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After the disastrous ending of his first serious relationship, Gideon Wallace cultivated a protective—but fabulously shiny—outer shell to shield himself from Heartbreak 2.0. Besides, romance is so not a priority for him right now. All his web design prospects have inexplicably evaporated, and to save his fledgling business, he’s been compelled to take a hands-on hardware project—as in, his hands on screwdrivers, soldering irons, and needle-nosed pliers. God. Failure could actually be an option.
Journeyman electrician Alex Henning is ready to leave Gideon twisting in the wind after their run-ins both on and off the construction site. Except, like a fool, he takes pity on the guy and offers to help. Never mind that between coping with his dad’s dementia and clocking all the overtime he can finagle, he has zero room in his life for more complications.
Apparently, an office build-out can lay the foundation for a new relationship. Who knew? But before Alex can trust Gideon with the truth about his fragile family, he has to believe that Gideon’s capable of caring about more than appearances. And Gideon must learn that when it comes to the heart, it’s content—not presentation—that matters.
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Definition: A large, attractive image on a web page, intended to telegraph the site’s content; usually the first visual encountered by a site visitor.
Alex Henning bolted upright in bed, blinking in the dark. What the . . .? Had he been jolted awake by a real noise or a dream noise?
The dim light filtering in from under his bedroom door hadn’t changed. The windows were dark, without a hint of dawn. Hell, his clock’s red numbers read 4:17. Since he’d only gotten to bed a little after one, he had no business being conscious. But . . .
There it is again. A faint scrape and a soft double thump from downstairs, as if—
He launched himself out of bed. Didn’t bother to throw on sweats or a shirt, just flung open his bedroom door and barreled downstairs.
“Aw, fuck me.” The front door stood open, a brisk breeze sending it bouncing between the doorstop and that uneven patch in the floor. He made a mental note that he had to fix that, in the two seconds before he raced out onto the porch.
His father stood at the bottom of the steps, his steel-toed work boots partially laced over his pajama bottoms. Alex’s balls tried to retract, both from the bite of the November wind and the idea of what could have happened if he hadn’t heard that damn noise. Dad, at large in the neighborhood, getting lost in the dark, or—Jesus—wandering out in front of an oncoming truck. Their little side street might be empty this time of night, but the crazy traffic of McLoughlin was only a few blocks away.
His dad didn’t have his coat on—not that Alex did either, not to mention shirt, shoes, or pants. He was clutching something in his hand as he peered around in the wan glow of the streetlights.
Keys. Car keys.
Ice washed through Alex’s gut, making his insides as cold as his naked chest and feet at the picture of his father behind the wheel of a car. He shoved down the instinct to rush his dad like he’d rushed countless quarterbacks back in high school, and padded slowly down the stairs.
No sudden moves. Don’t startle him. Two steps more. One step. Alex wrapped his hand around his dad’s arm and blew out a shuddering breath.
“Hey, Ned.” Gotta remember. Don’t call him “Dad.” Since his father never recognized Alex anymore, it only confused and upset him. Don’t even think of him as “Dad.” “Whatcha doing out here? Little early for our walk.”
“I . . .” Ned blinked up at him, his silvering eyebrows pinched together over his nose. For a second, a spark of recognition flared in those faded brown eyes, and Alex held his breath. Would Ned remember he had a son? A daughter? A wife? Or remain stuck on endless replay of a time only he could see?
“I . . . know you, don’t I?”
Hope fluttered in his chest. “Yeah. Yeah, you do.”
“Hank, isn’t it? You’re on the night crew.”
Jesus Christ, hope sucks. Alex forced a grin, despite his disappointment. I’m on the night crew, all right. Morning, noon, and evening too. Their whole family was. “That’s me.”
Ned chuckled. “Out of uniform, aren’t you? The foreman won’t like that.”
“It’s not time for my shift. Yours either.” A shiver rattled Alex’s teeth. “What say we go inside?”
Ned glanced around again. “I could swear I parked my truck here. Have you seen it, Hank? Blue Chevy?”
”Can’t say I have, but I’m a Dodge man myself. I’ll help you look for it later.” They wouldn’t find it though. That truck had thrown a rod when Alex was four, on the way to pick up his new baby sister from the adoption agency. His dad had run six blocks to flag down a cab so they wouldn’t be late. “Come on. Let’s get inside. Warm up a little.”
Alex tugged on Ned’s arm, urging him back onto the porch. Thank God Ned didn’t struggle. A big, mostly naked, black dude dragging a frail older white guy into a house? Not footage he wanted to see on the nightly news.
He led Ned inside and closed the door, throwing the dead bolt with a vicious twist. Damn useless thing. He’d pick up a bunch of double-keyed locks today. Install ’em on all the doors before he left for his shift this evening.
