Chapter One

“So, what’s the problem with the next customer?” Will Kovar, licensed plumber for ten years and owner of Total Plumbing Solutions—TPS for short—for the last three, put his heavy toolbox in the back of the company van and wiped his hands on the towel they always kept handy. “It better not be another blocked toilet.”

“No, Boss.” Allen’s grin was infectious and made the eighteen-year-old dark-haired apprentice from Wake Forest, just north of Raleigh, North Carolina, look young enough to still be in high school. He wiped his hands, then reached for the clipboard with their list of jobs to do for Monday morning. “But they were sure glad we got it fixed for them.”

Will laughed. Of course the elderly couple had been happy; they wouldn’t have known what to do if left to their own devices. Helping people was very rewarding and a good way to teach new guys and gals the basics of the business. Small repair jobs like this didn’t make TPS big money, but it kept Will and his seven plumbers plus admin assistant busy. They filled in the breaks between the bigger commercial contracts and their projects with housing contractors who were building ever increasing numbers of new houses needed in the rapidly expanding city. Will made sure he spent at least two half days per week on the road as part of a repair or maintenance team. It had proven to be a good way to stay in touch with the reality of a trade he had chosen despite his parents’ reservations, but one he still loved all these years later.

“Okay.” Allen squinted at the printout. “We have water coming up through a crack in a concrete driveway. Apparently it isn’t constant, and the water doesn’t smell like drainage. The reappearing puddles are next to the rainwater downspout, but with how dry 2014 has been so far, they don’t think rain could be the cause.”

“They may be right.” Will closed and locked the van and made his way to the driver’s side. “You got the address?”

“Yeah, it’s over in Cameron Park, on East Forest Drive. I’ll put it in the GPS.” Allen got in, buckled up, and added their destination by the time Will had started the engine and switched on the air conditioner.

“Got it.” Will pulled into traffic and focused on enjoying the cool air blasting at them. The projected high for the day might only be eighty-four degrees, and thankfully lower than the nineties they’d suffered in July, but it was too warm to be running around in their blue company coveralls looking for water leaks, even at ten in the morning. That was the one advantage of staying in the office, yet Will wouldn’t have missed “getting his hands wet” for the world.

When they arrived at the fairly new house, Will located the puddle before ringing the doorbell, Allen at his side. A woman with two small children clinging to her legs opened the door.

“Hi, I’m Will Kovar from TPS, and this is Allen Phillips, one of the apprentices.” Will looked at the clipboard as if to check the details, a trick he used to reassure customers, but he knew perfectly well what they were here for. “You have a leaking crack in the driveway?”

“Thank God you’re here.” She smiled and stepped back before shaking her head and coming forward to point at the water on the driveway. “It’s been coming and going, and my husband kept insisting he could fix it but, well, he’s no plumber.”

“We’ll check it out. No problem.” Will smiled. “Since you said it’s coming and going, I don’t think it’s a water-main leak. Water would be leaking all the time. You’re sure it’s not coming from the drain downspout?”

“Yes, we checked that.” The woman pushed back her hair and picked up the younger girl, who clung to her neck immediately. “It’s all dry.”

“That means we’ve got two potential causes left.” Will held up his right hand to count on his fingers. “Since these houses all have waterproofed basements, it could be in the drains leading from the sump pump to the municipal storm drain. We’ll check the pump for you to see if the leak increases when it comes on to remove excess water from the basement. Or it could be a leak in the lawn irrigation system, so we’ll also check that.”

“Whatever you need to do.” The woman’s eyes had glazed over as Will explained the possibilities. “You’ll need access to the basement, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Will turned to Allen for a moment. “You up for this?”

“Sure.” Allen straightened. “We’ll find the pump and basin or pit first, make sure it comes on, and then go check if the leak outside got bigger, right?”

Will nodded. They followed the woman and two children inside, through a door in the hallway, and made their way downstairs into a small room at the back. It held a small sink, the main water shutoff valve, a pedestal sump pump—not surprisingly since they were cheaper than submersible models—and a very dry basin meant to catch any excess water. There was only a little liquid in the driveway crack right then, and with how dry the basin looked, Will doubted this was the cause of the problem, but they had to follow a process of elimination to ensure they didn’t overlook anything.

