THE GUY who opened the door was a knockout.
Sandy was stunned into silence, his hand still in the air as if he were about to knock on the door again. It took a great deal of internal rallying to move his hand into the standard shake position and say, “I’m Sandy Sullivan from McPhee Interiors.”
“Everett Blake,” said the guy, taking Sandy’s hand. “Come on in. I’ll show you the kitchen.”
Sandy followed, taking in the view from the rear and wondering how this guy could be so nonchalant. Did he know he was this hot?
Sandy took a moment to look around, trying to divert his attention. The apartment was Clutter City. It was the sort of apartment that would have given Mike hives. Sandy’s best friend and boss kept a meticulous apartment, aside from the natural detritus left behind by his teenage daughter. Sandy was not quite as neat, but the Army had instilled some discipline in him despite his best efforts. So this place felt a bit chaotic by contrast.
And then they were in the kitchen.
“Wow!” said Sandy. “Has anyone even been in here since 1974? I’ve never seen so much orange in one place.”
“So you understand why I want to redo this kitchen.”
“Completely. What did you have in mind?”
Sandy and Everett talked for about twenty minutes, with Sandy making sketches and scribbling down notes. Even though he’d taken the job with McPhee Interiors mostly because Mike had offered it—well, that, and Sandy had come home after being discharged from the Army with no clue how to translate his military skills into the civilian world—he knew he was all right with this stuff. Mike was a better designer, but Sandy knew how to make things practical. They had made a good team. They still worked together a lot, but now that Mike had promoted Sandy to run the Brooklyn arm of the company, Sandy did a lot on his own too.
And so, here he was in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, in the apartment of exactly the sort of client Mike wanted: a wealthy, artsy type who wanted to make his prewar apartment look modern.
“You seem to know a lot about kitchens,” Sandy said, scribbling in his notes.
Everett laughed. “My ex is a chef. I moved out a few months ago and got this place and haven’t wanted to even walk into that eyesore of a kitchen. I think I miss my old kitchen more than my relationship.”
“The ex got the kitchen in the divorce?”
“Yup. Not that it was really even my kitchen. There were a lot of rules about what I was allowed to touch.”
Everett motioned to his sofa in the living room, which housed enough knickknacks to stock an antique shop. Sandy sat and did some mental calculations so he could provide Everett with a good estimate for the work. “So how do you know Gio?” Sandy asked as he wrote out his plan. He figured his own connection to their mutual acquaintance would be obvious, since Gio was now engaged to Mike McPhee.
“I used to play in the pit orchestra at the Met. Now I’m the orchestra director at the Olcott School.”
“Oh.” Sandy was impressed but not surprised. Gio knew every classical musician in New York, it seemed. “What did you play?”
Well, that explained some of the knickknacks. A little bobblehead statue that held a violin stared ominously at Sandy from an end table.
“That’s great,” Sandy said. “There is not a single hair on my body with a lick of musical talent, so I find musicians remarkable.” He also found hot men remarkable. Everett had a lot of thick brown hair on his head and a square jaw and a little chin dimple, and his body read more underwear model than musician. Maybe playing the violin required more arm strength than Sandy realized, for Everett to have developed arms like that….
Wait, no, back to the matter at hand. “Okay, here’s the figure we’re looking at.” He handed Everett a piece of paper with his estimate on it.
Everett’s eyes went wide for a moment, but then he sighed. “Yeah, that’s kind of what I was expecting.”
“Sleep on it.” Sandy reached into his bag and pulled out his card. “Call me if you decide to hire us. We’ll do a great job, I promise. Personally, I can’t wait to take down that orange tile. It is a crime against good taste.”
Everett laughed and took the card. “Yeah, okay. I’ll call you.”
Sandy felt pretty good about the meeting, and not just because he would certainly enjoy looking at the client daily if he got the job. On the walk back to his car, he pulled out his phone and called Mike. “I think we got him,” Sandy said. “I didn’t get a good look at the pipes, but it’s a gut job anyway. The cabinets are so old and warped, I don’t think any of it is salvageable, and Blake wants all new appliances too. I might talk him into keeping the oven, though. Midfifties model with the fancy knobs and everything. It’s kind of charming.”
“Okay,” said Mike.
