I’m still sick, so the vignette from Mark and Luke’s wedding will have to wait until next week. In its place, please enjoy a preview of my newest novel, Heartwood, a contemporary gay romance which will be released on October 16th.
Warning:There is swearing in the following scene.
Early afternoon in Marisburg had its own particular charm. Mike knew where to find absolute solitude or bustling activity. Those qualities changed from month to month. In deep winter only his house offered company, and he couldn’t consider his mother and the stove any representatives of the word bustling. Mud season, both mid autumn and early to mid spring, offered much the same choice for company, but up until the end of his junior year, he’d been able to include his school acquaintances in the group of people he spent time with.
Late August was a terrible time to find solitude. He’d cultivated a routine last summer and perfected it over the past ten weeks. If he wished, no one would be able to find him except by merest chance between the hours of dawn and dusk. The secret was to keep moving and not talk to anyone.
On campus it wasn’t difficult. The other students at the community college didn’t seem at all interested in him, and he’d encouraged that disinterest by never speaking outside of class. But here in Marisburg proper, where he was known, he had to stick to the hidden places and pretend he didn’t feel exposed.
After sharing the news with his mother that he’d gotten the aide position, and after shucking his dress pants and other accoutrements in favor of shorts and a T-shirt, Mike sought out one of his hidden places. The well-worn earthen track ran between high, eroded banks. Early in the morning, from mid-June until early September, children swarmed this track on their way to more interesting places. The middle-aged and older couples held court here after dinner and before sunset. And young lovers walked here after that. But midmorning through the dinner hour, the two-miles-long ribbon of earth was Mike’s private domain, although he might have to share it with the occasional tourist (they liked to jog at the strangest times, and even Marisburg wasn’t immune to tourists).
He walked with his head down, watching for pebbles to exact his revenge on.
I just haven’t been laid since Karen broke up with me. That’s all this is. And even if Karen and I were still together, the sex wasn’t all that great. She just didn’t know how to blow men. She said it herself.
His nape prickled, and he rubbed it distractedly. I won’t have any chance to think about anyone like that, woman or man. I’ll be too busy working. He shuffled his feet and took a quick glance over his shoulder. And making sure I’m not being watched.
Which was stupid, really, because Hanlon didn’t think about him anymore. He’d stopped coming near Mike once Mike wasn’t in his class. That means I’m not on his radar.
“Damn it all anyways.” He stopped walking and stared up at the half-hidden sky. Here the trees lurched over the earthen track; they’d fall eventually. He remembered studying that in earth science. “If I was going to have a problem with this, I shouldn’t have taken the job. Or even applied for it in the first place.”
A deep voice shattered the serenity of the early afternoon. The rich, rolling baritone was like polished redwood, somehow a delight Mike could feel and see as well as hear.
The song wallowed at the beginning: “Oh man. Go home. Your husband, he is ill.”
Here the song leaped free of its muddy start and danced on marble in a falsetto so ridiculously high and thin that Mike stifled a laugh. “Is he ill? Well, give him a pill! Oh, my dear Franz, just one more dance! Then I’ll go home to my poor husband. Then I’ll go home to my old husband.”
The singer’s voice came from both ahead of him and above. Mike followed as the dialogue continued: the deep voice said the husband was worse; the falsetto replied that he wasn’t a nurse. So the first replied, “Your husband is dead!”
“Well,” returned the other, “then there’s no more to be said!”
Mike stood below a large oak. Between the ancient tree’s height and the eroding bank, he could just spot the singer a good eighteen feet above him. He stepped back, shaded his eyes, and listened to the final verse.
“Oh man, go home. Your husband’s will is to be read.
“Well, now that he’s dead, the Lord rest his head. No, my dear Franz, this is no time to dance. I must go home to my poor old man. I go to we-e-e-e-ep for my poor husband.”
Mike laughed outright, applauding. It wasn’t the raunchiest thing he’d ever heard sung or spoken, but definitely the crassest thing he’d heard at that volume. Whoever the singer was, he had balls.
“Thank you,” called the singer. The baritone was his natural speaking voice. “And who admires my talents?”
“Mike. And who are you?”
“Climb up here, if you can, and find out.”
