CHAPTER 1

 

LIAM TIDIED his desk and leafed to a fresh page on his huge blotter. He hummed his way through doodling a Poincaré disk, mentally breaking down its metric as he added arcs and lines using only a pen and protractor. His drawing style was precise and confident, but he allowed the disk to reveal its own shape as he worked, adding loops and overlaps, the disk looking something like a delicately tatted doily. His shoulders loosened as he relaxed and banished the past week’s reports and statistics and shared spreadsheets from his mind.

He’d loved numbers as a kid, excelled at it later in private school, and so had majored in it. He’d been a dedicated student, graduating with honors, wrapped up in essays and equations rather than social drama or experimentation. He’d been among the few regulars to have breakfast in the old-world, dark-wood-toned dining hall, and he’d liked that solitude. Then he’d moved to New York City. All the crazy years of letting go he hadn’t done in college had come loose, full bore.

That recklessness lasted about six months. Then, tired of living off savings and the endless nights and boozefest scene, he’d applied for this job. Life had turned around once more, and he was back to his nerdy, Mr. Liam Wright bookish self. Long hours put in, promotions gained, once more on track, and the social butterfly life in his rearview.

Liam began adding scallops to the disk, fluid and freehand, each ending in a tight curlicue before the next began. He had almost made it entirely around when his phone buzzed a text alert.

He ignored it, but two more messages following the first in quick succession had him glancing over.

L! I’m outside.

As in outside your office floor.

Come let me in!

Liam put his pen down with a sigh of regret and went to retrieve Carl, the only holdover from his six months of flirting with futile application of nurture over implacable nature.

The floor beyond Liam’s office was quiet. Over an hour ago, he’d swiveled his chair to watch the sun setting over the Hudson from his vantage point over Manhattan. It was Friday night late, long past everyone else having gone home. Liam had a few loose ends to tie up he knew would aggravate him over the weekend if they were left undone. Nothing that represented an urgent deadline, more things he’d think about without cease until seen all the way through. Finishing each would ensure the restful weekend he’d been looking forward to since Tuesday.

Since years ago, really, but Liam didn’t dwell on it too much. So he’d matured back into liking coffee, the newspaper and its crosswords, and quiet days at home more than being a social gadabout. So what.

Carl stood in the elevator vestibule laden with takeout bags and a carton six-pack of microbrewery beer squeezed under one arm. He lifted it all in a half shrug and grinned through the thick glass partition, hustling in when Liam’s card swipe unlocked the security door.

Whatever was going on had to be major if Carl was putting in such effort and wasting prime nightlife time.

“Lee, you’re turning into an old man. Remember when you were fun? One day you’re going to freeze fast in that chair. Now, here, look. I brought your favorite.” Carl ducked into Liam’s office and set the food down on the table adjacent to Liam’s desk. He popped two beers and drank one in a few practiced, quick gulps.

Liam took the other beer. “You must be talking about that time we met because it was in a dance club.”

“Exactly!” Carl said like duh. “You do remember, then.”

Liam was only thirty-three, but Carl had been calling him an old man ever since he’d hit twenty-four and quit running endless circles to chase the party-boy scene. If Liam went with that reasoning, he might be forced to agree.

He still looked good: thick head of dark hair, character lines in his face more than wrinkles, kept in shape and it showed, despite his torso having suffered a touch of middle-aged spread to catch up with the broadness of his shoulders. But he wasn’t the young reveler who’d first collided into Carl, then ricocheted from diversion to diversion after. He never really had been that person.

Liam shrugged. Instead of firing back, he tucked into his unexpected meal. When it registered that he was starting to feel overfull, he realized he hadn’t stopped to eat this whole day. He propped his chopsticks on the tray of mostly eaten sushi, cupped a second beer to his chest, and leaned back. Carl ate the last of the sushi without asking if Liam was finished.

“Does that mean I’m no longer fun? Am I off the hook for whatever you’re here wanting?” Liam shook his head. “I’m assuming you’re buttering me up with all this for a reason.”

“Who says I want anything?” Carl chewed around his words. “What’s happened to this world that a man can no longer bring a voluntarily overworked friend dinner without being accused of having ulterior motives?”

Liam twitched a smile. “Always with the drama, Carl. Now c’mon. Spill.”

Carl grunted but soon conceded. “I need a favor. But—” He held both hands out in a placating gesture. “—it isn’t money or something illegal or even sorta-kinda shady. You know I’m going away on business starting Monday.”

Liam snorted.