“I highballed him a little to see if he’d balk, but he seemed okay with the price. So that will give us some wiggle room if we need it, or else we’re the heroes for coming in under budget.”
Mike chuckled. “Attaboy.”
“Also, please tell your fiancé that I have a bone to pick with him.”
“He failed to mention that Mr. Blake is drop-dead gorgeous.”
“Oh, really?” There was a lot of amusement in Mike’s voice.
“He has a chin dimple, Mike. A chin dimple. You know I am helpless against such things.”
“I’m amazed you managed to get through the appointment.” Mike’s tone turned wry.
“I am too.” Sandy arrived at his car and unlocked the door. The rust bucket had seen better days, but it got him around, especially in Brooklyn. Intraborough public transportation was such a pain in the ass. “Speaking of men, James cancelled on our little reconciliation dinner tonight, so I guess it really is over.”
“That sucks, man. Do you want to come here instead? I’m making lasagna.”
Sandy’s mouth watered a little at the thought of Mike’s lasagna, but he wasn’t really feeling up to going uptown. “Tempting, but I think I’m going to drop by the house and then go home and wallow.”
“Okay. Well, call if you change your mind.”
“Sure.” Though Sandy knew he wouldn’t. Ever since Mike and Gio had gotten that place together on the Upper West Side, Sandy had felt weird having dinner over there. When it had been just Mike (and Emma) in their old apartment, when it was just Uncle Sandy coming over to watch the game or share a pizza, that was different. Now Sandy was the fifth wheel. And once things had started going belly-up with James, Sandy had gotten tired of those little pitying looks Gio kept giving him.
Sandy was genuinely happy Mike had found love, and he did like Gio, just lately all the lovey-dovey nonsense was making his skin crawl.
He got off the phone and drove to the house he’d recently bought in Crown Heights, a real fixer-upper that had been a bargain in the scheme of things. It wasn’t the best neighborhood. Sandy had been pointedly ignoring news reports of gang violence nearby. Now that the weather was warm, the neighbors seemed to like having stoop parties that involved blasting music from their parked cars, so it was loud. The bodega on the corner smelled like cat piss, but an excellent Caribbean fusion restaurant had just opened two blocks away, so there was that. The rumor was that the few blocks surrounding Sandy’s property were about to gentrify in a big way, so Sandy liked to think he’d gotten in on the ground floor of this particular real estate revival. The house itself still wasn’t inhabitable, but Sandy was working on that. He did most of the work alone, but a couple of the guys on his crew were willing to help out in exchange for beer and hamburgers cooked on the grill on Sandy’s admittedly very nice back deck. And the exterior of the house was gorgeous. It was a classic Victorian brownstone, built around 1887, if the records he’d dug up were to be believed, and it had a certain charm even if the interior had been wrecked by the previous tenants and several decades of neglect.
He and James had still been together when he’d made an offer on the house. He’d thought it would be their place together. The house had four bedrooms and was the sort of place where one raised a family. Sandy thought maybe he and James could start building that family together.
But James had other ideas.
Or, James wanted that, but with someone who wasn’t Sandy.
Sandy went into the house to check on how well the new coat of finish on the hardwood floors in the living room had dried. It looked pretty good, if he did say so himself.
He went out to the car and grabbed his tools. He went back in and upstairs to finish laying down the carpeting in the third-floor bedrooms. He found this kind of work therapeutic, a good way to sort through his thoughts, and apparently he had a lot of them today.
Like how the beginning of the end had started when James had first brought up the possibility of Sandy going back to school. When he wouldn’t let up, Sandy finally said, “What gives?” and James had replied, “You don’t want to work for Mike your whole life, do you?”
He did, actually. He liked the work and he was good at it. Now that he was in charge of the Brooklyn arm of the company, he made more decisions and set his own hours. He was grateful to Mike for trusting him this much and was determined to make the most of the opportunity. But James saw the work as glorified construction work, which was base or vulgar and not noble, not like James’s profession as an ER doctor.
When it had become clear to Sandy that James thought the work Sandy did was beneath them both, Sandy had ripped his shirt off and showed James his scars. “Two tours in Afghanistan,” Sandy had said. “But my career choices are not noble?”
James had looked chastened but hadn’t given up, and that was about when Sandy had walked out the door.
