Chapter One



“I’VE GOT to make sure to get it right this time.” Michael Brown, Mike to his friends and colleagues, rose to his feet and stretched his back before stepping away from the brick wall he’d been working on since early this morning. He carefully made his way between the tools and supplies spread around and behind him and squinted at the first couple of layers in critical appraisal. Mike had only completed one layer so far, but he’d had to go slowly. “These people did not pay for an amateur to build their conservatory.”

“Talking to yourself again?” Dale Gable, his friend since they’d been neighbors as kids and a work colleague at Robert M. Wilson Inc. for over nine years, stood near the driveway at the side of the house with his hands in his jeans pockets as if Mike and him didn’t have a lot to accomplish in a very short time. His brown eyes were twinkling with mischief, his tanned face lit by the bright sunlight.

“Don’t have much choice since you didn’t turn up until now.” Mike liked Dale, he really did, but the man had never been the most conscientious of workers; being an hour late might not be the norm for Dale, but it wasn’t all that unusual either. Then Mike grinned to take some of the sting out of his words—the guy was his friend, after all—and pointed at the beginnings of the foundation for the conservatory. “What do you think? I had to tear down most of what the idiot apprentices did so far. They’d used the wrong bricks, the foundation could be called wobbly at best, and the transition between the old Victorian wall and our new parts was faulty.”

“Wobbly?” Dale raised his eyebrows and grinned. “Is that a new technical term?”

“Oh, you know what I mean.” Mike sighed, but he was grateful for a bit of levity. The stress of finishing projects on time and under budget was getting to him, and he missed “the good old days” of using sound working practices and having the time to indulge his more artistic side. But ever since the economic downturn, even the wealthy, like their current clients in Reservoir Hill, had taken to reducing their expenses.

“Yeah, I do know.” Dale took a long look at the perfectly aged red bricks, walked up to the area where old and new walls connected, then stepped back to check the alignment of the strings that would enable them to stay on the straight and narrow, so to speak, as the wall grew in height. “Looks good to me. The footing was okay?”

“Yes, I measured it and made sure the concrete had dried, but it was fine.” Mike reached for a water bottle in the crate. He’d deposited it in the shade under one of the old oaks right next to where they worked. It was one of the few trees the clients had left standing, intending to have the whole garden landscaped once the conservatory on the southern wall of the old Victorian house had been completed. The rest of the backyard looked like a disaster area with everything dug up and some of the old bushes still lying around. “And thank God for that. We don’t have the time to pour a new one and wait for the concrete to dry.”

“No, Robert is upset enough as it is.” Dale shrugged. “Shouldn’t have let the apprentices work on their own, even if they do have two years’ experience.”

“Hell no. They’ve not even had any formal schooling.” Mike shook his head. Not that schooling was everything, but he’d never regretted his two years at the International Masonry Institute in Bowie, just half an hour south of Baltimore. Funded by the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, also known as BAC, and the signatory contractors who employ union members, their combined apprenticeship/work program had given him a good start in his career. Dale had done the same thing, and his father had been the one who’d gotten them the part-time jobs at Wilson Inc., where Mr. Gable had worked as a stonemason for most of his life. They’d still had a heck of a lot to learn when they joined Wilson Inc. full-time at age twenty, but at least they hadn’t been complete newbies.

“I know, right? But I guess they were cheaper, so the boss thought….” Dale shrugged again. “Anyway, let me just change into my coverall—I’ve got it in the truck—and I’ll join you in a minute.”

Mike nodded, grateful he’d have help and company. They only had three days to finish the conservatory’s brick foundation, a wall thirty feet long: ten feet for each side and three feet high, minus the spaces for doors on each side, as indicated by the blueprints Mike’s boss had handed over. But once the wall was finished, they’d need to lay some more bricks for the steps leading down to garden level, as well as the brick pavement making up the terrace surrounding the conservatory. If they wanted to achieve the kind of quality the client’s specifications—and Mike’s perfectionism—demanded, they had better get started. The guys who’d been hired to add the glass walls on top of the bricks, as well as the roof of the new conservatory, were already scheduled to start work on Thursday.

“So you finished your other job, the one over on Belair Road?” Dale now wore his light blue coveralls, short black hair sticking up from changing clothes, and pulled on his gray work gloves.

