’s painful.”
I uncapped the water and turned to look out the aluminum-framed window above the kitchen sink at the view of a cinder-block wall. How? I knew for a fact this property sat on a cliff above the beach. Where were the spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean? This made no sense. I tried to keep my designer-diva instinct in check as I asked that very question. Once again I was treated to a harsh stare and a heavy sigh.
“This way.” I followed him out of the kitchen, down the same hallway, and through a standard doorway into the living area.
I expected a lovely view, but this was magnificent. The sweeping 180-degree vista was stunning. A bank of old-fashioned sliding-glass doors flanked the entire back wall, giving one the perception of looking out into endless blue… blue skies, blue ocean. It had to be the house’s elevation that fooled the eye, but the result was infinite beauty.
The room itself was horrible. That part I did expect, but now I felt a twinge of outrage this incredible scenery was so appallingly showcased by this ugly house. It was criminal. I had enough experience to know the original architect had paid homage to the spectacular setting through his generous use of windows and the home’s precise perch on the cliff. However, I felt like I was in a time warp. Nothing, other than an enormous flat-screen television above an outdated stacked stone fireplace, was of this century. A faded orange shag carpet matted with age and certainly from 1970-something covered the floors. The furniture was definitely made up of garage sale finds. Nothing matched, nothing coordinated. I couldn’t decide if I should laugh or cry. This place needed love and I needed a job.
My silent, brooding companion leaned on his crutches watching me with almost careful disinterest as I looked out to sea.
“The voice of the sea speaks to the soul,” I quoted unintentionally. My eyes widened at my strange outburst. I gave an awkward smile and quickly tried to cover my odd choice of words. “The view is extraordinary.”
He cocked his head thoughtfully. “It is. What did you say first?”
“Oh nothing.” I walked toward the bank of windows and opened my mouth to comment again on the scenery, but he wouldn’t let it go.
“What was it? A quote?”
I turned around to find him staring at me with a bemused expression. “Um… yeah. It’s by Kate Chopin. Sorry. I tend to—”
“Don’t apologize. It’s cool. And you’re right. Or Kate Chopin was. The sea is peaceful and powerful. Thankfully I don’t hear voices… yet.” He gave a half laugh and looked out on the great blue expanse.
“Yes. And all this from your living room.” I made a sweeping motion with one hand around the room. Awkward again, but I thought I should make an effort to stay on topic and not delve into the mysteries of the ocean or literature. “You must spend all your time here.”
He huffed humorlessly. “I do now.”
I turned to look at him curiously.
“Nothing but time on my hands. I’m out for the season.”
“Oh. What do you play?” I decided not to mention I’d googled him or that Jamie told me via e-mail he was a professional athlete. Something told me it was best not to bring her name up again.
“Soccer.” His clipped tone told me he wasn’t going to offer any other information.
So much for that. I tried again, offering a small smile, hoping to encourage reciprocal chatter.
“I meant what…?” Oh shit. I knew nothing about sports and I couldn’t remember what I’d looked up online earlier. “Um, where do you stand on the… you know…?” I started waving my hands around like a demented monkey as though the ad-lib sign language would help convey my meaning.
I was startled by the sound of his deep chuckle. His dark eyes lit with reluctant humor while I floundered for the correct terminology. I stopped and put my right hand on my hip. I threw him a mock-evil glare for good measure, which only made him laugh harder. And damn, that smile had to be the sexiest thing I’d ever seen. This man was pure Latin beauty, and as I expected, his broad grin catapulted him into a whole new level of hotness. I gulped and looked away quickly.
“Field? It’s called a soccer field and I stand in the middle. I’m a midfielder.”
Whatever the hell that meant. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I was just glad he was talking. Finally. His smile smoothed the lines of tension on his brow and gave him a downright friendly countenance. I decided to test it by peppering him with a few questions about his sport.
“Sounds simple enough. What does a midfielder do? Do you get to score? The net looks big, but it’s probably harder to get the ball in than it looks. Is it?”
He shifted his weight and gave me a funny look. I wasn’t sure he would answer, but he did.
“You could say that. It’s my job to keep the ball moving forward, but a midfielder basically plays offense and defense. And yeah, I’ve been known to score the occasional goal, which is never easy if you’re playing a worthy opponent.”
