Midlife Crisis

Midlife Crisis by Audra North
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-645-3
eBook release: 
Aug 28, 2017
eBook Formats: 
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Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-668-2
Print release: 
Aug 28, 2017
Word count: 
55,100
Page count: 
221
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Cam McGhee grew up like any other small-town Texas farm boy: he played football, went to church every Sunday, and married his high school sweetheart. But thirty-five years after he said "I do," Cam finds himself nursing a beer in a gay bar, thinking about what might have been.

Dave Montoya is confident, self-assured, and cautiously single. But when he meets shy, uncertain, and clearly-still-not-out Cam in a coffee shop in Austin, his reservations about getting seriously involved again disappear. Cam is everything he’s looking for in a partner . . . almost, anyway.

No matter how much Dave wants him, and how good they are together, Cam can't bring himself to openly embrace the life he was meant to live. After all, when his secret finally gets out, he faces the very real possibility of losing everything that kept him going for the first fifty years of his life, just like he’s feared for so long. But with a little faith—and a lot of love—his dream of living fully, truly, as himself might finally be within reach.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

At the front end of the bar, Cam McGhee sat huddled over a bottle of Shiner, trying to ignore his discomfort.

Perhaps some part of his subconscious was trying to make sure everyone else in here knew he didn’t belong. Maybe that was why he’d chosen to sit in the one place that meant braving the blast of chilly air that blew in every time someone walked through the front door. Or why he was scratching at the corner of the label of his beer bottle instead of sipping highballs like the other men in the bar.

Then again, he hadn’t worked up the nerve to take his eyes off the longneck to check if anyone was so much as looking in his general direction, so how would he know for sure?

As it was, Cam’s behavior on this—his first time in a gay bar—was remarkably similar to how he acted at Rex’s place back home. Nothing remarkable, much less worth even a passing glance.

Which was why it surprised him when a slender blond in a pair of tight rocker jeans and a sheer white T-shirt sidled up to him on the neighboring stool.

“Hey there.” The stranger’s voice was neither high nor low—unlike Cam’s gravelly baritone—and, at first, Cam thought he was a kid. The guy was dressed like he wasn’t more than Elijah’s age, anyway. But when Cam turned his head to look more closely, the overhead lighting flickered for a moment over a web of fine lines around blue eyes, a slight droop along the blond’s jawline. Cam guessed the man was in his midthirties. Still twenty years younger than Cam, but not knee-jerk-recoil young.

“Hi,” Cam managed to reply, lifting his bottle and tipping it slightly toward his new neighbor. The corner of the label curled down, the paper half-pulled from the glass, which made him frown. Next to this slick-haired, sparkling man-boy, the ravaged label looked out of place. Hell, he looked out of place. He’d known that already, but for the first time since he’d walked in, it dawned on him that he stood out much more than he’d initially believed. No one else was wearing anything even remotely similar to navy-blue Dickies and a long-sleeved chambray button-down. There were a few other African-American men, several others with graying hair, but despite his ability to find those similarities in the crowd, he knew he didn’t blend in.

The people here all looked so . . . city.

“I’m Alex,” the blond said, leaning slightly toward Cam for a moment before drawing back. A not-quite shoulder bump.

Was that supposed to be in lieu of a handshake? Cam wasn’t sure. Everything felt impossibly foreign to him.

“Cam.” His shoulders didn’t budge.

But Alex didn’t seem to notice, or maybe he simply didn’t care, since he grinned and followed up with a sly look and slight smoothing of his voice when he asked, “Are you new in town? I’ve never seen you in here before.”

Cam nodded. “Been here a week.”

Alex laughed, which confused Cam, because he didn’t think he’d said anything particularly funny. Maybe this was flirting. What would he know about it, anyway? He’d never really flirted with anyone. Not even his wife.

“I like your accent. Where you from?” Alex looked at Cam curiously over the rim of his glass as he took a sip. Alex had slim wrists. Slim, but still masculine, the sharp bones and stark veins covered with fine gold hairs that meandered up the back of his hand. The sleek, edgy look hadn’t been doing much for Cam, but those wrists sure did.

He made a small sound and shrugged. “Nowhere near here.” Last week he’d made the five-hour drive from Bitter, a rural, predominantly black farming town of six thousand people, to this crowded, bustling city, the bed of his truck packed with two serviceable suitcases and an assortment of power tools.