If he could? He eyed the bank, spotted a root, and grabbed it. There wasn’t another close, but he caught hold of a stone, dug his heels in, and hoisted himself up until he was on what passed for solid ground again. Now the real work began. He could see the singer, a guy about his age, sitting about a quarter of the way up the tree, but there wasn’t a rope in evidence. How had he gotten up there?
Mike circled the tree. He wasn’t the tallest guy in town and had despaired of ever filling out like one of the linebackers. He’d been a running back in high school. A great player, quick and smart, but small compared to the rest of the team.
Someone had cut chinks into the wood on the far side of the tree. Grinning, he dug his fingers into the lowest[T1] one, which was almost out of his reach, and yanked himself up. With a grunt he settled on a branch roughly parallel to the singer’s[K2] .
“I see you made it,” the red-haired man said. He turned his head toward Mike and then away.
Holy fuck. It’s him. Aidan Kelly. How did the young man manage to look twenty-five at the board of education office and nineteen here? Besides that, the guy had to be only sixteen or seventeen if he was still in high school. Just how old was he? Where did he find the courage to sing about a couple of…? Mike swallowed as Aidan shifted, muscles pushing at his dark T-shirt. His red hair, so neatly combed before, spilled down his neck and over his ears like frosting waiting to be lapped up.
What the hell am I thinking? Maybe he’s gay, singing a song like that, but I’m sure as hell not, and there’s no two ways about that. Frosting? Jeez!
He tried to force his thoughts into more productive channels. “I’m, uh, sorry they started the interviews without you.”
The man’s head whipped around. Sunglasses too dark for Mike to even glimpse the other man’s eyes seemed to glare at him nevertheless. “What do you know about that?”
Fuck, fuck, fuck. No matter how old he looks, he’s still a kid. Probably the same age I was when Hanlon—
Severing that thought cleanly, Mike coughed his voice into restarting. “I’m your aide.”
The kid’s mouth fell open in an undignified gawp. Then he pressed his lips together. “You’re Mike Delaney.”
Aidan let his head thud back against the trunk of the tree. “It’s not how I expected to meet you, but it’s a pleasure.” He straightened, held out his hand. A frown tightened his mouth, and he pulled back.
Mike reached across the intervening distance and grasped the kid’s surprisingly half-calloused, half-silken hand. How did he manage to have a rock-hard palm and such unused fingers? Mike[K6] gave the curious hand a firm shake, remembering his father’s, uncles’, and grandfathers’ admonitions: you could learn a lot from a person, man or woman, in the first five minutes of meeting them. How did they address you? Did they meet your gaze? How solid and sure was their handshake?
Aidan Kelly’s handshake showed him to be a man of whom all Mike’s male relatives would have approved. And damn if he didn’t seem to be looking right at Mike, despite the sunglasses and even though Mike knew he couldn’t see a lit candle in a dark room.
Aidan smiled, and for just a moment he looked twenty-five again. When he parted his full lips, he revealed teeth white as noonday sun on a midwinter snow. “Thank you. Some people won’t take the time to shake a blind man’s hand, especially not when they still see him as a kid.”
Mike licked sweat off his upper lip. Please be completely blind like Mr. Callahan said. “But you are a kid. I mean, y-you’re still in high school.” He stared down at the man’s fingers, still firmly grasping (and grasped in) his. Red hair feathered over the back of the man’s hand, thickening as it gathered on his closely freckled arms and disappeared under his tight T-shirt. Or had Mike misunderstood? I couldn’t have zoned out. I wasn’t even thinking about Hanlon until after they hired me.
If that was true, why hadn’t he slept more than three hours at a go? “Are you trying to tell me you’re a teacher?”
“A what?” Aidan laughed. He let go of Mike’s hand and adjusted his sunglasses on his broad nose. “I used to help in the training rooms back at my old school, but our sensei wouldn’t even let me within spitting distance of his classes for the past year. I’ve been on the worst kind of probation. The kind where you get to scrub all the mats down, wash all the sweat-stained towels, and never see any of the action except during your practice sessions, when your teacher’s basically…”
Mike leaned forward almost enough to overbalance. He gripped a nearby branch for support. “Basically what?”
“Basically kicking the shit out of you,” the other said. He’d turned his head away again. “It’s for your own good, of course.”
“Shh, Michael,” Mr. Hanlon whispered, back in February of Mike’s junior year when the sixteen-year-old had still thought of him as Mr. Hanlon. His fingers worked tight knots out of Mike’s shoulders. “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.”
