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Connor Graham is a city boy—a celebrated fashion photographer in New York. When his uncle’s death drags him back to the family blueberry farm, all he wants to do is sell it as quickly as he can. Until he meets his uncle’s tenant farmer.
Jed Jones, shy and stammering, devout and dedicated, has always yearned for land of his own and a man to share it with. Kept in the closet by his church, family, and disastrous first love, he longs to be accepted for who he is. But now, with his farm and his future in Connor’s careless hands, he stands to lose even the little he has.
Neither man expects the connection between them. Jed sees Connor—appreciates his art and passion like no one else in this godforsaken town ever has. Connor hears Jed—looks past his stutter to listen to the man inside. The time they share is idyllic, but with the farm sale pending, even their sanctuary is a source of tension. As work, family, and their town’s old-fashioned attitudes pull them apart, they must find a way to reconcile commitments to their careers and to each other.
Finalist: Best Gay Romance in the 28th Annual Lambda Literary Awards!
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Blueberries. Row upon row, acre upon acre. Connor’s arms ached with the memory of his first summer job. The dew glinting off the grass and leaves set his heart thumping thickly in his chest. Six said it was nostalgia, half dozen said grief. He lifted his camera from where it hung heavy around his neck and snapped a few photos. It was early yet; the golden hour hadn’t arrived, so there wouldn’t be any magic in the images. But he hadn’t come out here to make magic. He’d come to make a eulogy.
How many times could one man say good-bye to the same place?
He heard the diesel engine long before he bothered to turn around. This would be Bruce’s—no, Scott and Connor’s—tenant, probably wondering what Connor was doing here. Sure enough, the dually rumbled to a stop beside him, and a slender man about his own age stepped down from the cab. Brown hair and eyes, a hint of crow’s feet around the latter, unremarkable and yet appealing. Beautiful in that way strangers were, before you learned they hated cats or liked the wrong kind of country music.
“This is pr-private property. You c-can’t shoot pictures here.” The tenant’s voice was quiet, but with a firm set to his chin, he clearly meant business.
“It’s okay.” Connor tried to find a smile to offer him, but all he had was his name. “I’m Connor Graham.”
The man’s smile faded, and he ducked his head, swiping his Red Sox hat down and into his palms. “Man. I’m s-sorry. About your uncle.”
“Thank you. You’re the tenant, right? I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.” I hold his future in my hands; I should know his name.
Hell of a name for a man with a stutter.
Jed extended his hand slowly, like an afterthought. Connor reached to grasp it and ended up holding the hat. Jed flushed, grabbed it back, and placed it on his head with an exasperated huff. Then he took Connor’s hand in his, shaking firmly.
Jed’s hands were thin like the rest of him, fingernails stained purple around the edges. Connor didn’t know whether that spoke to his work ethic or his grooming habits, but found these farmer’s hands striking. He let go and lifted his camera.
“It’s your farm.” No bitterness there, just acquiescence.
“No, I mean, may I take your portrait?”
Jed’s face shuttered. “W-what for?”
“Because the first hour after sunrise, the world turns gold and gorgeous. Any minute now, the light is going to catch every bush here on fire—it’s going to be amazing. You’re here, you’re part of it, and I’d like you to be in the photograph.”
“Out here with b-burning bushes?” Jed raised a soft brown eyebrow and smiled.
“I guess.” He shrugged, then took off his baseball cap again. His hair was flattened close to his head, but puffed out a little around his ears. Hat head. Not something Connor was used to seeing in the city among the darlings of the male model set. And yet Jed lifted his chin with a model’s instincts, and the line of his jaw, the jut of his cheekbones were thrown into prominence. Beautiful.
“Here.” Connor pointed to the end of a row of bushes. “Stand just to the right of this one.” He stepped back and waited for the light. Jed studied Connor for a long moment—bemused or annoyed, Connor couldn’t tell—then turned his face to the east and watched in silence.
Jed was painted in gold and rose as the sun crept above the horizon. All around him, the sunlight caught on dew, limning the branches and leaves and casting a halo around Jed’s hair. It was almost enough to make Connor believe in angels. But not quite.
The clicks of Connor’s shutter sounded rapid-fire, loud in the morning stillness. Sure, he’d come out here to take photos of the farm, but this, this was so much better. This was the kind of portrait that won awards—a modern farmer, his baseball cap under his arm as he greeted the dawn. It felt intimate, sacred even. Connor wasn’t a lifestyle photographer, nor a documentarian. A photograph like this, of a man in his element, seemed surreal to someone who plied his trade in the carefully crafted falsehoods of fashion photography.
Jed turned his face back to Connor, smiled, and said, soft as can be, “Ch-cheese.”
Connor snapped a last shot and then lowered the camera. “Thanks.”
Jed ducked his head and nodded.
“I’ll let you go back to work.” Connor gestured to the truck. “I’ll take a few more photos of the farm, if that’s okay.”
“It’s y-your farm.” Jed repeated with a shrug. “I just work it.”
Connor nodded, awkward in the face of Jed’s acceptance of his place here. A place Connor didn’t feel a claim to, and didn’t want to. “Okay, thanks.”
