COULD THIS be any more of a cliché? Dean Cooper wondered.
Madame de Pompadour, Mrs. Harper’s white Angora cat, sat on the tree branch over his head, looking down at him disdainfully. In a small town like Springhaven, New Hampshire, Dean was used to his neighbors interpreting “handyman” as “the guy who could fix anything,” but getting cats down from trees was a bit much, even for him.
“Shouldn’t we call the fire department for this?” he asked. “I mean, they have that ladder truck….”
Mrs. Harper snorted and waved a hand dismissively. “That Wally Turner tries to get me to give him money every time I see him—something about needing a new truck for the station. I don’t know what’s supposed to be wrong with the old one, but I already donated to the fire department at Christmas, and he’s not getting another dime out of me.”
Dean knew he was just hedging, anyway. Madame de Pompadour wasn’t more than five feet over his head. He could probably reach her with a stepladder.
He walked to his aging pickup truck and lifted the stepladder out of the open truck bed. Then, as an afterthought, he opened the metal chest where he kept his tools and pulled out a pair of gardening gloves. Madame de Pompadour had never liked him much, for whatever reasons cats chose to dislike a person—possibly because she sensed his fondness for dogs. The last time he’d attempted to pet her, she’d swiped her claws across the back of his hand. He doubted she’d be in a better mood today.
Returning to the sidewalk, he set up the ladder just underneath the branch, while Mrs. Harper cooed at the cat, reassuring her that everything would be fine. It was a gorgeous early June morning, the kind Dean loved to be out and about in—sunny, with just a hint of morning haze to soften the light. Lilac Lane was lush with green grass and blooming flower beds, including the ubiquitous pink and purple lilac bushes the street was named for. Those blooms would be fading soon, but the residents of the cul-de-sac had planted mid- and late-season lilacs to ensure the sweet, pastel scent would hang in the air for months.
But Madame de Pompadour seemed determined to spoil Dean’s good spirits. As soon as he climbed a few rungs of the ladder, the cat hissed at him and scurried farther along the branch, just out of his reach.
“Oh, come on!”
“It’s the beard,” the old lady offered, shaking her head. “She’s never been fond of men with beards.”
“I don’t have a beard, Mrs. Harper.”
“Well, it’s practically a beard,” she replied primly. “When’s the last time you shaved, young man?”
Dean restrained himself from rolling his eyes at her. Ever since his grandfather had passed away, all the elderly women in town had taken it upon themselves to mother him. He rarely went a day without being told he needed to eat more, he was probably getting too much sun working outside all the time, and he could stand to dress nicer—all said with his best interests in mind, of course, and accompanied by warm casserole dishes and cups of hot tea. And despite being in his thirties, he was still a “young man” to them.
Thank God everyone in town knew he was gay, or they’d be trying to fix him up with their granddaughters and nieces. No doubt they were on the lookout for a nice man for him, but luckily gay men were a rarity in this neck of the woods.
Well, maybe “luckily” wasn’t quite the right word….
Dean glanced at his watch. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Harper, but I can’t chase her all over the tree. I’m expected at the Scotts’ in fifteen minutes. I’ll call Wally for you, and—”
“We don’t need to be bothering him,” she interrupted crossly. “Pom-Pom just needs to be coaxed down. Why don’t we see if she wants a kitty treat?”
She drew a small bag of cat treats from the pocket of her pale yellow slacks. The moment the cat saw it, she gave a soft meow of inquiry. Then the little beast darted back along the branch and down the trunk. She trotted up to her owner and rubbed herself on Mrs. Harper’s legs, purring.
Dean narrowed his eyes as he watched the old woman bend to deposit some of the treats on the sidewalk.
He’d been had.
“You knew she’d come running the moment you pulled that bag out, didn’t you? I didn’t even need to get my ladder out of the truck.”
“She usually does come for her kitty treats. Don’t you, Pom-Pom?”
Dean gave her a sour look. “Mrs. Harper, that’s gotta be a new low for you—using… Pom-Pom… to get me to come out here—”
“If you’re implying I put my cat in that tree,” she interrupted, raising her chin haughtily, “I assure you, I did nothing of the sort. Do I look like a gymnast to you? Pom-Pom went up the tree on her own accord. It just seemed a good opportunity to call you.”