He could have been speaking Spanish. I literally had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Something in my brain did an automatic tune out when I heard words like offense and defense. But I could have listened to him all day. It was obvious he loved his sport by his intonation and the way his eyes lit up. We silently surveyed each other for a moment. The sound of the waves crashing on the shore below provided background music in the otherwise still space.
“Mr.…?” It was time to plead my case. The guy wasn’t exactly a warm-and-cozy type but at least he wasn’t shooting daggers at me with his eyes now.
“Martinez. Michael Martinez.” His right lip quirked as though he was on to me and found me mildly amusing.
“Nice to meet you. Look, I’m sorry Jam—”
“No problem.” I cut him off before he could deny me completely. Now was my chance. “But I’m going to be honest. I did a ton of work based on information Jamie e-mailed me and while I understand and respect that you aren’t interested in what she had in mind… this place is….” I stretched my right hand out in a sweeping gesture, indicating I meant everything.
“Go on.” Michael crossed his arms back over his chest, but his eyes were bright with humor. It was time to go for it.
“It’s sad. It’s a beautiful piece of property with the most breathtakingly gorgeous view, but it’s stuck in a rough patch of the twentieth century. I’m going to leave you my card, and if it’s a matter of moving slowly, one room at a time, I’m open to working with you. Some people are totally into the retro look, which can be very cool, but frankly there are some design issues that are borderline unsafe here. The older windows, peeled flooring….” His piercing gaze told me I’d made my point. I held up a hand in surrender and gave him a small grin. “I’ll stop talking. But if… well, if you’re interested, call me.”
I fished one of my brand-new business cards from my bag and handed it to him. He didn’t take it at first and my heart sank. After a long pause, he raised his brow, uncrossed his arms, and finally took the card.
“Thanks. I’ll think about it.”
“Great. I appreciate your time.”
Michael nodded once and expertly turned on his crutches to lead the way out. We said another brief good-bye at the front door before I headed down the overgrown path to Brandon’s car. I was proud of myself for keeping a professional air about me. Not once did I let my sheer panic show. I was walking out of that house without a contract, without a job, and without the retainer check I’d been hoping to deposit immediately into my anemic bank account. Nothing but a fucking water bottle. I had no clue what I was going to do now. None.
I slowly navigated the narrow street that led toward Pacific Coast Highway and turned the car radio on as loud as I could stand. I didn’t want to hear myself think anymore. It was too damn depressing. I let Katy Perry serenade me with lyrics that seemed to resonate with my fragile state of mind instead and wondered why everything seemed harder than it should.
“HONEY, IT’S gonna be okay. We’ll think of something. Don’t worry. You can stay with me and work at the store until you get yourself up and running. It’s going to work out. You’ll see.” Brandon rubbed my back, offering words of comfort. The poor guy had been at it for half an hour. His hand had to be getting tired.
I gently pushed him back and shifted on the sofa cushion so I could look at my best friend. Brandon Good was my rock and easily the nicest guy I knew. He was also a witty, sassy, classy fashionista with a wicked sense of humor and an unapologetic flair for all things fabulous. We’d been best friends since high school when we were two awkward boys painfully different from everyone else. Brandon always claimed it had been harder for him because he was half African American on top of obviously gay. What he failed to remember was he could talk his way out of and around some of the most difficult situations using his unique brand of disarming humor. I, unfortunately, was just awkward. By the time we were seniors, he’d made good friends with some jocks and other guys who’d been the nastiest of bullies our freshman year. If it wasn’t for Brandon, I was sure I would have had my ass kicked on a regular basis. I was too skinny, too timid, and a little too pretty as a teenager.
Thankfully things changed when I left for college. I realized I wasn’t one of only two gay young men in the entire state, which was how I sometimes felt growing up. I found my groove and finally became comfortable in my own skin. I also blossomed a little too. I was a respectable five foot nine with blond hair, blue eyes, and golden California-sun-kissed skin. I was never going to be an overly muscular type, but I wasn’t frightfully thin anymore.