Carl gave him a look. “Hey, stuff it. Just because we’re going to the Bahamas, and my client happens to be unattached and smokin’ and maybe a little into me, doesn’t mean it isn’t a business trip. Anyway, Mr. Fussy Pants, I’ll be out of town for a while, and my favorite aunt’s kid is brand new moving here. She asked me if I’d be available to help him if needed. You know, available to offer wisdom as he acclimates, let him text me in a panic if he gets lost, and whatever.”

Liam connected the dots. “So you want me to be your proxy while you’re out of town indefinitely and oversee this kid’s transition from cornfields to the Big Apple.”

“Yes, exactly! Maybe not in such dour terms, but yeah. And I wouldn’t characterize it as ‘oversee.’ You probably won’t have to do anything. He’s coming here to model, so you know the agency will have his ass—and keep it in line—while he’s here.”

Liam frowned. He didn’t thrill at the idea of a vapid model type, here to parlay whatever the latest trend called good looks into trying to get famous or constantly laid or both. Besides, what Carl said was bullshit, and they knew it. As soon as the agency gave the litany of dos and don’ts to the kid, they’d cut him loose and not care, so long as appointments were kept and photo shoots with hangover bruising and bloodshot eyes weren’t too hard to airbrush.

“God, Lee. Not everything is a walking cliché, and you should know that as well as anyone, what with your whole devastatingly attractive but actually brilliant mathematician shtick you have going. Here to be a model, yes. Here to be a lunkhead asshole, no.”

At Liam’s continued look, Carl said, “He’s in his twenties and midway through college! He might always be a little dork wanting Lego sets to me, but he’s definitely grown into his own man. There’s nothing he’s going to need. My aunt is just a worrywart. You know how the commoners feel about big, bad New York City. And I promised her, so now I’m in a bind here.”

A bind entirely of his making, but Liam didn’t point that out.

Carl began to clear the table, a task he hated, which told Liam even more. The very worst that could happen was being pestered and having to tell the kid to chill and leave him alone unless it was an emergency. Liam sighed deeply but nodded his agreement.

“Yes! I knew I could count on you, knew you’d be the man for the job. You’re the best and most reliable friend I know.”

“Aside from your poor frazzled office manager, I’m the only reliable person you know.”

“Whatever. Doesn’t make it untrue. Why we’re still friends is a mystery, beyond you tolerate me, and I’m stubborn. And handsome. And basically doing good karmic deeds making sure you don’t calcify.” Carl grinned. “Ugh, this is great, you’re my favorite again. I’ll just give the kid your number and tell him not to bother you, okay? And if he does bother you, well, you didn’t hear it from me, but I think you could use it.”

“Hmmm.” Liam was vague but knew what Carl was gearing toward. It was an argument they had often.

“You’re just so isolated these days. To put it bluntly, you’re boring. All you do is work, then more work, then stay in at home.” Carl frowned. “I worry about the walls closing in on you, man.”

The walls had closed in a long time ago, but that was something he and Carl had never discussed, or anything Carl would even realize. Liam’s few experiments trying to be who he wasn’t taught him the hard way that he wasn’t being what anyone else wanted, either. He was more than attractive enough to get attention, even laid, which sometimes fit the bill for Liam’s needs. But for the majority, he’d found dating and trying to connect as friends an exercise in frustration.

Once the fun was over, it seemed there wasn’t much left except for his natural tendencies to take hold again and drive interest in him away. He wasn’t a curmudgeon or a weirdo or staunch conservative or anything. He’d found men who’d liked what he liked, but they’d never clicked. Invariably his relationships ended with guys telling him he was too smart, too challenging, too filled with expectations beyond casual and fun.

For a while Liam had been convinced he wasn’t looking in the right place to find someone compatible. Somewhere in the muddle of admitting defeat and returning to his quieter preferences and comforts, giving up the party scene in favor of a good night’s sleep before work, his conviction had changed to thinking there wasn’t someone out there for him at all. One who would happily want him for who he was—and who he’d want just as happily back. It was easier and more honest to find a hookup when the itch scratched and leave the rest consigned to never happening.

“I’m perfectly content,” Liam said, and it was close to genuine.

Carl narrowed his eyes and threw up his hands. “Well, whatever, man. Thank you so, so, so much.”

Liam hummed and snagged the last cookie, and then leaned farther back to let Carl finish cleaning. He’d earned it.

 

 

OTHER THAN having received an e-mail from Carl—one skipped hastily over because Carl was a comedian and always filled e-mails with dirty pictures or AutoPlay porn clips—Liam hadn’t heard or much thought about the favor. He’d prepared what he considered the most effective satisfaction to the equation, a spreadsheet of quick facts and resources about the city, and had it at the ready to send along.