“Yeah, it was just a brick fireplace they wanted, nothing difficult.” Or even vaguely satisfying, but Mike kept that thought to himself. A lot of Wilson Inc.’s money these days came from working small but relatively lucrative projects like that, so who was he to complain? The designer got most of the fee, but it was all money, so Mike was happy. “The new guy they gave me to work with, Ricky, is actually a pretty cool kid. At least he seems to want to work and he knew his trowel from his bullhorn jointer.”

“I guess there’s hope for the future after all.” Dale grinned and rubbed his gloved hands. “Where do you want me to start?”

“What about you work on the other side and we meet in the middle?” Mike pointed at the other end of the three-walled enclosure that would become the lower part of the conservatory, where the new wall connected to the house. With a surface area of around a hundred square feet, it was not the biggest they had ever built, but it wasn’t exactly small either. He hoped the client had planned for double glazing for the upper part, or it would be a bitch to heat in winter, even facing south the way it did. Baltimore was not exactly in the tropics.

“No problem.” Dale busied himself with finding a bucket, pouring the lime cement mix, and adding water in just the right quantity. “At least the boss is letting us work with lime instead of the cheaper Portland cement we normally use.”

“Well, yes, not that he has much choice.” Mike snorted as he walked back to his segment of the wall and got to his knees. “This is a historic building, and using anything other than original-type materials would run the risk of losing the owners their registration on the National Register of Historic Places. From what I hear, it was hard enough for them to get the permit from the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, and the designer had to make a couple of changes to ‘make it look more Victorian’ before they got approval.”

“And how do you know all that?” Dale frowned as he looked up from stirring the lime putty in his bucket until it became usable.

“I may have spent part of Saturday talking to the designer.” Mike liked to be well briefed on his projects, especially the ones affected by some sort of restriction—like the need for historical accuracy.

Dale shook his head as he stopped stirring and carried the bucket to where he’d be working. The bricks already sat on a pallet close by. Mike had directed the deliverymen to put one on each of the three sides of the conservatory-to-be so he wouldn’t waste time walking back and forth.

“What?” Mike raised his eyebrows. So he was a bit of a history nerd. Stone and brick restoration were his thing, and they brought his perfectionist inclinations to the fore. It made for better quality in his work and happier clients.

“You and your love for historical stuff.” Dale set down his cement-filled bucket, looked around himself to check his supplies and tools, then knelt. “I keep telling you that you should be making it a career.”

“True.” Mike nodded and sighted along the line spanning the distance between him and the brick pillar in the southwest corner. Satisfied the wall remained as straight as it had been the last time he checked, he looked up at Dale. “But then you also remind me of the risk of changing jobs in an uncertain market. And you’re right. With less money floating around, fewer people can afford to pay for expensive restorations. And it isn’t as if the government or other official bodies have lots of funds to play with either.”

“Unfortunately.” After checking his lines, Dale picked up the level, put it on top of the wall in a few places to ensure it was smooth, then placed it along the side to check if the bricks were plumb. “So what else did you do on Saturday?”

“I made sure we’d have the right bricks and arranged for the guys to deliver them this morning. They didn’t like the fact they’d have to start work this early on a Monday, but that’s their problem.” Mike grinned. If he had to get up early to make it here from where he lived just southeast of downtown, then so could the delivery guys.

“These are special bricks? I should have known.” Dale eyed the one he’d picked up with something approaching appreciation.

“Of course they are. They need to fit the rest of the house in look at least, ideally in age. With projects like these, you can’t just use any old bricks. That was part of the problem with letting the apprentices be in charge. They had no idea of the shit that would have hit the fan once the building inspector got his hands on the finished conservatory for approval.” Mike could spend hours talking about the different types and colors of bricks available at the few suppliers in town who specialized in providing bricks reclaimed from torn-down historical buildings.

“Makes sense.” Dale smiled as he laid down some mortar with his trowel, then pressed the first new brick into place on top of it. “Glad to have you around to avoid another catastrophe.”

“What do you mean ‘another’ catastrophe? We haven’t had any in a while, right?” Mike looked up from where he’d been about to add another brick to his part of the wall. Maybe he should spend more time in the office, make more of an effort to keep up with the gossip. But he enjoyed being out at the various construction sites and working with his colleagues way more than the stuffy atmosphere in headquarters.

“Nobody really knows yet how it happened. It happened on Saturday afternoon.” Dale frowned. “Greg and Paul had just finished setting up the scaffolding for the exterior work on the single-family residence on Bolton Street. You know, the one that’s going to be divided into rental apartments?”

