SOMETIMES IT really sucked being older than everybody else, and sometimes it was an advantage. For the last four years, Dayne Mills had gone to school in order to graduate from college, and closing in on thirty, he was finally near the finish line. He had chosen a degree in the humanities, with the goal of being able to teach. At least that was the plan. Get an education so he could get a job and better support himself and hopefully leave some of his past behind. He had begun to second-guess that plan about a year ago, but it had been too late to change course.

Dayne’s faculty advisor had pulled a lot of strings for him, so instead of sitting in his usual building at Penn State Harrisburg, he was in Carlisle at Dickinson College, taking two classes he could never have afforded otherwise. Professor Collins was an amazing man who thought Dayne had talent, so he’d arranged for him to take more advanced classes at Dickinson for a semester. It was unusual, and Dayne was honored that Professor Collins and the people at Dickinson had been willing to work to make this happen.

Instead of meeting in a fancy lecture hall, their class was in one of the older buildings on campus, in a room with tables formed into a square so everyone could see one another. Dayne had been a little awed when he’d first walked in a month ago. This wasn’t like the modern white-walled classroom he was used to, with plain desks and A/V equipment. This room had towering ceilings and windows that reached all the way to them, surrounded by warm woodwork that had been there for over a century. Every time he came to class at Dickinson, he wished more than anything that he’d gone here for all of his education.

“Good morning.” Professor Hunterson strode into class and set his books on the table.

“Good morning,” Dayne muttered half under his breath. While the other students were chipper and excited, he was tired. He’d been up most of the night because his legs refused to stop throbbing. They still ached, but concentrating on the discussion took his mind off them.

“As all of you know from the syllabus, part of this class is a paper on some facet of the history of American education. I’d like to review the topics you’ve chosen. I’ve already talked with some of you, but for those I haven’t, please see me during the last fifteen minutes of class.”

Dayne opened his notebook and looked at the ideas he’d jotted down for his paper, the general topics ranging from the birth of public education to education on the American frontier. He really didn’t think too much of any of them. They sounded so predictable and ordinary, and he wanted to do something special and interesting. He stared at the page for a few more seconds, hoping inspiration would strike, but nothing came to him. Not that he had much time—the discussion was starting.

“Let’s start where we left off talking about the national education policy during World War II.” Professor Hunterson did a quick review of the details he wanted to focus on from the reading material and then opened the class to discussion.

Dayne both loved and hated this style. He loved it because it was so different from the conventional lecture-type classes he got at Penn State Harrisburg. These classes were exciting, with students arguing with one another and sometimes even with the professor in order to fully flesh out concepts and ideas. He also hated it for the same reason. Talking in front of others always made his stomach churn. Dayne knew Professor Hunterson kept track of everyone who spoke, so he got his thoughts together and shared them with the class. “The austerity during the war definitely extended to the classrooms.”

“Yes. That’s a topic I’ve been waiting for,” Professor Hunterson said after Dayne croaked out his thoughts. The class picked up on the theme, and before long Dayne was in a lively discussion and hardly had time to think much about it.

“That’s all we have time for today,” Professor Hunterson said a while later, “but we’ll pick this up next time.” Most of the students grabbed their notebooks and filed out, but Dayne stayed behind, once again looking at his ideas. Three other students did also, and Dayne remained seated while each of them talked to the professor for a few minutes and then departed.

Dayne shifted and pushed on the table to help himself stand, but Professor Hunterson got up, walked to where he was, and sat next to him.

“You’re doing very well in class. I know participating is hard for you.”

“Yes, it can be sometimes.”

“But you have some great ideas. Continue to share them.” He smiled, and Dayne’s nerves dissipated. He liked the professor. Dayne guessed he was in his early fifties. He had thinning gray hair and eyes that always seemed just on the edge of joy. He was clearly a happy man, something Dayne was jealous of.

“I will. Thank you.” He relaxed and opened his notes to the ideas he had for his paper. “I came up with all these, but none of them are good enough.” Dayne hated showing Professor Hunterson the paper and was shocked when the professor chuckled. “See, I knew they were bad.”

“No. I could use this list as an assignment sheet for the papers the next time I teach this class. You don’t have bad ideas. These are all really good and doable in the time frame you have. I’d say your problem is deciding which of these you’re most excited about.”