But he didn’t feel like sharing that. Bitter was too small a place to go telling everyone in the wider world that he was from there.

“Texas, though, right?” Alex didn’t seem to mind Cam’s reticence, and Cam found himself increasingly grateful that someone else was dogged determined enough to carry this one through. Maybe he’d get what he came for tonight, after all.

Cam nodded.

“I always had a thing for country boys,” Alex told him, and Cam nearly choked on the swig of beer he was taking. Alex grinned as though he knew he was saying disconcerting things—and liked it. “What brings you to Austin?”

Cam plunked the bottle back down on the bar. “Taking a vacation.” He thought about stopping his reply, but figured he’d been taciturn enough already. He didn’t want to drive Alex away. It wasn’t likely to get much easier than this. “I’m here for a few months, taking a sabbatical of sorts.”

Alex’s eyebrows went up. “Are you a professor or something?”

Cam laughed at that. Hardly. “Nah. Just been working too hard for too long. I needed a break.” That was true, though not really the reason for getting away from Bitter. “What do you do?”

“I’m in finance.” Alex sat up straighter, and Cam assumed this meant that his job was something to be proud of. “I do investments, a lot of private portfolios, that kind of thing.”

“Sounds interesting.”

Alex nodded. “It is. The first ten years were intense but lucrative. Now it’s just as exciting, but I don’t have to bust my ass eighty hours a week anymore. That’s for the junior-level schmucks.” His chuckle was nasty and off-putting, but there was something oddly sexy about the way his hair glinted in the bar lights. He was a pretty, if slightly tarnished, white boy.

Cam decided to focus on that.

“So, what are you here for tonight, Cam?” Alex was fingering the rim of his glass and looking up at Cam through his lashes. Pretty.

Arousal hit hard, nearly making Cam grunt with the unexpected force of it. “Something different, I guess. Exploring.”

“I’m up for something different too,” Alex purred. Even in the low light, it was impossible to mistake the greedy hunger in his eyes in response to Cam’s words, and Cam immediately wished he could take them back. Alex wasn’t his type; he already knew that without going any further. But it had already taken so much to come this far tonight, and he had a goal.

He wanted his first kiss with another man to be over and done with.

Speaking of . . . Alex was already leaning forward, his lips coming together, coming toward Cam’s.

Cam jerked back with a slight shake of his head. “Not here.”

Over and done with didn’t mean public.

Alex grinned. “You want to go somewhere more private?”

Yes. No. I don’t know. He steeled himself against the surge of doubt that threatened to knock him over. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

His stomach clenched, feeling unnaturally full of nothing. He took one last swig of his beer, trying to stuff the discomfort out of himself, pushed cash toward the bartender, and followed Alex toward the exit.

Outside the bar, it was shockingly quiet. Alex turned to Cam, slid a hand up his arm, and squeezed the muscle with a murmur of appreciation. “My place?”

Cam nodded, unable to find his voice.

Alex didn’t miss a beat, though. “I live just a couple blocks over.” He pointed downtown toward Second Street. “Are you parked nearby? You can bring your car to my garage if you want.”

Cam shook his head. “I’m in the lot over on Eighth. It’s not much farther. No need to drive over.” He blinked. Given the confusion knocking his brain around, it was strange to find that words were actually coming out of his mouth in some reasonable facsimile of conversation.

One more arm squeeze and Alex jerked his head toward the direction he’d pointed earlier and started walking. The clip-clop of their shoes was the only sound between them as they covered the block.

“Do you always wear cowboy boots?” Walking side by side in the streetlamp-lit low light, Cam couldn’t see Alex’s face, but it sounded like he was laughing, and Cam found himself smiling back. The weird cramp in his gut was slowly dissipating as he walked, and by the time they reached the crosswalk, he was feeling more in control.

He told himself that going home with Alex was a good thing. It was a good plan. They’d . . . well, they’d probably do a bit more than kissing, but that was okay. Being able to say he’d done it would go a long way toward settling the deeper unrest he’d been experiencing since LaVerne passed.

The WALK sign lit up. “I only wear them on Sundays and when I go out somewhere nice,” he admitted as they crossed the street. “Most of the time it’s steel-toed Carhartts.”

