ROUTINE. THAT would be the word that best described Malcolm Webber—routine. His life had fallen into so many ruts he didn’t even recognize them any longer. He got up on a Monday morning and shuffled his way into the bathroom. He didn’t even crack his eyes open as he brushed his teeth, washed his hands and face, and combed his hair. There was no need. He knew where everything was because he went through the same motions each and every morning. The way Malcolm figured it, he could go through his zombie routine and it would be like getting an extra half hour of sleep. He’d already laid out his clothes the night before, so he pulled them on without thinking and left the bedroom.
The scent of coffee brought him to a kind of reality. He didn’t smile, but the smell was a siren song with the promise that it would help wake him up and give him a little of the energy he needed to start his day. He descended the stairs, the coffee acting like the scent for a bloodhound. In the kitchen, Malcolm poured some into one of the mugs that sat next to the programmable pot and took his first sip. It was strong and sharp, just the way he liked it. He didn’t turn on the television or make any unnecessary noise. His routine was too ingrained and practiced for that. He got some crackers, and a few bites of cheese from the refrigerator, and ate them for breakfast. Twenty years earlier, he and David had honeymooned in Europe after their commitment ceremony, and he’d gotten used to a more European breakfast. So ever since, he’d eaten a few crackers with cheese first thing in the morning. The action used to make him think of the little inn he and David had woken up in that first morning in Freiburg after hours and hours of travel. They’d stumbled downstairs after making morning love and had found a very different breakfast waiting for them than what they were used to. Malcolm had had cheese on some crisp type of crackers, and he’d had that same thing every morning for the rest of the trip. In the end, he’d brought the habit home with him.
Malcolm drank more of his coffee, the caffeine acting on his system, and he became more aware of his surroundings. He carried his mug through the house as he located his wallet and keys in their usual place and got his coat. It was frigid outside—winter in Milwaukee. But this was really cold. He felt it deep down, even inside the house. The air crackled around him, it was so dry. The air only felt like that when it was below zero outside. Not that Malcolm really thought about it. He knew the feeling, and his instincts had him grabbing his gloves and hat from their appropriate spot.
He set everything on the chair in the kitchen to finish his coffee. By now his eyes were open, but he still wasn’t fully aware. His coffee hadn’t really kicked in yet, but that would be just a few more minutes. The heated water that ran through the pipes that warmed the house tinked every now and then as it reached a spot that was cool and the pipes expanded a little. Other than that the house was quiet.
Malcolm finished his coffee, rinsed the mug, and placed it in the sink. Then he walked through the house and up the stairs. He went back to the bedroom and pushed the door open, walking to the bed in the still-dark room.
He leaned over it and realized it was empty. In those few seconds, his morning routine came to an abrupt end. David was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. Malcolm turned and sat on the edge of the bed. He’d actually made it to leaving the house thinking that David was still asleep in their bed. That he was still alive and with him. Malcolm sighed as tears welled in his eyes for the millionth time. For ten or fifteen precious minutes, at least as far as Malcolm was concerned, his David had been with him once more, and he hadn’t felt the loss, his constant companion for the past thirteen months. He’d been free and happy, in a way, for a whole fifteen minutes.
Malcolm walked around to the other side the bed, his side, and straightened the covers. After more than a year, he still slept in the same space he had for twenty years. The other side was David’s side of the bed, and he couldn’t bring himself to use it. “Why did you have to go?” he asked the empty space David had occupied, but of course there was no answer.
Malcolm wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and left the tidied room, going back downstairs and pulling on his outside gear. He grabbed his case from near the back door and stepped out into air so cold it hit him like a hammer. He pulled the door closed and locked it before trudging along the snow-covered walk to the garage.
Inside the equally cold structure, Malcolm got into the blue BMW David had bought a couple of years ago and started the engine. He pressed the button to open the garage door and waited for it to lift while praying for the heat to come out of the vents. He pressed the button for his seat warmer and shivered for a few seconds until the door was up. Then he slowly backed out of the garage into the alley behind the house, closed the garage door, and cautiously moved forward, the tires crunching the snow loudly enough to be heard inside as he started the fifteen-minute drive into work.