Placing his hat on his head, Jed tipped it gently in Connor’s direction and climbed back into his truck. Connor watched him drive away, ignoring the temptation to photograph the tracks he left in the mud like so much graffiti. Jed was here. He wasn’t what Connor had expected when Marty Sullivan told him there was a tenant living in the main house and working the land.
The farmers he’d known as a child had been men like his uncle—big, brawny, and well used to a day’s work. Jed Jones was built like he’d fall over in a strong wind, with a body more in common with the lithe young things Connor photographed than with the rednecks who’d had no patience for Bruce Graham’s chubby sissy-boy nephew.
Models didn’t say “Cheese.”
Connor took more photos, following the light across the landscape—still golden and glorious—but the feeling of capturing something special had ridden away with Jed Jones and his dually.
Not twenty minutes later, a truck rolled up and gangly high school kids with their braces and their awkward flirtations piled out and set to work removing berries from the bushes. The wet thunk of berries dropping into the buckets they wore around their necks made Connor smile as he remembered working next to his friend Kyle Bauer, trying not to stare at his muscular legs, or to laugh harder at his jokes than anyone else did. That summer, Connor had still thought he had secrets.
“Hey Connor, check this out!” Kyle held out a blueberry the size of a half-dollar. “You ever seen one this big?”
Connor shook his head, wiping sweat from his eyes, and dumped the contents of his bucket in the carrier at his feet. Purple pints today. An expensive variety. Bruce didn’t usually trust the teens with these.
“Here, you have it, if I eat any more blueberries, I’m gonna be sick.”
And then Kyle’s hand was at Connor’s mouth, stifling a gasp of shock by slipping the berry between open lips. The dry brush of Kyle’s thumb whispered across Connor’s lower lip and the sweetness of the berry broke across his tongue.
Connor shuddered, remembering the innocent touch and Kyle’s awkward smile, followed by a shrug. They’d both had boners tenting their shorts, though neither had said anything. What’d ever happened to Kyle Bauer?
Several rows down, another truck dropped a crew of adult workers who spoke a language Connor didn’t recognize, laughing easily with each other. This crew was mostly women, but with a few men too, and they worked with an efficiency the kids lacked. They would harvest twice as many berries as the kids, but they wouldn’t enjoy themselves half as much. Once they spotted Connor, there was a grimness to the way they moved, and they gave him curious glances, eyeing his camera warily. Time to go.
Lights shone inside the farm offices when he returned to where he’d parked his rental car, so Connor headed up the familiar steps to the little trailer where Bruce used to hand out paychecks. He knocked, which felt weird because he owned it, but appropriate because he was a stranger to whoever worked inside. He’d just get an email address to send the portrait to, and then he’d be on his way.
Stepping into the trailer was like stepping back in time. The same ugly desk and chairs, the same card table—though a new microwave. The same stifling lack of air conditioning. On the floor next to the desk, a toddler in a diaper made engine noises as he pushed his blocks around on ancient stained carpet. The kid had the same light-brown hair as Jed Jones, and he flashed Connor a drooly smile.
“Can I help you?” The woman behind the desk smiled expectantly. She was familiar in a way that made Connor think she was from around here but not Blandford. He racked his brain for a name, finally gave up, and introduced himself.
“I’m Connor Graham.”
Her face fell, and she extended her hand. “Of course, I should have known. Hannah Jones—you probably don’t remember me from school, I was a freshman when you were a junior—my maiden name was Bradshaw. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Hannah Bradshaw,” he repeated, suddenly placing her. “You played Éponine when the high school did Les Mis. Better than at least one I’ve seen on Broadway.” Easy and completely untrue flattery, but it made her blush and smile, so he couldn’t regret the lie.
“You’re kind to say so.”
The door opened behind him and Jed walked in, pausing when he saw Connor. He pulled off his hat and gave a gruff nod, which Connor returned.
Jed glanced at the child on the floor and sort of grimaced, then said, “Hannah, we got sh-shoestring in the Rancocas. Can you call M-Mike and get him out here to help me? S-same pay.”
“You got it.” She picked up the phone on the desk and started dialing.
Jed turned to Connor. “You get all the p-pictures you need?”
Connor nodded. “I was just leaving. That thing, the shoestring thing . . . is it serious?”
“Hopefully it’s j-just the one plant. Won’t impact the value of your land.”
“But your crop?”
“Is n-n-none of your business.”
Gone was the soft-smiling man Connor had met in the field at dawn. In his place was another hard-faced farmer, worried about pests and disease and scowling at children. God, they were all alike, weren’t they?
“I wasn’t asking because I was worried about money. I was worried for you. Forget it.”
Jed’s face softened. “W-we’ll be fine.”
“Okay, then. I’m going to go. Do you have an email address? I can send you the photos I took.”
He glanced at his shoes. “We’re on F-Facebook. The f-farm. You can send them there.”
“I’ll look you up.” Connor offered his tenant—because that’s who Jed was, not a model to be photographed, but the man renting Connor’s land—a hesitant smile, then backed his way out of the trailer.