Dayne gawked at him and then turned away, embarrassed, his hand shaking as he tried to decide if he was being joked with. Apparently he wasn’t, judging by Professor Hunterson’s warm smile. “Oh.”

“Definitely. Personally I like this one.” He pointed to Carlisle Indian School. Dayne had just been jotting down a list of ideas freeform, and that had come up. He wasn’t even sure where he’d heard of it, other than knowing Jim Thorpe had gone there and seeing references to it in the library. “Think of it as a study in good intentions.”

Dayne smiled and nodded. “I liked that one too, only because it would give me something new to dig into.”

“But you need to find an angle in order to make your paper interesting. We can write all the bare facts we want about the number of students who went there or the classes offered, as well as how long the school operated—and those should be in the paper—but it’s the human story about the students that will make it worth reading.”

“Okay. I think I’d like that.”

Professor Hunterson glanced at the clock on the wall and then stood. “I’m about to lose this room to another class. Do you need to get somewhere else? I don’t want to keep you.”

“No. This is my last class of the day, and I was going to head over to the library to try to get started.” Now that he’d picked his topic, he was excited and raring to go.

“You could, but in addition to the materials the college has, there are also extensive materials at the historical society. If you want my opinion, I’d start there.” He gathered his stuff and left the room.

Dayne groaned, got to his feet, and walked slowly to work the stiffness out of his legs. Thankfully the historical society was just a few blocks away, so he wasn’t going to have to walk very far.

 

 

“HOW CAN I help you?” the retirement-aged lady in a bright patterned blouse asked as Dayne approached the desk.

“Yes. I understand you have materials from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School?”

“Yes, we do. If you’d please sign in for me, I can get someone to help you.” She indicated the mounted tablet, and Dayne filled out the information requested. She talked on the phone briefly and then hung up. “Beverly is in the library, down the hall to your left, and she can assist you.”

“Thank you.” He walked slowly and tried not to wince. He should have brought his cane from the car today, but he hated the damned thing. It made him feel like an old man when he was only twenty-six, for fuck’s sake. Dayne gritted his teeth and stopped, waiting for the tinge of pain to drain away. Then he carried on.

To his right was a museum of sorts, with displays that visitors could wander through. He would have liked to do that, but today wasn’t the day for extra walking. He continued down the bright, newly painted hallway and turned into a large room with tables set in the center and a few desks around the side. Framed maps and drawings of the town and surrounding area hung on the walls. Dayne sat at the nearest chair he could find, pulled out the chair next to it, and propped his left leg up on it to rub his upper thigh. He closed his eyes as the muscles slowly began to relax.

“May I help you?” the woman asked curtly from the desk. The tiredness in her eyes reminded him of his mother toward the end of her life, and Dayne had to mentally boost himself to keep out of that sad place. He had work to do.

“I think so. If you could give me a minute, I’ll be over.” The desk wasn’t far, but at that moment, the damn thing might as well have been positioned on top of Everest. To his relief, she stood and walked to where he sat, using her cane as she moved. “I’m sorry.” Dayne felt badly as she took the seat across from him.

“I know a hard day for someone when I see it. I’ve had my fair share of them.” She looked up and motioned to one of the other women, who hurried over. “Joanie, there’s a pot of tea in the back. Would you please pour two cups and bring them out for us?” Joanie nodded and hurried away. “I know a man in need of a drink when I see one, though tea is all I can offer here. If I were home, I’d put a dab of whiskey in it.”

Dayne grinned. “I know the feeling well.”

“So, what can I do for you, young man?”

“I’m taking a class at Dickinson, and I’m writing a paper on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, but I don’t want to do the usual blah, blah thing. I know Dickinson has materials, but I was hoping you might have some information on the students. What was life like for them? Did they enjoy being at the school? Was it a happy place for them or one of hardship? How did going there affect their lives, good or bad?”

“That’s quite a bit. We have some of the school records….” Beverly thought. “We also have student material—reports and things like that. There are some pictures as well. But….” She smiled. “What I think you’ll want to see most are the journals. We have some student journals that were kept while they were at the school.”

Joanie returned with two Styrofoam cups with lids, and she set one in front of each of them.