The route to his office was familiar, and Malcolm usually made the trip on autopilot. But this morning the roads were covered with snow, and since it was so cold, patches of ice were possible anywhere, so he took some extra time.
“MORNING, MALCOLM,” Jane said as he walked past her desk and into his office. “I put your coffee on your desk, along with your schedule for the day so far. It’s Monday, and you know how Gary tends to change things up.”
“Morning,” he said, trying to at least sound cheerful. “Thanks for the coffee. I’m going to need it.” He turned toward the door. “I wish Gary would make up his mind about what he wants to do. It would be nice to know what we’re all walking into.”
“You already have a busy client schedule, so you don’t have much time today,” Jane said.
That was the first good thing that had happened to him today. Gary Hanlan could call as many meetings as he liked to talk over whatever bee he had in his bonnet at that particular moment, but client appointments always took precedence. So at least his day would be somewhat predictable.
“You have half an hour to get ready.”
Malcolm went into his office, booted up his computer, and got to work clearing his e-mail and reviewing the paperwork for his client appointments.
Everything was in his files and ready. He’d made sure of that, the way he always did. After all, he didn’t get to be one of the best tax attorneys in the state by being disorganized and sloppy. Granted, taxation wasn’t one of the glamour areas of the law. He wasn’t a litigator, and he rarely handled any high-profile cases, like his colleagues often did. He did his work and regularly turned in as many or more billable hours than anyone else in the firm. His time was in demand, and he was good at his work. It wasn’t particularly exciting, but then at his age, he wasn’t interested in excitement or glamour. Making it through the days and weeks was about all he could manage at the moment, and that was just fine with him.
Malcolm was just answering his last e-mail when a knock sounded on his door. Jane opened it and ushered in his first appointment of the day.
GARY HAD broken his routine and not called any last-minute meetings, and by lunch Malcolm was still on schedule. Jane had gotten him his usual lunch—an egg salad sandwich on wheat toast with a small salad—and he ate it at his desk while clearing any new e-mails and inquiries.
“I got a call from a potential client. He says he needs some urgent help and was wondering if you might have an appointment available today,” Jane said as she took a seat in the corner chair and flipped off her shoes. “I hate these things.”
“Then don’t wear them. You know I don’t mind if you wear comfortable shoes in the office. It was Gary who had the ridiculous idea of what everyone should wear, and I voted against it. Yes, we need to look professional, but this isn’t the fifties, and we’re a law office, not a fashion house.”
Malcolm took a bite of his sandwich. “You wear what the hell you want, and if he gives you any grief, tell him to talk to me.” He was getting a little tired of the power kick Gary was on, and it was time to make his opinion known.
“Thanks, Malcolm,” she said.
He looked up from his screen and smiled at her. “You work for me, not him, and I want you to be comfortable.” He leaned over his desk. “I can’t stand wearing a tie. I know I have to because it’s what clients expect, but I hate it. All summer long my neck sweats, and one of these days the copier is going to decide to eat my tie and the damn thing is going to hang me.”
Jane rolled her eyes and took another dainty bite of her salad. “Please, you never make copies.” She smirked, and Malcolm shook his head. “Now, if the coffee machine decided it wanted your tie, you’d be in trouble.”
“Yeah. Couldn’t you just see Gary coming in one morning and finding me dead in front of the coffee machine with my tie up inside?”
“Yeah. He’d probably have a fit that there was coffee on the floor and fire the maintenance guy,” Jane said.
Malcolm laughed. It felt good for a few seconds, and then he went back to his computer. “Go ahead and schedule your caller in for the end of the day.” It wasn’t like he had anything he needed to be home for, and he could take an extra fifteen minutes to take a consultation.
“Okay,” she agreed and sat back. “God, I love these chairs. The one I have out front is awful.”
Malcolm paused in composing his e-mail and pushed away from his desk. “Get whatever chair you want. Consider it a birthday present. I have been trying to get the partners to upgrade some of the office furniture, but they aren’t interested.”