Allen asked the woman for a bucket and used the wall sink’s faucet to fill it with water. Two buckets later the basin was full, the pump came on, and the basin quickly emptied. Will and Allen went back upstairs to check the driveway, but no additional water had appeared. The woman and her children had followed more slowly and stood just inside the house.

“Okay, that leaves the irrigation system.” Will dreaded those because finding the exact location could be difficult, even with modern technology at their disposal. “Allen, could you get the equipment we’ll need from the van?”

Allen nodded and raced off with all the enthusiasm of an apprentice eager to prove his worth. Will asked the woman to switch on the lawn irrigation system, once she had and Allen returned, Will moved to the basement and got to work. He started by pulling out his acoustic sensor, basically a sophisticated microphone on a long cable. He carefully lowered it to the floor and smiled when he heard a hissing sound that signaled a leaking pipe somewhere in the vicinity. He passed it on to Allen so the apprentice would know the type of sound they were looking for.

To determine whether the leak was inside or outside the house, Will shut off the water main, preventing water from coming inside. The sound went away, so at least the leak wasn’t inside the house. He returned the water main to its “on” position and went outside to follow the pipes, listening to the hissing until he found the leak about five feet away from the house, just under the concrete of the driveway. Allen was right beside him the entire way, listening in occasionally so he understood what they were doing. Will then returned to the door, which the woman had left ajar, and knocked so she’d know he wanted to talk to her.

“The good news is that we found the leak. It’s in one of the pipes providing your lawn sprinkler system with water.” Will pointed to where Allen stood, the microphone he held up dangling right over the leak’s location. “The bad news is that we’ll have to dig a hole in the lawn to approach it from the side. If we can’t reach it for any reason, we’ll have to use a hammer drill to go through the concrete.”

The woman’s eyes widened.

“Don’t worry. If you want us to do it, we’ll make sure we repair any damage to the driveway afterwards. It’ll cost a little more, but I’m guessing you’d prefer that to us leaving a mess?” Will was pretty sure the woman was like most of his residential customers in the wealthier areas of town; they just wanted the problem to go away and were happy to pay a little extra to get it done quickly and professionally.

“Can you do it right away?” The woman smiled when Will nodded. “And not leaving a mess will be a bonus.”

“No problem, we’ll get right on it.” Will signaled a thumbs-up to Allen.

Like an eager puppy, the apprentice retrieved the necessary tools from the back of the van, and they began digging a hole. The children watched from a safe distance, and even the woman took a break from what she’d been doing and observed the goings-on. Thankfully the irrigation system hadn’t been dug in too deeply, and the leaking pipe was quickly found and replaced. Once they’d closed up the hole and used the hose to clean the driveway, it looked like new. The woman was happy, used her credit card to pay, and Will drove them back to the TPS office just east of downtown in time for lunch.

Will had found the two-story building the previous year. It had turned out to be cheaper than renting a building downtown, but the Glenwood Avenue location he’d decided to go for had the advantage of offering a small lot for parking their four company vans and some employee cars right next door. A few restaurants, cafés, a bakery, and some grocery stores were within walking distance, so lunch was never a problem for those who happened to be in the office. Since they were normally on the road, they had only three offices, a meeting room, a kitchen, a small room for company files, and a reception area with a sofa and a few easy chairs for the odd visitor.

Once they had eaten in the small kitchen used as a break area and discussed the morning’s work, Allen joined Peter, one of TPS’s most experienced plumbers, for his afternoon rounds. Will resigned himself to catching up with his paperwork and walked to the reception area to see what his office assistant, Jane, who doubled as a receptionist, had in store for him.

“Anything interesting today?” Will absently admired Jane’s newest outfit. She liked to dress in colorful ensembles, and today’s bright green jeans and pink crop top combined with a blue-green jacket was no exception.