Jed watched out the window as his new landlord got into a little silver rental car and drove away. He was only halfheartedly listening to his sister-in-law call Mike to ask for help. It had been a long time since Jed had examined the blueberries and seen anything other than profit. Or loss. That it was his new landlord who made him see poetry there—well, he wasn’t quite sure what to think about that. Wasn’t sure what to think about the way Graham had regarded him either—meeting his eyes and lighting up like he saw poetry in Jed, too. It gave him all kinds of butterflies in his stomach. Damn. He shook his head and glanced over his shoulder, just in time to see Billy trying to climb the card table.
“W-whoa, little buddy. That th-thing is not g-gonna hold your weight.” He scooped up the toddler. “You sick again?”
Billy stuck two fingers in his mouth and laid his chubby head on Jed’s shoulder. “Thed,” he said around his fingers.
“Mike’ll be here shortly, he just needs to finish up a brake job.” Hannah came around the coffee table to take Billy. “I’m sorry I had to bring him with me today. Dev can’t take the kids if they’ve had a fever within twenty-four hours, and he had a small one last night. I think it was just teething, but what can you do? I’m sorry I didn’t tell you ahead of time.”
“J-just took me by surprise.”
“So, that’s the new landlord.” She jutted her chin toward the door. “I went to high school with him. He remembered me in the class play. Isn’t that a queer thing to remember?”
“Yep.” Jed peered out the window again, even though Connor Graham’s car was long gone. He didn’t know if Hannah meant queer like weird, or queer like him, but he wasn’t about to ask.
“Think they’re gonna sell?”
Jed’s stomach turned. He hoped not. His current lease had fewer than two years left. Finding a piece of land to farm was hard when you couldn’t afford to buy your own. And what else could he do? It wasn’t like he could take a job working with people to tide him over until he could afford to buy. If Connor and Scott decided to sell . . . Bitterness swept over him. Some men, men who could talk freely, could call the world their oyster. Any pearls destined for Jed were close to home and to the people who tolerated his stammer.
“I d-don’t know.”
“Are you going to make an offer if he does?”
“I c-can’t. D-don’t have e-e-enough. Still paying off my student loans. Maybe—maybe when the l-lease is up.”
Hannah placed a soothing hand on his arm. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Jedidiah. I just wondered.”
“I’ll be in the Rancocas. Send M-Mike out.”
Four. Four infected plants identified by the time Mike arrived. They could be removed and burned, but if aphids were spreading the disease, who knew how many plants had been compromised already? Jed grimaced and moved to the next bush.
“Here’s another one,” Mike called from the end of the row as he tied a strip of bright tape around a limb. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t f-fucking know,” Jed muttered. “R-reconsider organic certification?”
Mike scowled. “Why you even bother—”
“I b-bother because it’s my j-job,” Jed snapped, moving to the next bush. Because I love it. Because growing things matters. And growing them right—that mattered too.
“You can come work at the shop for me. You’re good with transmission work—and small engines. We could add a new specialty.”
“I’m n-not a mechanic; I’m a f-farmer. And it’s n-not like you have enough w-work to go around.” Because in the end, in Mike’s shop? It always came down to not enough work to go around, and Mike had kids and a wife, and Jed only had himself.
“I think you should pray about it, Jedidiah. Maybe this is a sign.”
“Wh-what?” Jed glared at his brother.
“This disease. The landlord dying. All happening at the same time.”
The fuck it was. Jed loved his older brother—had damn near worshipped him at some stages in his life—but drew the line at accepting the idea that God randomly destroyed shit to prove a point. Not just because Mike thought he should “pray about it” and maybe “come work for me.”
“I d-don’t b-believe that’s how the L-Lord works.”
“Isn’t for you to say, bro.”
Lots of things weren’t apparently. Jed stomped his shovel into the dirt and grunted. Had Mike’s theology or his self-interest provoked that remark? And who was Jed to question his brother’s motives?
“Isn’t for you to say either, Mike.”
The Law Offices of Marty Sullivan occupied half of an office duplex on a rundown corner in Westfield. Connor winced inwardly as he fucked up pulling into the parallel parking on the street. He was worse than a teenager, rusty after years living car-free. He flushed, hoping no one had seen his disgraceful second approach, which left him in the spot, but running late.
Marty was an old family friend—he’d been Bruce’s lawyer, and was now Scott’s. Connor hoped, as he approached the entrance, that old loyalty would forgive a few minutes of tardiness. The broker next door had one of those signs like a clock, the ones with the hands you moved to let people know when you’d be back. The clock read twelve thirty, but it was half past one now and there was a woman standing in the entryway, knocking.
“You know where he’s at?” She gestured to the door.
“No, sorry.” Connor shrugged apologetically, brushing by her to let himself into Marty’s suite.
“Figures.” She scuffed her foot along the floor, scowling. “Thanks anyway.”
He was still nodding at her when he pushed through the door to Marty’s, and ran smack into a familiar face.
“Amanda!” He steadied his sister-in-law with one hand—or ex-sister-in-law. Were Scott and Amanda exes if the divorce wasn’t final yet? “What are you doing here?”
“Ow, fuck, Connor.” She rubbed at her forehead where she’d collided with his chin.