“I know. What we have looks fine, but they’re starting to lose their support.” She finished her salad and took the debris left from his lunch as she left the office, returning a few minutes later with another cup of coffee and a bottle of water. Malcolm knew the water was her way of saying that he drank too much coffee, and he probably did. So he opened the water and drank most of it before he started on his coffee.
He had a steady stream of clients that afternoon and ended the day with much more work than he’d started with. But he’d blocked out hours the following day to handle what he needed to, so he’d be all right. Sometimes he missed when he worked every waking hour of the day. He didn’t need to do that much now, but it would give him something to fill the empty hours he spent alone.
“Your last appointment is here,” Jane said, poking her head into his office.
“Thank you,” Malcolm said as he made notes from his previous meeting and added them to the client file. “Please send them in and go home. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She checked her watch. “Are you sure?”
“Of course.” He looked up at her as he stopped typing. “Why? If I know you, you’ve already finished your day’s work and have my schedule for tomorrow set and ready to go.” He glanced at the clock on his computer. “Just go and have a good evening.” He wasn’t going to quibble about half an hour. Jane stayed late plenty of times, and he liked that he could give her more time with her children.
“Thanks.” She hurried away, and a man took her place in the doorway.
Malcolm put up his finger and went back to typing. He had to finish these notes or he’d forget some of the details. “Please take a seat. I just need a minute.” He typed faster and got the last note down, then saved the file before closing it. “How can I help you?” He looked up from his screen and saw an impressive set of blue eyes staring back at him. They seemed to be David’s eyes, and for a second he was confused. Hope shot through him, followed by a wave of unexpected grief. At the office he’d always been able to function, but not at that second. Malcolm blindly reached for his drawer and grabbed a tissue. He turned away and used it to cover his eyes. Shit, this couldn’t happen now. The blue eyes weren’t David’s eyes because they weren’t attached to David, but for a second his heart had leaped with hope that was, of course, futile.
“Are you all right?” the man asked in a deep, rich voice that helped knock Malcolm out of his thoughts. At least that was unlike David’s mellow tenor.
“Yes. I’m sorry. Allergies,” Malcolm croaked and wiped his eyes. He steadied his shaking hands and turned back to face his client. He sanitized his hands with the bottle he kept in his desk and then extended his hand after standing the way he should have when the man first entered. “Malcolm Webber. I’m sorry about earlier. I needed to get some notes typed quickly.”
“Hans Erickson,” the man said and took his hand firmly. “I appreciate you seeing me on such short notice.”
Malcolm motioned to the chair, and Hans sat down again.
“What can I help you with?”
“I received a letter from the IRS stating that they believe I owe them a huge amount of money, and I don’t understand it. I’ve paid my taxes and declared all my income for years.” He picked up a thick file from next to him. “I wasn’t sure what you’d want, but I brought the letter and the documents that came with it.” He had a slight Scandinavian accent, not too heavy but pronounced enough that Malcolm wondered if he might have immigrated to this country.
“Let me take a look,” Malcolm said. He accepted the letter and read it over, but it took longer than it should have because he kept looking at Hans. More than once the words on the page scrambled and blurred as his thoughts wandered to David, and then his attention returned to Hans and the way his shirt hung open, giving Malcolm just a peek at the blond hair showing in the V of his shirt.
“Well, it seems that the IRS is saying that you underpaid Social Security taxes in 2010 and 2011.” Malcolm’s mind began to scan through possible causes. “Do you have your tax forms?”
“I brought everything I had.” He handed Malcolm a thick file with pages paper-clipped together.
Malcolm looked through until he found the years in question. It took him exactly five minutes to find the source of the issue. “You’re a writer,” Malcolm said. He thought he recognized the name from somewhere. “I read one of your books last year. I liked the action.” Instantly he was transported back to the winter trip to St. Maarten he and David had taken together. David was in the water, darting through the waves, and Malcolm had sat huddled under an umbrella to stay out of the sun with a book. Hans’s book. “It was really good.”