“Thank you,” Dayne said. He wasn’t much of a tea drinker, but he wasn’t going to spurn Beverly’s kindness. He sipped from the cup. “Wow.” It was smooth, gentle, and warmed him from the inside out. Just what he needed after his walk in the early fall chill.

“Glad you like it.” Beverly turned to Joanie and asked her to get the journals Dayne needed. “Third row on your right, three tracks down, second shelf from the top.”

Joanie ran off to do Beverly’s bidding.

“I appreciate your help.” Dayne took another sip of tea as a man strode into the room and looked around. He was tall and broad, with intense dark eyes and a determined set to his lips.

“I will be with you in just a minute,” Beverly told him.

Dayne lifted his cup to his lips once again, watching the man and trying not to look like he was doing so. He was gorgeous, and while Dayne knew a guy like that would never look at him twice, he figured there was no harm in a little wishing. Okay, from the way those black jeans hugged his thighs and his T-shirt stretched over his arms and chest, maybe a lot of wishing, because… wow, just wow.

Joanie returned and placed two bound books on the table, along with what looked like some old composition books.

“That’s them. Thank you.”

“Yes. I appreciate all your help.” Dayne smiled, and Joanie hurried back to what she’d been doing.

“Thank you so much for the help and the tea,” he said, knowing Beverly had other things to do.

She stood, picking up her tea, and took it back to her desk, where she talked with the man, who now had his back to Dayne. He got the full-on view of a backside worthy of being carved into marble, and of wide shoulders, narrow hips. Dayne was glad he was seated at a table because he popped wood right there just looking at the guy. Of course, his leg picked that moment to throb, and that was always a buzzkill.

“I’m sorry, but I’m sure we don’t have what you’re looking for. I can check, though.” Beverly got up and used her cane to walk to the other room, where Dayne could see the rows of shelves through the open door.

The man turned around, and Dayne looked away, not wanting to get caught staring, even though it was hard as hell. Come to think of it, so was Dayne.

He reached for the nearest book, opened it, and tried like the devil to read the handwriting on the page.

“Excuse me.”

Dayne looked up from his book and into the darkest eyes he had ever seen. A shiver raced up his back, and he knew his mouth hung open like he was doing a fish imitation. “Yes?”

“Is it okay if I sit down?”

“Sure.” Dayne did his best not to act dumb or anything.

Tall, Dark, and Handsome pulled out the chair and sat with his legs spread, one bouncing up and down nervously. “What kind of research are you doing?” he asked, and Dayne realized he was going to have to say more than a few words to this guy.

“Just some things for class.” He waved, indicating the journals on the table.

“That’s cool. Do you go to Dickinson?” He flashed a smile.

Dayne smiled in return. “It’s complicated, but yes.” He lowered his gaze and returned to the diary in front of him. The first entry was from January 1, 1901, by a student named Yellow Bird, though once he was at school, he was called Berty. Dayne tried to read, but his attention was on the man watching him from across the table. “Is something wrong?”

The man winked, and Dayne blushed big-time. He lowered his gaze once again and read about how cold it was and what Berty had for dinner after settling in his room. It was ordinary and kind of boring. Dayne skimmed the next entry and the following ones.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have what you’re looking for,” Beverly said once she returned from the stacks.

The smile slipped from the man’s face, and he stood. “Thank you for looking.” He turned and left the room.

Dayne followed him with his gaze, unable to stop himself, and then returned to his reading.

Over the next hour, he read through two of the journals. He did get some information, especially on how some of the boys felt about being sent across the country, away from their families. He made copies of those references, thinking he might be able to use them, and continued on. It didn’t take very long to review the last journals and to make copies of the important pages he might need. There wasn’t enough to build a paper on, but some ideas were starting to form.

“Beverly, are these all of them?” he asked.

“Yes. There are some letters as well.”

As she got up, Dayne saw a familiar pain in her eyes. He looked for Joanie, but she wasn’t around. “Just tell me where they are and I promise not to touch anything else.” He went over to her and stood at the door. “I know what it’s like to feel like your legs have betrayed you.”

“Third row on your right, fourth rack, and they’re on either the third or fourth shelf. They’re in a loose-leaf folder. Look at the tabs and you’ll find them.”

Dayne thanked her and entered the room. It was large, with movable racks that cranked to expose the desired portion. Thankfully the one he needed was already open from before, and he hobbled down to the section Beverly had indicated. Everything was catalogued beautifully, and he easily found the letters he was looking for, along with some other things that piqued his interest. He knew he’d be spending a lot more time here.