“I know.” His insides shook.
“Then why are you afraid of me, Michael?”
He could feel the man’s breath on the back of his neck. “I’m not.”
“But you’re so tense.”
“It’s just…football practice was long today.” A terrible excuse. Football practice had been over since November. Mike fidgeted. “I’m worried about my schoolwork still.”
“You’re going to do just fine. I have complete faith in you.” His fingers dipped under Mike’s shirt and continued the massage. “You’ve brought up your grades in my class.” Breath even closer on Mike’s nape. “I know you’re going to keep them there. Don’t you worry.”
Mike shook his head hard enough to make himself dizzy. “Whoever your teacher is, he sounds like an asshole.”
Aidan laughed again. “Yeah, sometimes. But he was also my lifeline for longer than I care to think about.”
Mike chewed his lip. “Okay, so you’re not a teacher and you’re not a kid. What am I aiding you in exactly?”
“The murder of the century?” He flashed his sunburst-on-snow teeth once more. “I need to finish my senior year. My high school career got interrupted, I have no intention of going back to my former school, and so I’m back home to finish out my good old high school days.”
What could he say to that? Unsure, Mike kept his silence. Except, without words between them, he had more opportunity to look at the other man’s hands. And hair.
Karen’s wasn’t like that. No. His ex-girlfriend’s hair hadn’t looked half so coarse, as if it had its own personality. No one would mistake this man’s hair for an unnecessary, dispensable part of his attractiveness. Any girl who saw him would be drawn to his hair. She’d love to run her fingers through the long, tough strands because they had spirit. Classifying this man’s hair as merely thick would be like calling one of the great thousand-year-old sequoias merely a tree.
No girl would want to run her fingers through Aidan Kelly’s hair, Mike realized. The qualities he admired—no, only appreciated—would scare most girls off. They liked soft hair. Like boy-band hair.
“What?” the man asked.
“How do you know I’m look— How old are you?” Mike shook his head. That wasn’t the right question, but he couldn’t come up with a better one. At least not one he didn’t know the answer to. What the hell. It’ll make me feel like less of an idiot. I hope. “I mean, what’s your name?”
“I turned nineteen last December. And my name’s Aidan James Kelly. Didn’t Principal Connolly or any of his followers tell you that?”
Mike snickered in spite of his discomfort. “Followers? You make him sound like a dictator.”
“And that was his family name, doncha know? His grandfather on his mother’s side was Richard ‘Dick’ Tator. They decided it was too obvious for the United States and married purposely into the Connolly family to keep their true colors hidden, but all the intelligent people know them on sight.” He tapped his sunglasses. “Or by radar. Take your pick.”
Mike’s smile remained.
“As to how I knew you’re looking at me—”
His smile felt slapped off. Or caressed off by— I won’t think about him anymore. I won’t.
“—usually when people I’ve first met get really quiet, it means one of two things. One, they’re completely distracted and would rather be somewhere else. Two, they’re staring at me and wanting to either ask about my blindness or—”
“No! I don’t care about— I mean…” How the hell could he explain what he’d really been staring at?
Aidan smiled slightly. The jaded twist of his lips aged him. “It’s all right. I’m used to it, sheltered in a school for the blind or not. I’ve made it my business to spend lots of time in the sighted community whenever possible. Call it getting inoculated.”
“You make us sound like a disease.”
“Not you. Your ignorance of us.” Aidan swung himself around on the branch, caught hold of the nearest chink on the oak tree as if he’d been doing it all his life, and started down. Three feet from the bottom, he let go, landing perfectly in a crouch.
Mike stared down at him, unable to move.
Aidan felt about the roots of the tree and then stood with a white cane in his hand.
Maybe he’s not gay. He’s right-handed.
The kid—Mike’s age, but also an adult, untouched by pain or humiliation—stepped back from the tree, tipped his head up, and again seemed to be looking right at Mike.
Can he hear me breathing? Or my heart beating? How does he know where I am?
“I’ll see you on the first day of school, Mike Delaney,” Aidan Kelly said. He turned so his back faced the tree, and strode away, his cane over his shoulder like a gun.
“What the fuck have I gotten myself into?” Mike asked the rustling leaves above him.