On the opposite corner, Alex stopped and turned to stare at Cam. “Wait. You’re telling me . . . Are those your church shoes?”

Cam shifted back and forth on the shoes in question. “I guess you could call them that.”

Alex let out a hoot and shook his head. “Definitely something different.”

Before Cam could think of a response, Alex was moving forward again, flipping a sultry look over his shoulder at Cam. “Come on, cowboy. Let’s go exploring.”

* * * * * * *

Cam wrung his hands and swallowed hard against the acidic, explosive feeling trying to race up out of his esophagus. The burning sensation had come back with a vengeance the second he’d stepped foot in Alex’s apartment.

Alex had offered him a drink, but Cam had declined. Then Alex had excused himself to go to the bathroom, and Cam had been left alone in the living room, staring out at the skyline of Austin, with its myriad of twinkling lights. The place was decorated in sleek, modern lines—exactly the way Alex dressed. Cam wondered for a second whether Alex would wind up camouflaged if he sat down on the couch.

It was a nice place. Definitely one of the nicest apartments he’d ever seen. But it didn’t feel particularly welcoming or relaxing, and that wasn’t helping the twisting feeling in his gut.

He caught his reflection in the wall-to-wall windows, a blur of blue and shadow, and he moved closer to the shimmery image, pulled by some unknown motive.

That was when Alex came out of the bathroom, and Cam turned at the sound of the door clicking open to see him walk into the living room, holding something flat on his palm. Looked like a thin metal square with a funny pile of something on top.

“Great view, isn’t it?” Alex jerked his chin toward the windows, but didn’t bother waiting for an answer before setting the thing he was holding on the glass coffee table, looking up at Cam, and gesturing toward what Cam could now see was a small tray with a bunch of white powder on top. “Want some?”

Did he? Cam felt like the world’s biggest idiot. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from scratching his head in confusion and looking like a complete yokel. “That depends. What is it?”

Alex laughed, and Cam tried not to cringe. It was a sweetly patronizing laugh, one that found innocence so novel as to be entertaining. Maybe, to some, the sentiment would be net positive, but the general indulgence with which Alex was treating him was starting to rankle.

None of which was helping the unsettled feeling in Cam’s stomach.

“It’s blow.” Alex let out a truncated giggle before clarifying. “Cocaine, man.”

“I don’t under—” Cam’s brain caught up. “It’s drugs?”

His disapproval must have been more than clear in his tone, because Alex was now frowning.

“You gonna call the cops?” Alex sounded belligerent, and Cam’s unease grew. A moment ago, the blond had been giggling. Now he seemed . . . tense. It felt alarmingly unnatural.

Cam shook his head. He felt sick. “No. But I have to go.”

He started to walk toward the door, and Alex turned wheedling. “Hey, look, you don’t have to do it. I can put it away. It was just to spice things up. Put a little extra edge in. You said you wanted something different.”

Cam was already at the door, and half turned to answer. “It’s—” he gestured toward the pile of white on the table “—more than that.”

“What the fuck? You’re leaving me like this?” Alex sneered. “I thought we were gonna fuck!”

Oh, sweet Jesus.

That definitely wasn’t what he’d signed up for. “Thank you for having me over.” Some stupid ingrained country-boy manners made him say it even as he flung the door open with so much force that it nearly hit the wall behind him, and stepped over the threshold.

“Fuck you, you cock-teasing hillbilly,” Alex spat.

For a second, Cam hunched, thinking that everyone on the floor had just heard Cam McGhee being called out on his secret. But the periodically placed sconces provided enough light to prove that there was no one else out in the hallway at this time of night.

Who would know him here, anyway?

He didn’t bother shutting the door behind him, but strode quickly toward the stairs next to the elevator, away from Alex, who was still standing in the doorway, backlit by that sleekly unwelcoming apartment. Cam pushed through the heavy fire door like a bulldozer and took the stairs two at a time. He burst out of the exit at the bottom, finding himself not in the lobby, but outside. A welcome relief. At least he wouldn’t have to face the doorman in his jumbled-up state.

He kept walking swiftly for another block before it dawned on him that there was no reason to rush. Alex wasn’t following him.