Beside him, Ned tensed and edged a step closer. “It’s that lady again,” he whispered from the corner of his mouth. “In a nightgown.” The mingled indignation and wonder in his voice wouldn’t be out of place in a junior high cafeteria.
Alex turned around. His mother, Ruth, stood at the foot of the stairs, her shoulders hunched forward as if she were trying to curl into a ball. So wrong. His mom had always been a posture drill sergeant. She ducked her head, knotting the belt of her bathrobe around her waist, but pain pinched the corner of her eyes, and the smile she tried so hard to wear in Ned’s presence wobbled.
Alex had to turn away. “Well, she lives here. She’s allowed.”
Ned shook his head, jaw set in a familiar stubborn line. “It’s not right.” He dropped his gaze to the floor and shuffled his feet before peeking up at her from under his brows. “I mean, I think you’re really pretty . . .”
She made a sound, half-laugh, half-sob, that caught in Alex’s chest like a barbed fishhook. “You always say that.”
“Not right for us to be in the house alone together if we’re not married, though.”
Alex gripped Ned’s shoulder. “You’re not alone. Remember? I live here too. It’s all good. She’s . . . ah . . . the housekeeper. Remember that killer meatloaf you had for dinner?”
“Meatloaf?” Ned blinked. “Not hungry. Why is it dark? I’m tired.”
Thank God. “Let’s get you settled upstairs, then.” Alex led him toward the stairs, the heart-barb digging deeper in his chest when his mom scuttled to one side out of Ned’s line of sight.
He guided Ned into the bedroom, to his side of the queen bed that he slept in alone—his mom had slept in his sister’s old room since the first time Ned had woken in the night and not recognized her.
“Here. Let me help you out of those boots.”
“Not a child,” his father grumbled.
“I know. But no harm taking help when it’s offered, right?”
“I guess.” He coughed. “Thirsty.”
Alex glanced at the glass on the bedside table. Dang. It was empty. “Hold on. I’ll fill this up. Won’t be a jiffy.” He scooted down the hall to the bathroom, sloshed water into the glass, and raced back. As quick as he’d been, though, Ned was faster. He had his boots on again and was halfway to the bedroom door.
“Dad. C’mon, man. Sit down.”
Ned sat on the edge of the bed and accepted the water. “Heh.”
“You called me Dad.”
Shit. “Sorry.” At least Ned was amused this time, not angry the way he sometimes was when Alex tripped up like this.
“You know . . .” Ned’s voice was wistful. He took a sip of water and set the glass on the bedside table. “I always wanted a son.”
Alex’s vision blurred as Ned settled back on the pillows. “Yeah. I know.”
Alex gave the blankets one last tug and switched off the light. Then he took the damn boots downstairs and hid them in the pantry, behind the potatoes.
When he turned around, his mother was standing in the kitchen doorway, her arms wrapped tight across her stomach, her robe’s frayed hem brushing the toes of her slippers.
“Is he . . .?”
“Yeah. He’s fine, other than deciding he’s a vampire or some shit. What’s he doing awake at this hour anyway?”
“The new medication. It affects his sleep cycles.”
“Tell the fool doctor to change it back, then.”
She sank into a chair at the table. “The old one made him too sleepy. He had barely any energy, and his lucidity—”
“You’re a nurse—”
“You still know more than half those idiot doctors at the VA.” Alex yanked open the refrigerator, pulled out a jug of orange juice, and slammed it on the counter. “Tell ’em to fucking figure it out.”
“Sorry, Mom. I’m only . . .” He ran a hand across his head, his skull trim still surprising after all his years with cornrows.
“Tired. Worried. Sad. I know, honey.”
“If I hadn’t—”
“Alex.” Her voice was as sharp as it had been in his crazy high school days. “His condition is not your fault. The connections between head injuries, stroke, and vascular dementia haven’t been proven.”
He braced his hands against the counter. “Exactly. ‘Not proven’ means nobody knows for sure.” If he hadn’t sneaked out to piss around with his first boyfriend instead of painting the porch trim like he’d promised, his dad would never have been up on that ladder. Wouldn’t have fallen off and ended up in the hospital with a skull fracture. Wouldn’t be huddled in his bed now, his family nothing but strangers.
The exasperation on her face was familiar from his dumbass high school days too. “Would you feel better if I said it was your fault?”
His stomach jolted. “No.”
“Well, then.” She stood and padded over to him. “Your father has a degenerative disease, honey. You didn’t cause it, and you can’t fix it.” She squeezed his arm and let go. “None of us can.”
“I know.” He picked up the juice jug, his fist tight around the handle. “Tonight was my fault though. I should have changed those locks months ago. Or put an alarm on the door. If I—”
He fumbled a glass out of the cabinet and dumped in the juice. “Is Aunt Ivy right? Are we fooling ourselves that we can handle his care?”