Brandon was built almost exactly the same way. He was lean like me but a smidge taller with light brown skin and black hair he kept closely shaven. His gorgeous hazel eyes were what most people noticed when they stopped to get a good look at him. With his high cheekbones and graceful presence, he certainly could have modeled if he hadn’t liked the interior design business as much as he did. Basically we were very similar… one light, one dark. I just wished I could get my shit together the way my best friend had.
“Bran, I love you, but c’mon, you and Trevor don’t want a third wheel and—”
“Trev doesn’t mind at all, baby. And we aren’t talking forever. Just until you’re back on your feet.” Brandon soothingly brushed my long bangs away from my forehead.
“Thank you. I… I’ll work at your store while I figure out what my next move is. I can’t… I can’t believe this wreck is my life. I know I’ll survive and….” I slapped Bran away when he began to sing Gloria Gaynor’s famous anthem, knowing I had to keep talking or potentially lose him to a diva-esque songfest from the disco era. “I promise to—”
He stopped suddenly and gave me a piercing stare. Brandon rarely got too serious, so when he did, I listened. “Luke, it’s over. Shit happens and we move on. So the job you thought was going to be waiting for you here turned sideways. It sucks, but something else will come up. I’m sorry. I had no idea Jamie and her man were on the outs. You are talented and baby, you will find something else. This crap—lousy ex-boyfriends, money blues, and job issues—doesn’t define you. They’re bumps in the road. You’ll get through it all, Lukey. I know you will. And if you’re in my guest room for a while, so be it. We’ve always been there for each other, and that’s not changin’ anytime soon. Am I clear?”
I nodded as I brushed at my wet cheeks and offered my friend what I hoped was a convincing smile. Brandon rolled his eyes as he stood and dragged me to my feet.
“Best cure for the blues is tequila and a little ass shakin’. Let’s go, baby.”
WE DIDN’T actually end up going anywhere. Instead we opted for an in-home dance and drink-a-thon. I rolled the industrial-style coffee table on caster wheels up against the sofa to clear enough space for us to dance without having to compromise our moves. Brandon got out a bottle of Patrón, salt, and limes, as well as chips for snacking and turned our favorite dance music on at top volume. The room was spinning two hours and many shots later when Brandon’s boyfriend du jour, Trevor, opened the front door.
Trevor grimaced and immediately went to adjust the sound. As he looked back over his shoulder at us, his shrewd blue eyes scanned the scene in the living room. He set his man bag on the bench near the front door and loosened his tie as he checked his reflection in the mirror. I didn’t really know Trevor well since he and Brandon were a relatively new item, but I thought there was something very Hollywood about the out-of-work actor slash waiter. A little plastic. He was nice enough, but he had a rather unhealthy obsession with beauty and physical perfection. He was a very good-looking guy in his late twenties with a thick head of dark blond, perfectly coiffed hair, pretty blue eyes, and a killer body he spent hours at the gym to maintain. When he wasn’t staring at himself in the mirror pumping iron, he was a waiter at a cute little bistro on Melrose, which is where Brandon met him a few months ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t have a problem with Trevor. After all, he lived in West Hollywood, the land of beautiful young gay boys and those who tried hard to keep up with them. Everyone was obsessed with good looks and a hot bod in WeHo. He was friendly and he treated Brandon well. I wanted to give him a break but I couldn’t help thinking my best friend deserved someone… more deserving.
When I had broached the subject of how serious he was with his live-in boyfriend, Bran rolled his eyes dramatically and laughed.
“The man is divine in bed, so I am seriously satisfied. After that, who knows? I’m a big believer in living in the present, sugar. And for now… I’m happy.”
Since I heard evidence of just how happy Trevor made Brandon on a nightly basis, I decided not to say anything more. Besides, Brandon probably had the right idea. I would do well to take a page from his book and concentrate on now. I looked up at Trevor and tried to school my features to mimic his more serious countenance. Bran caught sight of me and copied my straight-lipped, wide-eyed look. Unfortunately when we saw what the other was doing, it sent us into a round of tequila-inspired giggles. Trevor rolled his eyes and made his way toward the sofa to greet his boyfriend. I leaned forward and grabbed a tortilla chip and stole a surreptitious glance at Bran’s blissed-out expression as Trevor licked a line across his lips and shoved his tongue inside. Lovely.