As he headed to the parking lot, his racing thoughts slowly calmed. By the time he reached his truck, his stomach felt back to normal too.

Well. Tonight certainly had been something different, though not in the way Cam had expected or hoped for. Alex had called him a cock-tease. Cam McGhee, the staid owner-operator of McGhee Feed & Grain, had been called something he never in his life expected to hear associated with his name.

He imagined the reaction from the guys at Rex’s if word ever got out about what had happened tonight, and he couldn’t help it. Shutting himself in the cab of his truck, he started to giggle, then realized he sounded exactly like Alex had. He was so keyed up that the thought made him explode into full-bodied laughter as he sat behind the wheel, until he’d laughed away the last of the nerves, started up the ignition, and drove away from this disaster of a night.

* * * * * * *

1979

Cam knew he had to stop watching Albert Clark, but he was having a hell of a time pulling his eyes away from the sweating, shirtless quarterback of their high school football team.

He had to stop taking risks, but it was as though his dick had a mind of its own.

It wasn’t safe, though. He’d already been caught staring last week, when he’d been shoulder-punched by Trey Mooney and teasingly—for now, so quit playing with fire—called a homo. Cam had made his excuses, shaking his head and pretending he’d been spacing out, feigning that he’d registered nothing even though his eyes had been locked on the strong curve of Albert’s back, skin so dark it shone purple under the hot Texas sun, thick thighs flexing, long calves straining—

“Hey, Cam.”

Cam jerked his eyes away from where Albert was doing drills on the field. LaVerne Russo was standing next to the bench where Cam was sitting, her floral-patterned skirt billowing slightly in the breeze. Uh-oh. Had LaVerne noticed? She was a pleasant, pretty girl who tended to be a bit sickly, but had a generally sunny disposition despite her weak constitution and was friends with everyone.

He didn’t think she’d try to get him in trouble, but what if she said something and it ended up all over the school?

Maybe no one would believe it.

But maybe they would.

“Hey, LaVerne.” Cam stood up, remembering his manners somewhat belatedly, but LaVerne’s smile was clearly forgiving. “Would you like to sit down?” He indicated the bench he’d just vacated and felt relieved when she nodded and smiled, sweeping a slender arm over her skirt before she settled onto the battered wooden seat.

Cam sat down at the other end, careful to leave some space between them. The town was too small to risk LaVerne’s reputation by getting too close, but a part of him was overjoyed that others might see the two of them like this. That would be sure to put any potential rumors about his preferences at bay.

Unless LaVerne ended up starting those rumors.

You’re being paranoid. Calm down and play it cool.

“How was your trip to Alamogordo?” he ventured. The Russos had driven out to New Mexico for spring break, and LaVerne had missed two days of school because of the vacation. It was all anyone could talk about, seeing as most folks around here didn’t have enough money to get away that far for that long. But Mrs. Russo’s sister lived in Alamogordo, and they’d stayed with her rather than spend too much on hotel lodging, which allowed everyone in town to continue being friendly—rather than soul-gnawing jealous—toward the Russos. As a result, everyone was asking for all the details about the trip. It was the safest topic Cam could think of.

“It was real nice. Thanks for asking.” LaVerne was sitting slightly sideways, her gaze caught halfway between him and the field, and he could see her long brown fingers playing in the folds of her skirt. She was much lighter than her sister, but that might have been in part because LaVerne was often inside resting, rather than running around out of doors with the group of kids from their neighborhood.

“I’m glad to hear it.”

What was she doing here? It wasn’t out of the ordinary for her to talk to him—she lived three houses down, after all—but it was odd for her to approach him out of the blue like this, especially at football practice. Usually, he wouldn’t even be available for her to chat with, since if he hadn’t sprained his ankle last week, he’d be out on that field with the rest of them.

His throat felt dry as he waited, feeling the same way he did when Mama found out he’d done something wrong and he was waiting in his room for the punishment to be delivered.

“Cam?” She sounded nervous.

“Yup?” He felt nervous. Was she about to ask him why he’d been ogling Albert?

“Willyougotothedancewithme?”

Her words whooshed out on an exhale so fast that he had to take a few moments to process what she’d asked, but when realization finally dawned, he saw it for what it was.

A chance for safety.