“Ivy has opinions, I’ll grant you, but that doesn’t mean she knows what’s best.”
“That’s for sure. That nursing home she’s pushing is as depressing as a fucking prison.”
“But I agree about that place—I would never allow it. However, she does have a point. Good care costs money. If—” She cleared her throat. “When the time comes, we might need to sell the Pettygrove house.”
His sister’s home?
“No way.” Not if Alex could help it. Her apartment had been the last project his dad worked on before he’d gotten too sick to handle the tools. His gift to Lin, to compensate for her leaving school for his sake. If Alex could pick up a few more extra shifts, maybe . . . Yeah, and while I’m at it, I’ll add another twenty-four hours to the day so I’ll have time to work them. He knocked back the juice, then forced a confidence he didn’t feel into his tone. “If we can up the rental income—”
“You aren’t thinking about raising Lindsay’s roommates’ rent, are you?”
“No.” He couldn’t, not after the two of them had stood by Lin when her asshole fiancé had dumped her. “But if I get the attic apartment ready over there, and finally renovate the first floor unit, we could—”
“When will you have time for that? You’re already working more than you should.”
“This latest job is swing shift. Five to midnight. So I’ll have all day—”
“Stop. Running yourself into the ground won’t help anyone. You need to decompress, sweetheart, before you explode.”
“Time for that later.” After his father was . . . Nope. He wasn’t thinking about that. Not now. Not ever. “I’ll go over to the Pettygrove house today and suss out what needs to be done. Maybe Dad left things farther along than I remember. I’ll—” He stared at the glass in his hand. What the fuck was he doing again? “No. I’ll go to the hardware store. Get those double-keyed dead bolts. And sandpaper. There’s a spot on the entryway floor that—”
His mom’s light touch on his back stopped him. “Alex. You need to take a deep breath and step back. You can’t do everything.”
“Who else is gonna do it?” He and his dad had always handled repair and maintenance, but Ned was definitely off the crew now.
“All right. Let’s say you can’t do everything at once. Honey, you’ve never handled overwhelm well.”
“Overwhelm? Is that even a noun?”
“It’s a feeling. When you have too many things to do, you can’t do any of them, and when that happens . . .” She bunched her fists, then flicked her fingers out into jazz hands. “Six-month breakdown.”
Alex scowled. “I don’t have six-month breakdowns.”
“Not when you prioritize, so why not let a few things slide and relax a bit? You haven’t taken a day off for ages.”
He set down the glass. “I gotta work when I can, Mom. You never know when the jobs’ll dry up again.”
“I meant a day off from us.”
“I’m here because I want to be. Because you need me to be. Why would I want to be anywhere else?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because you’re a young, very attractive man with a big heart who deserves a little fun. When was the last time you went clubbing?”
Alex rolled his eyes. “I’ve never gone clubbing. It’s not my scene.”
“Then where do you expect to meet any new men? You haven’t dated anybody for ages. At least no one you’ve brought home for us to meet.”
“Not a lot of dating fodder in my work crews.”
“Then what about spending an evening with friends? Your sister has her roommates, but it seems like you never see anyone but us.”
“My circle of friends isn’t huge.”
“What about Landon and his sisters?”
“They’re busy. Their restaurant is the hot new thing.” He hugged her. “I’m not a kid, Mom. I’m almost thirty. You don’t have to take care of me anymore.”
Her smile wobbled and nearly broke his heart. “Maybe.”
No, it was his job now to take care of her. Her, and his sister, and his father, even if his father never recognized him again.
Geekspeak: Hex Codes
Definition: Short for hexadecimal codes, the method for describing colors online.
When his phone chimed with his roommate’s ringtone, Gideon Wallace groaned and flung the blankets off his face. Apparently, sleep was simply not in the cards for him today.
He poked the Answer icon with extreme prejudice. “A gracious good morning to you, Charles, and why aren’t you languishing in bed with your boyfriend?”
“G? Sorry, I—I expected to get your voice mail. Isn’t it your spin class day?”
“Yes. However, I feel unequal to my usual performance, and if I can’t win, I don’t want to be on the board.”
Charlie chuckled. “Up late last night, were you?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.” Although not for the reason she’d no doubt assumed. He hadn’t been able to resist getting a head start on his new project—like, oh, maybe a third of the whole freaking design, but who was counting? It had kept him up until nearly four o’clock.
She made an apologetic noise. “I’ll call back later if you want to catch a little more sleep.”
Heavy footsteps clanked across the ceiling, as they’d been doing for the last half hour. He scowled and retreated under the blankets. “No point. Our attic has apparently been infested by giant steampunk cockroaches. They’ve been practicing their line dancing all morning. Be glad you spent the night at Daniel’s.”