“You okay, Mandy?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Since, um, since Bruce left you guys the farm, and Scott and I are still married, I have to be here. God, I don’t know why. So fucking awkward in there. I needed a cig.”
Connor studied her expression—lines creased her forehead and dark circles hung like angry moons above her cheekbones. “I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you and Scott.”
She sniffled and nodded once, a sharp, tight motion. “Me too.”
Connor glanced down at her hand where a diamond sparkled. Not the one Scott had given her. “You’re getting remarried?”
She gave him a long, exasperated glare. “Yeah.”
“I guess . . . Congratulations?”
She rolled her eyes and started packing her cigarettes against the heel of her hand. He opened the door wide for her.
Watching her walk away, he felt a strange pang he couldn’t identify. There was no love lost between Connor and his brother, but he’d liked Mandy. She seemed brittle and cold now, not even the same woman he remembered. Maybe that was the price one paid for being married to someone like Scott. His brother had never been easy to live with, and he’d always liked his beer and his friends more than spending time with family.
Did Scott even consider Connor family anymore? Or was Connor adrift now—family-less, anchorless? Despite the years he’d spent trying to forget where he’d come from, the thought left him hollow.
Marty’s paralegal-slash-secretary had called Connor “Mr. Graham” since he was seventeen and had run errands for Bruce. She was seventy if she was a day, and proper as all get-out in her pinstriped suits and severe bun. In the years since Connor had been home last, her hair had gone from a steely gray to pure white, but aside from that, she hadn’t changed.
“Hi, Mrs. Kennedy.”
“Can I get you a cup of coffee? He’ll be a few minutes—he’s talking to Mandy’s lawyer, and Scott is back there—” she nodded toward the hallway leading to the offices “—glowering.”
Of course he was. All of Connor’s life, Scott had been angry. Why should today be any different?
“No, thanks, Mrs. K.”
Connor took in the ancient wood paneling and the worn carpet. A photo of a much younger Marty in uniform hung on the wall. The place was exactly how it had been when Connor was a teenager. How was it that coming home felt more like time travel than a couple hours by car?
“Connor,” Marty called from behind him.
“Mr. Sullivan.” Connor extended his hand for a shake.
“Terrible business, son. I’m sorry about your uncle.” Marty covered Connor’s hand with his own, wrinkled and age-spotted, as he shook it, a surprisingly sympathetic gesture from the gruff old lawyer.
“Let’s get to it. Come on. Kennedy, coffee.”
“Yes, sir.” Mrs. Kennedy stood up with a sharp nod.
The small conference room hummed with the buzz of fluorescent lights, and Connor sank gratefully into a soft leather chair as Mrs. Kennedy placed several cups and a coffee carafe in the center of the table, then marched out, easing the door shut behind her.
A few minutes later, Scott came in, red-faced and surly.
“Con.” He jerked his chin at Connor in what might pass as a greeting between near-strangers. Connor swallowed back his resentment and stood, reaching for a handshake.
“Good to see you, Scott.”
Scott sneered down at his hand and grunted, finally shaking it gingerly, like he was afraid he’d catch something. He all but wiped his hands on his jeans afterward. God, what an asshole. Connor straightened his shoulders.
When Amanda came in, she was followed by a young man in a well-tailored suit who gave Connor a curious glance. This had to be her lawyer. They both nodded to Marty and sat down without saying anything.
“I want to sell,” Scott said. He glared over at Connor. “If you want to keep it, you’ll have to buy me out.”
Connor shook off the twinge of sadness at the thought of the farm belonging to someone else’s family, and nodded. “Yeah, I want to sell too.”
“Okay, that can be arranged, but any sale is subject to Mr. Jones’s lease.” Marty poured himself a cup of coffee and studied Connor over the edge. “I’m surprised you don’t want to keep it. I know you lived on the property awhile.”
In a world where there was money enough for him to own the family farm and expand his studio space to include a gallery . . . yeah, he’d want to keep it. But he didn’t live in that world. He lived in the one where the money from the farm would cover the construction costs for the expansion. “Is Mr. Jones a potential buyer? I was over there yesterday; he seems to know the farm really well.” Connor thought of the tense expression on Jed’s face when he told Hannah about the disease in the Rancocas, and the way it softened when he mentioned the farm’s Facebook page. He obviously cared about the place.
“He might be. How’s the crop?”
Connor shrugged. “I’m no expert. Seemed okay.”
“How urgently do you need to sell? I don’t mean to sound all doom and gloom about the prospect, but this economy . . . with the land subject to a lease for another two years . . .”
“I’m not in a hurry. It would be nice to get started on the expansion on my place in New York, but I don’t have any financial problems and I live well. It’s not urgent.”
Amanda cleared her throat.
“I’d like to get on it as quick as possible.” Scott glared at his wife. “Since it seems it’s going to affect my divorce proceedings.”
“All right, I’ll get it rolling. I have nothing else that requires both of you to be present. Scott, we’ll cover how this affects your divorce separately.” Marty stood up. “Connor, walk with me a moment.”
Connor followed him into the hallway. As soon as they were out of the conference room, Marty asked, “How are you holding up?”