He retrieved the letters, returned, and showed them to Beverly so she could make a notation of what he had. “Can I ask about the boxes on the bottom of the racks?”

“They’re one of our future projects. We received a donation of materials a few months ago, and when I saw they pertained to the school, I put them there until I had time to catalog them.” She shook her head. “There’s never enough time to get everything done.”

Dayne nodded and took the letters to his table. He started reading, and after a few minutes, Beverly set some additional materials beside him, including what looked like another journal. After some time had gone by, Joanie added one of the boxes he’d seen in the back.

Beverly shifted to the table and began going through it carefully. “There are two other boxes besides this. I’ll get them catalogued, and if I find anything of promise, I’ll save it for you.” She turned to the clock, and Dayne followed her gaze. The society was closing in half an hour, and Dayne had to get home soon.

“Thank you. I have class again on Wednesday, but I was hoping to continue working tomorrow.”

“Then maybe you can help me.” She smiled, and Dayne nodded.

“Can I take this journal with me? I know it’s not catalogued yet, but it would really help.”

“I think that would be okay. Sign it out before you go, okay?” She got up and moved toward her desk.

He finished reviewing the letters and placed them on Beverly’s desk before thanking her for all her help, signing the journal out, and slowly leaving the building. The pain in his legs had dissipated, and the walk to his car loosened the muscles enough that he was moving pretty well. Things were looking up. He had an idea for his paper, and he’d gotten some of the research done. Well, at least he’d made progress on finding some references.

He loved doing research, digging around to find the treasure that no one else had. It was what he liked about going to school. Figuring out a problem or finding the answer to a puzzle that no one else had fascinated him. It got him up in the mornings when sometimes it felt as though there was no reason.

Dayne put the copies he’d gathered into his computer bag in the trunk of his car and then got in and started for home. The freeway was clogged, and it took over half an hour to go the ten miles to his exit. From there he made good time and was able to reach his neighborhood fairly quickly. Dayne neared home, but a police vehicle at the end of his street blocked his way.

Pulling as close as he dared and rolling down the window, Dayne said, “I’m trying to get home. My house is down there.” The smell of smoke filled the air, and he worried about his neighbors.

“There’s a fire,” the police officer said. “They’re getting it under control.”

Dayne pulled his car into the drugstore parking lot across the street, got out, and walked up to where a group of neighbors had gathered. He turned to where they were all looking and gasped as flames shot out of the windows of his little house.

“Oh God,” Dayne mumbled as he hurried forward. Everything he owned was in that house. It was all he had left of his mom. As flames shot out of the front door and the roof collapsed, Dayne’s legs gave out and the grass rose up to meet him.

“Hey,” a deep voice said from close to him. Dayne felt like a fool and struggled to get up. He was helped to his feet, and the fireman took off his helmet. “It’s you.”

“That’s my house…,” Dayne said weakly as water sprayed all over what was left of the only home he’d known. “Everything I have….” He gasped and tried not to come apart at the seams.

“It will be all right.” He took Dayne’s arm and gently helped steady him.

“I don’t see how.” Everything was gone. The last of what he’d had from his mother had been in that house, and the flames had taken it all. A cloud of steam went up as the last of the fire died away, leaving only a smoking ruin of what had been his life. One of the walls fell in, and Dayne turned away.

“I’m sorry this happened to you.” The firefighter gently put an arm around Dayne’s shoulder, and the last of Dayne’s control broke.

He buried his face in the man’s chest and cried like the stupid baby he was. Damn it, he tried not to, but this was too much. For a year, he’d been doing his best to hold it together, to get through each day as it came, hoping the pain would lessen. But every damn time he thought things might be getting better, something happened, and this was one of the worst.

“It’s all right. Just let it out.”

Dayne heard people around him, but he kept his face where it was for a bit, afraid to look for fear of dying of embarrassment. Dayne breathed deeply and backed away, swallowing and getting himself together. “I’m sorry.” He wiped his eyes and tried not to get snot all over himself.

“Don’t be.” The man didn’t move, and Dayne lifted his gaze.

“I guess after I slobbered all over you, I should tell you my name. I’m Dayne.” He wiped his hands on his pants because they were covered with things he shouldn’t have on them.