“Yes. Well. Um . . .” He could practically hear her blush over the phone. “The thing is, it’s a special day, G.”
Gideon wiggled with anticipation. “Yes, indeedy. First day of a shiny new assignment.” And not a moment too soon. In July, he’d had lovely web design projects stacked up like planes over O’Hare, but one by one, they’d vanished like his vain hope for a second season of Firefly. Now he was one rent payment away from flat broke.
“Let me guess. Although the contract hasn’t been signed yet, you’ve already started development.”
“And your point is?”
“That maybe you shouldn’t jump the gun? Again?”
“Darling, maybe other hard-core geeks can while away their nonworking hours dinking around and posting NSFW gifs to their Tumblr accounts, but I can only stand so much of that virtual jacking off before I fling my keyboard at the wall. Besides, my concept for this design is stunning, if I do say so myself. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
“You won’t bombard me with hex codes for the color scheme this time, will you?”
“Why not? I know you love it when I speak geek.” He lowered his voice. “Roses are #cd3700. Violets are #483d8b. Sugar is—”
“How in the world do you manage to remember all those?”
“I have an excellent eye for color and my memory is perfect. Come on. What’s #8b2500?”
She snorted. “I can’t begin to guess. I know black. That’s about it.”
“Everybody knows black. It’s a hashtag and six zeroes. But you should remember this one. It’s your hair color.”
“I’ll make a note of it.” She took a deep breath. “Since you’re up—”
“Correction. I’m awake. I wasn’t up, but for you, my darling, I begrudge no effort.”
“Your new project—that’s not the special day I meant. It’s November fourth.”
Gideon closed his eyes, a shudder traveling from his tailbone to his neck. “Please, Charles. You know I refuse to acknowledge the existence of the N month. If I had my way, all mention of it would be stricken from the calendar. I prefer to think of this month as October, the sequel.”
“So today is—”
“Without November, there’d be no Thanksg—”
“Pfft. We do not speak of the holiday-that-must-not-be-named.”
“Really, G? You won’t even say it?”
“Names have power. It’s a branding thing, and I should know. That’s why I make the big bucks.” When I make any at all.
“Surely it’s not that bad.”
“Setting aside its eventual implications to the Native American population, it’s hyped as a day for family, with promo chock-full of sentimental heart-cockle-warming crapola. Puh-lease. When was the last time you had a halfway happy day with your family when you were required to be thankful or else?”
“But without Thanksg—”
“Sorry. Without the holiday-that-must-not-be-named, there’d be no Black Friday.”
True. And he did love to shop. By then, he might actually have enough money in the bank to replenish his sadly neglected wardrobe. With zero positive cash flow, he hadn’t bought a new shirt since August.
Charlie said something, but more clonks on the ceiling drowned out her words. Forget cockroaches. We’ve been invaded by mechanical elephants.
“Sorry, Charles. What was that?”
“I said happy birthday.”
Panic pooled in Gideon’s belly. “My birthday was last week, you silly girl, on October thirtieth. We had cake. And a male stripper.”
“Go ahead and pretend for Lindsay and Toshiko, but do you really think you can hide a fundamental data point like that from me? I’ve known for years.”
“So why didn’t you out me?”
“I figured you had your reasons. But this year . . . seems like you need the extra TLC, even if it’s just acknowledgment. I know you hate to be ignored.”
“I—” The phone beeped with an incoming text, and he peeked at it.
You free tonight, G?
God. Travis Beatty, one of his ex-hookups who would not take the fucking hint. Talk about clueless. “One sec, Charles. I’m putting you on hands-free.”
“Why? Are you sexting while we speak?”
“I would never. After we speak, perhaps, but never during, and never ever with this guy. It’s Travis.”
“Lord, G. You’re not going out with him again, are you?”
“Don’t insult me, Charles. You know my rule.”
“Which one? There are so many.”
“Oh, ha-very-ha.” He tapped out Can’t talk. On the phone with Charles. “Two-date maximum.” Anything more and the guy got delusional and started to expect things Gideon was not prepared to deliver. Affection. Commitment. Butt sex. God. “Travis hit his expiration date two months ago.”
“Good. He gives me the creeps.”
“I’ll admit he’s a little intense, and has an overinflated opinion of his influence in the Portland business community—my own shiny corner thereof in particular.” That was why Gideon had agreed to the second date, despite Travis’s tedious and continual name-dropping. Huge mistake. “But ‘the creeps’ is a tad hyperbolish, don’t you think? I don’t date creepy guys.”
“No. You date yourself.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You only go out with men who look like you. Autoeroticism raised to the nth degree.”