Connor flinched at the question. He didn’t know how to answer. He was fine. Sad, but somehow it still didn’t feel real.
“I honestly don’t know.” The words slipped out.
A dark expression clouded Marty’s face for a moment. “I know in some ways Bruce was like a father to you. Take it one day at a time. You’ll be okay.”
“I am okay,” Connor insisted, though thinking of Bruce that way, as a parent, twisted him up inside—a hot tangle of longing and rejection. “I guess it hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“You have someone?” Marty winced. “A young man or someone to be there for you when it does?”
Connor resisted the urge to tease the old man about inquiring into his relationship status. “I have my work. I have my friends. It’s enough, you know?”
Marty made a dubious face. “Work doesn’t keep a man warm.”
“Spoken like a man who’s never spent a day on a photo set.”
“You’re a smart-ass, son. But you know what I mean.”
Connor nodded. “Thanks, Marty. I’ll be fine.”
“Scott . . .” Marty looked back toward the conference room. “I know he doesn’t treat you like family anymore.”
He never did.
“I’m just saying,” Marty continued, “Bruce was a very close friend. And he’d have wanted you to have family. If you need to talk to someone, you give me a call, okay?”
“All right. I’ll call Jed Jones and let him know what’s going on.”
“I appreciate it.”
Bruce was the kind of guy to make his own funeral arrangements, which suited Connor fine.
Had been. Fuck.
Scott had freaked out and tried to take control, but the owner of the funeral home had reminded him that Bruce had known better than anyone what he wanted, and had paid for it in advance. Connor had been relieved when Scott had given up trying to be in charge and just it go.
They’d been born eleven years apart, and it might as well have been a lifetime for all they ever bothered to know each other. Scott had been everything small-town America reveres: a football star, local boy makes good—until he blew out his knee playing college ball.
Then there had been Connor—the shy, fat faggot. There was no football scholarship to pay his way through school, so he picked blueberries until he was old enough to get a job at Burger King, and then flipped burgers to pay for books. The art program at Westfield State had been his ticket out of town, and when he graduated, he’d been both broke and determined. New York had beckoned, and he’d made Brooklyn his home.
And here he stood in the new cemetery, sweating in a suit too expensive for Blandford, staring at the hole where a minister had just prayed over his uncle. The town was a stranger now, though it had shaped him like nothing else. He hadn’t just left town. He’d abandoned it, and he’d never looked back.
Scott and his friends stared at him—curious and disdainful. How was it that those stares could make him feel seventeen years old again? Bitter and lonely and completely lost.
“Connor!” a voice behind him called. A jolt of recognition—Bethany Tyler, round with pregnancy. A smile stretched across his face as she picked her way along the gravel path toward him. They’d been childhood playmates, even through the “girls are gross” years. Older now—and tired, with two little ones clutching her black maternity dress—she was beautiful in that glowing-pregnancy way. Out of habit, Connor tapped at his chest, the absence of his camera a heavier weight than the camera itself.
“Beth.” He hugged her, and her belly bumped his own, provoking an awkward laugh from both of them.
“I wish you’d come home sometime when nobody died.” She patted his shoulder and pulled away from the hug.
“This isn’t home.” The words came automatically. It’s what he’d said to his mom when he left for New York. It’s what he’d said to Bruce after Mom died. He’d said it so many times since leaving at twenty-two years old, he could almost believe that this place had no hold on him and never had.
Bethany’s face crumpled a bit, but she soldiered on. “Where are you staying? Would you like to come over tomorrow? It’s game night.”
“At a bed-and-breakfast in Otis. Game night? You still do that?” He smiled at the memory—gin rummy with Beth and her sisters at her mom’s Formica table. Beth’s eyes glowing in triumph as she displayed her winning cards. There had been good times, even if they were hard to remember since he only came back, as she said, when someone died.
“You know it.” She rubbed her belly and grinned. “Chutes and Ladders and Candyland with the kids, then after they go to bed, we play card games. It was poker for a while, but lately we’re on a Cards Against Humanity kick.”
“Who comes over?” The thought of seeing his old classmates filled Connor with dread.
“Hannah and Mike Jones usually. Some of Aaron’s friends from the plant might come by with their wives too, but don’t worry, Scott doesn’t hang with their crowd.”
Oh, thank god.
“Hannah Bradshaw-now-Jones? So she’s not Jed’s wife?”
Beth laughed. “No, she’s his sister-in-law. I forgot she helps him at the farm. He sometimes comes too.”
“No single gay men?” Maybe Kyle would be there, and they could catch up.
“The only one I ever knew moved to New York after college, so I guess you’re shit outta luck.” She slapped his arm. “Anytime after six. Say you’ll come by.”
“I’ll come by.”
“We bought the old Garten place, on Main Street. You know the house?”
God, of course he did. All these years away and he still knew houses by the names of the people who’d lived there when he was a kid.
“Yeah, I know the place.”
“See you tomorrow, then!” She waved as she deftly maneuvered her offspring toward the parking lot, leaving Connor to stare after her, wondering what he’d just agreed to.