He’d plugged the given e-mail address into his contacts, and since it was spelled “grrtt,” had come to think of the unknown cousin as Great. It had drifted to the back of his mind as the week rolled into the usual routine. Not a peep was heard or a panicked phone call made. Liam had been relieved and then indifferent.

It was a week later, Sunday morning, and he was dressed to go running. He had yet to motivate himself to do more than take the trash and recycling to the compactor chute and sorting room down the hall.

Sunday was his lazy day, usually spent at home deconstructing the paper and doing not much of anything, a pattern his friends had playfully sneered marked his downfall into geezerdom. Liam figured that was half-true and not any worry. Friday night he might go for dinner and drinks, Saturday the idea of going out was fast fading into a memory of something he’d once done, and by Sunday he just wanted quiet. To go for a stroll, think about his numbers, and read books or watch documentaries.

Liam paced, stuck between not actually able to compel himself out the door and indecision about what to do instead. He went to stand in the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked Union Square, one of the features that had drawn him to this apartment in the first place.

The world was already hustle-bustle busy out there. Shoppers and tourists and owners trotting around with their dogs, midmorning boutique coffees in hand, dressed in deference to the August heat already thick with humidity and yesterday’s heat radiation seeping from buildings and streets.

He should really go for the run. Running was good for him and cured the downsides of having spent a week stuck behind a desk. He could leave by the building’s service entrance, escape the crowd that way, and keep heading west, skim along the Hudson north, farther away from where the tourists and locals would cluster.

Liam drummed his fingers on the window. He almost jumped out of his skin when the phone connected to the building’s front desk chirped.

He crossed to it quickly. Maybe the guys down there needed something. Maybe it was the wrong unit number. “Yes?”

“Good morning, Mr. Wright. Garrett Honeycutt is here to see you?”

Liam went silent, and his mind drew blank. Garrett Honeycutt? Who was that? His mouth moved to answer, but he had no words, and the silence continued until Steve—the weekend and late night doorman—apologized for having disturbed him.

“No, Steve, it’s no problem.” Liam frowned. His rapid, shuffling thoughts so attuned to satisfying equations and seeing patterns flashed to the e-mail—grrtt spells “great”—and he realized the likelihood of it spelling Garrett. Garrett Honeycutt was the unknown cousin, and the unknown cousin was on his proverbial doorstep.

Liam sighed. “Sure, that’s fine.”

Steve offered, “I’ll give him your Times to bring up with him, all right?”

“Sounds good. Thanks.”

Liam hung up and curled his lip. Not a word or even an acknowledgement from this kid who only had his phone number and e-mail, just in case. Was this a just in case? Was it worse? He hoped not, but he also hoped there was a good reason. Having been ignored didn’t necessarily bother Liam, but he didn’t appreciate having the silence broken on an early Sunday morning.

Usually when guests were announced as on their way, Liam hovered in the hall so he could wave and meet them at the elevator, and help with anything they’d brought. Today he was petty and annoyed enough to stand in his dark entryway and wait.

The building was always quiet, morning or midday. Early weekend mornings seemed especially quiet. The faint ding of the elevator’s arrival sounded, and Liam bristled with anticipation, mentally counted the distance. He tingled with the unerring sense of someone else being nearby. There was a long pause, one that somehow communicated to him Garrett was out there, hesitating.

Another minute ticked past, and at last there was a knock, firm and decided. Liam put too much effort into thinking how long it would naturally take him to get from the couch to the door so it wouldn’t seem like he’d been hovering in wait, and what a quiet morning knock instead of ringing the intrusive bell might represent. He pasted on a smile and wrenched open the door to freeze fast and gape.

“Uh, hi?” Garrett Honeycutt grinned lopsidedly, pink-cheeked from the warm morning air and a tinge of uncertainty. He was as tall as Liam and had three weighty grocery bags tucked into his arms.

It all gave Liam a strange ripple of déjà vu, this mirroring Carl’s approach in so many ways, but there were powerful differences.

Garrett looked like he’d been awake for hours after a refreshing, wholesome night’s sleep. He peered into Liam’s apartment but patiently waited for an invitation. He looked about eighteen, not “twenties and midway through college,” adorable and ruddy and with a fringe of white-blond bangs dusting his eyebrows. He was breathtaking, with sparkling blue-green eyes and full lips, all long leanness tapering to narrow hips under strong wide shoulders.

Liam tried not to swallow his own tongue.