Sandy hadn’t realized how much that still pissed him off until he noticed how aggressive he was being with the nail gun.
He sighed and sat on the floor, leaning his back against the wall.
James had seen enough trauma in the ER that he understood Sandy in a way few other people had. That had been why Sandy was so gung ho about the house. Not even Mike really got it, since his Army career had been cut short before 9/11. Mike had spent time in the hot, desolate Saudi Arabian desert in the late nineties, sure, but he had never been to Kabul or Kandahar or Jalalabad, and thank goodness. But James had seen some shit since becoming a doctor, some of it so horrific he wouldn’t talk about it, so he got where Sandy was coming from.
He understood Sandy, except James wanted Sandy to be a different person.
But all that was over now, and so Sandy was fixing up a house for just himself. There would be no big family to move into it, no husband or adopted children or even a dog. Still, the house was his; that had to count for something.
EVERETT CLOSED the door and wondered what had just hit him.
First, this Sandy character had looked more like a surfer than a contractor, all blond and tan and well-muscled. Sandy also had intelligent brown eyes, something that had surprised Everett more than anything. For one thing, he’d always thought eyes were eyes; whenever he’d come across a phrase about seeing intelligence in someone’s eyes like that in books, he thought it was bunk. But no, Sandy had looked around inquisitively, and his gaze had darted around the kitchen as he sketched and made notes, clearly absorbing everything. He’d then done the math on his worksheet without needing a calculator, which impressed the hell out of Everett, who was somewhat allergic to numbers.
So Everett was pretty sure he was going to give McPhee Interiors the job of fixing his kitchen, even though the price quoted was a smidge out of his budget. It would be worth it to fix the ugly kitchen, and, well, it would be pretty nice to see a guy like Sandy hard at work in this very apartment. Everett could easily picture the guy in a tank top or, better yet, shirtless, his skin glistening with sweat as he… tightened bolts or whatever it was contractors did. Really, Everett had no idea what a kitchen renovation involved, but that was why he was hiring professionals.
Everett felt a little anxious, so he walked into his office and got out his violin. He played a few scales and arpeggios to warm up, trying to distract himself from the fact that, if this had been six months ago, he’d be gearing up to go out with Pierre that night.
That thought derailed Everett enough that he hit a note wrong and, flustered, he put the instrument down, took a deep breath, and then picked it back up.
He pulled a difficult Bach sonata from the depths of his memory and played as much of it as he could without getting out the sheet music. That exercise was absorbing because he had to concentrate on which note came next, which kept his mind from wandering too much.
Lord knew he needed something to distract him from thoughts of Pierre, who was literally everywhere these days. Because that’s what happened when you were hired as a judge on a popular cooking reality show. Pierre Le Blanc, executive chef and owner of trendy Manhattan bistro Le Blanc, was on TV all the time now, shown speaking in quippy sound bites, because the show was on twice a week and the network needed everyone to know it. His face appeared on huge posters in subway stations all over the city. All of the judges were featured on a billboard on Houston Street, mere blocks from Le Blanc. Pierre had even been on the cover of the previous week’s New York magazine, which Everett had received in the mail and then promptly dumped in the trash, not willing to give his ex-boyfriend any more attention, since he had more than he needed.
Distracted now, Everett put his violin away and stared at the case forlornly.
Back in the living room, he sat on the couch and picked up the remote to the TV. Then he put it back down. He looked around, really looked for the first time in weeks, and reveled in how the space had turned out. Everett had always been something of a collector—a term he preferred to “hoarder,” which was what Pierre had called this habit—but five years of living with Pierre had required him to keep a lot of his stuff in storage.
What did it say about their relationship that the day Everett had gone to his storage unit to retrieve his things was one of his happiest in recent memory?
But… fuck Pierre. Everett had grown tired of his ego and his need to control every last thing, and though Pierre had been the one to kick him out, Everett had gone willingly. He was sad to lose the apartment he’d lived in for five years, but when he realized he mourned the stainless steel appliances he couldn’t even touch most of the time more than the man, he knew he’d be all right.
So now he’d get a new kitchen in a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood, several miles and a whole river away from Pierre, and he’d get some eye candy every day too, and that was certainly something to look forward to.