“But you didn’t need me!”
“Of course, I needed you. Just not for that.” She turned and walked toward her small, white ranch-style house—one of many nearly identical houses in the cul-de-sac, distinguished only by the color of their shutters. Hers were pastel yellow, not unlike the shade of her slacks. “Come inside a moment. I have fresh coffee and muffins.”
Madame de Pompadour scurried after her, no doubt hoping for more treats.
Dean groaned, then folded the ladder up as he spoke. “I don’t have time, right now. I told you, I have to get over to the Scotts’.”
“The Scotts adore you,” she said, waving him to come along. “They won’t mind if you take a few minutes to talk.”
Dean huffed out a breath, knowing she’d won. He’d had it drilled into him since childhood to always be polite to his elders, and a lot of the older people in Springhaven took advantage of that. It was like living in an enormous extended family with far too many grandparents.
He set the ladder down on the lawn, out of people’s way, and followed her up the walk.
AIDEN SCOTT sat on his parents’ front porch in the rattan loveseat, a cup of hot coffee in his left hand. Absentmindedly, he moved his right hand through its daily exercises—flex the wrist up, then down, then from side to side, then touch each finger with his thumb. The pain was slightly better this morning, but it was still there, just enough to throw his timing off.
The only way he could do the exercises at all without spiraling into depression was to disconnect his mind from it. He tried to force the years of painful physical therapy from his mind—the gradual drying up of offers from major orchestras, friends drifting away because he was no longer part of their world, Louis eventually giving up on him altogether….
Truthfully, that hadn’t been the hardest thing to endure. He’d always known Louis was self-absorbed and more attracted to his celebrity than to him. But he’d been cute, and good company on lonely nights. His perpetual jobless state had made it easy for Aiden to take him on tour. The guy’s tastes had been expensive, but that hadn’t been a problem.
At least, not until money got tight.
What had hurt far more than being walked out on by a vapid twink had been the job offers. When orchestras stopped courting him, Aiden knew it was over. Even if he managed to whip himself back into shape—something which seemed increasingly unlikely as the months slipped by—he no longer had a career.
Jesus. I’m doing it again.
Aiden took a sip of his coffee and tried to focus on how beautiful the day was. The porch was largely in shadow, but a sunbeam cut across the corner and warmed his feet. The soothing smell of coffee drifting up from his mug, mingled with the sweetness of his mother’s roses and the more cloying scent of honeysuckle. The only sound was the cheeping of goldfinches as a brightly colored cardinal attempted to edge his way in at the feeder.
Aiden had adapted to life in New York City, and part of him enjoyed the constant movement, the lights, the music halls and theaters. His apartment had been spacious and stylishly decorated, when he’d been able to afford it. And he’d thrown some kickass parties. Louis had been into threesomes, and some of those had been amazingly hot. Not a substitute for real tenderness and love, but Aiden had never expected that from Louis.
Springhaven was the opposite of New York. Small, quiet, and slow-paced. Everybody knew everybody else in this town. Aiden had tried to tell Louis what it was like growing up there, but the young man had grimaced and cut him off. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I would get hives just setting foot in a place like that! I think I’m starting to itch even thinking about it.”
But Aiden had missed it, even though he knew leaving had been the correct choice. Old Mrs. Martin had been sweet and a patient instructor, but she’d recognized when Aiden was twelve that his skill had outstripped hers. His parents had resisted sending him to the conservatory for a few more years, but eventually they realized it was what he needed.
A stab of pain when he touched thumb to ring finger brought him back to the present. One incautious step off the curb as a bicycle courier flew around the corner, and it was all over. He’d never play piano at a professional level again. His fingers were simply not strong enough for the more challenging pieces, and he tired too quickly.
He drained his coffee and stood. Then he walked to the door, accidentally startling the cardinal at the feeder. The scarlet bird gave out a sharp, irritated squawk and darted off as Aiden opened the screen door to enter the house.
He’d been in the habit of practicing immediately after breakfast, and he hadn’t yet broken that. It seemed pointless now, but as long as he kept up his practice, he could fool himself into thinking he’d get it all back someday—his skill, the job offers, his career….