The old Garten house—Beth’s house—a seventies-era split-level on Main Street, glowed with strings of Christmas lights even though it was summertime. Yet the effect was festive, and not as out of place as Connor expected. Standing beside his rental car, he snapped a photo. Several vehicles lined the driveway; a few parked in the yard. Aaron’s friends from the plant were here in force—and Connor probably had gone to school with most of them. He double-checked to make sure he wasn’t blocking anyone in, and locked the car. Unease filled him. He wasn’t great in big groups, and a group of people whose last memories of him were his awkward teenage years? Agreeing to come to game night had been a colossally dumb idea.
A child’s squeal pierced the air and a small form hurtled out from behind the house and tumbled down the hill, rolling to a stop at his feet. A dirty face smiled at him, and the kid—A boy? Girl? With long hair and no shirt, who could tell?—grabbed on to his jeans and pulled to their feet, then raced back up the hill, shrieking again.
Beth appeared in the doorway at the front of the house and called down, “Hey, we’re on the back porch. Go on around where Madison just went.” She disappeared into the house, and Connor started up the hill, trying to find the part of himself that fit in here. It was like trying to put a shoe on the wrong foot—familiar and almost right, but uncomfortable and awkward. It was exactly the feeling that had sent him running to New York as soon as he had graduated. Did it matter if he was the foot or the shoe if they both rejected each other?
He followed the shrieks around back to find the porch lit by citronella candles and tiki torches. Faces flickered over hands of cards. On the floor, a game of Candyland lay abandoned, and out in the yard, six or so kids chased each other and fireflies. A wave of nostalgia hit him. Sure, there were fireflies in the city, but somehow, he’d hardened himself against caring about their early-evening show.
“C-Connor?” A soft voice called from behind him. He twisted to see Jed Jones standing a few feet away, a six-pack in hand and a tentative smile on his face. Hannah came up beside Jed carrying a plate of cupcakes. God, he hadn’t brought anything, not even a bottle of wine. He knew better, and here he was perpetuating stereotypes of rude New Yorkers.
“Hi, Connor.” She smiled. “Bethany said you might be joining us. It’s nice to see you. Bruce’s service was lovely yesterday.”
“Thank you.” Oh god, that was absurd. Thanking someone for a compliment on a funeral service self-arranged by the uncle he’d practically abandoned. Connor flushed.
Jed’s lips twitched like he knew what Connor was thinking. He turned his attention to Hannah. “Mike changing diapers in the backseat again?”
She laughed. “Yeah. I promise he won’t leave it in your car this time.”
“Thank you.” He nodded, then brushed past Connor, lifting the beer. “Gotta st-stick this in the cooler.”
Connor watched him stroll up the back steps to Bethany’s house to be greeted enthusiastically by the cardplayers. Jed’s lanky grace was a compelling contrast to his stammer and silences. When a woman gestured for Jed to come sit by her, Connor forced himself to pull his admiring gaze away, and faced Hannah.
“Can I take those for you?” He reached for the cupcakes.
“And let you take credit for my culinary masterpiece?” She feigned shock, then handed over the plate. “Absolutely.”
Just then, the chubby toddler from the farm trailer ran between them, buck naked and giggling. Connor almost dropped the cakes.
“Billy!” Hannah shouted and chased after him.
A bigger, brawnier version of Jed came around the corner, red-faced and carrying an armful of toddler clothes. “Billy!”
“I think Hannah’s got him.” Connor smiled at the newcomer. “I’m Connor.”
“Mike.” He grunted, giving Connor a once-over. “You’re Scott Graham’s little brother?”
“Sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks. You must be Jed’s brother?”
“Yeah. I’d shake hands, but I can’t be sure there ain’t kid shit on mine. Damn diapers.” He shook his head ruefully. “You got kids?”
“Um, no?” Connor was taken aback by the question. It’s not like he’d ever seen the inside of the closet. Could there be a person in Blandford who didn’t know he was gay? Not that gay men couldn’t have children, but he didn’t expect the town’s perception of homosexuality to have changed any more over the years than the town itself had—and the town never changed.
“Huh. Well, if you decide you want ’em, my advice is to adopt one already potty-trained. Excuse me. Hey, Bill-y!” He followed his wife toward the shrieking children.
Up on the back porch, Connor handed the cupcakes to Bethany, who kissed his cheek, and joined the card game, accepting condolences and introductions with equal ease—which is to say none at all.
And it got worse.
Everyone remembered him, and treated him like one of their own, but he still felt like he was sitting at a table full of strangers. His memories of them were frozen in childhood—that guy won the third-grade spelling bee, and that girl once threw up in gym class—but they weren’t kids anymore. And they knew each other. They laughed and teased with the familiarity of people who’d literally spent their entire lives together, occasionally jostling Connor and saying “Remember that time . . .” and all he could do was search his memory and nod.
Throughout the evening, he kept hoping Kyle would show. Someone he remembered fondly from his teen years besides Beth. But maybe Kyle wasn’t friends with their old crew. Hell, maybe he’d even escaped, gotten out of town. Hope flooded him, a rush of warmth through his veins as he pictured Kyle living out-and-proud in a city somewhere—maybe Boston or even New York—dancing in gay bars by night and working an office job for some nice, progressive company by day. He liked that picture—he liked it a lot.