“I’d love to,” he told her with a smile. “How about I pick you up at six and we can walk over?”

Her inhale was loud—a long, nasal gasp—and she nodded her head with so much vigor that the thick plaits in her hair bounced up and down. “Sounds perfect.”

And then she was rising, saying “Bye, Cam,” and “See you Friday night.” The guys on the field stopped what they were doing to watch her walk away, while Cam stared at Albert again and wondered if he’d just made the smartest decision or the biggest mistake of his young life.

 

Chapter Two

Cam stood on the balcony of his temporary apartment, sipping a cup of coffee and looking out over the parking lot of the complex.

This view was quite different from what he’d seen last night at Alex’s.

Best be putting that out of your mind, now.

Through the glass sliding door, he heard the phone ring and he smiled. He enjoyed his early-morning peace, but as the only person who would be calling him at half past seven in the morning was Georgia, he gladly welcomed the interruption.

He stepped back inside, rolling the heavy door shut before grabbing up the phone from the wall just outside the kitchenette.

“This better be my daughter and not some telemarketer trying to sell me a timeshare,” he laughed into the mouthpiece.

“How did you know it was me?” Georgia’s voice was happy and soft, just like her mother’s had been, and for a moment, Cam squeezed his eyes shut against a rush of pain and relief so intense that it nearly knocked the breath out of him.

Georgia isn’t sick. She won’t suffer like that.

Not like LaVerne had, especially in the last decade of her life.

When the diagnosis had first come back, Elijah was four years old and LaVerne was heavily pregnant with Georgia, experiencing trouble breathing, pain, and swelling beyond what seemed normal. When they’d gone in, Cam had been expecting advice like eat better or make sure to rest more often.

Instead, they’d found out that she had sickle cell anemia. The doctor had been shocked that LaVerne had managed to live as long as she had, and even more so that no one had diagnosed her before then. That kind of longevity wasn’t completely unheard of, but back then most sufferers didn’t live much past their teens, let alone up to their early thirties. That she managed to make it that long was a miracle in and of itself.

She’d gotten better care after that and finally passed last year of kidney failure at the age of fifty-four. The doctors had been astounded.

Everyone else had been devastated.

Both the kids had been tested at some point. Elijah hadn’t inherited the gene, thank God, but Georgia was a carrier, and it scared the hell out of Cam.

“That’s my secret,” he answered, his grin falling fast and heavy into a serious straight line as soon as the word escape his mouth. Because of course that wasn’t his real secret—the one that could ruin everything, from his entire business to these small, precious moments with his daughter.

He made himself smile again and asked, “What’s up, honey? What do you need?”

There was a pause before she answered. “I don’t need anything. I was just calling to say hi. See how you’re doing.”

He bit back a sigh. Ever since the funeral, the kids had been fussing over him, prodding him to talk about his feelings, to get away and take some time to think, even to go on dates.

With women.

They didn’t realize. Not one danged thing.

“I’m doing all right.” He lifted his free hand, only to realize he was still holding his mug of coffee. He took a sip.

“Cool.”

Her tone belied her words, though. Cam could picture Georgia in her dorm room at SMU, where she was a senior—his little girl was graduating in a few months!—rolling her eyes at her dad’s poor conversation skills.

Wouldn’t be the first time.

“You still dating that good-for-nothing Evans boy?” He couldn’t resist teasing her about her best friend every time they spoke on the phone. How many times had she insisted to Cam that she and Matt were “friends and nothing more”? And yet he’d seen the gleam in her eye when she talked about his accomplishments. How much she pined for him when she came home at Christmas break.

“Actually, there is something I was wondering,” she told him.

He nearly laughed at her less-than-subtle change of topic. “What is it, honey?”

“Is it okay if I come visit you over spring break?”

His mouth twisted down for a second. Why would she want to come here? She and Elijah had finally gotten what they wanted—supposedly he was off doing whatever soul-searching they’d pushed him toward—and now she wanted to spend her time in a boring bachelor apartment?

But this was his daughter. It didn’t matter why she wanted to come. It only mattered that he loved her and missed her and she would always be welcome in his home and heart. He liked to believe she felt the same about her old man.

It scared him to think that he might ever lose that love.

She could never know the truth.

He swallowed hard. “Sure, honey. You can come here. When is it?”