“Travis, need I remind you, is blond, not a raven-haired beauty such as myself.” An extra-sharp distinction lately, since Gideon hadn’t been able to afford his usual highlights after his business’s unexpected economic downturn. “Choosing partners with the same dimensions and aspect ratio is simply convenient and efficient. The important bits line up so much better that way.”
His phone pinged. Who’s Charles? You seeing someone else already?
God, Travis even whined in his texts. Actually, I kind of live with Charles. “Never change your name, darling. It’s sooo useful.” Must dash. Business meeting. TTFN
“I’ve got to run, G, but I wanted to wish you—”
“Yes.” His voice came out harsher than he’d intended, but drawing the attention of the cosmos during October-the-sequel never turned out well. “It feels like I never see you anymore, darling girl. So next week, I’m taking you and Lin out for dinner. It’ll be a roommate reunion. My treat. And what the heck—let’s invite Toshiko too. Knowing her, she’d probably activate her inner tricorder and show up anyway.”
“Okay. But you don’t have to—”
“Nonsense. Of course I do.” Clank-clank-clank-clank clonk. Good God. “Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have a mechanical elephant to slay. Arrivederci, my darling.”
Gideon tossed the blankets aside and jumped out of bed. Whoever was tromping around up there should have more consideration than to wake people up with the steel-drum version of Riverdance. There were landlord-tenant covenants that covered this stuff, damn it. True, Charlie wasn’t home, Lindsay had probably left for work an hour ago, and in the usual scheme of things, Gideon would be halfway through his regular spin class by now, but the battle droid upstairs wouldn’t know that.
He muttered curses to himself as he dressed and completed his minimum personal grooming. No need to go to extremes to confront the elephant, but he had his standards.
Gideon stormed upstairs, prepared to use Lindsay’s name in vain—You realize the landlord’s daughter lives downstairs, don’t you?—if it meant vanquishing the insensitive cretin who had released Mechagodzilla to trample across his ceiling.
The door to the attic apartment was ajar. Gideon thrust it open and stomped inside.
“Have you no respect for . . .” His gaze traveled up and up and OMG up. He wished for a mechanical elephant. He wished for a plague of carnivorous locusts. He wished he’d minded his own freaking business and rocked the noise-canceling headphones.
Because God. He was face to . . . to crotch with a fricking giant. The man in the middle of the room had massive shoulders, biceps straining the sleeves of his Henley, a chest twice the width of Gideon’s. He’d be huge if he were standing on the floor, but the floor wasn’t good enough for this guy. Oh no. He had fricking two-foot metal stilts strapped to his feet. He looked like half an Imperial Walker.
Gideon’s reptile brain fired a flight response for all it was worth, urging immediate retreat. But years of self-preservation as the skinny gay geek had taught him at least one thing: never back down. The instant you displayed your soft underbelly (not that Gideon’s belly was ever soft), you were toast. So he invoked Wallace Rule of Engagement number two.
The best defense is to be as offensive as possible.
Definition: Junk; superfluous, outdated, or dysfunctional elements in computer software; bad code.
When the furious man burst into the room, Alex instinctively took a step back—Jesus, never back up in drywall stilts—and lost his balance. He dropped his mudding knife and managed to save himself by bracing one hand on the ceiling and another on the scaffolding next to the wall.
Once his heart was convinced he wasn’t about to fall on his ass, it slowed down enough for him to get royally pissed and ready to tell the asshole off. Because who the hell charged into a place uninvited like that?
He glared down at the guy, and—
Holy fucking shit. Gideon Wallace.
Although he’d never officially met his sister’s roommate, Alex had seen Gideon once at Lin’s twenty-first birthday party while she was still in college in Eugene. The guy was exactly the type that Alex always made a fool of himself over: Gideon had that extra spark, that gleam in his eyes, the flirty wiggle in his ass that said You know you want to tap this.
They’d stood next to each other in the kitchen for about ten seconds. Alex had been loading the last of the beer into the fridge before he took off to let Lin enjoy her party with her friends. Gideon had excused himself and grabbed two beers, hardly glancing at Alex, but their arms had brushed. There’d been a definite tingle, at least on Alex’s part. He’d almost broken his resolution never to interfere with his sister’s life in order to follow Gideon across the room.
Then Gideon had handed one of the beers to a guy who could have been his double, going by size and clothing, and Alex had given it up as a no-chance-in-hell thing.
Gideon was way out of his league.
Not long after that party, Ned had been diagnosed, Lindsay had left school to get a job in Portland, and their lives had become all about their dad’s illness.
Even though Gideon had moved in with Lin after he’d graduated, she’d kept her life with him and Charlie compartmentalized, careful to shield their dad, and by extension the rest of the family, from any contact that might go south. But Alex had never forgotten that tingle. Whenever he’d had an errand to run at the Pettygrove house—a minor repair or something to drop off for Lin—he’d hoped for another glimpse. Nada. Not in four fricking years. What were the odds of that?