“Definitely.” Jane smiled and pulled three manila file folders from the well-organized chaos on her desk. “There’s a bid for yet another new skyscraper to be built downtown that I think might be interesting, two general contractors are looking to subcontract plumbing for new apartment buildings south of the center, and Royal Oaks is looking for plumbers to work with them in the Forest Springs community of higher-end townhomes.”

“That looks like a great range.” Will took the files, eager to get going. “Thank you, Jane.”

“Sure, Boss.” She grinned and returned to her work.

Will walked into his office. While the others shared their rarely used office space, his was dedicated to his personal use, a perk of being the boss. He’d started the company in 2011, just after the April tornado had cut a wide swath from the southwest to the northwest of the city, leaving structural damage of over three hundred million dollars in its wake. The destruction was devastating, but the initial boost in demand for construction and repair work had given Will’s business a good start, and he’d been proven right. Three years later he was still doing well. Thankfully there was no end in sight. TPS had built a good reputation for quality work, the housing and commercial building growth in the “City of Oaks” and the entire Triangle area including Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, continued unabated, and higher per capita disposable income meant spending on home improvements was likely to rise with the owners of older houses entering the market to bring their houses and condos up to date.

Two hours later Will had worked his way through the skyscraper bid and one of the two subcontracting opportunities. He was ready for some coffee and had just gotten up to get it when his phone rang, the ringtone announcing his sister was checking up on him. There was no point trying to escape her well-meant attempts at getting him to have a social life, so he picked up the call with a resigned sigh.

“Hi, Heather.” Will sat back in his chair, deciding offense was the best defense. “How’s the baby?”

“Hey, Will.” Heather laughed. “Still due in February, and I know what you’re up to. It won’t work.”

“Damn.” Will grinned. Heather might only be twenty-six and almost seven years younger than him, but she was happily married to a great guy, and they were both high school teachers and making good money. At least she had a good work/life balance.

“Language!” Heather tsked.

“What? The baby isn’t even born yet.” Will was looking forward to becoming an uncle almost as much as his mother anticipated becoming a grandmother. She had started knitting stuff as soon as Heather had announced the big news barely a year after she and Justin had become hitched. It had taken the pressure to provide grandkids off him, but Heather hadn’t given up on the idea of seeing him in a stable relationship of his own.

“And that’s a good thing. You’ll need all the time you can get to practice cleaning up your act.” Heather sighed theatrically. “But that isn’t why I’m calling.”

Will rolled his eyes. Here we go!

“Mom wasn’t happy you missed Sunday lunch.” Heather cleared her throat. “Again.”

“I was working and forgot the time.” Will knew they didn’t consider work as important as family, but his business was his life, and things didn’t run themselves. His parents had wanted him to become a teacher like his father, but Will had had other plans from an early age.

“Not good enough, Will, and you know it.” Heather was using her teacher voice.

It still worked on Will, even though he hadn’t been back to school since preparing for his master plumber’s exam a few years back. Will cringed. He did know his excuse of needing to work wasn’t accepted by his parents, but by the time he’d looked up from preparing next week’s work schedule for his employees, it was halfway through lunch, and he really didn’t want to face the music, so to speak. His mother was formidable when upset.

“She had big news for you and wanted to tell you face-to-face.” Heather sighed dramatically. “She probably doesn’t want me to tell you, but I think you deserve to be warned.”

“I’m afraid to ask.” Will was pretty sure it could only be one thing. “She’s found another potential date for me, hasn’t she?”

“You got it in one.” Heather chuckled. “This time she’s Mrs. Baggett’s daughter, Tiffany. She’s ‘such a nice girl’ and has gone through an awful divorce. Mom is sure you could cheer her up.”

“Jesus.” Will shook his head. “Whatever gave her the idea I’m a social worker?”

“I have no clue, but I can tell you she’s more determined than ever. She has it all figured out, and next month’s first Sunday lunch is it.” Heather changed her voice to match their mother’s to a T. “You better be there, young man, or else.”

Will groaned.

“I know. Are you sure you don’t want to reappoint me as the master of your social life?” Heather laughed. “At least I get the gender of your blind dates right.”