“Thanks,” Hans said with a bright smile.
“Did you do your own taxes?” Malcolm asked and was grateful when Hans shook his head.
“I had a tax guy do them. This is more than I can understand.”
“Look here. He put your royalty income on the royalty line. But that’s not for your kind of royalties. It’s for mineral-rights payments and things like that. Book royalties should be handled as regular income. Because he did that, you didn’t pay Social Security tax on that money.” Malcolm did a quick check and found that after 2011, the taxes had been done correctly.
“What do we do?” Hans asked, biting his plump lower lip, and Malcolm swallowed hard as Hans’s eyes filled with pleading and even relief. He’d seen those emotions in David’s eyes so many times. Often in the bedroom, when Malcolm had him on the edge and all he needed was just a little more….
Malcolm pulled his thoughts back to the present and did some quick figuring. “You don’t seem to have made much those years.”
“No. I was just starting out and getting my first books published. It took some time for things to build,” Hans said. “Those were fun years, though. The excitement of writing and then the first contracts. It was really heady.”
“I bet,” Malcolm said, trying to sound like he understood, but it was hard to remember feeling that way without David. There was only thirty thousand in income total, and Malcolm checked the statements. “Only about twelve thousand is subject to tax. So you owe about fifteen to eighteen hundred dollars.” He picked up the notice and rolled his eyes. Of course they had added penalties and interest on top of interest and more penalties so it came out to over thirty thousand dollars. “What we’ll do is file amended returns with the error corrected, and then I’ll contact them and see if they’ll waive the penalties and interest. That way you’ll pay the missing taxes and it should be done.”
“Do you really think they will?” Hans asked. “I’ve lost days of work time on the phone with them, and I got nowhere. They sent me round and round and basically told me to write a check and this would all go away. I don’t have that kind of money to just write them a check over a mistake that my tax preparer made.”
He sounded a little frantic. Malcolm understood. The IRS bureaucracy tended to do that to people.
“I understand. Did you contact your tax preparer?”
“He’s moved on. I had an accountant do last year’s taxes, and I’ll use him going forward.”
“All right. Let me work up an estimate of how much of my time this is going to take so you’ll have an estimate of costs, and you can decide what you’d like to do.” Malcolm folded his hands on his desk. “I always want my clients to know exactly what they’re getting into.”
“I appreciate that,” Hans said. “Do you want me to leave all this with you?”
“That’s fine.” Malcolm pulled a blank file folder from his desk drawer and put everything he thought he was going to need into it. He really didn’t think this would take very long, and it all depended on how soon he could get in touch with one of his contacts at the IRS. “I’ll get the estimate out to you tomorrow, and once you approve it, we’ll get moving.” He had to turn away and take his time putting the file together to get his heart to stop beating in his ears. Hans was handsome, but those eyes…. Malcolm kept looking into those eyes, and thoughts he shouldn’t be having sprang into his head.
Hans was a client, and Malcolm was not having… well, downright dirty thoughts about what was under Hans’s tight shirt. No, those thoughts and images had no place in the office. Hell, they had no place in his life. David was gone, and that part of his life was over. He had accepted that months ago.
Malcolm stood and extended his hand, and Hans did the same. This time when they touched, a current passed through Malcolm’s arm and down his spine, and he had to use all his self-control to keep from shivering. Hans’s hand was warm, firm, and strong, with a hint of calluses on his fingers, probably from typing all the time. For a split second Malcolm wondered what those hands would feel like on him and then pushed it away.
“I’ll walk you out,” he managed to say as he released Hans’s hand and opened the office door. Malcolm led Hans through the quieting office to the lobby and told him he’d be in touch.
Hans smiled and turned away. Malcolm had every intention of turning and going right back to his office. But his willpower failed him, and he turned just in time to catch a glimpse of Hans’s backside in his designer jeans. The elevator doors opened and Hans stepped inside. Malcolm turned away before he could be seen and went back to his office.