Lin had a ton of pictures of the guy, though, and she’d shared them—not with him, for some reason, but with their mom, who’d shared them with Alex.
From the pictures, he’d been able to tell that Gideon still had that wicked glint in his eyes, that don’t-shit-with-me attitude with an overtone of princess that had made Alex laugh at the same time it’d tightened his groin.
Face-to-face with Gideon now, it was clear the pictures hadn’t done him justice. He’d put on a little more muscle through the shoulders and arms since that long-ago party. Not that he was beefy or anything. More like . . . matured. Back then, he’d been barely twenty-one. At twenty-five? Hot damn, Skippy.
“Hey.” He gave Gideon his best grin, the one his first boyfriend had claimed was his finest above-the-waist feature.
Gideon glared at him over the top of glasses with frames the color of basketballs. “It’s barely seven o’clock. Do I need to remind you of tenants’ rights?”
“You’re required to notify us twenty-four hours in advance before engaging in . . .” He flicked his fingers at the stilts. “Death-metal role-playing. My roommate happens to be the daughter of the landlord, and if you don’t desist, we will report you and you’ll never work for him again.”
Alex’s grin faded. Gideon didn’t remember him.
Granted, it had only been ten seconds at a noisy party, and they hadn’t been introduced. For all he knew, Lin had never told her roommates that she had a brother. Not like anyone could tell by looking at them, given Lindsay’s blue-eyed blonde cuteness, and his own dark skin, broad cheekbones, and skull trim. Oh, yeah. Twins.
“I’m sure.” Gideon turned around and zoomed out of the room as fast as he’d entered it.
Alex stared after him for a full minute, the back of his throat burning. Why did it bother him so much that he didn’t rate at least a shard of Gideon’s memory? By now, he was a fucking expert at being forgotten.
Anger welled up from his belly to his chest like lava about to blow. He slammed his hand against the scaffold frame, and a box of drywall screws skittered to the edge of the staging plank and fell, exploding all over the floor.
He sat on the plank to take off the stilts so he could sweep up before he slipped and broke his neck.
No matter what his mom said, decompressing—if she meant letting his temper loose like this—never made him feel better. It only gave him more shit to clean up.
* * * * * * *
Gideon hustled down the stairs as if the zombie hordes were on his heels, locked the apartment door behind him, and nearly sprinted to his room. He locked that door too.
God. Size absolutely matters.
Last time he’d been alone with someone that large had been on the holiday-that-must-not-be-named when he was a senior in high school, right after he’d turned eighteen. He’d learned his lesson after that debacle: stay far, far away from any man orders of magnitude bigger than himself, no matter how hot.
It had been two years after his father had announced his bankruptcy while hacking away at overcooked turkey. One year after his mother had taken the pumpkin pies out of the oven and hightailed it into the sunset with a personal injury lawyer.
He should have known that after that track record, T-day would never treat him right.
But despite his mother’s abandonment, despite his father’s descent into alcohol-soaked apathy, he’d been determined to make the day special that year, the way it was supposed to be. He’d staged the whole dinner—and his turkey was not dry, thank you very much—because his gorgeous boyfriend, polished by half a semester at college on a football scholarship, had been coming home for the holiday.
“I’ve met guys . . . you know . . . like us, G,” Mark had murmured into the phone on one of their late-night phone calls. “They’ve told me everything. Everything. And I . . .” Mark’s gulp had been clearly audible. “We’re gonna do it.”
Gideon’s gawky teenage heart had been thrilled at the news, because Mark was obviously talking about sex. The real stuff. Something other than the clumsy handjobs or mostly clothed frotting that was all they’d managed in the few weeks at the end of the summer when Mark had finally peeked out of his testosterone-fortified closet.
Gideon should have taken time off from his pathetic lovestruck daydreaming to do the research on his own, because unfortunately for him, Mark hadn’t been told enough. Gideon had capped his holiday with a visit to the ER—alone, because Mark had blamed him for the fiasco, and his father had been passed out in front of the TV. And that lecture on the dangers of sodomy from the doctor whose Hippocratic oath had probably been administered by Hippocrates himself? Icing on the disaster cake.
I can’t believe I was ever so stupidly trusting—with an emphasis on the stupid. He’d known his boyfriend’s IQ down to the decimal. He should have realized Mark would have incomplete data, wouldn’t be the expert he claimed, especially since his alleged expertise had been all hearsay. Gideon should have done his own research—after all, it was his ass.
Well, never again. No man could expect to get near said ass without a goddamn gold medal in fucking, validated by notarized affidavits from at least three satisfied partners of Gideon’s exact dimensions.