“I’m Lawson Martin.” He took Dayne’s hand and held it.

This seemed normal and yet surreal. He was standing on his neighbor’s lawn after watching almost everything he owned go up in flames, and when Lawson did something so ordinary, Dayne felt a little better. At least he didn’t want to break down in tears again, though he’d probably do that later.

“I know this sounds trite, but things will be all right. You weren’t home, and everything can be replaced except you.”

“Somehow I doubt I’m irreplaceable.” A tear ran down Dayne’s cheek as he realized his life as he knew it was gone. Not that there was all that much to it.

Lawson frowned slightly. “That isn’t the way to talk. Yes, things look bad, but you’ll call your family or friends, and they’ll be there to help you. Do you know your insurance company?”

That Dayne did know, and he reached into his pocket to pull out his phone. Of course, the battery was dead, and he groaned once again. “I guess I’ll call them later.”

Another fireman approached them, water dripping off his coat and pants. He removed his helmet, and Dayne sighed in relief. “Morgan,” he said quietly. At least there was someone here he knew.

“I’m sorry. As soon as I heard the address, I knew it was your house, and we got here as fast as we could.”

Dayne nodded. “I know you did.” He looked at what was left of his home. It hadn’t been much, just four rooms and a bath, but it had been his and, before that, his mom’s. “Do you know what happened?”

“We think it was the wiring. There was a power surge about an hour ago, and I think it might have overloaded some of the circuits. They likely smoldered for a while and then caught fire.”

“Oh.” He sighed.

“I’ll have the fire marshal’s office send you a report for the insurance company. At least it was an accident, and your insurance can’t give you any trouble about that.”

“Thanks, Morgan.” He heaved another sigh, not knowing what he was going to do.

“Do you and Lawson know each other?” Morgan asked, looking at them.

“We met this afternoon at the historical society.” Lawson smiled. “He was doing some kind of research, and I was trying to find out something about my family. Apparently my grandfather’s brother went to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School at one time, or at least that’s the family story, but I can’t find any record of him.”

Dayne nodded. “It seems that they often changed or used anglicized versions of the students’ names. That’s my research project….” God, how was he going to manage to do everything now? “I was reading a few student journals, and two of them talked about it. So if the records referred to their student names but they went by their traditional names when they left, and if you don’t know what the name was….” At least he was talking about something other than his shell of a house.

“I guess I figured that….” Lawson nodded slowly, as though he were admitting defeat.

“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” Morgan asked.

Dayne turned to where the neighbors had stood. They were filtering away, and even though Dayne had lived in the house for seven years, not one of them had offered to help him. That was probably his own fault. He wasn’t an outgoing person, not since the accident. “I can go to a hotel. I have my car, and once I charge my phone, I can find a place to stay.” He could tell that Morgan was ramping up to offer him a room, but Morgan and Richard had their hands pretty full at the moment, and he didn’t want to be a bother. He’d get through this somehow.

“He can stay with me,” Lawson said to Morgan. “I’ve got plenty of room, and it’s already getting late.”

“Don’t you need to finish your shift?”

“I wasn’t scheduled. They called me in because of the fire, and I came right over, but you were all taking care of it, and then I saw Dayne here and thought I’d try to help him.”

Dayne sent up a silent thank-you that Lawson didn’t explain how he’d blubbered all over him.

“We have room. It’s just that with the remodeling….”

Dayne knew Morgan and Richard were reworking Morgan’s house to better accommodate Richard’s wheelchair. They lived just a block away and had become friends—some of the few he had in the neighborhood—mostly because Richard had made an effort to get to know Dayne when he was out on his rides around the area for exercise.

“Like I said, I have room.”

“Excuse me…,” Dayne said, then wished he hadn’t, because he wasn’t sure how to say what he wanted to without sounding snarky.

“Sorry. I guess we were talking right over you. That was my fault. Dayne, I have plenty of room at my house, and you can stay for a few days. It’s three blocks over, so you won’t be too far away.”

“Dayne, Lawson’s a really good man. I’ve worked with him for, what… two years now? You’ll be well taken care of.”

Dayne turned back to the shell of his home. “I don’t have anything.” He looked down at the clothes he was wearing. Other than the stuff in his trunk, which contained his computer and schoolbooks, that was it.