Number one on my agenda was to get a job so I could tackle my second goal. I had to get a place of my own. Brandon’s Spanish-style bungalow in West Hollywood was perfect for two, but it was on the small side and the acoustics weren’t great. I had to seriously be cramping their style, though they didn’t seem to be slowing down in the bedroom, I mused as I peered at them over the rim of an empty shot glass.
Should I have another? No. I set the glass down and leaned back against the colorful pillows on the sofa and stared up at the ceiling.
“What’s goin’ on, boys? Are we happy or sad?” Trevor took the armchair next to the sofa where Bran and I sat at opposite ends with our legs entwined.
“A little bit of both, honey.” Bran filled Trevor in briefly.
“Sorry, Luke. That sucks.”
“Yeah. It does. His place is a candidate for a television-show-worthy makeover, but the soccer boy seems… resigned to let things slide into a worst-of-last-century’s decay. It’s awful. The house has great bones and the setting is divine. Ocean views to die for, but….” I sighed deeply and closed my eyes. “I’ll find something else.”
A poignant silence filled the small living area. The music was still playing in the background but the quiet spoke louder. I opened my eyes and found my friend giving me a concerned look.
“I’m okay. Or I will be.” I tried a smile but it was tepid at best.
“I know. I’m the one who keeps telling you that, but… Luke.” Brandon bit his bottom lip thoughtfully, and I cringed a little, knowing he was about to say something I wouldn’t like. “Will you at least call Mara? Just to—”
“Can I? Just to let her know you’re fine and—”
“Please leave her out of this. If she calls you, tell her I’m fine. But don’t tell her anything else. I don’t want her to know anything more about Neil or my money woes… nothing. I can’t deal with my issues and try to figure how to talk Mara off the ledge too.” My voice rose in pitch as I worked myself up.
“Okay, okay!” Brandon sat up and leaned over to peck my cheek. “I won’t say anything. Yet. But your mama comes into the store every once in a while, baby, and as much as I like a little drama, I don’t want your mama’s style of drama when she finds your skinny self workin’ there.”
“It won’t happen. I’ll figure something out before she swoops down to terrify your customers.”
Trevor’s attention had moved on to his cell phone, but he looked up and eyed me thoughtfully. “Luke, everyone makes mistakes and misjudges. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” He stood abruptly and brushed a careless hand over Bran’s shoulder as he left the room announcing he was changing out of his work clothes.
We watched him leave and turned to stare at each other for a moment. Hmm. Maybe he wasn’t completely narcissistic after all. Bran and I didn’t say anything. There really wasn’t any new ground to cover. My life still sucked, and nothing monumental was going to change tonight. So when Bran picked up the tequila bottle and sent up a mock toast, I chuckled softly and held out my empty shot glass. I would pay dearly in the morning, but for now, I didn’t give a damn.
Sometime after midnight, I was awakened by a telltale moan followed by a steady thumping sound and then “Oh God, yes! Fuck me, Trev. Harder, baby!” I breathed a heavy sigh and buried my head under my pillow. If I needed any further encouragement to get my act together, that was it.
I WAS busy arranging a display at BGoods the following morning when my cell phone vibrated in my back pocket. I didn’t recognize the number, so I got back to creating my autumn vignette around a new set of designer picture frames and bookends as I listened to Brandon gush over a young popular Hollywood actor who’d come into his store. He was telling him how much he loved everything from his shirt to his television show to the adorable toy Yorkie he carried in the bag he had slung across his left shoulder. Bran couldn’t help himself. He was theatrical and always had been. Everything was big in his book. He talked in exclamation points. He loved or he hated, and only rarely fell somewhere in between. If nothing else, he entertained me as I fussed with my configurations.
When my phone buzzed a second time with the same number in less than five minutes, I decided I should answer. I’d spent the morning leaving messages for fellow designers and realtors in the area. I didn’t think I’d get any response so quickly, but it was time to start networking. Ideally I wanted to stay in the LA area, but I was open to other options too. I wasn’t in a position to be too picky.
“Hello?” I stepped into the back office area and leaned on Brandon’s retro wood-and-steel table that doubled as his desk.