He got to work, burying his attention in various tasks for his clients. He made notes of calls to be made and forms he needed Jane to fill out for him. After today he had a lot to do, and he needed to get organized in order to get it done.
“Working late, I see,” Gary said after knocking once on his door.
“Long day without a break.” Malcolm continued making notes, afraid he’d lose his train of thought. “I really need to get this finished.” Part of the reason for working late was so that he could actually finish things up before going home. It certainly wasn’t for chitchatting and wasting time. “Is it important?”
“I don’t know,” Gary said, drawing out his words, which always meant he had a bone to pick. “Do you have something against the standard dress code for the office?”
“I do. You’re going overboard, and I won’t enforce it.” Malcolm sat back, now that he was done.
“Not with my staff you won’t,” Malcolm said levelly. He wasn’t going to argue about this. “Jane can wear whatever type of shoes she dang well pleases. This isn’t a sweatshop, it’s a place of business, and I want our associates and clients to feel welcome and comfortable, not like they walked back into the fifties. Jane always looks impeccable, and this dress code is ridiculous, so rework it and let everyone go back to the way things were.”
“We need to present a proper image.”
Malcolm stood. “You were elected senior partner to lead this firm. But you won’t do that effectively if you go around solving problems that don’t exist. I suggest you work on bringing in more clients and revenue. Look at who’s producing what and work with the lowest producers to help them. That’s what you should be doing, not worrying about dress codes and superficial things. Help to bring in high-profile clients. That’s your job.” Malcolm began gathering up his things for the evening. He liked to have his desk cleared and organized for the following day.
“I don’t need a lecture,” Gary said more loudly than necessary.
Malcolm walked over and closed the door. “You’ll get one if you keep up this pissant stuff. Harlan was a master at bringing in new business for all of us. That’s what you’re being paid to do. You have the contacts, so get out and work them, find out what’s shaking, and leave this office control stuff alone. This firm runs on the quality of our people, and every single person out there is the best at what they do. Don’t make problems for yourself. That’s all I’m saying.” He softened his voice. “I wouldn’t have voted for you if I didn’t think you were up to the job.”
Malcolm smiled. “We all make mistakes. Put this behind you and get on to what’s really important.” He picked up his case and opened the office door. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Gary followed him out and went quietly through to his corner office. Malcolm hated talking to him that way, but he’d tried a different approach before and gotten nowhere. He made a mental note to talk to Gary in the morning and make sure things were back where they should be.
He checked through the office area, noting those who were still working, meeting a few gazes, and then he turned and left.
Malcolm rode the elevator down to his car and stopped on the way home at one of his favorite restaurants for takeout. The man at the counter put in his usual order as soon as he saw him, and it was ready in a few minutes. Malcolm took his gyro and Greek salad home and ate in front of the television, then threw away the trash and put his feet up. He ended up dozing off for a while, read a little, and at ten o’clock he turned off the television, laid out his clothes for the morning, showered, brushed his teeth, and got into bed, sleeping on his side of the bed the way he always did.
It wasn’t until after he got into bed that his routine changed. Normally he spent time thinking of David and their life together; it made him feel less alone. But tonight a pair of blue eyes, similar to David’s and yet set in a very different face, kept running through his mind.
Malcolm rolled over after half an hour, punching his pillow. He needed to stop these thoughts. He alternated between chastising himself for having these thoughts about a client and feeling guilty for having them at all and somehow being unfaithful to David. He knew this was only his mind playing mean tricks on him because it had been a long time since he’d been intimate with anyone and he was lonely. He knew that. David had always been the outgoing one. He’d made friends easily, and he’d filled their lives and home with parties and warmth. Malcolm tried to keep up with their friends, but it wasn’t his talent, and over the months, once the loss had worn off for most people, they had tended to drift away, and Malcolm couldn’t blame them. The few times he’d tried to get together with people, he’d ended up either talking about David or standing aside and saying nothing because he wasn’t sure what to say. In the end, he gave up on controlling his feelings and just let it go. There was no use trying to control his mind, and he eventually fell asleep remembering a beautiful pair of blue eyes.