And that man upstairs? He might have a thousand-watt smile and cheekbones chiseled by an especially talented god, but he was so far outside acceptable comfort parameters that—
Shame sent heat rushing up Gideon’s neck. God, overreacting much, you drama queen? It’s not as if Half-a-Walker had made a pass at him, for pity’s sake. Hell, if they’d met someplace where they weren’t completely alone—in a club, say, or when he had his besties at his back—Gideon might have been the one to make the move. Set flirting superpowers on stun; charm all and sundry, then make a rapid—but fabulously smooth—getaway. Instead, thanks to the safety subroutine hard-coded in his psyche that day in the hospital, he’d acted like a giant douche bag.
Effing knee-jerk reactions. It seemed like no matter how hard he tried to get over the past, it still had a death grip on his balls. To this day—now, for instance—he broke out in an unflattering sweat whenever he remembered what a man that big could do to him. How easily he could be overpowered.
As he blotted the unsightly perspiration off his forehead with the hem of his T-shirt, the ping of an incoming high-priority email chimed on his laptop and phone simultaneously. Please don’t let it be Travis again. He snatched up his phone.
Not Travis, thank God, but HouseMatters, his new client. If they needed to move up the project kickoff meeting any earlier today, Gideon would have barely enough time to shower and dress. He opened the message.
Dear Mr. Wallace,
We regret to inform you that we have decided to postpone our website redesign indefinitely. Should we put the project back in our budget, you will be notified and allowed to submit a new bid at that time.
Wait. What? This was a done deal. Well, almost. He’d hammered out the contract details with the project manager. All that remained were the final signatures. Which now would not be forthcoming.
Gideon’s breath sped up. His knees gave out, and he collapsed onto the edge of his bed. No, no, no. This can’t be happening. This job had been his only option. His last resort. God, he was project-less again, the bane of the self-employed.
As he stared at the email, another message hit his inbox, this one from a referral service he’d used in the past. He opened it immediately. Please, please, please, be something that’ll keep the roof over my head and ramen in the cupboard.
An interview. Yes! As he read the project description, though, a weight settled in his middle as if he’d eaten lead pancakes for breakfast.
Network configuration. Hardware preparation. Server installation. What was the service thinking? He was a web designer and there wasn’t a single— Ah. There.
Upon successful completion of the hardware and networking phase, the contractor may propose on the web redesign and an e-commerce site for the company.
What the effing eff? They expected one guy to do everything—network, hardware, web design, and e-commerce? Good lord, IT wasn’t a one-size-fits-all designation. There were specializations, for pity’s sake, and his specialization covered exactly zero of the items in the main project.
Why had the referral service sent this job to him? Was it because of that one reference to web design, the carrot at the end of the hardware-installation stick?
The looming doom of rent and loan payments prompted him to scan the specification again. So the tasks were a lot more hands-on than his usual jobs—as in his hands on screwdrivers, needle-nosed pliers, and soldering irons—but how hard could they be? Guys who had nothing but vocational-school training did this stuff every day, didn’t they? He’d done a hardware practicum himself in school. Under extreme duress and with a high volume of creative bitching, but he’d done it.
Besides, he was Gideon Wallace, the man who could talk himself out of any given corner. It’d be a challenge, right? He never backed down from one of those. So what if he was a skosh underqualified?
“Close enough.” He crossed his fingers and accepted the interview.
Geekspeak: Bad Neighborhood
Definition: Websites/host servers engaged in questionable practices, such as spamming; other websites can be associated with a bad neighborhood by including outbound links to blacklisted sites.
Alex showed up at the jobsite a full hour and a half before his shift, mentally rehearsing his speech to the foreman. Extra shifts, Manny. I can handle as many as you’ll throw at me. No problem. He hoped it would sound better when he said it than it did in his head.
As he was about to step into the service elevator in the Haynes building parking level, someone punched his biceps.
“Dude.” Landon, his best friend since grade school, braced his hands on the doors, holding them open. “I’ve been yelling at you for five minutes. Your hard-on for power tools finally made you deaf?”
“Jesus, man. How tall are you to have an arm span like that?”
“Tall enough to reach the expensive spices on the top shelf.”
Alex shoved Landon’s shoulder. “Move. You’ll set off the alarm.”
“Then get your ass over here and talk to me.” Landon stood aside, gesturing for Alex to join him in the garage.
Since Landon never took “fuck off” for an answer, Alex sighed and stepped out, the elevator doors sliding shut behind him. “What are you doing down here anyway? You’re the head honcho. Aren’t you allowed to use the front door?”
“Had a catering delivery.” Landon gestured to the Downstairs Downtown van parked in the loading bay. “How long have you been on the job in this building?”
“Couple of weeks. Why?”
“Why?” Landon smacked him on the back of the head. “Because you haven’t dropped by the restaurant once.”
“I’m working swing. I start before dinner service and quit after you close.”