“Don’t worry. We can get you what you need,” Lawson said gently.

“I don’t know what to do first.”

“Okay. Then we’ll get you to a store for a few essentials. We can charge your phone, and you can make your phone calls. You need to eat, and then you can go to bed and figure out the rest in the morning.”

Dayne was so overwhelmed that he agreed. “Do they need anything from me?”

“Don’t think so. We’re just making sure everything is out, and then we’ll pack up. There isn’t anything more that can be done here tonight.” Morgan motioned, and a man in a white shirt came over. “Cap, this is Dayne Mills. He’s the owner.”

“I’m sorry for what happened.” He said it with such sympathy that Dayne nodded, and it was all he could do not to break down again.

“Do you need anything from him?”

“Not at the moment. We’re finishing up. I’m sorry, but it looks like the house is a total loss. The fire marshal will have a report for you and your insurance company.” Thankfully he didn’t smile. “Are you the only occupant?”

“Yes. It was just me, and I didn’t have any pets.” He tried to look at that as a positive, but it only brought into greater clarity just how alone he actually was.

“Thank you.” The captain didn’t seem to know what else to say, and Dayne wasn’t sure if there was anything else he should ask. All he wanted to do was find a hole somewhere, crawl into it, and try to grieve for all he’d lost.

“Why don’t you let me take you to get what you need, and then we can get you settled?”

Dayne nodded, numbness spreading through him. Was he really going to go home with a stranger? He should probably just insist on getting a hotel room. He thought about his meager bank balance and figured the insurance company would pay for it in the end, but….

Morgan led him away from the others by gently placing a hand on his back. “You can come stay with Richard and me instead if you want… but the place is pretty torn up and….”

Dayne knew that wasn’t a possibility. All the dust and construction debris would send his allergies into overdrive, and he’d spend the entire night wheezing. He’d have to medicate himself into oblivion just to try to remain breathing. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Lawson is a wonderful guy, and you have nothing to worry about.”

Dayne released a huge breath. “Okay.” It wasn’t like he had many viable alternatives at the moment. He turned and walked back to where Lawson stood. “I really appreciate your offer. Thank you.”

“Okay. Let’s get you some stuff, and then we can go back to the house.” Lawson motioned across the street to a brand-new Charger. He unlocked the car, walked to the passenger side, and opened the door for him. Dayne didn’t know what to make of the gesture, but he got in the car and buckled his seat belt.

Lawson got in and started the car. He drove surprisingly carefully given the power that thrummed under the hood.

“Why would you do something like this?”

“Like what?”

Dayne shrugged. “Open your house to a complete stranger. That isn’t in your job description, I’m sure.”

Lawson’s scoff turned to a laugh. “Honestly? I see people every day who lose everything they have to fire, including loved ones. They cry and they hold each other, but… shit, I shouldn’t say any of this right now.”

Dayne huffed and rolled his eyes. “Things can’t get much worse.”

Lawson made the turn into the shopping center and pulled up to the drugstore. Dayne got out and went inside. He picked out a shaving kit and then some basic things he would need—a razor, shaving cream, toothbrush, toothpaste. As he reached for his brand of deodorant, his hand began shaking, and he couldn’t stop it. His eyes filled with tears, and he still quivered as he wiped them away.

“Is this all you need?” Lawson asked, suddenly behind him, and then he scooped Dayne into his arms. “It’s all right.”

“You keep saying that, but it doesn’t feel like it’s ever going to be all right again.”

“It will be. Trust me.” Lawson took the basket from his hand, and once Dayne was able to stand on his own again, Lawson carried it to the front. He was already paying and bagging the things by the time Dayne reached the counter.

“Please….”

“It’s fine. Let’s get you something to wear for tomorrow.” Lawson handed him the bag of items and motioned for Dayne to go ahead of him.

Dayne left the store, and Lawson drove them to the nearby strip mall with a department store. Inside, Dayne picked out a few shirts and jeans, as well as new underwear and socks. He paid for them and carried the bag out to the car, and Lawson drove him back to his car.

“Just follow me to my house.” Lawson waited for him, and Dayne followed the red Charger the few blocks to a two-story, redbrick house with a porch, white pillars, and pretty flowers everywhere. This wasn’t what he’d expected. He’d been picturing a low-fuss, low-maintenance sort of place. This was anything but.