“Second week of March. You sure it’s okay?”

Three weeks from now. Not that it mattered. He didn’t have any plans, anyway. The next six months on his calendar were wide-open.

“It’s fine. But why are you coming to visit your old man when you should be out having fun with your friends? I thought spring break was a time to party somewhere warm.”

He hadn’t been able to resist asking—just once.

“Maybe.” She sounded tired. “It’s my last year of school, and I probably should, but it feels kind of anticlimactic.”

He took another sip of coffee. Somehow, it helped to focus him. “I understand. Well, come on down, then. I can’t promise you anything too exciting, but I’ll be glad to have you underfoot for a while.”

She laughed. “Gee, thanks, Dad.”

“I love you, honey.”

“Love you too.”

Cam hung up the phone and stood there for a long time before finally springing into action, heading to the shower and off to start his day in earnest.

* * * * * * *

Cam stepped out of his apartment onto the landing. The place was a large, gated community of apartment blocks, twelve to each building, all stucco exterior and red-tile roofing. The front doors were placed off landings in open stairwells, making the entire thing look like an upscale roadside motel.

It wasn’t his comfortable farmhouse back in Bitter, but it was nice enough.

He locked up and clomped down the stairs—he was wearing his yellow work boots today with jeans, which felt a hell of a lot more comfortable than the outfit he’d worn last night.

Church boots.

The whole getup, in fact, was what he usually wore to Sunday service. Alex had been dead on.

Cam reached his truck and shook his head in self-reproach as the night before replayed on fast-forward in his mind.

You’re not supposed to be thinking about that.

But it had been too big a mistake to ignore completely.

Maybe this whole idea of “exploring” while he was in Austin wasn’t such a good idea. He had a home, a business, two great kids. What more did he need? It wasn’t as though a few months in the city were going to net him something life-changing.

Perhaps he simply wasn’t meant to fill the last bit of empty space in his soul. He’d carried it with him his entire life, after all. It shouldn’t make a difference for the next few decades.

Except . . . it was getting bigger, that emptiness. That was what had driven him to finally agree with his children to take a break—the growing nothingness inside of him that seemed to threaten to swallow him up soon if he didn’t do something about it.

But how was he supposed to do this? He’d spent the past fifty years living a life he wasn’t meant to have and now . . .

Well, now he had no idea who he was. Last night had been one big blunder. Proof enough that he wasn’t sure which way was the right way.

Although, if there was one thing he did know for certain when he’d awoken this morning, it was that he’d made the right decision in the end. Of course, he couldn’t go back to Ce-lo again—the bar he’d been in last night. He had a feeling it was a place Alex frequented with regularity, and Cam wasn’t interested in repeating his mistakes.

He’d done that enough already for one lifetime.

* * * * * * *

1980

His first time having sex with LaVerne, he’d closed his eyes and spent the entire time fantasizing about Albert Clark in order to get through it.

He’d known it was wrong. So wrong. He’d felt like a guilty, wretched mess afterward, as he’d lain next to LaVerne in the bed of his truck and held her close while she sighed and sniffled. He knew he’d hurt her physically, but she’d seemed overall pleased with the whole thing.

The sex itself had taken longer than it should have, and yet not long enough.

They’d been together over a year—since that Friday night dance she’d invited him to—and he’d been content to go along as they had been, with shared kisses and the occasional heavier sessions that always left him with an unpleasant feeling in his fingertips. But she’d surprised him last week, going on about how everyone was pairing up and “committing,” which meant “having sex.” Sex and commitment were the same thing in Bitter, anyway, unless you ran with the fast crowd.

LaVerne Russo was definitely not a member of the fast crowd.

Still, she’d been upset that they were the only ones who hadn’t made the leap in their relationship. Hints had turned into a boldness with his body tonight that she hadn’t shown before. Despite himself, he’d been aroused by her touch, and he’d closed his eyes to allow himself the small fantasy. Of Albert stroking down his chest. Albert rubbing him between his legs . . .

And then he’d let it go too far.

Oh, everyone else would be happy. Her parents were already overjoyed that she and Cam were together. His parents had practically sent out invitations to the wedding. He’d found himself having to remind them with increasing frequency that he and LaVerne had only started their senior year a couple of months ago. She’d just turned eighteen, for goodness’ sake, and he wouldn’t follow suit until April.