Mike nodded, fearing he knew where this was going.

“Well, as soon as they were done, a van delivering building supplies backed into one of the supporting poles at the base of it, and the whole thing collapsed.” Dale shuddered. “Greg and Paul managed to hold on to the part that remained standing, but they’ve both got some heavy bruising. Nobody knows what that van was doing there instead of staying on the road, and the boss isn’t happy.”

“Not their fault though, is it?” Mike had put down all his tools, too engrossed in the story to continue working.

“No, but there’ll be an investigation now and the work has been delayed.” Dale picked up the next brick. “And you know what the boss is like when timings slip.”

“Yep, time is money and all that.” Mike could even relate to that, in an abstract sort of way. “They’re both really okay though?”

“The doctor told them to take a couple days off to rest, but yes, they’re fine.” Dale nodded and returned to work.

With a sigh of relief, Mike did the same. He’d seen his share of mishaps over the years, but each one still got to him. Construction was a potentially dangerous career, and he was conscious of the need to be careful and make sure health and safety rules and regulations were observed at all times.

A few hours later, they had made some good progress and finished almost half the wall, but the ache in his back and his increasing hunger made him call for a lunch break. They knocked on the door so they could use the guest bathroom to do their business and wash their hands before eating. Two ham and cheese sandwiches, two chocolate bars, and two bottles of water later, they returned to work in the now sweltering June heat.

Many bricks later the conservatory outline was clearly visible. There’d be only two more layers to do, and they had made good time. Mike looked up, stretched, and drank some water. As he was about to return to work, a dark green van pulled up to the side of the house, just visible around the corner from where Mike was working. He didn’t expect anyone from head office or any of his colleagues, but they might have changed their minds or something unexpected could have come up. He rose to check it out, and the logo on its side quickly made clear what was going on.

“Clark’s Tree Farm” sat in the middle in bold yellow letters, a group of various trees painted above it and “Trees, Plants, and Landscaping” in slightly smaller font underneath. The gardener had arrived, and since he was clearly on his own, he probably had an appointment to discuss his plans. Fixing the current mess would take more than one man.

The man behind the wheel shut off the engine, took a moment as if to collect himself, then got out of the vehicle. Mike didn’t think the gardener had noticed him, half hidden by the corner of the house, so he took a good look. The man was about Mike’s height of six feet, maybe an inch or two less, and had a lean but well-muscled body with broad shoulders covered by a tight dark green T-shirt. He wore black slacks that hugged his thighs and narrow hips, and leather shoes. When he bent and stretched across the driver’s seat to reach for something in the passenger seat, the pants stretched nicely around his more than delectable ass.

As soon as he’d closed the van’s door, he turned around and stared straight at Mike. His green eyes widened as a slight blush colored his high cheekbones. His face was framed by medium-long blond hair, and he was clean-shaven. But all Mike noticed were those green eyes, almost as dark as the T-shirt the guy wore.

“Hello.” The landscaper’s voice was deep and melodious. A friendly smile made his lips curve up, and a dimple appeared in one cheek.

“Hello.” Mike tentatively smiled back, the polite thing to do, but he had no idea what to say to the most fascinating male specimen he’d seen in quite a while. The attraction had hit him right between the eyes—okay, maybe a bit lower than that if he were honest—and his brain seemed to have switched itself off. A damned dimple! How cute was that? And Mike had never thought he was into “cute” men, not since he realized he was gay around the time he turned sixteen. Apparently, he still had a lot to learn, even at his ripe old age of twenty-seven.

“Is this the Radinsky residence?” The landscaper looked a little confused as he checked his clipboard, then looked up at the house.

“Yes, it is.” Mike had rarely felt this tongue-tied since puberty. He lifted his arm and pointed. “The, um, the front entrance is around that way.”

“Oh, okay.” The landscaper shook his head as if to clear it and took a step away from his van and toward the front of the house, never looking away from Mike. “I better let them know I’m here, right?”

“Right.” Mike could have kicked himself. He sounded like a total idiot.

“Okay.” The landscaper nodded, turned around, and vanished around the northeast corner of the house.

Mike remained where he stood for a few seconds, then shook himself and walked back to the wall he’d been working on. Dayum, that was an amazing guy.

“What was that all about?” Dale looked up from placing the final brick in their current layer.

“Oh, just the landscaper.” Mike picked up his trowel and a brick, ready to finish for the day. “Guess they decided not to wait too long to get this mess of a backyard fixed.”