“It’s beautiful,” Dayne said as he got out of his car.

Lawson walked over and smiled. “I’ve always loved this house, so when it came on the market a few years ago, I bought it. The previous owners lived here for twenty years, and they did a lot of the landscaping. I’ve done my best to keep it up.”

Richard pulled up in front of the house, and Dayne went to meet him. When he leaned into the car, Richard hugged him tightly.

“I’m sorry this happened.” Richard held him for quite a while. “I know exactly how it feels.”

“Richard!” Lawson called happily, his hands full of bags from Dayne’s car. “Come on inside.”

Dayne released Richard and pulled his chair from behind the seat. Richard slid into it and wheeled up the walk and around to the side door.

“Lawson added a ramp for me a few months ago. He wanted me to feel welcome when we visited.”

The door opened, and Lawson stood waiting for them. Richard glided into the kitchen, and Dayne followed, looking around the bright, warm room. His mother would have loved this kitchen, with its rich cabinets and cheery cream walls and granite counters. This would have been a dream for her.

“Let’s go to the living room,” Lawson offered, waving them through. “I put your things up in the guest room. It’s at the top of the stairs, first door on your right.”

“Thank you.” Dayne’s adrenaline, which had been sustaining him for a while, was giving out. He sat on the sofa and sank into the cushions. God, it felt so good. “Did you feel lost after the fire?” he asked Richard.

“Yeah, I did. I had no idea what was going to happen to me.” Richard looked down at his legs, and Dayne wished he hadn’t said anything. “That was when I met Morgan again, and after that, things began getting better.”

Lawson came in and pressed a cool glass into Dayne’s hand. “I know you probably want a stiff drink, but I made some lemonade.”

“With vodka in it?” Dayne didn’t really drink much, but half a bottle of cheap vodka would probably be good right about now.

“That isn’t going to help, and you’ll only wake up tomorrow feeling worse.” Lawson sat next to him on the arm of the sofa. “Do you like pasta? I have some red sauce, or I can make pesto.”

Dayne’s stomach rumbled. “Pesto….” He closed his eyes and did his best not to think about his mother’s cooking. “Thank you.”

To Dayne’s surprise, Lawson gently patted his shoulder. “Did you need to charge your phone?”

“Oh God. I can’t remember anything right now.” Dayne jumped up and nearly spilled his drink, he was so scatterbrained. He set it on a coaster on the coffee table and hurried to his car. He got his computer bag and went back inside.

After asking Lawson which outlet he could use, Dayne got his phone plugged in. He returned to his seat on the sofa and felt himself sinking into his own thoughts. His eyes unfocused and he didn’t move, just thinking and wondering what he was going to do next. His world was crashing down around him and had been for the last year. There had to be something he could do to stop the slide that seemed to have been going on for so long.

Lawson sat next to him on the sofa, and Dayne turned to him, jaw set. If Lawson said one more time that everything was going to be all right, Dayne wasn’t sure if he could stop himself from hitting him. He didn’t know where his anger was coming from, but it boiled up from deep inside. He clenched his fists and closed his eyes, trying to keep from flying into a million pieces as he waited for what everyone seemed to want to say.

Instead, Lawson wrapped his big arms around him and held him tight. The anger slipped away as quickly as it had built, and Dayne buried his face against Lawson’s chest, holding him in return. “Sometimes words just aren’t what’s needed,” Lawson whispered. “You take all the time you need. No one is going anywhere.” He rocked slowly and rubbed Dayne’s back.

It had been so long since anyone had been so nice to him. Over the last year, he had learned that loneliness ate at you from the inside and perpetuated itself. Sometimes he had longed for contact with others so badly that he was almost willing to make a fool of himself to get attention. Dayne didn’t cry, which he was pretty proud of. He did soak in Lawson’s warmth and attentiveness. He knew this was only because of the loss he’d suffered and because Lawson was trying to help him, but it felt nice to be held and looked after, even if the huge, handsome man felt sorry for him.

“Better?” Lawson whispered, and Dayne nodded slowly. “Good.” Lawson released him and then slowly got to his feet. He moved the way Dayne imagined someone might around a skittish horse they didn’t want to frighten. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll finish up dinner.” He left the room, and Richard leaned forward in his chair.