“Hey. Luke, right?”
“Yes?” I didn’t recognize the voice but it was deep and kinda sexy.
“Hey. This is Michael Martinez. We met yesterday when you came out to the house.”
“Oh. Right. Of course. How can I help you?” My heart was suddenly beating halfway out of my chest.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said, you know, about there being some things that were maybe unsafe in the house. I don’t want to do anything crazy but… I think since I’m stuck here for the time being, maybe I should do some basics. Are you still interested?”
Fuck yes! I willed my breathing to normalize before I addressed my potential new employer.
“Absolutely. When are you available to meet?”
THE NEXT day I found myself on the 405 freeway stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic near the Los Angeles airport. It was midmorning and I was naively surprised by the sheer number of cars on the road. Weren’t people supposed to be at work already? The trip to Orange County from West Hollywood should have taken me an hour and fifteen minutes factoring in a little traffic delay, but at the rate I was going, I would be late meeting Michael Martinez for sure.
When I finally pulled up in front of the home on the quiet cliff overlooking the Pacific, I was so stressed out from my drive I was practically vibrating. If he had any significant work in mind, which I sincerely hoped was the case, I would have to find another living situation close by. A daily commute between Brandon’s and Corona del Mar would put me in a mental tailspin. Caffeine could only take care of so much.
At least he was expecting me this time. I left my portfolio, which included some material samples, in the car. I decided to hear what renovations he wanted to concentrate on first. I didn’t want to overwhelm him or be presumptuous. The house needed a total makeover, but I sensed stating the obvious wouldn’t get me the job. I checked my reflection in the car window before I turned to walk up the path toward the house. I was going for California casual with a blue-striped designer shirt and well-fitted jeans. I didn’t know Michael Martinez at all, but I got the impression on our first meeting that he was an informal kind of guy. One piece of sound advice my mostly wacky mother gave me was to dress your part. Since I didn’t know my role, I went with instinct. I removed my dark sunglasses, brushed my bangs out of my eyes, and raised my hand to knock on the discolored red door. I hoped painting was part of his plan.
“Hey.” Unlike my first visit, my host answered the door almost immediately and actually smiled. And wow… he was sexy as hell.
Michael’s dark eyes lit with humor as I apologized profusely for being late. He gave me a brief once-over as he hopped backward on his good leg to let me in. He waved his hand dismissively and told me he’d spent time parked on the freeway. I was pleasantly surprised by this friendly, welcoming man. He was the polar opposite of the guy I met a couple days before.
“Want anything to drink? Water? Coffee?”
“Coffee would be amazing if it’s no trouble.”
“No trouble at all.” He actually winked before turning on his crutches to lead the way to the kitchen. I stared after him warily and shrugged. Why question his change of attitude? It was preferable to his cranky one for sure.
The designer in me began to do a mental reconfiguration of the boring square space the moment I stepped onto the faded and peeling linoleum in the kitchen. I knew enough of the layout from my previous visit and information Jamie had given me to know there was one wall dividing this uninspired room from the spacious living area and jaw-dropping view of the ocean on the other side. I was wondering if he would be open to a full kitchen remodel when I felt a warm hand on my elbow. I flinched and nearly sent the coffee mug in Michael’s outstretched hand flying.
“Sorry! I was daydreaming. This roo—never mind. Thank you.” I bit my bottom lip and took the mug, willing myself to shut up and listen to what the owner had in mind.
He didn’t say a word, but he kept his eyes on me as he made his way to the old wooden kitchen table. He set his crutches against the nearby counter and pulled out a second chair to elevate his right leg before gingerly lowering his body onto the plastic padded chair.
“You okay? Can I give you a hand?” I wasn’t going to say anything, but his grimace of pain instantly alarmed me.
“I’m fine. I’m just sore from physical therapy. Take a seat, Luke.” His grin was roguish this time and definitely flirty. I took a sip of coffee and willed myself not to blush. I had to be misreading him.
“So, how can I help you, Mr. Martinez?” I asked as I pulled out the chair opposite him.