“I’m not sure what worries me more.” Will leaned back in his chair and tried to relax the white-knuckled grip he had on his phone. “Mom’s continuing refusal to understand that ‘I’m gay’ means I’m not interested in dating women, or your insistence on seeing me settle down.”

“I think you should probably worry about both.” Heather meant well, Will knew that, but everyone’s preoccupation about what he did with his nonexistent free time was annoying. “Mom will understand eventually, I’m sure, but she and I both want to see you happy. And before you start, I know you think work makes you happy, and that may be part of the truth. But you can’t convince me you wouldn’t like a partner in your life. Someone you can share all your successes and the occasional problem with.”

Will grunted, not willing to admit Heather sort of might have a point. He certainly wasn’t going to give her additional ammunition.

“Right. I’ve done my bit. Consider yourself warned. Just don’t tell Mom I spoke to you.” Heather paused as if listening to something on her end of the call. “Okay, got to go. Justin wants us to look at more baby stuff.”

“You guys are so organized, I can’t believe it.” Will was impressed. Five more months to go seemed like a long time at the moment, but it would be February before they knew it. “Have fun, thanks for the warning, and I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Later.” Heather ended the call.

Will had barely refocused on his work when his landline rang. Jane rarely passed a call on to him, but it looked as though this was one of those occasions.

“I’ve got someone from the Safe Home for Girls and Boys on the line for you. They have some sort of emergency, and since none of our teams are available right now, I think you’ll need to handle this one.” Jane could do efficient as well as any secretary.

“Sure, I’ll talk to them.” Will cleared his throat and waited for Jane to hang up.

“Hello? Anyone there?” The caller’s voice was deep and smooth.

“This is Will Kovar speaking. What can I do for you?”

“Oh. Um. I’m Steve Hayes, residential manager at Safe Home for Girls and Boys. We’ve got a flooded bathroom on one of the floors. I think it’s a blockage of some kind, and we urgently need help. I got your number from one of the volunteers in the kitchen, whose sister used your company a while ago for a bathroom remodel. She was pretty sure you do emergency plumbing as well. Can you help, please?” Steve sounded a little panicked and a lot hopeful.

“That depends.” Will glanced at all the work still left to do and shrugged. Emergencies trumped paperwork, and there was something in the stranger’s voice that called to him.

“On what?” Steve sounded wary.

“Well, your location, for one, and what the actual problem is. It could be a leaking pipe, or a burst main, or one of many other issues. I won’t be able to tell you for sure until I’ve taken a look.” Will began to close files on his computer while he was talking, pretty sure the guy was desperate enough he’d ask Will to take a look anyway.

“Oh my God. It all sounds so serious.” Steve sighed. “It’s not like we have a choice, is it? The kids need that bathroom. So, yeah. Could you come take a look, please?”

“Sure. What’s your address?” Will grabbed a pen and a piece of paper. “And I do assume you’ve turned off the water main, to stop things from getting worse?”

“We’re on West Morgan.” Steve proceeded to give Will all the details he’d need for the GPS to find the place. “And yes, I turned it off as soon as we discovered the problem.”

“Great. I got your address. Should take me about half an hour, depending on traffic.” Will and traffic never seemed to be on good terms. “Look for the red and blue TPS van.”

“Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.” Steve ended the call.

Will collected his laptop and walked past Jane’s desk to get the keys for the van.

“You’re heading out?” Jane smiled, knowing full well that Will couldn’t resist an opportunity to get his hands dirty.

“Yep. West Morgan.” Will took the keys Jane had ready for him. “I might not be back before closing time, so I’ll leave everything in your capable hands.”

“Sure, Boss. It’s not like this is the first time.” Jane smiled and made shooing motions with her hands.

“Aye, aye.” Will grinned as he left the building. And it won’t be the last time, either!

 

 

Chapter Two

“THAT WENT better than expected.” Steve put down the receiver of the ancient office phone, relieved the plumber on the other end had at least sounded professional and knowledgeable. The list of potential causes he’d rattled off horrified Steve, but what did he know about technical stuff? He was a social worker by trade, more of a manager type now, and people were his strength, not nuts and bolts or pipes and whatever plumbers worked with. Valves probably.