Landon crossed his arms. “That’s the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard. You get a meal break, don’t you? Besides, we’re here until after midnight every night. Would it kill you to stop in?”
“You own the hottest upscale restaurant in town, man. You don’t want me in there.”
“Because I look like the guy you’d call in to fix a health department infraction.”
“Bullshit. We don’t have a fucking dress code. You’re always welcome.”
“You say that, but you’ve gotta think about your rep.”
“My rep can survive even you, but come in the back if you’re that paranoid.” He pointed to a pair of double doors across the loading bay. “Through there. First left. Hit the buzzer in our old morse code and you’re in.”
Landon gave him the Clint Eastwood squint-eye. “You can’t con me, Henning. I know what you’re doing. You’re battening down the hatches, just like you always used to. Whenever you got buried under a pile of shit, you’d turn ghost on me. No after-curfew visits. No plans to smuggle a goat into the principal’s office. No wild schemes to crash the latest party too exclusive to invite us.”
Alex squeezed the back of his neck. “Sorry, man. Don’t have a lot of extra time these days.”
“Shit, Alex. You might as well trade in that muscle car of yours for a used minivan, because you’ve turned into a pathetic old geezer.” Landon poked him in the chest. “If you don’t show up in the next three days, I’m siccing Caitlyn on you.”
“I’m saying. Gordon Ramsay’s got nothing on my baby sister.”
Alex punched the button to call the elevator. “No need to call out the big guns. I promise I’ll stop by, but now I gotta catch my boss before shift. Later?”
“You’d better.” Landon held up a fist, and Alex bumped it with his own. “I don’t want you to dis me because I’m a success. Reverse discrimination, dude. Not cool.”
Unfortunately, the ride up to the sixteenth floor gave Alex the chance to obsess again about his speech to Manny. He hated begging. Fucking hated it. But he needed the goddamn money.
He passed under the hole in the ceiling where a new staircase would connect to the executive offices the next flight up. Half of this floor was masked with temporary walls, to protect the existing offices in the northwest corner from construction chaos. The other half was a forest of bare metal studs and mountains of building materials. Stacks of drywall, bundles of insulation, and spools of cable vied with mounds of debris from the demolition of the old office structures.
The ad hoc construction office was tucked in a corner that would morph into a storage closet in the last phase of the project. Manny was standing in the middle of the room, scowling at the clipboard in his hands.
Alex cleared his throat, and his boss glanced up.
“Ha. Perfect timing. Help me with this, will you?” Manny tossed his clipboard on a stack of boxes and nodded at a sheet of plywood leaning against the wall. Alex lifted one end, and the two of them maneuvered the wood over a pair of sawhorses.
Manny hefted the massive cylinder of plans and unrolled them on the makeshift table. “Why’re you here so early anyway? Got something on your mind? Other guys giving you crap?”
“Nah. We’re cool. Did you . . . ah . . . Did you get my request for extra shifts?”
Manny pushed the bill of his hard hat back with a stubby index finger. “Listen, kid—”
“I’m nearly thirty and I’ve got a foot of height on you. Don’t you think I’ve graduated from kid status by now?”
Manny’s eyes narrowed. “Wouldn’t matter if you were eighty and as tall as the Wells Fargo Center. Far as I’m concerned, you’re still the pain-in-the-ass kid who ate all the xiao long bao at every one of my Chinese New Year parties, while he waited for a chance to fleece the other kids out of their red envelope money.”
“Hey, I won that money fair and square. Besides, I always gave it back.”
“Yeah. I know.” Manny sighed. “You’re a good worker, Alex. Your father’s a good man, and it’s a damn shame what’s happened to him. And me? I’m not gonna be the guy who works his son into an on-the-job accident. Understand?”
Alex couldn’t help the resentment swirling in his belly. First his mom trying to babysit him, and now Manny. People should trust him to handle his own shit. “Sure, but—”
“I’ll toss you the odd OT, but extra shifts? Nope. Not gonna happen.”
Piddly random overtime wouldn’t do squat, not against the financial shit-storm gathering around his family. “Please—”
“Sorry, son, but that’s my last word.” Manny passed him a sheaf of papers. “Here. I was gonna have Cal take care of this, but since you want the time, go ahead and clock in early. Run this over to your fan club at the permit office and get them to sign off on it, okay?”
“I—” Alex dropped his gaze, the pity in Manny’s eyes unraveling his temper. It’s not his duty to fix our problems. That’s on me. “Sure, Manny.”
“Better move your ass though. They might like you better than Cal, but even you won’t be able to sweet-talk them into a signature if you get there past five.”
Take what you can get and shut the fuck up, Henning. OT is better than nothing. He forced a grin. “Care to place a bet on that?”
A poignant, thought-provoking love story on many levels.