“Are you feeling more comfortable?”

“I guess.” Dayne shifted on the sofa, because even while he was in shock, Lawson’s hug had set his stupid dick to thinking things it shouldn’t be thinking. He wanted to thump the damn thing and tell it to behave, but it didn’t seem to want to listen, especially when it came to Lawson. “I appreciate you coming over.” God, he hated playing the part of the damsel in distress. It really sucked.

“Your phone is probably charged enough that you can make some calls.” Lawson handed it to him, and Dayne stared at the screen, trying to make his brain work.

“What company do you have?” Richard asked, taking the phone from him. When Dayne told him, he looked up their number, dialed it, and handed the phone back.

It took a few minutes to get through the phone system, but finally Dayne got to a live person. “Yes. There’s been a fire at my home.” He was asked all kinds of questions he didn’t know the answers to, but eventually they got to his policy and he was able to tell them some basic information. They promised to have an adjuster call him soon. As soon as he hung up, his phone rang. “Hello?”

“Dayne? This is Kevin, Angus’s partner. We met a few months ago at Morgan and Richard’s cookout. Angus just told me what happened, and if you think of something you need, just let us know. You have my number on your phone, so just call if there’s anything we can do.”

“Thank you.” Dayne was starting to wonder if he’d stumbled into some sort of underground fire victims’ support group.

“Just know you aren’t alone. Morgan and Richard and I know what you’re going through.” He sounded so positive and sincere. “Where are you now?”

“Lawson’s. He’s giving me a place to stay for the night.”

“That’s good. He’s a cool guy. Just take it easy and try not to get overwhelmed.”

“I’m trying, but it’s hard.”

“Angus has seen this a lot. He says it’s a one-day-at-a-time kind of thing, and I have to agree with him. It was how he helped me.” Kevin’s tone shifted, still carrying some of his natural excitement but more serious. “I know everyone says this, but you’ll figure it out and things will be okay. I know that doesn’t make up for all the things you lost that can’t be replaced—nothing can do that. Shit… I told myself I wasn’t going to get maudlin.”

“I think it’s been that kind of day.”

“Yeah, it has. But try not to stress over it, and know you have friends who can help you.”

Dayne thanked him, and Kevin said good-bye and ended the call.

“Come on in for dinner,” Lawson said, and Dayne waited for Richard and followed him into the kitchen. Lawson put Richard at one end of his small table, with Dayne sitting across from him. The pasta looked and smelled amazing, and as soon as Dayne took a bite, he realized just how hungry he was. His stomach was still a little reticent until the third bite, and then he turned ravenous. The food was good, and he hadn’t eaten since his small lunch between classes.

“How long had you lived in the house?” Lawson asked.

“Seven years, I think. My mother saved for a long time so she could buy a house, and this one fit the two of us.” He put down his fork. “The original plan was for it to be just her house. I had a job and was living on my own for a while, but then I had to move back in with her.” He looked down at the food on his plate. He hadn’t wanted to go there, but just about every conversation he had about himself led to his accident.

“You don’t have to talk about it,” Richard said, turning to Lawson, who nodded.

“I try not to dwell on it.” The aftermath of his accident and the condition it left his legs in was a constant battle. He didn’t need to make it dinner conversation as well. He saw the looks he got from passing strangers when he made his way down the street.

Lawson left the room and returned with Dayne’s glass. He set it on the table. “Why don’t you tell me some more about your research? Have you picked a specific topic for your paper or are you just starting out?”

Dayne wanted to hug him for changing the subject. “Right now I’m trying to find a topic. I really want to concentrate on the students and the school’s impact on them, but I haven’t found anything unique yet. I’m working on it, though. I was going through some diaries today, and a few of the students told some similar stories, so I may be able to start with that.”

“Was the school a success?” Lawson asked.

“In some ways people thought it was, but in the end, it wasn’t. By some accounts, 10,000 students attended the school over the years, but only 158 seemed to have graduated. That’s a very poor rate.”

“Why?” Lawson asked, clearly interested.

“I don’t know.” Never had saying those words in answer to a question brought a smile to his face. That could be his entire paper right there, and all it took was a single question.

“You’re smiling,” Lawson said with a grin of his own.

“You seem to have helped me come up with a topic for my paper. At least that’s one question in my life answered.” Now he just had to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of it.