“Are they going to be here soon?” Brian Forester, the older, senior counselor in charge of the boys on the third floor, looked as panicked as Steve felt. “It’s a total mess, and who knows how long it’ll take to fix. If they can’t get it done quickly, the water could do even more damage and affect the girls’ bathroom on the second floor as well. The kids will be back from their afternoon activities soon, and we can’t ask the boys to share the girls’ bathroom.”

“I switched off the water main to limit the damage, and we cleaned up what water was there for now. And the gentleman I spoke to said he would be right over. Half an hour maybe.” Steve checked his watch and crossed his fingers, just in case. The children’s home building was ancient and not in the best state of repair, so Brian’s fear of further leakage was more than justified. Making boys of any age follow personal hygiene rules was tough enough; a broken, messy bathroom was not going to help. They’d take the excuse of faulty equipment and run with it. “He certainly sounded like he knows what’s what in the plumbing arena, so I’m sure he can help us deal with this.”

“Then all we need to worry about is how to pay his bill.” Brian sighed and slumped in his chair, adding a few more creases to his slightly rumpled suit.

“As long as he makes it here, not like some of the other tradespeople we’ve encountered recently, I’ll deal with the financial worries.” Steve hated the constant money problems. He came from a wealthy family background and had never had to worry about paying for whatever he or his three younger siblings wanted, but he’d learned quickly that not everyone was as well-off as the Hayes clan. Of course, with them turning their back on him once he chose to become “a mere social worker” rather than taking the well-paid position in his father’s financial empire his parents had chosen for him, their money was totally out of reach to him. Not that he would have touched it anyway. After all, he did have his pride.

“I’d much rather deal with my ten boys.” Brian laughed. “They can be a handful, but most of them are good kids.”

“I know.” Steve wished he could find homes for each one of them, but older children were notoriously difficult to place. “And I agree. Give me a roomful of kids over a plumbing or electrical issue any day.”

“Thank God Jessica knew about this plumbing company.” Brian rubbed his temple, making his glasses slide lower on his nose. “Picking just anyone from the Yellow Pages would have been risky.”

Steve nodded and glanced at his desk. Work seemed to be magically attracted to the surface, “assembling” there in a heap, and the stacks of paper he had to deal with on a daily basis looked as if it had figured out the secrets of self-replenishment.

“I’ll leave you to it, then.” Brian rose. “I have a few rooms to inspect and therapy sessions to write up.”

“Thanks for your moral support.” Steve smiled at Brian. The man had become a good friend in the five years since Steve had started working at Safe Home, right out of college and full of idealism. They’d had fewer interactions since Steve had taken over the residential manager role than when they’d been fellow counselors, but they had a solid foundation of trust to build on, and even a year of very different job responsibilities hadn’t changed the fact they had each other’s backs.

“Anytime.” Brian smiled and left Steve’s office, quietly shutting the door behind him.

Steve dove back into the scheduling he’d been working on before Brian had alerted him to the issue of the bathroom leaks. Finding and organizing the many volunteers who worked in all areas of running what was in essence a small privately run orphanage, was a big part of his job. With the frequent changes in everyone’s individual plans, it took a lot of his time.

Before he knew it, the doorbell rang, and a quick glance outside revealed a red and blue van with the TPS logo on the side. Yes! The TPS guy made it. Since Steve was the only full-time manager present that afternoon, he jumped up to race to the front door.

“Hello. I’m Will Kovar. We spoke earlier?” Will was a tall man, probably around six feet, who had dark brown hair and bright green eyes. He smiled as he held out his free hand, the other busy holding up an impressive-looking black steel toolbox, and Steve felt as if the sun had just risen.

“H-hi.” Steve swallowed as he shook Will’s hand and took in the rest of the most well-built plumber he had ever laid eyes on. Wide shoulders, narrow hips, long legs, all packaged in a tight-fitting blue coverall with the TPS logo on the left chest and “Will” in red letters on the right. “Thanks for coming out to see us.”