I made a concerted effort to listen and not be disappointed if he didn’t say all the things I wanted to hear. Like “Let’s just go with the plans you’ve already worked up.” Somehow I doubted this would go entirely my way, but I was known for being ridiculously optimistic by nature, and that wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. He smiled quickly at my serious professional tone before he picked up a pen lying next to the notepad on the table and got down to business.
“Well… first of all, please call me Michael. Mr. Martinez is my dad.” I nodded and waited for him to continue. “I made a list. If I’m going to be spending any time here, I think you were right to suggest I at least take care of some basic updates. I need new windows for sure and I was think—”
“God yes! Absolutely! Have you considered one of those disappearing sliding doors? If we did a bank of them across the—”
“Hold it.” Michael held a hand up and gave me an amused, lopsided smile. “Let me get through my list, okay?”
I sat back and motioned I was zipping my lips. Michael’s grin widened. He shook his head slightly and returned to his notes.
“Like I was saying: windows. I’m sure they all have to be replaced. This house is an original as you can probably tell….” He flashed me another show-stopping smile and rolled his eyes comically. “And the little old lady who lived here hadn’t changed a thing in easily fifty years.”
“How long have you owned it?”
“Three months. But honestly, this is the first time I’ve spent any real time here. And that’s only because I have to.” The smile was gone with the same effect as a large, fast-moving cloud over the sun.
“It’s stunning. The area is beautiful. I mean, if you have to be someplace, this isn’t so bad.”
“Right.” His half laugh was devoid of humor. “Anyway carpet, flooring, and paint. Basics. The house is about three thousand square feet, which is a good size but it isn’t huge, so if we set a realistic goal we can probably tackle this in a couple of months. Maybe three.”
In my head I was shopping. I couldn’t help it. We needed tile, flooring, and carpet. New lighting too, I mused, as I noted the awful brass chandelier over the table. I was thinking about which paint shades I might suggest when I heard his question.
“What do you say?”
“About what exactly?”
“Getting your hands dirty.”
“Uh, don’t you have a gardener?”
Michael quirked his face in a silly “WTF?” gesture that made me giggle. It was obvious I hadn’t been paying attention.
“No. I should get one, though, huh?”
“I’m assuming that was rhetorical. But if you need my opinion, the answer is a definitive yes. The grounds are sad. Overgrown and jungly.” I winced and could have kicked myself. I was supposed to be quietly listening, not criticizing.
“Yeah, you’re right. I’ll ask around. Did you happen to catch what I was actually asking you?”
I blushed, feeling the heat under my skin travel quickly up my neck and across my cheeks. “Sorry, I think I missed it.”
Michael chuckled softly and raised one eyebrow. “I was wondering if you’re willing to act as the general contractor as well as designer.”
“Uh… while I’m not opposed to the idea of hiring the labor, I’m not from the area. It’s probably a better idea and a more cost-effective one to hire a general contractor to handle that part. The research and time I’d have to spend getting estimates and organizing the subcontractors on top of ordering supplies would lengthen the process considerably. It could tack on another month. Easily.”
I folded my arms across my chest, confident I had eloquently stated my basic design philosophy. Do what you know, hire someone else to do the rest. A glance at the hunky man across the table told me he didn’t adhere to the same rules.
“Fine by me. As you can see, I’m in no hurry.” He made a sweeping gesture toward his elevated right leg. “After physical therapy and basic workout sessions, I have nothing but time on my hands. And as long as I’m not jeopardizing my recovery, I don’t mind pitching in and getting my hands dirty.”
Perhaps it had something to do with his deep intonation, but that last statement sounded like a cross between a challenge and a proposition. Once again, I wondered if too many nights in a row of being woken up to the sounds of sex in the next-door bedroom were getting to me. I swallowed hard before answering my would-be employer in a clear and deliberate tone.
“I hate to be the one to point this out to you, but you’re injured and I’m a designer. It makes sense to stick with the roles we know to get the job done efficiently, right? A general contractor has a team they usually hir—”
“I know how it works. My uncle is a contractor.”
“Great! Why not hire him?”
“Hell no. I’m in Corona del Mar for a reason. Well, a couple reasons. The biggest one is location. As you found out, the traffic through LA sucks, and once you’re off the freeway, you still have another twenty-minute drive to get here. Too far for family to come by without notice. That’s the way I like it.”