He should have realized sooner that none of that mattered. In the eyes of everyone in town, they were as good as hitched. If he walked out now . . .

Well, he wasn’t that kind of guy.

No, you’re the kind who uses a girl to hide behind.

Lying there, staring up at the starry sky, he felt the disgust roll through him at his own actions. He’d known all along that LaVerne was a safe bet. That going steady with her would keep the questions at bay. She talked just enough that people knew they were physically affectionate, but she didn’t share all the details. People liked her. They trusted her, and by extension, they trusted him more too.

Now he’d hurt both of them.

But he’d had no choice. His mind whirred, trying to make sense of what he’d done.

You could have left town.

And gone where? How far would he have gotten without his family, too little education, no community to protect him?

No, he couldn’t have left. And he didn’t see himself living the rest of his life alone, like Mr. Armstrong. Cam wasn’t sure whether the elderly man was gay or not, but he’d never married and there were no stories about him conducting any courtship. Cam didn’t think it was a coincidence that Mr. Armstrong was a bitter, miserable man.

It made a guy wonder, anyway.

“Penny for your thoughts?” LaVerne’s soft voice drifted over him in the darkness.

For a second, he stiffened, irrationally afraid she’d somehow heard what had been in his mind. Then he felt her hand gently rubbing his arm, and her lips dropped a kiss on his shoulder.

She’s asking a simple question. Nothing more. She doesn’t know your secret.

No one ever could. They’d run him out of town.

If they didn’t kill him first.

He cleared his throat. “Just thinking about the future.”

Her fingers skated down and laced in his. “Cam?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you,” she whispered.

He closed his eyes. “I love you too.”

That, at least, was true. He did love her, even if only as a friend. It wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Spending forever with a friend.

She squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back, then once again lapsed into silence as he tried to get comfortable with his future.

 

Chapter Three

Cam eased his truck into a parking space in front of the local coffee shop and cut the engine. He’d found this place the other day while exploring the neighborhood, and he’d taken a liking to the comfortable chairs, quiet hum of voices, and large windows with light-filtering shades. It was a welcoming place, like a man could come and stay awhile without bothering or being bothered.

He sauntered in and was paying for his coffee and a copy of the paper when a loud, masculine laugh caught his attention. Cam turned to see who had made such a bright sound . . .

White teeth against tanned skin . . .

The beat of his heart.

Short, dark-brown hair shot through with gray . . .

Time. Stopped.

It was every cliché—the laughing man pulling Cam’s attention like a magnet—and yet it felt special, evoking memories of sitting shoulder to shoulder with Ray Nelson at an eighth-grade pep rally and the sheen of sunshine on Albert Clark’s back. A sense of remembered anticipation filled Cam, accompanied by a very adult view of possibility. Tempered joy. Cautious hope.

“Sir?” A voice called him back to attention, and he jerked his head around to find the barista holding out his change. He pocketed the money sheepishly and scooped up the paper and his mug, intending to sit far away from that beautiful, joyous man, but for some fateful reason, the only available table was the one adjacent to the attractive stranger’s.

Who, as Cam could see as he drew closer, was sitting with two other men who looked about the same age, all wearing bicycling gear.

Thin shirts. Tight shorts.

Cam’s hand shook as he set his mug on the tabletop, the stoneware base clicking too hard against the wood. At the sound, the man’s gaze flicked over to him for one overwhelming second. It was there and gone, barely even noticeable, but to Cam it felt like a tidal wave of stimulation.

His buckling knees had him practically dropping into the chair, and he immediately grabbed the front section of the paper he’d bought and opened it up wide. It was good to have a little cover while he surreptitiously checked out the man at the next table, whose black Spandex shorts showed off long, tanned legs, the lean muscles well-defined and complementary to the guy’s wiry frame. A long-sleeved bike shirt—white with a simple red logo on the front—completed the outfit, and a pair of fingerless gloves sat discarded atop a phone on the table’s polished wood surface.

from IndiePicks Magazine

North also perfectly portrays Cam’s move from small-town Texas to the big city. Readers who like coming-of-age stories (in middle-age) or coming-out stories will enjoy this contemporary romance.