“Of course.” Will pulled back his hand, and Steve reluctantly let go. “I said I’d take a look, so here I am.”

“Great. Well. Please come in, and I’ll show you around.” Steve took a step back to give Will space to enter. Steve watched in fascination as Will’s thigh muscles bunched under the tight fabric, and he was ready to pounce by the time Will’s ass became visible. Yum! Tearing himself away from the view was difficult, but in the interest of not being punched in the face by a man who didn’t set off Steve’s gaydar even a little, Steve refrained from testing the firmness of Will’s asscheeks.

“The building is a lot bigger than I thought.” Will looked around the main hallway with its wooden staircases and some of the children’s artwork on display on the walls. “My secretary mentioned you run a children’s home?”

“I’m one of the managers, yes. We have the director, who is in charge of fundraising and overseeing the operation. I oversee the day-to-day details, administration, and usually do anything else that’s needed. We also have three full-time counselors who focus on the kids’ social and psychological needs.” Steve pointed toward the staircase. “We currently have eight girls who live on the second floor with a female counselor assigned for their primary care, and ten boys on the third floor who are looked after and coached by a male counselor. They go to schools in the city and have various afternoon activities, which is why none of them are here yet. They’ll get back around six or so.”

“So the children live here permanently? I thought it might be some sort of temporary place. But it sounds more like an orphanage to me.” Will had stopped walking at the bottom of the stairs and looked at Steve with curiosity.

“We always hope any kids who come to stay will be here only on a temporary basis. And while orphanages are no longer thought to be the best way to take care of kids who lost one or both parents, the truth is that, in essence, we fulfill that function. Most of the ones who come to live here may have a living biological parent, even distant relatives, but for one reason or another, those people cannot take care of them, so they are placed here. Finding adoptive parents or a foster home is our priority.” Steve paused, thinking of the many he’d seen come and go over the years, wishing he could have done more for them. “Very few are lucky enough to make it, and most of the ones we do place are under ten.”

“Wow, that’s a huge responsibility.” Will nodded. “The bathroom in question is on the third floor, right?”

“Yes, and we can take the elevator if you prefer.” Steve pointed at the retrofitted monstrosity they needed to be fully accessible.

“Nah, we can take the stairs. I need the exercise with as much sitting around as I do these days.” Will grinned. “You go ahead, it’ll be easier for me to follow since you know the way.”

Steve nodded, turned, and began to climb the stairs. Too bad he wasn’t able to watch Will’s ass this way. He did have the distinct feeling his own was on display instead and hoped Will was gay and interested. And wouldn’t that be the best news in a while. Dream on! He’s here to do a job, not to be propositioned.

They passed the second floor and continued up toward the third. Steve led the way to the bathroom at the end of the hall to their right and stepped back so Will had full access.

“Do you have any idea where the leak might be?” Will surveyed the sinks on the right-hand wall, shower stalls against the back, and toilets to their left. Then he looked at the floor.

“Ah!”

“What?” Steve had no idea where the leak might have originated, and based on what Brian had said, he’d only noticed lots of water, so he wouldn’t be able to help.

“I bet you had water on the floor right there.” Will pointed at a spot close to the shower area where the tiles were slightly cracked, and a few small stains had appeared.

“I’m not sure where it came from….” Steve stared at the spot that seemed to stay no matter how diligently the boys, who took on some cleaning duty, or the professional cleaners, who came in once a week, scrubbed the area. “But that stain has been there for a while.”

“I see.” Will put his toolbox on the floor. “A stain like that is usually an indication of a leak in one of the pipes running under the floor. I’m going to have to ask you to turn the water main back on, so I can watch what happens. I’ll get out my listening equipment so I’m ready when you come back.”

Steve nodded, left Will to the mysterious implements of his trade, and went to the basement to do what the gorgeous plumber had told him. Minutes later he was back to find one of the showers running and Will slightly bent over the dirty spot with some sort of earpiece pressed to his head. It was connected to a long cable with a weird-looking