His tone was brusque and definitive. What was the point in listing the merits of having relatives close by when I felt the same way?
“Here’s the thing.” He paused briefly, as though he were trying to gather his thoughts. “I’m willing to pay well, but I need to do this my way. I bought this place for the location and because I wanted to fix it up in the off-season. Now I’m injured and I need to concentrate on getting back in shape for next year, but the grim reality is it won’t be easy. I’m going nuts worrying about things I don’t have control over, and this project will give me something productive to think about. This place is a dump. I’ve lived here for a month and it’s making me nuts.”
“I… um.” I didn’t know what to say.
“I’ll make it worth your while.”
He threw out an astronomical rate of pay. It was outlandish, ridiculous, and enough to make only one answer possible. We stared at each other. It was a standoff of sorts. Naturally I cracked first.
“That’s a lot of money. I probably shouldn’t ask because I’m interested and I need the work, but why me? Wouldn’t you rather ask a designer from the area?”
Michael sighed heavily and made a production of adjusting his leg before he addressed me. “No, I wouldn’t. Look, Jamie screwed you too. I feel bad, but not bad enough to go through with a bunch of plans I had nothing to do with or buy crap I didn’t choose. You need a job. I need a diversion. Win-win.”
I eyed him carefully. I did need a job. Jamie did screw me. Everything he said made sense. It might not be my business, but I still couldn’t understand why he didn’t hire his uncle’s laborers.
“Because I don’t want family around. I have my reasons, but that’s all I’m willing to say for now. I value my privacy, Luke. I’m not a huge celebrity by any means, but soccer is a big deal in my world, and I don’t want to be around people who know me for my ability to kick a ball. Not now. I need a break. You’re it. My break.” He flashed a winning smile at me that might have brought me to my knees if I weren’t already sitting.
“I want to say yes, but—”
“Good, then say it.”
“Can I get back to you?”
“Sure. Think about it. You don’t have to decide now. You have my cell number from when I contacted you. Give me a call and let me know once you’ve thought it over. Sound good?”
I nodded. “How soon would you want to start?”
“Tomorrow.” His grin was slow and hypnotizing. I offered a wan smile in return, though I really wasn’t sure what to think of his proposal.
“WHAT?” BRANDON was speechless. For once. He comically opened and closed his mouth like a fish out of water before shaking his head and shrugging in confusion.
“I know. Strange, right? The money he’s willing to pay me to be his Bob the Builder sidekick is astronomical. I feel like I’d be a complete moron to say no, but the rest makes no sense. Why pay one person a huge sum of money to do a job over a longer period of time than it would take to hire two at less money? I don’t get it.”
“Well, honey, neither do I. If you take him at his word alone, it sounds like he A) feels bad Jamie let you down and B) wants to tackle the project she was hiring you for with a strict regard for his privacy. It does no good to read any more into it, ’cause otherwise you’re right—it makes no damn sense. Unless you think of option C.”
“He’s got a crush on you,” Bran singsonged.
“That’s almost funny. He’s a straight, gorgeous Latin athlete. Even though he was a hell of a lot friendlier this visit, I doubt it’s because he thinks I’m cute.” I snorted.
“He could be bi.”
“Or he could have too much time on his hands and money in the bank. Why not hire the first designer who knocks on your door? Plus, the guy is a total jock. Definitely not gay.”
“Drama queen!” I chuckled, then sobered suddenly. “You know… there is one other thing that’s bothering me.”
“Luke, you’ll be fine.”
I should have known I wouldn’t have to say anything, but as my apprehension rose and began to physically make itself known with sweaty palms and cotton mouth, I needed my friend’s reassurance.
“Listen to me, honey. You listening?” Brandon’s beautiful hazel eyes blazed with something fierce. Determination.
I nodded and held eye contact with the ghost of a smile on my face. I loved my friend to pieces. I loved his gigantic heart and his incredible strength. Brandon had been through so much more in his life than me, including being disowned when he came out to his mother before our senior year of high school. He came to live with Mara and me and claimed to never look back. He didn’t talk about the past. He was a passionate fighter determined to define himself. No one was going to tell him who he was. His expression clearly stated he wanted the same for me.