As the game wore on, he noticed Jed politely ignoring the flirting from the woman next to him. She’d lay a hand on his arm, and he’d find an excuse to reach for the cards or his beer. She’d flip her hair and lean close, and he’d shift his chair. It was subtle, nothing that would necessarily trigger suspicion in either the woman or the others at the table, but it caught Connor’s attention. At one point, Jed’s gaze flicked up to his, and a wry smile danced around his lips. Unlike the careful deflection toward his female admirer, the expression Jed gave Connor was warm, flirtatious—hell, even encouraging. He couldn’t have been more blatant had he winked. But surely Connor was reading that wrong?
After a while, Beth herded the children inside and presumably to bed. She came back sometime later, smiling.
“They’re out,” she whispered as she took a seat next to Connor. “Sorry that took so long.”
Connor nodded and asked the question that had been nagging him all evening.
“Hey, what ever happened to Kyle Bauer?” He glanced around the room. “Don’t you guys hang out anymore?”
Silence fell across the table. Everyone grew really interested in their cards, and unease crept through Connor’s gut.
What the hell?
Finally, Jed spoke. “K-Kyle shot himself in the head two years ago. Left a w-wife and th-three kids.”
Connor didn’t remember standing up and leaving the table, or the screen porch door slamming behind him. He just felt an overwhelming urge to get the hell away from all those people, their happy game, the cloying familiarity that wasn’t, and the next thing he knew, he was pacing in the front yard.
“Hey,” Jed called from behind Connor. “You okay?”
Connor nodded, but the nod changed into a shake as he sat on the front steps. “Yes. No. I don’t know, actually.”
“You want t-to talk?” Jed sat beside him, brushing their thighs together as if by accident. He didn’t move away, just let his leg touch Connor’s. It was a nice, comforting touch. Connor wanted to turn into Jed’s body, bury his face in that slim shoulder, and howl out his pain. Of course he couldn’t do that, because that’s the kind of intimacy grown men didn’t share unless they were lovers, and sometimes, not even then.
How was it that the death of Kyle Bauer hit so much harder than that of Connor’s own uncle? Because Kyle’s was suicide and Bruce’s was a heart attack? Because Kyle’s happened two years ago and he never knew? Or because Kyle left a wife and kids behind and Connor’s family was so broken? Wife and kids.
“Did he leave a note?” Connor’s voice was tight and raspy, even to his own ears.
“Nah.” Jed shook his head. “Big m-mystery.”
“Did you know him?” Connor searched Jed’s face.
“Knew him well enough to know he was qu-queer.” He shrugged, jutting his chin. “Not many people in town knew that.”
“That doesn’t make his life less valuable,” Connor hissed.
“Didn’t say it did.” Jed shrugged again. “M-might make it m-more so. To s-some people.”
Connor closed his eyes. “He wasn’t my lover.”
“We were friends. I guess I always hoped he’d come out too.”
Jed snorted. “Not here. You th-think he could come out, sit in his family pew at the big white church, and face judgment from the closed-minded people in this town? You think K-Kyle fuckin’ Bauer was strong enough for that?”
“You have strong feelings about what it takes to be gay in Blandford? Or maybe about who deserves to sit in that church? Christ, and people act like they don’t understand why I left.”
“Please, d-don’t take the Lord’s name in v-vain,” Jed whispered. “I have a lot of st-strong feelings about that too.”
“Of course you do.” Connor stood and paced into the front yard again. “You drop the f-bomb like it was Kyle’s middle name, and you’re offended I said ‘Christ.’ I fucking hate this town.”
“I’m not this town— Hell, half the t-time I hate it too. If you hate me, j-just say it.”
Connor stopped short. “I don’t hate you.”
“D-didn’t think you did.”
“You confuse the hell out of me.”
Jed cocked his head to the side and stared. “Why?”
“Are you gay?”
Jed wouldn’t meet his eyes. “That’s a c-complicated question.”
Connor sat again, not caring if their legs touched. “There’s nothing complicated about it. You like dick or you don’t.”
“I’m a Christian.”
“The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
“In th-this town? In my family? Yeah. They are.”
“Bullshit. I was gay in this town. I don’t know your family, but Hannah and Mike seem like good people. Would they treat you differently?”
“This from Scott Gr-Graham’s brother?”
Connor didn’t have anything to say to that, but Jed had his curiosity piqued. “Why are you telling me this?”
Jed snorted and looked away. When he spoke, his voice sounded tight, strained. “I was home-sch-schooled, did you know that? That’s why you and I never met when we were younger. You must’ve w-wondered.”
Connor had wondered. He couldn’t take three steps in this town without seeing someone he’d gone to elementary school with, or someone who’d painted his face at the fair, or someone who’d picked blueberries for Bruce. “What does that have to do with it?”
“My parents say it was so we could have a r-religious education. I think they didn’t want me to be g-gay. If I went to public school, with other boys, I might be tempted.” His lips quirked ruefully, not quite into a smile. “I had a crush on John D-Denver.”
“They homeschooled you because they thought it would keep you from wanting to bone John Denver?”