“You can never stop trying. Ever. It’s perfectly normal to feel jittery about what you don’t know, but be confident in the things you do know. You’re a talented designer with friends and family who love you. You’ve been shaken, but baby, you’re strong. It’s time to have some faith.”
I launched myself at Brandon and hugged him with all my might. He laughed, gently pulling me back to give me a good once over.
“So you’re gonna call him?”
“Yeah. I’m almost too curious not to at least try. If it’s a disaster, we’ll both know soon enough.”
“Think of your favorite poem or an inspirational something. There’s got to be a million about new beginnings.”
I grinned at Brandon. He knew me well.
“Life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose.”
“That sounds depressing.” He frowned.
“Maybe, but it’s true. It’s Ernest Hemingway and—”
“Oh for fuck’s sake! Don’t tell me. I’m fine with the mystery. Just keep pretty words in your head and… be strong, Luke.”
If you're a fan of very slow burn romances filled with lots of tentative stares and flirty grins, then burns your goddamn house down once they finally hit the sheets, well look no further. This is your book.
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I loved every page of this book. This author just creates these characters that seem so real to me.
Couldn't fall in like or love much with the characters or the story.(Didn't hate it either) Nothing bad or hugely angsty ; just didn' t really stir or uplift or make me feel good (or bad). Didn't care whether the two main characters got/stayed together or not- honestly!
The Right Words … it is the first book I have by Lane Hayes … I have to say I am completely in love with her writing and the story.
Luke and Michael are adorable together and the sense of belonging its palpable throughout the story.
Luke needed to learn how to understand and trust Michael. Michael needed to learn how to be himself outside of the walls of his home and self-imposed closet.
Both of them finally understood love and compromise …
I love the addition off Brandon as Luke’s best friend …
I hate to say it, but I was not overly impressed with The Right Words. Yes, I gave it 4 stars, but Ms. Hayes’ reputation is stellar and the blurb had me jumping up-and-down with excitement, so for this to turn out to be a pretty typical M/M romance disappointed me. Yeah, my problem, I know.
Here we have Luke Preston, a year out of an abusive relationship with an older man who had pretty much taken over his life. He is now bunking with his best friend and working on his career as an interior decorator while seeing a therapist to help manage his panic attacks and get his life in order. As he likes to tell people, his life is a “work in progress.”
A series of events lead Luke to American Soccer player Michael Martinez’s hilltop beach house. The house is in desperate need of a remodel and Michael has a knee injury that will need months to heal, so Luke and Michael will be working together for an extended period of time. Michael is deep in the closet, believing he has absolutely no choice in the matter of coming out to his family, team and fans. He honestly believes he will lose everything if he does. All of his sexual relationships are on the down low.
As you can guess, Luke and Michael are attracted to one another and begin a physical relationship that deepens emotionally with time. Well, deepens as far as Luke is concerned. The story is told from Luke’s POV, so we never get a peek into Michael’s feelings until he actually verbalizes them, which was quite frustrating for me. I was left wondering more than a few times just how serious Michael really was about fragile, sweet Luke. Another thing that frustrated me was how slowly the first half of the book went. I really didn’t latch on until the 50% mark. That’s always a bummer too.
But this was a sweet, solid romance, despite my misgivings. I went into this one expecting something more than I should have. Luke was a delight, and his best friend Brandon was the cherry on top. (He will be the subject of the second book in the series The Wrong Man and, get this… His romantic hero is going to be a FIREFIGHTER! AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!) Michael grew on me and everything came together in the end in a bright display of romance perfection.
The second I finished reading Lane Hayes’ Better Than series I needed more of her work. On to this one. The Right Words was amazing! Lane has proven herself as a genuinely gifted author in my eyes.
Luke and Michael. We have interior designer meets Soccer pro. SOLD! LOL. Luke is absolutely delightful. I immediately fell in love with his character. His personality, humor, the whole thing. His past is a bit gray but he’s so freaking strong. When he comes face to face with hesitant hunky Michael the chemistry was brilliant.
Luke’s best friend, Brandon is pretty much the perfect friend. And I’m excited to see where Lane takes him in the next book.
This story had fabulous flow and kept me intrigued and entertained. I didn’t want to put it down.
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