He chuckled and ducked his head. “It wasn’t about b-boning. I just . . . I just thought he had the nicest smile. Don’t you think he had the nicest smile?”
“No,” Connor said softly. “I think you do.”
Jed’s smile faded, and he shook his head. “I d-don’t know how to take a compliment from an attractive man. I don’t know if you’re f-flirting or just being nice. But thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Connor bumped their knees together. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Be-because you remembered Kyle. He and I . . .” Jed shook his head again, exhaled slowly, then held out his hands as if in supplication. “K-Kyle. It would have been adultery. He w-was married.”
“You and Kyle?” Connor could picture it, oddly enough. Yes, Jed was exactly Kyle’s type. Quiet. Thoughtful. Closeted.
“I’d h-have gone to hell for that man. But n-no. Not while he was married.”
His words hit like a punch. To have a love like that, and lose him? So much unsaid, but Connor could see naked grief on Jed’s face.
“I’m so sorry.”
“You really believe that? That you’d go to hell for being gay?”
Jed dug the heel of his hand into his eyes. “Half of f-faith is d-doubt. I d-d-don’t know wh-what I believe some days. I don’t think being g-gay is a sin. Sex outside of m-marriage? L-l-lying? Adultery? Th-those are sins.”
A firefly flashed just in front them, a flicker against the darkness of the front yard. Connor let his leg brush Jed’s again, and he didn’t pull away. Tempting as it was to wrap an arm around Jed and take some of his pain, Connor knew the gesture would be unwelcome. So they sat, tied together by their loss, until Hannah and Mike came around the corner, Mike carrying a sleeping Billy.
“Hey.” Hannah smiled awkwardly, twisting her hands together. “Time to go.”
Jed nodded and shot Connor a resolute glance. “Good night, Connor.”
Following his brother and his sister-in-law to the car, Jed took one last peek over his shoulder. It was too dark to see his expression, but his tentatively raised hand was as good as a smile.
Jed handed his brother the keys, and watched Connor sitting on the steps until they pulled out of sight. For a big man, Connor appeared tiny in that despondent circle of light. Jed hated having to tell Connor about Kyle. Kyle had been his—what they’d had together had been beautiful, precious, and secret. But then, that was the problem wasn’t it? Too many secrets ate away at a man’s soul; Kyle was proof of that. The sharp ache of loss and blame ate at Jed. He’d been the one with the ultimatums and the demands, and if he’d known? If he hadn’t pushed Kyle for more, where would they be now?
And that Connor Graham would come home, the town’s own prodigal gay, and be welcomed with open arms? Jed shuddered, a bolt of loathing working through him, but whether it was aimed at himself or Connor, he wasn’t sure. Everything he admired about Connor, he rejected in himself. He was jealous of Connor’s out-and-proud lifestyle, and he resented that Connor had known Kyle first.
How dare he ask about Kyle, call him a friend, harbor these, these hopes for him—and stay away all those years when Kyle had needed people to love him?
But in spite of his jealousy, he had a bond with Connor now—another gay man here. Jed longed to connect with this stranger who knew more about him than his family did. That made it hard to hold on to jealousy.
“Okay, brother?” Mike glanced across the front seat at him.
“Just s-sad. Thinking about B-B-Bauer.”
“Yeah. Can’t believe he didn’t know. Those two were tight years ago.”
“He’s n-n-not . . . n-not— Fuck.” Jed glared at his brother, willing him to understand the words he couldn’t seem to stammer out: He’s not one of us anymore.
Hannah reached forward from the backseat and patted his shoulder gently. “Shhh, Jedidiah. Take your time.”
“S-sorry for sw-swearing in front of Billy.”
“Billy’s asleep; he didn’t hear anything.”
“W-when he left. C-Connor. He didn’t look back.” Jed sighed at the relief of getting through the words.
“And it’s like he forgot he was ever here?”
“Like w-we forgot too.” Like the whole damn town had forgotten that one time the closet door opened.
Jed stared out the window at the darkened countryside around them; the trees, fields, and old houses loomed, so familiar. They seemed almost alive with their disapproval of his sudden desire to forget and be forgotten. To slip away from family and obligation, to find some little pocket of earth to cultivate somewhere free of the expectations of others. Was it really so wrong to covet the freedom that Connor had?
Hannah’s hand found his shoulder again and gave it a squeeze. He was sure she meant to be reassuring, but for a brief moment, her touch felt like a restraint.
[H]eartwarming, positive, and hopeful. . . . [E]xactly the kind of wish fulfillment romance readers read for.
This is some of North’s best writing. Every word is important, yet without pretention. . . . [Jed and Connor] are permanent residents inside my heart.
[B]eautifully put together. The sweet chapter headings and lovely illustrated blueberries strewn throughout the book made the romantic experience even more charming. Well-paced, wonderful characters, a tender realistic romance with sensual, smoldering sex, plus a lovely layout makes this an A+ book!
This is a 5 Star read for me. It’s going on my comfort re-read pile. It was just beautiful and I can’t recommend it enough.
The connection between the two characters left me breathless and begging for more. I’m a sucker for a good, character-driven story and this one definitely hit the mark.